Over the last seven months, I have travelled with Dante in his Divine Comedy, showing paintings and prints to accompany his imaginary journey to the depths of Hell in Inferno, ascending the island-mountain of Purgatory, and finally up through the realms of the planets and stars to Paradise.
This final – and initial – article in the series summarises The Divine Comedy and provides links to the individual articles in the series.
Domenico di Michelino’s fresco of Dante and the Divine Comedy from 1465 forms Dante’s memorial in Florence cathedral (Duomo). It shows Dante holding a copy of The Divine Comedy as he points out sinners descending to Hell at the left. Behind him is the mountain of Purgatory, at the top of which is earthly paradise, the Garden of Eden. Above are the concentric spheres of planets which rise to heavenly Paradise. To the right is the city of Florence, complete with Brunelleschi’s famous dome – a sight which Dante was deprived of throughout the period of exile in which he wrote the poem.
Introduction to Dante’s Divine Comedy
An overview of Hell
An overview of Purgatory
An overview of Paradise
Corot’s Dante and Virgil from 1859 shows the poet at the start of his journey, when he meets the spirit of the great Roman poet Virgil, who is to be his guide until Dante is reunited with his beloved Beatrice in the Garden of Eden on top of Purgatory.
Botticelli’s Map of Hell from 1480-90 is perhaps the most famous of its kind, with its detailed depiction of each of the circles through which Virgil guides Dante. These circles are arranged in a hierarchical taxonomy of sin, with the punishments imposed on the spirits appropriate to their crimes.
1 Into Hell
2 Crossing with Charon
3 In Limbo, and the Harrowing of Hell
Blake’s most famous and wondrously imaginative of illustrations to The Divine Comedy shows The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini, which he completed in about 1824. This shows one of Dante’s best-known embedded stories, of the adulterous couple of Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo, her husband’s brother, who were both murdered when caught in bed together by Francesca’s husband. Ary Scheffer’s more conventional and slightly later account is below.
6 Avarice, Wrath, and more
7 The Furies and Heresy
8 Murderers, bandits, suicides
9 Blasphemy, sodomy, usury
10 Pimps, soothsayers, the corrupt
11 Barrators, hypocrites and thieves
12 The fraudulent
Spirits of sinners in Hell are divided according to the type of sin; here, Gustave Doré shows Virgil (left) and Dante at the last of these circles, the ninth, for those who committed sins of malice, such as treachery. These sinners are shown partially frozen into an icy lake, with additional blocks of ice scattered around, as described by Dante.
14 From treachery to cannibalism
Another excellent visual summary of the horrors of Hell is shown in this watercolour by Joseph Anton Koch, a study for the frescoes which he painted in the Casa Massimo in Rome.
After emerging from the depths of Hell, Dante and Virgil travel by boat to the island-mountain of Purgatory, which is summarised brilliantly in this ink drawing by Philip Firsov, tracing each step and canto from their arrival to Dante’s reunion with his beloved Beatrice in the earthly paradise at the top.
Admission to Purgatory is only open to those who confess their sins before death, and make their peace with God. Each spirit has to ascend its terraces, undergoing prolonged periods of purgatory during which they atone for their sins. When finally cleansed, they emerge at the top and are admitted to earthly paradise.
1 Starting the ascent
2 The murder of Pia de’ Tolomei
3 The valley of kings
4 Pride and Envy
5 Wrath, Sloth and Avarice
6 Gluttony and Lust
7 Dante’s dream of Leah and Rachel
During his ascent, Dante has three dreams. In this the last, he meets Leah, who gathers flowers and weaves them into a garland and represents the active way of life. Her younger sister Rachel spends her time looking at her own reflection in a mirror, and in contrast represents the contemplative way of life. The following morning, Dante enters the Garden of Eden on top of the mountain.
8 Matelda, Beatrice in her chariot
Once in this earthly Paradise, Dante is reunited with his love Beatrice, who becomes his guide in lieu of Virgil; being pre-Christian he has to return to his place in Limbo in Hell. She appears in a chariot within a procession. When she steps out, she first admonishes Dante for his recent straying from the path of righteousness, as shown in Blake’s painting, causing him to weep then faint.
9 Final preparations for Paradise
With Beatrice as his guide, Dante starts to ascend through the concentric spheres containing the moon, sun, planets and fixed stars, eventually leading to heavenly Paradise, the Empyrean. The spirits they meet during this journey aren’t trapped in these lower levels, but go there to demonstrate to Dante the different virtues through which the faithful attain Heaven.
1 The moon and broken vows
2 Fame and love
3 The wise and warriors
4 The just and the contemplative
5 Into the Empyrean
Inspired by Dante’s description of Paradise, Tintoretto’s last vast painting is seven metres (almost twenty-three feet) high and twenty-two metres (over seventy feet) across. It is perhaps the closest any work of visual art has come to Dante’s achievement in The Divine Comedy.
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.