Drama, pathos, magnitude. Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is one of the greatest literary works mankind has ever produced.
This extensive poem, which was composed at the end of the Middle Ages, sets its main argument, not in sentimental love, nor in praises of the homeland, still less in nostalgia for Greco-Latin classicism, but in the principles of Catholic theology, especially those concerning the Last Things, or the Novissima. It all revolves around a “journey” by Dante himself to the three places of life beyond the grave: hell, Purgatory and Paradise, magnificently singing the truths that the Church teaches concerning them. Not without reason, Dante was defined by a Pope as “the most eloquent panegyrist and herald of Christian doctrine,”1 and some have called his work the Summa Theologiæ in verse.
One of the most influential men in his land
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, probably in 1265. His life was an extremely eventful one. Of remarkable intelligence, he studied all areas of culture with excellent teachers and soon became one of the most influential men in his land, which led him to take on an important political role in the famous dispute between the Ghibellines, who defended the supremacy of the emperors over the papacy, and the Guelphs, who defended pontifical authority. The Italian poet belonged to the latter – and more precisely to the more moderate “White Guelphs”.
After many conflicts, he was exiled from his native Florence in 1302 by the “Black Guelphs”. After many journeys and attempts at repatriation, he took refuge in Ravenna. There, plunged into sadness at his exile, Alighieri consoled himself with the study of theology until his death on September 14, 1321.
It was in this context that, analysing his life, he realized he was entangled “in a gloomy wood, astray/ Gone from the path direct.”2 He went on to write his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy.
An incentive to love Christian truths
Undoubtedly, it is in the literary aspect that most of the glory of this universal writing lies. The story is pervaded with elements from all areas of the culture of the time: “Dante is complete in the Divine Comedy, not because it is the best of his works, but because of its totality.”3
What is more, in it the Italian poet exhausted his knowledge and talent, which were immense for his time. The Divine Comedy was written entirely in hendecasyllable verse – eleven syllables – with an innovative rhyming system in tercets, and is divided into three parts: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. In perfect mathematical balance, each of these parts is made up of thirty-three cantos, plus an introductory canto attached to Hell. This brings the total to one hundred.
Notwithstanding such literary excellence, this work was not initially intended for scholars and literati, but for everyone. Hence the fact that it was not written in Latin – the language then spoken in universities and used in scholarly works – but in the Tuscan vernacular. Furthermore, the original title Commedia was indicative of a literary style characterized by “living speech”, different from the illustrious speech of the elegies. Boccaccio only gave it the qualification of Divina with which it was consecrated years later.
It is worth recalling, however, that “if it captivates the reader through the singular variety of images, the beauty of the colours, the grandeur of the expressions and the thought, it is to enrapture him and excite him to a love of Christian truth.”4
The plot that fills the pages of the Divine Comedy takes place in the year 1300 and begins with Virgil appearing to Dante in the gloomy wood in which he had lost himself, an image of his life of sin. The Roman poet claims to have been sent by the Virgin Mary at the behest of Beatrice – a name that means blessed or beatific, and which in the work represents faith or theology – to guide Alighieri through hell and Purgatory until he reaches Paradise, where Beatrice herself will lead him.
Thus begins the descent into hell, which is shaped like a funnel, with concentric “circles” that go all the way to the centre of the Earth and hold punishments that are worse the lower they are. On reaching its gates, travellers are met with a sign that reads: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”5
As soon as they cross the gate, the poet hears cries and groans, and asks his guide who these wailers are. Virgil tells him that they are the lukewarm, those who have decided neither for good nor evil; they have become so despicable that not even hell has welcomed them. So he simply tells him: “Speak not of them, but look, and pass them by.”6
It is worth mentioning that the principles of Christian theology are joined by elements from Greek-Latin literature, such as the Furies, Medusa, the centaurs, etc. Thus, after this sort of vestibule, there is the river Acheron, with the mythological Charon, the ferryman who ferries souls across.
