Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 29

As Dante and the poets continue to walk along the stream, the lovely lady on the other side tells them to stop and pay careful attention. Soon, an intense burst of light flashes through the forest – a light that remains. They hear chanting in the distance, and Dante sees what he thinks are seven golden trees. As they move closer, he realizes that they are great candlesticks. And here before Dante begins a great mystical procession, at the center of which is a triumphal chariot drawn by an immense griffin.

            When that lady, moved by love, finished her explanations, she sang Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata! from Psalm thirty-two. As she continued walking upstream, I was reminded of those nymphs who frolicked with the sunlight in the shade of the forests, and I followed her with matching steps on my side of the stream.

            We hadn’t taken a hundred steps when the stream between us curved and I faced the east again. Moving just a bit further on, the lovely lady stopped and turned to me, saying: “My brother, look now and listen.”

            Suddenly, an intense burst of light like lightning flashed through the woods – except that, while lightning vanishes as quickly as it comes, this light remained and its brilliance increased. “What is this?” I asked myself, and then through that radiant air there came the strains of a gentle melody. Listening to such heavenly music roused up within me an anger at what Eve had done. To think that while everything on earth and in Heaven obeyed the will of God, she – freshly created – would so quickly disobey! If she had submitted to the simple rule of that Garden, I might have enjoyed, long before this, what now pleased me so deeply.

            While I continued walking along, entranced by this foretaste of heavenly joy, yearning for even more, the air in that forest seemed to catch on fire, and the pleasing song we heard now became a chant. O most holy Muses, grant me my reward for the toil and pain I have endured because of you: now let the streams of Helicon burst forth, and let Urania and her choir enable me to put such wondrous splendors into verse.

            Not too much farther on, I saw what I thought were seven golden trees – but that was due to their distance. When I got close enough to make out their details, I realized that what I mistook for trees were actually great candlesticks. And the voices we heard were chanting Hosanna.

            Above this golden splendor there shone a light more brilliant than the light of a full moon at midnight in a cloudless sky. Filled with wonder, I turned around to my dear Virgil, but his face showed even more amazement than mine.

            I turned back, then, to watch those great candlesticks which, very slowly, moved in our direction. “Why do you stare only at these living lights?” the lady asked from across the stream. “Don’t you want to see what follows them?”

            It was only then that I saw people dressed in the whitest garments following those glowing lights, walking slowly like a new bride. To my left, the water in the stream reflected these lights, and I could see my left side there, as well. When I came to a point on my side of the stream where only the water separated us, I stopped to get a better view.

            As those great candlesticks passed slowly in front of me, the air above them was filled with colors that gave the impression of banners or pennants. Those seven streams of light looked like a rainbow or the halo around the sun. Not only that, those streamers flowed back as far as one could see and measured about twenty feet wide.

            In stately procession behind this colored splendor came twenty-four elders, two by two, all wearing crowns of fleur-de-lis. As they walked by, they sang “Benedicta, blessed are you among all the daughters of Adam, blessèd your beauty forever!”

            When that holy band of God’s elect had moved past, and the flowers and grass could be seen again, there followed four creatures wearing crowns of green leaves. Each of them had six feathered wings that were covered with eyes, reminding me of ancient Argus. It would take me too long to describe them in full detail because there was so much else to explain, but you can read about these creatures in Ezekiel’s prophecy. He saw them coming from the north with wind and clouds and fire. They appeared here almost exactly as he described them, except that my description of their wings follows that of St. John rather than him.

            Now, those four creatures actually set the corners for an area that contained a triumphal two-wheeled chariot that was harnessed to a great griffin. Rising higher than I could see, both of his huge wings pierced either side of the middle stream of the seven banners of light overhead. All gold were the parts of it that were an eagle, and the rest were white with spots of vermilion. Neither Africanus nor Augustus ever had such a gorgeous chariot. For that matter, even the chariot of the sun couldn’t compare – the chariot that Phaëthon drove astray and had to be destroyed by Jove.

            Near the right wheel of the chariot, three ladies were dancing. One was such a gorgeous red that it would be hard to see in fire; a second seemed as if her flesh and bones were made completely of emerald; and the whiteness of the third looked like fresh snow. Sometimes the white dancer led and at other times the red would lead; and from the song of the red one the others would take up the tempo of the dance.

            Alongside the left wheel, dancing happily, were four other ladies, dressed in purple gowns. They were led by the one with three eyes. Behind these seven dancing women came two elders, dressed differently, but grave and stately in their bearing. One elder was dressed as a disciple of Hippocrates, and the other carried a great sword – so sharp and bright that even on the other side of the stream I feared it! Behind these two came four others of humble bearing, and lastly an old man whose face was radiant, walking as if he were in a dream. Like the group in front, these seven elders were dressed in white garments; and instead of lilies, these were crowned with roses and other red flowers that looked like crowns of flames.

            Finally, as the chariot came into position directly opposite me, there was a great clap of thunder, and the entire glorious procession came to a full stop.