Arts & Tradition

Between Heaven and Hell: A Moral Ascension

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
BY Eric Bess TIMEJanuary 2, 2022 PRINT

Life is filled with many instances every day in which we must make a choice between good and evil. When evil is made to seem good and good evil, it is difficult to know whether we are making the right choices. Suspending us between heaven and hell, such choices require deep, thoughtful consideration.

Heaven and Hell

In the 19th century, a French painter named Octave Tassaert depicted a single woman’s suspension between good and evil in his painting “Heaven and Hell.” Dressed in green and white, the main female figure—whom we’ll call our protagonist—is in the upper-central portion of the composition. She covers her chest with both arms, crosses her legs, and casts a striking glance out at us.

“Heaven and Hell,” 1859, by Octave Tassaert
People are ascending to heaven or falling down in “Heaven and Hell,” 1859, by Octave Tassaert. Oil on canvas, 39 ⅜ inches by 27 ⅜ inches. Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

From above, an angel descends to grab the protagonist’s waist and pull her up to heaven. The angel points up toward the heavens as if to remind the protagonist to remain steadfast in her righteousness. 

Below the protagonist, however, a demon—identified as Satan by the Cleveland Museum of Art’s website—attempts to sully the protagonist’s purity. A beautiful female figure with flowers in her hair leans against Satan’s leg and puts a mirror up to the protagonist’s face as if to distract her from heaven and remind her of herself. To the left of Satan, two female figures restrain another female figure who looks at the protagonist with jealous rage. 

Heaven and hell-1
The protagonist, in white and green, appears lifted by an angel and abused by Satan. (Public Domain)

At the bottom left, the redness of hell glows forth and threatens to swallow a drunken woman with a goblet in her hand, and behind her, an older woman in a black robe appears to be suffering from depression. These two figures sit on top of the three-headed chimeric beast whose serpentlike tail intertwines between some of the figures above.

“Heaven and Hell,” 1859, by Octave Tassaert
Lost souls in hell. Detail, “Heaven and Hell,” 1859, by Octave Tassaert. Oil on canvas, 39 ⅜ inches by 27 ⅜ inches. Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

At the bottom right, a group of figures shrouded in shadow make their descent into hell. Some of them cry and some reach back up to heaven, but it appears to be too late. 

Of the group that descends into hell, one figure, however, remains illuminated as he gestures up to heaven. He communicates with the drunkard and the depressed woman, but his message remains unclear. A tail protruding from his backside and the sharp nails and knobby fingers of his pointing hand suggest that he is a demon.

“Heaven and Hell,” 1859, by Octave Tassaert
Man and woman with lifeless child (detail) in “Heaven and Hell,” 1859, by Octave Tassaert. Oil on canvas, 39 ⅜ inches by 27 ⅜ inches. Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

Above the group descending into hell is another group of figures who appear to be preparing to bury a small child. The man to the left rests a pickaxe against a tree stump as the woman next to him carries the lifeless body of a child in her arms.

From here, we are led up above to a woman and small child who are met by an angel in their ascent to heaven. Two angels in the heavens are making their descent, and one gestures toward the mother and child. 


“Heaven and Hell,” 1859, by Octave Tassaert
People ascending to heaven (detail) in “Heaven and Hell,” 1859, by Octave Tassaert. Oil on canvas, 39 ⅜ inches by 27 ⅜ inches. Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

In heaven, at the left of the composition, St. Michael holds a book in one hand and the scales of judgment in the other and admits the righteous into heaven.

What Leads Us to Hell

Tassaert’s painting opens up several questions concerning the protagonist’s moral struggle. What would bring about her descent into hell? How can she ascend instead? What is the significance of the people burying their child or the figure coming out of hell to point to heaven? And why does the protagonist look out at us?

The representations of evil seem to be pretty straightforward. Satan, for instance, appears to put his hand up the protagonist’s skirt, which suggests the sin of lust. It even suggests just how evil and wicked lust is, considering that it is Satan himself who commits this act. 

