From the Middle Ages to modern times, artists using many different mediums have wondered what Hell looks like and what exactly goes on there. But because no one in real life has ever visited and returned, the only ideas humanity has about the underworld are paintings of Hell. According to the Bible, it's a place full of fire where sinners are tormented and punished. Many early paintings featuring Hell are terrifying and reflect the Bible's belief that Hell is a horrible place no one wants to visit.
Hell in art, however, has changed over time as ideas about religious beliefs and world events have led people to develop different attitudes towards the subject. Since art tends to follow the ideals of society, a visual evolution of Hell occurred as the Middle Ages evolved into the Renaissance, which in turn, inspired art movements like Romanticism and Symbolism in protest. Just like people have developed theories about what Heaven is like, artists have formed their own ideas of Hell and shared them in their work. Whether they're full of burning people or a reflection of the artist's personal torment, humanity's visualization of Hell has clearly changed along with history.
Historians believe Jan van Eyck's Crucifixion and Last Judgment may have originally been a triptych, but the painting exists today as a diptych, as only two panels remain. Each panel features a different yet connected scene; the left depicts the Crucifixion and the right God's judgment in which souls ascend to Heaven or fall into Hell. But those who fall into Hell, among them some popes and a cardinal, are torn asunder and devoured by demons, emphasizing the indifference of God’s judgment to earthly status and wealth.
Last Judgment reflects the importance of religion in art at the time, as much of society revolved around its beliefs. The original triptych was thought to be displayed in a place of religious importance, possibly on the doors to a tabernacle or relic.
Painted circa 1426, the piece is an excellent example of Gothic art’s transition towards the early Renaissance, as it demonstrates techniques and styles from both eras. Van Eyck, like the medieval artists, painted halos to highlight holy figures in his paintings, a technique later rejected or moderated by artists of the Renaissance in an effort to emphasize realism.
Throughout the medieval era and into the 16th century, depictions of Hell and Satan revolved around how horrific they were and functioned as a warning against sinning. When Catholicism's important role in society changed between the 15th and 17th centuries, individual interpretations of Hell overtook those described by the church. Hieronymus Bosch interpreted Hell in his own way when he painted the triptych The Garden Of Earthly Delights between 1480 and 1485.
Perhaps inspired by his own life growing up in the aftermath of the Hundred Years War, Bosch depicted Hell as a place where sinners face the horrors of combat instead of being punished and burned in fire. Bosch's belief in God was that of an all-powerful being who would angrily smite those who failed to obey him. The Garden of Earthly Delights became an attempt to convince people to fear this destructive God and live their lives free from sin.
The painting reflects the changes in ideas and art techniques as the Renaissance began. Renaissance artists strived to make art more realistic through the use of perspective and depth. Bosch's painting is considered by some to be an early predecessor to Surrealism, as he based Hell on his own imagination rather than claims made in the Bible or a realistic situation.
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni added The Last Judgment to his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel between 1536 and 1541. Although Pope Clement VII hired him to paint a scene about the resurrection on a wall behind the altar, Pope Paul III requested the subject to be changed to the Last Judgment after Pope Clement passed. Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, the artist added mythological figures who appear in Dante’s text, like Hell’s gatekeeper, Charon, who leads sinners through the river Styx. Figures in the painting depict a multitude of sins denounced by the church, including pride (a man fights back against the angels trying to have him face his punishment) and lust (a man who is pulled to Hell by his genitalia.)
Unlike many paintings of the Renaissance era, Michelangelo did not paint any borders, and the fresco expanded beyond the audience's field of view. It embraced the viewer as a subject in the painting and emphasized that the individual looking at the fresco will be judged in the same manner as those who are painted.
The piece of work was highly controversial at the time for its nudity. Previous to this piece, those in Hell were separated and distinct from other people by the absence of clothes, but everyone including Jesus appeared disrobed in Michelangelo’s original fresco. Realism was an important part of Renaissance art, and artists like Michelangelo studied the human form in great detail. Unfortunately, his decision to paint religious figures without clothing enraged the church so much they later hired another artist to paint clothing on some of them. Despite this, Michelangelo’s interest and skill in reproducing detailed anatomy is clear and inspired other artists throughout the Renaissance and beyond.
Partially inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch, Dulle Griet, AKA Mad Meg, takes Bosch's depiction of Hell and adds a single, central figure. Painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1563, the piece shows the female figure of Flemish folklore dressed in armor and either running into or away from the mouth of Hell. There is chaos around her as people, animals, and other creatures engage in sin and punishment, but she is able to loot Hell itself.
The subject matter is also a departure from religious-themed ideas of Hell, echoing the era’s fractures in Christianity as people searched for their own religious meaning instead of relying on what was dictated by the church. It is believed Bruegel’s use of Hell, Flemish Folklore, and proverbs were a commentary on society, but the meaning remains uncertain because he did not leave any explanation. Scholars have proposed multiple theories, however.
Because those depicted in Bruegel’s Hell are primarily women, it is thought to be a commentary on women’s roles in Flemish or Catholic society, but it’s uncertain whether it’s a condemnation of society’s treatment of women or a criticism of women. The 16th century saw a surge of witch hunts wherein women were slain unjustly, leaving some scholars to think that the women are protecting themselves from men. Others, however, believe his depiction of mad women in Hell is his way of deriding women by claiming they are mad for trying to upset and overturn the status quo of male dominance in European society.