Inferno Reverberations in Popular Culture

Angel Concepcion

Professor Porcelli


6 May 2019

Inferno Reverberations in Popular Culture

Dante Alighieri’s famous Divine Comedy ranks high amongst the most famous epic poems to be ever written. In fact, Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy is so appreciated that it has been adapted throughout visual arts since its creation and continues to do so. There are numerous famous cinematic works that implement certain elements of Inferno into different characters with similar circumstances. The Harry Potter series of fantasy novels/films

serves as a prime example of implementing ideas from Inferno into their fantasy empire. Pirates of the Caribbean is also another high-grossing adventurous fantasy film series to implement ideas from Inferno. The list extends to many other appreciated visual and literary arts; some reverberations being more subtle than others, but the most obvious film to simultaneously implement exact elements from the Inferno and not be directly based in its entirety to it is the film As Above So Below. Furthermore, we can conclude that although Dante was guilty of pridefulness, his high regard for his poetic talent was not misplaced.

Above all, the most compellingly symmetrical theme to Inferno is the setting of the film. The setting of the movie takes place in the underground Parisian Catacombs of Paris, France. Similar to the idea of Hell, the Parisian Catacombs hold over six million corpses. This epic cemetery’s structure is solely made up of bones and skulls, which makes for a very eerie and unstable setting. Aside from the setting of the film, the characters also make for a compelling emulation for the sinners of Inferno. Perdita Weeks (Scarlett), the protagonist of the film is a tomb raider in search for Nicholas Flamel’s philosophers stone. Dante (1265-1321) predated Flamel (1340-1418) which is why we do not see Flamel’s guest appearance in his comedy. Ben Feldman (George) is a supporting character to Scarlett much like Virgil is to Dante. George knows multiple dead languages that Scarlett does not and plays a well-versed historian when Scarlett fails to do so. Edwin Hodge (Benji) plays the role of the claustrophobic camera-man of this film. The film makes for an intimately empathetic setting due to its documentary style capture. Francois Civil (Papillon) embodies the role of Virgil more literally since he plays the guide that leads them throughout the catacombs. Papillon has ventured throughout the catacombs multiple times in the past and knows which paths are evil and those that are safe. He only agrees to lead them in this venture because there is promised treasure. Along with Papillon is his team Marion Lambert (Souxie) and Ali Marhyar (Zed). Their roles are superficial throughout the film are largely meant to reflect certain contrapassos that occur in Inferno.

In the beginning of Inferno, Dante finds himself in the bitter dark woods. As he journeys on and attempts to turn back, his path is impeded by a she-wolf and a jaguar at the foot of the hill. Similarly when setting off towards the entrance of the catacombs, George is weary and hesitant to journey on with them. However, venturing into restricted parts of the catacombs is illegal and as they are all entering the forbidden entrance Papillion is tackled to the ground. Everyone scurries into the cave fearing capture along with Papillion after he escapes the police officer’s grip. As they make their way through what I interpret to be limbo, a choir of naked women are gathered, singing in alto voices. Benji catches the provocative gaze of the lead conductor and moves on. Now, in retrospect this is the third time that Benji attentively films a woman. The prior two times where once inside of the night club where they find Papillon and the other was the lady that granted them access into the museum that held Flamel’s tombstone. His tombstone led to an important clue for their journey. As they descend from limbo into what I interpret to be the circle of lust, Benji injures his hands badly on his climbing rope because his latch broke off. This is the first hint to the attribution of Benji’s sin.

As they continue their journey they become lost and make a full circle not knowing the true structure of the catacombs. They make a full a circle because they are trying to evade the true path that they must take in order to find the philosophers stone. Scarlett points out that the most efficient way to the treasure area is through a forbidden hole in the wall. However, Papillon is strongly against it claiming that they had a friend named the Mole that went through there and was never heard of again. The mole senses their confusion and tells them that the only way out is further down into the catacombs. Shortly after, the wall collapses and leaves them with no other choice but to go through the forbidden hole. Needless to say, the journey takes a horrible turn after venturing through the hole. They encounter someone who seemed to be their old friend on the other side; he was changed, distorted. The mole aids them on their path to the treasure. However, once they find the treasure and set off the booby trap that comes with it, his body disappears under all of the rubble. Again, they are trapped with only one way out, down. They descend into a lower level with a mirror image to the last; everything the same but in a different order. This is the level that reflects the entrance to the city of Dis in Inferno. Above the entrance to Dis reads “abandon every hope you who enter.” (Canto III. 8). Similarly, in As Above So Below, the entrance reads “abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Furthermore, as they breach the next level, they encounter the Mole again; only this time he was only capable of screeching. Souxie approaches the Mole attemting to reassure him that he is safe, however, once Souxie touches him, he violently picks her up and smashes her head on the ground repeatedly. The Mole can be interpreted a number of ways. Much like Virgil, he often speaks in provocatively ambiguous tones, alluding to their hallucinations insightfully. However, a more compelling comparison would be that of a Malabranche demon. Just as the Malabranche demons guide Dante and Virgil because of the fallen bridge, the Mole guides their group after the ceiling collapses. Only, here the Mole plays another role as well. He plays the role of the sinners that inhabit the circle of violence. Also, he murders Souxie because she feels guilty for the Mole’s death; that they did not come back to look for the Mole after his disappearance and evidently does not repent for it.

They descend into the next level of fraudulence where another tomb raider meets their fate. Again, scaling down the rope last is Benji. However, as he is about to climb down he hears a wailing baby. He pauses, and as a cliché horror movie character, he asks if anyone is there. The camera catches the obscure shape of a woman pass by, and as he picks up the camera to turn around, the woman appears cradling a baby in her arms. This literally frightens him to death as he falls down the hole and dies on impact. I believe that Benji’s sins were that of simple fraud, flattery and seducery which lie in the first bolgia of the eighth circle. Benji was a womanizer guilty of being a neglectful father and abandoning his child in the real world.

Rewinding to an earlier part of the film where the team of tomb raiders had just met each other, Benji notices Papillon’s burned hands and asks Zed how he had gotten those scars. Zed replies, “we do not talk about that.” Further down into the third bolgia of the fraudulent circle, Papillon is confronted with his sin. They find a flaming car with a boy inside of it. It was the same boy that had told Scarlett where to find Papillon. As their eyes see this incredibly terrifying scene, Papillon says, “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do it.” Immediately after saying this, the flaming boy reaches out and pulls Papillon into the car which then sinks into the ground as if it were placed over super quicksand only leaving his legs sticking out of the ground. Throughout the entire film, this scene is the most apparent scene to reflect a contrapasso in Inferno. Dante the poet illustrates in Canto 19, “ I saw, from the mouth of every hole were sticking out a single sinner’s feet, and then the legs up to the calf-the rest was stuffed inside. The soles of every sinner’s feet were flaming; their naked legs were twitching frenziedly they would have broken any chain or rope.”(Canto 19.22-27). Papillon is guilty of simony. Although obscure, viewers can discern that he sold his intangible guidance into the catacombs for the treasure that was to be found.

Finally, they make their way down to the final circle of treachery amid many other obstacles not relevant to this paper. Until, they reach the last hole that leads to their exit and consequent rectification. George, Scarlett and Zedd confess their deepest sin and jump down the hole, but they do not die. With no apparent way out but a manhole at the center they start to scream and panic. Attempting to lift the pot hole, Scarlett mistakenly pushes it down. At this moment everything becomes clear. As they push further down into the man hole and push it aside, they see the illuminated night sky. Everything was as above so below.






Image of the lady that scares Benji to death. https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwih38_QtLXiAhVBmeAKHZIsCXIQjhx6BAgBEAM&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.imdb.com%2Ftitle%2Ftt2870612%2Fmediaindex&psig=AOvVaw2R4DIwjXxAmK-14jFC1hQ5&ust=1558830044761342


Dante’s Overpowering Faith

In Dante’s Divine Comedy there is a recurring theme of faith, it plays an important role in Dante’s growth as he travels through the 3 realms. Another theme that pops up frequently is the association of faith and reason, whether it is a clash to figure out which is supreme or that they equally rely on each other to bring humans closer to the true path and God, they are always treated as equal. But this is not true, in the Divine Comedy Dante puts a great emphasis on faith and that completely overshadows reason. While reason is still needed it doesn’t come close to the sheer importance of faith as we can see in three comparisons. 

We have two people with incredible talents on a quest for knowledge and understanding of the world beyond man, it’s no question that Dante and Ulysses are similar. But as we know Ulysses’ journey ends in failure while Dante will succeed in his, if these two are quite similar why do their stories end so differently? That is because of faith,  Ulysses was created before the birth of Christ, so without Christ’s teachings Ulysses lacked faith in God. His journey is one of will power, he is a proud and talented person that believes in his abilities to get him through anything. As we know this voyage ends in failure resulting in the death of not only himself but as well as his loyal crew members that followed him to the edge of the world.

On the contrary Dante’s journey is not one of choice as it placed onto him by the three blessed women Mary, Lucia, and Beatrice when he became lost and strayed from the true path. So right of the bat we know that this is going to be a different story for Dante as Barolini said “By the end of Inferno 2, we know that Dante-protagonist will not be a Ulysses. He has been granted a way forward, graced to undertake a journey not permitted to those who adventure on their own, but only to those who are chosen.” there is already a path placed for Dante to take and not only that he is even assigned personal guides to help him through each realm. As we progress through the story, we can see that Dante has a generally smooth journey, besides a couple of hiccups he was able to get through hell without a problem. Quite a vast difference isn’t it, Ulysses on his voyage struggling with his crew to reach the edge of the world in the pursuit of knowledge and here we have Dante going through hell and back basically unscathed. It just goes to show how powerful faith and the heavens can be, a simple declaration that they were sent on a journey by heaven helped Virgil and Dante bypass most obstacles in hell.

Dante’s quest for knowledge not only succeeds but it is also accomplished on a much grander scale than Ulysses’ quest. Even if Ulysses succeeded in his goal, he would probably only travel as far as the shore of purgatory. As Cato, the one Dante and Virgil meet in the first canto of Purgatorio and acts as a guardian of purgatory, would have probably refused him entrance given that Ulysses is not a Christian that has faith in God. So that would’ve been the farthest that he could travel given his abilities, unlike Dante who not only goes through hell and purgatory but also ascends to heaven traveling past heavenly bodies to meet God himself, talk about an accomplishment. In the first canto of Paradiso we see just how high of a goal Dante has. “In the heave that receives most of his light have I been, and I have seen things that one who comes down from there cannot remember and cannot utter … Nevertheless, as much of the holy kingdom as I was able to treasure up in my mind will now become the matter of my song”(4-12) He wishes to document things that are beyond human comprehension, to create poetry to express the ineffable, such an impossible task that he prays to Apollo for help. And Dante succeeded, he was able to express, albeit extremely vague, the most ineffable thing in the universe, God himself. Such drastic differences of two people in their pursuit of knowledge just goes to show how powerful faith can really be.  

Virgil and Beatrice are some of the most prominent characters in the Divine Comedy right after our main character Dante. After all Virgil was present throughout Inferno and most of Purgatorio and Beatrice is Dante’s loved one and one of the blessed women who set everything in motion for Dante’s journey. Beatrice personally came down from heaven bathed in holy light to ask Virgil to guide Dante through hell, so already we can see the hierarchy and who is in charge. Virgil is pagan, born before Christ thus damned to limbo as he is unable to believe in God. Though Dante highly respects Virgil and even sees him as a mentor, it does not stop him from placing Virgil there as he lacks the all-important faith in God.

Virgil is seen as the embodiment of reason and wisdom, as they progress through hell Virgil teaches Dante about the sinners that inhabit each circle and Dante slowly understands God’s will and why he acts the way he does. Throughout the inferno they slowly become closer to the point that they treat each other as family with Virgil becoming a father-like figure to Dante. Even though Virgil embodies reason it is shown that reason itself is not enough to get through hell, he requires the help of faith in the form of the will of heaven as a declaration, with it he is able reason with most of the inhabitants of hell for safe passage on this journey. His failure to reason with the fallen angels at the gate of Dis further amplifies the weakness of reason as we can see Virgil become visibly worried, they must sit there and wait for help as reason can’t do anything for them right now. An angel, a being of faith, descends from heaven and simply opens the gate with a single movement of his wand, showing the absolute power and authority that heaven and God has. In the earthly paradise at the top of purgatory they meet Beatrice, at that moment Virgil disappears as he is a being unable to enter paradise he can go no further, signifying the biggest difference between Virgil and Beatrice, the ability to ascend to heaven.

Beatrice embodies faith, she is the one that keeps Dante from straying from the true path “For a time I sustained him with my countenance: showing him my youthful eyes, I led him with me, turned in the right direction. When I was on the threshold of my second age and changed lives, he took himself from me and gave himself to another”(Purgatorio canto 30, 121-126). Once Beatrice died, he lost faith and that lead him to stray from the true path which caused him to be lost in the dark forest in the beginning of the story. It was only after Beatrice intervened in her second life, that Dante was slowly being guided back onto the right path. Virgil did play a crucial path in Dante’s understanding of God’s will, but Beatrice is the one that motivates Dante, she gave him the courage to continue when he was lacking confidence in the journey to hell. Beatrice or faith is Dante’s guiding light in this journey. 

