Religion [Alessandro Vettori]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Alessandro Vettori

Tratto da: The Oxford Handbook of Dante

Editore: Oxford University Press, Oxford

Anno: 2021

Pagine: 302-308

In general terms, on the theme of religion, Dante's work appears to conform to the European cultural context of the Middle Ages, whereby religion is synonymous with Christianity, Judaism is a prelude to it, and all other known religions are a heretical deviation from the only truthful faith. The complex system of Christian dogmas, beliefs, sacraments, and prayers is indeed deeply embedded in Dante’s works and interacts with both his literary and philosophical thinking.
However, the more objective (if not downright skeptical) readers cannot but notice the poet’s pervasive unorthodox attitude when dealing with codified religious principles. For example, his Commedia is paralleled and equated to a sacred text in the Letter to Cangrande (Ep. XIII), while in the Commedia itself the poet is chosen to undertake an exploratory journey through the afterworld while still alive, enters into a poetic competition with King David through the frequent quotation of psalms, and goes so far as to translate and paraphrase the most important Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, in Purgatorio XI. Moreover, Dante performs a humble search for the early Christian community, while displaying at the same time the unwavering pride of himself as an author who is aware of his own literary worth and who unhesitatingly places his writing at the level of scripture. The underlying notion governing these choices (which could appear rather questionable to rule-abiding devout Christians of his time) bears the marks of Franciscan thought of the second half of the thirteenth century, the Friars Minor, and the radical faction of the Franciscan Order, while it has deeper roots in the apocalyptic theology of Joachim of Flora.
Christianity is a ‘religion of the book and its entire corpus of beliefs is contained in or extracted and extrapolated from written texts, the Hebrew scripture being perceived as a figura for the fulfillment of the Covenant at the Messiah’s coming in the New Testament. As Dante points out in Paradiso XXIV, 136, the essential teachings of the Hebrew bible are summarized in the three sections known as the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24, 44), while the New Testament is comprised of the Four Gospels, the Letters, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Book of Revelation.
From the perspective of the Commedia, Dante's oeuvre in general has been reread by the poet himself and by commentators as a gradual convergence of his fictional persona with the history of Christian salvation, starting with the transformation of the protagonist’s youthful love for Beatrice in Vita Nova to a mature form of charitable love, from his love for philosophy in Convivio to his adherence to theology in later years. Besides positing eschatology as its subject matter, the Commedia has been interpreted as having multiple layers of signification in the style of biblical texts. According to the detailed explanations of the Letter to Cangrande, Dante’s Commedia commands the same exegetical interpretation as the bible, thereby assuming the controversial role as a ‘sacred’ text written by a secular poet and not by a prophet canonized by tradition. The Letter to Cangrande illustrates how the Commedia’s symbolic value offers more than an ‘allegory of poets, the binary structure of literal and metaphorical meanings, and rises to the level of an ‘allegory of theologians’ the hermeneutical device biblical exegetes utilize to interpret scriptures. The letter states that, like the bible, the poem ought to be read while keeping in mind its polysemic structure and explained according to four different levels of signification. In the large scheme of Dante’s work, it is significant that the author of the letter, whether it is written by Dante or not, would explain the four senses by referring to Psalm 113 and to the Israelites’ exodus out of Egypt toward the Promised Land, which the Jews celebrate as their passage from slavery to freedom at Pesach.
Dante’s Commedia, too, narrates an episode of exile (which is, importantly, both spiritual and political). The literal meaning of Psalm 113 contains three additional ones: the allegorical one of Christ's redemption in the transition from death to resurrection; the moral or tropological one of the soul’s conversion from the misery of sin to the state of grace; and the anagogical one of the soul's elevation from the slavery of worldly preoccupations to the freedom of everlasting glory. Moreover, the biblical episode chosen for the Letter to Cangrande not only articulates some of the foundational principles of the Christian faith (arrival in the Promised Land as an image of conversion and resurrection), but also indicates pilgrimage, in this context almost a synonym for exile, as a critical device to explain the poetics of Dante’s epic. The tale of the Israelites wandering in the desert in search of the Promised Land functions as a literary and spiritual antecedent of the pilgrim Dante's peregrinations through the three kingdoms of the afterworld, full of unexpected circumstances and unforeseen encounters, before being led to his own final destination, the vision of the Trinity in Paradiso XXXIII. Pesach/Easter is the liturgical time when both journeys take place—and the matching temporal coincidence creates an even more poignant theological superimposition stressing the tropological and anagogical meanings of the soul’s passage from sin to grace as well as its elevation from earthly imprisonment to heavenly bliss.
A similar relational interchange of identity and otherness, reality and ‘ideal’ world that structures the Christian interpretation of the relation between the Old and New Testament, also occurs in the interconnections between earthly life and life after death. For Christians, the physical existence in the temporary world below is an imperfect preparatory phase for the perfected, complete life in the afterworld. In the medieval imaginary, entirely focused on attaining the reward in heaven, human beings are identified as homines viatores, and earthly life becomes a journey toward that final goal, a pilgrimage towards eternal life.
Dante’s philosophical and poetic appropriation of this idea becomes an existential paradigm involving his personal experience of exile. The 1302 exile from his native hometown and death sentence, together with the failure of his political career and dreams of civic involvement, turn his life into a long series of peregrinations, with long stops at various courts, but without ever finding a home elsewhere. Dante’s exile can be seen as the moment of an important ‘conversion' for him, which causes a transformation of his literary and philosophical convictions. He may have passively followed Church teachings imposed by his culture up to this moment, but now his exile reflects Christian life on earth: Dante captures the true meaning of homo viator as applied to himself, revisits his own wanderings as an existential, spiritual, theological journey, and writes the Commedia. The desperation for being exiled from Florence turns into poetic creativity and the author finds consolation in the resurrection of the body, a Christian dogma on which he structures his own epic. He reconfigures the medieval concept of pilgrimage, undertaken to the Holy Land, to Rome, or to a shrine such as Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury, or the local church, and has his pilgrim travel, rather than to an intermediary sacred space, directly to his eternal destination, where he will find God but also Beatrice. The association between his beloved and Christ, which implies a profound proximity of eros to agape, establishes one of numerous eccentric notions in the poet’s spiritual understanding of his relation to God, bringing his poetics closer to mystical language than to devotional rhetoric.
With this in mind, in the remainder of the chapter I will illustrate the ways in which Dante forges an original form of religiosity in his work by embracing Franciscan and apocalyptic ideas through three examples: the prophetic spirit that animates his critique of the Church and his call for spiritual renewal; his emphasis on the transformative power of prayer and its role in the poet’s construction of his spiritual authority; and finally the celebration of the female role in salvation through an elaboration of the figure of Lady Poverty in Franciscan texts.

