The Hell from The Old Testament to Classical Art

             by Ciprian IVAS


            Searching for terms in classical languages we find the latin one being suggestive. The latin term is “infernum” coming from the phrase “inferum” which means “below”. Christian interpretation, especially popular perception of ordinary Christians over hell substantially differs from the early hebrew people. Hebrew cosmology speaks of so-called “Sheol”, “place down below” and designates the bottom of the Universe.

            The Old Testament says about hell that would be “the meeting place of all mortals” (Job 30, 23). So at first simply hell is the abode of the dead. The all dead. For hebrew, Sheol is part of the destiny of all people. It  is not an evil place. It is a place where everyone meets their ancestors after death.

            But with the passage of centuries, the conception of Sheol essentially altered. Instead the place of the dead becomes a place of punishment for sinful souls. King of Babylon is threatened by Isaiah: “In hell descended your glory in the song of your harps. Below you will lay maggots and worms are your covering ” (Is 14, 11).

            Images of the Jewish Sheol change consecutively with those of Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed by fire (Gen 19, 23) and the abyss of the Tophet Valley. It becomes a place of terror. The former abode of the dead becomes a place of eschatological punishment.

            Along comes the idea of ​​reward of the righteous and the promise of the Resurrection (2M 12, 43; Wis 3, 1-10). Later Christians took the terrifying images of Old Testament prophecy style.

            In classical art we have some reference representations:

            In the literature we have Raoul Houdenc and his “Dream of Hell” in the twelfth century. The famous first part of Dante Divine Comedy, entitled even Inferno. Agrippa d’Aubigné’s Chapter VII appointed “The Judgement” in “The Tragics” opera from 1616. The poet Baudelaire lies hell even in humans. Another great poet, Rimbaud and has made a mental hell in “A season in hell”. Dostoevsky in the  novel “The Brothers Karamazov” by the mouth of Elder Zosima sais that hell is “suffering of not being able to love.” Hell can also be an external reality. For Clément Marot, Renaissance poet, translator of the Psalms, hell is the Châtelet prison. Surrealist Luis Aragon says that hell is the modern city and Solzhenitsyn identifies hell with the Soviet prison system.

            In the field of sculpture Auguste Rodin fails to complete the work of Hell Gate.

            In painting we have a whole gallery of Judgement of great painters who took on mentioning here Michelangelo in the Sixtine Chapel, Fra Angelico, Rogier van der Weyden and Hieronymus Bosch.

* painting by Giotto, Inferno, 1306


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