'O pale Galilean, the world has grown grey with thy breath!'

- Swinburne




followed by THE GEOGRAPHY OF HELL according to Dante

Hell from THE LAST JUDGEMENT mural in Albi Cathedral

A small bronze deity from Piravend (Iran) dating perhaps from 800 BC.
The protuberances on the head are probably not horns.

The Christian idea of a flaming Hell came from Iranian Zoroastrianism, and not from the Old Testament.
The single appearance of Satan in the Old Testament is in the book of Job,
where he is not the Evil One but a prosecuting angel.

Indonesian demon, Borobudur temple, Yogjakarta.

In late mediæval times Satan was curiously conflated with 'Lucifer' (Morning Star)
a Middle Eastern deity mentioned in the book of Isaiah.

Poems about Hell

A tongue-sticking, possibly-hermaphrodite, chained devil
on one of the three West Doors of Notre-Dame de Paris.
Note that he is sitting on a pope, a
wealthy cardinal, and a king.

The tortures of the damned, Lincoln Cathedral:
on the left a
wealthy young man is being relieved of his purse by two demons.

On the right two men guilty of a "Crime Against Nature" might actually be enjoying this stage of their infernal experience,
since the toothy snakes seem to enjoy licking and nuzzling.

click to see more at Lincoln

A Hell full of scaly monsters on a transept-capital at the church of St Paul, Narbonne (Aude).

Sensational depiction of Hell at the church of Santa Maria d'Assunta, Fornovo di Taro (Parma), Italy.
Note the centrality of the Rich Man a usurer or user of usury, weighed down by his money-bags of gold
and mirroring the centrality of the King of Heaven above.

A bicorporeal dragon (symbolising Hell ) swallowing a damned soul at Civaux (Vienne).

A more rustic - and more frightening - monster at Cornellana (Asturias)
clawing, like a bear, a naked soul before devouring it.


For over a hundred years from 1850 or even before, the very word 'hell' was not acceptable in polite society beyond the pulpit. Even in the pulpit the word was generally avoided, except by 'low church' sects and preachers. Hell and sex were almost equally taboo.

Perhaps the most famous comment now about Satan's Kingdom of the Nether Regions is from Sartre - "Hell is other people".

topographically it has varied from a place where one froze for a while to a place where one perpetually burned. The ancient Egyptian hell was a very vague place which nobody actually went to, because certain easy rituals were designed to avoid it. The Dis of the Greeks - the realm of the great god Hades - was truly dismal, damp and dark, with souls flitting about like grey shadows, while the Inferno of the High Middle Ages was a multi-level hetero-universe of fires, devils and great noise: a Satanic mill more horrendous even than those brought into being by the English "Industrial Revolution" 600 years later, more appalling even than the concentration-camps of Nazi Germany.

Christ as conqueror stands squashing the head of Satan, whose open mouth displays the damned,
including a monk - Narbonne cathedral (Aude).

click to see more of the Narbonne Hell

In the antique world, hell was not perceived as a real threat until the formulation of Christianity. During the time between the last books of the Old Testament and the writing of Matthew's gospel, circa 250 BC - 50 AD, there was an upsurge in Judæo-Christian belief of an actual, perhaps immanent, place - Gehenna: the burning rubbish-dumps outside Jerusalem, in a place where children were once sacrificed. This is the place referred to in the gospels.

Hell - full of monsters - at La Celle (Cher), France.

Fuentidueña (Segóvia), Spain: The Archangel Michael is weighing souls (performing Psychostasia),
while Demons interfere.

But the concept was vague. Then, around the 4th century, world-wide and amongst many of the main non-polytheistic religions - Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Taoism - there was suddenly an astonishing growth in graphic depictions of hell - some with a reigning devil (Shaitan, Satan, etc.), some without.

These depictions were very detailed, with specific tortures allocated and adapted to specific crimes: if you had ever looked lustfully at a woman you would have your eyes pecked out in hell; if you had been a glutton your liver would be picked out as the vulture devoured Prometheus' liver every night; if you had done false dealings your hands would be cut off and the stumps then dipped in molten lead, again and again eternally.

