BRIEF NOTE ON HELL
by THE GEOGRAPHY OF HELL
according to Dante
and Hell from THE LAST JUDGEMENT
mural in Albi Cathedral
A small bronze deity from Piravend
(Iran) dating perhaps from 800 BC.
The protuberances on the head are probably not horns.
The Christian idea of a flaming
Hell came from Iranian Zoroastrianism, and not from the Old Testament.
The single appearance of Satan in the Old Testament is in the book of
where he is not the Evil One but a prosecuting angel.
Indonesian demon, Borobudur temple, Yogjakarta.
In late mediæval times
Satan was curiously conflated with 'Lucifer' (Morning Star)
a Middle Eastern deity mentioned in the book of Isaiah.
A tongue-sticking, possibly-hermaphrodite,
on one of the three West Doors of Notre-Dame de Paris.
Note that he is sitting on a pope, a wealthy
cardinal, and a king.
The tortures of the damned, Lincoln Cathedral:
on the left a wealthy
young man is being relieved of his purse by two demons.
On the right two men
guilty of a "Crime Against Nature" might actually be enjoying
this stage of their infernal experience,
since the toothy snakes seem to enjoy licking and nuzzling.
click to see more at Lincoln
A Hell full of scaly monsters on a transept-capital
at the church of St Paul, Narbonne (Aude).
Sensational depiction of Hell at the church
of Santa Maria d'Assunta, Fornovo di Taro (Parma), Italy.
Note the centrality of the Rich Man a usurer or user of usury, weighed
down by his money-bags of gold
and mirroring the centrality of the King of Heaven above.
A bicorporeal dragon (symbolising
Hell ) swallowing a damned soul at Civaux (Vienne).
A more rustic - and more frightening
- monster at Cornellana (Asturias)
clawing, like a bear, a naked soul before devouring it.
over a hundred years from 1850 or even before, the very word
'hell' was not acceptable in polite society beyond the pulpit.
Even in the pulpit the word was generally avoided, except by
'low church' sects and preachers. Hell and sex were almost equally
the most famous comment now about Satan's Kingdom of the Nether
Regions is from Sartre - "Hell is other people".
it has varied from a place where one froze for a while to a
place where one perpetually burned. The ancient Egyptian hell
was a very vague place which nobody actually went to, because
certain easy rituals were designed to avoid it. The Dis of the
Greeks - the realm of the great god Hades - was truly dismal,
damp and dark, with souls flitting about like grey shadows,
while the Inferno of the High Middle Ages was a multi-level
hetero-universe of fires, devils and great noise: a Satanic
mill more horrendous even than those brought into being by the
English "Industrial Revolution" 600 years later, more
appalling even than the concentration-camps of Nazi Germany.
as conqueror stands squashing the head of Satan, whose open
mouth displays the damned,
including a monk - Narbonne cathedral (Aude).
to see more of the Narbonne Hell
the antique world, hell was not perceived as a real threat until
the formulation of Christianity. During
the time between the last books of the Old Testament and the
writing of Matthew's gospel, circa 250 BC
- 50 AD, there was an upsurge in Judæo-Christian
belief of an actual, perhaps immanent, place - Gehenna:
the burning rubbish-dumps outside Jerusalem, in a place
where children were once sacrificed. This is the place referred
to in the gospels.
- full of monsters - at La Celle (Cher), France.
