It is now late in the afternoon when an angel stops the three travelers and tells them that they must complete the rest of their circuit around this last terrace within the flames. Dante is terrified, but after much coaxing from Virgil, he passes through the fire. By the time they reach the other side, night is falling and they fall asleep on the last stairway. Dante dreams of the two sisters, Leah and Rachel. At daybreak and on the top step of that final staircase, Virgil tells Dante his guidance is now finished and Dante is on his own. Virgil proclaims him to be lord of himself.
It was now the hour of sunrise in the land where God’s Son shed His blood for us, midnight where Spain’s Ebro flows, and noon over the Ganges in India.Dante begins this canto on the Mountain’s highest terrace with his final time marker. It is 6AM in Jerusalem which, recall, was considered the center of the world, directly opposite (the antipode) … Continue reading And here, the sun was beginning to set when another of God’s rejoicing angels appeared to us. Standing there ahead of us near the flames, he sang in the most beautiful voice: Beati mundo corde!The Angel of Chastity now appears. Standing near the flames, he welcomes the Pilgrims by singing the first part of a verse from the sixth Beatitude: “Blessed are the clean of heart [for they shall … Continue reading
Then, directing his voice to us as we approached him, he said, “Holy souls, you cannot proceed beyond this point without feeling the fire’s bite. Enter within these flames, now, and listen to the singing just beyond them.”Apparently, the path along the edge of the flames has narrowed down to nothing, and the only way to proceed now is actually through the flames and feel the burning. This will complete the purging of … Continue reading
I cannot begin to tell you the terror his words aroused in me. Hearing them, I felt like one who is about to be buried – alive! Nervously clutching my hands as I stood there staring into those flames, I recalled the sight of people being burned to death. But in the meantime, my sympathetic guides came toward me, and Virgil said: “My dear son, calm yourself. You will feel pain here, but you will not die. Think back to when we rode on Geryon. If I guarded you carefully then, you can be sure that I will do even more now that we are so close to God. Trust me when I tell you: if you spent a thousand years within these flames, not a single hair on your head would be singed. But test it for yourself if you don’t believe me. Put the hem of your cloak into the flames there. This is the time to put away your worry. Look at me, now. Come here and go in without fear.”Here is the baptism of fire–a moment of great testing for Dante the Pilgrim. At the Gate of Purgatory he had reached a wall that could only be passed through after his humble confession. Now, as a … Continue reading
But I was frozen where I stood, and so ashamed. Then, seeing me standing there immobile, and with some annoyance in his voice, he said: “Come now, my son, don’t you understand that this is all that separates you from Beatrice?”We read in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “…the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Not only is Dante frightened, he’s ashamed. And with none of his coaxing or encouragements working, … Continue reading
Hearing him say that, I thought of Pyramus who, as he died, saw his beloved Thisbe come to him and speak her name – that day when mulberries turned the color of his blood.The tragic story of the Babylonian lovers Pyramus and Thisbe is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (IV:55-166) and later adapted by Shakespeare in his Romeo and Juliet. Forbidden by their parents to … Continue reading And so, hearing that lovely name that has a shrine in my heart, I unfroze and turned to my wise teacher. For his part, shaking his head and smiling at the change he had won in me, said: “So, then, are we going to stay on this side?”Like Pyramus who revived when Thisbe called his name (though only for a moment), Dante’s faith and courage return when Virgil mentions the name of his beloved Beatrice. And Virgil’s (rare) … Continue reading
And with that he walked into the flames ahead of me. He asked Statius, who had been walking between us, to walk behind me now. When I was within those flames, I would have thrown myself happily into molten glass to cool off from the unbelievable heat! All along, that sweet father of mine comforted me, talking about Beatrice as we made our way. “I think I can see her already,” he said. Guiding us all along our way we could hear a voice singing to us. And so, following that song, we came out of the flames just where the stairs were.Just as the flames enclose both the sinners and the three travelers, Virgil and Statius enclose Dante between them as they move through the flames. This is not only a way of leading Dante through the … Continue reading
A voice greeted us. “Venite, benedicti Patris mei,” came from within a light so bright I had to turn away to keep from being blinded. Then it continued: “Now that the sun is setting and night is upon you, do not stop here. Move on quickly before the light has gone.”The three travelers have emerged from the flames right at the staircase that will lead them upward. There will be no further terraces to circle and no further encounters with sinners. At … Continue reading
The stairway went straight up through the rock with my shadow blocking the last rays of the sun as we climbed. Soon enough, even my shadow disappeared, telling us that the sun had set. As night began to fill the sky, we quickly lost the will to climb and each of us chose a step for our bed.
