The Isolation of Hell

Let me first apologize if this painting is offensive. Art isn’t always beautiful and this particular piece is both eye-catching and disturbing at the same time. You must agree that the depiction of the human anatomy is astonishing. The strain of the muscles is visceral. The agony of the men writhing in pain as they wrestle makes us uncomfortable. One art critic notes how the duo’s “strange fury,” is rendered “magnificently through muscles, nerves, tendons, and teeth.”

This is artist Adolphe Bouguereau’s depiction of hell. Bouguereau is one of the most celebrated artists from the Neoclassicism period that took place throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Most of his most famous paintings featured the human figure.

This painting is one of his most well-known works and is based on the famous legend of Dante and Virgil from Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was a narration of Dante’s trip to the underworld, or hell. This painting depicts a particularly gruesome scene in which Dante and his guide, Virgil, look upon two damned souls who are locked in an everlasting torment that consists of endless combat. Only the bald, bat-winged demon hovering over them seems to take any pleasure in the scene.

In The Great Divorce, Christian writer C. S. Lewis describes “hell” as the state we create for ourselves when we shut ourselves up in what Lewis calls, “the dungeon of [our] mind.”

In The Great Divorce, wandering in the grey town that is hell, no person truly connects with others or with anything real; they are all locked up in obsessions about themselves. In Lewis’ exploration, hell is not “real.” We can leave it whenever we choose, and then it ceases to be. But if we choose to stay there by obsessing about ourselves, our needs, the way we have been misused and wrongly judged by others who do not realize how important we are, then, Lewis suggests, “hell” starts to seep out and into the rest of our lives, so that even things that might have been good, fruitful, and life-giving are emptied of meaning and filled with only thoughts of ourselves. Lewis’ notion of hell is imaginary, but he is surely on to something with his emphasis on isolation.

Being Human connection: If we don’t maintain contact with other people, we’re liable to become self-centered—and that’s one of life’s most terrible tragedies. Someone has said, “A person wrapped up in oneself makes a mighty small package”—and I might add, a mighty miserable one as well.

Featured art: Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil, 1850, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The description of hell as described in The Great Divorce taken from The Art of Advent by Jane Williams.