After passing through the Gate, Dante and Virgil begin a steep climb upward until they reach a level terrace. They stop there and view life-like carvings in the marble walls. Soon enough, they see heavily-burdened sinners approaching them.
Once we passed through that holy gate–closed forever to those who love what is not good, but try to make it seem good–it closed behind us with such a great noise that you couldn’t blame me if I had turned around to look.In a long opening sentence Dante conveys several pieces of information to us. The subject of his attention is still the great gate which, from the sound of its opening at the end of the previous … Continue reading
Soon we were climbing again, now through a crevice in the rocky cliff where the path switched back on itself again and again, like a wave that grows and then moves back to start again. Virgil said: “We have to be especially careful here as the path bends from side to side ahead of us.” With this in mind, we took smaller steps as we climbed, and by the time we finally squeezed ourselves up through that needle’s-eye the waning moon had already set.It has been quite a while since Dante and Virgil did any significant climbing. Now, once inside the Gate of Purgatory proper, they resume their climb. The mountain face is still steep and rocky, and, … Continue reading
Freed from that narrow pathway, we found ourselves on a level place that formed a ledge along the mountain’s face. I was tired and both of us were unsure which way we should proceed along this deserted path, and so we stopped there for a while. Surveying our surroundings, I could see that from the path’s edge–which dropped into the void–to the mountain’s face was about as wide as three men laid out head to toe. And as far as I could tell, this terrace was that same width as far as I could see ahead of us.Now that the climbers have reached the first level or terrace of Purgatory they’re not sure what to do. Note that while both Dante and Virgil are uncertain about which direction they should take, … Continue reading
Before we started moving again I could see that the entire mountain-face rose straight up above us. There was no way we could climb that. But, it was pure white marble! And along its absolutely smooth face there were the most perfectly-rendered carvings I could ever have imagined. The famed Greek sculptor, Polycletus–even Nature herself–would have been shamed by such stunning perfection!Here, Dante adds an important detail to his visual list of features on this first terrace: the mountain-face rises straight up, and he makes it clear that they won’t be able to climb it. However, … Continue reading Before we explore each of these spectacular carvings, a word or two of reminder about the Mountain’s structure or “architecture.” There are three main sections to this Mountain. We have just … Continue reading
There before us stood the angel Gabriel who announced to suffering humanity the peace of the Savior it had awaited for centuries. But, carved with such perfect grace, he was a living shape–and he could have spoken! You were certain that he was greeting Mary, saying “Ave!” because she was there, too–she who brought forth Heaven’s highest Love. The very shape of her there in that living marble spoke for her: “Ecce ancilla Dei.” It was as clear as a seal on wax.Here we have the first of three “whips” of Pride. On all the succeeding levels, as here, the first example of each virtue opposing the sin comes from the Virgin Mary. In this case, her humility … Continue reading
“Why not enjoy the others, too?” said my gentle master, as I stood close to his left side. Moving past him and looking beyond the figure of Mary there, I saw another tableau alive in that miraculous stone.Here we have Dante’s description of the second of the three “living” carvings on the white marble mountain-face. But first, he gives us a sense of direction which helps us get our bearings on … Continue reading This one depicted the Ark of the Covenant being drawn by a cart–a caution to keep one’s distance from holy things. In front of that cart were seven choirs that truly tested my senses. One said, “No, it cannot be.” But the other said, “Yes, they are singing!” In like manner, my eyes and nose couldn’t determine whether the smoke of sweet incense coming from the censers was real or not. At the head of this procession I saw David humbly dancing for joy, behaving both more and less like the king he was. And there at her palace window was Michal, his wife, sad-looking and scornful.This scene is recounted in chapter 6 of the Second Book of Samuel. (See the text at the end of this canto.) King David was immensely popular, and after defeating the Philistines, his bringing the Ark … Continue reading
