Brain Pickings

Salvador Dalí’s Sinister and Sensual Paintings for Dante’s Divine Comedy


From Heaven to Hell in melting faces and flying bones.

Something magical happens when a prominent artist interprets a literary classic visually, from William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost to Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy to Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses. But the celebrated artist most prolific in illustrating literary classics was undoubtedly Salvador Dalí, who illustrated Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975.

At the height of his fame in 1957, more than a century after William Blake had done the same, Salvador Dalí began working on a series of 100 paintings based on Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, commissioned by the Italian government. He was given eight years to complete the artwork, which was then to be released as limited-edition prints in 1965 to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth. But when word got out that one of Italy’s greatest literary legacies had been entrusted to a Spaniard, the public outcry led the government to pull out. Dalí, however, forged forward on his own to complete the series in 1964, then enlisted two engravers who spent five years hand-carving 3,500 wooden blocks to be used for reproductions of Dalí’s paintings.

Somewhat surprisingly, the series was never published as an official English edition of the classic book, but reproductions of the individual paintings can still be purchased online — often for outrageous amounts — and found in an obscure out-of-print book released by the Park West Gallery in 1993.

From Sordello drawing a line in the sand of Purgatory to demarcate his freedom after nightfall to the outstretched grasping arms of the Wood of Suicides to the gruesomely melted and stretched skulls of The Blasphemers, Dalí’s surrealist tour of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory blends the sinister and the sensual to a haunting effect.

For a curious counterpoint, see William Blake’s take on the Dante classic.

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