GATES OF HELL

“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost”   (Inferno, Dante Alighieri, c.1265-1324)

“Wholeness for humans depends on the ability to own their own shadow” (C.G.Jung)

Given the nature of trauma work we often find ourselves engaging darker aspects of the human condition, all of which have been with us since time immemorial.  The inevitability of death raises universal concerns about the possibility of an afterlife; reflections on our shifting perceptions of sin and redemption and fear of judgement and  punishment.

Along that theme, a recent communication from long term colleague Peter Levine, alerted me to a startling announcement from a team led by Italian archeologist Francesco D’Andria.  They believe that their excavations have uncovered the actual site of what the classical world once revered as the mythical Gate to Hell, located in the Hellenistic city of Hieropolis, now called Pamukkale, in south western Turkey. Greco–Roman ruins there appear to match descriptions in ancient sources such as Greek geographer Strabo (64-63 BCE-24 AD): “The space is full of vapor so misty and dense that one can barely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death.” These recently uncovered temple ruins have been found to contain inscriptions dedicated to underworld deities as well as a statue believed to represent Hades/Pluto. This masculine effigy of a dark ruler of the Underworld, presided over local priests conducting pagan rites, in order to gain access to subterranean realms. Recent researchers have found that this Plutonian site, sacred to pilgrims during  troubled eras of the classical world, contained both a thermal purification  pool and the remains of steps which still lead down toward a cave entrance that continues  to spew foul and  poisonous gases. Researchers believe that this sacred site was ransacked by Christian zealots around the 6th century A.D., with damage later compounded by a series of devastating earthquakes.  (Simon Holden, metro.co.uk, 04/04/2013).

In modern times, we have become aware of many naturally occurring “Hell Mouths” distributed across our globe. Many of these manifest as mysterious caves, active volcanoes, subterranean caverns in remote jungles, and ominously gaping chasms in desolate places, which locals believe to be entrances to some culturally specific version of Hades. I could imagine that there might even be just such an ominous portal along some stretch of the Los Angeles Freeway, but then again it is probably best to not make light of a subject that many take very seriously indeed.

Most of our current and old world religions maintain that there are actual, very real places of afterlife torment, awaiting all apostate and otherwise wicked souls.  Many of these elaborately described punishment realms are lavishly illustrated with demonically sadistic details of the cruelest imaginable physical tortures and ongoing, never ending terrors. While images from the ancient classical Underworld never totally disappeared from Medieval imagery, they were to emerge with renewed vigor in the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th century, Divine Comedy.  This complex allegorical poem follows the Florentine as he journeyed through concentric circles of Hell. As he passed through Hell’s Gates the poet read the now famous inscription, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. As his descent continued, readers were presented with a new paradigm; a structurally engineered afterlife realm within which specific tortures await sinners in strict accordance with the nature and severity of their transgression.

My favorite editions of this Italian classic are those lavishly illustrated by the 19th century French artist and engraver, Gustave Dore;  still available in a relatively inexpensive Dover paperback edition. Strange as it may seem, or maybe not, given our own desperate times, Dante’s Inferno is now available as a video game.

Deep within the vast reaches of Western European Art traditions, an iconic example of these hallucinogenic, spiritually oriented nightmares appears in the work of Early Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516). His excruciatingly horrific right panel of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych, teems with surreal and harrowing images of mind boggling perversity. Bosch’s chimeric monstrosities cavort in an evil underworld of fetid darkness and filth, located somewhere within a vast, smoke and fire landscape of lost hope and eternal damnation. This phantasmagorical masterpiece is on exhibit in the Museo del Prado in Madrid and I attempt to pay at least one visit to this magnificent institution whenever I travel to Spain.

After some time with  this seemingly  psychedelic, psychotic and deeply disturbing  triptych, I usually need to take an extended  break before finding  my way into nearby rooms exhibiting  some of those darker, painfully realistic works by my old friend Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, (1746-1828). In later life, the Spanish master’s dark paintings and etchings depicted war time traumas of a kind of “Hell on Earth”, as well as the madness and psychological suffering in his well known aquatint, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Nightmares”.

Goya’s Hell was very real and one didn’t need to die to go there. For those with an interest in this traumatic time in the artist’s life, embedded within a turbulent epoch in Spanish history, I highly recommend the Spanish-American film Goya’s Ghost (2006).

In Christian art, Hell is often depicted within Biblical themes such as, The Last Judgment. During the Italian High Renaissance, mythological elements from an ancient, long lost Greco-Roman world, vigorously re-appear in Michelangelo Buonarroti’s dynamic, apocalyptic, Last Judgment (1536-1541). This canonical fresco can still be seen above the altar wall of the Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel.  Within this carefully controlled , sacred space, we are eventually confronted with a truly massive, awe inspiring  Apollonian Christ figure; arriving at his Second Coming in the form of a massive, athletic, muscular, all powerful  deity. During the High Renaissance, Returning Jesus had become both an inspiring and also terrifying figure. Michelangelo’s version of The Savior, presides over and is surrounded by a turbulent scene of spiritual triage, set within some end time of resurrection and judgment.  Masterful use of detailed anatomical expression portrays an impressive range of emotional and spiritual states.  Departed souls of the Christian Virtuous Saved, arise to Christ’s right, while scores of writhing, hopelessly dammed figures plunge into demonic depths below his left .