Spain: The Archangel Michael is weighing souls (performing Psychostasia),
while Demons interfere.
the concept was vague. Then, around the 4th century, world-wide
and amongst many of the main non-polytheistic religions - Christianity,
Judaism, Buddhism and Taoism - there was suddenly an astonishing
growth in graphic depictions of hell - some with a reigning
devil (Shaitan, Satan, etc.), some without.
depictions were very detailed, with specific tortures allocated
and adapted to specific crimes: if you had ever looked lustfully
at a woman you would have your eyes pecked out in hell; if you
had been a glutton your liver would be picked out as the vulture
devoured Prometheus' liver every night; if you had done false
dealings your hands would be cut off and the stumps then dipped
in molten lead, again and again eternally.
wildly-inventive imaginings moved away from the basic conception
of hell as a place or condition to be saved from, to a titillating
scenario that developed pornographically in all major religions,
but especially in Western Christianity.
the Last Judgement in the Scrovegni Chapel, by Giotto
Satan, from the Last Judgement mosaic on the ceiling of the
Baptistery of St John, Florence.
which the big cults had in common, beyond the sudden blossoming
of graphic detail amongst their depictions of hell, was the
common theme of the story of a journey going down into the Underworld.
In Zoroastrianism there is the journey of Arda Viraf, who was
in many ways the prototype of all the later stories of journeying
through hell or hells.
story was enormously popular in the Middle East for 1000 years
but it is difficult to date exactly, estimated at around 150-200
AD. After this came the Apocalypse of Paul (or Visio
Sancti Pauli) -a story which was almost included in the
New Testament, appearing in it early on, but excluded by about
describes an dramatic, truly epic journey down into hell where
all the various scenes and layers of the infernal regions are
depicted. This story almost certainly shaped Dante's horrific
work describing a ghastly factory of unspeakable torture, and,
because it was thought to have been written by the Apostle Paul,
it carried considerable authority.
course, hell is much more interesting than heaven, and the eyes
of visitors to Angkor Wat and Conques alike are not drawn to
the boring raptures of the blessed, but to the torments of the
In mediæval Western Europe there was a parallel concept
of the ladder which led up to Heaven, with Jesus helping the
well-intentioned to climb it. Those who fell (or jumped) off
the ladder tumbled into hell. In the Orthodox community, however,
hell remains as vague and unimportant as in ancient Greece.
the West the idea of hell was used partly as a threat, partly
as a source of income. In the terrible Lateran Council of 1215,
one of the many cynical or insane doctrines promulgated was
that hell was perpetual punishment for temporal misdeed, and
one could not be rescued from it except by papal indulgence
- a conveniently-purchasable ticket against which Martin Luther
so successfully revolted.
whole of post-Romanesque mediæval art is tainted by this
doctrine dreamed up by febrile imaginations of theologians,
who, however, coolly admitted that the chief (or only ?) entertainment
in heaven could be the eternal and voyeuristic joy of watching
the tortures of the damned - who, it should be pointed out,
echoes Jean Genet's observation that there would be no good
guys without bad guys, no Chief Constables without shoplifters.
thinking constantly about evil, people tend, contrary to their
conscious intentions, to create occasions for evil to occur.
Holiness became, in the 13th century, an irreversible and nasty
(and to some, very lucrative) business.
fires of hell were, of course, burning madly during that most
psychopathic of all periods of Christianity: the burning of
tens of thousands of "witches", "heretics"
and Jews across that Western Europe which today preaches tolerance
and "democracy". Mediæval thologians would have
pointed out that the truest democracy is hell, overseen by its
president-for-eternity, Lucifer, the fallen angel.
being boiled, wearing only the hats they were forced to wear
on earth -
from the Hortus Deliciarum, a late 12th century manuscript composed
Click to see the whole page.
being boiled in Hell. Girona
Cloisters, 12th century.
Hell is always down, in earth, while heaven is always up somewhere
in the sky. In Buddhism it is Sudhana who goes down into the
hells, and in Islam there are accounts of the Prophet Mohammed
going down into the hells as a counterpoint to his journey up
to heaven from Jerusalem. In Chinese Taoism, hell is described
as an Earth Prison - revealing a theme which runs through
all faiths except perhaps Christianity: the notion that hell
is somewhere where souls are held until they have paid off their
debt of guilt and sin so that they may be released either into
heaven or into purgatory.
on the other hand, can stay there forever - though Roman Catholics
believe that a soul can be raised up from hell by the intercession
of saints through prayer.
