THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

08 March 2013

To Hell and Back: Dante and the Divine Comedy

It would be impossible to overstate the cultural significance of Dante’s Divina Commedia (the Divine Comedy), so we won’t even try; suffice it to say that the work has had a profound influence on subsequent authors, painters, sculptors, poets, and filmmakers – even modern graffiti artists and video-game designers. The poem tells the story of Dante’s travels through the three realms of the dead: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise).  He is guided through Hell and Purgatory by the Roman poet Virgil, while Beatrice – Dante’s ideal of womanhood – escorts him into Paradise.

 

 

Historiated initial ‘N’(el) of Dante and Virgil in a dark wood, with four half-length figures representing Justice, Power, Peace, and Temperance, with the arms of Alfonso V below, at the beginning of the Divina Comedia, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 1r

 

One of our most recent uploads to the Digitised Manuscripts site is an excellent example of the medieval interpretation of the Comedia.  This manuscript, Yates Thompson MS 36, was produced 1444-c. 1450 in Tuscany, probably in the city of Siena, although the identity of the original patron is still unclear.  Some scholars have argued that it was made for Alfonso V, the king of Aragon, Naples, and Sicily (r. 1416-1458) who was known to have owned the manuscript in the later years of his life.  It was certainly a lavish production, and must have been an expensive undertaking.  The manuscript includes more than 110 miniatures created by two of the preeminent artists of the day; Priamo della Quercia painted the illuminations for the Inferno and Purgatorio, while Giovanni di Paolo produced those in the Paradiso

Below are a number of miniatures from throughout the manuscript; please see here for the fully digitised version.

 

Yates_thompson_ms_36_f006r_detail

Detail of a miniature of Dante being rowed by Charon across the River Acheron, from the closing lines of Canto III in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 6r

 

Yates_thompson_ms_36_f010r_detail

Detail of a miniature of Virgil addressing the carnal sinners Paolo and Francesca, as Dante swoons in horror, in illustration of Canto V in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 10r

 

Yates_thompson_ms_36_f020r_detail

Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil looking into the tomb of Pope Anastasius, and the three tiers of the violent, suicides, and other malefactors, in illustration of Canto XI in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 20r

 

Yates_thompson_ms_36_f046r_detail

Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil witnessing Vanno Fucci, the pillager of a church in Pistoia, being attacked by the monster Cacus, who is half-centaur and half-dragon, and Dante and Virgil speaking to three other souls, tormented by snakes and lizards, in illustration of Canto XXV in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 46r

 

Yates_thompson_ms_36_f062v_detail

Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil witnessing the gigantic figure of Dis, with his three mouths biting on the sinners Cassius, Judas, and Brutus, and Dante and Virgil emerging from the Inferno, in illustration of Canto XXXIV in the Inferno, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 62v

 

Yates_thompson_ms_36_f098v_detail

Detail of a miniature of Dante speaking to two of the Slothful, while Virgil observes the two Slothful, and the Siren, illustrating Canto XVIII/XIX of Dante's Purgatorio, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 98v

 

Yates_thompson_ms_36_f119r_detail

Detail of a miniature of Dante and Virgil with others in the heavenly Procession, from the Paradiso, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 119r

 

Yates_thompson_ms_36_f130r_detail

Detail of a miniature of Beatrice explaining to Dante that the universe is a hierarchy of being, with creatures devoid of reason in the early 'sea of being', and heaven as nine spheres rules by the figure of love, from the Paradiso, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 130r

 

Yates_thompson_ms_36_f154r_detail

Detail of a miniature of the Resurrection of the dead, from the Paradiso, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 154r

 

Yates_thompson_ms_36_f162r_detail

Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before the eagle of Justice, from the Paradiso, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 162r

 

Yates_thompson_ms_36_f187r_detail

Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before the Virgin and Child, who are seated within the Celestial Rose, surrounded by various saints, from the Paradiso, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 187r

 

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

Comments

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.