Then, I moved away from this story to stand before another one, which depicted a scene from the life of Trajan, emperor of Rome, whose just soul was saved by Pope Gregory’s prayers.(See the story at the end of this canto.) Trajan was emperor from 98-117 AD and was greatly admired by Pope St. Gregory the Great (Pope from 590-604), who prayed that he might be returned to life so … Continue reading As that emperor sat astride his horse, I could see a poor widow clutching his bridle as she wept with grief. Trajan was tightly surrounded by his generals on horseback, their standards topped by what seemed to be real golden eagles fluttering in the wind. There in the middle of this crowded parade that poor widow surely spoke from the white marble: “My Lord, you see my grief; avenge the death of my beloved son.” And I was sure he answered: “Wait till I return.” But she, made bold by her sorrow, cried out: “Suppose you don’t return, my Lord?” And he replied: “Let he who follows me do as you request.” But she would not be put off: “Sir, why leave this to someone else’s virtue instead of your own?” Done in, finally, by that poor widow’s logic, he said: “Your pleas call forth my duty to Justice. Take comfort, now. I will stay and do as you request.”Here is another wonderful story of humility and integrity set in the midst of a scene of great pomp and power. The emperor rides out of Rome, closely surrounded by his generals on their war horses in … Continue reading Speech made visible was surely God’s art in this place–something we cannot grasp on earth.Dante, of course, is not paying attention to the details of the carving. Instead, the carving–God’s art–is so real to him that he pays attention to the words he “sees” being exchanged … Continue reading
As I stood there enjoying those displays of deep humility, all the more beautiful because they were crafted by God, Virgil whispered to me: “Look at that crowd of souls over there coming toward us slowly. I’m sure they can direct us to the way upward.” I was happy to contemplate those marble stories, but just as happy to see this new sight.As Dante became more entranced by the carvings his descriptions drew us more and more into their reality, and we’ve virtually forgotten that these images aren’t really for our benefit (although … Continue reading
Before I go on, however, let me say this: do not abandon your good intentions to repent when I tell you now how God wills that the penitent souls here pay the price for their sins. Don’t dwell on the punishment; think, rather, about what you will gain from it. Remember, the pains suffered here will come to an end at the Last Judgment.This third address to the reader is quite amazing. Chronologically, it seems out of order because Dante hasn’t actually seen any souls suffering yet. He will in a moment. But this uplifting advice … Continue reading
So, I said to Virgil: “Master, I’m confused at what I see coming toward us. They don’t seem to be shades.”
“Ah, yes,” he replied. “Their punishment is so severe that it forces them to bend toward the ground. Even I was not sure of what I saw at first. But try to distinguish between those stones and the sinners underneath them. Look how each of them beats his breast.”Interestingly, as Dante turns away from the carvings (which did not confuse him in the least), he’s confused as he looks at what appear to be great stones moving slowly toward them. Even Virgil was … Continue reading
O prideful Christians! Sluggish and miserable. Your inner vision is distorted, and you put your trust in things that hold you back from God. Think of this, instead: we are worms now, but each of us will be transformed into a heavenly butterfly that soars upward to God. Why do you think you are so much better than you are? You are still defective and imperfect creatures.Reading this apostrophe, we see that Dante is addressing every Christian in what is a kind of sequel to his reminder above that the pain of Purgatory is temporary and that we not lose sight of our … Continue reading
The more I looked at those souls, the more I was reminded of corbels, carved like humans holding up the weight of a building. So heavy is the weight they bear, their chests are pressed down against their knees. And they are often so life-like that they make us uneasy when we see them. That is exactly how these souls appeared to me – and how they made me feel. Some of them seemed to carry less weight than others, but even the lightest burden seemed to make its bearer groan out loud: “I can go on no farther!”Bringing this canto to a close, and still standing before the third of the great carvings on the marble wall of the mountain, Dante once again brings to our attention how a work of art, though is not … Continue reading
The account of the Annunciation in the Gospel of St. Luke.In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. … Continue reading
The account of David and the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel.David again assembled all the picked men of Israel, thirty thousand in number. Then David and all the people who were with him set out for Baala of Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which … Continue reading
The account of Trajan and the widow from the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine.In the time that Trajan the emperor reigned, and on a time as he went toward a battle out of Rome, it happed that in his way as he should ride, a woman, a widow, came to him weeping and said I pray … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||In a long opening sentence Dante conveys several pieces of information to us. The subject of his attention is still the great gate which, from the sound of its opening at the end of the previous canto to its closing here, must have been of immense size. The sound of the organ and the singing are gone, and all we hear is such a great noise that Dante excuses himself if he had disobeyed the angel gate-keeper’s command and looked back.