As is evident in this website, the Romanesque 'shorthand' for
eternal damnation was the gaping and toothy mouth of the beast:
the jaws of hell.
famous tympana (Conques, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne) and friezes
(Lincoln) the committers of actual sins are portrayed repeating
them in hell and being punished by devils. But in Anglo-Saxon
(11th century) art the most common infernal depiction is the
Harrowing of Hell, mentioned in the Apostles' Creed:
descended into hell and on the third day he rose again".
In the picture below, from the 12th century Winchester Bible,
filling the bottom of the letter B, the Harrowing of
Hell is on the right.
mythology of the harrowing of hell is Christianity's grappling
with the question of where Christ went when he died. It is the
only picture that the Orthodox Church will show of the resurrection.
According to the story, Christ breaks down the gates of hell
which form the shape of the baptismal font and he brings light
and joy into hell. Christ raises Adam and all the just men of
the past, regardless of what they have done, and leads them
raises Eve, and all the just women of the past, regardless of
what they have done, and brings them to paradise. Christ is
then forced to leave hell when Satan complains to God that his
realm is being invaded, rather as the Americans invaded Iraq...
One of the best introductions to the mediæval Hell-cult is Aldous
DEVILS OF LOUDUN.
Hell, of course,
features in every depiction of the Last Judgement, some of which, as
are very graphic indeed.
The photo above is of a small church in the Moselle, from the very end
of the Romanesque art-movement,
and is the simplest possible sketch of life after death, beautifully
Christ sits in majesty, while to his right a saved soul is rising in
full corporeality from the tomb,
and to his left a damned soul is being swallowed by the jaws of Hell.
Above, two archangels sound the Last Trump.
Among those failing
to get into Heaven on the Day of Judgement
(on the elaborate portal-tympanum at Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, Corrèze)
is a Jew (with pointed cap) pointing to his circumcision as reminder
of Abraham's contract with God.
But it is no longer a ticket to Paradise.
with fiery crown or hair, holding the Serpent,
on the amazing 12th century façade at Tuscania (Viterbo).
the picture to see more.
This superb photo,
showing a similar tongue-sticking Satan, but with pronounced horns,
on a capital at Sacra di San Michele in Piemonte was taken by Elio
Inside the same
church there is also a capital featuring two classic figures of Luxuria.
By the third century A.D. the Tunisian Tertullian
(one of the 'fathers of the Church' who turned Pentecostal and thus
was never sainted)
'The greatest joy of Heaven is in watching the torments of the damned
in Hell -
a spectacle far more pleasing than any upon Earth.'
[from a Fresco by Giotto]
A fourteenth century illustration of Luxuria/Avaritia in hell
(note that both are crowned)
with Luxuria/Vanitas about to join them.
(Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 22913, detail
of f.370r. Augustine, De Civitate Dei
in the French translation of Raoul de Presles (Books XI-XXII).
The Harrowing of Hell:
Jesus, having descended into Hell, humiliates Satan and releases Adam
and Eve (plus others).
GEOGRAPHY OF HELL
according to Dante Aligheri
Dante's Hell is shaped like a funnel that extends all the way
to the centre of the earth. It is situated underneath the city
of Jerusalem, which is at the center of the Northern hemisphere.
Opposite Jerusalem, at the centre of the Southern hemisphere
is the mountain of Purgatory. Lucifer/Satan is immobilised at
the bottom of Hell, where he fell after defeat in his rebellion
funnel is made of nine circles. The first circle is the widest
and, progressively, the ninth circle is the smallest. This ninth
circle surrounds Lucifer. Each circle is populated by a different
category (or different categories) of sinners.
in the structure of Dante's Hell revolves around the number
three. Satan is tricephalic,
he chews on three treacherous sinners and there are nine circles
of Hell. These came from from St Augustine and his association
of threes with the Holy Trinity and the Antichrist.
is a place where the souls of the damned fall at their death.
