Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)


Dante’s Divine Comedy explores the personal relationship that exists between God as the Creator of the Universe and the human being as a creature of God.

But if you are a stony-hearted stiff-necked backsliding people (like the ancient Israelites) I don’t know how I can sell this idea to you. 

Let me start by saying that I had my ‘death of a salesman’ experience when I was sixteen, working at a Woolworth’s department store in Sydney in the Christmas shopping period. I was sacked after three days for not pestering the customers but allowing them to make up their own minds in their own time. I had to go home and face a scalding scolding from my stern mother, who had pursued a successful career in commercial retailing in a big store before she gave birth to me. You had better get on with your studying, then, and get a good job as a teacher, she growled. So I sat down at my desk, the kitchen table, and started preparing my Latin, for my matriculation examination a year later, reading Virgil’s Aeneid, the very book that Dante took as his poetic model. Learning Latin also helped me read Italian.

The story so far
At Easter time in the year 1300, when Dante Alighieri was aged thirty-five (which he thought was the middle of his life, though he did not reach sixty years, let alone the ‘three-score years and ten’ that he had in mind from reading the Scriptures), he found himself lost, in a dark wood. Endeavouring to climb a beautiful mountain, he was threatened by three beasts (Leopard, Lion, She-Wolf), symbols of his sins (Lust, Pride, Malice), which were preventing him from ascending (mystically) into higher realms.

The ghost or shade of a fellow-poet from Italian antiquity appears on the scene, namely Virgil (who composed the epic-poem the Aeneid, relating the fall of Troy and the founding of Rome, and including a visit to the netherworld by the hero Aeneas).  Virgil offers to guide Dante to his goal, but he will take him on a longer journey, through the nine circles of Hell (Inferno) and up the seven terraces on the mountain of Purgatory (Purgatorio).

Passing through Hell’s Gate (inscribed with the words: “Abandon all hope you who enter”) Virgil and Dante come first to Limbo (where unbaptized infants and virtuous pagans are suspended in a kind of paralysis, for eternity, experiencing neither pain nor pleasure, though Limbo does not officially exist any more, the Pope has said.
In the remaining regions of Hell they observe successsively the torment suffered by stubbornly sinful souls, guilty of lust, gluttony, avarice and prodigality (perhaps together because they are so insufferably incompatible, but they are all rolling huge rocks), anger, heresy, violence, blasphemy, so-called sodomy, fraud, and treachery. Beelzebub or Satan or Lucifer himself, the fallen angel with six wings and three faces on his head, is in the lowest and coldest infernal realm at the centre of Earth; he is trapped in ice.

Following the course of the Lethe River (which has its source in the Earthly Paradise) through the other half of the underworld they come to the watery southern hemisphere, and its sole island, the Mountain of Purgatory (which I think is modeled on Adam’s Peak, the mountain sacred to all the religions in Sri Lanka).

Virgil and Dante had entered Hell on Good Friday, and they emerged on Sunday morning, Easter Day (indicative of being buried with Christ and being resurrected with him). They climb the seven terraces associated with the deadly sins, but here the souls are not wallowing in the punishments for them, but doing penance for them. Thus Pride is turned into Humility, Envy into Kindness, Anger into Gentleness, Sloth (accidia, unconcern) into Zeal (keenness), Avarice and Prodigality into Generosity, Gluttony into Temperance, Lust into Chastity.

When they reach the Earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain, it is time for Virgil to leave him, The parting is sad, because Dante is so enraptured at the sight of his long-lost beloved Beatrice, that he does not notice Virgil slip away till it is too late to bid him farewell.

The reunion is not entirely blissful: Beatrice arrives in a ‘car’ and, as his Lady, rebukes her lover Dante for his sins, and draws bitter tears of repentance from him. In the end he is fittingly purged, and  “remade, pure and disposed to ascend to the stars”. And here we are in Paradiso, dancing with the stars.