Another place where faith plays an important role is the afterlife I.e. where you end up in. Those who obey God’s laws and are faithful to him like Beatrice can immediately ascend to heaven. Those who are faithful but misuse their love are given a second chance to repent in purgatory. Those who commit serious sins are damned to hell for eternity as punishment. And then we have limbo, a place where those who lived before Christ and the unbaptized live, so those who reside in limbo are punished based on things that were outside of their power. This is quite cruel act for God to deny these people the joys of his love and paradise. Though we have seen pagans that have ascended to heaven they are few and far between leaving the majority just sitting in limbo. This just shows that even if you are a virtuous person who has lived a good life, without faith you are still less than a Christian who has faith in God and has committed minor sins. Purgatory gives Christians who have misplaced their love a second chance, but those who have done nothing wrong in limbo are not given a second chance. The only way it seems for them to leave limbo is when they are given an assignment from heaven like Virgil’s task to guide Dante or Cato’s to guard the entrance to purgatory. This is quite a terrifying punishment to give to a person who lacks faith. 

Faith is incredibly important for a human being as it allows us to be closer to God which as Beatrice stated in the first canto of Paradiso the goal of everything in the universe is to move towards God. Reason alone is unable to accomplish this; it can only help speed up the process as with it one can control their will to prevent them committing a sin that cause them to not be able to ascend to heaven. In the end faith is still the major of this 



Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Translated and Edited by Robert M. Durling. Notes by Ronald L. Martinez & Durling, vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 1996. 

BaroliniTeodolinda. “Inferno 2: Beatrix Loquax and Consolation.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-2/ 

BaroliniTeodolinda. “Inferno26: The Epic Hero and the Quest.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-26/ 

Hollander, Rober. “Dante’s Virgil: A Light That Failed”, Lectura Dantis, vol. 1, 1998 


Dante’s Inferno vs The Harrowing of Hell

Azka Irfan

The Christian Doctrine “The Harrowing of Hell” has countless literary adaptations that attempt to make the theology linguistically and culturally accessible in a rapidly modernizing society. The “Harrowing of Hell” describes the Christian belief that Christ descended into Hell before he resurrected in order to save all the righteous souls that existed before him. The Bible briefly mentions the event in St. Peter scriptures however, the event is more vividly described in the Gospel of Nicodemus which postdates the Bible. “Dante’s Inferno” by the Italian poet Dante Allighieri is a 14th Century epic that draws on the Christian doctrine to emphasize the importance of the Christian faith in redeeming the condemned souls in limbo. Likewise, the “Harrowing of Hell” by Dr. Jeff S. Dailey and the American Theatre of Actors is a play primarily based on translated medieval texts that narrate the events leading upto and including the Harrowing of Hell. The play is composed of 4 components: the 14th century medieval play “The Fall of the Angels”, the 20th century poem “The Soliloquy of Satan” by African American poet Eliot Blaine Henderson,  a reading from the Gospel of Nicodemus, and the 13th century poem “The Harrowing of Hell.” Dr. Dailey simplifies the Old English in medieval texts while preserving its authenticity and intended message. The production modernizes the texts in order to convey the importance of Christ’s sacrifice. The poem of “Dante’s Inferno” and the theatre production of the “Harrowing of Hell” both acknowledge that Christ descends to hell to save almost the same souls however, the epic portrays Lucifer as a submissive monster however, the play depicts Lucifer as a grieving angel that transforms into a vengeful monster that controls the mechanisms of hell.

The epic “Dante’s Inferno” establishes Christ’s descent into hell through the physical destruction and presence of love in the inferno.When Dante and Virgil are traveling to the first circle of hell, Virgil notes that the cliff was still intact when he visited hell the last time. He states, “on every this deep, foul valley trembled so that I thought the universe must be feeling love, by which, some believe, / the world has often been turned into Chaos…” (Canto 12, lines 40-42). The Gospel of Matthew states that an earthquake coincided with Christ’s crucifixion. Virgil personifies the “foul valley” trembling to symbolize that earthquake which devastated the inferno during Christ’s death. Virgil mirrors the violent nature of Christ’s death with the violent destruction of the inferno, to show that the inferno only changed when Christ died. He further elaborates on the metaphorical changes in the world and the inferno in terms of the presence and absence of love. The break in the verse “the universe must be feeling love” and “the world has often been turned into chaos” parallels the first time that hell is experiencing love since its creation with the world losing its ability to experience love again. The phrase the “universe must be feeling love” is specifically referring to Christ’s descent into hell. God structured hell in such a manner that the sinners can’t experience love. Thus, the only figure that can exude love in a loveless place is God himself because he’s the one who made the inferno incapable of hosting such emotions in the first place. The verse “the world has often been turned into chaos” specifically refers to the absence of love in the world in the aftermath of Christ’s death. The verse is placed after the clause referring to Christ’s descent into hell to show that Christ’s death took away the love and order that governed the earthly world, hence causing it to spiral into chaos. Virgil establishes Christ’s descent to the inferno following his death on Earth by setting up a parallel between the presence of love in the inferno with the lack of love in the Earthly world.

The theatre production “The Harrowing of Hell” establishes Christ’s descent into hell by relating his death to the promise of salvation and eternal life for all those that believe in him. The 13th century poem “The Harrowing of Hell” narrates “He was born for us,/ In this world, in poverty; / In this world he died,/ To deliver us from the evil one.” (Halliwell – Phillipps, lines 33-36). The verse “In this world, in poverty;” the “world” refers to the earthly world because “poverty” is a vice that is exclusive to the materialistic world. Heaven, purgatory, and hell don’t have poverty because the souls aren’t defined by their economic status but by their virtues in those domains. The 3rd verse “In this world he died,” also refers to the earthly world because only the living can experience death, souls cannot die. The 4th verse states “To deliver us from the evil one,” however the “us” does not refer to the living souls but to the virtuous souls trapped in the inferno and the “evil one” refers to Lucifer. Christ’s birth and death all occurred in the earthly world however the souls that are being saved are in the inferno. The narrator cleverly showcases that even though Christ was born on Earth and guided the humans to live a more virtuous life, his purpose was not only to offer a path to redemption to all the living souls but to also save the repentant and virtuous souls that already died. The poem narrates “When Jesus had shed his blood/ For us, upon the cross,/ In his divinity he proceeded/ Toward the gates of hell.” (Halliwell – Phillipps, line 37-40). The bible states that “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). Thus, when Christ bled on the cross, he offered humans a path towards forgiveness and salvation. God warned Adam and Eve that if they consume the apple “you [they] will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17), the death refers to a physical and spiritual death. When Adam and Eve consumed the apple, they condemned all of mankind to this absolute death. However, when Christ died on the cross, he was the perfect sacrifice that promised eternal life to all those that believed in him. The bible states “He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,” (Colossians 1:22). His sacrificed cleansed mankind of its sins and offered them a path to redemption, salvation, and eternal life. However, the souls in the inferno that died before him are also bought by his sacrifice. Hence, the play showcases that Christ’s blood on the cross saved the souls in the inferno.

Christ outside the Gates of Dis

The epic  “Dante’s inferno” shows that Christ saved the almost the same souls as the ones in the play because they had faith in him.  In the inferno, Virgil claims that “But certainly, if I remembered well, a little before he came who took the city from Dis the great spoils of the highest circle,” (Canto 12, line 36 – 37). The souls are not allowed to leave the inferno because their punishment is eternal. The “he” pronoun refers to Christ and the “great spoils of the highest circle” refers to Adam and Eve who formerly resided in the Earthly Paradise before their disobedience led to their placement in the inferno. The text implies that Christ saved Adam and Eve from limbo. Virgil also narrates that “I was still in this condition, when I saw a powerful one come, crowned with a sign of victory./ He led forth from here the shade of our first parent, of Abel his son, and that of Noah and Moses, lawgiver and obedient,/ Abraham and the patriarch and David the King, Israel with his father, and his children, and Raechel for whom he did so much,/ and many others, and he made them blessed.” (Canto 4, lines 51-60) Virgil is referring to Christ when he says “the powerful one” because the phrase  “crowned” with victory is a play on the thorn crown that Christ wore when he died. The verse “the shade of our first parent” refers to Adam and Eve who are the parents of all mankind. The other figures including Noah, Moses, Abraham, David the King, Israel, Raechel and others are the ones that were virtuous in their life and had faith in Christ, thus, they were granted salvation. In the South Atlantic Review, the article “Dear life redeems you”: The Winter’s Tale and the Harrowing of Hell” by Christina Romanelli states that “Looking at The Winter’s Tale through the lens of the Harrowing of Hell shows how this play is an argument against the skepticism that leads to secularization. Both a doctrine and narrative tradition, the Harrowing of Hell serves as a nexus of religious, magical, and scientific discourses that explains how Christ defeated Satan in Hell.” (Romanelli).  The Harrowing of Hell has many adaptations however many famous writers including Shakespeare claimed that since the Harrowing of Hell is absent from the bible, Christ never descended into hell and came to the “conclusion that the one God did not exist.”(Romanelli). However Romanelli argues that the intention of the medieval play is to have faith. She even claims that “I argue that this tradition offers a model of identification with Christ that empowers early modern subjects to combat negative forces in their lives” (Romanelli).  The souls in the inferno knew that they were eternally condemned because of the inherent sin of Adam and Eve yet they still believed that Christ would come to save them despite their suffering in hell. Romanelli argues that the novel allows society to modernize but it still teaches them to have faith in their hardships and turmoils.

The play the “Harrowing of Hell” shows that Christ saved some of the same souls mentioned in the inferno because they had faith in him however, the play leaves out some of the ones that Dante mentions. In the play, Christ walks in a white robe with a thorn crown to Adam and Eve. He claims “Adam, I have given my life,/ For thee and for Eve thy wife./ Thinkest thou I died for nought?/ By my death was mankind bought.” (Halliwell – Phillipps, lines 179-182). In the play, Adam and Eve beg God to take them away from “this hateful place [hell]” (Halliwell – Phillipps, lines 177). Christ asks Adam and Eve the rhetorical question “Thinkest thou I died for nought?” which translates into “Do you think I died for nothing?” Christ states to Adam and Eve that “I have my life” to you and “bought” mankind because Adam and Eve’s condemnation was inherited by their children. However, when Christ died, he not only offered mankind the opportunity to salvation but he also freed the souls that still believed in him including Adam and Eve despite their initial disobedience. In another exchange, Abraham says to Christ that God told him “Should a child be born;/ who would rescue us from pain,-/ Me and with me all mine.” (Halliwell – Phillipps, lines 186-188). The child refers to “Christ” as he is considered the son of God and a physical manifestation of his grace. The “us” that Abraham is referring to are the souls trapped in the inferno with him including King David, John the Saint, and Moses that still believed in God. “Dante’s Inferno” mentioned many more souls that were saved that the play did not mention such as Abel, Noah, Israel with his family, and Raechel. However, the play also mentioned St. John which “Dante’s Inferno” did not mention. In the Journal of English and Germanic philology, the article “The Performance of Power in Medieval English households: the Case of the Harrowing of Hell” by Ingrid Nelson states that “Adam, Eve, and the patriarchs (Abraham, David, John the Baptist, and Moses) then speak to Christ in turn, and he releases each of them from Hell.” (Nelson). He confirms that all medieval texts mention these souls explicitly however, there is an “improvisational spirit among scribes, who adapted the framing material to fit its material context.” Since Dante’s inferno is written after the integration of the Harrowing of Hell in biblical readings, he might’ve included more souls. Despite this disparity, in “Dante’s Inferno,” Virgil states that there were others that were “blessed” and in the play “The Harrowing of Hell,” Abraham mentions “us” ambiguously. Thus, there is the possibility that there are other souls in both adaptations which could’ve been the same but were not specified. Nevertheless, both adaptations show that Christ saved most of the same souls because they had had faith in him.

Christ with Adam and Eve

Christ with Abraham



In Dante’s inferno, Lucifer is portrayed as a submissive creature that is physically integral to the mechanisms of the inferno. Dante describes Lucifer as the “The emperor of the dolores Kingdom issued from the ice at the mid-point of his breast;” (Canto 34, lines 28-29). The “emperor” refers to Lucifer and he rules over a “dolores” or sorrowful Kingdom. The “ice at the midpoint of his breast” holds Lucifer in place so that he’s immobile. However, Lucifer is a King “issued from” this ice to show that Lucifer is the “emperor” not because he has a choice but because the ice holds him in place and integrates him into the structure of the inferno. He’s an emperor because he’s stuck in the inferno. Dante further describes that he had “three faces on his head”(Canto 34, lines 37)  and “beneath each one came out two great wings, such as befitted so great a bird:” (Canto 34, lines 45). The deliberate simile that Lucifer’s wings resemble a bird’s is ironic because a bird can fly however Lucifer despite having wings is unable to. This emphasizes that even though Lucifer is a giant with multi-heads and wings, he’s incapacitated and rendered helpless because he “lifted his brow against his maker.” (Canto 34, lines 34). Dante further elaborates that Lucifer was “fanning them, so that three winds went out from under him:/ by them Cocytus was frozen.” (Canto 34, lines 48- 52). When a bird wants to fly, it fans it wings out before it takes flight. Likewise, Lucifer is fanning his wings out but he’s can’t fly. Instead, the wings produce a wind that further freezes hell and incapacitates him further. The theme that this Lucifer is in this position through fault of his own is reiterated in this canto. Lucifer defied God thus he was punished for his rebellion. Likewise, he’s stuck in the inferno because he keeps on fanning his wings which further freezes him. Dante narrates “with six eyes he was weeping, and down three chins dripped the tears and the bloody slobber.” (Canto 34, line 52). Usually, the depiction of multiple heads means that a person is unfaithful or has ulterior motives but all 3 of Lucifer’s faces are “weeping” to show that he genuinely feels repentance, pain, and sorrow in all of his being. The “bloody slobber” is traveling down his chin because he’s chewing on Judas, Cassius, and Brutus. There is a parallel between Lucifer’s betrayal of God and the sinners that betrayed their loyalties. Judas betrayed Jesus when he called him a “rabbi” whereas Brutus and Cassius betrayed Julius Caesar which inevitably led to the fall of the Roman Republic. The epic portrays Lucifer as a submissive, repentant creature that is eternally punished for his betrayal of God.