1. Renewal

The paradigm of life as an earthly itinerary leading to a higher goal constitutes the guiding force behind the Mendicant Orders, particularly the Franciscans, who abandon religious monastic life in a cloister, as it was known up to their time, and embrace itinerant preaching. By the time Dante studied at Santa Croce (1289-1291), the Franciscans had already established a sharp dichotomy in the interpretation of Francis’s message regarding poverty, and the two factions were at odds with each other, eventually tearing themselves apart in two separate Orders: the Friars Minor and the Conventuals (later also the Capuchins). The most prominent preachers at Santa Croce belonged to the radical group that insisted on uncompromising poverty as an essential asset for accurate application of gospel teachings and the purification of the current institutional Church, which according to them was opulent, corrupt, and too involved in temporal matters. They were literally following the principle ofa thorough return to apostolic times as proclaimed and professed by their founder Francis of Assisi, but mediated through the highly controversial pronouncements of Joachim of Flora’s (1135-1202) writings. Dante may very well have heard the sermons or lessons of some Franciscan thinkers of the late thirteenth century, such as Peter of John Olivi and Ubertino da Casale, who were present in Florence at his time and who were later marginalized because they were considered as bordering on heterodoxy; but, even more likely, he may have been exposed to the written works by Gerardo da Borgo San Donnino and Giovanni da Parma, or just to their radical ideas that were circulating widely at this time. Besides criticizing the Roman curia and the clergy for deviating from an originally uncorrupted Church, their spiritual interpretation of historical facts drew abundantly on Joachim of Flora’s concept of the three epochs of human history (the ages of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit) and stated that, as the age of the Spirit had been inaugurated by Francis, the angel of the seventh seal in Revelation (8, 1-6), so the coming of the anti-Christ was also drawing near.
Dante inscribes this apocalyptic perspective in the highly allegorical cantos at the end of Purgatorio, when the pilgrim witnesses a mysterious procession, whose symbolism has been interpreted since early commentaries as representing salvation history, God’s interaction with human beings through the ages, the first and second covenant, and the history of the Church. The cryptic language of Purgatorio XXIX-XXXIII in which the poet rereads certain historical events through a spiritual lens and foresees some others in shadowed, figurative terms, has much in common with biblical allegory, but also with apocalyptic writing of the late Middle Ages. As is well known, the episode starts with the ‘seven trees of gold’ (Purg. XXIX, 43)—seven candelabra possibly representing the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, fear of God, to which Dante refers in Conv. IV, xxi, 12), which march ahead covering a distance of ten steps (Purg. XXIX, 81), to be in turn understood as the Ten Commandments—and concludes with the vicissitudes of the nascent Church in Purgatorio XXXII, quickly inserting a surprisingly poetic, personal addition, when Dante's beloved Beatrice triumphantly appears on the chariot-Church. The most debated of these symbols is that of the Griffin driving the chariot (Purg. XXIX, 108), a creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, whose shape and colors reveal his double nature, and who may represent Christ. The origin of this very enigmatic symbol has been identified in some late thirteenth-century sacred parades of central Italy, which staged similar reenactments of biblical episodes and were inspired by the Franciscan tradition of creating animated scenes of Gospel episodes, such as the Nativity in Greccio, in order better to educate the congregation on the mysteries of the faith. The chariot, which represents the Church, suffers tragic vicissitudes when it is repeatedly attacked by an eagle, a fox, and once again by the eagle, expressing an allegorical rendering of the persecutions of Christians in the first three centuries of Church history, the plague of heresies, and the Donation of Constantine that corrupted the innocent Church of the beginnings and, in Dante’s view, changed the course of history for the worse. The allegorical performance then features the very dramatic scene of a dragon emerging out of the ground, devouring part of the chariot, and reducing the rest of it in tatters, to be transformed shortly thereafter into the monster of the Apocalypse with seven heads and ten horns (Purg. XXXII, 130-47).
