At Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, is a sculpture garden featuring the work of Auguste Rodin. Numerous pieces are in the garden and at other campus locations as well. Of all the works on display, none fascinates me nearly as much as Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. This monumental work is made of bronze and depicts a scene from “The Inferno”, the first section of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. It stands 20 feet (6 meters) high, 13 feet (4 meters wide) and is 3.3 feet (1 meter) deep. The individual figures contained in this incredible work of art range from just 6 inches (15 centimeters) high up to more than three feet (one meter) tall. Several of the 180 figures were also cast independently by Rodin, including The Thinker, The Three Graces and many others.
The sculpture was commissioned by the Directorate of Fine Arts in 1880 and was meant to be delivered in 1885. Rodin would continue to work on and off on this project for 37 years, until his death in 1917.
The Directorate asked for an inviting entrance to a planned Decorative Arts Museum with the theme being left to Rodin’s selection. Even before this commission, Rodin had developed sketches of some of Dante’s characters based on his admiration of Dante’s Inferno.
The Decorative Arts Museum was never built. Rodin worked on this project on the ground floor of the Hôtel Biron. Near the end of his life, Rodin donated sculptures, drawings and reproduction rights to the French government. In 1919, two years after his death, The Hôtel Biron became the Musée Rodin housing a cast of The Gates of Hell and related works.
A work of the scope of the Gates of Hell had not been attempted before, but additional inspiration came from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise (so named by Michelangelo) at the Baptistery of St. John, Florence. Another source of inspiration were medieval cathedrals, combining both high and low relief. Also, Rodin was inspired by Delacroix’s painting Dante and Virgil Crossing the Styx, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, Honoré de Balzac’s book La Comedié Humaine, and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.
In an article by Serge Basset printed in Le Martin in 1890, Rodin said: “For a whole year I lived with Dante, with him alone, drawing the circles of his inferno. At the end of this year, I realized that while my drawing rendered my vision of Dante, they had become too remote from reality. So I started all over again, working from nature, with my models.”
Today I’m sharing a detail shot from the doors. Visualize a writhing mass of humans and other creatures, seemingly being sucked downward into the yawning maw of hell itself. If you ever get a chance to go see it for yourself, it is worth the trip even if you see nothing else on the magnificent campus of Stanford University. To see the entire doors in 112-megapixel imagery, click here.
ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: in 1799,Andrew Ellicott Douglass, an early American astronomer born in Vermont, witnessed the Leonids meteor shower from a ship off the Florida Keys. Douglass, who later became an assistant to the famous astronomer Percival Lowell, wrote in his journal that the “whole heaven appeared as if illuminated with sky rockets, flying in an infinity of directions, and I was in constant expectation of some of them falling on the vessel. They continued until put out by the light of the sun after day break.” Douglass’ journal entry is the first known record of a meteor shower in North America.
The Leonids meteor shower is an annual event that is greatly enhanced every 33 years or so by the appearance of the comet Tempel-Tuttle. When the comet returns, the Leonids can produce rates of up to several thousand meteors per hour that can light up the sky on a clear night. Douglass witnessed one such manifestation of the Leonids shower, and the subsequent return of the comet Tempel-Tuttle in 1833 is credited as inspiring the first organized study of meteor astronomy. The next big show is expected on May 20, 2031, as it has a 33 year cycle. Put it on you Google calendar today so you won’t forget it!
TRIVIA FOR TODAY: the nation of Mozambique has an AK-47 assault rifle on its flag.