The play “The Harrowing of Hell” depicts Lucifer as initially repentant fallen angel that transforms into a vengeful creature that wants to possess all human souls under his domain. In the “Soliloquy of Satan,” Lucifer is surrounded by darkness and his shrieks are resonating on stage. He’s crying “Fool! Hast thou been, proud Lucifer!/ To God thou shall yet bend in tears,/ Brought to the gravity of thy fate/ Clothed in the mantle of dire fears.” (Henderson, pg 9). Despite his hatred for humankind, he’s suffering the same problems as humans. Humans “bend” and pray for God’s forgiveness, likewise he’s also “bending” and asking God for forgiveness. Humans have to worry about their “fate” because its not in their control. Before Christ’s harrowing of hell, Adam and Eve’s sin condemned all humankind to the same fate of death. However, Lucifer also has to worry about his “fate” because part of God’s punishment is that he’s destined to suffer in the inferno for eternity. Moreover, humans wear clothes because they’re aware of their sexuality. Likewise, when Lucifer was cast from the heavens, his clothe burned with him and he became aware of the gruesomeness of his own body, thus he wears clothes. Humans also experience “fear” because they’re uncertain about their survival, likewise, Lucifer is also experiencing “fear” because he’s uncertain whether any former remnants of his glorious self will survive in hell. In many ways, Lucifer has been reduced to the same status of the humans that he despises. Lucifer implores to the heavens “Could my entreaty move thy will,/ For reinstatement ‘ round Thy Throne,/ Gladly would I flee to thee,/ Where dwell the glories of thy own.” (Henderson pg 9). Even though Lucifer desires his former place in the heavens around “Thy [God’s] Throne,” he says “could my entreaty move thy will” depicting uncertainty on his own faith and God’s ability to forgive. The condemned souls knew their fate and still chose to believe in God, hence they received salvation. However Lucifer hypothesized that God would never forgive him without even trying. He eventually concludes that “For every tear that I have shed,/ For every plea struck from my tongue,/ Summon! Thy most destructive powers,/ Let souls from Earth this hour be flung.” Lucifer’s pride makes him ashamed that he even pleaded with God thus, he calls upon his “most destructive powers” or the former angels that turned into demons. He commands them to “flung” the souls from Earth into the inferno. For every “tear” and “plea” that God made him cry because he didn’t respect humans, he wants a human soul thrown into the inferno so that it can also suffer under his mandate. He claims that the “law of Lucifer” (Henderson, pg 15) states that “Well might’st thy try to remove God’s throne,/ As try to touch this heart of stone!” (Henderson,  pg 15). He dares that someone might as well attempt to dethrone God than appeal to his heart. He claims that he is just as immovable as God once against making the fault of equalizing himself with God and sealing his fateful doom.

Lucifer bending towards God in the Soliloquy of Satan


Lucifer torturing the souls

Both the epic “Dante’s inferno” and the play “The Harrowing of Hell” emphasize the importance of having faith in Christ as the ultimate path to salvation. However, the epic and the play depict Lucifer differently to fit their themes. The epic portrays Lucifer as a submissive creature to show that God is the true divine force that controls all of the domains including the inferno. However, the play shows Lucifer as this developed and internally broken antagonist to exaggerate the effect of the suspenseful confrontation between Christ and Lucifer. This conforms to the traditional portrayal of Christ as this hero like figure that prevails over the eternally vengeful Lucifer who holds much of mankind in his captivity.



Allen, Thomas Powers. A Critical Edition of the English Gospel of Nicodemus. 1968.

Alighieri, Dante, et al. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Oxford University Press, 2013.

“1. The Barkers’ Play: The Fall of the Angels.” York Pageant 1: The Barkers’ Play, groups.chass.utoronto.ca/plspls/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/York01.html.

Halliwell-Phillipps, J. O. The Harrowing of Hell, a Miracle-Play Written in the Reign of Edward the Second, Now First Published from the Original Manuscript in the British Museum, with an Introduction, Translation, and Notes, by James Orchard Halliwell .. John Russell Smith, 1840.

HENDERSON, ELLIOTT BLAINE. SOLILOQUY OF SATAN: and Other Poems (Classic Reprint). FORGOTTEN Books, 2015.

Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments: King James Version. American Bible Society, 2010.

Romanelli, Christina. “‘Dear life redeems you’: The Winter’s Tale and the Harrowing of Hell.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 81, no. 1, 2016, p. 8+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A450903880/AONE?u=cuny_hunter&sid=AONE&xid=f3389777.

Vol. 112, No. 1, January 2013 of The Journal of English …www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jenglgermphil.112.1.issue-1.


Depictions of Beatrice’s Arrival

Gustave Doré and William Blake both depict Beatrice’s arrival in Dante’s Purgatory, in vastly different ways. The scenes in cantos 29-30 are a turning point in the Commedia, with Dante finally reunited with his love, Beatrice. While Blake shows the scene drenched in colour and full of life, Doré depiction is more austere and classically.

Gustave Doré created the artwork Ascension of the procession in 1868. The engraving depicted Beatrice flying through the air lounged upon the arms of a group of angels. Dante’s Commedia had popular appeal in Doré’s homeland of France in the 1860s, with a number of translations of the poem into French being created (Audeh, World of Dante). Doré financed the project of illustrating Inferno himself as no publisher would accept the project, however it was such a success that a publisher commissioned his illustration of Purgatory and Paradise (Audeh, World of Dante). In 1824, William Blake was commissioned by his friend and fellow artist John Linnell to create a series of artworks based on the Divine Comedy (Audeh, World of Dante. One of these works Beatrice Addressing Dante From the Car, depicts Beatrice arrival in canto 29 of Purgatory. Blake chose the medium of ink and watercolour on paper for his work (Tate Museum, “William Blake’s Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy”). Blake’s work depicts Beatrice and her procession standing in front of Dante in the Earthly Paradise.

Beatrice had long been a focus of Dante’s before writing the Commedia. Dante had already written his collection of poems, the Vita Nuova, of while Beatrice was the subject. She died when she was aged 25 years old, making it natural for the poet to also chose her as a feature of the afterlife in the Commedia. She is the character which puts into motion the entire poem. Kirkpatrick (1990) writes that “moves” the whole Commedia, just as how she moves Virgil to Dante’s assistance in Inferno, and on this view, not to understand Beatrice is not to understand the Commedia at all’ (p102).

“He fell so low that all means for his salvation had already fallen short, except to show him the lost people.” Beatrice, canto 30, lines 136-138

Beatrice’s arrival is recounted in canto 29 of Purgatory, although she does not interact with Dante until canto 30. She explains that she sent him on this adventure to set him on the “true path”. She explains that after her death he went astray. Knowing that Dante has turned astray from the path of truth since her death at 25 years old, she has sent him on his journey to find the right path again.

We have no way of confirming how accurate artists’ depictions of Dante’s muse are. Charles Williams, quoted in Henderson (p197, 2010), states about her “each image is but a trace.. we have only hints and fragments of her story”. Due to this uncertainty about who she really was, there is no way to confirm what she physically looked like. Henderson (2010) argues that the only common feature she has throughout depiction is her femininity. The same author also argues that all images of her are merely copies, reproductions, or new interpretations of her physical appearance, readjusted to fit the aesthetic preferences of that time. Henderson argues that the image of Beatrice changes over time, just as does our interpretation of the Commedia, and quotes Osip Mandelstam – “It is unthinkable to read the cantos of Dante without aiming them in the direction of the present day” (p203).

Doré’s artwork shows Beatrice being lifted by a group of angels. They are draped in delicate white robes. Beatrice has a crown resting on her head and has her eyes downturned. The most obvious way to tell that they are flying is by their wings. The shade and lines on the dresses of the women also show the way they are being blown and give away the direction they are flying – towards the right of the frame.  Again, we can see the direction and movement through the petals being dropped by the angels.

Despite her heavenly company, there is no mistaking that Beatrice is the most important figure in the work through the way it is arranged She is directly in the centre of the image and most of the angels have their gaze directed towards her. Following the lines created by the wings of the angels, they all lead to Beatrice. Similarly, the angel in the bottom right has her arm outreached, directly towards Beatrice.

The work is mostly symmetrical, with the exception of the angel in the lower right-hand side. There is almost the same amount of free space between the top of the angels and the top of the work, as there is from the bottom of the angels to the bottom of the work, and on either side. This, again, directs the viewers gaze towards Beatrice.

The lighting of the image appears to be emanating from Beatrice’s glance. The angel situated directly below her, as well as the angels to her left, who are away from her gaze to her right, are in shadows and darker than the rest. Additionally, the clouds below her are darker than above her, suggesting that they are traveling upwards, towards another light. Because Doré is confined to using monochrome, the artist uses darkness to show depth in the figures.


Blake’s artwork vastly contrasts against Doré’s. Blake’s work is a blast of colour and light pours into every section of the image. It shows Beatrice’s procession standing before Dante, who is shown in the bottom right corner. Beatrice is show standing upon her chariot, led by the griffin, on the left of her. On both sides of her are two figures, four in total, three with animal like faces. The figures have large blue wings which tower over the rest of the work, and are covered in eyes. Below Beatrice’s feet is a spiral shape, also covered in eyes, as well as faces. On the left are two women, and a third to the right.

The Tate Museum writes that “The rich and bright colours used here express Dante’s double delight. He is reunited with his lady-love, and at the same time is experiencing a revelation of the divine.” Every inch of the image is steeped in colour. Blake has stayed close to what Dante writes of this moment: I saw the flames move on, leaving the air behind them painted, and they seemed like brushes drawn along, so that the air overhead was marked with seven stripes, all in those colours with which the Sun makes his bow and Delia her belt” (Purgatory, Canto 29, lines 73- 78). Indeed, in the background of Blake’s work, we can see the seven colours – the rainbow- which Dante speaks of. As an artist choice, it is clear why the scene is shown so brightly. Beatrice is the reason Dante has embarked on this whole journey, and seeing his love again, he is overcome with emotions. Another choice made in the use of colour by Blake is the pairing of Beatrice and Dante, making them both have red clothing.

The faces of the beings who surround Beatrice’s chariot are not displayed are vibrantly as other figures in the work. This gives a sense that they are watching over the scene, rather than really there. This may perhaps be a decision made by the author, because they do not feature in Dante’s poem. According to the Tate Museum’s description of the work, where Blake’s image is displayed, the four figures surrounding Beatrice resemble the Four Evangelists. They describe Mark as a lion, Luke as an ox and John as an eagle, and Matthew as having Christ-like features. Dante describes them as “four animals, each crowned with green leaves” in lines 92-93, and Blake depicts these animal like features. The figures wings are covered in eyes, and this matches with Dante’s description of what is surrounding the chariot: “each was feathered with six wings; the feathers were full of eyes..” (Canto 29, lines 94-95).  Dante however, makes no mention of these figures being the Four Evangelists. Dante makes a point not to describe the being at Beatrice’s feet in canto 29, saying “to describe their shapes I scatter no more rhymes, reader, for another outlay constrains me so that I cannot be liberal with this one; but read Ezekiel, who depicts them as he saw them coming..” (Purgatory, canto 29, page 97-101) Here, we can assume Dante is referring to the ophanim, supposedly eye covered wheels which sit below God’s throne, which Ezekiel saw in a vision.

The three women dressed in green, red and white are Hope, Charity, and Faith, respectively. Dante describes them in lines 121-126 of Purgatory: “Three ladies came dancing in a circle at the right wheel, one so red that she would hardly be noticed within fire, the next was as if her flesh and bones had been fashioned of emerald; the third appeared like newly fallen snow”. Blake again stays loyal to Dante’s description. While Hope and Charity are adorned with some of the darkest colours in the artwork, and are made to have skin tones, Faith is completely white. The complete whiteness of her body and dress make her resemble a Greek marble statue. Faith is glancing up at Beatrice, and with one hand gesturing to Dante. In the other hand is a book, possibly the bible given her stance as faith.

Beatrice is surrounded by light, which glows from behind her, almost like a halo. Her clothing appears virtually translucent and you can see her body underneath it. She is wearing a crown on what appears to be her long blonde hair and is wearing a blue cape. The light emitting from her give her a look of holiness, and her crown signifies her high status. Her position high above everyone else in the image is another way of displaying her superiority.

Doré’s and Blake’s depiction of Beatrice’s arrival are vastly different than each other. Doré does not have many of the features that both Dante and Blake have. The most prominent difference is their depiction of the angels. Whereas Blake’s angels have they eyes on their wings as Dante describes, Doré’s do not. Blake’s angels additionally are shown with animalistic traits, making them seem much more like mystical creatures, than something readers can recognize. The difference in Doré’s depiction makes the image much less startling to the modern viewer, who would be more familiar with Doré’s image of angels. Blake’s artwork, in general, is a much more surreal interpretation than Doré’s, who shows his figures as much more recognizable. Blake’s depiction has less figures than Doré’s, however the figures fill the space much more. The number of colours make Doré’s image appear much more full and busy. Blake’s work is also very much a contrast to Doré’s monochrome work, with the colours in Blake’s are various and vibrant.

