Dante and Virgil are moving steadily up the mountain-island of Purgatory, when the ground shakes underneath them as another soul has been cleansed and moves further up towards its heavenly peak. This is Statius, a Latin poet who was inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid, who joins them for the ascent.
Following that, the trio are greeted by the next guardian angel, who removes another P from Dante’s forehead and welcomes them to the sixth terrace or circle, where souls are purged of gluttony. They see an unusual fruit tree which is watered from the rocks above. A diembodied voice from within its branches explains that both fruit and water are withheld, to drive the gluttons to adopt abstemious ways. The penitents here are emaciated and dehydrated, their eyes sunk deep into their sockets and their bodies wasted. Here they meet Forese Donati, a childhood friend of Dante who has advanced up the mountain rapidly thanks to the prayers of his widow.
Forese draws attention to others who are there, including clerics and poets.
They come across another tree laden with fruit, this time associated with the tree in the Garden of Eden from which Eve took the apple.
Dante, Virgil and Statius then make their way towards the next guardian angel.
After the sixth P is removed from Dante’s forehead, they move up to the seventh circle, where souls are purged of lust by a wall of flames, which all but obstructs their progress along the ascending path. They first come upon a group of shades who are extolling examples of chastity such as the Virgin Mary and the goddess Diana, then another group whose lust was directed towards the same sex, who invoke the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
They meet some poets among them, and as the daylight starts to fade, the trio are told that they too must pass through the flames in order to ascend any further.
Virgil persuades Dante to do this on the strength of his promised meeting with his beloved Beatrice. Cleansed by fire, they reach the foot of the steps to take them up to the next circle, but by now it’s too dark for any progress, so they lie down to sleep. Towards dawn, when Dante eventually drifts off, he has a third dream, which has been painted extensively as I will show in the next article in this series.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was the leading French illustrator of the nineteenth century, whose paintings are still relatively unknown. Early in his career, he produced a complete set of seventy illustrations for translations of the Inferno, which were first published in 1857 and continue to be used. These were followed in 1867 by more illustrations for Purgatorio and Paradiso. This article looks at his paintings.
John Flaxman (1755–1826) was a British sculptor and draughtsman who occasionally painted too. When he was in Rome between 1787-91, he produced drawings for book illustrations, including a set of 111 for an edition of The Divine Comedy. In 1810, he was appointed the Professor of Sculpture to the Royal Academy in London, and in 1817 made drawings to illustrate Hesiod, which were engraved by William Blake.
Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839) was an Austrian landscape painter, who worked mainly in Neoclassical style. During his second stay in Rome, he was commissioned to paint frescos in the Villa Massimi on the walls of the Dante Room there, which remain one of the most florid visual accounts of Dante’s Inferno. He completed those between 1824-29. He also appears to have drawn a set of illustrations for Dante’s Inferno in about 1808.
Robin Kirkpatrick (trans) (2012) Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, Penguin Classics. ISBN 978 0 141 19749 4.
Richard Lansing (ed) (2000) The Dante Encyclopedia, Routledge. ISBN 978 0 415 87611 7.
Guy P Raffa (2009) The Complete Danteworlds, A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy, Chicago UP. ISBN 978 0 2267 0270 4.
Prue Shaw (2014) Reading Dante, From Here to Eternity, Liveright. ISBN 978 1 63149 006 4.