Dante’s Inferno

Dante’s Inferno

It’s been almost a year since I read Inferno by Dan Brown, but there are some events and descriptions from that book which are fresh in my memory, like I had read them only yesterday. The gripping nature of the plot and the beautiful places and artworks in and around Italy, compelled me to learn more about all these places and literary works. One such description is that of Hell, from The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri referenced by Mappa Dell’Inferno by Sandro Botticelli.


Written in Italian, the Divine Comedy describes Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)and Virgil’s imaginative journey through the three phases of the afterlife: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio(Purgatory) and Paradiso(Heaven). Dante describes Hell as a series of nine concentric circles each filled with sinners of different kinds. Dante progresses trough the circles along with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil encountering these sinners who are doomed, even in the afterlife with endless torment and punishment which is ‘contrapasso’, resembling or contrasting the sin itself.

The MappoDell’Inferno, which is featured in Dan Brown’s Inferno, is the most famous illustration of the same by the Florentine Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli(1445-1510). The most notable paintings by Botticelli are Primavera, The Birth of Venus, and The Adoration of the Magi among others. Botticelli was so infatuated and bewitched by Inferno that he made several illustrations of it, adding his own interpretations.

Each ring in Dantes Inferno describes a sin. As you go deeper into the rings, the density of the sin increases, ending with the most atrocious sin of all- treachery. The nine rings of Inferno are:


  1. Limbo: Here lie the unbaptized and pagans, who though not sinful, did not accept Jesus Christ. These guiltless souls are punished by living in a deficient form of Heaven.
  2. Lust: These are the first to be truly punished in Hell and are punished by being blown back and forth by the terrible winds of a violent storm, without rest. This symbolizes the power of lust to blow one about needlessly and aimlessly.
  3. Gluttony: The gluttons are forced to lie in a filthy mixture of shadows and putrid water produced by foul, icy rain. The slush reveals the true nature of sensuality – which includes not only overindulgence in food and drink, but also other kinds of addiction.
  4. Greed: The souls whose materialistic desires deviated from the mean are punished here as they are made to roll weights back and forth against each other. The sinners include the avaricious and the prodigal.
  5. Anger: The wrathful forever fight each other on the banks of the river Styx whereas the gloomy and disdainful gurgle in the black mud, sullen and withdrawn from the world.
  6. Heresy: The heretics are punished at this ring, which Dante describes as Satan’s city, The City of Dis where they are condemned to eternity in flaming tombs.
  7. Violence: This circle is guarded by the minotaur, a bull-headed beast and has three divisions:
    1. Outer ring: Houses the souls who were violent against people and property. Sinners are immersed in Phlegethon, a river of boiling blood and fire, to a level measuring equally with their sins.
    2. Middle ring:In this ring are suicides and profligates. The suicides – those who are violent against self – are transformed into gnarled thorny bushes and trees and then fed upon by Harpies. The profligates are those who destroyed their lives by destroying the means by which life is sustained – i.e., money and property. They are perpetually chased and mauled by ferocious dogs.
    3. Inner Ring: Here are the violent against God (blasphemers) and the violent against nature. All of them reside in a desert of flaming sand with fiery flakes raining from the sky.
  8. Fraud: Sinners who committed fraud during their lifetimes are condemned to an amphitheater shaped pit made wholly of stone and of iron color, named Malebolge. The sinners suffer different forms of punishment in ditches known as Bolgia. Ten such ditches house seducers, pimps, flatterers, astrologers, barrators, hypocrites, thieves, and more.
  9. Treachery: The final circle of Hell, known as Cocytus is the deepest level and it is where the fallen angel, Satan resides. Sinners here are frozen deep in the ice, faces out, eyes and mouths frozen shut.

Reading about all this was quite frightening, but I’m sure no one can be less than awed wondering how vivid Dante has imagined his Hell to be. It also instigates a fear within that this might actually be true.

Though the other two parts of The Divine comedy, Purgatorio, which describes how the sinners redeem themselves, and Paradiso, which describes Dante and Virgil’s ascend through the nine levels of Heaven have been featured in artworks and other literary pieces, it was Inferno which gripped the thinkers and painters in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Once again, Inferno has been revived in recent times by thinkers and writers and this indicates just how mankind is fascinated by the unknown.

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