La Commedia Illumina Firenze – Domenico Di Michelino

We all have our own personal idea of hell. Mine is either being stuck in a room full of crying babies or being in a world where I was unable to get a caffeine fix. Ok so neither may seem that terrifying or daunting and there are hundreds of things that in reality are worse that this, but for someone who has not one maternal bone in her body and requires coffee to function, these are pretty big things.

This post came about as one of my “Gauntlet” requests from Kartikeya Mishra and his inspiration was from Dan Brown’s “Inferno”, where “The Devine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri is mentioned. This is one of the great epic poems and recounts a journey through Hell, Purgatory and finally paradise. Today I will specifically be talking about the nine (not seven) circles of hell and who reside there. I’ll apologise now, there is a lot to this post!

Michelino’s painting of Dante’e inferno doesn’t really define the circles, but I really like the rendition. I could have gone for something by Botticelli or Doré but this is a little bit different, this is also the painting which Dan Brown’s lead character Robert Langdon discusses in the book “Inferno”. La Commedia Illumina Firenze (The Comedy Illuminating Florence) can be seen in Florence Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and was painted in 1456 and is by far his most famous fresco.

The work is divided in to three parts, much like Dante’s poem. We see a figure in a red robe stood in the centre. This is Dante, presenting his poem, wearing a cap of the Florentines and a wreath of laurel on his head. Wreaths of laurel were predominately given to victors in athletic competitions and poetic meets, and symbolises triumph, in this case, it represents Dante’s triumph in his rhetoric. To the right of Dante we see the city of Florence, which is illuminated by rays of light coming from the book in his hand, hence the title of the painting. Michelino painted Florence seeped in light from the poem to show the adoration that the city had for the poet after his death. To the left, we see a precession of sinners being led down to the underworld and the nine circles of hell, Dante is pointing to these poor souls, a stark reminder of what a sinners life can lead to. In the background we can see the Mount of Purgatory. Adam and Eve stand at the top of this representing the earthly paradise as they had been cast out of the garden of Eden. Above this we see the sun and the moon and seven planets, indicating the heavenly paradise, detailed with the different paths that the planets follow.

Dante is shown outside of the city walls of Florence in this picture as he is now in his afterlife form, and in life, he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and never returned. Dante had been exiled due to his political activity, where he had previously banished people from the city, came around in the ultimate bout of karma, but had this not happened, his poem may never had been written as this served as his inspiration as a virtual wanderer searching for protection for his family.

At the very bottom of the painting you can see an inscription by an unknown author, but it translates as “Who sang of Heavens, and of the regions twain, Midway and in the abyss, where souls are judged, Surveying all in spirit, he is here, Dante, our master poet. Florence found, Oft-times in him father, wise and strong, In his devotion. Death could bring no harm, To such a bard. For him true life have gained, His worth, his verse and this his effigy.

This painting really shows the regard that is held for Dante and his work, and from this I think in some way or another we probably all think about varying levels of hell, but lets take a look at what Dante’s explanation of what each level was.

The poem starts with Dante as a 35 year old man. Technically half way through his life if you think of it in biblical terms when people lived to be 70 (found in Psalms 89:10). Dante is wandering around a dark wood, lost (in way and in his journey in life). He starts to climb a small hill, but he encounters a leopard, a she-wolf and a lion. These represent three different types of sin. As I have mentioned there are nine circles of hell, which are in three divisions, each beast representing a division (Jeremiah 5:6 if you would like the biblical reference). The she-wolf is thought to represent inconsistency, the lion violence and beastiality and finally the leopard showing malice and fraud. The beasts push Dante back in to the dark forest, where he is rescued by the Roman poet Virgil in his afterlife.

Virgil explains that he has been sent by Beatrice (the symbol of Divine Love) and the Virgin Mary (representing compassion) as well as Saint Lucia (illuminating grace) and Rachel (contemplative life) and they begin their journey in to the underworld.

