Autore: Sheila Ralphs
Tratto da: Dante’s journey to the centre. Some patterns in his allegory
Editore: Manchester University Press, Manchester
There is one image which in itself expresses the pattern of Dante’s poem as a whole. It is the image of a wheel or of a point governing a seties of concenttic wheels. The pattern as it is presented to the reader during the greater part of the journey is a reflection of the Ptolomaic system of astronomy, though it expresses also a spiritual meaning. According to this pattern, the earth is a motionless sphere surrounded by nine revolving spheres. Beyond these faith posits a Presence transcending space, time and movement, an overflowing of the being of God, which is the abode of the blessed. When Dante?s vision grows cleater in canto xxv of the Paradiso he sees this image turned inside out. God is then the unmoved centre of nine revolving circles representing the angelic orders as movers of all the heavens above the earth. As yet the earth has no place in the heavenly dance, but the drawing of earth into this dance is the climax of the poem. The turning inside out of the image is a way of expressing conversion. No longer is the earth, ot the Devil who denies God, or the ego, to use Jung’s word, the axis of the imagined movement of created things. Instead God, who is in all created things and transcends all, rules the dance.
Dante’s Comedy opens with an image of disorder—a wild, dark, tangled forest without flowers, fruit ot birds, where the traveller is beset by prowling beasts. It is com- pared to a flooded river or a raging sea which threatens to overwhelm the shipwrecked sailor who has been pitched into it. There is one hope—a hill on which the sun shines, where, if only he could reach it, the voyager could find safety and delight. Thus at the beginning the reader is faced with the mystery of evil and the hope of salvation. For his own good he must go with Dante the traveller to discover and to overcome the root of disorder, to know and to conquer that which has caused the earth to become unfruitful and hostile. Dante the poet, who himself says his task is ‘removere viventes in hac vita de statu miserie et perducere ad statum felicitatis’, is conscious of a prophet’s call. His task is to reveal to his own generation the eternal issues of death and life. As a Christian poet he believes that these issues are contained in the Christian Gospel—yet he knows also that each age must see them afresh. Sometimes it is the poet who must express the vision to his own time.
The forest, which is the fitst thing seen in the Comedy, represents two things—first ‘the world” in the evil sense of all that which is opposed to the truth of God, and second the individual sinful soul. The two meanings are, of course, intimately connected. It is part of Dante’s theme that the sinful soul is rooted in evil soil, submitting to forces which are not merely its own, though this does not absolve it of responsibility. Salvation requires both recognition of the evil depth, and victory over it through Christ. This is the meaning of the journey into hell—a not infrequent mythological theme. In the course of the journey the soul descends into its own depths and knows that its ‘own’ depths are also the depths of the created world. ‘The root of all evil is for Dante demonic. There is, he belicved, a spititual evi! which affects all Creation—all, at any rate, having to do with this globe—and this root of evil he calls Lucifer, the Light-bcarer turned to become the source of all darkness. The descent into hell has to do above all with the encounter with Lucifer.
Here of course we are in the realm of myth, taking the word in the sense defined by Alan W. Watts: ‘a complex of stories—some no doubt fact, and some fantasy — which, for various reasons, human beings regard as demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and of human life’. Dante freely mingles Christian and classical myth. With the stories of the fall of Lucifer and of Adam and Eve he associates the story of the rape of Proserpina (ot Persephone). Fot him, no doubt, the latter story ‘hides truth under a veil of fiction’. The other two he probably accepted as literally true—but it is the inner meaning which concerns him.
In Inferno XXXIV Lucifer is called ‘il vermo reo che ‘l mondo fora’ — ‘the wicked grub which bores through the world’. Lucifer is eating away the apple. He is the cause of that rottenness in the carth’s sphere which shows itself on the surface of the northern hemisphere—the bad half of the apple—in the tangled, sterile wood. To discover this, Dante has to descend to where the Worm himself is. Then he sees divine beauty turned to ugliness, which is the great mystery of evil. Yet by this time the sight of Lucifer is not altogether strange to him. He only sees more clearly one he has met before.
The first encounter with Lucifer was in the dark forest itself, where the three-faced Devil appeared in the form of three beasts—a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf, If this seems a novel idea it is, I am sure, one aspect of the iruth about the beasts. Various commentators have given the biblical references which lie behind their presentation:
But they all alike had broken the yoke,
they had burst the bonds,
Therefore a lion from the forest shall slay them,
a wolf from the desert shall destroy them.
A leopard is watching against their cities,
every one who goes out of them shall be torn in pieces.
[Jeremiah V, 5-6]
If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not inhim. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. [I John II, 15-16]
It seems certain that Dante had in mind both these passages. The lion would then represent, as almost evety- one agrees, pride, or ‘the vainglory of life’, the she-wolf would symbolize ‘the lust of the eyes’, ot greed in its widest sense, and the leopard ‘the lust of the flesh’, meaning that enchantment with created things, human or otherwise, which can cause a man to forget the Creator, who yet lies concealed in them and beyond them.
‘Le presenti cose
col falso lor piacer volser miei passi,
tosto che ’L vostro viso si nascose’
Dante admits to Beatrice in Purgatorio XXXI, 34-6. For Dante himself ‘le presenti cose’ were perhaps especially the physical attractions of women, but the wider meaning can probably stand in so far as Dante the traveller is also Everyman.
Lucifer is at work in the three beasts, tempting Dante to sin, and impeding the way of repentance and salvation. The sins seem to be not so much personal to Dante as common to humanity in general. They are the temptations of the Evil One, and they have his own character. Lucife:s downfall was pride, the will to independence of God:
‘Principio del cader fu il maladetto
superbir di colui che tu vedesti
da tutti i pesi del mondo costretto.
Quelli che vedi qui furon modesti
a riconoscer sè dalla bontate
che li avea fatti a tanto intender presti.’
[Par. XXIX, 55-60]
So the Devil, who ‘contra ’l suo fattore alzò le ciglia’ now ‘prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour’ by tempting men to a like evil.
But the she-wolf is also a likeness of Lucifer. Of het it is said specifically that ‘envy send her forth’ from hell – Lucifer’s envy of uncorrupted humanity, that is.1 She herself is envy and greed combined. Lucifer envied God; he wanted everything for himself and greedily snatched at divinity. This sin, closely allied to pride, is the root sin, the denial of that communion for which all things were made and towards which the story of the Divine Comedy itself tends. It causes treachety and all other evil. The sin to which Lucifer tempted Adam and Eve was the same sin—an act of attempted robbery:
‘Qualunque ruba quella o quella schianta,
con bestemmia di fatto offende a Dio,
che solo all’uso suo la creò santa.
Per morder quella, in pena ed in disio
cinquemilia anni e più l’anima prima
bramò colui che ’l morso in sè punio.’
[Purg. XXXIII, 58-63]
The result of this sin is to imprison the would-be thief in darkness, coldness and natrowness, making all true movement impossible. It is release from this above all that the traveller seeks. This sin in all its forms is what is condemned over and over again not only in the Divine Comedy but also in the Convivio. The impulse to grab makes impossible the attainment of that treasure which is to be found only by one who has laid aside all greed and instead has learned to love.
Even the gaily painted leopard is Lucifer in an attractive guise, and is akin to the siren who appears to Dante before he passes through the last three circles of Purgtory—the circles of covetousness, gluttony and lust. The attractive exterior hides the inner foulness, and it needs the eye of faith, the deeper vision (which St Lucy brings or represents) to understand. ‘Sirens’ are what ‘le presenti cose’ of Purgatorio XXXI are called. Sirens seem always to be a symbol of that entanglement with earthly things which can impede the hero in his quest:
‘Io son’ cantava, ‘io son dolce serena,
che’ marinari in mezzo mar dismago;
tanto son di piacere a sentir piena!
Io volsi Ulisse del suo cammin vago
al canto mio; e qual meco si ausa,
rado sen parte; sì tutto l’appago!’
[Purg. XIX, 19-24]
The sirens are cheats, owing their origin to the ‘padre di menzogna’ and are even akin to Geryon, the monster of bottommost hell with his “faccia d’uom guisto’, manycoloured ‘nodi e rotelle’ and a scorpion’s tail.
Dante has not really finished with the three beasts when he leaves the dark wood to take the journey through hell. ‘They have kept him from the short route up the blessed mountain, and many encounters lie ahead before his salvation can be secured. The lion, the leopard and the she-wolf are only the beginning of a series of monstrous apparitions barring Dante’s path and guarding the way to the Tree of Life (or Knowledge). There remain Minos, Cerberus, Pluto, the Gorgon with her Furies (and the fallen angels), the Minotaur, Geryon and the figure of Lucifer himself. The encounters link the story of Dante’s descent to hell not only with the death and resurrection of Christ and his victory over the Devil, but also with myths of the great classical heroes—Hercules, Theseus and Perseus, and the story of the rape and rescue of Proserpina.
Myths regarding Crete have an important place in the Inferno. The reason for this becomes most apparent in canto XIV, when Virgil is explaining to Dante the origin of the infernal rivers:
‘In mezzo mar siede un paese guasto’
diss’elli allora, ‘che s’appella Creta,
sotto ’l cui rege fu già il mondo casto.
