Giovanni da Modena, The Punishments of the Damned in Hell, 1410

The depiction of Hell and Heaven in Art of the Eternal

The text below is the excerpt of the book Art of the Eternal (ASIN: B016XN11ZA), written by Victoria Charles, published by Parkstone International.

Read Art of the Eternal (Part 1) here

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,

So do our minutes hasten to their end.

Each changing place with that which goes before,

In sequent toil all forwards do contend.

Nativity, once in the main of light,

Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,

Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,

And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.

Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth

And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,

Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,

And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:

And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,

Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Sonet 60, William Shakespeare

Purgatory and Hell

As soon as reason is in fair possession of the idea of a continued individual existence beyond the grave, the moral sense, discriminating the deeds, tempers, and characters of men, would teach that there must be different allotments and experiences for them after death. It is not right, say reason and conscience, for the coward, the idler, fool, knave, sot, murderer, to enter into the same realm and have the same bliss with heroes, sages, and saints; neither are they able to do it. The spontaneous thought and sentiment of humanity would declare, if the soul survives the body, passing into the invisible world, its fortunes there must depend somewhat upon its fitness and deserts, its contained treasures and acquired habits. Reason, judging the facts of observation according to the principles of ethics and the working of experienced spiritual laws, at once decides that there is a difference hereafter between the fate of the good heart and the bad one, the great soul and the mean one: in a word, there is, in some sense or other, a heaven and a hell.

Again: the same belief would be necessitated by the conception, so deeply entertained by the ancient people of the earth, of overruling and inspecting gods. They supposed these gods to be in a great degree like themselves, partial, fickle, jealous, revengeful. Such beings, of course, would caress their favourites and torture their offenders. The calamities and blessings of this life were regarded as tokens, revengeful or loving, of the ruling deities. And when their votaries or victims had passed into the eternal state, how natural to suppose them still favoured or cursed by the passionate wills of these irresponsible gods! Plainly enough, they who believe in gods that launch thunderbolts and fortify the sea in their rage and take vengeance for an insult by sending forth plague, must also believe in a hell where Ixion may be affixed to the wheel and Tantalus be tortured with maddening mockeries. These two conceptions of discriminating justice and of vengeful gods both lead to the theoretic construction of a hell, and to the growth of doctrines and parables about it, though in a different sort, the former illustrating a pervasive law which distributes men according to their deserts, the latter speaking of beings with human passions, who inflict outward arbitrary penalties according to their pleasure.

William Blake, Illustration from Dante’s Divine Comedy: Antaeus Setting down Dante and Virgil in the Last Circle of Hell (Inferno, XXXI, 112-134), 1824-1827, Art of the Eternal, Victoria Charles
William Blake, Illustration from Dante’s Divine Comedy: Antaeus Setting down Dante and Virgil in the Last Circle of Hell (Inferno, XXXI, 112-134), 1824-1827 . Pen and ink and watercolour over pencil, sheet: 52.6 x 37.4 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

A fundamental part of the ancient belief was that below the surface of the earth was a vast, sombre underworld, the destination of the ghosts of men, the Greek Hades, the Roman Orcus, the Gothic Hell. A part of the service of initiation was a symbolic descent into this realm. Apuleius, describing his initiation, says, “I approached to the confines of death and trod on the threshold of Proserpine.” Orpheus, to whom the introduction of the Mysteries into Greece from the East was ascribed, wrote a poem, now lost, called the Descent into Hades. Such a descent was attributed to Hercules, Theseus, Rhampsinitus, and many others. It is painted in detail by Homer in the adventure of his hero Ulysses, also by Virgil much more minutely through the journey of Aneas. Warburton labours with great learning and plausibility, and, as it seems to us, with irresistible cogency, to show that these descents are less than exoteric accounts of what was dramatically enacted in the esoteric recesses of the Mysteries. Any person must be invincibly prejudiced who can doubt that the Greek Hades meant a capacious subterranean world of shades. The Egyptians and some other early nations, we know, figured the starry worlds in the sky as ships sailing over a celestial sea. The earth itself was sometimes emblematised in the same way. Then, too, there was the sepulchral barge in which the Egyptian corpses were borne over the Acherusian lake to be entombed. Also the “dark blue punt” in which Charon ferried souls across the river of death. A wavering boat floating on the deep might, with striking fitness, typify the frail condition of humanity in life, as when Hercules is depicted sailing over the ocean in a golden cup; and that boat, safely riding the flood, might also represent the cheerful faith of the initiate in a future life, bearing him fearlessly through all dangers and through death to the welcoming society of Elysium, as when Danae and her babe, tossed over the tempestuous sea in a fragile chest, were securely wafted to the sheltering shore of Seriphus. No emblem of our human state and lot, with their mysteries, perils, threats, and promises, could be either more natural or more impressive than that of a vessel launched on the deep. The dying Socrates said “that he should trust his soul on the hope of a future life as upon a raft, and launch away into the unknown.” Thus the imagination broods over and explores the shows and secrets, presageful warnings and alluring invitations, storms and calms, island homes and unknown havens, of the dim seas of nature and of man, of time and of eternity.

Abû Ma’shar al-Balkhî, The Book of Nativities (Kitab al-mawalid), Art of the Eternal, Victoria Charles
Abû Ma’shar al-Balkhî, The Book of Nativities (Kitab al-mawalid). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

The general idea of a hell has once obtained lodgement, it is rapidly nourished, developed, and ornamented, carried out into particulars by poets, rhetoricians, and popular teachers, whose fancies are stimulated and whose figurative views and pictures act and react both upon the sources and the products of faith. Representations based only on moral facts, emblems addressing the imagination, after a while are received in a literal sense, become physically located and clothed with the power of horror. A Hindu poet says, “The ungrateful shall remain in hell as long as the sun hangs in heaven.” An old Jewish Rabbi says that after the general judgment “God shall lead all the blessed through hell and all the damned through Paradise, and show to each one the place that was prepared for him in each region, so that they shall not the narrative of Charinus and Lenthius, the sons of the Simeon of the Nunc dimittis, who were those who came out of their graves after the Crucifixion.