Another difference is Blake’s work takes place later then Doré’s – the procession, and Beatrice, has already landed in front of Dante. This changes the focus from being on Beatrice, to on Dante’s reception of her. Neither show the “twenty-four elders, two by two, were coming, crowned with lilies” (Purgatory, canto 29, lines 82-84), or the seven men at the end of the procession. Additionally, Blake does not show the four women dressed in purple. However, even with less figures, Blake’s work is more identifiable as the scene in cantos 29 and 30 than Doré’s, because of all the recognizable figures.



“Beatrice Addressing Dante From The Car.” Tate Museum. Last Updated March 2011. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/blake-beatrice-addressing-dante-from-the-car-n03369

“William Blake’s Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy”. Tate Museum. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/william-blake-39/blake-illustrations-dante

Audeh, Aida. World of Dante. University of Viginia. http://www.worldofdante.org/gallery_dore.html

Henderson, G., 2010. The Many Faces of Bea. The Kenyon Review, 32(3), pp.197–210.

Kirkpatrick, Robin. “Dante’s Beatrice and the Politics of Singularity.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 32, no. 1, 1990, pp. 101–119. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40754921.

Dante et le Donne: A Comparison of the Treatment of Women between Dante Alighieri and Christine de Pizan

Dante et le Donne: A Comparison of the Treatment of Women between Dante Alighieri and Christine de Pizan

            The representation of women by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy can be said to be lacking substance. Dante has no trouble creating interesting and complex men throughout the three canticles, such as his nuanced portrayal of Ulysses or the ambiguity of which he has Ugolino tell his story. While the episode with Francesca da Rimini in Canto V of The Inferno has been the inspiration for artists and writers since it’s appearance in The Divine Comedy, there are few fully fleshed out women in the work afforded the opportunity to speak for themselves. Thomas Goddard Bergin claims that “the range of female characters in the Comedy is limited because the range of a woman’s activities in Dante’s time was limited” (Bergin 85). While Bergin is not incorrect about the limitations put upon women during Dante’s time, I disagree when he says that “we should give thanks rather for the few [fleshed out female characters] we do have” for which he lists five and then proceeds to posit that these five are “as varied a group as a medieval poet could have given us”. He finishes the chapter by claiming that Dante could include more fleshed out female characters if he wrote today [Bergin was writing in the late 1960s] but then ended on the rhetorical question “can a woman’s world produce a Divine Comedy?” (Bergin 86). I obviously take umbrage with this idea and how easily Bergin “lets Dante off the hook” for his lack of female representation in The Divine Comedy. Dante mentions a fair number of women, but he does not take the time he could have to write them as fully realized human beings in the same way he does with the men. Bergin’s excuse that women in Dante’s time did not lead lives that would not translate well into fictional representations does not hold water. Using The Book of the City of Ladies by Italian writer Christine de Pizan, I will give three examples of where Dante Alighieri had the opportunity to create fully realized female characters but chose to overlook them. I will also observe the similarities and differences between the way that the two authors write about these same women.

Christine de Pizan was born in Venice in 1365, exactly 100 years after the birth of Dante Alighieri, meaning that the two were obviously not contemporaries. They are connected through the poet Boccaccio who wrote De Mulieribus Claris which Pizan directly references throughout The Book of the City of Ladies. Christine de Pizan grew up in the French court of Charles V where her father was an astrologer. She was afforded access to an extraordinary education and became one of the first professional female writers in the western hemisphere after the deaths of her father and husband. We know for certain that Christin de Pizan knew about Dante and had read at least part of The Divine Comedy because she directly refers to Dante’s first meeting with Virgil in her poem Chemin de long estude (The Book of the City of Ladies xliii). The Book of the City of Ladies is her defense of women in reaction to the multitude of manuscripts that go out of their way to vilify all women. Pizan gives examples of many virtuous women within the book and also finds ways to acquit some of the most infamous women found in history and mythology history. Many of these women are also mentioned by Dante without that same depth afforded to them. While neither Pizan nor Dante creates a situation where these women are allowed to speak for themselves, the ways in which they write about their stories, or don’t write, about their stories are vastly different.

The first woman I would like to look at is Arachne, a weaver who according to myth challenged Minerva to a weaving contest and was turned into a spider for her hubris. Dante puts her at fault when he writes:

oh mad Arachne, so I saw you, already half a

spider, sitting wretched on the shreds of the work

you made to your own ruin! (Purgatorio 12.43-45)

Dante does not see any reason not to question Minerva’s punishment of Arachne nor does he afford her the opportunity to speak about the unjustness of her fate. Dante does allow other characters from mythology to speak, such as Ulysses, so the problem isn’t that her story involved a pagan religion. On the other hand, Christine de Pizan calls Arachne’s story a fable but also claims that she “was the first to invent the art of dyeing woolens in various colors and of weaving art works into cloth, like a painter, according to the ‘fine thread’ technique of weaving tapestry” (Pizan 81). Pizan then goes on to defend Arachne against authors such as Bocaccio who claimed that the world would have been better off without a knowledge of weaving by saying that Jesus Christ’s use of robes proved that weaving was a good and lawful occupation. Although I don’t know if the debate about the merits of weaving existed during Dante’s time, I still think that the comparison between the brief mention of Arachne where he blames her for her fate verses the praise and validation that Pizan grants her speaks volumes about the difference in their relationships with women.

The absence of Dido in The Divine Comedy is fairly conspicuous considering how large a role she plays in The Aeneid.  How interesting would it have been to have Virgil come face to face with Dido, whose story he immortalized? Instead, Dido is relegated to a passing mention in Canto V of The Inferno where she is oddly placed in the circle of Lust even though she committed suicide. Bergin also raises this question, since the general logic in The Divine Comedy is that people are put in the circle that corresponds with their worst sins. Bergin asserts that

Dante saw the three Oriental queens [Dido, Cleopatra, and Semiramis] as lustful creatures first and foremost because it in was the love relationship, and that alone, that he thought of women. … we find the souls of women only in the circles of lust, flattery, and soothsaying. (Bergin 70-71)

On this point I don’t disagree with Bergin. I think that he is right to say that Dante only sees women in their context with men and the ways that they can manipulate them. It seems almost irrational that Dante would put Dido in the circle of lust instead of the forest of suicides since doing so could create a dramatic situation like no other. In comparison, Christine de Pizan speaks for a considerable amount of time about how wise and clever Dido was, giving the readers a few examples including her trick of acquiring the land for Carthage by cutting a cow hide into a very thin strip. Christine de Pizan claims that “because of her prudent government, they changed her name and called her Dido, which is the equivalent of saying virago in Latin, which means ‘the woman who has the strength and force of a man’ (Pizan 95). It is only later that Christine de Pizan mentions Dido’s time with Aeneas and subsequent suicide. She does not reduce this strong and wise Queen to a lovesick woman who was driven only by her carnal desire. How powerful could it have been to have another tree alongside Pier della Vigne to show the fate of those who commit violence against themselves?

The oddest mention of a woman I am going to discuss today is the way that talks about, or rather doesn’t talk about, Medea. Her name is mentioned once in the eighteenth canto of The Inferno when it is said that Jason is being punished in part for his crimes against her. Medea is mostly known for killing the children that she had with Jason, but she is not found in the deepest circles of hell alongside those who murder family members. I haven’t been able to discern why she would be absent from that group of people. It is possible that the version of her story that Dante knew did not include her murder of her children since not all of them did. I wish I had more time to investigate this glaring omission since it raises so many questions. Christine de Pizan also handles Medea in an interesting way. She praises Medea for her wisdom and knowledge of herbs and medicine, along with mentioning the assistance she renders Jason during his quest for the Golden Fleece but also omits the small fact that she killed her children. Like with Dante, it is possible that the version of Medea’s story that Christine de Pizan knew did not include that detail. With Christine however, I am more inclined to believe that this is a lie of omission rather than a difference in story version. There are a few points within The Book of the City of Ladies where Christine will not mention the more unsavory details of the lives of the women that she is defending. Regardless, thinking over this question has made me curious about the other ways Medea has been represented in literature throughout human history.

After comparing the ways Dante Alighieri and Christine de Pizan discuss the same women in their works, I find myself almost mourning The Divine Comedy we could have had. In omitting women as much as he did, Dante did himself and his life work a disservice. Including women in the full compacity of which he included men would have made The Divine Comedy an even better work. I wish that I had a strong point to make as a solid conclusion to this paper, but it was almost impossible for me to find something to argue. Instead, I decided to question how Dante addressed women compared with another medieval writer I was interested in. I think that there is more work to be done in this area that was just outside of the scope of my paper and hope that I may end up being the one to continue the investigation.




Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Edited by Robert M. Durling et al., Oxford University, 1996.

Bergin, Thomas Goddard. A Diversity of Dante. Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Pizan, Christine de. The Book of City of Ladies. Edited by Earl Jeffrey Richards and Marina Warner, Persea Books, 1982.



Contrapasso in Dante’s Inferno, and Several of its Interpretations

The Inferno of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy depicts pairings of sin and punishment according to Dante’s perception of God’s divine plan. Sinners in the Inferno are punished by their severity of their sin, with punishments which are poetically contrasted against the sin itself. Specific sins are paired with specific punishments. The more grievous the sin, the more intense the punishment, and the further down in the circles of hell. In the cosmology of Dante, the sinners who strayed further from God’s light find themselves literally further from God’s light the deeper they are in hell, in it of itself a poetic example of contrapasso. One of the most evident figures but simultaneously the most silent in Inferno is also one of the best examples of the idea of contrapasso: Lucifer, or Satan. The king of hell, Lucifer wallows in the lowest circle of hell, farthest from God’s light, punished forever as a castaway of God’s divine plan. Dante illustrates the contrapasso of Lucifer as a poetic doom to Lucifer’s betrayal of God. His interpretation of Lucifer’s punishment has been complimented by many artists, whose interpretations of the Inferno illustrate different ideas and concepts of Lucifer’s punishment. Two very good examples are Henry John Stock’s Dante and Virgil Encounter Lucifer in Hell 1923 Giclee Print, and more recently, Michael Mazur’s The Inferno of Dante: Canto XXXIV (The Guidecca—Lucifer) 1996-2000 etching. Both pieces touch upon aspects of Lucifer’s contrapasso, and represent the king of hell in very different ways. Ultimately, as pieces based on the same source material, both works represent the same idea behind Lucifer’s contrapasso, but their differences highlight important aspects of his punishment.

Through cruel and melancholy examples in Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante expresses the construction of God’s divine plan, and the idea that the punishment must fit the crime through contrapasso. Dante takes many creative and poetic liberties to express the punishments in hell as mechanisms in God’s will. In Justin Steinberg’s essay “Dante’s Justice? A Reappraisal of the Contrapasso,” Steinberg illustrates many examples of contrapasso throughout inferno. He describes how the manner in which the damned are punished for their sins is a symbolic relationship which depicts the one central rule and theme of Inferno. While Steinberg’s essay makes a case against the use of the term “contrapasso” to simply summate Dante’s justice, his paper nonetheless illustrates effectively the theme of contrapasso, and the many examples of it throughout Inferno. The idea of contrapasso is a main focal point of the Inferno, and Steinberg’s examples reinforce this idea.

As Steinberg puts it, “the damned are tormented by manifestations of their own externalized psychological states.” (Steinberg pg. 59) And goes on to cite the example of Francesca and Paolo. Sinners of the second circle of hell, Lust, Francesca and Paolo are described by Dante in Canto 5 to be caught in “the infernal whirlwind, which never rests, driv[ing] spirits before its violence; turning and striking, it tortures them.” (Dante 5.31-33, pg. 89) On earth the two were blown about by their own desires for each other, and subsequently in hell are doomed to be blown about physically, a state of turmoil which matched their own psychological states on Earth. Other examples throughout Inferno similarly illustrate this concept. The clarification here is important, as the idea of matching psychological decision-making processes (will) and the state of the body in hell is an important idea to compare in the punishment of Lucifer.

Before analyzing the contrapasso of Lucifer, another important example needs to be made. In addition to the contrapasso described by Steinberg as a manifestation of internal psychological states portrayed through the circles of hell, the actual alignment with sin as a component of contrapasso needs to be considered. Steinberg’s description of contrapasso as a manifestation of psychological states is an accurate analysis of the punishments in Inferno, but the additional consideration of the sin itself as an act against God must also be taken into account. A perfect example is found later in the Inferno, Canto 13. In the seventh circle, second ring, those who were violent against themselves rot eternally in the poisoned wood, where their souls inhabit the trees in which harpies make their nests. The most prominent figure in Canto 13 is Pier della Vigna, a chancellor to Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. Pier took his own life because of political accusations and his own imprisonment. His punishment in Inferno is as Steinberg describes it, a reflection of his own psychological state on Earth. After committing suicide, his spirit is doomed to inhabit a tree, a lower form of life even considered below animals. But more importantly, Pier illustrates the relationship between sin and God through his punishment. His contrapasso is an example of a soul who took a gift from god and rejected its quality, and for this act against God, he is punished poetically in Inferno.

These two concepts of contrapasso are important to consider in the final Canto of Inferno, and the actual contrapasso of Lucifer. Lucifer’s punishment reflects both an inner psychological state manifested physically in hell as well as an act against God which is punished in a manner which compliments the sin. Canto 34 introduces Lucifer, the fallen angel who rose against God’s will because of his own hubris. Throughout the Canto Dante refers to Lucifer’s fallen nature. He persistently describes him as having once been an actor of God, close to God’s light and love: “the creature who had once been beautiful,” (Dante 34.17-18 pg. 535) but contrasts this description against the haunting state of Lucifer in hell: “If he was as beautiful then as now he is ugly when he lifted his brow against his Maker.” (Dante 34.34-35 pg 536) These descriptions describe the fateful tale of Lucifer, important in understanding his contrapasso in Inferno.

