William Bouguerau's Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850)

William Bouguerau's Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850)

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William Bouguerau's Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850)

After viewing William Bouguerau's, Dante and Virgil in Hell, I began a quest to gain a greater understanding of the religious meaning to life, and in particular more meaning to my life. Bouguerau's powerful depiction initially left me with curiosity about Dante's Devine Comedy. I read Dante with fascination and a burning desire to learn more about Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. Like a maddening and irresistible brain teaser I puzzle over these great religions and I am left with more questions than answers. I feel that I could never obtain total knowledge of God, but I thirst for as much knowledge about "him" as could be revealed in an effort to enrich my life.

I first saw William Bouguerau's, Dante and Virgil in Hell, while doing a Google search for images to include in a hate e-mail to a former boyfriend. In studying the captivating images of two powerful men tearing themselves apart in a fight to the death, I experienced what I will call an epiphany. It is hard for me to pin point exactly how it happened. I began to think about the trouble in the Middle East. The war in Iraq, the fighting in Israel and Lebanon, the continued hostilities in Afghanistan, the bombing of the World Trade Center, caused me to think about the death, misery and suffering caused by powerful men fighting. It made no sense to me. Inextricably I was drawn to read the book written by Dante, the Devine Comedy, for which this picture was painted.

Dante Alighieri in 1306 wrote the Devine Comedy. Essentially, the book is about Dante Pilgrim who had not lived a particularly pious life. Beatrice, Dante's deceased girl friend asks the Virgin Mary to help him see the error of his ways. Mary Accepts and Dante is sent on a tour through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. In the beginning he is spiritually lost. His guide through Hell and Purgatory is Virgil (pictured above). In Hell they meet various sinners: the violent, the panderers, the simoniacs, the fortune tellers, the grafters, the hypocrites, the thieves, the evil counselors, the sowers of discord, the falsifiers, the treacherous and the gluttonous. Dante learns to despise sin. Beatrice takes him to heaven where he is introduced to God by St.

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When I read Dante's words, "May God so grant you, reader to find fruit In your reading: now ponder for yourself..." (Inferno XX. 19-20) it hit me. Along with the disappearance of God in my generation there also was the disappearance of the Devil. From rock albums to clothing many of the symbols Dante used have become impotent. Dante communicates to us that these demons are the progeny of the black hole of the human heart, from the dense rugged terrain of lost spiritual purpose, from the center where ice has formed in love for one another and God. Up until this point in my life I never noticed the absence. I received no formal religious training. My mother is a mix of a little Lutheran and more Catholic. My father is a mix of Lutheran and Jewish. Neither one regularly brought me to religious services. I felt lost spiritually.

To make up for lost time I began cramming for religion like an unprepared student cramming for a final exam. I read the King James version of the Bible from cover to cover. It left me with more questions than answers. Abraham says his God is the God of the Canaanites, but they worshipped Marduk. Abrahams God would sit and commune with him. The God of Moses was an angry god whose face you could not look upon. Was God a partisan God that killed any nation opposed to the Israelites? i.e., the drowning of the Egyptians during the Exodous (couldn't God think of a better way to help them escape). Was he a God that demanded Blood sacrifice? Why would he tell Abraham to kill his son? Why would God condemn his own son, Jesus Christ to die on the cross? (Couldn't Jesus live to a ripe old age and still benefit us?) Where does the Holy Ghost come in? If god is all almighty, all knowing, holy true and just, then why does he allow people to commit shameful and horrid atrocities against other men women and children. Why does he allow sickness to claim the lives of innocent children? The Bible did not arrive in an e-mail from God, how can we ever claim to know all there is to know about God? Is God really a disinterested being that is indifferent to his creation, or is every event in our lives foretold? I then tried to read the Koran. The Koran's early verses try to encourage awareness of God's benevolence. They encourage people to realize how many things they still owe him, despite their successes, and appreciate their utter dependency upon the Creator of the Natural order. "only too often man destroys himself: how stubbornly does he deny the truth. The Koran does not attempt to teach anything new, but serves as a constant "reminder" of things already known. Many verses begin with a phrase "Have you not seen …?" or "Have you not considered…?" The Koran makes al-Lah more impersonal than YHWH (God of Moses), he lacks passion of the biblical God. We can only glimpse him by looking for signs (ayat) of nature, and so transcendent is he that we can only talk about him in parables. In reading the Vedante, a compilation of Aranyakas and Upanishbads I learned a little about Buddhism and Hinduism. They developed an interest in karma, the notion that that one's destiny is determined by ones own actions and did not blame the gods for the irresponsible behavior of human beings. The practice of Yoga ("yoking" the powers of the mind by special disciplines and concentration") caused the people to focus on their inner selves for enlightenment and not on the externals. The Buddha Siddhartha Gutama began teaching that Dharma, the truth about right living alone could free us of pain. Karma bound people could be free of an endless cycle of rebirth into a series of painful lives by reforming their egotistical attitudes and change their destiny and reach Nirvana. Nirvana literally means a "cooling off". Instead of a flame of misery lighting another flame of misery, one could reach Nirvana by right living. Was it all that simple? What about when your surrounded by inequity and injustice or murder, how do you keep your cool?

I believe in an almighty being that sits in judgment. I also believe that you do not need a big building to find God. I believe that God is in you and all around you. I believe he is there if you look for him. Religion is the only area of study where you learn right from wrong. i.e., do not steal, do not lie, do not kill, do not commit adultery, Honor your mother and father. You do not learn it in school and you do not learn it on the job. All major religions teach these things, yet I am appalled at the blatant disregard in these basic rules. Why do we not live the right life? I doubt that I could ever logically understand God. I do desperately yearn for his guidance to live a virtuous and pious life.
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