Joachim of Flora’s reflections on the parallels between Old and New Testament, as explained in his Concordia Novi ac Veteri Testamenti, were intended to cast light on recent, contemporary, and possibly even future historical events, for his prophetic spirit came to him in visions and revelations, but it also aimed at a more profound and clearer understanding of what scripture could reveal of the world. Contrary to the logical methods of scholastic debate starting in Paris at this time, Joachim uses a mystical approach consisting of figures and images, which is more akin to eastern orthodox spirituality than catholic theology. This method will be taken up by his Franciscan followers (Ubertino da Casale and Peter of John Olivi in particular) and will also be at the foundation of Dante’s allegorical style. It is well known that, despite the official Church’s condemnation of Joachim’s theories, Dante places him in the Heaven of the Sun and names hima prophet, ‘il calavrese abate Giovacchino, | di spirito profetico dotato [‘the Calabrian Abbot Joachim, who was endowed with a spirit of prophecy’] (Par. XII, 140-1).
According to common exegetical interpretation, the concluding act of the allegorical play on the summit of Mount Purgatory concerns contemporary times and stages a Giant and a Whore taking possession of the chariot, possibly representing the French Kingdom and the Roman Curia coming to a mutually advantageous political agreement but destroying the spirit of the Church with their alliance (Dante was writing this section when the pope was already in Avignon). The Giant and the Whore are portrayed as kissing and embracing, before the Giant beats up the Whore and together they drive the remainders of the dilapidated, derelict chariot into the woods and disappear (Purg. XXXII 149-60).
The repeated use of figural language and images in this section of the poem is complemented by obscure references and even riddles, such as the ‘messenger of God, the DXV, the ‘Five Hundred and Ten and Five’, in Purgatorio XXXIII, 43-5, an unidentified leader who will restore peace and probity, and who bears similar characteristics to the ‘veltro’, the Greyhound that chases the She-Wolfin Inferno I, 100-3.
The strong figural influence of apocalyptic style returns in Dante's description of the Trinity in Paradiso XXXIII, 115-20, when the three circles of three different colors that describe the triune nature of God seem to have been taken directly from the Liber Figurarum (attributed to Joachim of Flora, but more likely written by his followers); the great symbolic images of the Eagle, the Cross, and the Ladder in Paradiso also deploy the same rhetoric of accounting for complex theological concepts by means of images.
In line with the Spiritual Franciscans’ radical thinking that proposes a purification of the Church by returning to its origins, Dante goes so far as to oppose one of the Church's basic dogmas, according to which salvation can only happen through the Church: ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’. This belief had been proclaimed by the early Church Fathers (Cyprian of Carthage in the third century) and ratified in more recent times by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Indirectly dismissing it, Dante proceeds to save the pagan Ripheus (Par. XX, 118-41) as well as the pagan and suicide Cato the Younger (Purg. I, 31-108; Purg. II, 118-23), while he also defiantly places the excommunicate Manfred in ante-purgatory (Purg. V, 103-145), considering his excommunication politically and not spiritually motivated. In Paradiso XIX, 103-14 Dante even makes an argument for non-Christians to be saved on the basis of their good actions alone and claims that Ethiopians and Persians may deserve salvation, even though they have never known Christ or been baptized.
Dante’s refusal of the Church’s interest in politics and temporal power goes hand in hand with the radical Franciscans’ attempt to reach back to the origins of the Church, when it was persecuted and its involvement with the empire was limited to defending itself from attacks (as in the allegory of Purg. XXXII). Although Dante had no way of knowing that the Donation of Constantine was a fabricated document to justify Church riches and temporal power during the Carolingian Empire (it was presumably drafted in the middle of the eighth century between Rome and France), he believed it had no juridical validity and repeatedly and virulently attacked it throughout the Commedia (Inf. XIX, 115-17; Purg. XVI, 109-110 and 127-9; Purg. XXXII, 124-9; Par. XXVII, 140-1) and in Monarchia (II, xi, 8 and III, x, 4-6), displaying a clear-minded understanding of the complex interactions of secular and ecclesiastical politics throughout the Middle Ages (and beyond) and particularly the devastating effects of political involvement for the spiritual mission of the Church.

Date: 2022-12-29