Review of Auguste Rodin's The Gates of Hell
By: Michael A. Arnold

Some time ago I was minding my own business, may have been playing Skyrim, when a friend messaged me on Facebook 'Hey, what do you know of Auguste Rodin?'

I tried to remember. I knew he was a French sculptor, and he was responsible for the statue The Thinker – which is on the cover of my copy of Aristotle's Politics and on the cover of some book by Nietzsche. The statue seemed to have become a shorthand for serious, unrestricted, and complex thought. And there was one other sculpture I liked – could not quite remember the name of it, but it was an image of what the gate to Hell might look like. Before its name came back, my friend followed up with 'Because I'm playing the game The Council, it has a replica of 'The Gates of Hell' in it'.

That was it! That was the one I was trying to remember!

Then I was sent a picture of the game's protagonist standing before the main doors of a mansion, with what really did look like The Gates of Hell in the background. I could not help but stare at it. It really is a masterwork. Even with two layers of distance, through a computer screen and also inside a picture from a video game, there is no doubting that as a piece it has a strong sense of presence and dominance. There is something even terrifying about it.

Commissioned in 1880 by the Directorate of Fine Arts, this piece would be left unfinished by Rodin's death in 1917. Ironically, the Directorate asked for an inviting entrance into a planned building for the Decorative Arts Museum in Paris, but the artist had something very different in mind. The Gates of Hell are discomforting and sinister, even before getting up close. Strangely, Rodin was Inspired by works like Lorenzo Ghiberti's artistic doorway for the Baptistery of St. John in Florence, Italy, but the works he was drawing on were focused on biblical scenes of salvation. The Gates of Hell is much different.

It is hard to work out why Rodin made something quite so bleak, especially for the Decorative Arts Museum building, but when he started working on the Gates he had spent an entire year reading and rereading Dante. He seemed to have been particularly fascinated by the first nine lines of Canto III of Inferno, when Dante and his guide Virgil first enter the underworld, but first pause to read the inscription above the entrance. Rodin seemed to have been especially interested in the lines (here using the Mark Musa translation):

Before me nothing but eternal things Were made, and I shall last eternally. Abandon every hope, all you who enter.

The sense of doom created in these lines is unmistakable.

One very interesting thing about this piece is that it serves as a sort of Greatest Hits for Rodin, which seems quite a unique thing for an artist to do. Around the giant doorframe we can see miniature versions of other pieces by him, as well as unique figures that are just as detailed and finely crafted. Among the 180 smaller sculptures that make up this piece there is: 'The Thinker' perched just above the center of the door, as if looking down on and contemplating everyone who would walk through. Above 'The Thinker' are 'The Three Shades', which is one of those pieces you have probably seen before without knowing it. There are a lot more, and there would be no point naming them all. While most of them are not really inspired by The Divine Comedy, other details on the doorway certainly carry a sense of the souls that are met during Dante's journey.

There are a number of souls around the archway that are in deep torment, especially on the doors themselves, where many people are falling like a sort of living block, frozen in place by the sculpture. For many of them, their arms are stretched outward, as if failing around trying to find something, anything, that will stop their fall – but apparently, they will never have that respite.

This, and the black, obelisk-like color this piece is often made from, creates a very powerful sense of doom, one that is very hard to shake, and yet in that there is a distinct power. You cannot turn your eyes away from it. And it is hard to deny it too, this is a beautiful piece. Walking through this doorway into an art gallery, the impression we would have been left with would have been intense.

In a way, if it was just as a real, working doorway into a building it would have affected the way we would see and feel about this piece. By using it, walking through it, we would have been asked to imagine what it would have been like for the sin-filled newly dead walking into the gloom of Dante's underworld. That never happened, it is more like a traditional work of art with doors never to be opened. This does affect us as viewers in a way we might not realize, it is instead like a doorway into some other dimension, which has a different implication than it would have if it was actually installed as a doorway. Sometimes a piece of art does not need to be understood on an intellectual level, but only on an emotional one. And this is perhaps an example of that.

Various copies and recreations of this piece have been made, and it is now on display in very different parts of the world, from Zurich to Tokyo. And wherever it is it is always striking. You never forget seeing The Gates of Hell even if it is just a picture like the one above. It is even hard to forget seeing it in a video game, where it seems thematically appropriate in the story. Anyone who has played that game will probably know what I am talking about here. A strong feeling of fear and dread, and ultimately of power radiates from The Gates of Hell, just as it does for Dante as he wonders through the gates of hell, beginning his journey through a nightmare.