Admiring hell from a distance

William Blake’s drawings for Dante’s “Divina Commedia” as a dialogue with the written word
In 1824, The comeback wave of the Dante craze had just reached the shores of England and the artist John Linnell asked the perpetually penniless William Blake to make a series of illustrations based on the Divine Comedy. William Blake had a long standing relationship with Linnel. He had just completed a project of 21 copper engravings after the book of Job for him. Blake was also previously inspired by his earlier works, particularly his engravings of Count Ugolino from For Children: The Gates of Paradise. Two decades before the commission, he painted a portrait of Dante for William Turret’s Library. But Blake had not been so fascinated by the Italian bard until the commission from Linnel came in his late sixties, when he ventured to learn Italian in order to better understand and illustrate Dante’s magnum opus. Blake considered Dante along with the Old Testament prophets, with Homer, Shakespeare and Milton, the highest embodiment of the poetic genius. He was so taken by the project that a contemporary account by Samuel Palmer informs us that he had done most of the watercolours under adverse conditions, while in isolation, “during a fortnight’s illness in bed.” I think of a contemporary painter finishing illustrations for a graphic novel while being COVID-19 positive.
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William Blake, Dante Alighieri,1800–1803 © Manchester City Galleries

The Commedia is a long Italian narrative poem which was created circa 1308 and completed in the year 1320, a year before the author’s death in 1321. It provides an imaginative account of Dante’s lyrical persona’s passage through the three realms of hell, purgatory, and paradise, whereupon he attains the highest level of knowledge and bliss when he achieves an interface with God. For fans of science fiction, you can say that Dante has written what can be called the equivalent of the Blade Runner franchise today: he sends a hero beyond the horizon and lets him see things we didn’t even dare to imagine.
In the course of literary history, the verses represent an extraordinary continuation of the journeys in the afterlife from antiquity (Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid) and Christian literature (Visio Pauli). Breaking away from tradition, the Commedia created a revolutionary literary form: an epic in Vulgar Latin. This language which had yet to be reborn as a literary language was used in a style that resonates in all language registers, from the highest to the lowest. Such was the thematic syncretism that ancient and medieval culture, scripture, and Latin classics were covered. Folk literature and philosophy, natural science and geography, politics and history, Christian and pagan world seemed to merge and reconcile in its vocabulary.
This is how the long narrative poem, which was given the epithet “Divina” by Giovanni Boccaccio, marks the beginnings of the modern Italian language and also of modern European literature. The Commedia is the most famous in Italian literary history, that seemed to have peaked at the moment of its dawning with three of its best writers: Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio. All of them died before the 16th Century.
New readers often wonder how such a serious work may be called a “comedy”. In the classical sense the word comedy refers to works which reflect belief in an ordered universe, in which events tend toward not only a happy or amusing ending but one influenced by a Providential will that orders all things to an ultimate good. Dante wrote in a letter to Cangrande I della Scala, that the progression of the pilgrimage from Hell to Paradise is the paradigmatic expression of comedy, since the work “begins with the pilgrim’s moral confusion and ends with the vision of God.”
Indeed, the Commedia has some of the most memorable sinister settings in literature: From a forest where you get lost amongst wild beasts to the gates of hell announcing the famous motto “Leave hope all ye who enter here.” A moment aside, I recall that seven centuries later the Nazis took a cue from Dante by welding phrases to the iron gates of hell on earth, otherwise known as the Buchenwald Concentration camp. “Jedem das Seine,” was meant to express a judicial concept but facing inward to be read by inmates it means: You get what you deserve.

The Inscription over the Gate 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake, The Inscription over the Gate 1824–7, Tate

