Diableries: stereoscopic adventures in hell

When Pierre Adolphe Hennetier created 3-D photographs of clay model demons in 1860, little did he realise they would continue to enthrall and beguile audiences over a century later. In this short extract from print issue three, Dr Brian May explores the story behind The Infernal Library, in which Satan stores his collection of human souls.

What kind of library is it that opens at midnight and in which skulls sorted by sins are standing in rows where books should be?  There are a few books indeed (the spine of one of them bears the word ‘Mort’ – Death) but the artist has made it obvious that what ‘readers’ come to consult here is not bound volumes, but skulls.  

Shelves for only four of the Seven Deadly Sins (Sloth, Greed, Pride and Gluttony) appear here. Presumably the rest are on the walls behind us. Satan is holding one of these heads in his hands, and rather like Hamlet, is weighing it, and perhaps wondering what went on in that skull before it was divested of its contents. It’s an “Alas, poor Yorick” moment but Satan has a different slant – because, of course, he has a whole collection of these skulls, and this is where he keeps them all neatly categorised. We have to remember that in these diableries, skeletons represent souls, so Satan is revelling in his collection of stolen essences of humans. Habert may have had the ‘science’ of phrenology in mind, too – supposedly a way of determining human traits by feeling the bumps on people’s heads.  

Two pages welcome visitors while an assistant fetches the skulls they have called for by climbing up a stepladder. There are two ‘readers’, both wearing the robe and pointed hat adorned with cabalistic patterns one usually associates with wizards or astrologers. The female scholar is looking up at some interesting specimen on a shelf, while her male counterpart is being shown in. He is wearing a mask, as though it were important not to be recognised when walking into this very unusual library.  

Print Issue 3
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This is an extract from Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell by Brian May, Denis Pellerin and Paula Fleming, published by the London Stereoscopic Company. The book comes with an OWL stereoscopic viewer, designed by Brian May, for the reader to view the 180 diablerie scenes in 3-D. londonstereo.com

Read the full feature in Ernest Journal print issue three, which also features the science of terrariums, wild men mythology, the psychology of board games, prehistoric cooking techniques and a man who cooks on hotel room appliances.