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The Representation of Hell in the Gates of Hell and the Last Judgment

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This paper will employ close visual analysis of the Gates of Hell and the Last Judgment describing how the form of the work relates to its function within the representation of hell.

When one stands before the Gates of Hell, s/he is immediately struck by its sheer enormity, complexity and the multitude of figures. The viewer imagines that Rodin has captured and displayed the truth of something terribly human normally not open to lingering observation. The Gates of Hell is “the drama of mankind, shown in the torments of the flesh and of the soul” (Jianou). The main theme of Rodin’s composition is the cycle of the evolution of human consciousness. The thinker is man who has evolved to solitude, meditating as he faces his destiny for his strength rests on his ability to think the world. In Ugolino and his children, we see the eradication of consciousness that allows the animal to re-emerge in man. In the Old courtesan, we have awareness of the human frailty due to the effect of time. And then finally, there is conscience forgotten in giving in to the irresistible call of passion, the Kiss and Fugit Amor. (Jianou) The last version of the Gates of Hell encompasses no less than 186 figures. One of them is the Falling Man, it’s a detail of the lintel of the Gates of Hell. Rodin shows off his genius as he represents the extreme muscular tension and the foreshortening of the body dangling over the abyss. The Thinker is the central figure of the Gates of Hell, in his position, he is observing what’s happening below him. The Thinker serves two purposes as both a witness and a participant in the tour, providing access for the reader to the events described in the text of The Divine Comedy told in first person. Without the figure of Dante in the Divine Comedy and on the Gates of Hell, the reader/ viewer would have no personal access to the lessons of the infernal tour, but could only witness in passive fear the punishments of Hell like one who approaches a church portal’s stony Last Judgment. His task in the Inferno is to comprehend the nature of human sin with open eyes and from there find his way back to the correct path which is that of reason guided by faith. What Rodin represents in the figure of Dante on the lintel of the Gates of Hell is exactly that_ the soul who retains his ability to comprehend, who sees the truth of human existence and its limitations, but has lost his faith. His will to recover the “straight way”, conveyed by the tension of the powerfully contorted musculature of the body and in the clenched fist and furrowed brow, remains at this point latent but it is indeed present.

Furthermore, among the many figures, a man can be seen crawling on his hands and knees like a scavenging animal, he seems oblivious to the dead children who appear to be clinging to him. Illustrating the story of Ugolino, the traitor confined in a tower and left to starve with his children whom he ends up eating. Rodin’s treatment is expressive for he shows us Ugolino’s last moments when reduced to a beast, crawls to the bodies of his dead children about to devour them. There is also a woman is clinging to a man’s body. This is Francesca, wife on earth to a far older husband who fell passionately in love with Paolo, her brother in law/ tragedy strikes when Francesca and Paolo are murdered by her husband. Their adulterous passion leads them straight into hell. He shows lovers buffeted and tossed by the winds of hell a punishment reserved for those guilty of lust. They’re still Francesca and Paolo but now a general image of lovers who refuse to be parted. As John Berger observes of Rodin’s free-standing sculptures in the round: All are prisoners within their contours….It is as though the figures were being forced back into their material: if the same pressure were further increased, the three-dimensional sculptures would become bas-reliefs: if increased yet further the bas-reliefs would become mere imprints on a wall. The Gates of Hell, as Berger explains, is a “vast and enormously complex demonstration and expression of this pressure”

