The Inferno and the Hellish Rite of Unholy Baptism
As a largely religious text filled embedded with symbolic images of water throughout, it only follows that Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno would include the primary consequence of the meeting of water and Christianity: the sacrament of baptism. Yet Dante complicates this conception of baptism in his vision of Hell as a topsy-turvy realm of moral inversion, in which sinners should be tormented instead of pitied. Unlike its holy implications in the Bible of providing faith through the introduction of the holy trinity and, as a result, the cleansing of sin, baptism manifests itself in The Inferno as something for the damned to fear. Each appearance of the sacrament in the book enhances the work’s definition of baptism in Hell as a way of reminding sinners that they should have received God through the process during their lifetimes. Due to their sins, they in their dismal afterlives must either face torturous forms of baptism or the lack of any baptism as their everlasting punishments.
The first mention of baptism occurs in the very first circle of Hell, where the virtuous pagans bide their time. As a member of these ranks, Virgil makes sure to describe them: “I wish you to know before you travel on/that these were sinless. And still their merits fail,/for they lacked Baptism’s grace, which is the door/of the true faith you were born into” (IV.33-36). The significance of including a mention of baptism so early on in the book is to emphasize from the start the extreme importance of that religious rite. Because it is the very first section of Hell, where God assigns those deserving the least amount of punishment, it is important for Dante to mention the lightest offense that disqualifies humans from entering Heaven: the “lack” of “Baptism’s grace.” Dante concurs with the Christian doctrine of holy baptism: when an ordained minister dips a man, woman, or child into water and gives a blessing, the power and grace of God enter the person and free them from sin and eternal condemnation. Without that specific ceremony, the seemingly innocent souls in the First Circle are doomed.
It is important to note that Virgil says “these were sinless,” which permits readers to assume that the First Circle pagans were very best of all men in their time, having never wronged God at all. He does not merely state that the men are honorable with many positive qualities, but that they are “sinless,” completely unstained by the mark of sin. They are not just good men, but perfect men of merit, implying that they had performed plentiful good deeds that God viewed with pleasure. Indeed, had they lived in Christian times, they would have been shoo-ins for Heaven. Nevertheless, not being coated with holy water was enough to detain them from Heaven.
Their rightful punishment is to suffer “in one affliction only:/that without hope [they] live on in desire” (IV. 41-42). God, in effect, turns their offenses around on them to provide them with the unfortunate consequences of their inaction. Because they had lived without the yearning to become baptized in their lives on earth, they must rot forever in Hell desiring a sacrament they did not undergo in their lives, even if that was only because they were born before Christ’s birth. According to Dante, God views ignorance of baptism due to being born too early as not a good enough excuse to get a pass out of Hell–it is still ignorance, nonetheless. That is how important a seemingly simple water ritual is.
Further into Hell, those who, unlike the virtuous pagans of the First Circle, had an opportunity to be baptized but mocked Christianity with their sins are tormented more heavily. A prime example of this is Master Adam, who describes himself how he actually mocked baptism itself by deriding the prophet who popularized the rite: “‘for there I learned,/there in Romena, to stamp the Baptist’s image/on alloyed gold—till I was bound and burned’” (XXX.73-75). Here Adam confesses to his damnable sin of counterfeiting, with the face on the phony coins being of no less importance to the Christian faith than John the Baptist. Adam had used the fame of John to benefit his own wealth.
Adam’s chastisement on Earth may have come in the form of being burned at the stake, but in Hell, God dictates that he experience a more appropriate fate for his action: “I lack a drop of water for my thirst” (XXX.63). Master Adam preferred to profit materially, making a mockery of baptism by coining the visage of baptism’s foremost enactor, over profiting spiritually by receiving God into his heart via holy sacrament. Because Master Adam mocked God and valued physical water in his lifetime over spiritual water, God inverts Adam’s offense by mocking him and withholding physical water from him as a reminder that he should have taken baptism seriously. Now Adam can quench neither his thirst for salvation, nor his literal thirst. He thirsts for the waters of holy baptism only when it becomes too late to receive them.
Unlike Master Adam, who, as his punishment, is withheld entirely from baptism, Pope Nicholas III suffers as a result of his unending baptism. Dante, however, adds a stipulation to this scenario of baptism as punishment. Nicholas III is located in one of a few holes in the in stone blocks that were just like “those in the font of my beautiful San Giovanni,/. . ./From every mouth a sinner’s legs stuck out/as far as the calf. The soles were all ablaze” (XIX.17, 22-23). Dante specifically gives readers an image of the baptismal fonts in his church so that his contemporaries could visualize the morbid scene easily, possibly even the next time they went to mass. The picture of feet up in the fonts instead of heads up is yet another case of the inversion that takes place in Hell. On Earth’s surface, churchgoers can be baptized right-side up in water, and it is a reason for joy because they have just been saved from sin. At the Earth’s core, however, the damned souls of hell are baptized upside-down in fire, and it is a cause for misery because it is a symbol for their wrongdoings. This upside-down-ness serves as a mockery to Pope Nicholas III because it reverses his position as a powerful figure thought to be upraised by God to a position of powerlessness known to be despised by God. Nicholas thought that he could make a joke of the ministry, but God turned the joke around so that it backfired against him in the afterlife.