Una montagna v'è che già fu lieta
d’acqua e di fronde, che si chiamò Ida:
or è diserta come cosa vieta.’
Here, clearly, isa myth of the Fall. Crete under the reign of Saturn with its unspoilt Mount Ida has the same meaning as Mount Parnassus in the Golden Age, or the Garden of Eden. As Matelda tells Dante in Pargazorio XXVIII, 139-44:
‘Quelli ch’anticamente poetaro
l’età dell’oro e suo stato felice,
forse in Parnaso esto loco sognaro.
Qui fu innocente l’umana radice;
qui primavera sempre ed ogni frutto;
nettare è questo di che ciascun dice.’
Saturn’s reign over Crete yielded to the reign of Jupiter. Mount Ida split, and an abyss was opened up within it. To reinforce the classical myth of the lost reign of Saturn, Dante introduces a strange allegorical figure taken from the Book of Daniel. The Old Man of Crete, whose golden head alone is not cracked, standing up in the deep crater of the ruined Mount Ida, represents, as all have appreciated, the progressive fall of the human race from that glory the Creator willed for it. The Old Man is also the source of the infernal rivers which flow down in a spiral into the lower pit of hell beneath the surface of the earth. The rivers derive from the tears caused by sin and ruin.
But before the reader has been given this account of the soutce of hell’s rivers he has already been reminded of the story of the Cretan labyrinth. The labyrinth was constructed by the orders of Minos, king of Crete, to contain the Minotaur—half human, half bull, born of the union of Pasiphae, wife of Minos, with the bull of Neptune. The Minotaur dwelt in the depths of the labyrinth, and to him each year were sacrificed as food seven of the handsomest youths and seven of the most beautiful maidens of defeated Athens, which was obliged to send them to Crete as tribute. Theseus, Duke of Athens, slew the Minotaur and found his way out of the labyrinth again by using a thread given him by Ariadne, daughter of Minos and Pasiphae. The stoty is very well known, and it has a great deal to do with the Divine Comedy. Dante’s hell is a kind of labytinth, the descent into which is a winding away from the light. At the entrance of true hell stands the ‘judge’ Minos, who sends the souls which appear before him into the depths. Minos is not of course the real judge of these sinners. God is their judge, but in Minos they see themselves. Minos is more brute than human, and the tail with which he encircles himself is a city. To this idea we shall return later. Dante’s Cerberus has been deposed from being guardian of the gate of hell and set to guard and torment the gluttonous. He is, however, the dog belonging to Satan and his army of fallen angels. He has suffered rather in appearance because Hercules pulled so hard on the chain round his neck when he dragged him out of hell. Or to put it another way, hell and death lost much of their power when Christ the hero died and rose again. The Hercules story is referred to by the Angel who lets Dante and Virgil into Satan’s lower kingdom and who addresses the guardian devils thus:
‘Perchè recalcitrate a quella voglia
a cui non puote il fin mai esser mozzo,
a che più volte v'ha cresciuta doglia?
Che giova nelle fata dar di cozzo?
Cerbeo vostro, se ben vir ricorda,
ne porta ancor pelato il mento e ‘l gozzo’.
[Inf. IX, 94-9]
Cerberus is Satan’s dog, and must obediently do Satan’s bidding—or he can be said to be Satan in one of his forms and activities. By his three chomping heads he obviously resembles Satan, who is himself an ugly parody of the Trinity. He resembles Satan in another of his aspects by being an image of greed. Although his throat does not bristle with serpents as in classical myth, yet he, like Lucifer, is called vermo. Dante, who with the help of Virgil overcomes Cerberus and passes safely by, is another Hercules, a hero conquering in the power of Christ.
The next demon Dante meets is Pluto, who guards the avaricious and prodigal. Dante’s Pluto is a complex figure, very intimately linked with Lucifer, and of course with the Proserpina story. He is in the first place Hades, God of the Underworld. He carried off the maiden, symbol of ife and growth, when she was plucking flowers, and made her Queen of Death. In Inferno X, 80, she is called ‘la donna che qui regge’. To this act of violent robbery Virgil probably means to refer when he reminds the menacing Pluto of God’s vengeance on those angels who attempted proud violence against God:
‘Non è sanza cagion l’andare al cupo:
vuolsi nell’alto, là dove Michele
fe’ la vendetta del superbo strupo.’
[Inf. VII, 10-12]
Pluto’s rape of Proserpina would thus be a myth having the same meaning as the story of Lucifer®s pride and fall which brings a blight on all the earth. The close link between Pluto and Lucifer is strengthened by Pluto?s calling on ‘Papé (Papa?) Satan’ in the beginning of canto vi, and the reference to Pluto as ‘il gran nemico’ at the end of the preceding canto.
He is ‘il gran nemico” because he is also Mammon, God of Riches, or God of Covetousness. N. Sapegno in his edition of the Irferzo points out that Cicero in his De natura deorum identifies Pluto and Dis, saying that both names mean ‘rich’. In Inferno VII, 8, Pluto is called ‘maladetto lupo’, an image of covetousness like the lupa of Inferno I. But Dis is of course the name Dante gives to Lucifer himself. The city of Dis is Satan’s city. If Pluto is God of Riches as well as God of the Underworld, so is Satan, who when he grabbed at divinity fell to become Mammon ‘the god of this world’. The simile of Pluto falling like a broken mast in Inferno VII, 13-15, is possibly meant to parallel the fall of Lucifer.
The most elaborate allegory in the Inferno is associated with Dante’s entrance to the strongly guarded city of Dis, Satan’s lower and special kingdom which imprisons those who have wilfuliy chosen him to be their king. To the defence of the entrance there come first a legion of fallen angels who have become devils. ‘They are Satan’s army. Next there appear three Furies with serpent hair and snakes wound tound them. The symbolism of three is here undoubtedly linked with the meaning it has in the three-faced Lucifer and the three-headed Cerberus. These Futies ot Erinyes who tear their breasts with claws and who seem, as is usual in Greek myth, to represent useless remorse are called
della regina dell’etterno pianto’.
[Inf. IX, 43-4]
They are handmaids of Proserpina (or Hecate) as Queen of the Underworld, and so queen of death. These lines, together with the mention of ‘la donna che qui regge’ by Farinata in canto X, 80, ate the only ditect references to Proserpina in the Inferno. The other mention of her in the Commedia comes after Dante has reached the Garden of Eden. Proserpina, Hecate, and moon are all one. Hell is under the sway of the moon or the night. Perhaps we have to think of the moon in her three nights’ absence, like Christ's lying in the tomb or Dante’s descent to hell. Proserpina in hell represents death, death of the body and death of the soul.
The three handmaids of Proserpina call to their aid in preventing Dante’s entry one greater than themselves. She is not named Proserpina or Hecate. She is named Medusa, the Gorgon, the terrible snaky-haired beauty the sight of whose face turns any man to stone. Virgil keeps Dante from looking at her, fot he is not ready for this encounter. Only when he meets Satan face to face in the bottom of the pit is he able to look steadily at the Evil One:
io non mori’, e non rimasi vivo
[Inf. XXXIV, 25]
and afterwards leave him and revive. If he is not to lose his soul at this point and be stopped in his journey he must have divine aid in banishing the forces of evil atraigned against him, just as the hero Perseus slew the Gorgon with the aid of Hermes, or Mercuty, and Pallas Athene. Medusa had once been a beautiful maiden whose greatest glory was her hair, but after she had profaned the temple of Pallas the goddess turned her beauty into terror and her hair into snakes. The myth is not untelated perhaps to the story of Proserpina, a stoty of life and beauty turned to destructiveness. At any rate, Dante’s Medusa with her death-dealing power would seem to be the queen of the Furies and of the army of devils fallen with Lucifer. She is perhaps the wife of Dis—or even Dis (Lucifer) in female form. Perseus would then be another figure for Christ conquering the Devil—or for the Christian hero.
Geryon, named from a monster whom Hercules slew to take away his red cattle, does not seem in the Iuferzo to have much to do directly with classical myth. J. Sinclair points out in a note to his edition of the Inferno that medieval legend represented him as enticing strangers to his den and killing them. Dante gives him the appearance suited to what he represents— deceit. He is a ‘sozza imagine de froda’ and the last monster Dante meets before his direct encounter with the ‘padre di menzogna’. The symbolism of his appearance is too obvious to need discussion. He is violent, greedy, deceitful, all the things that Satan is. His apparent beauty is a cheat and blots out the true Beauty. He is a venomous snake like the Snake in the Garden of Eden. Satan is his real name.
There is no need to say much about the Giants. They fought presumptuously against the gods. Nimtod raised himself proudly against God in seeking to build the tower of Babel to reach Heaven. The giants have an affinity with the fallen angels. They have no power over Dante, who must meet their King in his naked being and without disguise.
Dante trembles in the eternal cold that comes from Lucifer’s wings—once seraph’s wings—as he approaches. He has been almost turned to ice himself. His utmost courage is needed to make him raise his eyes and look. This is his moment of supreme danger and of victoty. The experience is expressed in one line:
Io non moti’, e non rimasi vivo.
What that state was is a mystery—but a mystery joining him fast to Christ butied and risen.