These wildly-inventive imaginings moved away from the basic conception of hell as a place or condition to be saved from, to a titillating scenario that developed pornographically in all major religions, but especially in Western Christianity.

Ourense, Galicia: A full-colour, almost baroque Romanesque depiction of the Last Judgement,
with a very realistic Luxuria centre-right and a male figure beset by snakes above her.
Below her is a hanged moneybags.

photograph by Martin M. Miles.


Satan, from the Last Judgement in the Scrovegni Chapel, by Giotto

Poems about Hell

An earlier Satan, from the Last Judgement mosaic
on the ceiling of the Baptistery of St John, Florence.

click to enlarge

Something which the big cults had in common, beyond the sudden blossoming of graphic detail amongst their depictions of hell, was the common theme of the story of a journey going down into the Underworld. In Zoroastrianism there is the journey of Arda Viraf, who was in many ways the prototype of all the later stories of journeying through hell or hells.

This story was enormously popular in the Middle East for 1000 years but it is difficult to date exactly, estimated at around 150-200 AD. After this came the Apocalypse of Paul (or Visio Sancti Pauli) -a story which was almost included in the New Testament, appearing in it early on, but excluded by about 500 AD.

It describes an dramatic, truly epic journey down into hell where all the various scenes and layers of the infernal regions are depicted. This story almost certainly shaped Dante's horrific work describing a ghastly factory of unspeakable torture, and, because it was thought to have been written by the Apostle Paul, it carried considerable authority.

Of course, hell is much more interesting than heaven, and the eyes of visitors to Angkor Wat and Conques alike are not drawn to the boring raptures of the blessed, but to the torments of the wicked.
In mediæval Western Europe there was a parallel concept of the ladder which led up to Heaven, with Jesus helping the well-intentioned to climb it. Those who fell (or jumped) off the ladder tumbled into hell. In the Orthodox community, however, hell remains as vague and unimportant as in ancient Greece.

In the West the idea of hell was used partly as a threat, partly as a source of income. In the terrible Lateran Council of 1215, one of the many cynical or insane doctrines promulgated was that hell was perpetual punishment for temporal misdeed, and one could not be rescued from it except by papal indulgence - a conveniently-purchasable ticket against which Martin Luther so successfully revolted.

The whole of post-Romanesque mediæval art is tainted by this doctrine dreamed up by febrile imaginations of theologians, who, however, coolly admitted that the chief (or only ?) entertainment in heaven could be the eternal and voyeuristic joy of watching the tortures of the damned - who, it should be pointed out, were naked.

This echoes Jean Genet's observation that there would be no good guys without bad guys, no Chief Constables without shoplifters.

By thinking constantly about evil, people tend, contrary to their conscious intentions, to create occasions for evil to occur. Holiness became, in the 13th century, an irreversible and nasty (and to some, very lucrative) business.

The fires of hell were, of course, burning madly during that most psychopathic of all periods of Christianity: the burning of tens of thousands of "witches", "heretics" and Jews across that Western Europe which today preaches tolerance and "democracy". Mediæval thologians would have pointed out that the truest democracy is hell, overseen by its president-for-eternity, Lucifer, the fallen angel.

The punishment of Jews in Hell.

Jews being boiled, wearing only the hats they were forced to wear on earth -
from the Hortus Deliciarum, a late 12th century manuscript composed in Alsace.

Click to see the whole page.

Sinners, not Jewish, being boiled in Hell. Girona Cloisters, 12th century.

Hell is always down, in earth, while heaven is always up somewhere in the sky. In Buddhism it is Sudhana who goes down into the hells, and in Islam there are accounts of the Prophet Mohammed going down into the hells as a counterpoint to his journey up to heaven from Jerusalem. In Chinese Taoism, hell is described as an Earth Prison - revealing a theme which runs through all faiths except perhaps Christianity: the notion that hell is somewhere where souls are held until they have paid off their debt of guilt and sin so that they may be released either into heaven or into purgatory.