Now back to the Commedia: The epic’s scenarios that contains pretty much everything that Hollywood today would categorize into various subgenres of horror, zombie, and disaster flicks: whirlpools, killer bees, freezing cold, cyclones, boiling blood sauces, swamps, poisonous itch, bestial stench, and masses of the undead.
Indeed the Commedia has little resemblance to anything you might call an average comedy today. Even those who end up in heaven after being tortured through hell and purgatory cannot be too sure they will remain there. An angel, who looks like Michaelangelo’s Moses, serves as a concierge and accountant, keeping a record of the transgressions of Christian rulers. This serves as a reminder of a common fate that still outrages believers to this day: Many Christians will be farther from their Lord in their adulthood than from the moment when they were born. Babies who have never even heard of Christ can enter the gates of heaven more easily than the Catholic Pope.
The Simoniac Pope 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake, The Simoniac Pope 1824–7, Tate
As the archetype of a visionary work of art in verse and vulgar language, the Commedia represents a bridge from medieval scholastic thinking to the judgment and sentiment of the individualistic Renaissance artist. The meticulously designed architecture of the three realms of the underworld takes impulses from ancient as well as biblical and Christian theological ideas, but owes its final form solely to the creative power of Dante. The system of rewards and punishments elaborated by the poet only sporadically and loosely follows the established ecclesiastical-dogmatic system of virtues and sins (for example in his assumption of the seven deadly sins in the seven terraces of the Purgatorio).
Dante’s central concern is to create a specific hierarchy of values through a specialized continuation of the ancient as well as Biblical-Christian myth, which sometimes self-confidently negates the theological tradition. Dante who is a fervent supporter of the Florentine Guelph Party was betrayed by the Vatican while on a political mission in Rome. He was banished, his properties confiscated, and was made to face the death penalty. This is probably the reason why betrayal and breach of trust are postulated as the worst sins in the epic. This is expressed in both spiritual (Cain) and the secular (Brutus and Cassius) symbols. It is also for this reason, that in choosing a guide through hell and purgatory, he didn’t pick an ancient philosopher, or a Christian saint, or a mythical hero. He chose the poet Virgil.

The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini ('The Whirlwind of Lovers') 1826-7, reprinted 1892 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake, The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (‘The Whirlwind of Lovers’) 1826–7, reprinted 1892 Tate
This choice routinely places artistic creativity in the primary order. Numerous secular and spiritual dignitaries, especially Pope Boniface VIII, are judged in the inferno, while the protagonist Dante deeply regrets the fate that befell adulteress Francesca da Rimini as well as his good friend, the gay scholar Brunetto Latini, as they journey on to hell. The clear structure with which divine punishments and rewards are regulated in the “comedy” was an inversion of Dante’s own fate, of being rudely banished from Florence due to his politics.
This motivation is shown in his elevation of the pagan suicide of Cato the Younger, assigning him as the guardian of a mountain in purgatory, since his act was considered a civic ideal. The abundance of the divine revelation is depicted to be given to another personality, who figured importantly in Dante’s work since the Vita Nuova (circa 1295). Dante’s Muse Beatrice sits next to Archmother Rachel in the heavenly candida rosa, the rose-shaped divine amphitheater of the blessed souls in the Empyrean, not far from the Mother of God. Dante met Beatrice when she was only nine years old, and he was apparently struck by love at first sight. The pair were acquainted for years, but Dante’s love for Beatrice was “courtly” (meaning he expressed admiration, usually from a distance) and unrequited. Beatrice died unexpectedly in 1290.

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake, Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car 1824–7, Tate
In the same manner that Dante, the political figure in Italian society, went through highs and lows during his lifetime, so did the Commedia go through highs and lows in different epochs of Italian and European literary and intellectual history. Interest in the narrative poem rose to fame and was widely read during the Italian Renaissance but suffered a decline during the Baroque era. But true classics are measured by centuries not mere decades: throughout the 19th century, Dante’s reputation grew and solidified. By 1865, the 600th anniversary of his birth, he had become established as one of the greatest literary icons of the Western world. Dante remains a figure of identification for the modern artist.
I mainly attribute this to the intensity of his imagination, which resonates with what psychologists say the “image schemata” or recurring structures within our cognitive processes which establishes patterns of understanding and reasoning (cf. image schema). The downright vivid urgency of the figures, bodies, spaces in his writing, as well as his numerous references to works and representatives of the fine arts—such as the mention of marble reliefs “chiseled by the hand of God” from Polyklet to Giotto in the Purgatorio—became fascinating sources of inspiration for Renaissance masters like Botticelli, Raphael and Michelangelo. Thereafter, the text continued to inspire and challenge a later generation of artists such as Théophile Géricault and Eugène Delacroix. While in France, Gustave Doré published his illustrations for Commedia and from 1880 onwards, Auguste Rodin created masterpieces called “La porte de l’enfer” (“The Gates of Hell”) inspired by Dante.
The waves of enthusiasm for Dante swayed with the visionary spirit of William Blake. As a poet, graphic artist, and revolutionary utopian, he rejected the rationality of the Enlightenment. Blake was always in search of a fusion of the imaginary with the supernatural and the mystical. His exploration of subjectivity, eros and psyche, of dreams and nightmares became figures of identification for romantics and pre-Raphaelites. The work of Dante naturally had a profound impact on his work and vice-versa. From reading graphic novels, we know how illustrations can affect our understanding of the text.
As an allegorical work of great political and moral dimension, interspersed with a vivid personal lexicon, the Commedia was particularly suitable for challenging Blake’s own imagination in order to get into a dialogue between words and images. A number of studies have looked into how Blake’s mystical mythology colored his illustration of the Divina Commedia. I was recently introduced by Professor Charles Stein to Blake’s illustration of allegorical figures such as Urizen, the demiurge of logical thinking and as the false god of material creation, and Los, the embodiment of imagination and poetry as the counterpart. Blake’s awareness of such mythological ordering is useful in analyzing his illustrations for the Commedia.

