Once upon a time, I was a high school student on my first trip to France. Our class’s itinerary was packed, and so many of my memories of Paris lack quite a bit of detail. I remember snatches of architecture, the pain in my legs after whole day of walking, and my first taste of Nutella. The one place that truly sticks out amidst that pile of snap-shot images is the Rodin Museum. Through the gates and around the grounds, those first moments with Rodin’s sculptures have lasted longer. They seem to extend and fill with breath. They are real memories that I truly experienced, not flashes of sensation that almost seem like a dream.
All of the sculptures in the place fascinated me, but none more so than The Gates of Hell. I remember standing in front it, looking at all of the images, drawn to and repelled by what I saw. I never truly delved into the history of that piece. Until now.
Now, The Gates are not actually doors. They were supposed to be, but in the end, they simply allude to an entrance-way Alas, the doors do not open. Visually, the victims of Hell appear too entangled to allow an opening. And it is quite the knot, with about 186 figures represented.2
At eye level, human forms emerge from graves. Above, demons are “brandishing and casting the souls of the damned into the abyss.”3 At the top of The Gates, in the center of the tympanum, “a pensive male figure watches their endless, ineluctable fall.”3 The figures cascade down the doors, and although many have individual context, the tangle of forms come together as a whole. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke observed that Rodin wished to eliminate “everything that was too solitary to subject itself to the great totality.”2
Rodin worked on this piece for about 37 years. He began in 1880, commissioned by the Directorate of Fine Arts to create an entryway for the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. (NOTE: I don’t know why he chose to make the theme for that entryway “Hell”…but I think it’s rather hilarious.) He was supposed to finish it in 1885, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he continued to work on The Gates until his death in 1917…so you you could say that he never really finished. The process of developing figures for this complex subject inspired some of his most famous works, like The Thinker and The Kiss. What I love reading, however, was what inspired him. Which pieces of myth, literature, and history did he weave together to make such an extraordinary work of Art?
Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy: Inferno
Rodin loved this tale of Dante and Virgil’s journey through the 9 concentric layers of Hell. Although he studied the epic extensively and “the poet’s spirit broods over The Gates, relatively little specific content of the Inferno appears among the figures Rodin produced.”1
Rodin looked to several church entryways for inspiration, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. On that particular door, Ghiberti used separate panels to depict various scenes, most of which were based on events in the New Testament. However, Rodin became enthralled with the physical nature of the reliefs on doors in medieval cathedrals. “These would capture light and shadow and carry a multitude of figures in high and low relief, swirling, jumping off the structure, defying the rigid framework of conventional decorative architecture.”2
Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal
This controversial book, first published in 1857, was declared “an insult to public decency,” and the poet was fined 300 francs by the Second French Empire. Baudelaire had a significant influence on The Gates, second only to Dante. Rodin was a great admirer of the poet’s philosophies, considering him a “compelling witness to the uncertainties and hollowness of his times.”1 In fact, Rodin illustrated a new edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal in 1888.
Descend, descend, pitiable victims,
descend the path to eternal hell.
Plunge to the very depths of the gulf where all crimes,
Lashed by a wind not from heaven,
Boil by a disorder with a sound of storm.
It is believed that this volume of poetry inspired Rodin’s The Embracing Couple. Rodin’s figures are tragically incompatible; the male is forceful and muscular. The female appears delicate and thin. Her legs are closed, his open. He seems to grab her head and neck with his large hand and turn her head towards his. Her arm is curled, perhaps attempting to cover herself.
Many of the figures on The Gates are inspired by this literary masterpiece. It is a narrative poem that chronicles the history of the world. And this isn’t just any poem. It spans 15 books and depicts over 250 myths. Orvid’s retellings, which include expanded versions of popular Greek myths, are influenced by Orvid’s philosophies, the “decadence after the Golden Age, caused by the lower instincts of greed, violence and lust, not only acting in a female Eve – as propagated by Christianity – but also in the male half of mankind.”4
The Three Shades (Les trois Ombres)
These three figures at the top of the door represent the Three Shades from Dante’s Inferno. The Shades (aka damned souls) stood at the entrance of Hell, pointing to an inscription: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Rodin’s Shades stand at the top of the Gate, and “the downward gesture of their left arms and their heads conveys despair as it summons the viewer to gaze upon the Gates.”2
Caryatids are sculpted female figures that give architectural support to a structure, not unlike a column or pillar. The sculpture usually stands tall, supporting the entablature on her head. Rodin’s Caryatids struggle, forever burdened with physical weight and mental anguish. One Caryatid cowers in the upper corner under the entablature.