Christians, on the other hand, can stay there forever - though Roman Catholics believe that a soul can be raised up from hell by the intercession of saints through prayer.
As is evident in this website, the Romanesque 'shorthand' for eternal damnation was the gaping and toothy mouth of the beast: the jaws of hell.

On famous tympana (Conques, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne) and friezes (Lincoln) the committers of actual sins are portrayed repeating them in hell and being punished by devils. But in Anglo-Saxon (11th century) art the most common infernal depiction is the Harrowing of Hell, mentioned in the Apostles' Creed:

"Christ descended into hell and on the third day he rose again". In the picture below, from the 12th century Winchester Bible, filling the bottom of the letter B, the Harrowing of Hell is on the right.

The mythology of the harrowing of hell is Christianity's grappling with the question of where Christ went when he died. It is the only picture that the Orthodox Church will show of the resurrection.

According to the story, Christ breaks down the gates of hell which form the shape of the baptismal font and he brings light and joy into hell. Christ raises Adam and all the just men of the past, regardless of what they have done, and leads them into paradise.

He raises Eve, and all the just women of the past, regardless of what they have done, and brings them to paradise. Christ is then forced to leave hell when Satan complains to God that his realm is being invaded, rather as the Americans invaded Iraq...


One of the best introductions to the mediæval Hell-cult is Aldous Huxley's THE DEVILS OF LOUDUN.


Hell, of course, features in every depiction of the Last Judgement, some of which, as at Conques, are very graphic indeed.
The photo above is of a small church in the Moselle, from the very end of the Romanesque art-movement,
and is the simplest possible sketch of life after death, beautifully carved.

Christ sits in majesty, while to his right a saved soul is rising in full corporeality from the tomb,
and to his left a damned soul is being swallowed by the jaws of Hell.
Above, two archangels sound the Last Trump.

Among those failing to get into Heaven on the Day of Judgement
(on the elaborate portal-tympanum at Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, Corrèze)
is a Jew (with pointed cap) pointing to his circumcision as reminder of Abraham's contract with God.
But it is no longer a ticket to Paradise.


Satan tricephalos-tonguesticker, with fiery crown or hair, holding the Serpent,
on the amazing 12th century façade at Tuscania (Viterbo).
Click the picture to see more.

This superb photo, showing a similar tongue-sticking Satan, but with pronounced horns,
on a capital at Sacra di San Michele in Piemonte was taken by Elio Pallard.

Inside the same church there is also a capital featuring two classic figures of Luxuria.


By the third century A.D. the Tunisian Tertullian
(one of the 'fathers of the Church' who turned Pentecostal and thus was never sainted)
was writing:

'The greatest joy of Heaven is in watching the torments of the damned in Hell -
a spectacle far more pleasing than any upon Earth.'

(De Spectaculis)


[from a Fresco by Giotto]

A fourteenth century illustration of Luxuria/Avaritia in hell
(note that both are crowned)

with Luxuria/Vanitas about to join them.

(Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 22913, detail of f.370r. Augustine, De Civitate Dei
in the French translation of Raoul de Presles (Books XI-XXII). 1370-1380)

The Harrowing of Hell:
Jesus, having descended into Hell, humiliates Satan and releases Adam and Eve (plus others).

according to Dante Aligheri



Dante's Hell is shaped like a funnel that extends all the way to the centre of the earth. It is situated underneath the city of Jerusalem, which is at the center of the Northern hemisphere. Opposite Jerusalem, at the centre of the Southern hemisphere is the mountain of Purgatory. Lucifer/Satan is immobilised at the bottom of Hell, where he fell after defeat in his rebellion against God

This funnel is made of nine circles. The first circle is the widest and, progressively, the ninth circle is the smallest. This ninth circle surrounds Lucifer. Each circle is populated by a different category (or different categories) of sinners.

