Whoever has studied medieval art in any of its branches need not be told that Dante's age was one that demanded very palpable and even revolting types. As in the old legend, a drop of scalding sweat from the damned soul must shrivel the very skin of those for whom he wrote, to make them wince if not to turn them away from evil-doing. To consider his hell a place of physical torture is to take Circe's herd for real swine. Its mouth yawns not only under Florence, but before the feet of every man everywhere who goeth about to do evil. His hell is a condition of the soul, and he could not find images loathsome enough to express the moral deformity which is wrought by sin on its victims, or his own abhorrence of it. Its inmates meet you in the street every day.
What makes it worthy of intellect thereafter.
On this account the Scripture condescends
Unto your faculties, and feet and hands
To God attributes, and means something else.Paradiso, IV. 40-45 (Longfellow's version).
It is our own sensual eye that gives evil the appearance of good, and out of a crooked hag makes a bewitching siren. The reason enlightened by the grace of God sees it as it truly is, full of stench and corruption.2 It is this office of reason which Dante undertakes to perform, by divine commission, in the Inferno. There can be no doubt that he looked upon himself as invested with the prophetic function, and the Hebrew forerunners, in whose society his soul sought consolation
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is there we must ever be.