The 11 Most Nightmarish Depictions of Hell in Art History

Alexxa Gotthardt
Nov 1, 2018 12:00PM

Detail view of Jan Van Eyck, The Last Judgment, ca. 1440–1441. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The famed medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri had a mesmerizingly grotesque imagination, especially when it came to conceiving the horrors of hell. Ravenous monsters hungry for sinners fill the pages of Inferno, the first section of his epic poem The Divine Comedy, penned in the early 1300s. In one canto, the crimson-eyed, three-headed beast Cerberus, who guards the gates of the underworld, “tears the spirits, flays them,” with “claw’d hands” and “ravenous maw.”

While the writer’s frighteningly vivid depiction of hell’s nine circles might be literature’s most famous, artists have also composed visions of the underworld that are just as harrowing—if not more so. Western art history teems with hellscapes—compositions showing all manner of physical, psychological, and spiritual torment. Many build directly on Dante’s writings, while others draw from descriptions of damnation in Christian scripture, meant to intimidate believers into virtuousness. Later artists responded to the infernal realities of war or their own emotional turmoil, or “personal hell.” Below, we take a tour of the most chilling interpretations of hell from Dante’s time to today. Some are macabre, others delightfully absurd—but all explore a heady mix of human fear, guilt, and suffering.

Giotto, The Last Judgment (ca. 1307)


Florentine painter Giotto had a flair for the dramatic. Like most artists working at the dawn of the 14th century, he primarily painted frescoes for the private chapels of wealthy families. Yet his paintings are utterly unique: The biblical characters that fill his compositions aren’t flat and stylized like those of his Byzantine forebears. Instead, they writhe with red-blooded energy and fierce human emotion.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. At the back of the chapel lies one of art history’s most impressive paintings of the Last Judgment, the momentous event described in the New Testament when, at the end of the world, God either shepherds the dead to heaven or banishes them to the fiery underworld. The religious text doesn’t leave many clues as to what hell might look like, so Giotto built on past artistic interpretations, as well as his own fertile imagination.

In the lower right-hand corner of the fresco, a gluttonous, horned monster (likely Satan) stands at the gates of hell, devouring sinners, then unceremoniously excreting them. Such cruel and unusual punishments abound: Naked men and women are dragged down to hell by fearsome black demons, where they are spit-roasted and speared or stuffed into deep pits. Dante himself likely visited the fresco as Giotto painted it; according to historian Giorgio Vasari, the two were “dear friends.” Dante began writing his Divine Comedy around the time Giotto was painting the Arena Chapel.

Jan van Eyck, The Last Judgment (1440–41)

Working in the Netherlands over 100 years after Giotto, the pioneering oil painter Jan van Eyck created his own Last Judgment scene on the right half of a diptych that also includes a depiction of the Crucifixion. While measuring only about 22 by 7 inches, the Last Judgment panel packs a bone-chilling punch thanks to Van Eyck’s garish depiction of hell, which Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Maryan W. Ainsworth has described as a “diabolical invention.”

Beneath the outstretched arms of a giant and menacing skeleton tumbles a cascade of damned souls, each subjected to a different form of punishment. In one corner, a man screams in pain as he’s disemboweled by a serpent. Elsewhere, a demon—part skull, part sharp-toothed jaguar—gnaws on a fleshy rump. The anguish here is so evocative that Ainsworth has characterized the scene as cacophonous—viewers can almost hear the sounds of torture: “The cracking and breaking of bones, the gnashing of teeth of the monsters relentless in their pursuit.”

Fra Angelico, The Pains of Hell, from The Last Judgment (ca. 1431)

Posthumously nicknamed the “Angelic Painter” by his acolytes, the Dominican friar Fra Angelico—known as Fra Giovanni during his lifetime—is somewhat ironically renowned for several of his visceral hellscapes. Perhaps his most horrifying scene comes from a fresco depicting the Last Judgment, originally created for the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome (it now hangs in Florence’s Museo di San Marco).