Nevertheless, the reader can’t help but imagine that the Gate of Purgatory–from all the noise it makes when it opens and closes–seems rarely to be used. Unlike the gate of Hell, which is always wide open to anyone who wishes to enter, this one, while always open to sinners, requires first that they come with humility to ask for God’s mercy. Any attempt to cover over their sins or make light of them would cause the silver key to fail in the lock–in other words, “those who love what is not good, but try to make it seem good.”
After all the examples of God’s eternal mercy we’ve seen so far in Purgatory, and especially St. Peter’s instruction to the angel at the Gate to let in more than less, as long as they come with humility, Dante’s statement here might seem contradictory. However, the key word here is “love.” And what he is really pointing to is the “problem” of Purgatory: bad love, crooked love, love of what is not good, love that needs to be untangled, crooked love that needs to be made straight. In a sense, the prophet Isaiah sums up the work of Purgatory: “Prepare the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth; and the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all humanity together will see it” (Isaiah 40:3-5). Dante will return to this idea of bad love as he continues to climb the Mountain and learn from it.
|↑2||It has been quite a while since Dante and Virgil did any significant climbing. Now, once inside the Gate of Purgatory proper, they resume their climb. The mountain face is still steep and rocky, and, from his description, Dante suggests that they are climbing (squeezing) up through a series of very narrow switch-backs. Or, in light of Virgil’s note of caution, they may be climbing upward in a series of narrow chutes where a mis-step could be fatal. If Isaiah’s statement, “the crooked places shall be made straight,” is going to make any sense this–literally–is that place. And, again, note the difference between Hell and Purgatory: in Hell, the gates were wide open, whereas here the going is very difficult.
The narrowness here also calls up images from the Gospels–the narrow gate and the eye of the needle. In Matthew’s Gospel (7:13), Jesus warns his followers: “Enter in by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter in by it.” The narrow gate is a reference to the discipline of a life of virtue and the difficulties in navigating a winding path through the allurement of things that seem good but aren’t. Opposite this we have the broad and wide-open dissolution of a life of vice. Thus Virgil’s caution and their decision to take smaller (deliberate) steps.
In the same Gospel (19:24), Jesus tells his disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. The eye of the needle, of course, was a clever defense mechanism in city walls where openings were so low that a rider would have to dismount before entering.
Finally, as the two pilgrims emerge from their difficult climb, Dante gives us a time reference. The waning moon has just set. So, what time is it? On the previous Thursday night when Dante entered the dark forest the moon was full. It has since been on the wane these last four or five days. If it is now Monday, the waning moon would rise an hour or so before midnight and would now be setting about 12 hours later–thus making it about 10 o’clock in the morning.
|↑3||Now that the climbers have reached the first level or terrace of Purgatory they’re not sure what to do. Note that while both Dante and Virgil are uncertain about which direction they should take, only Dante is tired. Remember, he’s alive and the physical climb with his live weight was much more difficult for him than for Virgil. Nevertheless, a tired Dante, camera in hand, as it were, gives the reader a 360̊ view of what they see. The path or terrace in either direction is flat and about 12 feet wide. At one edge is the mountain’s face and at the other is a sheer drop into the abyss. The fact that they are alone and that nothing really stands out might well symbolize, on the spiritual level, the absence of anything to distract the sinners from the work of their purgation.|
|↑4||Here, Dante adds an important detail to his visual list of features on this first terrace: the mountain-face rises straight up, and he makes it clear that they won’t be able to climb it. However, the careful reader should have in the back of his/her mind Virgil’s early assurance to Dante that the higher up they climb the easier it gets. Has Dante forgotten this? Regardless, the Pilgrim’s observation adds tension just when things seem to have calmed a bit from the difficult climb.
