Great Art: The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin (Interpretation and Analysis)

The Gates of Hell (The Kunsthaus Zürich)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are few sculptors more famous than Auguste Rodin. He’s widely considered to be the father of modern sculpting, and I bet you’ve seen his most recognizable masterpiece, The Thinker, parodied a million times in pop culture. However, I bet you’ve never heard of his spookiest piece of art: The Gates of Hell.

Commissioned as the entrance for Paris’ Museum of Decorative Arts (a museum that never materialized, by the way), The Gates of Hell depicts scenes from Dante’s Inferno, including famous vignettes such as the story of Ugolino and his children and the story of Paolo and Francesca. The sculpture contains 180 figures in total, many of which do not appear in Dante’s work at all. Rather, these figures were inspired by the Inferno, but have their roots in Rodin’s personal interpretation of the text. In fact, Many of Rodin’s most famous works-including the exalted Thinker-began as an element of The Gates of Hell. Despite this artistic success, Rodin never finished The Gates of Hell and continued to strive for perfection in the piece until the end of his life.

After his death, several versions of The Gates of Hell were cast. Today, they are spread out in museums across the world.

Though Rodin’s style is modern, The Gates of Hell has its roots in a long tradition of Western, religious art. Rodin acknowledged that his sculpture was inspired by Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, one of the greatest pieces of art of the Italian Renaissance. The Gates of Hell is the dark answer to this masterpiece, which portrays scenes from the Old Testament in breathtaking bas-relief. However, the story behind The Gates of Hell is older than the Renaissance. Their artistic origins reach back to the Medieval period, and the Last Judgment tympanums of Gothic cathedrals. In architectural terms, a tympanum is a decorated area over a door or entrance. During the Medieval period, it was very common for this area of the church to be decorated with images of the Last Judgement, including vivid depictions of Hell.

Medieval artisans placed these scenes of Hell above the doors so that people could see them as they entered the church and be reminded to live a moral life. I don’t think Rodin had this intention, but the connection between Hell and doors in Western art certainly begins here. The Gates of Hell is the modern reimagining of this centuries old tradition.

When it was originally commissioned, the directors of the Museum of Decorative Arts asked for an “inviting entrance.” It’s probably good that this piece was never delivered because the piece that Rodin created is anything but. Imposing yes, inviting no. I like to think that it fits the scale and scope of Dante’s epic text. It’s truly a monument to Rodin’s august legacy. (And, yes, it is Mischief Night so that joke was intentional).

Originally published at https://artisthesolution.blogspot.com on October 30, 2021.

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