Interpretation of the Divine Comedy
Dante said more than once that there are four levels of meaning in everything in his poem, which is an allegory. There are difficulties in interpreting even the nature of the various levels, before we apply them to our interpretation attempts. But they are:

(1) literal: it is a story of an adventurous journey into outer space;
(2) moral: it depicts the way of salvation for the individual soul;
(3) historical: regarding the world of human society, ecclesiastical and imperial politics, the Church, the City, and the Holy Roman Empire;
(4) mystical: regarding the way of the soul to union with God; being lost in sin originally (Inferno), undergoing purgation to attain purity (Purgatorio), in the heavenly ascent experiencing illumination, becoming ever brighter as each sphere is attained (Paradiso 1-32), the achievement of unification, being united with God and beholding the Divine Glory, the Beatific Vision (Paradiso 33) .

Applying this scheme to the figure of Beatrice:
Literal: Beatrice Portinari (1266-1290), the woman of Florence he met and loved when he was nearly nine, who married another man, and died young, but lived on in Dante’s heart.
Moral: his Lady, who educates him in the right way to behave.
Historical: she does not symbolize the Roman Empire, or the city Florence, but perhaps the Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ; she first appears to him wearing a white veil, and this would indicate that she symbolizes the Holy Sacrament covered by a white cloth, the true body (Ave verum corpus).
Mystical: as the representation of Divine Love, she leads him through the last stages of illumination and unification.

Our new journey now commences.
[1] La gloria di colui che tutto move
The glory of the One who moves all things
per l’universo penetra  e risplende
penetrates through the universe and shines
in una parte più (,) e meno altrove.
in one part more and elsewhere less.
Nel ciel che più della sua luce prende
In the heaven that most receives of his light (the Empyrean, highest realm)
fu’ io, e vidi cose che ridire
I was present and saw things which to retell
nè sa nè può chi di là su discende.
one who descends from there has neither knowledge nor power.   

This is similar  to Saint Paul’s experience (2 Corinthians  12:2-4): He says he knows a Christian man (“a man in Christ”) who “was caught up into the third heaven”, “into Paradise”; whether it was “in the body or out of the body” he does not know; but “he heard things that cannot be told, which no one may utter”, ineffable mystical matters. Paul is talking meekly about himself.

Dante and Beatrice ascend from Earth
The voyage into outer space begins; no space ship, and her ‘car’ has been left behind? Some form of levitation (no levity, please; if you laugh you might lose altitude rapidly [Mary Poppins could fix that]).
[2] (1) The sphere of the Moon
[3] Faithfulness and inconstancy
‘No man can serve two masters’, the Scriptures say. Should we tell that to the workers who are trying to hold down two jobs with different employers, to pay off their mortgages? It also implies no man can support two wives, because he can only love one of them, and would hate the other. My Syriac teacher, Alan Cole, had been a missionary in Singapore. He told us (when we were studying a particular verse in Luke’s Gospel) that he had once encountered a Chinese bigamist: the man was sitting out in the street with his head in his hands, while the two wives were fighting it out inside the house. In this situation, polygamy (or polygyny) was legal, so nobody was being unfaithful (though some people would damn the man as a masochist).

In Dante’s case, he has a faithful wife at home while he is taking a trip to the moon with his lover, Beatrice. Lover is a nice sweet word; it should not have disparaging overtones added to it. God has lovers [we translaters don’t have to say “those who love him” instead of “his lovers”], and I think God loves lovers. But prying minds want to know precisely what role Beatrice plays in relationship to Dante.

Air hostess? [Don’t think about it. They’re going higher than a mile.]

Private secretary? [Having a long weekend, the Easter holidays, away with his secretary? Not a proper legitimate honey-moon, but a lolly-moon, a naughty fun-time with your sweetie. Unthinkable.]

Tourist guide? [Something of the sort, leading him on a grand tour, up through the stratosphere and into outer space, to the extremities of the galaxy, and beyond. That gets us clear of sexual innuendos.]

Spiritual  mentor? Now we’re getting somewhere: she is his experienced and trusted counselor, his tutor in cosmology, theology, and morality. Beatrix is not his Dominatrix (Dominator), but his Domina (not to be translated ‘Mistress’ or we are back in the wrong playing field); she was his Lady, like Lady Philosophy, who counseled and consoled Boethius (480-525) in his death-cell. Beatrice died earlier than Dante, and so she is in a position to teach him about the properties and protocols of Paradise.