Like goats who run quickly here and there on the mountain, and then stop to chew their cud in quiet shaded places, guarded by their shepherd who protects them, or a herdsman who lies down with his flock and keeps watch over them, so there we were – the three of us – on those stairs: I the goat, and they the shepherds, and all of us closed in by the walls of stone.With the last light of the sunset behind him and his fading shadow in front, we can tell that Dante and his two companions are climbing toward the east. After this there will be no further mention of … Continue reading
Looking up beyond those walls, the stars I could see seemed much larger and brighter than usual.Though he can’t see the broad expanse of the night sky because of the walls of the stairwell, what Dante can see is not only closer and brighter because he is near the top of the Mountain, it’s … Continue reading Staring at them, and letting my mind wander, I fell into a deep sleep – the kind of sleep that brings foreknowledge with it. Shortly before dawn, with Venus burning brightly in the eastern sky, I had a dream about a lovely young lady picking flowers in a meadow as she walked. And she sang this song: “Should anyone ask, my name is Leah. I love to make garlands of flowers so that I will look beautiful when I see myself in my mirror. My sister is called Rachel. She sits all day before her mirror quietly looking at her lovely eyes. I enjoy adorning myself with things I make with my hands; she sits and reflects, I act.”The “foreknowledge” this third of Dante’s dreams will bring is definitely prophetic of things to come. Robert Hollander notes an interesting fact in his commentary here: “All the dreams are … Continue reading
When I awoke, the dawn had broken in all its glory – for the returning pilgrim every sunrise brings him closer to home – and every trace of the night disappeared. When I got up from my stone bed, I saw that my masters had already risen. Virgil said: “Today the sweet fruit that mortals seek on many trees will bring true peace to your soul.” I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful gift – given or received – than those joyful words. They were like wings lifting me upward to where I wished so ardently to go.The dawn in all its glory is a wonder-filled way to begin Dante’s last day on the Mountain of Purgatory. Furthermore, this particular sunrise will be his last on earth and bring him closer to his … Continue reading
We swiftly climbed those last stairs, and as we stood on the very top step, Virgil looked into my eyes and spoke with great affection in his voice: “My dear son, on our journey you have seen the eternal and the temporal fires, but you have now reached the place where my direction comes to an end. I guided you here with skill and ingenuity, but from now on, you are on your own. The hard roads are far below, so let your desire lead you from now on. Look around you, see how the sun shines on your face, observe the grass, and all the flowers and trees that originate in this place. Until Beatrice comes with her beautiful eyes – once filled with tears when she sent me to you, you are free to stay right here or to wander around as you please. Do not expect any further guidance from me. Your will is clear and free, and not to follow it would be wrong. I place on you the crown and the miter, and I proclaim you lord of yourself!”With this final stairway so swiftly climbed, we mustn’t forget how just a few days ago Dante was faced with what seemed impossible: an almost vertical climb up the Mountain. There we also recall … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Dante begins this canto on the Mountain’s highest terrace with his final time marker. It is 6AM in Jerusalem which, recall, was considered the center of the world, directly opposite (the antipode) of the Mountain of Purgatory. In Spain, where the Ebro River flows from the north central mountains to the sea between Barcelona and Valencia, it is midnight. And at the River Ganges in India, it is noontime. Here on the Terrace of Lust is the hour of sunset on the Tuesday following Easter. Dante’s mention of “the land where God’s Son shed His blood for us” leads Ronald Martinez to note in his commentary: “The mention of the four cardinal points (Ebro, Ganges, Jerusalem, Purgatory) evokes the image of the Cross.” Taking this further, Mark Musa tells us: “By naming Jerusalem as the place where the Creator of the sun shed his blood, Dante sets the whole action of the canto, in which the Pilgrim’s purgation is achieved, against the universal [Ebro, Ganges, Jerusalem, Purgatory] background of Christ’s redeeming death.” This is Dante’s last night on the Mountain of Purgatory. After this, there will be no further references to the rising or setting of the sun.|
|↑2||The Angel of Chastity now appears. Standing near the flames, he welcomes the Pilgrims by singing the first part of a verse from the sixth Beatitude: “Blessed are the clean of heart [for they shall see God]” (Matthew 5:8). This last of Beatitudes obviously has special meaning here on the Terrace of the Lustful.|
|↑3||Apparently, the path along the edge of the flames has narrowed down to nothing, and the only way to proceed now is actually through the flames and feel the burning. This will complete the purging of Dante’s soul in preparation for what is to come. Note that the angel addresses the travelers as “holy souls”. No other directions are given except to listen to the singing coming from the other side of the fire. Who is doing this singing we will soon learn. Several commentators note that all the souls in Purgatory must pass through this final form of purgation which makes them perfectly pure and ready to approach God in Paradise. There is no further purgation beyond this point.