But, to add to the fact that the Mountain of Purgatory is no ordinary mountain, we discover–along with Dante – that the face of the mountain here is of pure white marble, smooth and flawless. More than that, upon this marble are carved images of such perfection that, after eliminating other “perfect” artists, one is left with the conclusion that only God could have created them!
For Dante and many of his Medieval contemporaries (and down to our own time), Polycletus, a fifth-century BC Athenian, was considered to be the finest sculptor of classical Greece. While, unfortunately, none of his work survives, Dante would have known of him through his reading of Aristotle and Cicero, among others.
|↑5||Before we explore each of these spectacular carvings, a word or two of reminder about the Mountain’s structure or “architecture.” There are three main sections to this Mountain. We have just entered the largest and mid-section of the three. Below us was Ante-Purgatory, a place for sinners who, in various ways and for various reasons, delayed their repentance and conversion while they were alive, and so must wait for certain designated periods of time before they can enter Purgatory proper where we have just arrived. Purgatory proper is comprised of seven concentric and successively smaller terraces where sinners characterized most by one of the Seven Deadly Sins are purged and restored. Starting with where we are now, these terraces coincide with the sins of Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Avarice/Prodigality, Gluttony, and Lust. The third and top level of the Mountain is the Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden).
This is also the place to introduce the reader to a device that Dante will employ through the succeeding levels of Purgatory: the Whip and the Rein. Think of riding a horse. When Dante and Virgil arrive at each level they will encounter an example of the virtue that is the opposite of the sin that is punished there. The purpose of this “whip” is to urge the sinners on to repent of the sin and take on its opposite virtue it represents. Before they leave each terrace, the Pilgrims will encounter some terrible example of the sin punished here which represents the “rein” intended to pull the sinner away from attraction to that (their) sin.
|↑6||Here we have the first of three “whips” of Pride. On all the succeeding levels, as here, the first example of each virtue opposing the sin comes from the Virgin Mary. In this case, her humility which stands in opposition to the sin of pride. Dante describes what is called in Christian theology the Annunciation–that scene in the Gospel of Luke (1:26-38) where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and “announces” that she has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus: “Hail (Ave), favored one! The Lord is with you.” (See the entire story at the end of this canto.) But what Dante wants us to understand–to experience–is the transcendent nature of these carvings: they are so perfect that they are “real!” Gabriel and Mary are alive! You hear him greeting her; you hear her respond: “Ecce ancilla Dei,” (“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.” Dante’s Comedy is a poetic journey through the realms of the afterlife, in other words “out of this world.” And so are these carvings. It is as though they are a kind of tableau vivant, a moving picture as we are accustomed to seeing. Such high praise!
Mark Musa, in his commentary here, offers us a wonderful way to understand what Dante is doing here: “Not only the greatest sculptor but Nature herself would recognize that she has been surpassed by the perfection of these carvings. In Inferno XI, 99-100, Virgil expressed the belief that Nature imitates divine art and that the artist in turn imitates Nature. Dante believed the highest mortal achievement was art so true to Nature as to deceive the viewer into thinking it was real: here, however, there is no intermediary and probably no deceit; the art is divine.” Needless to say, throughout the Comedy, the intent of Dante the Poet is to create a poem of such beauty and perfection that it becomes real for the reader who enters into it and travels along with Dante the Pilgrim.
One cannot leave this scene without exploring some of its deep theological significance. Dante wants us to appreciate the inestimable role Mary plays in the history of salvation. Her humble “yes,” and her act of faith in what the angel proclaimed to her instantly, as it were, reversed the effects of the sin of Adam and Eve. What was closed to humanity in the prideful disobedience of our original parents is now reopened by Mary’s willingness to be the mother of Jesus. He would inaugurate the kingdom of God and open it to all by his sacrificial death and resurrection, making eternal salvation available to all (recall Virgil’s conversation with Dante in Canto 4 in the Inferno). Thus, this first presentation of virtue–Mary’s humility–becomes a pattern for the restoration of all the souls in Purgatory, souls on their way to becoming whole again and ultimately enjoying the beatitude of Paradise.