From here they are brought by Charon into Hell itself across
the river Acheron. Some souls, the Neutrals, remain here,
because they - agnostic perhaps, or relativist - chose neither
Good nor Evil during their lives.
HELL: THE HELL OF INCONTINENCE
circle: Limbo. Reserved for the souls of the just
people who never knew Christ, and those (especially infants)
who died without baptism and never committed a sin. Here Dante
encounters the ancient philosophers and poets.
circle: The Lustful. Dante talks to Francesca da
Rimini, who tells him how she became involved in an adulterous
affair with Paolo, her brother in law. King Minos guards this
circle which is in a state of perpetual storm tossing the souls
circle: The Gluttonous. Dante talks to Ciacco, a
Florentine, who used to be a parasite, as he was going from
people to people, gossiping on everyone. Ciacco gives Dante
the first prophecy of his future exile. Here there is continuous
heavy rain. Three-headed Cerberus is the guardian.
circle: The Avaricious and Prodigals. No relevant
character is found here. These souls, mostly clerics, mill about
mindlessly, bumping into each other as they push big rocks.
The guardian is Pluto, who makes no sense when he talks.
The Wrathful and Sullen. These souls are submerged into
the river Styx, which surrounds the City of Dis. The
wrathful emerge from the dirty waters while the sullen are completely
submerged. Phlegyas will take Dante and Virgil across this river
in his boat. Here Dante talks to Filippo Argenti, an old acquaintance
for whom he has no pity.
The city of Disis surrounded by high walls with closed
doors guarded by devils, helped by the Furies and the Medusa.
They try to stop Dante, but a divine messenger forces them to
open the door.
HELL: THE HELL OF VIOLENCE AND DECEIT
circle: The Heretics. Dante enters the city of Dis
and sees a huge cemetery filled with open tombs with fire coming
out of them. One of the tombs contains the souls of the Epicureans.
Dante talks to Farinata degli Uberti and Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti,
father of Guido, the poet, and Dante's friend.
circle: The Violent. Introduced by the Minotaur,
this circle is divided into three rings:
Violent Against their Neighbours (tyrants and murderers).
These souls are plunged into a river of boiling blood: the river
Phlegethon. They are watched over by the Centaurs.
The Violent against Themselves (Suicides) are found in an
unnatural forest with leafless trees. These trees are the souls
of the suicides. Dante talks to Pier delle Vigne, personal secretary
of Frederick II. The trees have no leaves because the Harpies
keep plucking them as they sprout. Among the trees Dante sees
the souls of the squanderers, chased by bitches.
Violent against God and Nature - Blasphemers, Sodomites, etc.
Virgil talks to Capaneus, king of ancient Crete, stricken by
Zeus's bolt for his rebellion. Then Dante talks to his teacher
Brunetto Latini, and later he sees three fellow-Florentines
at the edge of the circle.
river Phlegethon cascades into the Eighth circle, and
there is no path to go down. Dante and Virgil are carried there
- originally a three-headed, triple-bodied Titan, but described
by Dante as a winged beast with the tail of a scorpion but the
face of an honest man. He dwells by the cliff between the seventh
and eighth circles, and has a hound called Orthrus who is the
brother of Cerberus.
Geryon by Gustave Doré
The Circle of Fraud and Deceit, called Malebolge
because it is divided into ten bolge or ditches.
Panders and Seducers, whose souls are scourged by horned
demons. Dante talks to Venedico Caccianemico.
Flatterers. These souls are immersed in excrements. Dante
talks to Alessio Interminei and the ancient Thaïs.
Simoniacs (Venal Popes and High Ecclesiastics) are set heads
down into holes in the rock with flames burning on their feet.
Dante talks to Pope Nicholas III, who mistakes him for Boniface
Diviners, Astrologers and Magicians, whose heads are turned
backwards, so they have to walk backwards. Virgil talks to some
ancient people: Amphiaraus, Tiresias, Manto and Eurypylus. Among
the modern is Michael the Scot, scholar, astrologer and physician
at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, credited with
being a magician of great supernatural powers.