Once the first moment of confrontation is past, the hero can then look steadily and describe all he sees, for he is no longet in danger. Then he can see that Lucifer is hatred, ignorance and impotence. He is Father of Lies because he does not know the Truth, and hates what he dimly discerns. He is conquered, and he is a prisoner. The Conqueror is one mightier than Dante. Yet each soul that would be saved must pass the same way as the Conqueror and enter the tomb! where Lucifer is held fast. ‘The way of life is guarded still by the great serpent.
Two of the hero myths which have to do with the Inferno have not yet been mentioned. This is because they lead far beyond the Inferno, and the meaning of the whole Comedia is closely related to the meaning these myths had for Dante. They are the stories of the traveller heroes Ulysses (Odysseus) and Aeneas.
Dante plainly implies from the beginning of the journey that he is called to be another Aeneas, and the guide given to him for part of his journey is the poet who related the adventures of Aeneas. While Dante is hesitating to undertake the journey Virgil has proposed to him, thinking it may be a presumptuous — folle — undertaking and doubt- ing his own calling, he ponders the meaning of the excursions into the condition of the hereafter attributed to Aeneas and to St Paul. If Aeneas was allowed to visit the place of depatted souls it was for the sake of the founding of Rome, the cause of all his joutneyings since leaving Troy and the reason why he had had to leave Queen Dido in Carthage. He had to found Rome for the sake of the great mission to humanity of Empire and Papacy ordained for the eternal salvation of souls. But Rome is a greater symbol even than this, and probably for Virgil too it stood for much mote than the catthly city of Rome. Paradise is called in Purgatorio XXXII, 102,
‘... quella Roma onde Cristo è romano’.
The Rome Aeneas journeyed to find stands as a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem, the city whose glory St Paul even in this life was given to taste in a state of rapture so that his vision might encourage the faithful. When Dante doubts his own call to such experience—
‘lo non Enea, io non Paulo sono’
‘S’i’ ho ben la parola tua intesa
l’anima tua è da viltate offesa.’
So when Virgil has assured him that he has a true calling from heaven, he sets out on the long journey.
Deep in the pit of hell he encounters another great voyaget who came to grief—Ulysses, whose story this other traveller is passionately anxious to hear. Dante knevr the stories of the Odyssey only at second hand through Latin writers. Many of the commentators on the Inferno consider it probable that he had not heard the happy ending of the story, when Ulysses at last returns to his home and wife and son. Whether he did or not his own imagined end to the stoty related in Inferno, canto XXXVI, is vital to the structure of the Comedia. Aeneas stands as a type of the hero called by God, meeting difficulties, yielding to temptation, repenting and finally triumphant. Dido was for Aeneas what the sirens were for Ulysses. Yet in Dante’s version the story of Ulysses is fundamentally different in its meaning. The part of it which interests him and which he invents himself is the end, where instead of continuing homeward the voyaget persuades his men to sail with him beyond the bounds of the known world, past the pillars set up by Hercules to mark the limit beyond which humans must not sail. In Homer’s story the return home could well stand fot the reaching of man’s true Homeland. Mount Purgatoty, before which Ulysses drowns in Dante’s stoty, could have the same meaning, for it rises up to Heaven. Ulysses does not reach his goal—because he is not called.
This is the lesson of the Ulysses story, and it is one which Dante himself found hard. The heavenly city must not be sought presumptuously—the word folle (presumptuous)isimportantinthestory—trusting to one's own powers (virtute) in search of canoscenza. This is to repeat the sin of Lucifer and Adam. Both of them sought to grab fot themselves what belonged only to God and could be received only as a gift. Adam violated the ban put upon the Tree of Knowledge. Ulysses violated the similar ban symbolized by the pillars of Hercules. He stands as a warning to Dante and to all others who seek true Wisdom, the attainment of which gives citizenship in the City of God. If Aeneas attains it and if Dante attains it, it is by the grace of the Traveller who shows the way to all travellers, of Him who is ‘the way, and the truth and the life . Dante the Christian poet and prophet teaches that true journeying involves a dying with Christ and a tising with Christ, in whom alone the dangers of the way are overcome. So the exploration of the depths which can destroy but which must be known begins on Good Friday evening at the time when Christ was laid in the tomb, and ends on Easter Sunday morning just before dawn.
Dante passed the crisis of his life in the bottom of hell. The encounter with Lucifer was his Golgotha. The darkness, restriction and cold of the ‘tomb’ of Lucifer is a condition of the heart. It represents the evil root in Dante’s soul (or in the heart of the world), the ultimate in darkness and negation. But no progress is possible until this point is passed. To dare this most terrible encounter is like being laid in the grave. It unites the sinner with the desolation of Christ on the cross. The triumph is not obvious. There is no great feeling of victory, but the victory is real. The fact that the crisis has been passed and salvation assured is made clear with the passing of the centre of the earth, ‘il punto / a cui ogni gravezza si rauna’ (Inf. XXXII, 74). The ‘turning round’ to become right way up is a way of expressing conversion. This, rather than the later immersion in Lethe, restores Dante to the condition of the newly baptized Christian soul. He is, by an act of the will in which he renounces his own will, laid in the grave with Christ.
This is not to unsay all that has been said about the linking of the whole of Dante’s journey into hell with Christ’s burial and ‘descent into hell’, which, however conceived, literally or not, has always meant for the Church the defeating of supernatural evil forces.
When Dante emerges to fresh air and the light of the stars he sees for the first time what his victoty over Lucifer has wrought in his heart. The whole scene which gently unfolds before his eyes reveals to him his new self, not yet mature in goodness and truth, but miraculously changed and renewed.
This is the first showing of real light in the whole Comedy so far. From now on all light is the light of God’s presence, not fully and perfectly seen until the end of the Paradiso, but real. For fuller knowledge about how the stars shine with the light of God the reader has to wait for the Paradiso, but that is of no importance here. In the immense relief of the opening of Pwgarorie the reader is made to share in an inner vision which really presents the beauty of a Christian heart new born in sepentance.
The planet Venus is shining brightly in the cast and the sky is full of the promise of dawn. The star ‘che d’amor conforta’ is Dante’s own love of God now shining clear if not full grown and giving the key to the meaning of all his pilgrimage to the heavenly city, which now at last he is just about to begin. In the west fout other stars are shining and these too, usually with good reason identified with the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fottitude and temperance, have risen in Dante’s heart and are to be perfected. It has often been said that Dante had in mind the Southern Cross which he had heard shone in the southern hemisphere. Very probably this is so, and the appearance of a shining cross at this point in Dante’s journey would link up with the way in which the poet uses cross symbolism in the Paradiso.
The stars are what Dante sees first, but when he looks round his eyes take in a whole land and seascape. The looking is unhurried and quiet, like the scene which appears. As the reader looks with Dante he knows that a miracle has happened. Dante stands on the shore of an island rising solitary in the midst of a perfectly calm sea. The danger of drowning in a river or ocean in tempest (another image of the dark forest and hell its root) which threatened him when he first tried to climb a sunny hillside is now past. The waters are still there, but tamed and beneficent, providing a passage for other saved souls. The path that Dante has lost is found again:
Noi andavam per lo solingo piano
com’om che torna alla perduta strada.
[Purg. I, 118-19]
On the island rises an immense mountain, though just at first Dante does not give attention to it. Out of the ocean the sun gently rises, marking the dawning of Easter Day.
The sun is of coutse Christ, risen in Dante’s heart and lighting his whole way. What that Christian heart is now like Dante himself begins to see. The dew of divine mercy which has given him forgiveness and renewal is there. At the water?s edge is ‘molle limo’ with pliant reeds. Humility and willingness to be shaped according to the divine will characterize the new-born soul.
The mountain of Purgatoty is strictly Dante’s invention, in the sense that he followed no Church tradition in making of Purgatory a mountain. Yet the idea that Dante is aiming to express throughout the second cantica isthe idea of progress towards spiritual fulfilment. For this of course the mountain is a very common image indeed, though it may have many other different meanings. Purgatory is a holy mountain like Mount Sinai or the Mount of the Transfiguration, or Mount Sion. In fact Dante is at pains to let the reader know that it stands at the exact antipodes to Mount Sion. It corresponds to it and has the same spiritual meaning. It serves Dante better as a symbol than the actual Mount Sion could do. It is placed in the ‘centre’ of the southern hemisphere not simply because it was easy to place a fictiticus island in the unexplored hemisphere believed to be all ocean. It is there because the southern hemisphere was thought to be the ‘good hemisphere’ in contrast to the northern, which is the world corrupted by sin. This idea is not just Dante’s own, and it has a mythological character.
Mythological does not mean ‘untrue’ or ‘known to be imaginery’. Itmeansthat to the thirteenth-century western European mind it expresses a belief concerning the inner nature of reality which had not become mentally dissociated from what as far as men knew might well be literal, physical fact. Dante could use the idea of the ‘good hemisphere’ with great naturalness, taking his reader with him. If passing the point to which ‘ogni gravezza si rauna’ could express the idea of conversion, emergence on the opposite side of the world shows what has happened. What has been gained is freedom from the power of sin, and Cato the martyt for freedom lets Dante proceed on his way because ‘libertà va cercando’ —libertà which is really already his, if not yet perfect. This hemis phere is the place of pilgrimage of the soul directed towards its true end, and the mountain with the sun shining on it is really none other than the hill Dante had been struggling to climb in the opening canto of the Comedy without having the freedom in his own heart that could allow success. There was no ‘short way? up it. Will power alone could not achieve it. Only the way of negation, the abandonment of hope, the yielding up of all self-confidence and self-will and looking Satan in the face could cause this vision of truth miraculously to reappear.