Much in the structure of Dante's Hell revolves around the number three. Satan is tricephalic, he chews on three treacherous sinners and there are nine circles of Hell. These came from from St Augustine and his association of threes with the Holy Trinity and the Antichrist.


This is a place where the souls of the damned fall at their death. From here they are brought by Charon into Hell itself across the river Acheron. Some souls, the Neutrals, remain here, because they - agnostic perhaps, or relativist - chose neither Good nor Evil during their lives.


First circle: Limbo. Reserved for the souls of the just people who never knew Christ, and those (especially infants) who died without baptism and never committed a sin. Here Dante encounters the ancient philosophers and poets.

Second circle: The Lustful. Dante talks to Francesca da Rimini, who tells him how she became involved in an adulterous affair with Paolo, her brother in law. King Minos guards this circle which is in a state of perpetual storm tossing the souls violently about.

Third circle: The Gluttonous. Dante talks to Ciacco, a Florentine, who used to be a parasite, as he was going from people to people, gossiping on everyone. Ciacco gives Dante the first prophecy of his future exile. Here there is continuous heavy rain. Three-headed Cerberus is the guardian.

Fourth circle: The Avaricious and Prodigals. No relevant character is found here. These souls, mostly clerics, mill about mindlessly, bumping into each other as they push big rocks. The guardian is Pluto, who makes no sense when he talks.

Fifth circle: The Wrathful and Sullen. These souls are submerged into the river Styx, which surrounds the City of Dis. The wrathful emerge from the dirty waters while the sullen are completely submerged. Phlegyas will take Dante and Virgil across this river in his boat. Here Dante talks to Filippo Argenti, an old acquaintance for whom he has no pity.
The city of Disis surrounded by high walls with closed doors guarded by devils, helped by the Furies and the Medusa. They try to stop Dante, but a divine messenger forces them to open the door.



Sixth circle: The Heretics. Dante enters the city of Dis and sees a huge cemetery filled with open tombs with fire coming out of them. One of the tombs contains the souls of the Epicureans. Dante talks to Farinata degli Uberti and Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti, father of Guido, the poet, and Dante's friend.

Seventh circle: The Violent. Introduced by the Minotaur, this circle is divided into three rings:

1) Violent Against their Neighbours (tyrants and murderers). These souls are plunged into a river of boiling blood: the river Phlegethon. They are watched over by the Centaurs.

2) The Violent against Themselves (Suicides) are found in an unnatural forest with leafless trees. These trees are the souls of the suicides. Dante talks to Pier delle Vigne, personal secretary of Frederick II. The trees have no leaves because the Harpies keep plucking them as they sprout. Among the trees Dante sees the souls of the squanderers, chased by bitches.

3) Violent against God and Nature - Blasphemers, Sodomites, etc. Virgil talks to Capaneus, king of ancient Crete, stricken by Zeus's bolt for his rebellion. Then Dante talks to his teacher Brunetto Latini, and later he sees three fellow-Florentines at the edge of the circle.

The river Phlegethon cascades into the Eighth circle, and there is no path to go down. Dante and Virgil are carried there by Geryon. - originally a three-headed, triple-bodied Titan, but described by Dante as a winged beast with the tail of a scorpion but the face of an honest man. He dwells by the cliff between the seventh and eighth circles, and has a hound called Orthrus who is the brother of Cerberus.

Geryon by Gustave Doré

Eighth circle: The Circle of Fraud and Deceit, called Malebolge because it is divided into ten bolge or ditches.

1) Panders and Seducers, whose souls are scourged by horned demons. Dante talks to Venedico Caccianemico.

2) Flatterers. These souls are immersed in excrements. Dante talks to Alessio Interminei and the ancient Thaïs.

3) Simoniacs (Venal Popes and High Ecclesiastics) are set heads down into holes in the rock with flames burning on their feet. Dante talks to Pope Nicholas III, who mistakes him for Boniface VII.

