Pondering a gruesome scene at the Rodin Museum

Recently I was able to visit the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. I was thrilled to spend a few hours strolling through the building and adjacent gardens because I continue to offer courses on Dante, who inspired a number of Rodin’s most famous works. In fact, many historians and art critics believe the famous “Thinker” sculpture (originally called Le Poete, “The Poet”) represents the Florentine author. The now-ubiquitous figure originally sat atop the bronze-cast Gates of Hell piece, pondering the gruesome torments below.

One of the most striking elements of the Gates, the Museum’s centerpiece, is Ugolino and his sons, on the left-central panel. Like the Thinker, the miniature version has been expanded into larger castings as stand-alone pieces. The story behind it is a gruesome one.

In the lowest levels of the Inferno, Dante places in hell those who committed the crimes he deems most vile. Rather than those of incontinence (like lust and gluttony) or of wrath (like violence or blasphemy) which are punished with relatively less ferocity, the icy pit of hell contains those who most abused that which is distinctively human, the rational. The term “homo sapiens” which anthropologists use to distinguish our species from others, can be translated as the “rational creature.” The worst of the worst for Dante are those who abuse this gift and capacity through willful fraud or treachery.

Without becoming too bogged down in the historical intrigues of 13th-century wars between Pisa, Lucca and Florence, the piece represents Ugolino della Gherardesca, the Count of Donoratico, who had plotted with the archbishop of Pisa, Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, to accrue political power at the expense of his rivals. When the fragile alliance ended in even more double-crossing, Ugolino was imprisoned with his sons and grandsons in a prison (thereafter to be called The Tower of Hunger) and the keys thrown into the Arno River.

The historical events inspired Dante to create a haunting scene. As Ugolino, frozen to his neck in the ice of the Inferno relates to Dante, he became increasingly maddened, weak and blinded as he starved and watched his children die before him. Dante leaves the final moments of Ugolino’s earthly life somewhat ambiguous (“Then hunger proved more powerful than grief”). Did he simply starve to death? Or was it something worse? The fact that in hell he viciously gnaws at Ruggieri’s skull leads most to interpret the passage of his last moments among his dead family-members in a more cannibalistic light.

Rodin’s image of the scene is arresting. The naked and sinewy body of Ugolino, blind with grief and gasping due to his failing organs, crawls like an animal over the corpses of his fallen kin. There is little of human dignity left in his posture and appearance. He has descended into the abyss of despondency and perhaps is beginning to ponder the incomprehensible bestiality which will at least present itself as a terrible option in the coming hours.

Soon after leaving Uggolino, Dante encounters Lucifer. Frozen in the ice, he is enormous, and he weeps from three faces of different colors – black, red and white – representing the pervasive nature of sin across the globe. In each mouth he chews a sinner who betrayed a benefactor, Brutus and Cassius who conspired to kill Caeser, and Judas who knowingly betrayed Christ.

To escape the Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil must grapple with Satan and climb up his mammoth body. The despicable depths to which humanity can sink, whether in concentration camps or Golgotha or in Rodin’s depiction of Ugolino, the evil of every age, must be faced and tackled honestly and unflinchingly. Only then – as St. Thomas eventually realizes – can the wounds inflicted by our race’s selfish and hateful approach to God and others, be transformed into signs of victory. Only then can we escape the darkness and once more see the spangled stars of the heavens.

Michael M. Canaris teaches at Sacred Heart University.

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