English artist William Blake created the above artwork, The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides, between 1824–27, using ink, watercolour, and pencil. It’s part of a series which ended up as Blake’s final watercolour set before his August 1827 death.
In 1824, Blake’s painter friend John Linnell (1792–1882) commissioned him to create a series of paintings based on The Divine Comedy. According to legend, Blake, then in his late sixties, easily churned out 100 watercolour drafts “during a fortnight’s illness in bed.” Most had no colours, and only seven were gilded.
In March 1918, Linnell’s estate sold this artwork for £7,665 through Christie’s, to the British National Art Collections Fund. A year later, they gave it to London’s Tate Gallery, where it’s been on display ever since.
Dante and Virgil Penetrating the Forest, also by Blake
The scene depicted comes from Canto XIII of Inferno, in the Second Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell. The Seventh Circle contains people guilty of various kinds of violence, including things most modern people wouldn’t consider violence at all, like suicide and gay relationships.
But in the Middle Ages, suicide was considered not only a sin, but an even greater act of violence than murder, since it involved a rejection of the gift of life. Even into the 20th century, many jurisdictions had laws against suicide, and people caught attempting suicide could be sent to jail and were treated like terrible, immoral criminals.
Thankfully, today we have a much more compassionate, scientific understanding of depression and mental health issues, and many help lines and organisations devoted to preventing suicide and providing counseling. The darkest night of the soul shouldn’t last forever.
Harpies in the Forest of Suicides, 1861 engraving by Gustave Doré
Anyway, this forest is haunted by Harpies, half-human, half-bird creatures. In Dante’s imagining, they eat the leaves of oak trees in which suicides are entombed. The poor souls are condemned to an eternity of being preyed on by Harpies and a zombie-like existence. They also can only speak and mourn when their trees are damaged or broken as punishment for expressing grief through suicide.
To rub even more salt into their wounds, the souls of these suicides are also not even allowed to return to their physical bodies after Judgment Day. Instead, they must hang their bodies on the trees, as an eternal reminder of what they denied themselves and how they denied their bodies in their final act of mortal life.
Another engraving by Doré, with the same subject
In Blake’s artwork, Dante and Virgil are walking through the forest when Dante rips a twig from a bleeding tree, and hears the words, “Why are you tearing me?” Just prior to this, Virgil warned him that if Dante breaks off any twigs, “what you are thinking now will break off too.” But Dante was intrigued by all the phantom wailing, and had to get to the bottom of it.
The blood then turns dark around the wound, and the voice continues, “Why do you rip me? Have you no sense of pity whatsoever? Men were we once, now we are changed to scrub; but even if we had been souls of serpents, your hand should have shown more pity than it did.”
Dante drops it in shock and horror upon hearing this, and Virgil placates the suicide by saying Dante wouldn’t have done it if he’d let himself believe what he (Virgil) once wrote, “but the truth itself was so incredible, I urged him on to do the thing that grieves me.” He then asks the suicide to identity himself so Dante might make amends.
Copyright Limonov44 at WikiCommons
The suicide is Pietro della Vigna (1190–1249), pictured above, a jurist, diplomat, scholar, legislative reformer, proponent of science and the arts, and chancellor, secretary, and close advisor to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Other people at court, jealous of his success, falsely accused him of being an agent of the Pope and richer than the Emperor. Pietro was thrown in prison and had his eyes ripped out.
Pietro, who killed himself by banging his head against a wall, is presented as a heroic suicide. However, some historians believe he was truly tortured to death or died because of the blinding.
Der Hof Kaiser Friedrichs II. zu Palermo (The Court of Emperor Frederick II in Palermo), Arthur von Ramberg, 1865