Thus there can be no grounds for any accusation that Dante is being unfaithful to his lawfully wedded wife, in his sessions with Beatrice (session implies sitting, but they always seem to be standing, though certainly never lying down). Clearly, he is not breaking his marriage vows.

This section (Canto 3) is about people who are inconstant to their vows on Earth: they are sent to the moon.
[We now know that this is a bad move, because there they will be virtually weightless (and consequently devoid of virtue, if you follow my logic), and not able to hold firm to the grounds of their constancy, and they will leap with alacrity from place to place, or from person to person.]

Strange to say, the two examples Dante gives are nuns, who broke their vows, though through no fault of their own (in my opinion), as they were dragged from their convent and thrust into matrimony. One of these was Piccarda dei Donati, sister of Forese, Dante’s friend; she entered the Franciscan convent of Saint Clare in Florence, but her brother Corso removed her and gave her in marriage, for a political alliance, but she died shortly afterwards. Dante’s wife Gemma came from the Donati family.

The other nun was the Empress Constance, who now becomes a symbol of inconstancy to religious vows.

[4] Dante meets both of them in this realm of the moon, the lowest heaven; but like all the saints in glory, they apparently perform the miracle of bilocality: they are in the place that is connected with the planet that had most influence on them in their life on Earth; but they are also in the Empyrean, the highest heaven, with God. Actually, they come down specially to meet Dante, as Beatrice has done, to encourage him in his ascent.

[5] (2) The sphere of Mercury.
Service and ambition
The low position of good rulers in the celestial hierarchy is because of their pride, their worldly ambition, and their delight in their celebrity status. 
[6] The Eagle
The Eagle as a symbol of Roman power appears with the Emperor Justinian (527-565), who reigned in Constantinople, codified Roman law, and endeavoured to hold the Roman Empire together against the barbarians.
[7] Divine vengeance and the plan of salvation
Beatrice explains this to Dante. To give only one detail: In the Incarnation of Christ, human nature was united with God, and in the Crucifixion human nature paid the penalty for sin. But I refrain from entering into a discussion on theories of the Atonement, though I have passed examinations on them myself, without having the luxury of the beautiful Beatrice to coach me; I had to teach myself.
[8] (3) The sphere of Venus.
This is the planet of beauty and love, and Dante is aware that Beatrice’s loveliness is becoming more and more radiant the higher they ascend.

Dante meets Charles Martel, titular King of Hungary, who had visited Florence and become a friend of Dante. They talk about Divine Providence.
Love and wantonness
(If you want to know more about this, you will just have to want on; or make your own arrangements.
[9] Repentance and praise
[10] (4) The sphere of the Sun.
The first circle.
Thomas Aquinas (1275-1224) (a Dominican)
Thomas speaks of two great saints and spiritual benefactors of the Church:
L’un fu tutto serafico in ardore / l’altre per sapienza in terra fue / di cherubica luce uno splendore.
The one was all seraphic in his ardour, the other by his wisdom was on earth a splendour of cherubic light. 

The seraphs (Hebrew s´eraphîm) represented love, in medieval thought, and knowledge is what was symbolized by the kerubs (kerûbîm) [not cherubs, please, the ch should be pronounced as in chaos and Chaldean, and in the Italian word cherubica in the quotation we are considering]. The seraph appears in Isaiah 6:6 and had six wings [like Dante’s Lucifer] and they were flying around close to the throne of God. The root s´arap means ‘burn’; the noun is also used for a species of venomous snake; so they are thought to be fiery serpents, presumably acting as guardians.

That is certainly the case with the kerubim, stationed on either side of the Ark of the Covenant in a protective role. God placed kerubim with a fiery sword at the entrance of the Paradise Garden, barring the way to the tree of immortality (Genesis 3:24). So they are formidable figures, and therefore not babies with wings (I don’t know how that misconception arose); nor are they angels with human form. It is true that their image had become lost over time, but the kerubim have now been rediscovered.

