Inferno XIX: Again With the Contrapasso
Inferno XIX: The Simonists
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”
Our heroes have arrived at the lip of the third bolgia in the eighth circle of hell. Looking across the expanse of stone, they see spirits buried upside down in holes in the ground—dozens of legs kicking spasmodically as the soles of their feet are licked by oily flames. They are, no doubt, very uncomfortable, having been shoved head first into stone. These are the simonists, people who used ecclesiastical positions of power for personal gain, and among them is a particularly noteworthy offender.
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"Sometimes, when I lack the motivation to get out of bed and start the day, I remember revenge..." Thus spake a particularly witty friend on Facebook last week, delighting me with his self-mocking spitefulness. I'm happy to boast that I'm not a vindictive person, but I do love a good tale of revenge in film and literature. Farrah Fawcett in Extremities, imprisoning her vile attacker in a fireplace. Hansel and Gretel, giving the momentarily clueless witch a run for her money into a blazing oven. Hamlet, hell-bent and psychotically obsessed with avenging his father's fratricide. And of course, there's Steven King's Carrie, launching a blazing, telekinetic massacre in a high school gym while drenched on stage in pig's blood. You go, girl. Dante sometimes seems all about retribution, and—like many before and after him—he deftly utilizes narrative fiction to skewer his nemeses, wresting complete control in life's infinite power struggle by indulging himself and his reader in wicked comeuppance for transgressors. Dante delights in the imaginary punishment of his contemporaries by an omnipotent God, and their humiliation is made all the more public in the incremental distribution of his poem to the populace. It's no coincidence that the simonists are buried in holes that resemble baptismal fonts. This instrument of purification and rebirth is perfectly suited to Dante's exquisite irony, and the lead recipient of this punishment is none other than Pope Nicholas III, who foreshadows the eventual arrival of (in Dante's eyes) an even more deserving papal cad—Pope Boniface, the political leader of the Black Guelphs, the group that banished Dante from his beloved Florence. Comeuppance is a word perfectly suited for the concept of exacted revenge, and Dante masterfully guides it in Canto XIX, as things are turned around, over and upside down with cruel yet delightful irony.