Humans have always been fascinated and terrified by the idea of a dark underworld. Many of the world’s religions teach of these places in various forms with horrifying details and warnings to those who don’t live in accordance with their teachings.
Artists have been enthralled with the idea of hell as they are known to have painted works that focus directly on the subject.
Some of the greatest artists in history lived during a time when either the Catholic Church or Protestant efforts were considered to be mainstream in their society. The concept and idea of hell was as commonplace as their religion’s teachings of heaven and other ideas associated with it.
In this article, we will explore some of the most famous hell paintings and discover what motivated the artists to create such works.
Famous Paintings of Hell
1. Hell – Hieronymus Bosch
One of the oldest and most famous paintings that was focused on the subject of hell is Hieronymus Bosch’s work which was simply titled, Hell. Bosch was a Dutch painter who was closely associated with various works that were religious in nature.
This 1490 painting is one that was part of a four-painting series in which the artist depicted man’s ascension into heaven in two of the works and also detailed his descent into hell in the remaining two.
The four-part series served as a chilling reminder of the truths of Christian teaching and his painting is one of the darkest paintings from the Early Renaissance era.
The painting depicts a demonic being perched atop a rocky peak with the damned souls featured below in a lake of demons. The demons are seen gnawing on the limbs of those who were unfortunate enough to find themselves in the pit.
2. Dulle Griet – Pieter Bruegel the Elder
One of the most unique paintings ever done on the subject of hell was created by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
In his work, the Flemish artist depicted a quite different concept of one’s visit to the underworld as it actually features a rouge woman leading a band of female warriors into the depths of hell to fight and conquer it, pillaging all that remained.
The work was painted in 1563 and is titled Dulle Griet, otherwise known as Mad Meg.
This Flemish concept of a woman warrior hero was nothing new and historians have dubbed such figures as “viragos.” Bruegel painted a few other works that focused on various diving elements, but few were as highly regarded as this painting.
The work itself features the vast expanse of hell as a set of hills with a reddish-black colored sky. There is one woman, who is recognized as Mad Meg, seen running through the underworld with a sword in one hand and a sack of pillaged goods in the other.
3. Pandemonium – John Martin
One of the most visibly striking depictions of hell or the underworld was John Martin’s work that is known as Pandemonium, or Paradise Lost.
This work was created in 1841 and features Martin’s concept of the capital of hell being a city known as “The High Capital of Satan and His Peers.”
The scene is based on the famous book by John Milton titled Paradise Lost. In the book, the city was said to have been built in less than one hour, far surpassing any structure ever built by men. The interior was filled with ghastly demons who waited to do the bidding of Satan.
The work itself is quite stunning as it features a single figure standing on the edge of what appears to be a fiery river next to a tall palace. The walls have a golden shimmer to them and only reflect the heat and reddish coloration of the fiery gulf below.
4. Crucifixion and Last Judgement Diptych – Jan van Eyck
One of the most famous paintings of hell that has ever been created is actually one that also features scenes from heaven and Earth in one single work. Jan van Eyck’s 1440 depiction of the supernatural realm is known as the Crucifixion and Last Judgement Diptych.
Van Eyck sought to depict the entirety of the spiritual world in this work, which was painted on two large panels. The painting was believed to have been finished by some of van Eyck’s students who worked alongside him in his workshop.
The left side of the painting depicts the crucifixion scene with Jesus hanging on the cross between two others, who are believed to be the thieves from the famous Biblical account of the event.
There is a crowd of onlookers gathered as one Roman soldier pierces the side of Jesus. The opposite side consists of a beautiful heavenly scene which is followed by a ghastly depiction of hell underneath.
5. Satan Calling Up His Legions – William Blake
William Blake was an English painter who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of his most notable works feature various scenes of religious significance, which is not unlike most other artists from his time period.
His 1805 painting titled Satan Calling Up His Legions is widely considered to be one of the most iconic paintings of hell ever done as it features a number of highly distinct elements.
The scene depicted by Blake is believed to be from the concept of hell brought on by John Milton’s famous book, Paradise Lost. In Blake’s work, we see the leader of the underworld, Satan, standing atop a rocky crag beckoning to his forces.
Blake used a combination of swirling brushstrokes to depict the damned souls, as well as the demons that can be seen at the feet of Satan and in the background behind him.
6. The Haywain Triptych – Hieronymus Bosch
Yet another painting of hell once again comes from the hands of Hieronymus Bosch. Known as The Haywain Triptych, this 1516 work was done on a canvas that also features two shutters which extend outward and open to reveal the entire painting to the viewer.
The work itself is one that features various scenes from the entire Bible, from the beginning of creation with Adam and Eve to other later events. The middle portion of the painting is a scene of struggle and violence with the right shutter side featuring a harrowing depiction of hell.
The painting features a figure that is recognized as originating in another one of his works, known as the Wayfarer. This figure seems to be on a journey through life in The Haywain Triptych, walking along a path that winds its way into the afterlife.
7. Dante And Virgil – William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Any scholarly discussion on the subject of hell is not quite complete without the inclusion of Dante’s Inferno, a famous manuscript that tells of the various layers of hell and a terrifying journey into the darkest pits by Dante himself.
This is the inspiration for William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s famous hell painting that is titled Dante And Virgil.
Created in 1850, the work features Dante and his guide who takes him into the underworld looking on as a pair of damned souls are engaged in a bitter struggle. In the famous book, the two men are named and the sins that damned them to hell are also mentioned.
Dante looks on in horror as one of the men bites the neck of the other in what seems to be a never-ending struggle.
8. Inferno – Franz von Stuck
Another famous hell painting that is closely associated with Dante’s Inferno bears the same name.
Franz von Stuck’s 1908 painting of a hellish scene of torture is simply titled Inferno and features five figures who are seen sitting in the depths of hell, tormented by their horrible fate.
The painting itself is one that’s especially dark and carries with it much of the same elements found in many of von Stuck’s other works, which are also highly regarded.
The painting features various creatures of the underworld such as a snake and demon along with a range of swirling and colorful brushstrokes that create a vibrant, but harrowing depiction.
9. The Map of Hell – Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli is credited with painting one of the most famous paintings that features a scene from hell. Yet again, this work was also influenced by Dante’s Inferno as it features a detailed, outward depiction of the many different descending layers of hell. The painting is titled The Map of Hell and was finished in 1485.
This painting is famous as it is very closely tied to the manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which included this particular painting in the illustrated manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy which was commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici.
The actual painting was done on a large canvas and features various figures lining the many different levels of hell, which are seen gradually worsening in horror with each descent.
10. Dante And Virgil In The Underworld – Filippo Napoletano
Another one of the most famous paintings to focus on the subject of hell or the underworld was done by Filippo Napoletano.
This particular work is exceptionally dark and terrifying in nature as it features a fiery scene of damned souls clamoring to escape the torment that is brought upon them by demons roaming throughout the underworld.
The work was completed in 1622 and is titled Dante And Virgil In The Underworld. It was done during a time when most other painters were focusing mainly on scenes of heavenly bliss and various forms of other religious figures from the Bible or other Christian sects.
Napoletano’s depiction of hell is detailed in every sense as the damned souls can be seen falling from a high building into a pit below with horrifying creatures roaming the ground, devouring those in their grasp.