If you take a look at the Last Judgment scene by Gislebertus, the idea would be clearer if we first look at the lintel and examine it from left to right. On the lower edge of the lintel are carved tombs from which the dead are raised by the song of the angels’ horns. In the center, under Christ’s feet, stands an angel with a sword, dividing the elect from the damned. The elect occupy the left side of the lintel. Some are just stepping out of their sarcophagi, others stand in or on them. The figures on the right-hand half of the lintel are the damned and the inscription below the corresponding half of the tympanum reads “Here let fear strike those whom earthly error binds, for their fate is shown by the horror of these figures”. The damned are all shown in the nude. Some cover their faces in terror; a collector with a bag of money hanging round his neck and a snake twined round his body, is clearly screaming. An adulterous woman has two snakes biting her breasts. The figure next to her is being strangled by two enormous claw-like hands. There is the figure of a saint holding a book, probably St. John. Next to him stands the Archangel Michael, with two souls clinging to his garments and seeking protection. The Archangel is weighing souls, and has a devil as his adversary the devil is made to look horrible not only by his monstrous head, tail and claws but by his thin, skinny body, half-human, half- reptile. In contrast to St. Michael whose garments serve as a refuge for souls, the devil drags an unfortunate by the hair while a three-headed snake coils between his legs. The motif of the weighing of souls as it occurs in the tympanum is also closely akin to Byzantine art. Since the subject is so familiar from later Last Judgments, it needs to be emphasized that this is one of its earliest known appearances in the West as part of a fully developed Last Judgment although it had long been a standard feature of the Byzantine Last Judgments. The portrayal of the subject at Autun is markedly similar to the Byzantine type, with demons of sticklike thinness attempting to interfere with the action of the scales.

The Last Judgment’s forms are non-naturalistic, patterned and dependent for their effect on a decorative use of distortion with angular postures and differences in scale. It’s a sculpture that treats most of its forms in an abstract manner, as trapezoids, triangles and circles based on the space they are to fill. The figure of Christ is flat, almost two-dimensionally represented as there is no concern with the proportion of the body. French art historian Henri Focillon has stated that this sculpture takes hold of the naturally chaotic world of man and subjects it to a geometrical order that is completely indifferent to the natural world.

On the other hand, in Rodin’s Gates of Hell, the turbulent world of man is represented as is with the integration of the characters. More importantly, he helps sculpture recover its modernity by breaking firmly with the search for smoothness and fine finishes. In fact, the door comprises both, parts which are finely worked and finished like Ugolino’s arms and others just beside them which bare rough traces of the sculptor’s shaping fingers. In addition to that, Rodin came up with many innovative ideas in relation to sculpture one of which being the idea of repetition in the shades. All the characters are exactly identical and carved from the same mold. Each is at the slight angle from the others so the various aspects can be seen from a glance without being viewed in the round. The second innovative element is Rodin’s experimental simplification of forms, here he is taking advantage of an accident which lead to the shades losing their hands, he makes no attempt to conceal the amputation it is brutal and the effect is reinforced by the fact that for Rodin as a sculptor, the hands are the most important part of the body and it is shown throughout the rest of his works.

In the Last Judgment tympanum, there is little detail in the robe worn by Christ, a repetition of delicate lines indicate folds in the fabric. The fabric is pressed tightly against the slender body of Christ, revealing boney twig-like legs bent at the knee. The fabric begins to flow loosely at the bottom above his feet. The fabric sways and curls, giving a sense of movement that echoes the foliage embellishing the tympanum. All the figures are upright and elongated; these vertical lines suggest spirituality, rising beyond human reach towards the heavens. On the other hand, in Rodin’s Gates of Hell, there are many diagonal lines which convey a sense of movement and instability. The vertical and horizontal lines that make up the shape of the gate communicate stability and permanence.

Gislebertus managed to combine emotional tension with liturgical gravity, depth of modeling with shallowness of projection, variegated in gesture, crowded in detail yet forming as a whole superior composition of serenity and splendor. This really shows Gislebertus’s genius as a sculptor. At an enormous scale, the Last Judgment tympanum is meant to be seen in frontal view, it is sort of two-dimensional in appearance and that’s why there aren’t a lot of shadows being cast. There is this dramatic use of depth that creates contrast which gives the illusion that Christ is protruding forward into space compared to the rest of the characters in the strict geometric layout.

