From a group of 11 tissue-stereo views of Satan (1860s–70s) (all images courtesy Swann tiontion Galleries).

From a group of 11 tissue-stereo views of Satan (1860s–70s) (all images courtesy Swann tiontion Galleries).

Hyperallergic has a great story on some 19th century stereoviews, some of which will soon be up at auction. Hell doesn’t look so bad, rather playful!

As one group of 19th-century French artists envisioned it, hell was no desolate destination for the damned. Rather, it hosted boating races, witnessed parties with a “live” band, and even boasted a lavish boudoir for one “Madame Satan.” Such are the scenes they depicted in their series of humorous stereoviews produced in the 1860s that capture a vibrant underworld of devils, skeletons, and satyrs, each carefully hand-colored so the frozen figures came alive with glowing red eyes.

Titled Diableries, the series was published primarily by Frenchmen François Benjamin Lamiche and Adolphe Block, as told in a publication, also called Diableriesthat chronicles the works’ history. Unlike most stereoviews, these images married sculpture and photography: sculptors (unidentified on the images) would craft small dioramas from clay that would then be photographed and printed on albumen paper. The artists then applied watercolors to the fragile prints, added a layer of backing tissue, and inserted the prints into cut-out windows of two cardboard frames. The tissue stereocards, therefore, offer two views: when seen with light hitting only their front sides, their images seem black-and-white; but when illuminated from the back, colors appear to render hell in vivid visions. The artists would also pin prick sections of the images and apply color to these markings so light passing through the holes would highlight details on costumes or settings, even making them sparkle slightly.

A full set had dozens of individually captioned scenes, guaranteed to provide viewers with a unique form of entertainment in 3D when placed on a stereoviewer. Stereoviews were highly popular in the 19th century, but the Diableries would have certainly stuck out from many other sets: collections of travel photos, artworks, and religious pageantry have quite a different tone from these scenes of skeletons riding bicycles, playing instruments in a bony band, and dancing in flouncy dresses.


Swann Auction Galleries is selling 11 cards (est. $600–900) as part of its forthcoming sale “Icons & images: Photographs & Photobooks.” A couple of these scenes show hell as you may expect it: in one, winged demons poke weapons at skeletons crowded in a massive cauldron while wide-eyed monsters gawk from dark corners; another shows the entrance to hell, governed by a three-headed beast and monsters holding pitchforks. Humor, however, is the clear, reigning mood in these Diableries: a sign above the beast in that latter image reads, “Speak to the concierge”; there’s also a skeleton lifting his top hat to a guard while a woman in the corner offers water for passersby to refresh themselves.

Much more to see and read at Hyperallergic.


  1. rq says

    They really do come alive! I picture the series of stereographs as stills from an old animated film about hell -- a ridiculous tour of the place (the firefighters especially made me think of other comedy sketches that use crowds, an emergency and general chaos).

  2. says

    This reminded me about a joke a coleague told me a few years back:

    An atheist goes to hell and feels like a total idiot. At the gate they are warmly welcomed by Lucifer, taken amicably around the shoulders and given a tour. All sorts of fun abound, from people playing games or just lolling around, to a raucous parties and orgies. The atheist looks with mouth open as satan proclaims the advantages to hells many attractions over the dull heaven. Then they pass a little cottage with red lights coming out of the windows. The atheist peeks in and sees a bigger on the inside than on the outside room, filled with a lake of fire with tortured souls being whipped and poked by screaming demons. They jump back from the window, alarmed, and fall flat on their bottom. The Lucifer helps them up and says, “Ignore that, that is just for christians. They ordered it that way.”

  3. rq says

    I like the one about the nominal believer who dies, but because theyŗe one of those comme-ci-comme-ca people, they’re offered a tour first of Heaven, then of Hell. So Heaven is nice, if a bit weird -- fluffy clouds, pretty people in white gowns wearing no underwear, lots of harp music and no loud noises. Shrugs all around, not too bad, kind of boring. Next day they have their tour of Hell, and it’s fantastic. Celebrities, world leaders, random characters abound; games, drinking, a golf course, free massages, a swimming pool and jacuzzi, plus all kinds of action. “This is great,” our believer decides, so when an answered is demanded, they choose Hell. Of course.
    Next day they’re led back down to the depths and it’s dark, dusty, way too hot… People in heavy chains are clearing away the previous day’s debris, and nobody looks particularly happy. Our believer turns to Satan, who’s handing them a set of chains, and asks, “What is this? This isn’t the Hell I saw yesterday!” “Of course it isn’t,” Satan replies, “Yesterday was marketing. Today you get the real thing.”

    Or something like that. :)

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