The three major religions with the most similar concepts of heaven and hell are Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. In Eastern religions, heaven is not a place but freedom from rebirth — moksha or Nirvana, when the soul is reunited with the Maker.

The most visually developed imagery of heaven is that of Islam’s, with luxurious, peaceful gardens with eight gates described in elaborate detail. Although hell is described as a place of great suffering, Muslims prefer to focus on the promise of heaven, and have a deep-seated belief that even those Muslims who are sent to hell will eventually be allowed to enter heaven. It has inspired the designs of gardens, carpets, architecture and devotional songs such as qawwali and naats and, controversially, jihad. Earning sawab (reward) rather than avoiding damnation is the great motivator. Most Muslims avoid discussing or even thinking about the sufferings of the spiritual underworld or the grey world of djinns.

Conversely, hell, damnation, Lucifer, demons, evil spirits, vampires, witches, Satanic cults, walking dead and a host of other nasties abound in Western popular culture and its circle of influence. The mainstream Hollywood movies and B movies (low-budget movies), DC and Marvel Comics, cartoons, and even more elevated literature has returned again and again to themes of the battle between good and evil, often with evil having the edge over good.

The imagery associated with the primal forces of good and evil have been fixed in culture by vivid literary works and their visual interpretations by artists. Two European works in particular have been highly influential in determining the perceptions of heaven and hell — Dante’s Inferno (1321) and Hieronymus Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ ( 1490-1510), both of which have crossed from religious to general cultural contexts.

‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ depicts the horrors of hell in disturbing graphic detail, inspired in large part by Dante’s descriptions of hell. In turn, it has inspired many artists — especially surrealist painters and illustrators — and science fiction creatures.

While ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ has had a more eccentric following, Dante’s Inferno — which describes the nine circles of hell — has a prolific following across society and through the ages. Poets such as Chaucer and Milton, and all the 19th-century romantic poets and Gothic novelists were inspired by it ,as were artists such as Botticelli, Rodin and Dali. It continues to be a highly influential work in literature, music, performing arts, film, video games, DC and Marvel Comics, computer games and fashion and products. There is even a website called ‘Dante Today — Citings & Sightings of Dante’s Works in Contemporary Culture’.

The Bible does not give any physical description of Satan. The image of a horned beast with hooves, a terrifying appearance, bat wings and trident, grew out of a mixture of pagan imagery and was imprinted in the social psyche mainly by Dante’s Inferno and related artworks.

The most visually developed imagery of heaven is that of Islam’s, with luxurious, peaceful gardens with eight gates described in elaborate detail.

Divisions in the church, encounters with other beliefs during the age of exploration, and the rise of evangelism brought sin and damnation into the centre of church doctrine. Images of hell needed to be embellished to keep people from straying. While religious divisions healed, the images endured.

Cinema picked up where religious painting and literature retreated. Stories of supernatural demons, vampires, poltergeists, zombies, witches, the Devil’s offspring and the struggle between good and evil have universal appeal for both religious and secular audiences across the world.

The Native American Sitting Bull said, “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good, and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi
Email: durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 5th, 2019