The mountain in one of its meanings is Dante’s own aspiration. It is the centre of his own being, ot one of its manifestations. The climbing of the mountain is the beginning of a discovery of God. The movement is to the right in a spiral ascending and directed inwards, and is, as it were, an unwinding of the sinister spiral movement performed in the descent into hell. Perhaps it may not be too far-fetched to suppose that this is really the way out of the labytinth after the slaying of the monster. Beatrice, of whom mote must be said later, may perhaps be Dante?s Ariadne. Jung attributes to the Ariadne of Greek mythology something of the meaning which Beatrice undoubtedly has for Dante. This must not be laboured, since Dante is not explicit in associating Beatrice with Ariadne.
Virgil accompanies Dante on this new journey, but as a companion rather than a guide. The real guide is the light of the sun and its movement round the earth. The change in Dante’s relationship with Virgil is important. In so far as he is Dante’s reasonable self and his good will it expresses not merely the idea of subordination to supernatural light but also the fact that Dante has made of this good will and good sense a true companion. There are moments of danger, of course, as in the circle of wrath, when Virgil has to urge Dante strongly to stick close to him, and of fear, as when Virgil tties to persuade him to enter the seventh circle made of fire.
It is really the light of Christ in Dante’s heart that guides him. He has tisen there and will not abandon Dante even when he appeats to do so. It is the light
che mena dritto altrui per ogni calle
[Inf. I, 18]
—dritto: not only straight, but in the right direction. John Sinclair in his edition of Purgatorio has a good note on the significance of day and night in Purgatory. Dante is still a pilgtim soul on his way to the Promised Land, and the pilgrim is not always aware of the divine light. Sometimes it seems to be withdrawn, and then, armed with faith, hope and love, all the soul can do is wait and pray and rest. Humility and faith then consist in not struggling on.
That these times are not really unproductive is proved by the prophetic dreams that come to the sleeper. Fot the moment we shall consider only the first of these, which has to do with the myth of Ganymede snatched up to heaven by Jupitet’s eagle, ot by Jupiter in the form of an eagle. Obviously it refers in part to what happens while Dante is asleep, when shining-eyed St Lucy picks him up from the Valley of the Princes and carries him up to the entrance of Purgatoty proper. St Lucy may be herself, but she is also the light of God coming to the waiting soul which has prayed for light, and showing it a way into truth which no effott of his could have made known.
But the meaning of the dream is also deeper than that, because the gate of Purgatoty is really also the gateway leading to Paradise, and Paradise is, in Dante’s thought. being made ‘partakers of the divine nature’. The end of Dante’s journey is deification. The Christian is called to the acceptance of kinship and communion with God.
As Dante’s explanation of the basis of the ordeting of the mountain makes very clear, the way onwards lies first through the setting right and purifying of love. In this process the most arduous step is the thorough purging away of pride which is self-will and self-centredness. Without this no other progress is possible. Without this Dante would face a shipwreck like that of Ulysses. In the circle of pride Dante is humbled.
There is no need here to discuss in detail the way of purification in the Purgatorio. Dante’s meaning is clear, and there have been many good discussions of the most difficult parts. The mountain is bare and rocky, apparently without vegetation except for the two trees in the circle of gluttony. The way is a way of suffering and of despoiling of self. The final sacrifice and the final trial must be made on the last terrace.
The circle of flame which occupies the terrace of lust is also a rampart protecting the sacred garden. Presumably all who wish to enter the garden must pass through it. It is the final purification of love. The love which can walk freely inthe garden must be entirely without self-seeking:
The only hope, or else despait
Lies in the choice of pyre ot pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Lust stands between Dante and the true centte of his being. He loves God, but distractedly. A last sactifice is requiredofhim—self-abandonmentto the fire of the divine presence. On the other side lies the hope of looking into the eyes of Beatrice. When Dante emerges from the flame an angel greets him with the words ‘Venite, benedicti patris mei'—‘Come, O ye blessed of my Father. The wotds come from the parable of the sheep and the goats in chapter 25 of St Matthew's gospel, and the rest of the verse reads ‘inherit the kingdom prepared fot you from the foundation of the world’. The words are addressed to those who are adult in love and who have served Christ in serving all those in need. At this point in the Purgatorio the words imply that from now on Dante is assured of entrance to the heavenly kingdom. He still has Judgement to face when Beatrice appears, but he is already assutred of acceptance. The rest of the Comedy explores more and more deeply the nature of the kingdom of God which is ‘within you’ or ‘in the midst of you’.
Dante has not yet reached the garden. The sun is already setting and there has to be another sleep and another dream before he can enter it. He lies down to sleep on the final steps leading to the garden. Later, at the time just before dawn when the planet Venus tises to shine on the mountain, Dante dreams his thitd prophetic dream. It is inspired, or at least watched over, by Venus, and so it has to do with love. In his dream Dante sees Leah, the fruitful wife of Jacob, wandering in a meadow and gathering flowers with which to adorn herself. He does not see her sister Rachel, the beautiful but barren one, but of her Leah says that she sits all day gazing at her own beautiful eyes in a mirtot. The meaning of the dream is to be revealed later—but all the commentators agree that Dante was referring to a widely accepted medieval allegoty which made Leah symbolize the life of Christian good works, and Rachel the life of contemplative prayer.
When Dante awakes the sun is about to rise, and he, Virgil and Statius climb the remaining steps and enter the garden. Virgil takes leave of Dante. He does not vanish from the garden altogether until Beatrice appears, but there is no longer anything for him to do. Dante is free and mature. From now on he and Virgil are really one. The place where Virgil leaves Dante to his own devices seems to be, as it were, the outer edge of the (probably circular) garden. A more holy inner part lies on the other side of the stream to which his wandering quickly leads him.
The garden is described as a divina foresta. There flowers abound and birds sing gaily, but Dante walks mainly under the shadow of the trees. Whatever other meanings the garden has, in one of its meanings it must be Dante himself. It is the dark forest of the opening of the Comedy healed and restored to order and fruitfulness. One must not of course be too literal about this. This garden is on the top of a mountain and the other was in a valley, but now we find Dante no longer trying to struggle out of the dark and tangled thickets of sinful living. He is a master in the garden of his soul. That garden has within it beautiful and miraculous things which one by one he is to meet.
Virgil has told Dante he may either ‘go’ about the garden or sit down in it. The dream of Leah and Rachel comes immediately to mind. Dante chooses at fitst to walk about and explore, and very soon a figure much like Leah in his dream appeats to him. First, though, he finds a clear stream flowing gently under deep shade. The stream is full of mystery and he does not yet know its meaning. It divides Dante from an inner, more sacred area of the garden whose beautiful flowers he admires from the bank he has reached. It is then that Matelda suddenly and marvellously appears to him:
e là m’apparve, sì com'elli appare
subitamente cosa che disvia
per maraviglia tutto altro pensate
[Purg. XXVII, 37-9]
Every detail and every word used about Matelda is significant. Her eyes shine with love as she looks at Dante. She looks at him as if she were Venus in love and he were Adonis. She reminds him of Proserpina as she was before she was cattied off to the Underworld. But Dante has already visited hell, whose queen Proserpina was. So it would seem that, rather, she has been brought back from the depths, and that perhaps, even, it is Dante the Christian hero who has succeeded in rescuing her and who is therefore granted this vision. As soon as he sees her Dante himself falls deeply in love and is as madly desirous to reach her as Leandet was to teach Hero. Only the recognition that at this moment it would be an act of presumption keeps him from making the attempt. The narrow, gently flowing stream is at this stage a real bartier between him and the place where he would be. By the time Dante actually reaches the farther bank after his confession to Beatrice and after being bathed in the water and made to drink it by Matelda, she is no longer the object of his great desire. The sight of Beatrice puts Matelda out of his mind. The latter is, pethaps, like the garden, a sight of Dante’s beautiful restored carthly soul free to act according to righteousness. She is very closely related to Beatrice, though her powers are so much mote limited and her place is in the earthly and not the heavenly Paradise. Both are, I believe, in one of their meanings a rediscovered beauty within Dante. ‘The lost paradise, the faint apprehension of whose existence had so tormented him, has reappeared and is no longer quite out of reach. Both Matelda and Beatrice seem to perform something of the function which Jung ascribed to the anima. They are successive visions of spiritual beauty and truth, one more perfect than the other.
The appearance of Beatrice is preceded by the coming of the strange procession which marches through the garden from east to west along the far bank of the stream. It matches, as it were, through the garden of Dante’s soul, though he is not yet ready to enter fully into the meaning. A great deal has been written about the procession of biblical writers with the chariot drawn by a Griffin. It has been pointed out that there is probably a significant relationship between it and the processions of Corpus Christi. Commentatots often say that it is also a representation of the Church Militant in contrast to Paradiso XXIII, where Dante sees the Church Triumphant.
