This month sees the launch of the Linden Endowment of the Arts (LEA) Full Sim Arts Series. The first exhibit in the series is by Rebeca Bashly, a stunning interpretation of Inferno, the first part of Dante’s 14th Century epic Divine Comedy which opens the Series in a truly grand style.
You arrive in darkness – the ambient lighting is intentional, so it is best to leave your settings thus. Beside you is a notecard giver; if you are not familiar with the Divinia Commedia, the card, graciously provided by Flora Nordenskiold, is a good place to start.
The poem comprises three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, and represents the medieval view of the afterlife, as developed by the Western Church of the time. As a purely linguistic note, it also helped to establish the Tuscan dialect – Dante was born in Florence, and wrote his poem in Tuscan – as the standardised Italian.
Inferno itself deals with Dante’s passage through hell guided by the Roman poet Virgil (Dante himself claims in Inferno XV, 76 that his family is of ancient Roman descent). As the poem opens, Dante is lost in a dark wood, unable to escape a lion, a leopard and a she-wolf, which prevent him finding the “right way” to salvation. Driven deeper into the woods, he is at last rescued by Virgil, and the two of them begin their journey to the underworld. And it is with Virgil, as he stands patiently just a few metres from the arrival point, that our own journey begins.
Virgil leads us first to the Gate of Hell, which bears the famous inscription, “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” – “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”, and through which we must pass and enter the “vestibule”. This is where the Uncommitted, souls who did neither good nor evil in life and who are neither in hell or out of it, reside on the banks of the River Archeron. And it is here that Charon awaits aboard his ferry, waiting to carry the damned across the river and into hell itself. For those visiting the exhibit, the way is a little easier: touch Virgil as he awaits beside Charon, and be teleported to the First Circle.
Limbo is reserved for those who, while not sinful, did not accept Christ into their lives. It is sometimes described as a “deficient form of Heaven”, because without baptism, the soul cannot hope for anything greater. It is here, wandering green fields with the seven-gated castle (representing the seven virtues) close to hand, that Dante encounters the souls of Eclid, Ovid, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Saladin, and many others. For us, and across an lawn of silent souls, Socrates and Homer wait at the entrance to the castle keep.
Within the castle, we encounter other souls as we climb the stairs – perhaps Electra and Camilla, both referred to in Dante’s poem – before meeting Virgil once more on the roof, and our journey continues to the Second Circle.
Turning in the winds of a violent storm for all eternity, are those who gave themselves over to the sin of lust. Here Dante witnessed Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, Tristan and many others blown about needlessly and helplessly by the winds of hell that represent the aimless power of lust.
Cerberus stands guard over the gluttons, who lie sightless and heedless of those around them in a vile slush produced by an unending, icy and foul rain falling from a leaden sky.
The victims’ lack of awareness symbolises the cold, selfish, and empty sensuality of their lives. The slush itself represents the true nature of sensuality: overindulgence in food and drink and other forms of addiction.
In Dante’s poem, Virgil secures their onward journey by filling Cerberus’ three mouths with mud. The visitor faces no such risk with the beast – although we must navigate through the horde of silent, grasping bodies to reach Virgil, patiently waiting for us to touch him, so he can transport us to the penultimate of the five circles of self-indulgent sin.
In the Fourth Circle we encounter those who gave their lives over to greed, either through hoarding (the avaricious) or through squander (the prodigal), locked in a never-ending battle with one another pushing great weights as weapons against one another, which Dante describes as a form of jousting.
From Greed we fall to Anger, and a bitter, violent battle between the wrathful, fought in the swamp-like waters of the river Styx, where those so confined bite and rip the flesh from one another or withdraw beneath the brackish surface, “Into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe”.
Here Dante and Virgil encounter Phlegyas, who reluctantly carries them across the Styx aboard his skiff while they observe the wailing and fighting all around them.
In crossing the Styx, Dante and Virgil journey from the first Five Circles, representing the self-indulgent sins, towards the walls of Dis, wherein lie the more active sins that are both violent (the Sixth and Seventh Circles) and malicious (the Eighth and Ninth Circles).