Meanwhile, the figures in the Gates of Hell range from the nearly planar on the door posts to fully three dimensional in the round sculptures on the panels and in the tympanum. Of all Rodin’s works, the Gates of Hell is a sculpted surface that embraces both, two dimensions and three dimensions at once. It is apparent that Rodin wanted to reinterpret low relief in a way which would make the décor part of the whole and allow the play of light to give the sculptural motifs variety. He discovers his fascination with light, the intimate movement of surfaces and planes and the pulse of passion that livens up form. He uses high lights, heavy shadows and transitions so fine giving his sculpture the glow of living flesh. Accordingly, in the same work, he alternates characters which scarcely emerge from the surface of the door to characters in the round which all but detach from the background. This combination makes for more vivid light and shade across the surface. It also leaves room for the imagination to roam freely as the high relief releases the intensity and expressive power of the human form in an undetermined space. Rodin’s original concept for the spatial organization of the Gates of Hell, was to arrange isolated episodes from various verses of the Inferno in a grid manner, somewhat similar to the Paradise Doors by Ghiberti. Rodin quickly abandoned this concept and was rather inspired by the medieval tympana relief sculptures in which figures alternately merge with and emerge from their framework.

Rodin’s initial inspiration came from Inferno (Italian for “hell”), the first part of Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s (1265–1324) epic poem The Divine Comedy. This subject has been tackled in various artworks throughout history however, Rodin imagined the scenes described by Dante as a world with limitless space and a lack of gravitational pull. This allowed for constant and thorough experimentation by the artist, to produce figures that obey no rules in their gestures and poses. The gates of hell is a work both of reason and of passion, of reason in that it represents an awareness of the solitude of man and of passion in that it raises the language of form to a level of intensity and power hitherto unknown in the sculpture of the 19th century. It is not a gate in the functional sense, for it could never be opened.

The Last Judgment is one of the very first monumental sculptures to be made in the medieval period. Monumental sculpture was at a time of crisis due to the economic and political chaos of the medieval period. However, around 1000 BCE things began to stabilize and there was a massive building boom of churches in Europe during that time and so, we start seeing monumental sculpture on the doorways of churches. The subject matter, the last judgment, includes scenes of the nativity and passion, allegories, devils and suffering. The subject is the Last Judgment, but its theme is an abstract one: the creation and salvation, the object of man for whom the world was created. At the center is the great Christ in Majesty with the saved at his right hand and the damned at his left. The fact that it’s placed on the exterior of the building is meant to let people know exactly what the story is before they go into the church. It was the agency of the artist to illustrate these narratives to make people understand what is being said for people at that time were illiterate. It is intended for public viewing and meant to inspire fear and reverence.

As in Medieval relief sculpture, the importance of particular individuals is often represented using hierarchy, whereby larger sizes represent greater importance. Medieval sculptors’ main goal was not the representation of realistic spatial relationships but rather the communication of spiritual concepts. Christ often occupies the central position in his frontal position of grandiose authority, other figures of minimal importance lurk in comers, merging with their architectural surroundings. The church tympanum becomes in this way a sort of miniature of the universe and the structure of the church itself becomes the frame for the tympanum and for the figures within it. Less important figures, sometimes demons, occupy the fringes of the spiritual existence, but the ruling presence is ultimately God. Rodin adopts this approach in his Gates of Hell. Interesting issues arise when comparisons are made between Medieval Last Judgment sculptural antecedents of Rodin’s Gates of hell with Dante’s text. Medieval and Early Renaissance manuscripts tended to illustrate Dante’s description in Inferno canto 3 of the “Gate” to hell as a structure emerging from rock in the appearance of a fortress town gate. These early illustrations following Dante’s assumed meaning often presented the entrance to hell gaping open, in that the fall into sin and its eternal punishments in the Inferno is an easy one. Unlike what it has been previously represented, Rodin’s sculpture doesn’t really function as a gate for it doesn’t open but rather it’s permanently closed. The Gates of Hell cannot be thought to be a literal illustration of Dante’s words in Inferno canto 3, though the meaning of the text is implied within the sculpture as a whole, as through and by the presence of the gates we witness the agonies of the residents of Hell, those who have “abandoned all hope”.

The Gates of Hell is neither the illustration of Dante’s Divine Comedy nor a Fantastic image of the Last Judgment. It is the artist’s profound meditation on the condition of man. Hell is not Hades, nor Lucifer’s realm. Hell is in the torments, the unfulfilled desires of the human soul.

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