With this latter interpretation I cannot agree. Rather it would seem to be a pageant of revelation and of the history of salvation, related, especially through the appeating of Beatrice, to Dante’s personal salvation. Another point to note is the prominence in these cantos of the theme of the resutrection of the body. The descriptions owe much of theit power to a mingling and fusing of different but closely related biblical sources. These are especially Ezekiel I; Revelation IV and V; XII, 1-9, and XIII, 1-10; XIX, 11-15; XXI, I-23 and XXII 1-2; and Zechariah, especially IV, 1-14. Much can be gained by the reader of Dante from a careful pondering of these chaptets of the bible. They are of course very rich in a traditional symbolism which was by no means exclusively Hebrew in origin, but there seems little doubt that Dante’s main source here was the bible, with which he was very familiar, and that he hoped his readers also would have a fair knowledge of scripture.
The primary references are to Ezekiel and to Revelation IV and V. Ezekiel describes how a vision of ‘the appearance of the likeness of the gloty of the Lord’ came to him by the river Chebar and he was called to be a prophet to the exiles in Babylon. Revelation, which echoes closely many of the details of Ezekiel’s vision, is a glimpse of heaven. Neither account is meant to be an exact description, but only an indication of something ineffable. In Ezekiel thete is a faint suggestion of a chatiot contained between the wheels beside the four ‘living creatures’, but if so it is like no imaginable chariot and ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’ is set above a ‘firmament’ over it on ‘the likeness of a thtone’. Dante’s account is closer to Ezekiel than to Revelation in that it describes a vision of the coming of an appearance of divine glory to him as he waits by the river Lethe. Interestingly, the association of the four living creatures with the evangelists is a late interpretation of Revelation, but one with which Dante was certainly familiar.
The details which concern the present study have to do with the Griffin, the chariot and Beatrice. The climax of the whole scene is the descent of Beatrice on to the chariot which is more glorious than the chatiot of the sun. The ‘coming’ which is awaited and which is heralded by the wotds ‘Veni, sponsa, de Libano’ and ‘Benedictus qui venis’ is that of Beatrice, who comes crowned with ‘le fronde di Minerva’ goddess of Wisdom, and who judges Dante by the measure of his faithfulness to the vision of truth she was born to give to him. For the present ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’ centres in her. When at last it is given to Dante, repentant and purged of all memory of past sin, to see visions of God in the eyes of Beatrice, he sees first an imperfect vision of the Griffin, Christ, in alternating divine and human nature, and then the reflected light of divine glory:
O isplendor di viva luce etterna!
[Purg. XXXI, 139]
referred to in the next canto as ‘il sol’.
Christ, the Griffin, draws the chariot—a griffin and not the Lamb of Revelation because it is the symbolism of the griffin that is needed here. The lion nature represents humanity, not without recalling to the reader of Dante the proud lion of Inferno I. But it is cagle-winged humanity, humanity fully pattaking of divinity. Beatrice is, in a sense, the chatioteer, though she uses no reins and does not in fact guide the griffin. The chatiot in Purgatorio XXXIII certainly represents the Church, but just as Beatrice in that canto seems to represent in general ‘the bride of Christ’, Christian people in general, but in this canto is Dante’s personal source of illumination, so perhaps the chariot may have a petsonal as well as a public reference. This suggestion I make with some diffidence, and it was suggested to me by Cirlot’s article on chariot. Perhaps the whole group, the chariot drawn by Christ the griffin, on which angels had appeared hymning the tising from the tomb at the Last Judgement and the resuttected flesh, and now bearing the glorified Beatrice, is another of Dante’s secings of his present saved self. This scems all the more likely as it is also a kind of ship, with Beatrice as its ‘ammiraglio’. One image for Dante, body and soul, in the Comedy is of course the boat or ship which must sail the perilous waters to reach the final harbour. I would certainly not go so far as to assert that Dante fully intended the chariot and Beatrice to represent himself in body and soul, but there is a great deal of room fot not fully rationalized vision in the Comedy—vision, that is, only half understood by the poet himself. One thing is certain: that the first series of events which take place by the tree up to the time of Dante’s awakening from sleep has a great deal to do with the pilgtim’s spiritual adventute.
At length the procession turns and moves back up the stream with Dante, Statius and Matelda in the direction of its source. Before that source is reached they come to an immensely high Y-shaped tree, the one that Adam ‘robbed’ and left bare of leaves, flowers and fruit. Here Beatrice gets down from the chariot and the griffin humbly binds it to the tree. Thereupon the tree puts fotth new leaves and blossoms. Father Foster has shown that this action of the griffin represents primarily Christ’s humility and obedience undoing Adams act of presumption and disobedience. From what follows in this incident it seems to me that it also has to do with Dante’s own association of himself with the obedience of Christ. Dante’s first readers would have been well acquainted with the idea of the close association of the tree in the garden with the tree of the cross, and perhaps with paintings of the cross bearing flowers and fruit. There may well also be an intended parallel between Dante’s meeting with Lucifer in hell (in a shape not unlike that of this tree) and this second meeting with the cross.
As the tree begins to come to life and Dante sees its blossoms appear, the people composing the procession sing a hymn whose meaning passes Dante’s understanding. Before they have finished Dante falls into a very deep and most mysterious sleep. He is no more able to describe his falling asleep than he could describe in detail the falling asleep of thousand-eyed Argus. He is quite unable to relate what that sleep itself was like. All he knows is that a brilliant light (splendor) broke it, and that his awakening was something like that of the disciples Peter, James and John, who having seen Christ transfigured in divine glory fell on their faces overcome with awe and were then roused by the Lord returning to them in his normal aspect. So was Dante’s return to waking life, and with him he sees Matelda. At first he cannot see Beatrice (who was seen transfigured at the end of canto XXXI) until Matelda points her out sitting on the bare ground under the tree surrounded by the seven nymphs holding the seven candlesticks in their hands. The description of Dante’s awakening is complicated by the metaphor which makes Christ’s radiant huranity into blossoms of that tree whose fruit rejoices the angels in Paradise with a continual wedding feast. Father Foster has shown that if Christ’s transfigured humanity is the blossom, Dante’s suggestion is that the true fruit of the tree is Christ, the Divine Wisdom himself in the full glory of his eternal divinity. The fruit Adam tasted was not the true Wisdom. Dante’s sleep seems to have been a sleep associated with vision. While he slept the Griffin and all the biblical writers ascended to the heavenly Paradise, their true home. Before he fell asleep he saw the blossoms appear, the promise of the fruit to come. Did he pethaps in sleep even glimpse the apple, the Paradisal vision itself, or have some foretaste of it? Dante was familiar with the idea of ‘the sleep of contemplation’. His favourite contemplative writer was St Bernard of Clairvaux, his final guide and helper in the Paradiso:
…colui che ’n questo mondo
contemplando, gustò di quella pace.
[Par. XXXI, 110-11]
The spirit and imagery of St Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs and of his treatise on The Love of God are echoed throughout the Earthly Paradise cantos of the Purgatorio. Hete is a quotation from one of the sermons, with which Dante must almost certainly have been acquainted.
In contemplation’s sleep he [the lover of God] dreams of God, beholding him darkly, as in polished metal, not yet face to face.
‘Contemplation’s sleep’ is the falling asleep to outward things so that inner vision may be given.
Dante’s meeting with the tree in the garden and what happens to him there before the ascent of the griffin and saints to heaven is perhaps the climax of the Purgazorio. The tree stretching so high towards the sky by implication joins earth and heaven and is a kind of Jacob’s ladder like the one Dante himself ascends from the heaven of the contemplatives in the Paradiso. The implication is reinforced by the ascent of the griffin and saints in some mysterious undescribed way up the tree. The dreams Dante the pilgrim had at night while he was climbing the mountain of Purgatory were all prophetic. Here is a daytime, indeed almost a noonday sleep which is perhaps prophetic of that eternal noon of Paradise which Dante is so soon to enter. St Bernard, speaking of the significance of the ‘repose at noon’, says:
I pray Thee, therefore, tell ime where Thou feedest and takest rest at noon, for that noonday is the whole day, the day that in Thy courts is better than a thousand because it knows no set of sun. It had perhaps a morning, though, when first the hallowed Day arose on us and through the tender mercy of our God the Dayspring from on high visited us... The Dawn began when Gabriel announced the rising of the Sun of Righteousness... with His rising from the dead, the morning broke. It was indeed the morning, when the Sun was risen. Yet, however much He may increase His light and warmth upon us as the day goes on, He will not shed His y007day glory on us in this mortal life. [On the Song of Songs, p. 95]
All that now remains of personal experience for Dante in the garden is the sight of the fountain which is the source of both the rivers Lethe and Eunoé, and the drinking from Eunoé. The fountain is the one already referred to by Matelda in Purgatorio XXVIII, 124-6, as
‘... fontana salda e certa,
che tanto dal voler di Dio riprende,
quant’ella versa da due parti aperta.’