Barrators (those who sold offices and positions for personal
gain) are plunged into boiling pitch and guarded by ten
sneaky demons (Malebranche) led by Malacoda (evil tail). Ciampolo
of Navarra (a sinner) succeeds in cheating the demons in a hellish
Hypocrites. whose souls, mostly monks of the Jovial order,
walk slowly, clothed in heavy caps of lead. Dante talks to two
of them from Bologna.
Thieves. These souls keep changing into snakes. Dante recognizes
(among others) Vanni Fucci, who predicts the defeat of Dante's
party, the Whites, and his exile from the city.
Fraudulent Counsellers, whose souls slide away in the ditch
as flames. First Virgil talks to Homer's Odysseus, then Dante
talks to Guido da Montefeltro, a soft-soaper and self-serving
counsellor of his own day.
Sowers of Discord and Schism. These souls are physically
torn apart. Dante talks to a few, among them Bertram de Bornio,
who holds his severed head like a lamp as he walks along.
Falsifiers of metals, persons, coins and words. Here it
is like a huge hospital with people with all kinds of deformities.
As in the previous ditch, this too is crowded. Master Adam is
the most colourful.
circle: The Circle of Treachery is divided into four
sections. The sinners are in a frozen lake, Cocytus. This circle
is surrounded by the Giants. One of them, Antæus, takes
Dante and Virgil and forces them down into the ice.
Caina: Traitors to Kin. These are stuck head-first into
the ice. Dante talks to Carmiscione de' Pazzi.
Antenora: Traitors to Homeland. Dante sees one who keeps
biting on another's head. He is Count Ugolino who is gnawing
the Archbishop Ruggeri's head. He tells Dante the story of his
Ptolomea: Traitors to Guests. They are head up in the ice,
which is freezing their eyes. Dante talks to Fra Alberigo, who
is there while his body is still alive, for having killed his
guests as he invited them for dinner.
Giudecca: Traitors to Benefactors. These sinners are
completely immersed into the ice.
ice of the Ninth Circle is kept frozen by Lucifer's six flapping
wings. Lucifer has three faces, with three mouths, each chewing
on a sinner: Judas is in the middle mouth with his head inside,
Brutus and Cassius are in the side mouths, with their heads
Caylus (Tarn-et-Garonne, my home-village) : Portail Obscur
A 12th century roof-boss in the porch of St
Margaret's, Cley-next-the-Sea (Norfolk)
graphically shows the punishment of male concupiscence in the afterlife:
one devil holds down a well-endowed male
while a second removes his shift, preparatory to his infernal and eternal
(Compare the scene at Conques.)
photo by Tina Negus
LAST JUDGEMENT mural in the triumphalist Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile
in Albi (Tarn)
dates from the late 15th century, and is obviously akin to the works
of Hieronymus Bosch,
but emphasises the same sins as the art of the 12th century:
The punishment of the Licentious and Concupiscent.
The punishment of the ungenerous rich.
Above them, the Saved carry the books of their lives.
The punishment of the Self-Satisfied and Proud.
The punishment of the Gluttonous.
A more modest and slightly-later depiction in the parish church of
Wenhaston in Suffolk.
images of Hell survived a long time.
completed The Adoration of the Name of Jesus around 1578.
This spectacular painting was completed midway through the Protestant
and it was used as Catholic propaganda. The picture below shows the
painting, the Pope, the Doge of Venice (the Doge was the head of the
oligarchy in Venice),
and Philip II of Spain are kneeling in the adoration of the Name of
To the right, the damned (including Protestants, of course) are being
swallowed by the monstrous mouth of Hell.
Eugène Atget: L'Enfer (cabaret),
live footage of an abattoir in SW France.
In most countries, filming in abattoirs is illegal - indicating
a certain modicum of guilt.
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