There are many mysteries to the myth of the Sirens. Yet, all references agree to their femininity and their habit of luring sailor to treacherous cliffs with their seductive songs. Rodin’s three Sirens are indeed beautiful as they kneel on a rock. The three figures were originally meant to be more ferocious, like the three Furies in the Inferno.4 However, the artist chose to make these three seductive, for women in Rodin’s Hell “demonstrate the threefold coalescence of sexual attractivity, sin and punishment.”4
Ugolino and His Children (Ugolino et ses enfants)
These structures are based on a medieval tale of an Italian count. During the thirteenth century, Count Ugolino della Gherardesca was accused to treason and imprisoned in a tower with his sons. The Archbishop threw the keys into the river and left his prisoners to starve. In Dante’s dramatized version of the tale, Ugolino goes blind and his children starve to death. Dante’s dramatization suggests that Ugolino eats his children:
… And I,
Already going blind, groped over my brood
Calling to them, though I had watched them die,
For two long days. And then the hunger had more
Power than even sorrow over me
(Canto XXXIII, ln. 70-73)
Rodin’s interpretation elaborates on that scene. “Here a blind Ugolino, starved and near death himself, crawls on the ground. The horizontal figure, hunched over his children, resembles the beast he is becoming. One child, his head turned upward, may still be alive, as Ugolino appears to caress his with his arm. Another son pulls himself up from the side, reaching his arm across his father’s back. The two younger children are dead.”2 Ugolino retains his humanity, forever starving and forever horrified by the beast he is about to become.
Paolo and Francesca da Rimini
Dante meets Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini in the Inferno. Francesca’s marriage to the crippled Giovanni Malatesta was a political one, and she soon fell in love the Giovanni’s younger brother (who was also married). They managed to keep their affair secret for about ten years, but when discovered, Giovanni killed them both. They are condemned in the inferno as adulterers. Rodin’s “tragic lovers are fated to an eternity of unrealized desire.”2 Their forbidden love appears a few times on The Gates, such at in Fugitive Love. They are together but never in a position to embrace.
Francois Villon’s Le Testament: Les Regrets De La Belle Heaulmière
This medieval ballad by the poet Francois Villon is said to have inspired a figure entitled The Old Courtesan. An old woman mourns the beauty she has lost with age:
When I think, sad wretch, of the good times,
When I gaze at my naked self
(What I once was, what I’ve become)
And I see myself so very changed,
Poor, dried-up, skinny, thin,
I nearly go out of my mind.
A larger sculpture was made in 1885. The figure on The Gates “raises her cavernous face plaintively upward, her body sagging and flaccid.”1
The Thinker (Le Penseur)
In the center at the top of the door sits The Thinker, a figure that famously evolved into the larger sculpture. Its position is symbolic: “In the central place in the tympanum, there appears to be a seat. It is occupied not by Christ — as in medieval representation of the Last Judgement — but by The Thinker, in a tortured reverie above all the turmoil.”1 The question still remains: is the figure Dante, Baudelaire, or Rodin himself? It could even be Adam, forever contemplating the chaos spurred from his sin.
The figures evolved from many different sources. Although the most influential of these was Dante’s Inferno, The Gates do not accentuate supernatural torture. Rodin, instead, suspends the figures in their own excruciating feelings, a result of their utter humanity. “The Gates dramatically draws us to the depths of the human condition. It is Rodin’s unprecedented modern vision, born of experience, sympathy, and pity, not of vengeance. Hell, Rodin insists, in here on earth, to be faced alive, and finally, alone.”2
Click here to see a fantastic photo of The Gates of Hell. It is a HUGE picture, so you can look closely at all the details in this masterful sculpture.
1. The World of Rodin. Hale, William Harlan. Time-Life Books, Virginia (1969).
2. Miller, Joan Vita and Gary Marotta. Rodin : the B. Gerald Cantor collection (1986): 11-30. Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications. Database. 18 Apr 2013. <http://libmma.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15324coll10/id/99556/rec/65>.
3. The Gates of Hell The story of a damned artwork . Canal Educatif à la Demande, Web. 18 Apr 2013. <http://www.canal-educatif.fr/en/videos/art/2/rodin/gates-of-hell.html>.
4. Rodin Works: The Gates of Hell. Rodin-Web. Hans de Roos. 19 Apr 2013. <http://rodin-web.org/works/1880_gates.htm>.