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Urizen is depicted in Blake’s watercolor etching The Ancient of Days, British Museum
By 1788, Blake had begun working in a new graphic method in which he etched his design into relief, a method known today as “relief etching.” Using quill pens, brushes, and a special ink impervious to nitric acid, he executed the design directly on a copper plate. Writing text backward and adorning it with images, he then etched the plate in acid to bite the unprotected metal down, thereby leaving the design in printable relief. He printed impressions in colored inks and often finished them in watercolors and pen and ink. Contemplating the labor of illustrating and writing in reverse on a copperplate affirms Blake’s high regard for Dante’s work. No one works that hard just for money!
But as great as Blake’s veneration for Dante as a poet was, he had misinterpreted, perhaps intentionally, some of his theological and political ideas. He clashed with Dante’s longing for the coming of a secular ruler who was predicted in the closing song of the Purgatorio, in earthly paradise—as five hundred and fifteen, DXV or DUX (latin for leader). The leader is prophesied to unite and rule the whole of Italy. Blake expressed just as much indignation to a universal system based on the dualistic design of existence of hell and punishment for sinners: “Whatever Book is for Vengeance for Sin & Whatever Book is Against the Forgiveness of Sins is not of the Father but of Satan the Accuser & Father of Hell” was noted in his inscription to his drawings of for the circles of hell. Another point of disagreement between Dante and Blake concerns Beatrice, who represents for Dante the church, which to Blake is not the sole vehicle for salvation but a fallen destructive institution.
Blake fully acknowledged the authority of the Commedia’s inspiring vision, the reformulation in pictorial terms of that same vision was a portal to an independent creative act capable of revisiting and amending Dante’s text. The analysis of the poetic licence taken by Blake thus leads to an interpretative path wherein, besides a number of radical divergences, we not infrequently come across an aesthetic ideal in which the work of art expresses a religious spirit and universal knowledge.
In the 102 illustrations by Blake, ten were for the abstract Paradiso. Twenty seem to fit what Dante often described as indescribable landscapes of the Purgatorio. The remaining 72 are dedicated to the damned souls writhing in pain in the Inferno. Scholars have disagreed about whether they convey Blake’s highly critical interpretation of the Divine Comedy. In “William Blake’s Illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy,” Eric Pyle synthesizes previous studies, positing that the illustrations are interpretive and that Blake shaped the message of the pictures through “subtle changes in emphasis or unexpected visual decisions.” Pyle argues that Blake used the illustrations as a way to correct what he saw as the errors of pagan morality and rational materialism.