Past the river is the first circle, Limbo, in which the author places the righteous, poets and sages who lived in paganism before the coming of Christ, as well as unbaptized children. In the second circle are the lustful; in the third, the gluttonous; in the fourth, the avaricious and prodigal; in the fifth, the wrathful; in the sixth, the heresiarchs. In each of these circles, Dante questions the condemned, among whom are found all sorts of characters – from popes and emperors to public sinners, especially people of his time – who explain to him the reason for their condemnation and the proportionality of the punishments. Noteworthy is the poet’s imagination for devising new and increasingly violent sufferings, as well as the strong colours with which he paints them. Noone can read these descriptions without conceiving a fear of sin, so as not to fall into such damnation.
They then enter the city of Dis, where Satan lives. In the seventh circle are the violent (against their neighbour, themselves or God); in the eighth, the fraudulent, comprising ten different classes. The ninth and final circle is in the centre of the Earth and is made up of Cocytus, the frozen lake where traitors suffer. At its deepest point, Judecca, is Lucifer, chewing in his three mouths Judas, Brutus and Cassius. Having crossed the centre of the Earth, they now take an inverse, ascending path that will lead them to the island of Purgatory. This is how they climb until the poet concludes: “Thus issuing we again beheld the stars.”7
In the Dantesque vision, Purgatory is an island in the Southern Hemisphere, which is evident from the appearance of the Southern Cross. From it rises a great conical mountain that is climbed in ascending circles: the higher they are, the shorter the route to be travelled and the lighter the sins to be purged there.
Before the mountain, however, there is an intermediate space where those who have only repented in the last moments of their lives suffer. They have to wait there until given permission to begin the path of purification. At the beginning of the journey, the going is quite tough, but the higher climbed, the more unhindered it becomes.
Arriving at the gateway to the mountain, an Angel traces the letter “S” seven times on Dante’s forehead, saying: “Look, when enter’d, that thou wash these scars away.”8 These marks represent the seven capital vices, which would be expiated in each of the circles, in this order: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice – along with prodigality – gluttony and lust. In this ranking, the poet followed a very theological order, since spiritual sins are worse than carnal ones.
At the top of the mountain is Earthly Paradise. When he arrives, Virgil – the symbol of human wisdom – disappears and, in the midst of a multitude of Angels, the figure of Beatrice – the representative of divine wisdom – appears to guide him during his journey in Heaven.
Before this, however, she severely reprimands him for his sins. After Dante has repented, Beatrice bids him drink from the River Lethe in order to forget them. Now the guide appears together with seven ladies – the three theological virtues and the four cardinal virtues – and begins to treat him with kindness. She takes him to the river Eunoe, into which the poet dives. When he emerges, he feels clean and comforted: “I return’d / From the most holy wave, regenerate, / Pure and made apt for mounting to the stars.”9
Dante envisions Heaven as nine concentric spheres, each corresponding to one of the angelic choirs. Above these spheres is Empyrean Heaven, which is immovable and where God’s throne is located. This division is based on Ptolemy’s astronomical system, which was in vogue at the time. In other words, all the spheres revolve around the Earth, and their speed of movement is greater the farther they are from our planet.
Beatrice explains to him how holy souls are elevated to Heaven and how Dante will similarly rise: God’s love unfailingly attracts them when they contemplate Him. And so they begin their ascent. In the first sphere, that of the Moon, they meet those who, although virtuous, have not fully fulfilled their vows and are insufficient in fortitude. When asked if they did not wish for greater glory, one of the souls replies to the poet: “If we should wish to be exalted more, / Then must our wishes jar with the high will / Of Him, who sets us here.”10 In other words, in Heaven the blessed have such a union of wills with God that their happiness consists of fulfilling His designs, not longing for anything other than what He wants.
In the second Heaven, that of Mercury, are those who have acquired worldly fame lawfully, but who have desired it too ardently, to the detriment of justice. Raised to the Heaven of Venus, the travellers see the amorous, who have been excessive in this passion, lacking in temperance. There they find souls who have practised love imperfectly.