Here, the artist takes a cue from Dante, visualizing hell as a tenebrous cave where the damned are grouped by their sins; each of them has its own tailored brand of torture. For instance, those guilty of greed have melted gold coins poured down their throats, while those guilty of wrath are forced to incessantly fight each other. At the base of the fiery pit, Lucifer chomps on human bodies as he simultaneously bathes in a soup of melting souls, dutifully stirred by a cohort of demons.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500)

There can’t be a discussion of hellscapes without Hieronymus Bosch, whose spellbinding masterwork The Garden of Earthly Delights rivals the fame of Dante’s Inferno. The Dutch painter came of age in the mid-1400s during the Protestant Reformation, when Christians began to interpret the word of God for themselves, rather than rely on the Church as an intermediary. Bosch incorporated this approach in his painting, depicting heaven and hell through rollicking, chaotic scenes set against a contemporary Dutch backdrop.

Rather than the fiery pits mentioned in the Bible or explored in depth in Inferno, Bosch shows hell as a raucous battlefield teeming with horrifying, surrealistic creatures who take pleasure in torturing their human opponents. The painting’s fame may be largely due to the proliferation of mesmerizingly odd details: A dismembered foot hangs like a prize from the helmet of a spiny bird-monster; other sinners are stretched taut across giant instruments and played by beady-eyed demons, or eaten and then pooped out by their aggressors.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1561)

While he’s best known for homely peasant scenes, Dutch master Pieter Bruegel the Elder also had a knack for shocking his audience. “Like a director of horror films, the painter tried to appeal to all the senses in order to arouse fear and create pleasure at the same time,” Bruegel biographer Leen Huet has written. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his 1561 canvas Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), which takes a cue from Bosch and explores hell through the lens of contemporary Flemish culture.

This painting depicts the folkloric character of Dulle Griet, the leader of an all-female army on a quest to pillage hell. Her strength is underlined by her massive scale; she dwarfs both her compatriots and her opponents, a multitude of fantastical demons that dot the otherwise familiar Dutch landscape. Bruegel has depicted the underworld as an eerie fusion of fantasy and reality. Griet seems to run toward a literal gaping “mouth of hell,” its scaly skin resembling bricks in the surrounding architecture. Instead of devouring the dead, the monsters of this hell battle flesh-and-blood warriors.

Some scholars have also read the painting as an exploration of 16th-century Netherlandish gender dynamics. A 1568 book of proverbs provides context: “One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market, four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon.” In this way, the painting can be read as a study of female power. Is Griet a greedy agent of chaos or a heroic victor who isn’t afraid to go head-to-head with the Devil?

William Blake, The Punishment of the Thieves (1824–27)

William Blake, The Punishment of the Thieves from the Divine Comedy, 1824–27. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

While the soft hues and undulating lines of this watercolor by British artist William Blake might not immediately scream “inferno,” a closer look reveals a particularly garish manner of suffering. The scene comes from a series of works Blake produced to illustrate an edition of The Divine Comedy. Blake took the commission, according to writer Maria Popova, because “Dante’s contempt for materialism and the way power warps morality” resonated with the eccentric 19th-century artist, who believed that the political and social climate in England was defined by greed. Here, Blake depicts a scene from cantos 24 and 25, where it is explained that snakes steal and manipulate the bodies of thieves, who must then search in vain for a home for their soul. Here, monstrous serpents strangle, penetrate, and rope around the thieves’ Rubenesque bodies as they are dragged underwater.

John Martin, Pandemonium (1841)

John Martin, Le Pandemonium, 1841. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

It could be said that 19th-century British painter John Martin’s favorite subject was doom. Over the course of his career, he painted copious depictions of hell, as well as other fiery, end-of-world scenes—and he did it with dramatic panache. Martin based this hellscape on English poet John Milton’s 1667 masterwork Paradise Lost, in which hell is dubbed Pandemonium. Martin’s version of Pandemonium is a deserted, red-hot world of torment helmed by an armored Satan. In the foreground, the devil raises his arms in as he calls unseen rebel angels to action.

