Did he or did he not deny the existence of Hell? The controversy about the official opinion of Pope Francis may still be going on – I’ve lost track of its progress – but it reminded me of the time, some years ago, when I was vividly interested in the subject, although not for religious reasons. History of Art was one of my subjects at university, and when it came to selecting a subject for my dissertation, I chose the various depictions, both verbal and pictorial, of the underworld and particularly its infernal region. This was partly a reaction to too many sugary Madonnas and Babies, preferred by my professor, but mainly a rebellious wish to explore a fairly unpopular subject.
The first thing I discovered was that climate determined the prevalent temperature of Hell. In hot countries it was unbearably scorching, but up in the far North Pohjola was a dark, terrible and forever frozen place of icy despair. Ancient Greece chose a moderate climate for an underworld that wasn’t particularly hellish; indeed, its worst feature was the three-headed dog Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades, its best (in my view) Lethe, the river of oblivion, washing away all memories and, by doing that, healing all wounds.
Continuing my search in Southern Europe, Dante’s Inferno with its nine concentric circles of torment almost made me abandon my project: it was so perfect, so superbly organised and all-embracing that it seemed futile to move beyond it. It offered a rich menu of sins – lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery, which, except for heresy, are still practised today, and each variety was illustrated with poignant real-life stories of the sinners who were stuck there for all eternity. But then I realized that it was enough to read the morning paper with a special focus to find gorgeous current examples of those sins. Clearly, lust was behind the inappropriate behaviour of more or less eminent men reported almost daily (sorry, chaps, women can’t catch up with you here, and this gender gap has to be treasured), gluttony cum greed was behind the wave of obesity hitting us, wrath and violence were the parents of conflict, fraud fed the financial pages of the press, and treachery wasn’t hard to find, for instance in politics. But since we live in a secular society, the “sin” bits don’t come into the story; neither does the fear of ending up in Hell. There are other fears – ending up in prison, going bankrupt, becoming a social pariah, losing foolishly one’s celebrity status and so forth, but somehow these lack the dark glamour of one’s individual version of the infernal region.
My project suddenly grew wings with the discovery of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the 16th century Dutch painter of superhuman imagination. His depictions of Hell can be studied endlessly without solving the multiple puzzles of his symbols. Little wonder: it seems clear that Bosch was playing a double game, painting images that were outwardly acceptable to the Church authorities and his wealthy patrons, but hiding behind them was the message of the medieval Cathar heresy. Once I entered the world of Bosch, there was no need for much else…years later I still haven’t solved his intricate, beautiful puzzles and go back to them every time the current world becomes dreadfully colourless.
Yes, Hell is a subject of endless fascination. Still plenty to explore in its depths. And it comes as a let-down to remember the much-quoted dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the peak intellects of the 20th century. He simply said, “Hell is other people.”