First Circle of Hell: more on interpretations of Dante

In our last post, The Great Artists Influenced by Dante, we showed the way a number of visual artists have interpreted Dante’s Divine Comedy over the centuries, including specific attention on the classic works of 19th century French illustrator, Gustave Doré. Several readers responded with interest to our artistic overview of works inspired by Dante. So here’s a different and more speculative idea to consider: How Dante’s writing, and the Doré engravings in particular, influenced a different kind of visual arts genre – film.

During our research for Secrets of Inferno we came across a blog post by J.D. Markel on the online film review Bright Lights Film Journal. In the commentary, Markel compares many individual shots from the 1969 film Easy Rider to Doré’s engravings for Divine Comedy.  See below for a short excerpt.  And check out Markel’s full commentary on brightlightfilms.com here.

First Circle of Hell: Limbo

Canto 4 begins with Dante asleep:
A monstrous clap of thunder broke apart
the swoon that stuffed my head; like one awakened
by violent hands, I leaped up with a start. (4.1-3)

Easy Rider reenacts this scene by having Wyatt demonstratively clap his hands to awaken Billy after their first night on the road. Billy leaps up only as Hopper could act it, wiping his “stuffed” forehead. The next lines align with Wyatt’s surveying of the landscape:

And having risen; rested and renewed,
I studied out the landmarks of the gloom
to find my bearings there as best I could. (4.4-6)

One of the objects Wyatt sees is an old compass. After this gloomy section on the outer edge, Dante’s first circle of hell is not such a bad place. Indeed, it can be quite pleasant and green. Its denizens are the souls of just and good people and children who died without Christian salvation or baptism. Notable inhabitants include Homer, Horace, Ovid, Caesar, and Avicenna. Virgil himself resides here. In one passage Virgil refers to the event called the “Harrowing of Hell.” This is Christ’s brief descent into hell after the crucifixion. Upon leaving hell Christ takes Old Testament figures such as Moses, David, and Rachel to heaven. The Harrowing of Hell comes up several times in The Divine Comedy, and will be liturgically visited later in Easy Rider’s sixth circle of hell.

Fitting for limbo, the Riders do a lot of floating around on bicycles, touring beautiful countryside almost aimlessly. They visit a ranch and have lunch with a family of ten: rancher, Indian wife and eight children. The Riders add two, and wash their hands in a basin in the fashion of a pre-Passover meal ritual. The twelve almost comprise a complete Last Supper
setting. Why is this family in limbo? They are sinless; indeed the children are like angels. They are Christian too, perhaps chosen for contrast with Dante.

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