Lucifer literally translates from Latin to “the morning star” or the planet Venus. Lucifer was the light bringer, the star of morning, and God’s heavenly servant. Lucifer’s story is described in the Book of Revelations:

Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it. (Revelations 12:7-9)

Satan, a blessed servant of God, turned his back on God’s light in his heavenly rebellion. Attempting to usurp power from God, Satan rallied other servants of God to his cause, sowing discord and ultimately dooming himself and his fallen angels to eternal punishment in Hell.

The story of Lucifer directly corresponds with the first aspect of contrapasso, as his sin was a direct act against God. We can see this demonstrated through his suffering in Inferno. Dante describes him as enormous, and submerged in the frozen ice of Cocytus. His form is mutilated, with three heads, four bat’s wings, and a covering of fur. Dante describes him “with six eyes he was weeping, and down three chins dripped the tears and the bloody slobber.” (Dante 34.52-54 pg. 537) His fate is directly linked to his actions, which we can see through his physical changes. His disfigurations poetically contrast his acts against god. Similar to the sowers of discord in Canto 28 within the 8th circle, 9th boglia, Satan is split. Unlike the sowers of discord, his body is not divided into pieces or separated, but rather divided within himself. Three heads sit upon his submerged body, a literal division of the self. Just as Satan divided the heavens in his rebellion, now too his physical state is split. Through his rebellion, Satan split the heavens in three. Those who fought with Satan, those who fought with God, and those who abstained, namely the inhabitants of the Anti-Inferno in Canto 3 of Inferno. Accordingly, Satan’s form is divided into three, represented by each head and each sinner. The mouths of Lucifer are covered in the blood of Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, all notable betrayers. Subsequently, Lucifer is unable to speak and also forced to chew in silence for all of eternity. This is where the contrapasso becomes more evident, as Lucifer’s voice and his call to abandon God for his cause is what placed him in the depths of hell. Now, frozen in ice, the lord of hell can’t take a respite from his task. He’s doomed to sit for all eternity without any possibility of speaking, or even utilizing the enormous and powerful form he possesses in hell. He’s consigned as a mere mechanism of the Inferno, a lower form of life not unlike Cerberus in Canto 6. This is further illustrated by his form, that of a three headed beast with fur like an animal, and four black bats wings, as Dante hauntingly that their “mode was like a bat’s; and he was fanning them, so that three winds went out from him: by them Cocytus was frozen.” (Dante 34.49-52 pg. 537)

Lucifer’s representation is also a perfect example of Steinberg’s description of contrapasso, as an embodiment of a personal psychological state manifested physically. Lucifer’s betrayal took extreme will. He needed to deliberately turn from God’s light and attempt to seize the heavens for himself, the highest form of aggression against God. In heaven, Satan was so focused on his own beauty and perfection that he moved to take power against his Maker. In hell, Satan is deformed. His power remains in his enormous and powerful form, but he’s unable to use it or even demonstrate it. Because he acted against God to such a degree, he’s now condemned to eternally serve as a mechanism in God’s divine plan. He freezes over Cocytus with his wings and chews sinners, all while eternally sitting in the darkness as the farthest being from God’s light.


In Henry John Stock’s 1923 Giclee Print Dante and Virgil Encounter Lucifer in Hell, Stock takes much of Dante’s descriptions and makes his own interpretations of Lucifer in hell to best illustrate the contrapasso evident in his punishment. An English painter in the late 19th and early 18th century, Stock had a very distinct style in his paintings. His works have very evident brushstrokes, similar to the impressionist style of the 19th century. His pieces often have very clear color choices, sometimes juxtaposed in a colorful assortment which makes his subjects stand out, and convey emotions. His style is apparent in Dante and Virgil Encounter Lucifer in Hell, where his impressionist strokes meet vibrant color choices. The composition of the work is straightforward. In the foreground stand Dante, characterized by his red nightgown and cap, and Virgil in his flowing robe and laurel wreath. Both figures stand juxtaposed against the harsh black ice of Cocytus, penetrated only by the subtle reflections of Lucifer’s figure. Lucifer himself broods in the background, the central figure of the piece. Depicted similarly to Dante’s descriptions in Inferno, he stands submerged in the ice, four wings outstretched behind his dark figure, shrouded in black and dark but vibrant blues. Unlike Dante, Stock chose to depict the lord of hell as a more human figure. A single head chews upon two sinners, one in each arm. He takes turns chewing each, and it’s clear that the focus here isn’t so much on the sinners he chews, but on Lucifer himself. The sinner in his mouth flails his legs behind him as Lucifer chews, a figure we can assume to be Judas from Dante’s descriptions of his position in Inferno: “”That soul up there who has the greatest punishment,” said my master, “is Judas Iscariot, with his head inside, waving his legs outside.” (Dante 34.61-63 pg. 537) An additional contrast to Inferno is Stock’s depiction of Lucifer without fur, and a dark, but human complexion. He freezes in the ice, and his expression in the work expresses an angry, brooding mood from his furrowed brows and clenched arms. He props an elbow against Cocytus, and presses Judas into his mouth just as a thinker would, contemplating or pondering, all while his muscles tense around the bloodied sinners in his grasp.

Stock’s interpretation of Dante’s punishment of Lucifer illustrates some of the important ideas which go behind his punishment. Stock’s representation of Lucifer as a humanlike figure in his composition grounds him in the flaws of humanity. Through this depiction of Lucifer, he achieves a representation of his manifested external psychological state, and better illustrates Steinberg’s description of contrapasso. Lucifer is doomed to his fate in Inferno, and Stock’s piece beautifully captures the suffering Lucifer is forced to endure. Because of his actions against God, he’s forced to sit forever silent, angry, and brooding in the 9th circle of hell. Stock’s piece conveys the suffering of Lucifer better than Dante accomplished in Inferno, because rather than fixating on the sinners in the mouths of Lucifer, Stock personifies Lucifer in order to bring his suffering into center frame. Unlike Dante’s 34th Canto, where Dante highlights Lucifer’s role as a mechanism in hell as well as the path through which he must tread to get to Purgatorio, Stock highlights that Satan himself is being punished, and not just a punisher.

It’s easy to think of Lucifer as a demon, a regulator of hell. Like the demons Dante encounters in Canto 21, the fifth bolgia of the eighth circle, Lucifer can at first be mistaken for an authoritarian figure. Especially considering his role as the single perpetrator of evil in medieval thought. Dante and Stock both agree that his role in hell is much more minimal. Their depictions of the lord of hell illustrate him as no lord at all, in fact both describe quite the opposite. Through these interpretations, the power of God is juxtaposed against the inability of Satan to act, the ultimate showing of God’s light against the darkness of Lucifer. Even as a mechanism of hell, Lucifer acts under God’s will, and is punished through God’s divine plan. In both Stock’s and Dante’s descriptions of Lucifer, he is punished just like any other sinner in Inferno, through contrapasso.

Michael Mazur’s 1996-2000 etching The Inferno of Dante: Canto XXXIV (The Giudecca—Lucifer) is a very different interpretation of Dante’s Lucifer from Stock’s. Where Stock humanizes, Mazur dehumanizes. Lucifer through Mazur’s eyes is beyond the disfigured form Dante describes in Inferno. While Stock humanized Lucifer to illustrate his contrapasso as a punishment of his act against god, Mazur does the opposite to achieve a different end: the depiction of Satan’s internal psychological state exerting itself materially upon him in the form of his contrapasso.

Mazur’s piece is very different from Stock’s not only in his interpretation of Lucifer but his compositional choices. As an artist from a very different era, this isn’t surprising. Mazur’s work is utterly monochromatic, dark black against a background of gray. The figure of Lucifer is illustrated in center frame, but his body isn’t visible. He’s a monster, barely recognizable as human. His head stands in stark contrast to the gray background, totally dark. Three faces protrude from his single head, a subtle change from Inferno. All three faces chew Judas, Brutus, and Cassius just as Dante describes, with Judas “his head inside waving his legs outside,” (Dante 34.62-63 pg. 537) and Brutus and Cassius “whose heads are below.” (Dante 34.64 pg. 537) Mazur’s composition is confusing, as Lucifer’s head protrudes between his wings which look feathered, unlike Dante’s description of bat-like wings. Lucifer appears to be in the foreground of the piece, but despite this we can see vague figures in the bottom of the composition which look to be heads emerging from Cocytus.

Lucifer’s expressions in this piece are the most important facet of Mazur’s interpretation of Dante’s contrapasso. What we can see of Lucifer’s eyes suggest that they are closed like a shark’s as it bites. His white teeth are harshly juxtaposed against the darkness of his face, hinting at the contortion his facial muscles express as they desperately clasp onto the bodies of the three sinners. Contributing to the disfiguration of Lucifer are his hands, only vague shadows which grip onto each sinner. He doesn’t have two hands, but rather six, two per sinner. The hands are barely illuminated, but what can be seen is thin and eerily sharp and straight. Not humane by any means.

The abomination which is Lucifer in this piece illustrate Lucifer’s fall from grace. Once a beautiful and capable servant of God, Lucifer is now contained within the animalistic form Mazur so fantastically illustrates. Desperate to shove each sinner into his mouths, Mazur’s portrayal of the lord of hell reduces Lucifer to an animalistic state, fiercely punishing the sinners he chews as the mechanism of hell he’s been reduced to. This representation embodies the psychological state of Lucifer when he turned against God. As Lucifer’s intentions were twisted against the light of God, so too was is his form in Mazur’s piece. Lucifer is reduced to a personification of the evil which he became in his rebellion against God. This interpretation of Dante’s contrapasso in Canto 34 illustrates the psychological state of Lucifer as he sinned manifesting itself physically in his punishment, a poetic contrapasso in corroboration with Steinberg’s description of contrapasso.

These interpretations of Dante’s contrapasso in the example of Lucifer illustrate two different perspectives on Lucifer’s punishment. Both artistic perspectives depict the state of Lucifer, far from God’s light in the depths of hell. But the stylistic and compositional choices of these two artists illustrate both the physical manifestation of Lucifer’s internal psychological state through his contrapasso, and his actual act against the will of God. These two aspects are differently focused on by Mazur and Stock. As Dante describes in Inferno, the contrapasso of Lucifer is a poetic reflection of his acts against God, and this idea is differently but accurately reflected in these pieces.




Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Inferno. Edited and translated by

Robert M. Durling, intr., notes. Ronald L. Martinez Vol. 1, Oxford, 1996.

Book of Revelations. Holy Bible, New International Version (NIV) 2011 update. Original

translation led by Howard Long.

Durling, Robert, and Ronald Martinez. Notes. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Volume 1

Inferno. By Dante Alighieri. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 1997. Print.

Steinberg, Justin, and Justin Steinberg. “Dante’s Justice? A Reappraisal of the

Contrapasso.” Academia.com, Academia, 2014, www.academia.edu/10659378/Dantes_Justice_A_reappraisal_of_the_contrapasso.


The Divine Comedy and the Journey of Knowledge

The Divine Comedy and the Journey of Knowledge

As a first time reader of the Divine Comedy, comprehending and analyzing this work of epic poetry is certainly difficult. It is a monumental task that one needs to undergo to discover the complex and intricate systems of philosophy and Christian theology, and as well as to explore the massive Greco-Roman tradition of poetry from that of Homer, Horace, Virgil, Lucan, and Ovid.

The Divine Comedy is a narrative pilgrimage detailing Dante’s journey from Hell, Purgatory, to Paradise, and it does not only rely on the sophisticated imagery, metaphor, and allegory that Dante elaborated on. But rather, it has a pedagogical purpose of educating the reader through the medium of poetry. The poetic journey in Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso engenders the formation of Dante’s concept of knowledge. The pilgrimage of the Divine Comedy reflects that knowledge is a process, which entails the journey self-development to understand and rationalize the world across various discipline and to achieve the salvation of total knowledge as an end goal.

It is through the journey of knowledge, one can learn to act just and without errors, because in the Inferno: it is the human intellect that has an intended will to commit the most unjust act towards other. Virgil, who serves as a moral guide to Dante the Pilgrim, is also the one who guides the pilgrim through the journey from ignorance to knowledge. When Virgil and Dante enter the gates of hell, there are inscriptions on the gates signifying the never-ending realm of ignorance and suffering that they are about to enter (Inf. III. 2-3). This causes Virgil to characterizes the sinners as those “who have lost the good of the intellect” (Inf. III. 18). Without the proper guiding of knowledge, truth is nowhere to be found. As Dante in the Convivio says: “truth is the good of the intellect” (Convivio. II. 13). The sinners themselves are stuck in the profound misery of their confusions, and they are frustrated because as a result of their intellectual turmoil, resulting in the distorted expression of illiteracy. So they begin to cry with corrupted “strange languages, horrible tongues, words of pain, accents of anger” (Inf. III. 25-6).

