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Friday, April 22, 2016

Hellish Art

Apophis (Epic Intense Dark Hybrid), Christian Baczyk
Yesterday (the item below) I dealt with "Heavenly Art." In doing so I noted that such depictions of Paradise are more popular today than depictions of Hell. However, in researching Hell, I've changed my mind. I've come to the conclusion that the two are about equally popular. Not surprisingly, women artist preferring to paint Heaven while men seem to prefer Hell. That said, I stand by my assertion that Heaven is more popular today than in the distant past when Hell the upper hand. Of course, that stands to reason in that there were more male artist some five-hundred years ago when this whole Heaven-Hell thing first started. The heavenly realm of last judgments and the pain and suffering of Hell (the lower portion of such paintings) were intended by the church (who commissioned most such paintings) as a "carrot and stick" held over the heads of the faithful (more or less)--the joys of Heaven if you obey, the horrors of Hell if you don't. Inasmuch as the church long ago ceased to see any noticeable obedience stemming from such art, it's probably been a century or two since any religious group actually paid an artist to attempt such intimidation. Last judgments may have become passé, but, that's not to say various artists themselves haven't succumbed to rendering such stark Heaven/Hell comparisons. In any case, since I've already covered Heaven and I'm now giving equal time to Hell, I see no reason to dwell on one-to-one comparisons in the art created today. So, don your asbestos suits, this blog is about to go to Hell.

Mosaic of Hell, Coppo di Marcovaldo
--one of the oldest depictions of the underworld.
Everyone from the scripture writers (mostly the New Testament) to Dante Alighieri seem to agree that Hell is ruled over with a flaming fist by the devil himself. Virtually every language has a name for him. And, Michelangelo and a few others not withstanding, the devil is almost always depicted as male. In fact, much of the visual iconography concerning the devil comes not from the Bible but from Dante's Inferno. Other than a lake of fire, a profound scarcity of water, along with the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the Bible is notably sparse in its hellish narrative. The nine circles of suffering, the river Acheron, the ferry boatman, Charon, and Purgatory are all figments of Dante's fertile imagination, some of which have found their way into Catholic dogma. Dante's nine concentric circles of Hell include (from the outside inward) limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery. Dante's devil occupies the center ring. And while most of Dante's circles are based upon scriptural sins, the Bible has nothing to say regarding the geography of Hell.

Mythology of Hell, 1567, Jan Bruegel
Although Dante's Inferno was no doubt the prevailing influence as artists pursued the fearful horrors and seductive debauchery of the place, that's not to say they didn't add some of their own imagery to what they found in Dante's poetry. The Northern Renaissance painter, Jan Bruegel (above) is a prime example, as were a whole platoon of famous hell-painters seen below.

Hell was (and still is) a subject rich in visual possibilities.
For the most part, Renaissance depictions of Hell were an unholy mixture of scripture and Dante. Even Michelangelo depicted Charon delivering sinners to and from Purgatory, a concept which the Catholic church continues to accept yet today. For the most part last judgments pictured the underworld as a place of torment and suffering, but not as a place of fire and brimstone. That image was largely the based upon the Bible and Protestant absolutism--either you were destined for Heaven or Hell, though they do allow for the grace of God as a largely indeterminate mitigating factor.
Renaissance artists, such as Fra Angelico, seemed to prefer
their condemned souls boiled rather than roasted.
Hell or Heaven, Tan Yong Lin

Gates of Hell, 1917,
Auguste Rodin


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