This final passage through a wall of fire calls to mind the image at the end of chapter 3 in the Book of Genesis: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the angel stationed at the entrance with the revolving flaming sword to prevent access to the Tree of Life and, it would seem, also to prevent them from coming back in. Medieval legend turned this flaming sword into a wall of fire which Dante puts to good use here.
|↑4||Here is the baptism of fire–a moment of great testing for Dante the Pilgrim. At the Gate of Purgatory he had reached a wall that could only be passed through after his humble confession. Now, as a final point of purging, he must pass through the wall of flames, simply trusting that he will reach the other side unharmed. But his terror is a result of a moment of insight. He realizes that this experience will not be merely symbolic. He will feel pain. But he will not die and he will not be harmed. And yet, he fears, he might…be harmed…die. This crisis is compounded by the fact that he has seen people being buried alive upside down for great crimes of treachery. He has seen people being burned to death–most likely at the stake. He knows burning awaits him if he were ever caught in Florentine territory. And he is not a spirit like Virgil and Statius, or those he sees in the flames. Disembodied, they obviously suffer a kind of spiritual anguish. But he is not like them.
In the mean time, the compassionate Virgil calls on Dante to make an act of faith in him, in the angel, in God who has ordained this journey. And it may be that Dante the Poet must, at this moment, make an act of faith in his own literary genius to carry him forward. It has been easy to talk with poets about poets and poetry. Now he must “walk the talk” and summon all his powers to continue. We might recall what happened in Canto 9 of the Inferno at the gates of Dis, when the devils threatened to bring out the head of Medusa. Had Dante looked, he would have become petrified, literally, and his poetic journey would have come to a terrible end. But Virgil covered his eyes to protect him, and to protect the Poem, as it were. Now, on this last terrace, his loving guide is again ready to protect him. There are times when it might seem as if Virgil has more faith in Dante’s journey than the Poet has.
The reference to Medusa isn’t the only time Virgil has protected Dante. His mention of Geryon in Canto 17 of the Inferno recalls their flight down into the depths of Hell on the back of the monster of fraud. Virgil resorts to hyperbole, he even suggests an experiment with the hem of the Dante’s cloak to ease his fears. No doubt, the Poet has in mind here chapter 3 in the Book of Daniel (v.94): “…they saw that the fire had no power over the bodies of these men; not a hair of their heads had been singed, nor were their garments altered; there was not even a smell of fire about them.” All the while, of course, Statius is standing there silently observing the scene.
|↑5||We read in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “…the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Not only is Dante frightened, he’s ashamed. And with none of his coaxing or encouragements working, Virgil’s growing annoyance is evident. In the end, love prevails over reason, and the mention of Beatrice is all that’s needed to break Dante’s paralysis and revive his faith. One recalls here the line from the biblical Book of Canticles (8:6): “Love is strong as death.”|
|↑6||The tragic story of the Babylonian lovers Pyramus and Thisbe is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (IV:55-166) and later adapted by Shakespeare in his Romeo and Juliet. Forbidden by their parents to marry, their only opportunity to communicate was through a small hole in the wall that separated their gardens. They arranged to meet one night at the tomb of Ninus, the former king of Babylon (whose wicked wife, Semiramis, we read about in Canto 5: 58 in the Inferno). Thisbe arrived at the tomb first, but was frightened away by a lion who had just killed a cow. Dropping her cloak as she fled, the lion mauled and tore it with his bloodied paws and mouth. When Pyramus arrived and saw the blood-stained cloak he imagined the worst. Thinking that his lover was dead, he drew his sword and killed himself. But Thisbe returned, and seeing Pyramus she called out his name. He opened his eyes, recognized her, and then died. Grief-stricken, Thisbe took the sword and killed herself. This tragic scene took place near a mulberry tree. Until that time, mulberries were always white. But the lovers’ blood seeped down onto the roots of the tree, and ever after that its berries have been red.|
|↑7||Like Pyramus who revived when Thisbe called his name (though only for a moment), Dante’s faith and courage return when Virgil mentions the name of his beloved Beatrice. And Virgil’s (rare) humorous quip, which ends this scene, re-opens the circuit and the stalled action of the Poem resumes its pace.|
|↑8||Just as the flames enclose both the sinners and the three travelers, Virgil and Statius enclose Dante between them as they move through the flames. This is not only a way of leading Dante through the flames, but also of protecting him and, should he lose faith, of preventing him from running back outside.