Pictures of ancient kings on their thrones have a defender on each side; they are not armed guards, not watchdogs, but a lion or a bull with a human head, and wings. We knew that the God Yahweh ‘sat’ (‘was enthroned’) between the kerubim, so the Ark (the golden box containing the tablets of the Torah) was his throne and footstool, and the kerubim were the masive creatures depicted in ancient art from Mesopotamia, Persia, and Palestine. We have all seen them. They have even found their way to India with the Parsees. But if anyone is still having trouble summoning up an illustration, let me add Egypt. Who is guarding the great pyramids? The Sphinx. A kerub is a sphinx with wings.

However, why does the seraph stand for (or fly and soar for) love?
Maybe it is the fire aspect, for burning desire (but we had better not let the snake rear its head in this regard). And because the kerub guards the inscribed tablets in the Ark, he might be seen to be connected with knowledge.  But I guess, as well as digress.

Who are these two divinely ordained protectors of the Medieval Church? The one came from Assisi. Dante gives its full geographical setting, and names it Ascesi (the older form of the name) and says it should be called Orient. His word-play starts with ascesi as Italian for ‘I rose’, and Latin oriens/orientem means ‘rising’, and ‘rising sun’, and hence ‘East’, Orient. Remember, we are in the sphere of the Sun.

Well, the poet rhapsodizes in riddles over this unnamed hero.
“He was not yet far from his rising (orto) when he began to make the land feel some strengthening (conforto) from his great virtue (or power, virtute); for in his youth he rushed into war with his father over a lady to whom, as with death, no one pleasurably unbars their door; and in his spiritual court and in his father’s presence he was united to her, and then from day to day he loved her more strongly. She was bereft of her first husband, more than eleven hundred years before....”(11.55-65)

Dante continues in this poetic vein but eventually interjects (before returning to his lyrical mode):

“But lest I proceed too covertly (enigmatically, chiuso), now understand these two lovers, in my diffusive speech, as Francesco [or as we call him ... Francis] and ... [Who was his Lady? Clare?! later known as Saint Clare? No.] Poverty.” (11.73-75)
[Yes indeed, fantasy spouses are the fantastic ones.
“I’m gonna buy a paper doll that I can call my own.... rather ... than have a fickle-hearted real live girl”]

Saint Francis of Assisi.

This was Giovanni Francesco Bernardone (1182-1226), Saint Francis, from Assisi in Umbria, son of Pietro di Bernardone, a cloth merchant, and the lady Pica (perhaps noblewoman).

Wonderful stories are told:
he was terrified of lepers, but he hugged and kissed one;
God told him to repair his church, so he went around begging for stones, and yet his Lord had said if anyone asked for bread it would not be right to hand over a stone;
he was a layman who preached and founded an order of monks;
he was a French-style troubador who avoided the company of women, though he established an order of nuns, led by Saint Clare (Clara), a noblewoman of Assisi. 

“On a rough crag between Tiber and Arno he received from Christ the ultimate seal, which he bore in his members for two years.” (106-108)

In 1224, two years before his death, in a mountain retreat, around the 14th of September, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, he was deep into a forty-day fast in preparation for Saint Michael’s Day (29th of September). He was praying to be shown the best way to please God. He opened the Gospels three times for an answer.

[Dangerous practice: another earnest searcher was given the verse: “Judas went and hanged himself”; and trying again, hoping for a clearer and less ambiguous oracle, he received the injunction: “Go and do likewise”.]

For Francis, each of his three consultations with the Holy Scriptures produced a reference to the Passion of Christ. Subsequently he received a visitation from a heavenly figure: it had the form of a man, with six wings, and thus he was a seraph.

So, there we have it. There is no longer any need for me to guess and digress into idle speculation. It has now been revealed to us, on the highest authority, that a seraph is a six-winged angel in human form. Don’t try to bring serpents into it. Remember the snakes sneaking into a valley on Purgatory Mountain; angels sent them packing. End of story.

The angel (it was a messenger from God, so I can call it an angel) had a face that was beautiful beyond all earthly beauty (well, ‘you have the face of an angel’ is the highest compliment that can be paid to a woman, though this was a man? No, a sexless and unsexual being). The beauty of the face was increased (no, it did not have creases on it) or let us say enhanced by the beatific smile it was beaming at Francis. This brought him joy and pleasure, but also a conflict of emotions.

