Spooky Art: Arachne by Gustave Doré (Interpretation and Analysis)
Literature is often a rich source of subject matter for artists. However, Dante’s Divine Comedy has inspired more than its fair share of art. I suppose envisioning a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven is really too full of creative possibilities to ignore!
During the 1860s, French artist and illustrator Gustave Doré became part of this rich tradition when he decided to create a series of engravings to accompany Dante’s epic. Although Doré had trouble finding a publisher who was willing to take on the expense of printing such a long and heavily illustrated text, Doré’s illustrations have now become the quintessential images of Dante’s journey.
Although Doré’s engravings of Hell are dramatic and disturbing, I think the most memorable and horrifying image comes from Purgatorio: the illustration of Arachne.
In the twelfth canto of Purgatorio, Dante meets Arachne, a figure from Greek mythology. According to legend, Arachne was a weaver who boasted that she was more skilled than the gods themselves. In response, Athena challenged Arachne to a weaving contest after warning her about setting herself up as a rival to the gods. During the contest, Arachne created a weaving that depicted all the ways that the gods all the abuses and mistakes that the gods perpetrate against humans. Enraged at this insult, Athena turned Arachne into a spider.
The story of Arachne is traditionally considered to be a warning against excessive pride or hubris, which is why she finds herself in Purgatory in Dante’s narrative. The poet describes her in the following words:
O mad Arachne! so I thee beheld
E’en then half spider, sad upon the shreds
Of fabric wrought in evil hour for thee!
True to Dante’s description, Doré portrays Arachne as half woman, half spider. Her contorted figure is the focal point of the illustration, delineated by a beam of light that falls directly on her body. Arachne’s head, arms, and torso are human, but she is disfigured by monstrous spider legs that grow from her sides. Arachne’s face, which is bent backward due to the unnatural position of her body, conveys her profound moral and physical suffering.
In the illustration, Arachne is surrounded by other souls who were sentenced to Purgatory because of their pride. Each is sprawled on the ground, enduring a punishment associated with their own particular offense. Dante and his guide, Virgil, are the only standing figures in the piece. Above them is a large expanse of shadowy, open space, an artistic choice that Doré makes frequently in his illustrations for the Divine Comedy. The open space provides contrast and balance within the piece while also creating visual drama.
However, In my opinion, the single figure of Arachne — which is both monstrous and pathetic — is the most singularly frightening and disturbing aspect of the piece. She is both the villain and the victim in this illustration, a duality that makes the piece interesting.