Go to (artistic) Hell

Like the real world isn’t scary enough these days? Now I’m asking you to join me in visiting Hell?

Hold on. This is *artistic* Hell—how artists across history and cultures have depicted a punishing afterlife. And it’s really interesting. It can even be a fun, momentary diversion from the genuinely scary things like politics, climate change, Putin’s war on Ukraine, etc.

I’ve just launched Facebook and Instagram feeds on the art of Hell. You can find them on either of those social media at @hell_scapes. Here are links to the Facebook page, and to the Instagram account. We’ll explore some works that may be familiar to you (Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights) and some that are likely to be completely unfamiliar (a 15th century Central Asian image of Muhammed at the gates of Hell).

Garden of Earthly;y Delights
Vision of Hell by Heironymous Bosch, in his Garden of Earthly Delights triptych (late 1400s, in the Prado Museum).
Muhammed rides towards red gates that mark the entrance to a fiery Hell
Muhammed (with the turban) approaching the gates of Hell, on a mystical steed called a buraq. From a 15th century illuminated manuscript of Nahj al-Faradis, or The Path to Paradise. From the Timurid Empire, which encompassed today’s Iran. Iraq and much of Central Asia. Image from the David Collection in Copenhagen (inventory # 14/2014), photographed by Pernille Klemp.

Why am I doing this? My fantasy novel Shaken Loose, which will be published in summer 2023, is set in Hell. In doing research for it—yes, writing about an imaginary place did require research!—I ran across a lot of intriguing, moving, gruesome, or just plain bizarre paintings and sculptures.

These images tell stories of what the artist and their society valued and condemned. And of what they feared: After all, they were trying to depict the Worst Punishment Imaginable. They tell us something about the artist’s own self: Were they gloating at those tormented souls as they painted them in flames or chains? Were they feeling compassionate? Rebellious? Confident about their own destiny, or worried?

These images also raise related questions about ourselves. Why have we humans felt such a widespread need to imagine a punitive afterlife? Of course we yearn for justice that may not manifest itself in our lifetime. But does justice always require punishment? How about our criminal justice system today: Can we imagine and implement a form of justice that isn’t centered on the infliction of pain and suffering?

Painting of souls in purgatory
Souls in purgatory, from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, an illuminated manuscript created around 1440 in the Netherlands. In the Morgan Library. The Hellmouth is a common motif in medieval European art.

I invite you to follow either the Instagram or Facebook feed. (They have the same content.) Beyond that, I invite you to help! Think of it as a Hell Art Scavenger Hunt. If you’re visiting a museum and find a painting or sculpture of Hell, take a photo of it along with its informational plaque and send them to me. I will credit you as the “finder” of this treasure.

You can expect one or two posts each week — not enough to overwhelm, just enough to provide a moment of whimsical or thought-provoking relief from work Zooms, stalled commuter trains, or bad news headlines.

Join me in Hell! For fun and relaxation! Meet you at the fiery gates. Or cave. Or jaws.

You can find purgatory in suburban Connecticut. Photo by Ilana DeBare

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