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William Blake, The Deity, from whom proceed the Nine Spheres (illustration to the Divine Comedy, Paradiso XXVIII), 1824–7, © 2011 University of Oxford – Ashmolean Museum
Blake is not alone in the history of Dante illustrators with a biased attention to the text: The fact that the abysses of the human soul are more interesting than the state of human harmony and lightheartedness has been the mark of cultural works then and now, from trivial thrillers to crazy experimental theater. Take for example Dante’s vision of the Cocytus, the icy hell swamp, as captured by William Blake with delicate, gently water-colored pencil and chalk strokes. Now think of the last scenes to The Shining.
According to Pyle, Blake believes that “God does not punish, and laws of condemnation are mistakes, attributable to the pre-Christian system of the fallen world, including the Greeks and those who follow Mosaic Law.” For Blake, the fall of man is not caused by breaking God’s moral code, but “by following the conventions and thus closing up the possibility of perception and imagination.”
The drawings vary according to the degree of execution from pencil sketches to full watercolors but they are praised even in their unfinished state by the Enciclopedia Dantesca as “figurative-speculative” interpretations that are based on “thorough, free and critical reading.” It was hailed for the “creative ingenuity, elegance of the drawing and a sense of light and color that you would not find in any other modern artist.” Additionally, it marks the “climax of modern illustrations on Dante’s masterpiece.”
Blake’s critical dialogue with Dante is explicit (as in the first draft of the Gates of Hell, over which the threatening figure of the demiurge sits, and earthly and spiritual powers throw themselves on their knees), but mostly in captions (such as “The Angry God of this World” written on the same drawing). The art historian Sebastian Schutze says that the Dante universe was subjected to a Paragone, a competition of the arts, when it was translated to Blake’s visual analogies. Blake painted a whirlwind stream of voluptuous bodies in illustrating the descriptions found in the fifth song of the inferno. Between Dante and Blake, we see how every translation of the poetic word into pictures means an update and at the same time a new reading of the literary work. Blake did more than to illustrate, he reconsidered and personalized the text and in the process actually expanded the horizon of interpretation and meaning of the Divina Commedia.

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William Blake, Dante running from the Three Beasts, 1824–7 © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
Let’s take for example the characterization of Dante and Virgil: The two appear distinct but familiar to each other. Dante is always in red, Virgil in blue, and both seem pretty feminine types. In Blake’s eyes you would probably think of Dante as someone who would shit his pants and raise his hands in fear or at best look despondent. If it gets too bad he might just faint and just wake up in the next level. Virgil, in contrast, is imagined as a brave man who has Sibyl throw a drugged honey cake into Cerberus’ (three!) mouths, so that the hellhound can finally be at peace.

Cerberus 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake, Cerberus 1824–7, Tate
Both appear sometimes fully colored and contoured with a thick pen and in other times only delicately sketched. I have not seen all of the illustrations in person, since they belong to different museums, but I can imagine the pleasure of walking through Blake’s Dante illustrations in large format accompanied by an audio of Dante’s Greatest Hits in their original sound: “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/ mi ritrovai per una selva oscura/ ché la diritta via era smarrita.”
The Middle Ages is not known to depict the mystery of the afterlife through poetry. In a manner of speaking, literature had no topics other than theological ones but it was sensational that Dante, led by the ancient alpha poet Virgil, went through hell, purgatory and paradise in an epic super-nightmare; their poetic personas subjected to the stress test of Great Beyond.
Sins, according to Christian doctrine are structured so neatly and orderly in Hell, as if it were conceivable and necessary. Dante’s epic reads as if he had filed all the sins through a Rolodex, denoting their gravity by referencing various celebrities from antiquity and his own contemporaries who appear in every plot point.
Anyone familiar with the history of the very real people he imagined to belong in hell will think that the whole journey is wonderfully concrete despite the catalog structure. Blake understood Dante’s vision of the afterlife was not meant to be dogmatic, but like a flash of insight from movies about the apocalypse that just gives you enough taste of verisimilitude (it can happen like that!). Picture a subterranean journey through the circles of hell, all the way down to the den of Lucifer and then back again to the mountains of purgatory out of the swamps of hell swamp up to the sky! Along the way you encounter sinful lovers, cheaters, simonists, suiciders, and traitors. The Commedia was an exhilarating to read for the average medieval man; a captivating thriller with sophisticated ingenuity and encyclopedic breadth. Blake and Dante are the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen of the afterlife, the dream team who envisaged hell as an inversion of their complicated realities.

1 thought on “Admiring hell from a distance”

  1. “ The Commedia was an exhilarating to read for the average medieval man; a captivating thriller with sophisticated ingenuity and encyclopedic breadth. Blake and Dante are the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen of the afterlife, the dream team who envisaged hell as an inversion of their complicated realities.”
    Yes!! What a wonderful ode of an expression to them! My friend Fred (Friedrich Nietzche) would be proud, as am I.
    Excellent article. Wonderfully thorough with depth without all the ‘splaining. Wonderful job.

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