4) Diviners, Astrologers and Magicians, whose heads are turned backwards, so they have to walk backwards. Virgil talks to some ancient people: Amphiaraus, Tiresias, Manto and Eurypylus. Among the modern is Michael the Scot, scholar, astrologer and physician at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, credited with being a magician of great supernatural powers.

5) Barrators (those who sold offices and positions for personal gain) are plunged into boiling pitch and guarded by ten sneaky demons (Malebranche) led by Malacoda (evil tail). Ciampolo of Navarra (a sinner) succeeds in cheating the demons in a hellish context.

6) Hypocrites. whose souls, mostly monks of the Jovial order, walk slowly, clothed in heavy caps of lead. Dante talks to two of them from Bologna.

7) Thieves. These souls keep changing into snakes. Dante recognizes (among others) Vanni Fucci, who predicts the defeat of Dante's party, the Whites, and his exile from the city.

8) Fraudulent Counsellers, whose souls slide away in the ditch as flames. First Virgil talks to Homer's Odysseus, then Dante talks to Guido da Montefeltro, a soft-soaper and self-serving counsellor of his own day.

9) Sowers of Discord and Schism. These souls are physically torn apart. Dante talks to a few, among them Bertram de Bornio, who holds his severed head like a lamp as he walks along.

10) Falsifiers of metals, persons, coins and words. Here it is like a huge hospital with people with all kinds of deformities. As in the previous ditch, this too is crowded. Master Adam is the most colourful.

Ninth circle: The Circle of Treachery is divided into four sections. The sinners are in a frozen lake, Cocytus. This circle is surrounded by the Giants. One of them, Antæus, takes Dante and Virgil and forces them down into the ice.

1) Caina: Traitors to Kin. These are stuck head-first into the ice. Dante talks to Carmiscione de' Pazzi.

2) Antenora: Traitors to Homeland. Dante sees one who keeps biting on another's head. He is Count Ugolino who is gnawing the Archbishop Ruggeri's head. He tells Dante the story of his death.

3) Ptolomea: Traitors to Guests. They are head up in the ice, which is freezing their eyes. Dante talks to Fra Alberigo, who is there while his body is still alive, for having killed his guests as he invited them for dinner.

4) Giudecca: Traitors to Benefactors. These sinners are completely immersed into the ice.
The ice of the Ninth Circle is kept frozen by Lucifer's six flapping wings. Lucifer has three faces, with three mouths, each chewing on a sinner: Judas is in the middle mouth with his head inside, Brutus and Cassius are in the side mouths, with their heads hanging out.

Caylus (Tarn-et-Garonne, my home-village) : Portail Obscur

A 12th century roof-boss in the porch of St Margaret's, Cley-next-the-Sea (Norfolk)
graphically shows the punishment of male concupiscence in the afterlife: one devil holds down a well-endowed male
while a second removes his shift, preparatory to his infernal and eternal rape.

(Compare the scene at

photo by Tina Negus


THE LAST JUDGEMENT mural in the triumphalist Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile in Albi (Tarn)
dates from the late 15th century, and is obviously akin to the works of Hieronymus Bosch,
but emphasises the same sins as the art of the 12th century:

The punishment of the Licentious and Concupiscent.

The punishment of the ungenerous rich.
Above them, the Saved carry the books of their lives.

The punishment of the Self-Satisfied and Proud.

The punishment of the Gluttonous.

A more modest and slightly-later depiction in the parish church of Wenhaston in Suffolk.


Mediæval images of Hell survived a long time.

El Greco completed The Adoration of the Name of Jesus around 1578.
This spectacular painting was completed midway through the Protestant Reformation/Revolution
and it was used as Catholic propaganda. The picture below shows the bottom half.

In the painting, the Pope, the Doge of Venice (the Doge was the head of the oligarchy in Venice),
and Philip II of Spain are kneeling in the adoration of the Name of Jesus .
To the right, the damned (including Protestants, of course) are being swallowed by the monstrous mouth of Hell.



Poems about Hell


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Eugène Atget: L'Enfer (cabaret), 1898.

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