In the sphere of the Sun are the doctors of theology, who have shone for their prudence. Several doctors approach Dante, including St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. Then they both began to sing the glory of the Mendicant Orders: St. Thomas praises the Franciscans, while St. Bonaventure extols the Dominicans.
The fifth sphere is that of Mars, made up of the militants, examples of fortitude. They are organized in the shape of a large cross. The heaven of Jupiter is that of the just, who form, in a celestial choreography, the phrase of Scripture: “Diligite iustitiam, qui iudicatis terram” (Wis 1:1).11 From the final “M” rises the eagle of the Roman Empire, for there we find those who have exercised government over the nations in a holy manner.
From this point on, those who stand out for their pure love of God will appear. This shows that, in the Dantesque vision of Paradise, charity is the main factor for glory. In the sphere of Saturn are the contemplatives. There, Dante comes to a magnificent golden staircase, the top of which he cannot see. St. Peter Damian descends to him and explains why he cannot hear any music there: his human ears would not be able to bear such wonder. Beatrice, Theology, becomes more and more brilliant, indicating the proximity of God.
Climbing the golden steps, they reach the sphere of the fixed stars, where those who accompany Christ in His triumph are. Dante can see Jesus and the Blessed Virgin. The last sphere of the physical world is that of the Crystalline, or Primum Mobile – first moved. There he sees, amidst a strong light, the Angels who are closest to God, arranged according to the nine angelic choirs and in three ternaries.
On ascending to the Empyrean, Dante needs to be given a new capacity for vision, because the human eye cannot contemplate so much glory. Once there, he sees the Blessed arranged like the petals of an enormous rose. Beatrice then leaves the poet to take her rightful place in this rose of the Blessed, with the great St. Bernard guiding him, as theology reaches its limits and gives way to mysticism.
The Abbot of Clairvaux explains to him the order of the Empyrean and recites a sublime prayer to Our Lady, interceding for Dante with Her to allow him to see God. The Virgin raises her pure eyes to the Most High, and in them Dante beholds the reflection of the beatific vision. St. Bernard insists that he look at the Lord: “Beck’ning smil’d the sage [Bernard], / That I should look aloft: but, ere he bade, / Already of myself aloft I look’d.”12 What could be better than seeing God through Mary’s eyes?
However, with even greater boldness he dared to look directly at God and saw the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in three luminous spheres, perceiving the mysteries of God in an indescribable way. And with this divine vision he ends his poem.
Why read the “Divine Comedy”?
At this juncture, the reader may have wondered: “what is the point of reading the Divine Comedy if it is just a fictional narrative?” As an answer to this question, the words of Benedict XV are apt: “His comedy – which has well-earned the appellation divine – even in its elements of fiction and imagination and in the allusions to mortal life present in numerous passages, has no other purpose than to exalt the justice and providence of God, who rules the world in time and eternity, and distributes to individuals and societies rewards or punishments according to their merits.”13
Therefore, by beautifully singing the principles of the Catholic Faith, the Divine Comedy serves as a meditation for us on the Novissima, inciting us to a greater love of God, the One who is substantially, according to the last words of the work, the Love “that moves the sun in Heav’n and all the stars.”14 ◊
1 BENEDICT XV. In præclara summorum.
2 Hell, I, 2-3. All quotes from the Divine Comedy have been taken from the English version: DANTE ALIGHIERI. The Divine Comedy. New York: Grolier, 1990.
3 RUIZ, Nicolás González. Introducción general. In: DANTE ALIGHIERI. Obras Completas. 5.ed. Madrid: BAC, 2002, p.8.
4 BENEDICT XV, op. cit.
5 Hell, III, 9.
6 Hell, III, 51
7 Hell, XXXIV, 139.
8 Purgatory, IX, 113-114.
9 Purgatory, XXXIII, 144-145.
10 Paradise, III, 73-75.
11 From the Latin: “Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth.”
12 Paradise, XXXIII, 49-51.
13 BENEDICT XV, op. cit.
14 Paradise, XXXIII, 145.