Man is ordered to the good, the true, and the beautiful because, as the Catholic Church teaches, in such things we encounter God.
This is a haunting painting and a vision of hell. As my good friend, Patrick van der Vorst, at Christian Art writes, the painting “depicts Dante and Virgil in the eighth circle of Hell….” Patrick provides a Lenten Gospel reflection using the artist’s portrayal of hypocrisy – the “twisting of realities to suit our needs.”
Let us continue to participate in the Lenten exercise, examining our heart, turning back to God, and ask for assistance that he may help purify our motives in all we do each day.
For a reflection about this painting please enjoy below.
Peace be with you!
The fine arts, but above all sacred art, “of their nature are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands….”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2513
dante and virgil in hell
Reflection on the Painting
by Patrick van der Vorst
In our Gospel passage today we read how critical Jesus is of the Pharisees. He makes the point that there isn’t anything wrong with what they say. Their teachings are correct. However, they did not practise what they preached. That is what Jesus takes issue with. But none of us fully practise what we preach. We are all guilty of being hypocritical. We claim to follow Christ, but we fail, every day.
Our painting by Bouguereau from 1850, depicts Dante and Virgil in the eighth circle of Hell (where the hypocrites, falsifiers and counterfeiters are). Dante, accompanied by Virgil, is watching a fight between two damned souls: the kneeling figure is Capocchio, an alchemist and heretic. He is being bitten in the neck by Gianni Schicchi, who had usurped the identity of a dead man in order to fraudulently claim his inheritance (we see that man lying on the right). The background depicts more hypocrites in the eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno. The painter is exploring the aesthetic limits of what he can possibly paint. The muscle structures are exaggerated and the bodies are in an unnatural, entwined, twisted pose. I know this is an extreme portrayal of hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is exactly this twisting of realities to suit our needs. We twist and manipulate the way we are perceived by others in order to claim to have higher standards or more faith than is actually the case. The painting is 280cm. (9ft.) high, which makes this canvas simply breathtaking to look at.
Credit: Patrick van der Vorst, Gospel Reading for Today, Christian Art, "They do not practice what they preach," March 2, 2021; https://www.christian.art/todays-reading.php Information herein posted under the "rules of fair use" to foster education and discussion in accordance with Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976.
For today’s Gospel reading, Matthew 23:1-12, this Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent, visit https://bible.usccb.org/daily-bible-reading.
Truth, Beauty, and Sacred Art
from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 2501
Created “in the image of God,” man also expresses the truth of his relationship with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works. Indeed, art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches. Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man’s own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing. To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in what he has created. Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man (CCC 2501).
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Saint Paul, Letter to the Philippians (4:8)
St. Paul, Apostle, Martyr, pray for us.
Be not afraid! And may the peace of Christ be with you and your loved ones today and always. Holy Family, pray for us. Amen.