This version of hell might have looked sinisterly familiar to Martin’s London contemporaries. In fact, the massive, intimidating building that Satan faces borrows architectural elements from some of the city’s most famous edifices, including the towering gates of Somerset House and the arcade of Carlton House Terrace.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil (1850)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil , 1850. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The two sinners duking it out in William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s depiction of hell appeal to the vampire-obsessed among us. The French painter concocted this Dante-inspired scene in hopes of winning the coveted Prix de Rome. Dante enjoyed renewed popularity during this time: Fellow Romantic painters were similarly enthralled; the poet provided deliciously dramatic fodder for their theatrical canvases.

Bouguereau chose to zoom in on two damned souls from the epic poem in order to emphasize their physical pain. Surrounded by writhing sinners, Dante and Virgil look on as Gianni Schicchi, a character guilty of committing fraud, viciously bites the neck of Capocchio, a heretic and alchemist. (Inferno describes constant fighting as one of hell’s many punishments.) The painter pays particular attention to his subjects’ nude bodies; dramatically lit, their muscles and expressions strain in utter agony. Writing at the time, critic Théophile Gautier described the duo’s “strange fury,” rendered “magnificently through muscles, nerves, tendons, and teeth.” Only the bald, bat-winged demon hovering over them seems to take any pleasure in the scene.

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait in Hell (1903)

Nordic Symbolist Edvard Munch’s oeuvre is defined by very convincing representations of psychological anguish, many of which are self-portraits. In this work, he uses the concept of hell to underline his own suffering by placing his sickly, nude body within a blackish-red environment, the color of stoked flames. Even as a child, Munch remembered being plagued by melancholy and promises of a hellish afterlife: “Disease and insanity were the black angels on guard at my cradle,” he wrote of his youth. “I felt always that I was treated unjustly, without a mother, sick, and with threatened punishment in hell hanging over my head.”

Franz von Stuck, Inferno (1908)

When Franz von Stuck first exhibited Inferno at the Met in 1909, the New York Times praised the work’s “sovereign brutality.” Indeed, the piece shocked and awed audiences with its raw depiction of eternal damnation, cementing the German Symbolist’s “reputation as a visionary artist unafraid to explore the dark side of the psyche,” according to the museum.

Stuck’s work frequently emphasizes both the physical and psychological pain of his subjects. Across this canvas, the artist shows only the wrenching bodies and contorted faces of several sinners—rather than a nightmarish overview of hell—in order to emphasize their personal suffering, with a dissonant color scheme that punctuates their distress. Perhaps the most striking manifestation of mental torment comes from a female figure, whose wide eyes glow unnervingly from the background, communicating pure fear in the face of her terrible fate.

Jake & Dinos Chapman, Fucking Hell (2008)

British artists Jake & Dinos Chapman have made a career of shocking viewers by fusing dark humor and the grotesque. Some pieces completely dispense with comedy, though, in favor of emphasizing history’s atrocities. This is the case with Fucking Hell, an adaptation of the duo’s 1999 piece Hell, which ironically went up in flames in a warehouse fire.

The massive installation contains nine vitrines filled with 60,000 toy soldiers. Despite being forged from miniature toys, a closer look inside reveals unimaginable carnage. In the monumental, chaotic battle scene that unfolds, an army of skeletons, mutants, and aliens battle Nazis. While it’s unclear which side is winning, the swastika-bearing soldiers are certainly getting their due: in this tableau, they have become the massacred.

“The Nazis practised genocide on everyone they thought was inferior,” Jake Chapman said of the work. “What we’ve done is to mirror that: the Nazis are being recycled within their own mechanism.” For the Chapman brothers, hell is on earth, engendered by the long history of human violence.

Alexxa Gotthardt