Though we have only started our climb through Purgatory proper, it is not difficult to revel in the genius of Dante’s imagination and what he creates for us.
|↑7||Here we have Dante’s description of the second of the three “living” carvings on the white marble mountain-face. But first, he gives us a sense of direction which helps us get our bearings on this first terrace. He has been standing close to Virgil’s left side as he gazed at the carving of the Annunciation. After a certain period of time, Virgil, seeing how much Dante enjoyed what he saw, suggested that he look at the other carvings too. So Dante, moving to his right, passes in front of Virgil to observe the next scene with King David and the Ark of the Covenant. By doing this, Dante suggests that, having arrived at the first terrace and taken stock of what was there, he next saw that the mountain-face was of pure white marble with life-like carvings on it. And, looking more intently, the first of these carvings is of the Annunciation, which must have been right in front of them or, perhaps, just slightly to their right. Dante was standing to Virgil’s left when he took in the scene in the first carving. He now moves to the right, in front of Virgil, to see the second carving, which tells us that the three carvings are moving to the right: the Annunciation, David and the Ark and, finally, the Emperor Trajan. As we will continue to observe as we climb the mountain, movement to the right is, in fact, the right way to go. So, the carvings are a kind of arrow pointing in the “right” direction.
But there is some fascinating commentary here from Robert Hollander. He writes about the deeper significance of Dante’s moving from the left to the right of Virgil:
“[Umberto] Bosco/ [Giovanni] Reggio make explicit what is almost said by many of those commentators who deal with the phrase in verse 53, ‘varcai Virgilio‘ (I went past Virgil): it is a fine, realistic detail with no further significance. Yet this entire passage, in which Virgil gets Dante to stop enjoying so deeply the representation of Gabriel and Mary and to make himself available to more of God’s art, has certain overtones that might cast a different light on the relationship between the two poets here. The Annunciation was nearly, we might reflect, the subject of Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, the child to be born to a virgin that, had he only known which child and which virgin, might have saved him. It is this scene from which Virgil, in all innocence, pulls Dante away. And, while what follows merely describes Dante’s moving past Virgil, who had been standing between him and the first intaglio, from left to right, so as better to inspect the next work, it also describes physically what has a moral status, that is, Dante surpasses Virgil as an artist because he is more available to the meaning of God’s art.”
In the event that this passage needs a bit of context, Hollander points to two great 20th century Dante scholars, Bosco and Reggio, who want the reader to understand here that there’s more to the fact that Dante simply walks in front of Virgil to see the next carving. Around the years 40-38 BC, Virgil wrote his fourth Eclogue as a celebration of peace and a new age dawning with the birth of a divine boy who would save the world. In the early lines of the poem we read:
The issue at hand is the fact that, through no fault of his own, Virgil was born before Christ and, as he explained to Dante in Canto 4 of the Inferno, he cannot be saved. And what Bosco and Reggio want us to think about is that this handicap of Virgil’s–the fact that he is not a Christian–prevents him from enjoying the significance of the Annunciation as Dante did and quite innocently moves him along to the next carving. The irony we’re meant to see here is that Virgil believed in the wrong virgin and the wrong boy. As Hollander noted, “Dante surpasses Virgil as an artist because he is more available to the meaning of God’s art.” There is so much fascinating subtlety here, and it gives one pause to consider whether Dante the Poet had all this in mind as he wrote this.
|↑8||This scene is recounted in chapter 6 of the Second Book of Samuel. (See the text at the end of this canto.) King David was immensely popular, and after defeating the Philistines, his bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem was the great ritual act that united Israel’s northern and southern tribes into one nation with David as their king. Dante obviously chose this particular scene because in his Convivio (IV:5) he links the birth of David with the founding of Rome by Aeneas. Jesus, of course, and his mother, Mary, were of the family line of David. This connects the first and second carvings. David and Trajan were both rulers, and this connects the third carving to the first two.
