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Lines of fire: Dante's vision of hell still has an afterlife | Jonathan Jones

The brilliant, terrifying Divine Comedy has always provoked artists to respond to its hardline moral absolutism

Midway upon the road of our life
I found myself within a dark wood ...
– Inferno, by Dante Alighieri.

That is the Norton translation of the greatest opening verse in the history of poetry. The world has a handful of supreme poets. Homer, Shakespeare and Goethe are up there. I'm sure you have your own suggestions. All of these writers – even Homer, with his Trojan war epic The Iliad – can be made contemporary to us, made to approximate our world-view. Yet the greatest and most universal poet of all is the least "modern" and at times the most obscure. He is Dante Alighieri.

The world-view Dante unfolds in mesmerising images in the three books of his Divine Comedy – Hell, Purgatory and Paradise – is truly medieval. No wonder: he lived most of his life in the 13th century before completing his masterpiece in the early 14th. But it is the relentless Gothic-style Christianity of Dante's vision that makes it so unnerving: the profound sense of sin behind his biting portraits of the damned in Hell, and the equally absolute faith in a machine-accurate divine justice the poet finally glimpses in Paradise. The Divine Comedy is a dogmatic, cruel work that haunts the imagination like no other. Paradoxically, no "modern" poet has been so frequently illustrated by modern artists; only Byron excites comparable interest.

The latest Dante artist is painter and draughtsman Guy Denning. He has already completed a series of illustrations for Hell, which are about to be exhibited in Bologna, and is now working on Purgatory, with designs that include a dramatic rendering of New York on 9 September 2001. His project follows in the footsteps of many artists who, like Dante in his poem, edged down into those shadows with their best foot backward. Robert Rauschenberg did a particularly provocative Dante cycle that included collaged images of riots and riot police in 1960s America; Blake, Tom Phillips and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux all had a go too. But perhaps the most haunting of all illustrations of this poem are those created by Gustave Doré in 19th-century France, in the age of absinthe visions.

Why does a writer rooted in a world-view that not even the most conservative modern Christian can share (no forgiveness, no grace) speak so strongly to artists and readers? New translations as well as new depictions of Dante abound. He seems to ask something of us, to demand a response. Artists who come across him are moved to visualise his fiery images. Poets feel obliged to retranslate his mighty words.

My own first experience of Dante was a translation of just one part of the Inferno by Seamus Heaney. Ugolino is in Heaney's collection Field Work, which is a moving response to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Dante's tale of Ugolino, who was cruelly treated and took bitter revenge in eternity, fits into the landscape of reprisal Heaney depicts. In other words, one reason for Dante's enduring power is that we have not really left the middle ages. Vendetta still rules. Entire foreign policies, not to mention civil wars and terror campaigns, are based on ideas of revenge and polarities of good and evil just as primitive as anything in Dante.

Another reason the great Italian challenges us is that he proposes a morally absolute vision of life that cuts through modern relativism like a knight's broadsword. So the world is ambiguous and our own actions impossible to morally judge? Dante menaces us with the alternative possibility that every act is scrutinised, that every moment of our lives is weighed in the balance.

His first image is as contemporary as anyone could wish: in midlife, the poet is in a dark wood. It turns out that he can only escape by going down, into the shadows of hell, to plumb its very depths and pass through to the other side. It is a spiritual journey towards light through darkness, marked by meetings with the damned, who confess their sins and remember their lives with pain, pride, regret and longing. It is my favourite poem – but I am too frightened to ever read it again. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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