Outside the Kunsthaus Zurich, stands one of only eight bronze casts of the sculpture by Auguste Rodin known as The Gates of Hell.
It was commissioned in 1880 as a door for a Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, due for completion in 1880, but the museum was never built, and Rodin continued to work on the doors, altering, adding to and changing the composition of the piece for 37 years until his death in 1917.
By the time of his commission, Rodin had already been working on projects influenced by the first part Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, which tells the story of his soul’s descent through the three realms of the dead into hell.
Rodin was also influenced by one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance, the door of the Baptistery of St John in Florence, built in the fifteenth century by Lorenzo Ghiberti, and known as ‘The Gates of Paradise’. This features gilded bronze panels depicting scenes from the bible.
In preparation for his commission, Rodin made hundreds of sketches based on scenes from Dante’s ‘Inferno’, but eventually abandoned these literal interpretations and began instead to work from nature and using his own models. While some of the scenes from ‘The Inferno’ remain in some form or another, the images featured in both low and high relief, show men, women, children, cherubic infants, decaying skeletons, mythical winged creatures and centaurs who writhe in the agonies and ecstasies of hell, free from the constraints of gravity. Rodin’s expressionism leaves some figures as mere representations emerging from the panels themselves, while others appear in perfectly realistic detail. In fact the more you look, the more figures, faces and symbolic meanings emerge from the work.
The sculpture was not cast in bronze until after Rodin’s death, and although, he also had plans for a marble version of the gates, it was only ever exhibited as a plaster model in his lifetime. The early clay figures on the doors were unstable, and Rodin removed them to cast instead as more robust plaster models, which he exhibited in 1900. A consequence of this instability, removal and remodeling of the individual figures, was that Rodin continually re-worked the pieces, and many of his most famous sculptures; The Thinker, The Kiss, The Shades, were created as hugely enlarged stand-alone pieces in their own right, making Rodin’s work some of the most widely recognised of modern sculptures.
At a height of almost 7 metres , a width of 4metres and a depth of 1metre, and weighing around eight tonnes, the sculpture could never function as a door, though it retains the basic form with two panels, decorated pilasters, tympanum and lintel above.
Many of the figures created for the sculpture eventually found their way as hugely enlarged stand-alone pieces.
The most famous of Rodin’s sculptures, The Thinker, sits at the top of the Lintel looking down into the abyss. This figure was originally a representation of Dante himself, the poet, who, realising the inevitability of hell, becomes instead the creator.
The Kiss is another of Rodin’s most recognisable sculptures, showing the joy and damnation of lovers (possibly Paolo and Francesca) however it was removed from the doors so as not to clash with the figures depicting suffering and replaced with this smaller representation.
The Three Shades represent the souls of the damned pointing to the entrance to hell and originally pointing to the inscription ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’. Originally thought to be copies of Rodin’s figure of Adam, the piece consists of three identical figures adding dramatic emphasis to their appearance.
The figures of Ugolino and His Children depicts the story of Ugolino della Gherardesca who according to Dante, ate the bodies of his children after they died of starvation. Below them is one of several images of Paolo and Francesca, lovers who were punished for their lustfulness and trapped forever in Dante’s second circle of hell.
Fleeting Love (Fugit Amor) is another representation of the lovers ; Francesca, seeming to slip away from her lover Paolo as he reaches out for her.
The Sirens represent the three furies found in The Inferno who warn Dante not to stare at them or they will summon Medusa who will turn him to stone with a glance.
The Caryatid at the top of the left pilaster is a reference to classical Greek architecture but unlike the strong figures who carry the weight of buildings on their heads, Rodin shows her curled up and dispairing under her burden of stone.