17 April 2019
While Dante’s encounter with Satan was very important for the salvation of his soul and is anticipated through the entirety of The Inferno, the actual encounter is somewhat anticlimactic. Satan is a disfigured giant that is frightening to look upon but of little actual danger to worthy souls. In canto 34, Dante describes Satan as if he were an engine of war to be built and placed by an attacking army rather than a being capable of independent action. He says, “Like a whirling windmill seen afar at twilight,/or when a mist has risen from the ground—/just such an engine rose upon my sight” (Alighieri 34.4-6.) Satan, in Dante’s depiction, is incapable on moving on his own and seems not to even take notice of Virgil and Dante as they approach or even when they grab onto his fur and climb down his legs. This Satan, now that he is frozen in place in the deepest pit of hell, no longer has the power to defy God and acts as a proxy serving out punishment in them employ of God.
Aside from his wings whirling the icy winds of hell throughout the ninth circle, the only action that Satan is able to take chewing on the most heinous of the souls damned to hell. When I read Dante’s description of Satan chewing on Judas, I automatically thought of the Goya painting of Kronos eating his son. Dante says:
In every mouth he worked a broken sinner
between his rake-like teeth. Thus he kept three
in eternal pain at his eternal dinner.
For the one in front the biting seemed to play
no part at all compared to the ripping: at times
the whole skin of his back was flayed away.
Goya’s painting is a disturbing scene freezing the titan in the act of eating one of his sons, but while Kronos eventually swallows his victims, Satan’s victims are perpetually in the agony of being devoured.
I found both Goya’s painting of Kronos and an earlier painting by Giovanni da Modena. The paintings are so similar that one likely is the inspiration for the other. First, Dante is inspired by the story of Kronos. Then, the painting of Satan is inspired by Dante. Then the painting of Kronos is inspired by the painting of Satan.
Alighieri, Dante, and John Ciardi. The Inferno. New American Library, 2003.
Giovanni. “Satan.” http://www.poderesantapia.com/art/giovannidamodena.htm
Goya. “Saturn Devouring his Son.” https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/saturn/18110a75-b0e7-430c-bc73-2a4d55893bd6