Arts essay: Dante: from dark forest to light itself

William Blake’s illustration of Virgil leading Dante through the gates of hell

As every Italian schoolchild knows, The Divine Comedy opens in a supernatural “dark wood” just before sunrise on Good Friday, 1300. Dante Alighieri, a figure in his own work, has lost his way in middle age and is alone and frightened in the darkness. At the request of a woman called Beatrice, the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil is about to show him hell.

Midway in the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark forest,
for the right path was lost.

Begun in the first decade of the 14th century, Dante’s three-part poem through hell, purgatory and paradise is, for many, the greatest single work of Western literature. It gathers together an extraordinary range of literary styles: lyric, satiric and biblical – as well as some memorable invective.

The poem’s bold intermixture of realities, from the sublime to the vile, is part of what makes it seem so modern. Unsurprisingly, The Divine Comedy inspired many late 18th-century British artists, from William Blake to Henry Fuseli.

But the most graceful and sinuous of Dante illustrations were those by the York-born neoclassical draughtsman and sculptor John Flaxman, a somewhat forgotten figure today. Pared down and restrained to the point of severity, the illustrations convey a maximum of drama with the minimum of means.

In 1787 the diminutive, hunchbacked Flaxman left for the Continent. During his seven years in Rome he became a master of the concise outline which he had perfected earlier while working for the potter Josiah Wedgwood. Flaxman’s Dante illustrations, appearing first in Rome in 1802, exerted a huge influence on continental artists such as David and Goya.

They were published in London in 1807 in a book, Compositions by John Flaxman, RA, from the Divine Poem of Dante Alighieri, containing Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. The book speaks to universal human experiences: loss, uncertainty, dread, sorrow, bereavement, love and faith. Dante’s muse Beatrice moves across the pages like a phantom, the flowing lines of her robes suggesting the decorative reliefs on classical Greek vases and friezes: simple, Neo-Attic lines, no shadow. Lucifer is a gargoyle-like monster in heavily accentuated outline.

Just as Dante’s search for self-knowledge had ended in heaven, so Flaxman’s mysteriously abstract The Beatific Vision concludes his reading of the third and final part of Dante’s poem, Paradise. Here the radiant circles of heaven are etched in the faintest of black dots like tiny piano keys. Outlined in dots at the very centre is God. The strangeness of the design anticipates science fiction.

Inevitably, popular reworkings of Dante have concentrated on “the man who travelled to hell”. For the Gothic Revivalists Dante held all manner of lurid fascinations. Henry Fuseli, Flaxman’s contemporary “sublime” master, executed five paintings and 13 drawings based on The Inferno. Fuseli was drawn to German Sturm und Drang notions of inchoate terror. (He was born in German-speaking Zurich in 1741.) Thieves’ Punishment, completed in 1772, shows the thieves of cantos 24-25 metamorphosed into low creeping serpents. Bent as Fuseli was on death and the necromantic imagination, there is only one drawing by him on a subject from Purgatory and none at all from Paradise. Fuseli’s friend William Blake was another who saw in Dante a fierce Franciscan spirit.

Blake was pretty well forgotten when he died in London in 1827. A single mysterious poem, The Tyger, had reached the anthologies, but his reputation as an artist was at a low ebb. Unfinished on his death, Blake’s Divine Comedy illustrations were seen at the time as the work of a madman.

Through excruciating gallbladder attacks, Blake the artist/poet sat bent over his drawing book, and managed to produce 102 watercolours, some of them not much more than pencil indications. Taken together, they add emphasis to Dante’s condemnation of materialism and money-lending, which appealed to the Blake who had spoken out against the “dark satanic mills” of proto-capitalist England. (Dante reckoned it was wrong to make money speculatively, that is from the future, because the future belonged to God alone.)

Unquestionably Blake saw himself as Dante’s equal. Scenes of starry rapture coexist in the illustrations with scorching flame and a savage wilderness of pain. Blake’s flaming imagination, like Fuseli’s, was better suited to conveying infernal panoramas. Yet his Paradiso illustrations rank as the greatest response to Dante’s Elysium by any British artist. For WB Yeats they were simply the “crowning work” of Blake’s life.

Paradise, Dante tells us, is beyond night and day; it is light itself, an idea conveyed by Blake in his beautiful Beatrice on the Car, Matilda and Dante, which is suffused with a fabulous rainbow radiance and spirit of mystical pantheism. Across great fields of light Beatrice stands imperious on a chariot, a Virgin Mary-like figure.

As a devout medieval Catholic, Dante was permitted to see Beatrice as a “reflection” of Christ or speculum Christi (mirror of Christ). If God had created humanity in his own image, men and women could act as mirrors by “reflecting” his ways. Blake seems to have intuited as much.

Ian Thomson’s Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Journey Without End is published by Head of Zeus on August 6