Many believe that the artist’s self-portrait also appears to the Savior’s left, with his sorrowful visage appearing upon the flayed skin of the martyred St. Bartholomew, which hangs precariously above the horrors below.  This terrifying opus, created toward the end of Michelangelo’s life, cannot be understood apart from the tumultuous era of political corruption; the terrors of a powerful Inquisition, spies, counter-spies and a Catholicism under siege from the forces of the Reformation.

Michelangelo’s, Last Judgment bears witness to an absolutist cosmology where helplessly naked and terrified human beings, judged to be sinners, are summarily dismissed and eternally condemned  to unending torments.   As the damned descend into the lower reaches of this intensely dramatic, emotionally overwhelming masterpiece, we find a clearly defined portrait of the ancient, mythological Charon waiting below.  Here within this iconic, Catholic Christian masterwork, Michelangelo chose to include the silent boatman who ferries the dead and doomed across the underworld River Acheron. As the artist was well aware, Charon’s shadowy figure also appeared in Dante’s Inferno.

In relatively recent times, the19th century French sculptor Auguste Rodin drew upon multiple sources for his brilliant rendition of The Gates of Hell.  He found a wealth of inspiration in Michelangelo’s anatomically precise, somatic expressions of complex, tormented and often subtle human emotion; as well as themes from Dante’s Inferno.

In 1880 Rodin accepted a state commission to create a set of bronze doors for what was projected to become France’s new Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. Since the museum was never built, this particular version of the project, originally intended to be cast in bronze, was never able to manifest during Rodin’s lifetime. Nevertheless, the famously relentless Parisian sculptor continued to work on his Hellish portals for at least another 37 years.  Over time, his imposing set of doors (20x13x33 ft.), containing no opening mechanism, was to evolve along with an eventual creation of some 200 sculptural pieces related to the project.  In Rodin’s Hell, heart wrenching figures in high and low relief emerge and recede in fluid, acrobatic contortions; evoking a chaotic matrix of eroticism, pain and despair.  Many of these images were eventually exhibited as separate pieces, such as Prodigal Son, Old Courtesan, and the now iconic , The Thinker.

The original title of this muscular seated figure was The Thinker; The Poet, and he appears as a focal point in the tympanum, contemplating the timeless tumult in the doors below. It is generally believed that as a poet the figure represents Dante. But it is also a personal commentary on the creative genius of Rodin himself, who was known to share Dante’s view of the tragic, pessimistic character of human nature; where passion and suffering are nearly indistinguishable.  From amongst all of his sculptures, Rodin chose The Thinker as the guardian for his tomb.

The Gates of Hell, became an important focal point of study during my graduate years at the Art and Architectural History Department of the University of California at Berkeley.  During several of those many semesters, I served as a teaching associate for the now Emeritus, French-American Professor, Jacques De Caso; an expert in the field of 18th and  19th century European sculpture.  And then, there was one marvelous year, where an entire undergraduate course was devoted solely to Rodin. As an artist and a sculptor, his meditations upon The Gates of Hell became a major focus of our specialized study.  At that time we were fortunate to have access to Rodin’s works in San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, as well as Stanford University’s Cantor Collection, which at that time, contained the largest body of Rodin’s work outside of Paris. In both collections,   figures related to The Gates of Hell served as major resources for our students to examine and study.

As my dual role as scholar and teacher mandated  more immediate contact with these sculptural works, I became increasingly fascinated with Rodin’s amazingly innovative interpretation of an age-old theme: mankind’s fear of judgment and punishment in an afterlife existence.  Long after, yet still within, a tradition of Michelangelo’s somatically expressed existential issues, Rodin’s innovative surface modeling and his structural evocations of emotional anatomy, placed an intensely tactile emphasis on the physical body as a primary expression of humanity’s infinite range of immediate and vicarious psychological torment.  It is important to recognize that the sculptor lived and worked toward the dwindling twilight of 19th century Europe, when new theories about the nature of the individual and collective psyche had already appeared on the collective horizon.

Images of demons and supernatural tortures are no longer needed to induce various agonies in Rodin’s swarming mass of lost souls.  The suffering of the outcast and the hopeless, who experience various states of alienated damnation, now originates from someplace within; as consequences of human frailty and unfortunate choices which were made before passage into death. Rodin’s contemporary and biographer, Frederick Lawton acknowledged these psychological dimensions in 1906:

“In the Gates, Rodin has illustrated Milton’s definition (Paradise Lost), The mind is it’s own place, and in itself/ Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”.

Looking back, after all these many years, I realize that as an art historian I was already engaged with the complexities of trauma and the human condition, long before I had any idea of changing careers.  My seemingly divergent paths no longer appear to be all that separate, since the salient themes of art, the consequences of choice, and the reality of overwhelming life experiences, are very clearly intertwined. ( Jacques de Caso and  Patricia B. Sanders, Rodin’s Sculpture,1977)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.