This technique of withholding water while in the baptismal font is used for a similar reason as Master Adam. Both Adam and Pope Nicholas III made a mockery of baptism: Adam by profiting illegitimately from a John the Baptist coin and Nicholas from “buying and selling holy office” (XIX.71). Nicholas had baptized many sinners, essentially washing their sins away with holy water, while the one who needed the most purification was himself. Because he simonized while he was in a position of power in the Catholic Church, he was, himself unholy, and therefore unfit to bless the water in the baptismal font and endow it with holiness. Thus, God is ensuring that Nicholas III can no longer spoil the baptismal font water by removing liquid and inserting fire in its place. Nicholas’s time of living comfortably and defiling sacred water with his corrupt practices has expired—now God retracts his water privileges for the former Pope and forces him to live in a state of what one would egregiously understate by calling “discomfort.”
In the final canto, Dante presents readers with a case of punishment-through-baptism worse than the pagans’ state of being left in desire, Master Adam’s permanent thirstiness, and Pope Nicholas III’s conflagrant baptism. The victim of the ultimate case of baptism-related damnation in The Inferno is Satan himself. One might ask how Satan’s eternal torment could be viewed as baptism. Dante neglects to mention of baptismal fonts, holy water, or salvation, after all. He never even uses any form of the word “baptize” in all of Canto XXXIV. The answer to that concern comes in what Dante narrates about Satan’s location in Hell: “The Emperor of the Universe of Pain/jutted his upper chest above the ice” (XXIV. 28-29). Satan, the infamous perpetrator of pain suffers from tremendous agony himself, literally freezing in Hell, covered up to his chest in ice. The significance of this image is the stories that come to mind of John the Baptist carrying out the profession of his title in the River Jordan, where some of the men and woman he baptized would have been halfway submerged in river water. God mocks Satan by casting him to the deepest pit of Hell and baptizing him. Yes, water covers him up to his chest, much as it did the apostles, which would make it seem like God holds Satan in as high esteem as Jesus’ twelve disciples. The water, however, is frozen, and unlike the apostles who traveled the known world spreading God’s word, Satan is confined to one spot for all eternity.
Satan’s baptism screams of irony: as an angel, Lucifer would not have needed baptism to ascend to Heaven; he already lived there. Yet, because he attempted to move upward from his place in the angelic hierarchy to become a god himself, God expelled Lucifer from Heaven, and he became Satan. Now, because Satan is no longer an angel, he needs baptism to obtain God’s grace. So God does send him to become baptized—but in a sheet of ice that God damns him to perpetuate by flapping his wings and creating a never-ending freezing windstorm. Because Satan attempted to achieve hierarchical mobility in Heaven, he is immobile in Hell. Because he would trust in no one but himself, God forces Satan to ensure his own confinement by freezing himself into a singularly unholy baptism.
Baptism undoubtedly contributes to The Inferno’s element of contrapasso. The term, coined by Dante himself, translates in English to “counter-suffering.” The word is appropriate, since in each mentioned situation, God countered the sinners’ actions and sentenced them to experience a version of Hell directly related to their bad deeds. Moreover, each time their punishments had something to do with water or lack thereof, and more precisely, the sacrament of baptism, a Christian tradition not normally associated with damnation. Yet Dante flips the definition of baptism, traditionally considered to be holy, into signifying complete unholiness. The scenes reminiscent of the sacrament of baptism in The Inferno are not tales of redemption but stories of suffering.
Thus, according to the text, the tradition of baptism is not just a rallying point for Christians, to be celebrated and looked upon as the cleansing of sins and the introduction of Christian faith in a person. That view is too simple and overlooks the manifestations of baptism in Hell that serve as punishment for infidels, the corrupt, traitors, and all manners of unsavory people. Instead, baptism in The Inferno has a two two-sided definition that also includes its status as a rallying point against both non-Christians, who are either ignorant of or outright deny God’s existence; and pseudo-Christians, who use holy scripture or power status in the church hierarchy for their own personal gain. Baptism, while acting as an empowering force for Christians to use as a tool of identifying each other and sharing a common culture, doubles as a force to unite Christians against the unbaptized nonbelievers because they do not share that culture. Furthermore, baptism has a positive side of grace and salvation for its adherers. For its doubters, however, The Inferno calls for contrapasso, God’s revenge on those who do not live the way He dictates, carried out in such a manner that the unbaptized in life are mock-baptized in death.
Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno, Trans. John Giardi. New York: Signet Classic, 2001.