Vegder's Blog

September 30, 2016

Oh Hell! – an introduction

Go to heaven for the climate,
Hell for the company
– Mark Twain

As usual I have picked a subject which is too big for my tiny brain. But, as in the past, this kind of thing never stops me – maybe because I am such a limited thinker and therefore don’t know any better. But for now join me and we will take a look at some of the enormous range of ‘hell’ topics. Clearly this will require more than a single post. So if we should all live long enough maybe, just maybe, we will get a sense of it – as disgustingly painful as that might be. Let’s start off with something juicy from Japan.

From the Lyon Collection.

Now for something equally juicy from Europe.

The torments of hell – an anonymous Italian print ca. 1560 or later
British Museum

There, that should get your attention. But if it didn’t maybe this one from a European source might, just might, be of more interest to you – to your liking: Greek mythology.

Prometheus – a collaboration between Ruben and Snyders
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Hades is the name of a place and a person – neither of them real 

“Hades, n.  The lower world; the residence of departed spirits; the place where the dead live.” This is a quote from The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary by Amborose Bierce, a very witty fellow.

Ribera – 1632 – Tityus (Τιτυόν), the son of Jupiter and Elara, chained to a rock in Tartarus
having his liver pecked out by an eagle for all eternity
The Prado Museum

And I saw Tityus, son of revered Earth,
lying on the ground covering a vast area.
Two vultures sitting on either side of him tore into his body
and ate at his liver,
and his hands could not keep them off.
For he had assaulted Leto, the renowned consort of Zeus…

Etching of Tityus, ca. 1811. Aeneas and the Cumean Sibyl are seen in the upper right.
British Museum

Lyon Collection

Charon (Χάρων) crossing the river Styx (Στυξ) –

Joachim Patinir 1520-24
The Prado

Notice the tiny soul of the deceased being taken naked to the hell side of the river – on the right. While on the left side is the heavenly kingdom with angels. If only.

Right now I am metaphorically slapping my forehead. I say ‘metaphorically’ because I am not really doing that because I am typing, but if I wasn’t I would be. Why? Because, stupid me, I forgot that Achilles (Αχιλλεύς), one of the great, great, greatest heroes of all time died for two reasons: 1) hubris and 2) because his mother Thetis (Θέτις) dipped him as an infant in the River Styx to make him invincible. Except, forgetting that she had left his ankles vulnerable by holding him there, and this became his Achilles heel. The most human and exposed spot on his body. And who killed him? Paris, who shot an arrow into that spot. Now that is justice for you. The gods had a rivalry which causing Paris to abduct Helen. The Greeks sought revenge. Achilles, a Greek, wrecked havoc on the Trojans and Paris did the same to him. What a mess. What a tragic, tragic mess.

Böcklin’s 1880 Isle of the Dead
The Kunstmuseum Basel

Böcklin never explained the imagery in this painting. In fact, actually as I recall, he didn’t even give it a title. It was one of his dealers who called it Die Toteninsel. Makes sense to me. But… my point: he doesn’t tell us that the oarsman is Charon, while on the other hand he doesn’t tell us he isn’t.

Auguste Rodin gave us a non-traditional Barque of Charon. Is that a baby in the ferryman’s arms? Looks like it.


Lyon Collection

The King of Hell sitting in judgment –

Kyōsai – Tokyo National Museum

Hell scene tattoos –

Yoshitoshi 1860 figure with an elaborate tattoo
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

If you look closely at his shoulder you will see two disembodies heads on top of Emma-ō’s staff. They are Miru-me and Kagu-hana (見る目嗅ぐ鼻), one can see all evils and the other can smell the stench of past events. The karmic mirror is placed behind them. Below them on the man’s body is a demon by the fiery hell carriage. Notice that all of these elements appear in the painting by Kyōsai in Tokyo shown above.

Sometimes it is best if you just fight back – in your dreams Jack!

Kunichika – 1864 – Suikoden Heroes in Hell (水滸伝地獄回り – Suikoden jigoku meguri)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Lyon Collection

And what about Dante and his damned Inferno?

The Barque of Dante by Delacroix
The Louvre

Is hell a reality or a metaphor? What about hell on earth? Aleppo? Or…

Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.
Ariel in The Tempest, Act One, Scene 2
William Shakespeare

Raft of the Medusa by Gericault
The Louvre

Lyon Collection

The Harrowing of Hell – Descensus Christi ad Infernos – The Gospel of Nicodemus

Nicodemus is first mentioned in John 3:1 –

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher who has come from God. For no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

It is from this passage that the legend about Nicodemus grew up and the eventual medieval text known as The Gospel of Nicodemus. It was a late addition to another apocryphal text, the Acta Pilati or the acts of Pilate. None of these works are now considered original to the New Testament, but that did nothing at the time to stop the mythologizing of Nicodemus and ‘his’ tale. That is why he along with Joseph of Arimathea are often seen taking the lifeless body of Jesus down from the cross. Joseph, too, is mentioned in the New Testament because he was said to have gone to Pontius Pilate and asked permission to take the body off of the cross and to be allowed to bury it.

Below is a painting by Rogier van der Weyden from the Prado showing Nicodemus, probably the old man in the red skull cap, helping lower the body. Joseph of Arimathea is thought to be the man in gold on our right.

Descent from the Cross – before 1443
Rogier van der Weyden – The Prado

Austrian stained glass window from Ebreichsdorf Castle – ca. 1390
The Harrowing of Hell – aka Christ’s Descent into Limbo (or Hell, if you like)
The Cloisters

Ebreichsdorf Castle, a few miles south of Vienna, was used as a line of defense against the Mongols in 1380. It was plundered by the Turks in 1683. No wonder they wanted and celebrated the life of Jesus in the chapel which was added to the ancient to the castle. It’s a miracle any of them survived. Hallelujah!

Lyon Collection

There is a hell in the Islamic world too, but only the Shia would create images related to it. That is how we found a 16th century page from a Safavid manuscript, the Chain of Gold. It is a beautiful painting with many different elements, but it is the image in the lower left corner which shows a dark-skinned, bearded figure of Satan who is chastising a man who is sodomizing his camel which is most startling. Clearly this is one of those actions that can damn a person for the rest of eternity.

Freer Sackler Galleries


The Hell Courtesan

Chikanobu (1838-1912)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Kiyochika (清親: 1847-1915)
The Hell Courtesan – 1884 – detail
Ritsumeikan University

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Lyon Collection

The Last Judgment!

Joos van Cleve – ca. 1520-25
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Goltzius – Descent into Hell – from the Last Judgment

Lyon Collection

Hell as political satire 

In the first satirical print shown below Napoleon is sooooooo bad that even hell doesn’t want him. When the devils saw him approaching they cried out:

Turn him out of Hell – turn him out of Hell or else he’ll ruin all
Napoleon responds:
I am come to make you all free & happy!
Two of the devils cry out:
Get you gone. You have cheated the Dutch & Italians;
therefore Master says he’s afraid you may take him in too!!

Isaac Cruikshank – 1803
The Devil won’t take him; What a pity!!!
British Museum

But by 1808 the mood had changed. Below a caricature shows Satan is guiding the emperor into the jaws of hell while distracting him by the glories and prospects of the sun of the West Indies.

Buonaparte and his Old Friend on their Travels!!
1808 – British Museum

The Devil Prevails
British Museum


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