Classical Centaur Art: Dante’s Archers

Dante Centauren


May 24, 2014 · 7:28 PM

2 responses to “Classical Centaur Art: Dante’s Archers

  1. It seems unfair to me that our superlative centaur, Chiron (and Pholus, another noble centaur), should end up guarding those guilty of violence in the Outer Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell:

    • What I know about Dante Alighieri wouldn’t fill a thimble. So, not being a scholar of his works or the era of Italian history he occupied, I can only imagine why centaurs have been consigned to Hell in the “Inferno” part of his “Divine Comedy”. Perhaps, it had to do with the promotion of Catholic dogma. The ancient Greco-Roman mythology was actively rejected as primitive fantasies and, in their place, the fantasies (myths) of the Church were given the position of “enlightened fact” and symbolic representation. As an educated poet Dante was influenced by earlier works including the work from 900 AD, “Visio Karoli Grossi”, (mentioned in the Wikipedia entry you linked to) and Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” which features tales of Chiron, Pholus and Nessus and is among the few ancient documents to do so available to Dante at the time. Artists frequently lift fascinating figures from other works and rework them to their liking. It appears Dante lifted the centaurs from the 900 AD work and that those depictions of centaurs arose from “Metamorphoses” to begin with. Of course, using inaccurate portrayals of centaurs over and over only manages to cause the falsity to become accepted as “truth”. So what we now have from ancient works is a highly suspect rendition of what is assumed to be mythology. That being said, I do appreciate that visual artistic representations of the centaurs guarding the river of hellish torment are generally depicted as noble creatures and not brutish, ugly monsters. As for the fairness of how centaurs are treated in Dante’s work, think of it this way: without Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” Dante would have had no mythological beast source material to use for his “Divine Comedy”. Nor would modern man have any really substantive narrative regarding centaurs at all. “Metamorphoses” is much more than a mere bestiary. It appears that Alighieri wasn’t merely concocting new visions to populate his work, but heavily relied on previous depictions provided through those works considered “classic” in his day. Since Dante was conflating the centaurs of “Metamorphoses” with their representation as created for the “Visio Karoli Grossi” what we get are poor Chiron and Pholus forever doomed to work guard duty in Hell. “Metamorphoses” was a considerably valuable resource as more than just centaurs are drawn from it. In plain fact, we are all indebted to Ovid for collecting these ancient legends and myths regardless of how they have been bastardized since. We are left to our own devices as to the “accuracy” of the legends and myths Ovid collected and whether or not he took considerable liberties with what he gleaned.

      Thanks for commenting James!

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