The Vestibule of Hell

As they pass through the gates of hell, Dante observes the now well known phrase “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. As they pass through screams of the uncommitted hit their ears. These are the souls of people who took no side in life. Meaning they were they there for neither good or evil – just concerned with themselves. Dante recognises Pope Celestine V here, whose behaviour in life allowed a lot of evil to enter the church. The souls here are left forever unclassified, searching for a banner (which apparently represents their concern with only themselves) as they are chased by swarms of bees and hornets, continually stinging them, while maggots at their feet feed on the blood, pus and tears which flows from their bodies.

As the poetic pair get through the vestibule, they find the ferryman Charon, who does not want to take them across the river as Dante is still living and this is a world for the dead. Virgil forces Charon to transport them explaining that Dante is on his way to divine ground. On getting on to the boat, Dante faints and doesn’t wake until they get to the other side.

Circle 1 – Limbo

Dante wakes to find himself amongst the unbaptised souls. These are not really sinners, but those who did not accept Christ in to their life. Limbo is like a cheap carnival ride of Heaven. The souls here aren’t really punished, but they are also not accepted in to the heavenly paradise. Here the couple find Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan and they join the journey, leading to a great castle where the wisest men of antiquity reside. To get through the castle they need to go through seven gates, on the other side is a huge lush meadow, where they find commanders, philosophers and men of science. All of whom were virtuous, but none of them Christian.

Circle 2 – Lust

This is the first circle of inconsistence, and where proper hell begins. Only Dante and Virgil enter this circle and here they find souls who allowed sins of the flesh to cloud their judgement. They are forever blown around by strong winds and storms (representing the power of lust blows needlessly and aimlessly). This is considered the least sinful, as it takes two to tango, therefore the punishment is fairly benign. Here they see figures such as Cleopatra, Helen of Troy and Achilles, and many others whose lustful ways in life have given them an eternity in a blustery realm.

Circle 3 – Gluttony

Here the souls flail around in a putrid mush which is produced by an icy rain. This is the great storm of putrefication as a punishment for their endless appetite in life. Cerberus guards this circle, clawing and mauling the souls. Virgil gains them safe passage through this circle by filling the three heads of the beast with mud.

Circle 4 – Greed

This circle is guarded by Pluto, who in classical mythology is the deity of wealth. Virgil protects Dante from a phrase which Pluto mutters at them as they pass. Here the souls are being punished for for either avarice or miserly behaviour. This includes popes and clergymen who hoarded possessions and the prodigals that squandered their wealth. The punishment is that the souls must joust with weapons of great weight which have to be pushed with their chests. This is the last realm in the inconsistent division.

Circle 5 – Wrath

The first in the division in violence. Souls who were actively wrathful forcefully fight each other in the slime here, while the passively aggressive lie under the waters. This marks the end of the “romantic” sins (if you find greed and gluttony romantic”) and the start of “self frustration’.

Between circle 5 and 6 Virgil and Dante cross the river Styx and an angel is sent to grant passage through the lower realms.

Circle 6 – Heresy

Heretics reside here. Bound to flaming tombs. People who said that the soul died with the body face this punishment. Scholars who have studied this text far more than I have feel Dante made an error in this section as he stops to read a tomb which says that it is Pope Anastasius II being punished, but it is felt that he actually meant a Byzantine emperor Anastasius I.

The travelling companions descend further down to reach circle 7, which they can smell before they can see.

Circle 7 – Violence (nearly there!!)