The journey of knowledge is later exemplified in Ulysses’ oral portrayal of his voyage to Dante, educating him that “you [people] were not made to live like brute” (Inf. XXVI. 119-20) and showing him that human intellect has an innate agency to search for the path of “virtue and knowledge” (Inf. XXVI. 120). With relation to Ulysses’ voyage and the journey of knowledge, the ship symbolizes the agency of intellect. The intellect then goes through the difficulties of processing and comprehending knowledge that has never experienced for the purpose of understanding the truth; it is like that of a ship that sails through tumultuous waves and disorientated seas with the determination of reaching its proper destination, in which Ulysses mentions about the difficulties of his voyage:

“Five times renewed, and as many diminished, had

been the light beneath the moon, since we had

entered the deep pass,” (Inf. XXVI. 130-2)

Like the voyage of Ulysses, the journey of knowledge requires a great deal of active diverse experience and enduring hardship to come to a final purpose or truth. Our innate drive for knowledge allows us to withstand difficulties in the process of learning. In the Divine Comedy, humans have a passion for acquiring experiences, it is a “natural thirst that is never sated” (Purg. XXI. 1). Throughout the time when Dante makes his pilgrimage from Hell to Paradise, he acquires a tremendous amount of lived experiences from both wise and damned characters who shared accounts of their present and past experiences. It is these lived experiences that he learns that benefits him to engage in his journey (of learning) with a diverse perspective. When Ulysses says to Dante: “Of our senses that remains, do not deny the experience, following the sun, of the world [with people and] without people.” (Inf. XXVI. 116-17). The lesson derives from Ulysses’ speech teaches Dante about the receptive and humble attitude that one needs to carry to accept and open to diverse perspectives from other characters while he is in his journey of knowledge.

And throughout the journey of knowledge, it is Virgil who keeps Dante’s intellect in a proper manner. It is reason that gives intellect the legitimacy on how one should act. This is because that Virgil is the personification of reason. He is the guide that provides Dante a normative ethical approach on how to act just. When Dante meets Virgil in the dark forest right after the confrontation of three angry beasts, there is a sense of triumphant hope found in here. In Dante’s epistle to his patron Cangrande I della Scala, he wrote that the “[Divine Comedy] in the beginning, it is horrible and smelly because ‘Inferno’; in the end it is good, desirable and graceful, for it is ‘Paradiso’ (Epistle to Cangrande. X). Although the Divine Comedy opens with the introductory setting of the dark forest and Dante’s descension to Hell, it is Virgil who acts as a catalyst to guide Dante in the pilgrimage, helping him in his learning experience from Hell, Purgatory, to Paradise. Virgil is not just a celebrated Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid and Eclogues, but Dante describes Virgil that he is a “just son of Anchises” (Inf. I. 73) and Goddess of Venus with a highest noblest degree of ethical virtue (Martinez 37). Dante makes Virgil an embodiment of the diverse education that he learned from the philosophical and poetic works in classical antiquity. Dante then goes on praising his paganistic guide Virgil as his master and author, (Inf. 1. 85-7), and a “master of those who know” (Inf. IV. 131). Thus signifying the emphasis that one needs a proper guide or teacher for one to learn. A teacher like Virgil that “knows” and can guide the pupil on the right path to truth and knowledge. And as Dante said in Il Convivio: he is to be the “most worthy of faith and obedience may be proved as follows” (Convivio. IV. 6). The maestro in Dante’s perspective safeguards the learner from any digression into the habits of errors in a moral sense.

In the Divine Comedy, Virgil is characterized as a teacher that guides Dante and the reader the importance of acting in line with one’s reason. Not only that Dante describes and layout the journey of knowledge as a process, but he also encapsulates the process into a result, transforming the Divine Comedia into an encyclopedic poem (Mazzotta 15). This means that the Divine Comedy is a compendium that makes poetic references on important themes and definitions on cosmology, philosophy, theology, politics, poetry, astrology, astronomy, geometry and etc. We can see that there is an ambitious and prideful undertone to provide a totality of the universe with just language in Canto 32 of Inferno: “for it is no task to take in jest, that of describing the bottom of the universe, nor one for a tongue that calls mommy or daddy” (Inf. XXXII. 7-9). Though the environment that Dante when he says these lines is a bit ironic in its rhetorical treatment because Dante is at the innermost, dense part in the universe. Therefore this type of exordium is a serious literary attempt of Dante trying to give an encyclopedic account of the cosmology despite the perpetuation of ignorance and illiteracy in Hell. At the innermost part of the universe, he has the gravest responsibility to “remove those… from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of bliss.” (Epistle to Cangrande. XV). With respect in seeing the Divine Comedy as an encyclopedia, Dante the poet becomes a guide who has a universal responsibility of showing the readers the value of liberal education through cosmology, in which Dante makes a parallel connection between the seven liberal arts to the celestial sphere in the Paradiso:

“To the first seven correspond the seven sciences of the Trivium and the Quadrivium, namely Grammar, Dialectics, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astrology. To the eighth sphere, namely the Starry Heaven, corresponds natural science, which is called Physics, and the first science, which is called Metaphysics; to the ninth sphere corresponds Moral Science; and to the still heaven corresponds Divine Science, which is called Theology.”

(Il Convivio. II. 13)

And this very quality of containing the cosmology in the universal encyclopedia entails that the journey of knowledge becomes a transcendental one, through the celestial sphere of Paradiso, and it is one that acts upon the spiritual destination of absolute or total knowledge.

The journey of knowledge in Paradiso deserves a greater significance, and it is that of a divine purpose. Dante learns about the different facets of experience from many characters throughout his journey. It is in the climatic ending of Paradiso that celebrates the realm of the celestial sphere as a totality of knowledge. It comprises the celestial sphere as an encyclopedia, that sums up all the diverse discipline in Dante’s journey of knowledge. The universal tome then acts as a final catharsis, leading the learner or Dante to the Divine. When Dante echoes these lines in the final canto of Purgatorio,

“In its depths I saw internalized, bound with

love in one volume, what through the universe

becomes unsewn quires:

substances and accidents and their modes as

it were conflated together, in such a way that

what I describe is a simple light.” (Par. XXXIII. 85-90)

the transcendental power of the intellect is dependent upon the act of conflating all knowledge into the totality of knowledge, an absolute collection of knowledge. The absolute knowledge is an ineffable concept, yet this is a concept that we often theorize of. Perhaps it is also the volume of absolute knowledge which symbolizes the universe, and it is a compendium of all events, history, and knowledge. The volume is cyclical because it contains everything there is need to know about the Divine (Durling 677). Yet the volume is also linear and logical because it embodies the final truth within our journey of knowledge. This truth could be interpreted as telos, which it is the final destination of humans in search of the essence of the Divine. The journey of knowledge “is caused by some intellect indirectly or directly. Since therefore a virtue follows the essence of which it is a virtue, if it is an intellective essence,” (Epistle to Cangrande. 21). Therefore it is us who embarks on an objective journey of the knowledge with our intellect to discover virtue (the guidance that shows how human should act and live) and in search for a spiritual final destination.

The Divine Comedy is a book that shows Dante’s journey of knowledge from Hell, Purgatory, to Paradise. Throughout the journey, Virgil acts as Dante’s teacher that guides him to the right path of his journey, instructing Dante on how to act just. Not only that Dante enters the journey of knowledge, but it is also the reader who partakes this experience with Dante. Therefore, Dante also becomes a guide that has a pedagogical intention of teaching his reader through his didactic poetry. The didactic form of poetry in the Divine Comedy is best characterized as Dante’s ambitious vision of treating the work as an encyclopedia. Dante highlights the seven liberal arts as an anchor for the merit of a diverse education by drawing a connection to the celestial sphere. Thus, transforming the knowledge of journey to a transcendental journey. And it is that knowledge is a fundamental aspect of spiritual salvation and understanding the essence and final cause of the universe.  


Alighieri, Dante, and Robert M. Durling. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Volume 1:

Inferno: Volume 1: Inferno. Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2005.

—. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Volume 2: Purgatorio Oxford University Press,

Incorporated, 2003.

—. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Volume 3: Paradiso. Oxford University Press,

Incorporated, 2005.

—. Dante to Cangrande: English Version. Edited by James Marchand,


Lansing, Richard H. Dante’s Il Convivio = (The Banquet). New York: Garland, 1990. Print.

Garland Library of Medieval Literature ; v. 65.

Mazzotta, Giuseppe. Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge. Princeton, New Jersey:

Princeton UP, 1993. Print. Princeton Legacy Library.

The Artistic Layers of Inferno (Final Paper)

Annabella Shehata

Professor Porcelli

Italian 276

24 May 2019

The Artistic Layers of Inferno

The dark depths of Hell, over many decades, has been brought to life in a number of ways, from poetry and novels to paintings and sculptures. Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, as one of the most detailed and revered interpretations of the notion of Hell, has been part of a massive outburst of depictions that portray the harrowing horrors of the afterlife of sinners. One particular example is a painting known as The Last Judgement, created by Jan Van Eyck, generating a captivating image with endless details that range from demonic beasts to a hierarchical arrangement of saints watching the chaos beneath them unfold. On a different side of the spectrum of adaptations is a sculpture that relates to the myth of Perseus and Medusa, that is alluded to in Inferno. The statue, sculpted by Antonio Canova, is made up of Perseus the soldier who holds the head of Medusa in one hand and the sword he used to decapitate her in the other hand. Both of these works of art in comparison to Dante’s Inferno display similarities in expressing certain themes and their representations of the different aspects of Hell.

Beginning with The Last Judgement, one can observe an intricately designed piece of artwork that portrays disturbing details of sinners being led to their unavoidable fate of devastating eternal sufferings. The fearful beasts down below have animal-like appearances. Their eyes are demonic and are ablaze with wrath and destruction while their sharp teeth are bared, demonstrating a readiness to devour the inhabitants and newcomers of Hell while others are already digging into their fresh human flesh. As for the souls, themselves, the countenances of each of them vary from person to person. The different levels of fear, anguish and devastation, reflect the severity of their punishments, which, in this case, entail whether or not they are suffering a beast’s bite. However, there is one exception in which one soul appears to be grinning, despite his circumstances. This is likely a sign of madness because his eyes lack liveliness and a willingness to endure the inescapable torment. Furthermore, the arrangement of the demonic beasts and the souls are laid out in a chaotic manner purposefully to create a number of effects. Primarily, it emphasizes the fear and uncertainty of the souls as they desperately attempt to escape from the harrowing punishments inflicted upon them. It also invokes a sense of confusion in the observer because one does not know where to look first or who to direct their pity towards, if at all. The chaos gives an insight into the dramatic environment of Hell, itself, that sparks a sharp contrast to the aura of Earth. It minimizes the clarity, peace, and beauty that humans are allowed in life while drastically decreasing the personal space and allowance to rest whenever one desires to do so. All this is replaced with the terrifying unreliability of the bestial demons’ behaviors and the events that will follow. Although they are controlled by God’s will, most of them still have the freedom to carry out their evil inclinations on the pitiful souls, in any manner they wish. Consequently, although the souls know the nature of their punishments, they’re not always aware of the extent to which their punishments will be carried out. Another effect that the painting creates is an ability to portray how the punishments and destruction of human flesh replaces peace with horror, unbearable pain and melancholy for their eternal fates. Instead of beauty, there are disgusting and revolting demons that one can only fathom in their worst nightmares. The insufferable closeness of the souls and never ending punishments take the place of fresh air and the warming sunlight of Mother Nature on Earth. Although these sinners are aware that their fate is permanent, at this point it is too late to repent and impossible to ascend to purgatory and especially paradise.

An example of the unreliable and unpredictable mannerisms is reflected in Dante’s Inferno at the point when Dante, the pilgrim, and his guide, Virgil, are faced with a group of demons known as Malebranche. Dante, as the narrator, notes the cruel and ruthless nature of the demons through the use of metaphors. At one instant, he relates, “After they made him feel the teeth of a hundred prongs, they said: ‘Down here you have to dance/ covered up and, if you can, grab secretly.’ Not otherwise do cooks have servants push down with hooks the meat cooking in a broth, so that it may not float.” (Inferno 21.52-7). In this vivid description, Dante recounts the moments during which he witnessed members of the Malebranche sinking their claws into a sinner who mocks the demons by revealing his bottom from underneath a scorching body of liquid. The demons remind the sinner in a sneering tone that he can move about as he pleases, but must always remain beneath the surface of the boiling liquid. The grabbing that the demons are referring to ties into the contrapasso of the sinners’ punishments. In the living world, they held powerful positions as political or religious leaders who would greedily attempt to obtain as much material wealth as possible. This metaphorical grabbing signifies that the demons are taunting the sinner to grasp ahold of whatever is within their reach, which, in this case, is nothing but the blistering hot liquid they’re forced to swim in for all eternity. This demeaning tone only emphasizes the cruelty of the demons. According to Dante, it is as if they’re cooking meat in a broth and their pitchforks and claws allow them to push the ‘meat’ further and further down into the liquid with such force and and determination to prevent them from resurfacing. This dramatic image that compares a sinner to meat diminishes his humanity and fear in a scornful manner to emphasize barbarism of the devils. Just like the meat that is being cooked, the sinner is no longer alive and therefore does not have a say in his treatment. While surfacing to the top of the sweltering pitch may offer some temporary relief, they’ll only be faced with more pain from the sadistic demons that show no mercy whatsoever. Their enjoyment at the sight of the sinners’ flesh being tormented by bubbling heat and elongated claws are part of what makes up the inherently evil nature of God’s hellish creatures.

Upon closer observation of The Last Judgement, one will notice a striking detail that emphasizes the desperation of souls upon entering Inferno. On the muddy and earthy ground that separates the angels and saints from the damned below, there are human bodies, most of which are struggling out of holes in the Earth. Many of them are outstretching their arms to Christ as a sign of pleading them to salvage them from their disturbing and merciless fate.