It is already noon:
E più cotusco e con più lenti passi
teneva il sole il cerchio di merigge
[Purg. XXXIII, 103-4]
the fullness of divine light which signals the time to enter Paradise. The fountain flows from the divine will and is, I think, already a foreshowing of the river of light, the outflowing of God’s very being, ‘milked from the divine essence’, the partaking of which marks Dante’s final union with God in the Paradiso. Here in the garden Dante drinks of this most holy water— ‘santissima onda’ — being thereby strengthened and renewed and made able to begin the ascent from vision to vision as far as the final peace.
Dante begins (and ends) his ascent to Paradise at noon— ‘the day that in thy courts is better than a thousand’. There is to be no more darkness at all, but progress from light to light. The whole Paradiso could be said to be an exploration of the ‘repose at noon’ which the divine Shepherd shares with his beloved—the Christian soul which has reached the end of its quest.
Imagety associated with this exploration is latgely geometrical, though there is still the image of the miraculous woman—Beattice and Mary—and also of the Man, Christ, in whom all creation holds together. The mirror also is important. Much of what is seen in the Paradiso is first seen reflected, until in canto XXVIII sight begins to become direct and true, and gradually the mirror is done away with. Then splendore, the word expressing teflected glory, gives way to active raggio ot fulgore coming direct from Him who is Light itself. Other images to be considered include the sphere or spheres, the circle, the wheel, the spital moving outwards ot inwards, the rose, the squaring of the circle, the infinitesimal centre. In the various heavens there are subsidiary and related images refetting to the Blessed souls who for Dante’s sake show themselves there. Among them are the pearl, the pond with fish, the circular dance, the cross in a sphere or citcle, the mill wheel, the clock, and the ladder ascending out of sight like Jacob’s ladder in the book of Genesis.
I have written briefly elsewhere? about some of the images most expressive of the Paradisal state as conceived by Dante—fire, sparks, flowers and fruit, food and drink, occhi, riso, splendore, raggio, fulgore. Here they will be touched on again just as far as is necessaty.
It is as true of the Paradiso as of the rest of the Divine Comedy that what is seen outwardly is often in one aspect at least a showing of the spiritual condition of the imagined traveller Dante. All of it lies on the far side of an experience called ‘transhumanizing’— trasumanar, a passing in body and soul beyond the normal everyday and relatively isolated condition of this life:
Beatrice tutta nell’etterne rote
fissa con li occhi stava; ed io in lei
le luci fissi, di là su remote.
Nel suo aspetto tal dentro mi fei,
qual si fè Glauco nel gustar dell’erba
che ’l fè consorte in mar delli altri Dei.
Trasumanar significar per verba
non si porìa; però l’essemplo basti
a cui esperienza grazia serba.
[Par. I, 64-72]
Dante can hint at this condition only by recalling to the reader’s mind the myth of the fisherman Glaucus, who became a sea god after eating weeds which restored life to dead fish. Strictly it is ineffable.
In the last chapter we considered briefly the coming of Beatrice at the end of the Purgatorio, where she came like Christ in glory and in judgement and judged Dante by the measure of his faithfulness to what she represented:
‘mostrando li occhi giovanetti a lui,
meco il menava in dritta parte volto.’
[Purg. XXX, 122-3]
Her coming was announced by the dream in which Leah spoke of her sister Rachel:
‘... mia suora Rachel mai non si smaga
dal suo miraglio, e siede tutto giorno.
Ell’è de’ suoi belli occhi veder vaga,
com’io dell’adornarmi con le mani;
lei lo vedere, e me l’ovrare appaga.’
[Purg. XXVII, 104-8]
In Paradise Beattice’s seat is next to Rachel. It would seem that she is connected with Dante’s own particular way of contemplation, which leads to the knowledge of God as the centre of a person’s own being. It is probably represented by one of the three kinds of contemplatives Dante sees on the ladder in the heaven of Saturn:
…altre toteando fan soggiorno
[Par. XXI, 39]
The mind or spirit turns round upon itself, knowing its own centre. This kind of contemplation can be begun in this life and continued into eternity. Dante must leave Matelda (Leah) and the Garden of Eden behind him, but he can continue on the way of Rachel. Beatrice is his guide most of the way. In Beatrice’s eyes he sees mirrored that level of truth, beauty and consequent joy (riso) to which looking into her eyes has raised him. She seems to be not only herself but also Dante’s own soul, the centre of his being where God his maker dwells. This idea can be found foreshadowed already in the Vie Nuova, especially in chapter 29, where Dante is explaining why the number nine was so much associated with Beatrice. The ‘root’ of nine is three, and the ‘root’ of Beatrice is the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God in three Persons. One may think of the Gospel words “Ihe kingdom of heaven is within you’. Very similar in thought are the words of the fourteenthcentury English author of the Clond of Unknowing, who in his Epistle of Prayer has the words ‘He [God] is thy being, but thou not His’. This idea agrees perfectly with the conception of God expressed in the Paradiso.
Beatrice is the mother who feeds her child with truth until he is adult enough to receive something of vision directly for himself. In canto XXIII of the Paradiso Beatrice waiting for the coming of Christ with all the Blessed is like a mother bird waiting for the first light of day to feed her young. As the vision appears Dante sees such an intensity of joy in the eyes of Beatrice who contemplates it that he is unable to tell again what it was like. She has prepared him to look and see directly.
‘... la sapienza e la possanza
ch’aprì le strade tra ’l cielo e la terra.’
[Par. XXIII, 37-8]
Then his mind expands to burst its own bounds so that the experience can no longer be tecalled by memory.
Dante’s second direct vision of God is likewise prepared for him by Beatrice. This follows the ascent to the ninth, the last moving heaven. The infinitesimal and acute point of light which is God is seen first in the eyes of Beatrice—those eyes which had first given him an inkling of the presence of God when he was a young man in the days of the Vita Nuova. Divine Love made those eyes so they might draw Dante to Himself—the
... belli occhi
onde a pigliarmi fece Amor la corda.
[Par. XXVIII, 11-12]
What Dante sees he sees first in those eyes
come in lo specchio fiamma di doppiero
and then direct:
Un punto vidi che raggiava lume
acuto sì, che ’l viso ch’elli affoca
chiuder conviensi per lo forte acume.
After she has introduced Dante to this vision Beattice’s remaining task is to raise him by an ineffable smile to Paradise itself. That smile
la mente mia da me medesmo scema
[Par. XXX, 27]
reach of normal mind and memory so that he is bathed in, explores and drinks of that ‘isplendor di Dio’ which is not a reflection of God’s being but the outpouring of his glory. After showing Dante something of Paradise Beatrice is free to return to her seat, where she contemplates God and reflects his light—
…si facea corona
reflettendo da sè li etterni rai.
[Par. XXXI, 71-2]
Beatrice is, in fact, like the rest of the blessed, a splendore:
La gloria di colui che tutto move
per l’universo penetra e risplende
in una parte più e meno altrove.
[Par. I, 1-3]
Reflected glory or splendour coming from the Creator is to be the object of Dante’s vision most of the way through the Paradiso, until at last after those previsions mentioned above his own sight penetrates and is conpleted by the Divine Light, and presumably he also becomes a splendore, radiating that fulgore which brought him his final peace in understanding and communion.
There is a key passage in Paradiso XIII, 52-60:
‘Ciò che non mote a ciò che può morire
non è se non splendor di quella idea
che partorisce, amando, il nostro sire:
chè quella viva luce che sì mea
dal suo lucente, che non si disuna
da lui nè dall’amor ch'a lor s’intrea,
per sua bontate il suo raggiare aduna,
quasi specchiato, in nove sussistenze,
etternalmente rimanendosi una.’
All creatures mirror God the Son imperfectly, yet they do reflect him, and angels and human beings most of all. Sin alone disfigures the human likeness to God:
‘Solo il peccato è quale che la disfranca,
e falla dissimile al sommo bene
per che del lume suo poco s’imbianca.’
[Par. VII, 79-81]
The reader will easily note how often in the Paradiso the blessed are referred to as splendori—as in Paradiso III, where Piccarda is speaking of the Empress Constance:
E quest'altro splendor che ti si mostra
della mia destra parte e che s’accende
di tutto il lume de la spera nostra...
and again in canto V, 103:
sì vid’io ben più di mille splendori
trarsi ver noi...
The brightest and clearest of all the spledori in the Paradiso is the Virgin Mary, brighter even than St Bernard, who took Beatrice’s place beside Dante to help him to the final vision of God which he himself had tasted even in carthly life. St Bernard is indeed a likeness of Christ:
Qual è colui che forse di Croazia
viene a veder la Veronica nostra,
che per l’antica fame non sen sazia,
ma dice nel pensier, fin che si mostra:
‘Signor mio Gesù Cristo, Dio verace,
or fu sì fatta la sembianza vostra?’;
tal era io mirando la vivace
carità di colui che ’n questo mondo,
contemplando, gustò di quella pace.
[Par. XXXI, 103-11]
St Mary, mother of all Christians (who in the Purgatorio was the perfect example of all the virtues and beatitudes), is nevertheless the most perfect created likeness:
così quella pacifica oriafiamma
nel mezzo s’avvivava, e d’ogni parte
per igual modo allentava la fiamma.
