Brant: In the Underworld I

Aeneas and the Sibyl enter the underworld (268-94). They stand in front of a grove of trees in the upper left corner; while Vergil compares the entrance to an entrance court with marble columns (268-9), Brant makes the entrance through a forest, which makes the scene a bit darker. The face on the crescent moon may represent Night. In the lower right corner, the Eumenides sit in their "ferrei thalami" (280), a round structure made of iron with three rooms, which has flames and a person spilling out the top. The structure sits in the mouth of an enormous monster, which takes up much of the right half of the image. The monster appears to represents Hell itself, and the Eumenides sit within the jaws of Hell. The monster's giant nostrils, expelling small flames, are located above the structure, and an eye can be seen to the right of the nostrils, at the edge of the image. Discordia, with snakes for hair (280-1), sits in a war tent directly above the monster.

In the lower left, a set of unlabeled figures represent the afflictions that reside at the threshold of the underworld; they include Famine, Sleep, and Distress (273-9). In the center of the image stands Briareus [Bryareus], the hundred-handed titan (287), shown here with about 10 hands. To his right, three centaurs (286) stand on the tongue of the monster. To the left, above Briareus' largest hand, is the Hydra, the many-headed serpent from Lerna (287). The Chimaera, a lion-like beast, breathes fire (288) toward Aeneas, who draws his sword in an instinct of self defense (290-4). To the right of the Chimaera, three Gorgons (289) share a head, whether from confusion with Geryon or from extreme economy of space. Next to them sit three Harpies, bird creatures with the heads of women (288). To their right, Geryon is shown with three torsos, connecting at the shoulders and hips (288).  In the upper right corner, the background of the image, armed figures represent further shades to come.

Woodcut illustration from the “Strasbourg Vergil,” edited by Sebastian Brant: Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera cum quinque vulgatis commentariis expolitissimisque figuris atque imaginibus nuper per Sebastianum Brant superadditis (Strasbourg: Johannis Grieninger, 1502), fol. 264r, executed by an anonymous engraver under the direction of Brant.


Sebastian Brant (1458-1521) was a humanist scholar of many competencies. Trained in classics and law at the University of Basel, Brant later lectured in jurisprudence there and practiced law in his native city of Strasbourg. While his satirical poem Das Narrenschiff won him considerable standing as a writer, his role in the transmission of Virgil to the Renaissance was at least as important. In 1502 he and Strasbourg printer Johannes Grüninger produced a major edition of Virgil’s works, along with Donatus’ Life and the commentaries of Servius, Landino, and Calderini, with more than two hundred woodcut illustrations. (Annabel Patterson)

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