Representations of Paradise are not common in art. In pictures of Christ in Glory, the Trinity, the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin, and the Last Judgment, heaven is usually represented by circles of adoring angels, and outside these, the Apostles, Martyrs, Doctors, Fathers of the Church, holy men and women, seated on or surrounded by clouds. Fra Angelico is one of the few artists who have endeavoured to portray the “New Earth” which will be for the delectation of the faithful. He paints a flowery meadow with angels and saints hand in hand in sweetest fellowship seeming to circle with rhythmic movement over the flowery grass. Yet in representations of hell there are plenty of instances of how easily men’s imaginations run to excess of horror and cruelty, rather than of beauty and happiness, for it is one of the commonest subjects in medieval art.

The Last Judgement (detail), c. 1460-1480, Art of the Eternal, Victoria Charles
Master of the Beatitude of the Virgin Mary, The Last Judgement (detail), c. 1460-1480. Oil on wood, 57 x 40.5 cm. Stiftung Rau, Cologne.

The commonest form of depicting hell was the mouth of a huge monster emitting flames. Bound and helpless souls are cast into it by demons, and are shown chained in it. Another form was that of a cauldron, or a lake of fire, with terrible demons in it. In a 13th century manuscript the ideas are combined, and a cauldron filled with souls is held in the mouth of a monster, while devils blow the flames.

The Islamic descriptions of the doom of the wicked and the torments of hell, copious and vivid, are constantly illustrated throughout the Qur’an, for example, the Day of Judgement is strikingly depicted in Chapter 56: “But those on the Left, what people they are! They will dwell amid scorching wind and scalding water in the shadow of black smoke, neither cool nor refreshing. Before they overindulged in luxury and persisted in great sin, always saying, ‘What? When we are dead and have become dust and bones, shall we then be raised up? And our earliest forefathers too?’ Say [Prophet], ‘The Earliest and latest generations will all be gathered on a predetermined Day and you have gone astray and denied the truth will eat from the bitter tree of Zaqqum, filling your bellies with it, and drinking scalding water, lapping it like thirsty camels. This will be your welcome on the Day of Judgement.” [Qur’an 56:41-56]

Michelangelo, The Last Judgement: Damned Soul Descending into Hell (detail), 1536-1541
Michelangelo, The Last Judgement: Damned Soul Descending into Hell (detail), 1536-1541. Fresco, 1375 x 1220 cm. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

The Romanist theologians divided the underworld into four parts: hell for the final abode of the stubbornly wicked; one limbo for the painless, contented tarrying of the good patriarchs who died before the advent of Christ had made salvation possible, and another limbo for the sad and pallid resting place of those children who died unbaptised; purgatory, in which expiation is offered in agony for sins committed on earth and unatoned for. Traces of belief in a purgatory early appear among the Christians. Many of the gravest Fathers of the first five centuries naturally conceived and taught, as is indeed intrinsically reasonable, that after death some souls will be punished for their sins until they are cleansed, and then will be released from pain. Dante’s The Divine Comedy with a wonderful truth and feeling of the age in which it was written, best captures the medieval beliefs in future life especially within its illustrations of purgatory and hell.


Heaven, according to mankind, has generally been conceived as a definite, exclusive, material place. It is considered to be either some celestial clime on the surface of the earth, a happy island beyond the setting sun, or this whole globe, renovated by fire and peopled with a risen and ransomed race. Heaven seemed to be a calm spot in the sky, curtained with inaccessible splendour and crowded with eternal blessings. It was natural that men should think of heaven as a place where all the evils which they knew were excluded and where all the good they knew were carried to the highest honour with God himself visibly enthroned in entrancing glory amidst throngs of worshippers.

Heaven, then, in essence, is not merely a favoured locality, not merely a resigned soul, but the result of a combination of these in a just relation. It is neither a playing power in the material environment nor an inherent attribute of the spiritual instrument; but it is the music which flows from the instrument when it is attuned to react in coordination with the acting environment. Salvation, consequently, is not simply a divine place of abode, not simply a divine state of soul; but it is these two conjoined. It is the experimental deposit between the two poles of rightly ordered conditions in the realm and rightly directed energies in the inhabitant. Heaven, then, in the best and briefest definition we can give, is the will of God in fulfilment, or the law of the whole in uncrossed action.

Correggio (Antonio Allegri da Correggio), Assumption of the Virgin, 1526-1530
Correggio (Antonio Allegri da Correggio), Assumption of the Virgin, 1526-1530. Fresco, 1093 x 1195 cm. Cathedral of Parma (Duomo), Parma.

Hell is the experience produced by the rebound of violated law. Or, if we hold that, strictly speaking, a divine law is incapable of violation; as every seeming resistance to gravitation is in fact a deeper obedience to gravitation, then we may say, in more accurate phrase, hell is the collision and friction of the limitations of different laws. It is the discord of the part with the whole. It is the antagonism of the soul with God. But the perpetual preservation of a perfectly balanced antagonism with God is inconceivable. If it grows worse, it will finally destroy itself, the aberrant individuality or malign insurgence vanishing in the totality of force, as the filth of our sewers vanishes purely in the purity of the ocean. If it grows better, its improvement will finally transform the opposition into reconciliation, the evil disappearing in good. Therefore, every being must at length be saved from misery, if not by redemptive atonement then by absolvent annihilation, and one absolute heaven finally absorb the dwindling hells

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