While the Ark was being transported to Jerusalem, the cart it was in was guided by two men, Uzzah and Ahio. As it happened, the oxen pulling the cart apparently slipped at a certain point and the cart looked as though it might fall over. To steady the load, Uzzah pushed against the Ark to keep it steady. Unfortunately, it was a severe blasphemy for anyone to touch the Ark because it represented the visible presence of God among the people. Uzzah was immediately struck dead! Thus Dante’s caution “to keep one’s distance from holy things.”
And yet, during his life, Dante did not hesitate to castigate the Church hierarchy of his time for the shameful abuses of their power. In one of his Epistles (XI, 9), he includes what must have been a barbed retort at his calling out the bishops and cardinals for their wrongdoings: “Perchance in indignant rebuke you will ask: ‘And who is this man who, not fearing the sudden punishment of Uzzah, sets himself up to protect the Ark, tottering though it be?’ Verily I am one of the least of the sheep of the pasture of Jesus Christ; verily I abuse no pastoral authority, seeing that I possess no riches. By the grace, therefore, not of riches, but of God, I am what I am, and the zeal of His house hath eaten me up.”
As with the previous carving, Dante’s senses are challenged by the divine perfection of the artwork. He sees the choirs, and though his ears tell him differently, he knows that he hears their singing. Likewise with the smoke of the incense. He sees it depicted, but he can also smell it.
At the head of the procession was David who, though he was King, humbly danced for joy, “both more and less like the king he was”–to the embarrassment and scorn of his unhappy (prideful) wife. Hollander, in his commentary here, tells us that “Dante, too, is the ‘humble psalmist,’ David’s modern counterpart.” He then quotes the 19th century Dante scholar, Niccolò Tommaseo: “Tommaseo long ago (1837) dealt with this scene as a metaphor for great Dante’s low vernacular poetry performed beneath the scornful gaze of pedantry: ‘But Dante is more than poet in certain respects, because he does not fear to appear less than poet and dances with his robe hitched up; but princess Michal—I might call her ‘pedantry’–sniffs from the window.’” Quoting from the prayer of the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:51f), note here a connection that binds all three carvings together” “…he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:51f).
|↑9||(See the story at the end of this canto.) Trajan was emperor from 98-117 AD and was greatly admired by Pope St. Gregory the Great (Pope from 590-604), who prayed that he might be returned to life so that he could be baptized as a Christian and saved. This was widely believed in Dante’s time and even lent weight to by none other than St. Thomas Aquinas. We will meet Trajan again in Canto 20 of the Paradiso.|
|↑10||Here is another wonderful story of humility and integrity set in the midst of a scene of great pomp and power. The emperor rides out of Rome, closely surrounded by his generals on their war horses in full array with their eagle standards and pennants afloat in the wind. All of this is real to Dante and he intends for us to experience it as he did. Then, into this grand spectacle, comes a grieving widow who, obviously dwarfed by the horses and their riders, courageously grabs the bridle of the emperor’s horse and stops him to make her request. Note in all three stories here the contrasts between the “high” and the “low.” Dante is convinced that he is right there in the midst of this tumult listening attentively to the widow’s pleas and the emperor’s replies, and he shows us how her persistence gradually brings the emperor to a moment of humble conversion which his power cannot overcome. His humility and the integrity that flows from it finally allows justice to be done. Ronald Martinez writes in his commentary here: “The emperor’s humility is expressed by his submitting to justice and duty, as well as by his compassion for the importunate widow. The representative of God’s power in the political realm, Trajan embodies the two principles of God’s dealings with man, justice and mercy.”|
|↑11||Dante, of course, is not paying attention to the details of the carving. Instead, the carving–God’s art–is so real to him that he pays attention to the words he “sees” being exchanged between the characters. This is a foretaste of the Paradiso, where the laws of physics (and our senses)–as we know them–don’t seem to apply. Dorothy Sayers calls this “supernatural expressiveness.” She also amplifies what Dante is doing in this canto by informing us: “It will be observed that, whereas the modern art critic is apt to praise the art of the Middle Ages for its symbolism and stylization, the medieval critic himself tended to rejoice in an almost photographic realism.” Note also how, from the first carving to the third, Dante goes from observation and quiet devotion to the scene of a parade bearing Israel’s most sacred object in the second to virtually active participation in the third.|
|↑12||As Dante became more entranced by the carvings his descriptions drew us more and more into their reality, and we’ve virtually forgotten that these images aren’t really for our benefit (although they actually are!), they’re for the benefit and conversion of the prideful sinners whom we are about to meet. But, lest we forget, neither we nor Dante know–technically–that pride is the sin that is punished on this terrace. Though we are about to find that out. What we’ve been overcome by are these three extraordinary carvings which are examples of the virtue of humility that will be restored to the sinners here when all traces of their pride have been purged away. And here is something else to consider: it’s hard to think about reading these descriptions without allowing our imaginations to fill in lots of details for each scene–including color. But there is no color in any of them. The medium used by God is simply pure white marble. Is the lesson here that humility, as it were, is virtually colorless and unostentatious? It’s definitely plain, earthy, as the root of the word implies.