[Par. XXXI, 127-9]
So it is through the intercession of St Mary, through whose loving obedience Patadise came into being, that Dante is made able to penetrate the divine light to receive his own peace. Dante is, like Everyman, in some sense the child of Marty. She is the great symbol of motherhood. She feeds all the blessed, who love her as a baby does its mother. She must look after Dante after his vision and until his death. St Bernard, praying, asks:
‘Ancor ti priego, regina, che puoi
ciò che tu vuoli, che conservi sani,
dopo tanto veder, li affetti suoi.’
[Par. XXXIII, 34-6]
More remarkably, Dante the poet finds himself using mother imagery even of God himself. God’s light, the overflowing of his being which makes and perfects all creatures, is mothet’s milk:
Non è fantin che sì subito rua
col volto verso il latte, se si svegli
molto tardato dall’usanza sua,
come fec’io, per far migliori spegli
ancor delli occhi, chinandomi all’onda
che si deriva perchè vi s’immegli.
[Par. XXX, 82-7]
Similarly of that light St Damian said:
‘Luce divina sopra me s’appunta,
penetrando per questa in ch’io m’inventro,
la cui virtù, col mio veder congiunta,
mi leva sopra me tanto, ch'i’veggio
la somma essenza della quale è munta.’
[Par. XXI, 83-7]
Dante, in fact—though I do not wish to overstress this— comes very near, no doubt unconsciously, to making the Holy Spirit, the divine flame of love, God in his feminine aspect.
It is worth while letting one’s imagination rest leisurely on the total shape presented by the Paradiso. In the centre is a small heavy sphere without movement, half dark, half lit by the rays of the midday sun. This is earth, and the journey begins from the sunny side. Dante the traveller has seen and experienced things there which have prepared his spirit for expansion. Already under the Tree of Knowledge and of Life he has had a foretaste of the things to come, and drinking from the river Eunoè he has had a sip of the waters of Paradise. The luminous sphetes seem to mirror Dante’s expanding spirit and glorify his body.
The ‘transhumanizing’ which takes place as he ascends towards the moon makes him able to see not only the heavenly bodies but also the light of the great spheres containing them. The numerous passages of the Paradiso on creation explain how the light of God’s presence is distributed throughout the spheres through the agency of angels. This light Dante receives as he ascends. In each case he is taken into a planet or star, so his sight is clearest in one spot on each great sphere.
In each heaven the pilgrim’s attention is devoted to the one small sphere which moves with its own motion within the surface of the great sphere containing it, while sharing the larger sphere’s diurnal motion round the carth. He is cach time within the heavenly body and sees it only imperfectly. He is most aware of those true and brighter splendori shining with the direct light of God who ate the blessed souls. Together they form themselves into shapes which will be considered later.
Dante’s movement, then, is through ever larger luminous spheres from a centre which is inert and compatatively dark. When Paradise is reached he finds himself in a sphere which is not a sphere, because space and time are transcended. Human imagination cannot grasp this concept, so the tenth heaven is at this stage described thus:
‘... questo cielo non ha altro dove
che la mente divina, in che s’accende
l’amor che il volge e la virtù ch’ei piove.
Luce ed amor d’un cerchio lui comprende,
sì come questo li altri; e quel precinto
colui che ’l cinge solamente intende.’
[Par. XXVII, 109-14]
Until the last heaven is reached everything is in motion. The spheres are also described as wheels:
Beatrice tutta nell’etterne rote
fissa con li occhi stava…
[Par. I, 64-5]
Dante’s own movement is an outward spiral in harmony with the quickening pace of the heavenly motion. Strictly, the expansion of that spiral would have no end, for it leads to eternity. It is interesting to stop and think how the pattern of the whole Divine Comecdy is a series of spirals. In the Inferno Dante moves in a narrowing leftward spital to the centre of the sphere earth, where he overcomes Satan. In the Purgatorio the direction of the spital is reversed, and it ascends, but again it is inward to a centre represented by the Tree reaching up to heaven ot the fountain flowing ‘from the divine will’. In the Paradiso the movement is apparently outwards, but this is because Dante sees all as in a mirror until his brief vision of Christ in canto XXIII and the sight of the infinitesimal point of light teptesenting God in canto XXVIII. Then everything is turned inside out and the heavens appear as wheels turning round that point as centre.
From this conception the repeated artow and target image takes its meaning. This is seen particularly clearly in Paradiso I, 121-6, where Beatrice has been giving Dante an account of the whole ordering of the universe and the place of man within it:
‘La provedenza, che cotanto assetta,
del suo lume fa ’l ciel sempre quieto
nel qual si volge quel c'ha maggior fretta;
e ora lì, come a sito decreto,
cen potta la virtù di quella corda
che ciò che scocca drizza in segno lieto.’
One may compare Paradiso VIII, 103-5:
‘... quantunque quest’arco saetta
disposto cade a proveduto fine,
sì come cosa in suo segno diretta.’
When Dante and Beatrice enter the moon
…sì come saetta che nel segno
percuote pria che sia la corda queta,
così corremmo nel secondo regno.
[Par. V, 91-3]
If the spiral is unwound the movement is straight, like that of the arrow to the bull’s eye.
The wheel is a ruling image in the Paradiso and it is the one with which the poem ends. It is not difficult to see why this should be so. The whole wheel is related to its axis. Its motion is round an infinitesimal centre which is presumably still. The centre is in a sense the whole wheel. Motion in relation to the centre is a symbol for communion—pattaking of God’s very self and moving with His motion, yet without being God.
A turning point in the whole poem is reached in Paradiso XXVIII, when Dante, who has seen the infinitesimal point of light representing God first mirrored in Beatrice’s eyes
come in lo specchio fiamma di doppiero
turns to see the light itself. At this point Dante begins really to sce, and the wheel image already implied by the turning spheres within spheres revolving round the earth becomes a truer representation of the goal of the Divine Comedy. Earth then ceases to be the apparent centre, and until the end of the poem it has no place in the heavenly dance. Instead the nine orders of angels who rule the movements of the spheres are seen as they truly are in Paradise as nine circles of sparks revolving round the centre, those nearest to it moving fastest in an attempt to approximate to its stillness.
‘Così veloci seguono i suoi vimi
per somigliarsi al punto quanto ponno.’
[Par. XXVIII, 100-101]
Dante’s own wheeling motion is petfected only when his vision is really perfected as it is at the very end of the poem, and the spiralling towards the centre becomes a revolving round the centre. The movement is love and the whole theory behind this symbolism is explained in canto XXVIII. The point of light is the beginning of all things:
‘Da quel punto
depende il cielo e tutta la natura.’
[Par. XXVIII, 41-2]
The creatures most like it and closest to it love it most and move most swiftly:
‘Mira quel cerchio che più le è congiunto;
e sappi che ’l suo muovere è sì tosto
per l’affocato amore ond’elli è punto.’
The influence of this primal movement due to the
seraphim, the highest order of angels, is communicated to all the created universe (though human beings are partly independent of the angelic influence):
‘… costui che tutto quanto rape
l’altro universo seco, corrisponde
al cerchio che più ama e che più sape.’
The whole created order is an order of love.
Love depends on vision (though the primary impulse of love given by the Creator leads rational creatures to seek the vision which alone can content them):
‘... dei saper che tutti hanno diletto
quanto la sua veduta si profonda
nel vero in che si queta ogni intelletto.
Quinci si può veder come si fonda
l’esser beato nell’atto che vede,
non in quel ch’ama, che poscia seconda.’
[Par. XXVIII, 106-11]
So it is that when Dante’s desire fot vision is set at rest the Love which moves the heavens moves him
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa.
In his person inert earth itself is drawn into the universal dance.
Related to the image of the wheel is that of the flower:
‘Non per avere a sè di bene acquisto,
ch’esser non può, ma perchè suo splendore
potesse, risplendendo, dir “Subsisto”’,
in sua etternità di tempo fore,
fuor d’ogni altro comprender, come i piacque,
s’aperse in nuovi amor l’etterno amore.’
[Par. XXIX, 13-18]
The image here resembles a bud unfolding. The souls in the sun form a wheeling garland of individual flowers grown out of the divine love and joy:
‘Tu vuo’ saper di quai piante s’infiora
[Par. X, 91-2]
The just souls in Jupiter are ‘perpetui fiori / dell’etterna letizia’ each opening from its own centre. The white rose of Paradise, appatently still but actually in motion, is a union of souls reborn through the love of God active in the Incarnation, and it unfolds from a yellow centre consisting of light streaming down direct from God. Praying to Saint Marty St Bernard says
‘Nel ventre tuo si raccese l’amore
per lo cui caldo nell’etterna pace
così è germinato questo fiore.’
[Par. XXXIII, 7-9]
The souls gaze into God's Light and therefore shine. The sun calls forth the flower in its beauty and its beauty is the flower’s grateful response. In Dante’s less perfect vision of Paradise before he drank of the river or fountain of divine Life (first tasted in the Garden of Eden), the blessed were flowers lining the banks of a river. When he has drunk he sees them as petals of one rose, for the citcle, wheel or single rose is a more perfect image of harmonious totality.