You see, the seraph had one pair of the wings above its head, another pair outstretched as in flight, and the other two covering its body. Have you got the picture? It is different from Isaiah’s portrayal of a seraph: “With twain wings he covered his face [being in the presence of God?], with twain he covered his feet [this would probably mean that the whole body was covered as well], and with twain he did fly”.  Francis’s seraph had one pair above the head, not covering the face, or how could the smile be seen?

Now, we know that seraphs have hands (doubtless attached to arms, and probably two arms, not six) because one of Isaiah’s seraphs brought a fiery coal to him in tongs held in his hand. Francis’s seraph had his arms extended, and his feet conjoined, and his body was fixed to a cross; he was smiling serenely, not grinning grimly, while being crucified. This vision showed the way Francis would go: he would live out the sufferings of his crucified Lord gladly, not only in his mind but also in his body (which he called ‘Brother Ass’, by the way, and he apologized to him for all the penances he inflicted on him). Francis received the Stigmata in his flesh. He had the same wounds as Christ, from the nails in the hands and feet, and from the spear thrust in his chest. (‘Stigmata’ is the Greek word used by Saint Paul when he said, “I bear in my body the marks (ta stigmata) of the Lord Jesus”; but I think he meant his scars from the martyr’s wounds that he survived, in such activities as wrestling with wild beasts.

All this we learn from Bonaventura’s biography, Legend of the Blessed Francis [EncBr, 1968, 9, 780-781], which is obviously the source Dante has used here in Canto 11.

Now, wasn’t that interesting? No? What if I tell you that you are required to pass an examination on the hierarchy of angels and the respective inhabitants of the ten heavens before you are granted entry to the celestial Paradise?  Will you do your homework then? Well, we had all better be awake and alert when we get to Cantos 24-28. Take a look at the headings of 24 to 28: it is not just Saint Peter asking you the questions for getting your licence, you also receive an interrogation from the other chief Apostles, namely James and John, to earn your matriculation certificate.

Dominican decadence

[12] The second circle.
Saint Bonaventura (1221-1274) (Franciscan)
known as the Seraphic Doctor, he became General of the Franciscans in 1256
Saint Dominic.
Franciscan decadence
[13] Creation perfect in Adam and Christ
[14] Resurrection of the body.

The third circle.
He is still luxuriating in “the pleasure of gazing into those beautiful eyes in which my desire finds repose” (131f); but the delights of light and sound that he is experiencing in these higher realms are distracting his attention from Beatrice, ever so slightly.
(5) The sphere of Mars
[15] Ancient Florence
[16] Decline of great Florentine families
[17] Dante’s future. Can Grande.
[18] (6) The sphere of Jupiter.
The Eagle of souls
[19] Virtuous pagans and Divine Justice
[20] Salvation of pagans. Predestination
[21] (7) The sphere of Saturn.
The contemplatives. Jacob’s ladder
[22] Saint Benedict of Monte Cassino (480-543).
Benedictine degeneracy.
(8) The Starry sphere
[23] The Church Triumphant.
Christ, Mary, Gabriel
[24] Saint Peter tests Dante on faith
[25] Saint James tests Dante on hope
[26] Saint John tests Dante on love.
[27] Saint Peter denounces the Church.

Beatrice’s outburst against covetousness.
(She would not be troubled by hormonal cycles up there. This is zeal replacing unconcern.)
(9) The Crystalline sphere.
[28] The angelic circles
[29] Angels and their functions
Main Source: The Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius (an anonymous Syrian Christian mystic); also the author of Mystical Theology, which outlines the path of Purgation, Illumination, and Unification (union with God).
[30] (10) The Empyrean.
The river of light.
The Celestial Rose (white as snow)
[31] The angels in the Rose.
Ascent of Beatrice. Saint Bernard. Virgin Mary

[32] The saints in the Rose.
The children among the elect
I am particularly interested in `the beauteous woman’ at the feet of Mary. It is Eve, in Paradise with Mary.