Now we come back to reality, as it were, and it is Virgil who brings us there. It is interesting to consider that, while Dante enjoyed the three carvings and feasted us with his descriptions, Virgil has been an almost mute bystander, moving Dante from one tableau to another but saying nothing about them. He can’t appreciate the deeper significance of the stories behind the God-art here as Dante can, and so he remains silent. One wonders what he was thinking or feeling as he looked at the carving of Trajan, a good pagan like himself–saved. As hard as it might be for us to say the words, we must: Virgil is not saved!
Seeing a group of souls moving toward them from the left, and seemingly concerned that he will be overheard, Virgil whispers to Dante, moving his attention from the carvings to the crowd of souls moving toward them. As before, the hope is that they will tell the pilgrims which direction they should be moving. As a matter of fact, it will be the same direction they have been moving–to the right (which is the “right” direction (counter-clockwise) to be moving in Purgatory.
|↑13||This third address to the reader is quite amazing. Chronologically, it seems out of order because Dante hasn’t actually seen any souls suffering yet. He will in a moment. But this uplifting advice comes straight from his heart as he looks away from the carvings to address us who stand next to him. It’s hard to know what the Medieval equivalent would have been to our saying, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” The Poet, though, wants us to act on those intentions. That is, in a sense, the motivation behind his Poem–to show us what will come to us if we hold fast to the good and act on it, not just think about it. Unlike the eternal pain and loss of Hell, the pain of Purgatory, Purgatory itself, will end at the Last Judgment. And so, he tells us, don’t focus on the pain. Focus on the reward.|
|↑14||Interestingly, as Dante turns away from the carvings (which did not confuse him in the least), he’s confused as he looks at what appear to be great stones moving slowly toward them. Even Virgil was confused at first, but he makes sense of what he sees before Dante does: a “punishment so severe” it forces them to bend over toward the ground. How does he distinguish between humans and walking rocks? He tells Dante to observe how they beat their breasts–a traditional sign of penitence. And so we have our first encounter with the prideful sinners on this, the terrace of their punishment and reform. As we move upward with the two travelers the terraces will reveal the unique punishments for the rest of the deadly sins.|
|↑15||Reading this apostrophe, we see that Dante is addressing every Christian in what is a kind of sequel to his reminder above that the pain of Purgatory is temporary and that we not lose sight of our goal. The key insight here is found in his comparison between the worm and the heavenly butterfly. As sinful humans, we are like ugly worms. Our vision of what is true and good is distorted and we allow ourselves to be led away from God. And so we are like those whose good intentions never see the light of day. But consider, Dante urges us, there is more than meets the eye here. Within each of us is the God-given potential to become that heavenly butterfly, which is our destiny. Yet he deflates this image lest our pride get the better of us and allows us to think we are much greater than we are. With the virtue of humility very much in his mind, the Poet reminds us that we are not perfect–yet. The more we turn toward God in our lives, he implies, the more the light of that “Sun” effects our transformation.
