The Gates of Hell  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

La Porte de l'Enfer (translated The Gates of Hell) is a monumental sculptural group work by French artist Auguste Rodin that depicts a scene from "The Inferno", the first section of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. It stands at 6 m high, 4 m wide and 1 m deep (19.69'H × 13.12'W × 3.29'D) and contains 180 figures. The figures range from 15 cm high up to more than one metre. Several of the figures were also cast independently by Rodin.

Contents

History

The sculptural was commissioned by the Directorate of Fine Arts in 1880 and was meant to be delivered in 1885. Rodin would continue to work on and off on this project for 37 years, until his death in 1917.

The Directorate asked for an inviting entrance to a planned Decorative Arts Museum with the theme being left to Rodin's selection. Even before this commission, Rodin had developed sketches of some of Dante's characters based on his admiration of Dante's Inferno.

The Decorative Arts Museum was never built. Rodin worked on this project on the ground floor of the Hôtel Biron. Near the end of his life, Rodin donated sculptures, drawings and reproduction rights to the French government. In 1919, two years after his death, The Hôtel Biron became the Musée Rodin housing a cast of The Gates of Hell and related works.

Inspiration for The Gates of Hell

A work of the scope of the Gates of Hell had not been attempted before, but inspiration came from Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise at the Baptistery of St. John, Florence. The 15th century bronze doors depict figures from the Old Testament. Another source of inspiration were medieval cathedrals. Some of those combine both high and low relief. Also Rodin was inspired by Delacroix's painting Dante and Virgil Crossing the Styx, Michelangelo's The Last Judgment, Honoré de Balzac's book La Comedié Humanine, and Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal.

In an article by Serge Basset printed in Le Martin in 1890, Rodin Said: "For a whole year I lived with Dante, with him alone, drawing the circles of his inferno. At the end of this year, I realized that while my drawing rendered my vision of Dante, they had become too remote from reality. So I started all over again, working from nature, with my models."

Outstanding figures

The original sculptures were enlarged and became works of art of their own.

  • The Thinker (Le Penseur), also called The Poet, is located above the door panels. One interpretation suggests that it might represent Dante looking down to the characters in the Inferno. Another interpretation is that the Thinker is Rodin himself meditating about his composition. Others believe that the figure may be Adam, contemplating the destruction brought upon mankind because of his sin.
  • The Kiss (Le Baiser) was originally in The Gate along with other figures of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini. Rodin wanted to represent their initial joy as well as their final damnation. He removed the figure that became known as The Kiss because it seemed to contrast along with the other suffering figures.
  • Ugolino and His Children (Ugolin et ses enfants) depicts Ugolino della Gherardesca, who according to the story, ate the corpses of his children after they died by starvation. (Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIII) The Ugolino group was cast as a separate bronze in 1882.
  • The Three Shades (Les trois Ombres), which was originally 98 cm high. The over-life size group was initially made of three independent figures in 1899. Later on Rodin replaced one hand in the figures to fuse them together, in the same form as the smaller version. The figures originally pointed to the phrase "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" ("Abandon all hope, ye who enter here") from Canto 3 of the Inferno.
  • Fugitive Love (Fugit Amor ) is located on the right door pane, it is one of several figures of lovers that represent Paolo and Francesca da Rimini. The male figure is also called The Prodigial.
  • Paolo and Francesca is shown on the left door pane. Paolo tries to reach Francesca, who seems to slip away.
  • Meditation appears on the rightmost part of the Tympanum, shown as an enlarged figure in 1896.
  • The Old Courtesan is a bronze cast from 1910 of an aged, naked female body. The sculpture is also called She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker's Beautiful Wife (Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière). This title is taken from a poem that was written by François Villon.
  • I Am Beautiful (Je Suis Belle), cast in 1882, is among the second set of figures on the extreme right portion of the door.
  • Eternal Springtime was cast in 1884.
  • Adam and Eve. Rodin asked the directorate for additional funds for the independent sculptures of Adam and Eve that were meant to frame The Gates of Hell.

Praise

Contemporary art critic James Huneker admired Rodin’s Gates of Hell :

“The Dante Gate,” says Huneker, “begun more than twenty years ago, not yet finished – probably never will be – is as astounding fugue with death, the devil, hell, and the human passions as a beautiful four-voiced theme. I saw the composition a few years ago at the atelier in the Rue de l’Université. It is as terrifying a conception as the Last Judgment [of Michelangelo]; nor does it miss the sonorous and sorrowful grandeur of [Michelangelo’s] Medici Tombs. Yet how different, how tragic, how feverish. Like all great men working in the grip of a unifying idea, Rodin so modified the old technique of sculpture that it would serve him plastically as does sound a musical composer.’”

Cited in “Auguste Rodin, Famous French Sculptor, Dead,” Fine Arts Journal, vol. 35, no. 12 (December 1917): 32.

Locations

The plaster original was restored in 1917 and is displayed at the Musée Rodin in Paris. A series of plaster casts illustrating the development of the work is on view at the Musée Rodin in Meudon. Also in 1917, a model was used to make the original three bronze casts:

Subsequent bronzes have been distributed by the Musée Rodin to a number of locations, including:

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Gates of Hell" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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