Wagner’s Prize Song: Parnassus and Paradise, mixture of Classical and Biblical motifs, Eva in Paradise, and his muse in Parnassus combined.

For me, Eve is as unsubstantial and unsubstantiated as Limbo and Lucifer; but as the symbol of womanhood she certainly deserves to be rehabilitated. She has taken the blame over the ages, when the other guy was equally at fault. And this is a great leap forward from the time when an ecclesiastical  council of patriarchs voted by a narrow majority that women have souls (that acknowledges, I presume, that they are truly human).
[But the pendulum will also swing to the centre again, when it will be accepted that men and women commit violence against each other equally  (50-50 a psychologist has told me).]

Dante had three blessed Ladies to protect him and guide him.
Another mysterious one named Matilda came waltzing in and dunked him in the water at the end of Purgatorio.

The other three are all here in the rose: The Blessed Virgin Mary, Beatrice, and the light-giving Santa Lucia, Lucy (from lux, lucem, light), the good female counterpart of the fallen Lucifer; she is up there sparkling in Heaven (she would be the illustrious “Lucy in the sky with diamonds”?!).

[33] Prayer of Saint Bernard.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian is his spiritual and mystical guide now.

The Beatific Vision (Dante sees God)
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”

“What’s it all about, Alfie” (or Alighieri Dante)?
You put your head in, you put your head out, you put your head in and you shake it all about ... That’s what it’s all about.
Hokey-Pokey. Italian ice-cream. Hokey-Pokey is thought to be a variation of Hocus-pocus, the conjurer’s magic spell for turning water into wine; and hocus-pocus in turn is a corruption of “Hoc est meum corpus”, the priest’s verbal formula for turning bread into human and divine flesh. Incidentally, Beatrice is supposed to represent the Eucharistic Sacrament.  God is imminent in the creation, present even in consecrated bread, but also transcendent, demonstrating the divine virtues in the creation.

“The heavens declare the glory of God”, that’s what it’s all about.
Remember how Paradiso begins: “The glory of the One who moves all things penetrates through the universe and shines in splendour...”

Purgatorio starts with Dante still somewhat absorbed in himself: “the little boat of my wit lifts her sails, leaving behind her so cruel a sea”, he says, but he mentions “despairing of pardon”.

The beginning of Inferno shows him self-centred and in dark despair: “I found myself in a gloomy wood”, he groans, and he is confronted by three wild beasts representing sin.

Dante’s problem was certainly how to get rid of his sin.
But the important ingredient in the medicine that would cure him was the recognition that the universe (God’s creation, if you like) is spiritual as well as physical. And, similarly, current scientific theoretical knowledge insists that the physical universe is not solid but fluid.  “It’s a gas!” (we might shout in the excitement of discovery and realization [just like “Eureka”, “What’s that smell?”]). Our own star, the Sun, is an enormous mass of gas, a massive hydrogen bomb; and even when pieces of the universe appear to be solid matter, like our rocky Earth, they are all made up of electrical charges, and particles that are really waves.

Today we can see much further than Dante could (or even Galileo with his telescope, three centuries after him). The Hubble telescope has blown our minds with its photographs of what is way out there.

I can be tough-minded and rational about this vast system in which you and I are such tiny specks. I can not accept the six-day creation scheme that most Americans believe in, because they do not know that they should not take poetry literally. It makes God do a rush-job, and by the time he gets to the sixth day he botches up the humans, makes a right mess of them; without considering the consequences he gives them free will and the desire to dominate; and this lapse in forethought is because he is thinking about his day off, on the seventh day, the Sabbath. 

I can revel in the cosmological speculations that come out each week in the science magazines, such as the idea that there was originally a Matrix, a mother-universe, which expanded and gave birth to us, with a big bang, naturally (childbirth is not painless nor noiseless); and our universe is also expanding and might well beget another universe, or six.  

But I can also view the cosmos with spiritual sight (or mystical insight), and imbue it with romantic notions, such as “It is Love that makes the world go round”, and “God is Love”.  And so, I can gladly say with Dante: “The one that moves all things”(3.1.1) is “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (3.33.145).