The writings of St. Augustine were a great resource for Dante. One sees the thinking of this great Saint here: “What is more excellent than an angel among created things? What is lower than a worm? He who made the angel made the worm also; but the angel is fit for heaven, the worm for earth. He who created also arranged. If He had placed the worm in heaven, you might have found fault; if He had willed that angels should spring from decaying flesh, you might have found fault: and yet God almost does this, and He is not to be found fault with. For all men born of flesh, what are they but worms? And of these worms God makes angels” (Tractate 1 on John 1:1-5).
|↑16||Bringing this canto to a close, and still standing before the third of the great carvings on the marble wall of the mountain, Dante once again brings to our attention how a work of art, though is not “real,” can still move us powerfully. Seeing the heavily burdened souls so terribly bent under the weight of the stones they carry, he is reminded of corbels, human shapes that sometimes take the place of columns holding up the roofs of classical buildings, or squeezed between the frieze and the pediment. He feels the punishment of the souls here so deeply that even those whose burdens are light seem to be groaning terribly.
Let me end with this: all through the Inferno, Dante was a kind of observer of the various punishments meted out to the sinners there. Yes, he was so overcome at times that he fainted. But here in Purgatory, as we now begin to see, Dante is no longer an observer. He is a participant. Food for thought….
|↑17||In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (1:26-38)
|↑18||David again assembled all the picked men of Israel, thirty thousand in number. Then David and all the people who were with him set out for Baala of Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which bears the name “the Lord of hosts enthroned above the cherubim.” They transported the ark of God on a new cart and took it away from the house of Abinadab on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the cart, with Ahio walking before it, while David and all the house of Israel danced before the Lord with all their might, with singing, and with lyres, harps, tambourines, sistrums, and cymbals. As they reached the threshing floor of Nodan, Uzzah stretched out his hand to the ark of God and steadied it, for the oxen were tipping it. Then the Lord became angry with Uzzah; God struck him on that spot, and he died there in God’s presence. David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah. Therefore that place has been called Perez-uzzah even to this day.
David became frightened of the Lord that day, and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord with him into the City of David. David deposited it instead at the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household. When it was reported to King David that the Lord had blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that he possessed because of the ark of God, David went to bring up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom into the City of David with joy. As soon as the bearers of the ark of the Lord had advanced six steps, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling.
Then David came dancing before the Lord with abandon, girt with a linen ephod. David and all the house of Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts of joy and sound of horn. As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal, daughter of Saul, looked down from her window, and when she saw King David jumping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.
They brought in the ark of the Lord and set it in its place within the tent which David had pitched for it. Then David sacrificed burnt offerings and communion offerings before the Lord. When David had finished sacrificing burnt offerings and communion offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed among all the people, the entire multitude of Israel, to every man and every woman, one loaf of bread, one piece of meat, and one raisin cake. Then all the people returned to their homes.
When David went home to bless his own house, Michal, the daughter of Saul, came out to meet him and said, “How well the king of Israel has honored himself today, exposing himself to the view of the slave girls of his followers, as a commoner might expose himself!” But David replied to Michal: “I was dancing before the Lord. As the Lord lives, who chose me over your father and all his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people, Israel, not only will I make merry before the Lord, but I will demean myself even more. I will be lowly in your eyes, but in the eyes of the slave girls you spoke of I will be somebody.” Saul’s daughter Michal was childless to the day she died. (2 Samuel 6:1-23)
|↑19||In the time that Trajan the emperor reigned, and on a time as he went toward a battle out of Rome, it happed that in his way as he should ride, a woman, a widow, came to him weeping and said I pray thee, sire, that thou avenge the death of one my son which innocently and without cause hath been slain. The emperor answered: If I come again from the battle whole and sound then I shall do justice for the death of thy son. Then said the widow: Sire, and if thou die in the battle who shall then avenge his death? And the emperor said: He that shall come after me. And the widow said: Is it not better that thou do to me justice and have the merit thereof of God than another have it for thee? Then had Trajan pity and descended from his horse and did justice in avenging the death of her son.|