Visions of Hell with Dante

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The following was a college essay written by Catherine Viz. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Catherine Viz, University of Notre Dame

Dante’s Inferno, is one of the most descriptive and elusive understandings of Hell and punishment that have ever been published. Every suffering that is described in detail has harrowing connections to the sins which deemed their punishments. Various interpretations of the different punishments have been widely created and circulated. Yet, similarities ensue of darkness, vastness, and contorted suffering bodies that writhe and suffer. Illustrations for texts such as the Inferno create a powerful mental picture that speaks volumes to the reality of humans undergoing torture and pain. Gustave Doré was an incredible French artist that created a series of wood engravings for Dante’s trilogy of The Divine Comedy. In particular focusing on his illustrations of Inferno, and in analyzing the text of Dante himself, a greater chance of immersive and creative learning emerges, especially on the illustration of Doré that I have chosen on Dante’s description of the “Lustful.”

An interesting connection of the illustration to a text I have studied before within Colloquia, also with an understanding of Catholic theology, is that of Saint Augustine’s, Confessions. A connection can be made through a line that is in the first chapter of Augustine’s Confessions; “Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.” (Project Gutenberg) Or a more modern understanding of  “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This one sentence carries significant weight in understanding human existence as a whole, but also the soul’s existence outside of full harmony with God. Dante, a Catholic, was no idiot as to how the theology of the soul was understood. Furthermore in Doré’s illustration, there is a vivid depiction of what exactly can be envisioned as the restlessness of the lustful. For they are never to find their peace due to their sin of fleeting passion, but they also, in the understanding of Augustine, will never find the peace that union with God in Heaven holds. Augustine, himself once a sinner, makes great commentary as to how one may pursue a virtuous life. Yet, this one line promotes little to no comfort, knowing that our hearts and minds will ultimately be in a vicious, constant struggle of appeasing our nature versus holding ourselves accountable to morals.

This very struggle of the carnal nature of the human being, with its animal-like instincts, that have somehow been paired with more intellect than any other creature are evident within the wood engraving of the Lustful. Swirling and twisting vortexes of mangled bodies reinforces the idea of the punishment in that they do not control their autonomy, as they had been free to do so on Earth. The winds that suck up the souls, keeping them taut in agony and punishment also seem to have some sort of understanding that Dante and Virgil are not one of their numbers; at least not yet. They are at a safe distance from the tantalizing yet horrific display of lost souls, but are unknowingly exposed to the danger that lurks at every turn. The men stand on a cliff’s edge, faces elevated to the skies which are darkened with the newest punishment that the suffering souls endure. Whether completely in awe to what they see, or drawn into the effects that Hell has on living souls, they are almost stupidly unaware of the unfortunate circumstances that surround them; the sharp rocks below, the cavern that stretches beyond the mortal eye, and the gusts of the terrific zephyrs that keep their immortal prisoners in constant activity.

Doré’s genius in part comes from his inadvertent commentary on Dante. While the human beings that committed lustful acts (in which the majority of cases needed motive, planning, and preparation to proceed) may have escaped pain or attribute while alive, here in the second circle of Hell there is no escape from the retribution they deserve. Virgil and Dante (the character) are absolutely astounded by the absolute vastness that encircles them aloft, as their eyes search the skies, desperately trying to make sense of what hovers above. Doré, in taking a hint from Dante’s punishments, strips the punished of their last ounces of dignity; that of clothes and even that of identity. It is truly impossible to make out any one figure because they are faceless. Even with Virgil and Dante, one can only assume that Virgil remains the taller guiding, protecting, and steadfast companion of Dante. Not to mention that it is also difficult to surmise if a certain figure is male or female, of all those that are being swept up by uncontrollable winds, which speaks to neither man nor woman being able to escape crimes they have committed in the end. Finally, in true interpretation of Dante’s work, the multitude of souls that are being spun into oblivion, are interestingly enough not being done in a tornado-like fashion. Rather, the reinforcement of rings of Hell from Dante further completes the utter dismay from the image that the snaking trail across the sky is closed off somewhere to fashion a loop. This furthermore establishes the basic definition of a circle or ring-without beginning or end. A harrowing depiction indeed of the punishment of the lustful; being controlled by painfully forceful winds for all eternity, unceasing, with infinite rotations.