Only hyperbole will work here, and Dante’s description of the heat is spot on. But, as Virgil had predicted, there is no burning, no death; only the sweet singing and the hope of seeing Beatrice, which Virgil says he can already do.
|↑9||The three travelers have emerged from the flames right at the staircase that will lead them upward. There will be no further terraces to circle and no further encounters with sinners.
At this point, Dante is almost blinded by a second angel (a unique feature on this terrace), and the three travelers are welcomed with the words Jesus quotes of God welcoming souls into Heaven as recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel (25:34): “Come, blessed of my Father, [take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.]” It could well be that these are words a soul hears upon leaving Purgatory and entering Paradise. And Dante hears them already. Here in his commentary, Charles Singleton notes that: “a mosaic in the Florentine Baptistery showed a gate guarded by an angel who welcomes a newly arrived soul, while a second angel leads a group of the saved and carries a banner that is inscribed ‘Come, blessed of my Father, possess what has been prepared.’ Dante’s second and singing angel would certainly seem to be modeled on that second angel and his words. And that there are two angels on this terrace may reflect his memory of the mosaic.”
It is now late in the day, and the singing angel with his magnificent greeting urges the threesome upward quickly because night is coming and they won’t be able to continue upward. This is an echo of Jesus’ words in St. John’s Gospel (12:35): “Walk while you have the light, that darkness may not overtake you.” And Mark Musa notes here: “As Momigliano points out, the setting sun signals more than the time of day, for this moment represents a decisive passing from an earthly into a divine realm, from night to eternal day. This… raises the angel’s exhortation to make haste to a higher intellectual level, where care and clear vision are required.”
Finally, at this point, the careful reader will have noticed that there is no mention of the removal of the seventh and final P from Dante’s forehead. Most likely this is to be understood as having happened as he moved through the flames.
|↑10||With the last light of the sunset behind him and his fading shadow in front, we can tell that Dante and his two companions are climbing toward the east. After this there will be no further mention of Dante’s shadow. Ronald Martinez notes here that “the disappearance of this sign of the pilgrim’s fleshliness coincides with the completion of his purgation.”
With the night arriving faster than they can climb, the three Pilgrims lose the will to climb further (one of the “rules” of the Mountain) and are forced to sleep on the stairs. As they settle down for the night, Dante compares himself to a goat guarded by shepherds–Virgil and Statius. Still “enclosing” Dante, Virgil is probably on the step above Dante, and Statius on the step just below him. And the high walls of the stairway enclose them all. The pastoral images here appeal to the imagination and highlight the safety of the place after the terror of the fires below. Technically, Virgil and Statius do not sleep because they are spirits.
|↑11||Though he can’t see the broad expanse of the night sky because of the walls of the stairwell, what Dante can see is not only closer and brighter because he is near the top of the Mountain, it’s also a foretaste of what is soon to come. From a spiritual point of view, the clarity of his celestial vision is the result of his long climb up the Mountain and his many experiences along the way, culminating with his purging in the fires of Love just below.|
|↑12||The “foreknowledge” this third of Dante’s dreams will bring is definitely prophetic of things to come. Robert Hollander notes an interesting fact in his commentary here: “All the dreams are preceded by an astronomical reference to the hour of the morning at which the dream occurs.” This one comes to him shortly before dawn when, as he has told us before, dreams bring a kind of truth with them (see Inf. 26:7 and Purg. 9:13ff). Recall how he saw Venus, the morning star, in the eastern sky from the shore of the on his first morning in Purgatory. Now he sees the planet again on this Wednesday morning, his last day on the Mountain.
The story of Leah and Rachel and their husband Jacob is a long and complicated one in the Book of Genesis, starting at chapter 29 and continuing on for several more chapters. Jacob, grandson of Abraham and son of Isaac, went to live with his uncle Laban after he tricked his father into giving him his brother’s birthright (a clever and daring story in itself). Laban had two daughters, Leah and Rachel. Jacob fell in love with Rachel and wanted to marry her, but Laban required that he work for him for seven years before he would allow the marriage. Then, at the end of seven years, Laban insisted that Jacob marry Leah because she was the older of the two sisters and custom forbade the marriage of a younger sister before the older. The marriage took place, and Laban told Jacob that he would need to work for an additional seven years if he still wished to marry Rachel. This Jacob did.