The most perfectly simple and primitive symbol for totality, perfection, personal wholeness, or God is the circle. In the Divine Comedy it appears sometimes as the sun. The sun rises over Purgatoty. The noonday sun draws Beatrice and Dante upwards towards Paradise. In Paradiso XXIII Christ appears like the sun or the full moon:
Quale ne’ plenilunii sereni
Trivia ride tra le ninfe etterne
che dipingon lo ciel per tutti i seni,
vidi sopra migliaia di lucerne
un sol che tutte quante l’accendea,
come fa il nostro le viste superne.
[Par. XXIII, 25-30]
The centre of the tound white rose of Paradise is a circle of light reflected on the outer surface of the ninth heaven. Its source, and that into which all the Blessed and finally Dante gaze, is a circle of spiritual, uncreated Light which pours out its very essence upon them (the descending raggio being milked from the Divine Essence ). It is perfect simplicity—semplice lume—containing and unifying all created things past, present and future.
Seen as Trinity in unity the light is the unimaginable equality of three circles of different colours, each occupying the total space of the circulat light. More important still as the climax of vision is the relationship between the Incarnate Christ seen as a human figure ineffably painted in the circle’s own colour, and the whole circle representing God the Son. Understanding of this relationship is the ultimate understanding towards which the human creature tends:
... veder quella essenza in che si vede
come nostta natura e Dio s’unio.
[Par. II, 41-2]
God the Son is the all-inclusive Great Man of universal human symbolism. Dante’s ultimate desire is to see
... come si convenne
l’imago al cerchio e come vi s’indova
[Par. XXXIII, 137-8]
How could Christ be fully God and fully man? If a human being is to know and perfect his own relationship with God that is what he needs to know, though not necessarily with what the author of The Cloud of Unkuowing calls the ‘knowledgeable powers'—not, that is, with discursive reasoning.
The work which must be done is an impossible work and it has to come to Dante’s mind by a fulgore from the divine light. The work is as far beyond human mental powers as the squaring of the circle:
Qual è ’l geometra che tutto s’affige
per misurar lo cerchio, e non ritrova,
pensando, quel principio ond’elli indige,
tal era io a quella vista nova.
[Par. XXXIII, 133-6]
It is of great significance that the penultimate image used by Dante in the Divine Comedy should be that of a man attempting to solve the conundrum of the squaring of the circle. It is the attempt to turn a square into the equivalent circle. ‘The urge to solve this problem lies deep in human nature, as Jung and others have shown. It has to do with equating the earthly (the square) and the heavenly (the circle). It is not for me to attempt to elucidate this question further. For that the reader is referred to the works mentioned. It is of course impossible to say why this image should have come into Dante’s mind as he approached the climax of the poem. Perhaps it is natural and inevitable that it should. Then, with that crisis passed, the pilgrim revolves in union with Christ. Love is the answer to the problem. Love it is—
l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle
which, filling Dante’s whole being, moves him in harmony with the centre of his being—God.
The circle ot sphere, the spiral and the wheel are the commonest secondary images used in the Paradiso in connection with the separate heavens and the appearance and condition of the blessed. Each planet and each heaven is obviously a sphere, but it is worth while paying attention to all the images Dante uses which ate in any way connected with the subject of the spiritual journey and which kindle the imagination so that the reader is able to accompany Dante in his quest.
The moon is like a pearl—etterna margarita —a precious spherical object, though its material is brighter—
quasi adamante che lo sol ferisse
[Par. II, 33]
It is the first target of the arrow flight of Dante and Beatrice. In the heaven of Venus the Blessed burning with love are doing a circular dance, moving at different speeds according to the intensity of their vision:
E come in fiamma favilla si vede,
e come in voce voce si discerne,
quand’una è ferma e l’altra va e riede,
vid’io in essa luce altre lucerne
muoversi in giro più a men correnti,
al modo, credo, di lor viste interne.
[Par. VIII, 16-21]
They share their movement with the angelic order of Principalities:
‘Noi ci volgiam coi Principi celesti
d’un giro e d’un girare e d’una sete.’
[bid, II. 34-5]
The dance was begun in the Empyrean heaven where all the angels and the blessed dwell, so it is as if for Dante?s sake they have done a rapid inward spiral to the Heaven of Venus
… lasciando il giro
pria cominciato in li alti Serafini.
[Ibid. II. 26-7]
In the Heaven of the Sun citcular movement is repeatedly stressed, no doubt because it is the heaven of wise theologians and philosophers, whose attention is directed to the centre of all things:
Io vidi più fulgor vivi e vincenti
far di noi centro e di sè far corona.
[Par. X, 64-5]
In line 92 the corora is called ghirlanda, as also in canto XII, 19-20, where therearetwo garlands of roses (blessed souls):
così di quelle sempiterne rose
volgiensi circa noi le due ghirlande.
The harmonious wotking of the wheels of a clock marking the time for worship suggest the motion of the blessed theologians:
Indi, come orologio che ne chiami
nell’ora che la sposa di Dio surge
a mattinar lo sposo perchè l’ami,
che l’una parte l’altra tira e urge,
tin tin sonando con sì dolce nota,
che ’l ben disposto spirto d’amor turge;
così vid’io la gloriosa rota
muoversi a render voce a voce in tempra
ed in dolcezza ch’esser non pò nota
se non colà dove gioir s’insempra.
[Par. X, 139-48]
The mill wheel is another image fot such motion:
a rotar cominciò la santa mola
[Par. XII, 3]
—the first garland—after St Dominic has spoken of the decadence of his order. The conversation of Beatrice and St Thomas moves spirally inward and outward, like water in a round vessel struck from within or without, and as Beatrice puts a question for Dante’s sake the circular dance gathers speed as it expresses love and joy in pleasing:
li santi cerchi mostrar nova gioia
nel torneare e nella mira nota.
[Par. XIV, 23-4]
At last a third circle appears outside the other two and becomes brighter and brighter—but Beatrice and Dante must leave it and ascend further.
In the heaven of Jupiter it is the eagle—symbol of kingly rule and of divinity (as in the Ganyimede myth referted to in Purgatorio IX)—which turns round upon itself in happiness at giving joy to Dante:
Quale soveresso il nido si rigira
poi c'ha pasciuti la cicogna i figli
[Par. XIX, 91-2, 97]
In this heaven Dante’s attention is particularly called to the round eye of the eagle formed by Blessed souls, the pupil being King David.
The cantos of the heaven of Saturn are full of citcular ot wheeling images:
... del suo mezzo fece il lume centro
girando sì come veloce mola
[Par. XXI, 80-1]
… vidi cento sperule che ’nseme
più s’abbellivan con mutui rai
[Par. XXII, 23-4]
… la maggiore e la più luculenta
di quelle margherite...
[Par. XXII, 28-9]
Finally, as all the company of the Blessed ascend to Paradise:
... come turbo, in su tutto s’avvolse.
[Par. XXII, 99]
So one could go on.
Two special images remain to be looked at—one of them characteristic of the heaven of Mars, and the other of the heaven of Saturn. In Mars the sphere is divided into four by an equal-armed cross formed of the souls who fought for the faith. Resurrection after suffering is the theme of canto XIV in particular. The cross flashes forth Christ in an ineffable way—we are not told there is any human figure on the cross. The souls in Mars, among whom Dante plainly hopes to be numbered after death, are in a special way associated with the suffering and conquering Christ. The equalarmed cross and the cross in a circle are very ancient symbols indeed and are universal. They have to do with the square and the circle, with the intersection of the horizontal (earthly) and the vertical (heavenly), and it seems to me that this image in the Paradiso is linked with the squaring of the circle in the last canto, where Dante is given his own blessedness in knowing the equality of humanity and divinity in Christ.
Finally there is the image of the golden ladder set up in Saturn and reaching to the Empytean heaven. The ladder as an expression of the steps of mystical ascent towards perfect rapture is, as the reader will know, an often repeated image. In the book of Genesis Jacob went to sleep in a strange place where he ‘dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven, and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending upon it’. There he received a prophecy of his future place in history, and when he woke he said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it... This is the gate of heaven.’ To this incident and its connection with a fig tree St John’s gospel refers in chapter I, verse 51. St John Climax, one of the most famous and influential of saints, who lived in the late sixth or early seventh centuty and is still greatly revered in the Eastern Orthodox Church, was known as St John of the Ladder. His great work is called The Ladder of Divine Assent. The reader can multiply examples from mystical literature. There is an undoubted link in Dante’s thought between the ladder set up in Saturn and the great Tree in the Garden of Eden which stretched up and out towards heaven. There, it will be recalled, Dante fell into a deep sleep and was awakened by a bright light, like the disciples who had beheld the transfigured Christ. That Tree was a way to Paradise for the holy procession led by the Griffin. Dante seems to have had a brief foretaste of Paradise there in his sleep, but the perfect experience is suggested only in the last canto of the Paradiso. There also there is a reference to visionaty sleep. ‘Il tempo... che t’assonna’ (Par. XXXII, 139) seems to refer to the whole vision related in the Divine Comedy culminating in union. The writer Dante, who is no longer enjoying the ‘sleep of contemplation’, is like someone awakening from a blissful drcam he cannot remember. Only something of its atmosphere remains and distils drops of sweetness still into his soul. But Dante—both voyager and poet—seems to have had an eternal moment’s experience of perfect rest in God.