While Dante does a masterful job creating the mental image of all of the punishments within Inferno, the readers as human beings have a wide and expansive human imagination. One’s understanding of the winds that punish the lustful may vary greatly from another that may embrace a more sadistic approach. Visuals when provided in literature help establish a foundational understanding as to how the author or even the artist wish for an audience to understand something. This may present differing ideas as to what a reader is used to, but it is not meant to stump or intimidate them. Rather, it adds another layer of analysis to create a more vibrant acknowledgement to what the text is already affirming. Sometimes the illustrator may completely not agree to the vision of the author. It is the reader’s job to decipher why an illustrator would do such a thing, whether they disagreed with the points made by the author, artistic license of the material, or otherwise.

To gain a better interpretation of the illustrations it is important to revert back to the text. Here, in referring back to the fifth Canto, Dante first describes the punishment as it is; “I came into a place mute of all light,/ Which bellows as the sea does in a tempest, /If by opposing winds ‘t is combated.” (The Project Gutenberg) Even in this opening description we are dragged into darkness, as the illustration does. The absence of light creates a sense of claustrophobia and unpredictability, but that is only the beginning. Further Dante continues with the description of the punishment; “The infernal hurricane that never rests/ Hurtles the spirits onward in its rapine; /Whirling them round, and smiting, it molests them.” (The Project Gutenberg) With strong language, such as “molests,” a instant visual image of not having any sort of autonomy over what they are doing arises for those that had committed the sin of lust that are now subjected to the winds of their fate. Continuing on in Dante’s description, to which he writes, “I understood that unto such a torment/ The carnal malefactors were condemned,/ Who reason subjugate to appetite.” (The Project Gutenberg) Again we see that affrontation of the carnal necessities of these sinners, a quality that is most animal-like. But, the reader is not left to fend for their own convictions of the understanding of carnal desire, because in the very next line Dante says, “Who reason subjugate to appetite.” This line alone is affirmation of the unabashed animal instincts that those who lust are driven to; the people had lost the very rationale that human beings were blessed with above any and all other creatures due to their weakness to their desires. The description that packs a quite significant punch of a mental imagine burning in our brains, thanks to Dante, is when he comments on the relentlessness of the eternal punishment; “It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them; / No hope doth comfort them for evermore, / Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.” Regardless of where the souls are moved in one instant, there is absolutely no predictability as to where they could possibly go next. The line of hope never being able to comfort the tortured souls illustrates an absolute mental picture of panic, dismay, and hopelessness in this swirling pit of darkness. Dante’s imagery creates an incredibly precise shock valve for his readers. He plays exactly into our emotions of ultimate fear of the unknown punishments that could await any one of us in the after life. He’s just bold enough to have an imagination large enough to stir up such daunting mental images for his audience.

Dante uses the visual element of text as a shock value for his writing. Writing on Hell is not exactly the lightest topic. But he chose to go into extreme detail as to all of the punishments in descending upon Hell to verify its existence as an actual place that people need to be forewarned by their actions in life to live according to virtues not vices. In putting a face on the ugly truth of sin and those that suffer the punishments of it, Dante becomes not only one of the most intellectual minds in terms of Hell and punishment, but his approach via words makes him one of the greatest artists on the topic as well. While his medium is not paint or pencil, Dante’s words first and foremost establish the imagery that draws imaginations wild and is meant to make the reader uncomfortable. There is no coincidence that so many different various interpretations of the circles of Hell and the punishments have been illustrated for years. In terms of Doré, his masterful imagery proves to be the absolute completion of Dante’s work. While intricate and elusive at times, a solid footing within the artwork of Doré allows not only for Inferno to live and breathe, but also Dante himself.

In analyzing the work of Dante and Doré, the two very much complete one another as important aspects of the storytelling whole. One fundamental portion cannot live without the other. An author is only as good as any artist that may interpret him and illustrate his work, regardless of how daunting of a task it may seem. Yet for both men, incredible each in their own right, imagery and visual understanding is absolutely crucial to understanding their work as only a sliver of the true emotion that they are portraying in their work. Words are limited by letters and syllables. Images are limited by one singular theme or idea, time or place, and amount of space provided. However, together, they prove to be an unstoppable force in cultivating creativity, further ideas and questions, and admiration for the works as truly significant parts of culture.

Works Cited

“THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE.” The Confessions , Project Gutenberg, June 2002,

“THE DIVINE COMEDY.” The Inferno , Project Gutenberg, Apr. 2009,

“Lustful.” Circle 2 Gallery , The University of Texas at Austin,

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

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