Home | Alexander Order | Articles | Latest News

Dante meets the black demon

The Divine Comedy with Dali's Illustrations: INFERNO

Part 4 of 6 (Cantos 19 to 24)


By B. John Zavrel


'THE SIMONIACS', woodcut # 19 by Salvador Dalí illustrates PART 4 of the six-part series on Dante's INFERNO.


(19) Dante comes upon the SIMONIACS (sellers of church favors and offices), and his heart overflows with wrath against those who corrupt the things of God. This ditch is lined with round, tube-like holes and the sinners are placed in them upside down, with the soles of their feet ablaze.

As always with Dante, the punishment is a symbolic retribution. Just as they made a mock of the holy office, so they are now turned upside down and punished with fire. They meet one of the chief sinners in this place, Pope Nicholas III, and Dante makes another stirring denunciation of those who have corrupted church office. Then, Virgil carries him toward the next ditch.


(20) Dante now stands in the middle of the bridge over the fourth ditch, and looks down at the souls of the FORTUNE TELLERS and DIVINERS. Here are the souls who attempted by forbidden arts to look into the future.

Their sin is reversed upon them: their punishment is to have their heads turned backwards on their bodies, and to be compelled to walk backward through eternity, their eyes blinded with tears. Thus, those who sought to penetrate the future now cannot even see in front of themselves and must go backwards through all eternity.


'THE BLACK DEMON', woodcut # 21 by Salvador Dalí illustrates PART 4 of the six-part series on Dante's INFERNO.


(21) The poets move on, and arrive at the fifth ditch. Here the GRAFTERS are sunk in boiling pitch and guarded by demons, who tear them to pieces with claws and hooks if they catch them above the surface of the pitch.

The sticky pitch is symbolic of the sticky fingers of the Grafters. It serves also to hide them from sight, as their sinful dealings on earth were hidden from men's eyes.

The poets watch a demon arrive with a grafting senator and fling him into the pitch where the demons set upon him.

To protect Dante from their wrath, Virgil hides him behind some jagged rocks and goes ahead alone to negotiate with the demons. Their leader, Malacoda gives them a safe conduct and sends a band of demons to escort them. Their adventures with the demons continue through the next canto.


(22) The poets set off with their escort of demons. Dante sees the Grafters lying in the pitch like frogs in water, with only their muzzles out. They disapper as soon as they sight the demons and only a ripple on the surface betrays their presence.

One of the Grafters ducks too late and is seized by the demons who are about to claw him, but their leader holds them back while Virgil questions him. The wretch speaks of his fellow sinners, while the uncontrollable demons rake him from time to time with their hooks.

He offers to lure some of his fellow sufferers into the hands of the demons, and when his plan is accepted he plunges into the pitch and escapes. Two of the demons fly after him, to too late. They start a brawl in the air, fall in the ditch and the other demons have to rescue them. The poets, fearing the bad temper of the frustrated demons, take advantage of the confusion and slip away.



'THE HYPOCRITES', woodcut # 23 by Salvador Dalí illustrates PART 4 of the six-part series on Dante's INFERNO.


(23) The poets are pursued by the Fiends and escape them by sliding down the sloping bank of the next pit. They are now in the sixth ditch. Here the HYPOCRITES, weighed down by great leaden robes, walk eternally round and round a narrow track. The robes are brilliantly gilded on the outside and are shaped like a monk's habit, since the hypocrite's outward appearance shines brightly and passes for holiness, but under that show lies the terrible weight of his deceit which the soul must bear for all eternity.

The poets come upon Caiaphas, the chief sinner in that place. He was the Hight Priest of the Jews who counseled the Pharisees to crucify Jesus in the name of public expedience. He is punished by being himself crucified to the floor of Hell by three great stakes, and in such a position that every passing sinner must walk upon him. Thus he must suffer upon his body the weight of all the world's hypocrisy, as Christ suffered upon his body the pain of all the world's sins.


(24) The poets move on and cross the bridge of the Seventh Ditch and descend the far bank to observe the THIEVES. They find the pit full of monstrous reptiles who curl themselves about the sinners like living coils of rope, binding each sinner's hands behind his back, and knotting themselves through the loins. Other reptiles dart about the place, and the poets see one of them fly through the air and pierce the jugular vein of one sinner who immediately bursts into flames until only the ashes remain. From the ashes the sinner re-forms painfully.

The allegorical retribution is apparent. Thievery is reptilian in its secrecy; therefore it is punished by reptiles. The hands of the thieves are the agents of their crimes; therefore they are bound forever. And as the thief destroys his fellowmen by making their substance disappear, so is he painfully destroyed and made to disappear, not once but over and over again.


… to be continued …



© PROMETHEUS 106/2006

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, News, Politics and Science. Nr. 106, APRIL 2006