As it happened, Leah was fertile and gave Jacob many children, whereas Rachel was barren. On the other hand, Leah had poor eyesight but Rachel could see perfectly. She eventually gave Jacob two sons, Joseph and Benjamin.
A very long Christian tradition equates Leah with the active life and Rachel with the contemplative life. As can be seen from the text here, Leah does all the talking, and we never actually meet Rachel. Spiritual teachers and guides have always agreed that neither the contemplative nor the active path is better than the another. The idea is to live a life of balance between them. Commentators on this passage agree that Leah, the active sister, represents the mysterious young woman Matelda whom we shall meet in the next canto. She represents the happiness and joy of Eden which she will show to Dante. Rachel, on the other hand, represents Beatrice whom we shall meet in Canto 30. Rachel’s mirror is a symbol of contemplation, and she prefigures Beatrice who represents the divine revelation which leads all people to salvation in Paradise.
|↑13||The dawn in all its glory is a wonder-filled way to begin Dante’s last day on the Mountain of Purgatory. Furthermore, this particular sunrise will be his last on earth and bring him closer to his (and our) true home–Paradise. In another way, one might also interpret another true home as Eden, which Dante is about to enter, but only as a doorway to the celestial palace he saw in the stars before he fell asleep last night. The glorious daylight he experiences here is but a foretaste of the spiritual light and insight that will soon fill him.
By now, every trace of night has disappeared because night is a symbol for sin. The whole point of Dante’s journey through Purgatory has been to erase every trace of that “night” so that he can enjoy the full daylight of the beatific vision in heaven. And note the change in tone between his awakening after last night’s dream. He is peaceful and refreshed, as opposed to the other two dreams, after which he awoke disturbed and ill-at-ease.
Virgil’s greeting with its reference to “the sweet fruit that mortals seek on many trees” points nowhere else but to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat. Since that time, mortals have sought that fruit but not found it. Today, that symbolic fruit will fill Dante (and us) with a knowledge which he (or Adam) could not have imagined–except in his Poem. Virgil’s words are like the wings of Dante’s desire which will soon be fulfilled.
|↑14||With this final stairway so swiftly climbed, we mustn’t forget how just a few days ago Dante was faced with what seemed impossible: an almost vertical climb up the Mountain. There we also recall Virgil assuring him that the higher they climbed the easier it would get. And here we are now with Dante standing on the top step, the entire Mountain below him. Though he doesn’t tell us about it, the view from that height on his final morning there must have been spectacular–and yet only a foretaste of what is about to come.
With deep affection, and looking directly into his eyes, Virgil speaks his last words in the Poem and affirms Dante’s achievement and experience that stretch from the depths of Hell to the top of the Mountain of Purgatory. This is a solemn moment. It marks the end of Virgil’s guidance as the voice of Reason. He has used every aspect of his genius and skill to bring Dante from the almost certain loss of his soul to this point of redemption–through the grace of God, as overseen by the Virgin Mary, and guided by Beatrice (see Inf. 2). The arduous work of climbing and purging is over. Now all that remains is for Dante to follow his desire, to enjoy the original beauty of this place (Eden), and to be warmed by the light of the sun (God).
This is a moment of ending and of beginning. It is the end of Virgil’s guidance and the beginning of a new life of grace and spiritual freedom, freedom from the dangers of sin and a misguided will–thus, Virgil says: “Your will is clear and free, and not to follow it would be wrong.” To get to this point has been the purpose of the journey all the way from Canto 1 of the Inferno. All that is left is to wait for the arrival of Beatrice with her beautiful eyes–which will be referred to several times in the Paradiso.
The climax of Virgil’s service as the voice of Reason in the Commedia comes with his very last words in the Poem: “I place on you the crown and the miter, and I proclaim you lord of yourself.” With these words his commission by Beatrice in Canto 2 of the Inferno is finished. As kings and bishops are consecrated, so is Dante. As signs of that consecration, a crown is placed on the head of a king, and a miter on the head of a bishop. The crown represents the temporal realm, the miter the spiritual realm. Both symbolize the special status of the one receiving them, as well as the authority and responsibility which will mark their lives from now on. By the crown and the miter, Dante is enjoined to rule himself morally and spiritually. These gifts come to Dante from the hands of Reason. Soon they will be activated by the Divine Revelation which Beatrice will lead him to experience in the Paradiso.