Dante at the National Gallery, plus a gorgeous church picture, April 2023

I went to the National Gallery of Art with a friend yesterday. There is an exhibition of the National Gallery’s own holdings with portrayals of Inferno.** It included the Auguste Rodin sculpture known currently as The Thinker. This sculpture of a seated man was originally supposed to decorate an entire piece known as the Gates of Hell but I think the whole object did not get made. Further, Rodin did a sculpture known as the Kiss, which you can also see. It is from the story of the lovers, Paolo and Francesca, in Inferno.

** https://www.nga.gov/press/exhibitions/exhibitions-2023/5726.html

People are always very sympathetic about these lovers but do just keep in mind that the husband who was betrayed, and who subsequently killed the two, was Paolo’s brother.

Anyway there were several drawings from 19th century English artists (fun), one 16th century picture of Dante (gorgeous), a 15th century book (amazing) and some very modern works.

One of the modern works was a supposed depiction of Hell. The artist had ripped pictures of awful events out of Life magazine and made a collage of sorts. He said, to depict Hell you had to show awful things, and these were the modern awful things.

I have a problem with this.

My original, and horribly incorrect, view of the Divine Comedy was that Dante was doing a sort of travelogue of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. This fits That Artist up above. That Artist has separated himself from the idea of Hell. It isn’t going to be a punishment for him; it’s just awful stuff that happens, that you show to other people. You could read Dante that way. Wrongly.

Dante, himself, is at risk in hell. He needs a guide to get through Hell, and he has to go through Hell because he has lost his way, morally and spiritually. His sins are preventing the straightforward road. When he reaches the city of Dis, the devils tell him that he will be stuck there forever and he is afraid. Virgil has to save him from being struck by Geryon’s scorpion tale, and from the devils who will toss him into the abyss, and from being lost at the bottom of Hell, listening to the sinners trash-talking each other.

The curator of the exhibit said that she had her own picture of heaven and she wasn’t going to let anyone change her mind. She had nothing to say about Purgatory. But she said that Hell was more available to people as an idea than either Heaven or Purgatory and that’s why there’s more art about it. She was a very nice woman, and I gave her a copy of my book, but she’s wrong.

She’s wrong because, as Dante says, the reason to talk about bad things is only so that you can talk about the good things that come about because of them. Concentrating on bad things alone is … very bad. She’s also wrong because as I pointed out above, lots of people have left the true idea of Hell behind. It no longer applies to them.

This also explains why Purgatory, as a concept, is hopeless. Hell is just bad stuff; why do you need more bad stuff in another place? It is not directly pertinent to your life, so Purgatory which is all about your life and fixing it … is … not even discussable.

Even though I see why people struggle with Purgatory I still don’t really understand why there isn’t more art about either Purgatory or Heaven. But that’s partly because I can see so many passages where there could be amazing art. And there isn’t a lot. (Not that I’ve seen everything, mind you, but I’ve seen quite a bit of what’s available publicly.) Dante has a ladder/stair in Heaven, he has twenty-four saints at one point, he has the entire lives of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. He has a river with angels dipping in and out.

I’d like to see a picture of Saint Lucy carrying Dante up to the steps of Purgatory proper. I saw a picture of this where Dante is being carried by an eagle, which is how he dreams of what happened. But he looks like a worm being carried off to feed nestlings. Not beautiful in my eyes. And no Saint Lucy either.

The terrace where avarice and prodigality are punished in Purgatory does not have a great visual, such eyelids sewn shut, but the examples of good and bad behavior, that the sinners are meditating on, are numerous. They would provide some amazing visuals. And I’m very taken with the upside down tree and stream flowing down that gluttons can’t touch.

Oh well.

While my friend and I were at the gallery we saw another exhibition, with a glorious picture of the cathedral in Milan. Here. Go look. Then look more closely. This is a lovely picture.


Happy Easter! I assume they are celebrating Easter in that beautiful church this week.

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