This image resembles moments throughout Dante’s journey during which he encounters souls who entreat him to speak well of them in the living world in an attempt to salvage their reputations and to avoid being forgotten. However, there are other souls, who have hope of being spared of the dreadful torment and plead Dante to pray for them. Similarly to Eyck’s painting, these souls cannot hope for anything but to be saved. This serves a purpose to the hierarchical arrangements of the angels and saints surrounding the centerpiece of the top half of the painting: Christ. This hierarchical arrangement is found in Dante’s text as well, simply by the setup of Inferno, itself. As Dante descends deeper to the bottom of Hell, the more petrifying the circumstances, punishments and demonic inhabitants become just like the beasts.

When it comes to the myth of Perseus and Medusa, there are several underlying motifs that are important to note and are found in both the statue and Dante’s Inferno. The soldier, known as Perseus, proudly holds the decapitated head of the monstress feared by men, known as Medusa. In context, the story of Perseus and Medusa goes as follows: Known for her hideously wicked demeanor that transforms anyone, who stares directly into her eyes into stone, Medusa becomes Perseus’s target of justice. He manages to murder her and simultaneously avoid eye contact by focusing on her reflection in his shield and thus, producing a pitiful sight of a beheaded serpent woman. There are many notable features regarding this sculpture. Primarily, upon observing it, one will notice an aura of confidence and boldness that emits from it. His arms are stretched out in opposite directions, each hand grasping Perseus’s two sources of pride. One clutches the disembodied head of Medusa by some of the multitude of snakes that make up her hair while the other hand has a firm grip on the sword that aided in his accomplishment. The heroic reputation given to Perseus is reflected in the muscular structure of the figure. The well proportioned body that displays a lack of hesitancy in his position by stretching out both his arms and one of his legs, expresses an absence of regret or remorse. However, one should question the dangerous reputation that the aura of this statue implies of Medusa once the text of Inferno is taken into consideration. Teodolinda Barolini comments on this notion and puts it into perspective:

“In other words, if Dante fails to believe in the power that sent him on this voyage, he will be petrified, paralyzed with fear and despair. But these threats are baseless, impotent. We should not be tempted to believe Medusa. Given what Beatrice told Virgilio about Hell’s inability to harm her…we should never feel fear or suspense with respect to the ability of any creature in Hell to harm the pilgrim. But the “living textuality” of the Commedia is such that the text works to make us feel fear or suspense, even though technically we should know that these feelings are without merit,” (Barolini).

Barolini makes several important points here in reference to the threats that endanger Dante, the pilgrim, on his journey through Hell. The point she is trying to express is that Dante, through acknowledging the power of God’s will, he must understand the dangers that will hinder his path and the possibility of having to turn back on his own or perhaps, turned into stone. However, these menacing warnings aren’t necessarily anything that should be taken seriously because Beatrice reassured Virgil that if Hell cannot harm her, a soul that is already dead, then there is no possibility of Dante being harmed, either. It is not a question that should be given importance, especially because Beatrice is given the high honor of residing in Paradise while sending Virgil on his way to guide and protect Dante throughout the harrowing journey. Knowing that Dante will reach Purgatory and Paradise, regardless, this is yet another reason to remind oneself that the danger of Medusa’s visage proves to be pointless. Nevertheless, Dante’s ability to express a vividly harrowing chain of events that invokes sentiments of terror and anticipation of the worst in the reader, despite knowing that the pilgrim will make it safely to the end of his journey, is part of what makes Inferno a remarkable interpretation of Hell.

This perspective provides a stark contrast to Canova’s sculpture in which Medusa’s evil demeanor implies that her fate as a beheaded monster is well deserved. It also highlights the notion of whether or not Perseus is truly a hero or simply a soldier with the advantage of killing a woman who, through no fault of her own, transformed from a radiant young damsel to a disgusting figure of evil, only to have her chances of revenge cut short by a young man and his reflective weapons. Evidently, both the text and the sculpture kindles mixed emotions pertaining to Perseus and Medusa that express the idea that although the figures of Hell are evil and dangerous by appearance, this does not always mean that they chose to be this way nor that this is their inherent nature. Susan Bowers creates an emphasis on this point when she states, “The grotesque paradox of the Olympian Medusa is the juxtaposition of her extraordinary beauty and her horror…The Olympian Medusa has become a ‘myth of origin for amulets’ because her head ‘literally combines and contains evil mixtures and confuses the sacred and profane, law and taboo, pure and impure…contagion and cure,’ and the purpose of the amulet is to baffle, to create confusion,” (222, Bowers). The ‘paradox’ that Bowers alludes to is the sudden transformation from gorgeous damsel to horrific monstress. For this reason alone, she has become an inspiration for a piece of jewelry known as an amulet, which is created with extraordinary intentions of protecting the person who wears it. However, one cannot be sure that it does indeed protect because, Medusa, as a figure, represents two sides of a spectrum for any notion, whether pertaining to religion, law or sickness, as if she, herself, is an analogy for yin and yang.

Furthermore, the story of Perseus and Medusa contain another element that is found in both the text and the sculpture. A significant motif present in this myth is pride and is one of the main reasons that Dante purposefully chooses to include these figures in Inferno. To comprehend the reason for this one must acknowledge the background of Medusa’s behavior. As mentioned before, she had not always been a terrifyingly devious creature with serpents in her hair. In reality, she had been an attractive maiden that came across misfortune when she encountered the god, Neptune, who rapes her in the temple of Athena. To make matters much worse, Athena, upon discovering what occurred, becomes consumed by jealousy and transforms Medusa into the horrifying demoness. Consequently, the rageful vengeance that is inherent in her newfound destiny is justified and cannot be used against her. However, the flaw lies in the fact that her ability to turn men to stone is a blinding weapon that punishes men who did not cause her any harm. Although the transformation is not voluntary, the pride that Medusa is trying to secure is evident. The torturous and unforgivable torment that Medusa endures, on behalf of Neptune, takes a toll on her dignity to the extent that she can no longer see anything but cursed revenge. However it may satisfy her to a certain extent, it is a pointless endeavor because, regardless, she is forced to remain this way for eternity thanks to the cursed fate Athena bestows upon her.

This context brings to light Virgil’s situation upon his encounter at the gates of the city of Dis. The gates are protected by a group of demons that are terribly stubborn and refuse to permit the two voyagers to enter. Although Virgil’s mission to persuade them otherwise does not relate to anger or wrath, setting his mind to cleverly convincing demons as if he is an incomparable mastermind of witty words is a matter of pride. The flawed mindset portrays arrogance in Virgil because he refuses to believe or acknowledge that there is a possibility of failure. Similar to Medusa, his inability to see the long term consequences of such a mindset is what ultimately leads to an unfruitful chain of events. On the one hand Medusa consistently sets out to destroy men even if, in reality, this will not affect the true perpetrator of the crime, Neptune, himself. On the other hand, Virgil, firmly believing that the stubborn group of demons are merely an inconvenience, ends up failing to obtain permission to enter the city of Dis. This leads to a loss of self-confidence as well Dante’s trust in Virgil’s abilities.

Stories are constantly weaved into works of art and for this reason, texts are associated with them, bringing them to life. Dante’s Inferno along with The Last Judgement and the sculpture of Perseus and the head of Medusa by Canova are exceptional examples that reminisce of entire motifs throughout the poem. The hierarchy of saints and demons alongside the text allow observers to understand the layers of interpretations that were commonly utilized throughout different time periods. The complex themes of pride and obstinacy allow an insight into the multifold layers of Medusa and Perseus giving a fairer comprehension of the myth while growing a deeper appreciation for the artwork, itself. However, it doesn’t cease here because, with each generation, comes new concepts and compelling art that absorbs the audience into the abyss of Hell to endure the torment alongside their fellow sinners.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Translated by Robert M. Durling. Edited by Ronald L. Martinez, vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 9: Virgilio and Fallibility.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-9/

Susan R. Bowers. “Medusa and the Female Gaze.” NWSA Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, 1990, pp. 217–235. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4316018.


Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno and Levi Primo’s If This is a Man

Image result for ulysses defying cyclops

Ulysses Defying Cyclops, by Louis Frederic Schutzenberger (1887).


Why does Levi include a chapter on the Canto of Ulysses in his memoir If This is a Man?

Levi includes a chapter on the Canto of Ulysses in his memoir If This is a Man in order to describe the desire that he and the other prisoners in Auschwitz felt. Desire and the lust for knowledge are human nature, which Ulysses represents. Levi and the other prisoners are dehumanized but they are still human because of their desire to break free from the camp and experience life outside of it. Levi uses the story of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno to describe the feelings of desire that he and the other prisoners in Auschwitz had for freedom. Dante represents/depicts Ulysses as “desire.”

Levi makes parallels between Auschwitz and Hell. This helps to set the tone of the story by comparing the conditions of Auschwitz with Hell – which could lead one to believe that Auschwitz is Hell. Auschwitz is a labor concentration camp populated by people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, languages, age, and customs. They are all subject to the same “controlled life, which is identical for all and inadequate to all needs,” (Levi, 99). This is similar to Hell in that souls from all over the world, indiscriminate of origin, can be found in Hell, and they are all subjugated to controlled punishments given by divine justice. Hell has a hierarchy, as does the camp. In Hell, souls are divided by the type of sin that they’ve committed, with each subsequent layer being a greater sin. However, unlike Hell, Auschwitz prisoners are treated differently by their identity. Germans are ranked the highest, followed by non-Jewish political criminals, gays, gypsies, and then Jews. The higher-ranking prisoners enjoyed some privileges like access to a brothel-type establishment in the camp with female prisoners, and the non-Jews always found solace in the fact that at least they weren’t a Jew. It’s as if being a Jew is the ultimate sin and the German-Nazis who built the camps were punishing them for it.

Various examples of Levi’s allusions to Hell are found in his memoir. Levi is transported to Auschwitz on a lorry along with thirty other people. They are guarded by a German soldier, who Levi refers to as their Charon. Charon appears in canto 3 of  Dante’s Inferno, and he is the ferryman of the Acheron; the one who guides souls across the river into Hell. By calling the German soldier Charon, Levi is implying that he and his fellow passengers, who are being sent to Auschwitz, are being taken to Hell. After a few months in Auschwitz, Levi is injured during work and granted access to the Karaneknbau, or the infirmary, which he calls Ka-Be. He calls life in Ka-be a life of limbo. “The material discomforts are relatively few, apart from hunger and the inherent pains of illness. It is not cold, there is no work to do, and unless you commit some grave fault, you are not beaten,” (Levi, 51). Being in Ka-Be is like being in Limbo because while Levi is still within the confines of Auschwitz (which is Hell), the conditions are not as harsh. This is similar to Limbo in Dante’s Inferno. The souls in Limbo are subject to a lighter torture than the souls in the rest of Hell, but they are still damned and have no hope of salvation like all the other souls. When describing the camp, Levi mentions a tower standing in the middle. It is called the Carbide Tower, which some of the prisoners also call the Tower of Babel. The tower was built by Jews speaking many different languages for somebody (the Germans) who hated them. In this way, it is similar to the story of the Tower of Babel. The Tower of Babel was built by men to reach heaven, but God did not allow it and punished them by disuniting their shared language. This could be an example to show that God were displeased by the men who were building the tower, just like how the Germans were extremely displeased (pretty much hated) the Jews who they forced to build the tower. In canto 31 of Dante’s Inferno, Nimrod, an engineer to the building of the Tower of Babel is seen yelling in gibberish. Nobody can understand him, and the scene gives off feelings of confusion, loneliness, and frustration – all of which are comparable to the feelings that the Jews felt while building the Carbide Tower. They could barely understand each other and were punished if they couldn’t do their job. There is also an instance where Levi compares the German commander in charge of his labor group to a devil of Malabolge. Malabolge is the 8th circle of Hell, where the fraudulent sinners are found. He is comparing his German commander to the devils found in Malabolge, who in Dante’s Inferno, punish the fraudulent sinners, and who actually show fraudulent behavior themselves. This kind of description shows what Levi thought of this German commander – a torturer and a fraud. These allusions to Hell show that Auschwitz is a Hell on Earth. Levi and his fellow prisoners desired to break free from it.

In order to understand why Levi brings up the canto of Ulysses, it is important to understand the meaning of the canto. Dante introduces Ulysses in canto 26 of his Inferno. He discusses Ulysses’ voyage as an adventure guided by the desire to seek out the unknown. In this characterization, Ulysses represents human “desire.” Dante’s “Ulysses departs from Circle straight on to his new quest, pulled not by the desire for home and family but by the lure of adventure, by the “the longing / I had to gain experience of the world / and of the vices and the worth of men,” (Barolini). Ulysses’ motives for his voyage were not for fame, money, or family, but instead for the desire of experiencing the world, which he claims to be the worth, or meaning of humanity. He only looks forward and is propelled by the desire to go further and see more. “Like humans then who were involved in the European explorations of the Atlantic that were just beginning in Dante’s day, like humans today who seek to go further into the solar system, Ulysses wants to go beyond the markers of the known world,” (Barolini). Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno is depicted as an adventurer; somebody who desires to explore the unknown; somebody who lusts for knowledge – he represents the desires for more, and to see what’s next.

