Artists Illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy Through the Ages: Doré, Blake, Botticelli, Mœbius & More

Dore Satan

For a book about medieval the­ol­o­gy and tor­ture, filled with learned clas­si­cal allu­sions and obscure char­ac­ters from 13th cen­tu­ry Flo­ren­tine soci­ety, Dante Alighieri’s Infer­no, first book of three in his Divine Com­e­dy, has had con­sid­er­able stay­ing pow­er, work­ing its way into pop cul­ture with a video game, sev­er­al films, and a bale­ful appear­ance on Mad Men. While the Mad Men ref­er­ence may be the more lit­er­ary, the for­mer two may hint at the more promi­nent rea­son the Infer­no has cap­ti­vat­ed read­ers, play­ers, and view­ers for ages: the lengthy poem’s intense­ly visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion of human extrem­i­ty makes for some unfor­get­table images. Like Achilles drag­ging Hec­tor behind his char­i­ot in Homer, who can for­get the lake of ice Dante encoun­ters in the ninth cir­cle of Hell, in which (in John Ciardi’s mod­ern trans­la­tion), he finds “souls of the last class,” which “shone below the ice like straws in glass,” and, frozen to his chest, “the Emper­or of the Uni­verse of Pain,” almost too enor­mous for descrip­tion and as hideous as he once was beau­ti­ful.

Like the rest of us, artists have been drawn to Dante’s extra­or­di­nary images and exten­sive fan­ta­sy geog­ra­phy since the Divine Com­e­dy first appeared (1308–1320). In pro­lif­ic French artist Gus­tave Doré’s ren­der­ing of the ninth cir­cle scene, above, Satan is a huge, beard­ed grump with wings and horns. Doré so des­per­ate­ly want­ed to illus­trate the Divine Com­e­dy (find in our col­lec­tion of 700 Free eBooks) that he financed the first book in 1861 with his own mon­ey.

After­wards, as Mike Springer wrote in a pre­vi­ous post on Dore’s illus­tra­tions, his pub­lish­er Louis Hachette agreed to put out the next two books with the telegram, “Suc­cess! Come quick­ly! I am an ass!” Doré’s eerie, beau­ti­ful draw­ings are just one such set of famous illus­tra­tions we’ve fea­tured on the site pre­vi­ous­ly.

Blake Inferno

Anoth­er artist per­fect­ly suit­ed to the task, William Blake, whose own poet­ry braved sim­i­lar heights and depths as Dante’s, took on the Infer­no at the end of his life. While he didn’t live to com­plete the engrav­ings, his unset­tling, yet high­ly clas­si­cal, ren­der­ings of the poet the Ital­ians call il Som­mo Poeta—“The Supreme Poet”—certainly do jus­tice to the vivid­ness and hor­ror of Dante’s descrip­tions. Above, see Blake’s 1827 inter­pre­ta­tion of the thief Agno­lo Brunelleschi attacked by a six-foot­ed ser­pent in Can­to twen­ty-five, a scene reprint­ed many times in col­or.


Boticelli Inferno

Cen­turies ear­li­er, Renais­sance mas­ter San­dro Bot­ti­cel­li made an attempt at all three books, though he fell short of fin­ish­ing them. See his “Pan­der­ers, Flat­ter­ers” above, the only draw­ing he made in col­or, and more black and white illus­tra­tions here.


Like the mak­ers of films and video games, artists have main­ly cho­sen to focus on the most bizarre and har­row­ing of the three books, the Infer­no. One mod­ern artist who undoubt­ed­ly would have had a fas­ci­nat­ing take on Dante’s hell instead illus­trat­ed his heav­en, being cho­sen to imag­ine Par­adiso by the Milan’s Nuages Gallery in 1999. I refer to graph­ic artist Jean Giraud, known in the world of fan­ta­sy, sci-fi, and comics as Mœbius. Despite some arguable artis­tic mis­cast­ing (Mœbius did after all make films like Alien and Troneven weird­er”), the French artist took what may be the least visu­al­ly inter­est­ing of Dante’s three Divine Com­e­dy books and cre­at­ed some incred­i­bly strik­ing images. See one above, and more at our pre­vi­ous post.

Martini Inferno

Oth­er artists, like Alber­to Mar­ti­ni, who worked on his Divine Com­e­dy for over forty years, have pro­duced ter­ri­fy­ing images (above) and high­ly styl­ized ones—like these medieval illu­mi­na­tions from a 1450 man­u­script. The range of inter­pre­ta­tions all have one thing in common—their sub­ject mat­ter seems to allow artists almost unlim­it­ed free­dom to imag­ine Dante’s weird cos­mog­ra­phy. No vision of the Infer­no or the lofti­er realms above it can go too far, it seems, even in the absurd video game finale you real­ly have to see to believe. Some­how, I think Dante would approve… well… most­ly.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gus­tave Doré’s Exquis­ite Engrav­ings of Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote

William Blake’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions of John Milton’s Par­adise Lost

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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