We have no Phlegyas, however, and so must walk among the eternally angry to reach Virgil id we are to reach Dis.
Entering the City of Dis, one must pass the three furies, blood-covered guardians of those who eternally burn in their tombs of fire for their heresy. Here, as with Dante, we encounter Farinata degli Uberti and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti – although unlike Dante, we cannot converse with them.
From here we descend to the Seventh Circle – Violence – itself divided into three rings.
The seventh circle is guarded by a mighty minotaur and contains both centaurs and harpies. It is divided into three rings, depicting different forms of violence, and different punishments for those condemned therein.
- The outer ring contains those who were violent towards people and property during their lives. They are immersed in a river of boiling blood – Phlegethon – to a level according to the severity of their sins, while centaurs patrol the banks of the river, using arrows to shoot any who attempt to rise higher in the river than their sins allow
- The middle ring contains those who were violent against themselves, who have been transformed into gnarled bushes and trees and who are fed upon by harpies
- The inner ring is reserved for those who have acted in violence against God (blasphemers) or nature (sodomites and usurers). They reside in a desert of flaming sand, under a sky raining flakes of fire; the blasphemers condemned to lie on the sand, the usurers to sit upon it and the sodomites to wander across it.
Fraud covers a multitude of sins – so many, in fact that Dante envisioned no fewer than ten stone ditches, or Bolgie, to represent the various forms of punishment for fraud. These ditches in turn contain: seducers, flatterers, those committing simony, false prophets, corrupt politicians, hypocrites, thieves, fraudulent advisers, sowers of discord and various kinds of falsifiers.
Wisely, Rebeca hasn’t attempted to reproduce all ten Bolgie, but has selected a number to represent our journey through hell – but I will leave it to you to visit the exhibit and discover which they are!
Both Fraud and the Ninth Circle are reached by way of a Geryon, a creature comprising human, bestial and reptilian parts, said to represent the image of fraud: the face of an honest man, the body of wyvern and a snake-like tail with a nasty sting. Sadly, we must rely on Virgil to move us through the Bolgie and onwards to the Ninth Circle.
The final circle of hell is reserved for those guilty of treachery, each entombed in the ice of lake Cocytus according to the degree of their sin. In all there are four “rounds” of treachery in which those found guilty are entombed to ever greater degree. Some are frozen up to their faces, others completely sealed by ice, their bodies distorted by the freezing walls of the prison that holds them.
In the very centre of hell lies a three-faced Satan, trapped from the waist down in ice. All three faces weep in anguish, while the three mouths chew on those Dante considered the most treacherous of all – Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot. Forever trapped, Satan’s six wings forever beat against the grip of the ice in a vain attempt to escape its grip.
Dante and Virgil escaped the Ninth Circle by climbing Satan’s back to reach another hemisphere, which Dante described in Purgatorio. For those of us visiting Rebeca’s work, however, the teleport offers a safer means of escape.
This is a massive installation that is a great opening to the LEA Full Sim Art run – and I recommend you take time out to visit it. It is a tremendous visual interpretation of Dante’s work, and you should allow time for your visit as there is much to see; the attention to detail is wonderful. It is worth trying to keep to the ambient lighting throughout – but there are times when you need to add a little more light to scenes in order to appreciate them fully – as I had to do, in order to capture the wonderful minotaur seen in this piece.
Should you opt to change time-of-day settings, I really recommend you only use sunrise or sunset as alternatives, and then only for the particular element of the exhibit you are in – go back to midnight before you teleport on.
It is with regard to the teleports that I have my only complaint: some were a little less than smooth – one even threw me completely out of the installation when I ended up trapped in flying mode, unable to control where I was going!
This aside, however, and as stated, this is a piece really worth visiting. Kudos to Rebeca for an amazing interpretation of Dante’s work.
Rebeca Bashly’s Inferno will be open to visitors until the end of the month, and will be replaced in November by ~(Not-A-Knot) by Tyrehl Byk and Forgiving by The Pink Tutu Ballet Group, said to be a piece inspired by Desmond Tutu!
With oodles of thanks to Spikeheel Starr for the title of this piece.