Ulysses’ portrayal in Dante’s Inferno is important because it is Dante’s version of Ulysses that Levi brings up in his memoir, and not any other variations of him. Levi and his fellow prisoners identify with the feelings of desire in this version of Ulysses. Like the story of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno, Levi’s chapter on Ulysses appeals to their feelings of desire and ambition to see more and experience what is beyond their world. For the prisoners, Auschwitz is their world. Throughout Levi’s memoir, he discusses the prisoners’ desires for survival and freedom in the context of wanting what is outside of, or beyond the camp. For example, he records some of the prisoner’s memories from outside the camp. They talk about their parents, brothers, and sisters, their occupations from before their deportation to the camp, their homes, and where they came from. These are all things that they want to see again, and are all outside of the camp. They know that they must survive in order to see them again. Levi also discusses Ka-Be and how there are many prisoners who try to gain admittance there. Prisoners want to go there and stay for as long as possible because it gives them a distraction from the harsh conditions of the camp. They don’t have to labor and are not subject to beatings there because they are sick and must heal. Being in Ka-Be means being away from the camp – which many yearn for. These examples support the fact that the prisoners were full of desire to go beyond the confines of the camp, similar to Dante’s representation of Ulysses as desire to go beyond his known world. If Auschwitz is the prisoners’ world – then the prisoners are like Ulysses because they desire to break free from their world and experience life outside of it, like how Ulysses desired to explore and go beyond the markers of his known world.

In Levi’s chapter “Canto of Ulysses,” Levi tries to recite the story of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno, but forgets many of the lines. He can recall certain lines which places greater significance on them. The first of these lines are “nor piety / To my old father, nor the wedded love / That should have comforted Penelope,” (Levi, 131). Followed by “So on the open sea I set forth,” (Levi, 131). To better understand these lines, here is the context from where they are found:

“When I departed from Circe, who held me back more

than a year there near Gaeta, before Aeneas gave it

that name,

neither the sweetness of a son, nor compassion for

my old father, nor the love owed to Penelope, which

should have made her glad,

could conquer within me the ardor that I had to

gain experience of the world and of human vices and


but I put out on the deep, open sea alone, with

one ship and with that little company by which I had

not been deserted.” (Inferno 26, 90-102)

The meaning of the first quotation is that nothing could convince Ulysses to turn back on his journey. His lust for knowledge surpasses even love. The second quotation means that Ulysses is setting out for his journey alone. The world was wide and vast, and he’s prepared to follow his ambitions even if it means going alone. Levi and the prisoners can relate to these lines because of the relentlessness and loneliness that they express. In order to go beyond the camp, the prisoners must survive. They have to be relentless against the harsh conditions and keep living. If love was something that could hold Ulysses back, then for the prisoners it was the conditions of the camp. And they are alone because they must look out for themselves in order to survive. Because who is going to liberate them? Who will save them? The answer for them was themselves.

Another line that Levi recalls is this: “Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance / Your mettle was not made; you were made men, / To follow after knowledge and excellence,” (Levi, 133). This quote is said by Ulysses to inspire his men to continue their journey. It is also an inspirational line for the prisoners because it reminds them that they are still humans and must continue on surviving so that they can make it past the camp. In Auschwitz, the prisoners are all dehumanized. Their identities are taken away from them and the rules and social structure of the camp causes their behavior and priorities to change. For example, their belongings are all taken from them upon entering the camp and they are given an identical uniform as everybody else. They are all completely shaved and tattooed a set of numbers to represent their identity. Their names are no longer needed. And hygiene is no longer important. The prisoners must be willing to “throw others under the bus” in order to better their own status in the camp to survive. Thieving is rampant. This is not how people in a civilized society act. This line reminds the prisoners that despite being subjected to this treatment, they are still humans and must keep surviving.

But like the ending of Ulysses’ story, Levi ends his chapter with this line: “And over our heads the hollow seas closed up,” (Levi, 134). For Ulysses, his journey ended by the will of God. He was not meant to see beyond the world. For Levi and the prisoners, the German Nazis and the camp’s conditions are like God. They prevent the prisoners from surviving and from ever getting away from the camp. This line brings the harsh reality back to everybody. Desire is not enough, and there are institutions in place to prevent them from happening.

The use of the canto of Ulysses in Levi’s memoir is meant to represent the feelings that the prisoners had. In a place of extreme violence, they had little time to think or feel anything other than pain, hopelessness, fear, and exhaustion. The rules and conditions of the camp reduced them to something less human than they used to be. The chapter, Canto of Ulysses, uses the story of Ulysses as portrayed by Dante to represent the feelings that the prisoners had despite those conditions. Ulysses represents “desire” and that is what all the prisoners were filled with. Just as Ulysses desired for knowledge and to go beyond his known world, the prisoners desired for freedom and to go beyond their known world, Auschwitz.


Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 26: The Epic Hero and the Quest.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-26/

Durling, Robert M, translator. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri / Inferno. Edited by Robert M Durling, Oxford Univ. Press, 1996.

Levi, Primo. If This Is a Man. Translated by Stuart Woolf, The Orion Press, 1959.

Harry and Dante’s Comedy

Dante Alighieri’s Inferno has a wide variety of violence which is displayed throughout his journey in many forms. The journey appears to be a never-ending learning experience for Dante as he progresses onward to darker depths. As Dante and his master Virgil travel through inferno, the harshness and level of pain that sinners endure also increases. Here I plan to discuss the theme of the 9 circles and how it relates to scenes from inferno and multiple scenes from the Harry potter versions. The main theme that I will be discussing is the theme of justice throughout the divine comedy.

In order to discuss a comparison between the two works, I’ll briefly summarize the canto in which Cerberus was first introduced. We are now in Canto 6 of Inferno and in this canto Dante and Virgil are surrounded by sinners who are there for gluttony. The scene of this canto is described to always be raining. The first description of Cerberus is also introduced in this canto “Cerberus, cruel, monstrous beast, with three throats barks doglike…his eyes are red, his beard greasy and black, his belly large”(Inferno, canto 6) however, one thing to take note is that Cerberus himself is considered a glutton. It is safe to assume that Cerberus is a glutton because Virgil picked up earth and threw it at Cerberus. One depiction of violence in this canto is that Cerberus mauls and chews upon the souls in this part of hell. This creature helps fulfill and deliver the punishment upon the sinners.

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, there is also a Cerberus-like creature that has an uncanny resemblance to the image in Dante’s Inferno. In her book, Cerberus is also known as “Fluffy” who guards a chamber that protects a stone. As soon as I read Dante’s description of Cerberus, I immediately thought about Fluffy. Canto 6 is very closely depicted in this book; Firstly because the gluttons are the Dursleys (those who adopted harry potter). An example of them being a glutton is when Dudley(Mr.Dursley’s son) eats Harry’s birthday cake without any permission. I believe that Albus Dumbledore is similar to that of Virgil because he is always guiding Harry throughout his life.

To help you better understand what I mean to explain, here is an example:

Click here for an image of fluffy from harry potter

The way that Cerberus or “Fluffy” is depicted in the film of Harry Potter and the Philosophers stone is almost exactly the same as the description from Inferno. The only difference is that the eyes aren’t red, however the gnarling teeth is a dead giveaway. Also in this example, we can interpret Harry, Hermione, and Ron to be the sinners because Hogwarts follows a house points rule:

“Points are given or taken away to reward or punish the behavior of students. Points are accumulated over the course of the school year, at the end of which a House Cup is awarded to the house with the most. Giant hourglasses set in niches along one wall in a corner of the entrance hall record the points for all to see; Gryffindor’s is filled with rubies, Ravenclaw’s with sapphires, Hufflepuff’s with diamonds, and Slytherin’s with emeralds. As a teacher or other authorized party speaks the words awarding or deducting points, the appropriate hourglass or hourglasses are automatically updated (Harry Potter Lexicon, 1

With that being said, the house point rule is another reason why I believe that J.K Rowling took inspiration from Dante in order to create the harry potter series. The way I interpreted this is that the teachers and faculty at Hogwarts are given the same role that Dante and Virgil have, which is judging those sinners and punishing them based on what they’ve done. The sinners being the students and the punishment being the amount of points that have been deducted.

Here I will discuss a few brief similarities between Inferno and Harry Potter. The first is that the character Argus Filch seems to be stuck in limbo. I believe this is true because he is seen as a character that is neither good nor bad, he simply exists. Argus in some ways is similar to Virgil because he has the role of caretaker in Hogwarts which in relation to the Divine comedy, Virgil is like a caretaker to Dante. The theme of justice can be seen in the movies because Argus is seen trying to ensure that everything that happens in the school is running smoothly. He is the authority that justifies whether or not people deserve to be punished.

One doesn’t have to wonder very much to realize that the divine comedy is filled with metaphors. Something that has come to my attention while studying the divine comedy is the realism that is within Dante’s works such as inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Dante’s imagination is self-evident where he expresses themes of corrections and punishments towards individuals who he has encountered sometime throughout his life. Some people that he has mentioned as part of the “sinners” group as I like to call include; Pope Boniface VIII, Farinata.

To compare, the character’s from the Divine comedy and Harry potter in my opinion is something that was obvious in the sense that they are the same. I’ll start by firstly discussing how Harry himself is the same as Dante. All of the comparisons that I’ll talk about are from the Harry potter films rather than the books because I believe that they have a higher interpretation than the print version. As I read inferno throughout the semester, I couldn’t help but notice that Dante is always in some kind of journey just like harry. The subject of mortality also came to my mind when Dante mentions in canto 1 lines 58-59 “I did not endure it long, yet not so little that I did not see it emitting sparks all around”, here he is telling us (the reader) that he is a mortal however he does claim that he knows more than the average mortal. Dante reveals his desire to transcend his own mortality and this is similar to Harry’s character because he also seeks to become a greater wizard and is also on a journey with his friends. Despite this similarity, there is also another thing that is significantly different about Harry’s journey that separates it from the journey of Dante. Dante was initially prevented from crossing a river by his distinguishable attribute, only to be rescued by divine will. Contrarily, Harry’s attribute is exactly what allowed him to cross the river in the film.


Another main character that I’d like to compare to Dante’s Divine comedy is professor Snape. If I were to place him in Dante’s comedy, I would place him in the second circle along with a couple of notable characters from history such as Tristan, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra. In this second circle of inferno, Dante and his master Virgil find some people who were overcome by the sin of lust as Dante thinks:

“Here Dante explores the relationship–as notoriously challenging in his time and place as in ours–between love and lust, between the ennobling power of attraction toward the beauty of a whole person and the destructive force of possessive sexual desire. The lustful in hell, whose actions often led them and their lovers to death, are “carnal sinners who subordinate reason to desire” (Inf. 5.38-9). From the examples presented, it appears that for Dante the line separating lust from love is crossed when one acts on this misguided desire.”(Danteworlds).

In one of the harry potter films, it is revealed to the audience that Snape loved Lilly who was harry potters mother. Although harry, Hermione, and Ron all looked at professor Snape as something of a villain, he actually had a bit of love towards harry but for the wrong reason. It is because he had both love and lust for his mother that he felt the need to somewhat care for him since he lost the relationship between himself and Lilly when he called her a “mudblood”. To conclude this character, he belongs in Dante’s inferno because his actions led Lilly to die back when Harry was a baby and led to his own death in the end of the Deathly Hallows.


Click here for image of Snape holding Lilly

Here in this image we can see Snape’s self-proclaimed love for Lilly which made him somewhat of a secret guardian to harry.

Another character that I’d like to place in Dante’s inferno is Lucius Malfoy. I wouldn’t simply place him because he was obviously evil and followed the “dark lord” as most would refer him to. But more specifically, I would place him in the 4th circle which pertains to avarice and greed. In this circle, you can picture the souls of people who jousted over their earthly possessions. In this circle, Dante says to see many clergymen which include the popes and cardinals such as Lucius Malfoy who is a cardinal for lord Voldemort. I think that Lucius belongs in this specific circle of hell because his hunger for desire, wealth and power turn him to the dark side. This backfires back to him because when he saw that the dark lord was being defeated and saw that his son may have perished, you can see the fear in his face which is strange since he always seemed like a strong and confident character.

In the next circle of hell which would be the 5th, I would place the character Bartemius Crouch JR. the following is a brief definition from the danteworlds website:

“Like the fourth circle of hell, the fifth circle–presented in Inferno 7 and 8–contains two related groups of sinners. But whereas avarice and prodigality are two distinct sins based on the same principle (an immoderate attitude toward material wealth), wrath and sullenness are basically two forms of a single sin: anger that is expressed (wrath) and anger that is repressed (sullenness).”

Bartemius was sent to Azkaban by his own father Barty SR. He was sent to Azkaban would could be the contrapasso for him in this scenario for torturing the Longbottoms. Barty jr’s hatred for his father and the world is what drove him to release his anger with evil with the help of the dark lord. The repressed hate that he has for his father is the reason why he becomes wrathful and eventually place him in the 5th circle in my opinion.

Finally, the last character that I’d like to discuss is Belatrix Lestrange. This character is probably by far the most cruel and violent character throughout the whole series of harry potter. She is the cousin of Sirius Black who ironically is Harry’s godfather. I would easily place her in the 7th circle of hell.  I say that she belongs there because the 7th circle is indeed where the violent sinners go. She is the kind of character who enjoys, loves, and craves to torture her poor victims and pain is her pastime. Another way we can view her is by being the dark lords most loyal, evil, violent, and destructive supporter.

I think it’s amazing that I was the first one in the class that noticed the relationship between the harry potter movies and Dante’s divine comedy. There were plenty more relationships that I could’ve paired up such as linking peter Pettigrew with betrayal and ending with lord Voldemort himself with treachery. To conclude, knowing Harry potter films and to have read the books is in my opinion very helpful for understanding Dante and his inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso because I now can link some of the images to a few scenes.


Dante’s Inferno – Circle 2 – Canto 5, danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/circle2.html.


Gibbons, David. “Alimentary Metaphors in Dante’s ‘Paradiso.’” The Modern Language Review,

vol. 96, no. 3, 2001, pp. 693–706. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3736739.


Z., Amy, et al. “House Points – The Harry Potter Lexicon.” The Harry Potter Lexicon, www.hp-lexicon.org/thing/house-points/.