The female at Satan’s leg who holds the mirror up to our protagonist represents the sins of vanity and pride. This female—though depicted as beautiful with flowers in her hair—is but a minion of Satan. This suggests that Satan can conjure beautiful forms and that beauty isn’t good in and of itself. Then, is it the case that beauty is merely an attractive container that serves to amplify its contents? 

The mirror held by the minion serves the purpose of increasing the protagonist’s conceit and self-absorption, but she doesn’t look into the mirror. Instead, she looks at us. Why? Is it to connect with us and share with us her struggle? Is it that she sees our struggle and recognizes that it is like her own? Does she look at us to warn us about the sins that surround her?

To the left of Satan is a woman who represents the sin of anger. She clenches her fists and teeth and looks at the protagonist with wide eyes and a furrowed brow. It’s unclear why she is so angry at the main figure. We can presume that she too is a part of Satan’s league, and that her anger stems from the angel who tries to save the main figure. Or maybe the sin of covetousness is combined with her anger. In other words, she may be angry that the angel does not come to save her as well.

The woman at the bottom who holds the goblet represents the sin of gluttony. Her excessive drinking has made her passive as she sits close to the edge of hell. The serpent head of the chimeric beast looks straight into her face as if it has, in one way or another, tempted her to drink, lulling her to sleep and making her easy prey. 

The color black is typically associated with depression or despair, and this suggests something interesting about the older woman with the black shawl for she is also among Satan’s fleet. What does this say about depression? Is depression—like anger, lust, vanity, greed, and gluttony—the result of a sinful state of mind?

Of course, this is a difficult question, and I don’t propose to offer an absolute answer. Many of us suffer from or have suffered from depression for a multitude of reasons. But why might this woman suffer from depression?

The tailed demon who ascends from hell and points to the heavens might be blaspheming heaven to the woman, and it’s possible that she has lost faith. She is all alone; without heaven, the woman folds her arms and bows her head in depressing isolation. Here, the lack of faith may be her sin.

Toward Our Ascent                     

But how might the protagonist ascend? How might she resist Satan’s temptations? There might be clues hidden in the body language of those who ascend to heaven. 

For instance, the small child who ascends to heaven looks down at the burial scene. Are these two children, the one who is to be buried and the one who ascends, the same person? There is no evidence of a woman dying, however, and so the identity of the woman whom the child accompanies remains unclear. Either way, an angel accepts the child and the woman, who clasps her hands in prayer, into heaven. 

The archangel above the child and woman points at them as if those two have a significance to the overall meaning of the painting. The woman clasps her hands in prayer, and typically, faith is a prerequisite for prayer. Of course, most children have not lived long enough to fall victim to temptation and lose their purity. Is Tassaert suggesting that faith and childlike purity are necessary in order to ascend?  

The figures who ascend toward the Archangel Michael to be judged also bow their heads in prayer. One figure even throws their hands into the air as if in praise of the divine. Is praising the divine another prerequisite for ascending to heaven?

Finally, we return to the protagonist, who represents chastity as she covers herself from Satan’s lustful attempts. She also represents tolerance as she endures the angry onslaught from the woman to the left. The fact that she looks out at us instead of at herself in the mirror suggests that she is modest and compassionate.

It is all too easy to fall victim to Satan’s temptations depicted here: lust, pride, anger, gluttony, and faithlessness. Is it the case that we can resist these temptations if we try to maintain our faith, childlike purity, chastity, modesty, compassion, and tolerance? Must we strengthen these things within ourselves if we wish to ascend? 

Have you ever seen a work of art that you thought was beautiful but had no idea what it meant? In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret the classical visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We try to approach each work of art to see how our historical creations might inspire within us our own innate goodness.

Eric Bess is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA) and assistant professor at Fei Tian College in Middletown, N.Y.
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