This is guarded by the Minotaur, which confuses Dante for Theseus and starts to gnaw on his flesh, and Virgil tells the Minotaur that Dante is not his enemy – which forces the Minotaur to charge them. They scramble through the pile of rocks which was once a cliff face in to the seventh circle. The cliff crumbled at the earthquake that shook the earth the moment that Christ died. There are three rings within the seventh circle (confusing I know) which house different types of violence. The first has murderers, tyrants, plunderers and war-makers, and they all bathe in a river of boiling blood. Each one immersed to the level of their sin. I.e. Stole a loaf of bread – just your toes are dipped in, killed millions – right up to the top of your head… you get my drift. Centaurs guard this ring and fire arrows at anyone who try to get out above their delegated level. Ring 2 is the forest of suicide. Here those who committed suicide are turned in to hideous thorny trees, which are fed upon by harpies. The trees are only permitted to speak when they are broken and bleeding. Dante breaks off a branch and as it bleeds, he hears the tale of Pietro Della Vigna who fell out of favour, was imprisoned and blinded and ultimately committed suicide. In Christianity suicide is considered a sin against the body, therefore the souls are denied a human form. Ring 3 reserved for those who were against God, art and nature. This is a plain of burning sand. This was taken from the image of Sodom and Gomorrah. The souls are either stretched across the sand, forced to walk in circles or left huddled and weeping here.

Circle 8 – Fraud

Violence ends and fraud and malice begins. This is a large funnel of stone shaped like an amphitheater. Ten narrow ditches are carved out in and those who committed simple fraud are punished here. Across the ditches ribs of stone which make bridges protrude. In the first ditch, those who exploited people sexually or financially here are lined up and forced to march, being whipped by horned demons. Each ditch is a different level of fraud, and punishments range from being seeped in excrement, being it upside down in holes, having their heads put on back to front, being torn to pieces over and over again, being laden down with heavy robes, being continually bitten by snakes and lizards, being burned and being afflicted with horrible diseases.

Circle 9 – Treachery (We made it!!)

The final circle of hell may sound odd as it gives notion to that old saying “when hell freezes over” as this is a giant frozen lake. Each treacherous soul is stuck in the ice to the level in accordance with their sin. These are people who denied warmth and all human love. A freezing wind blows here, to those who are the lesser sinners are in the ice up to the base of their neck and they are allowed to bow their heads to offer some protection from the wind. The second level have their heads above the ice, but are not allowed to bow their head against the wind. The third level the souls are lay in the ice and their tears freeze in their eye sockets which forms a layer of ice and stops them from crying anymore through the discomfort. The final level (saved for people like Judas Iscariot) are completely encased in ice in distorted positions. At the very centre of the ice lake (and the centre of hell) is the devil. He is a giant and stuck in the ice to waist height. He has three faces one red, one yellow and one black. This is thought to show his control over the three human races (red for Europeans, yellow for Asiatic and black for African). The faces are also a representation of the perversion of the holy trinity. The devil is shown as impotent, ignorant and full of hate in a contrast to the all knowing, all powerful and all loving God in the later sections of the poem.

Virgil and Dante mange to escape hell by climbing down the back of the devil as they make their way to purgatory.

There is no way I have done this epic masterpiece justice in this whistle stop tour of the circles of hell, but I hope that this has given you some insight in to the painting and the mind which has brought us some of the most vivid depictions of the underworld.

What do you think of the circles of hell? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?


6 thoughts on “La Commedia Illumina Firenze – Domenico Di Michelino

Add yours

  1. This is truly amazing!! Thank you so much for taking out the time to write such an informative piece. For me, you’ve done more than just justice to my query. 😊😊
    I googled about ‘The divine comedy’ a few days ago. In one of the search links, it was mentioned that ‘Virgil’ was a friend of ‘Dante’. However, your post states that Virgil comes from some sort of an Afterlife and saves Dante from those beasts. Is this controversial? I mean, I am so intrigued by this now.. You know😀😀

    And I will say this again, you’ve written this post very well. Thank you again!!


    1. Thank you 😊 Virgil was a Roman poet who died 19 BC, he was classed as one of Rome’s great epic poets. Dante was an Italian poet during the early 1300 AD. Virgil was an inspiration to Dante hence his befriendment to Dante in “The Devine Comedy”. Hope that helps 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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