Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 9

Dante falls asleep at the end of the first day. In his dream he is carried up to the Gate of Purgatory. When he awakens Virgil explains how they got there and brings Dante to the foot of the stairs before the Gate. Following a holy ritual of admittance, the Gate is opened and the two pilgrims enter Purgatory proper.

            By now, the pale moon was rising in the East adorned with those gemlike stars that make the constellation of Scorpio. Already two hours had passed since the sun set, and a third was nearly done, when sleep conquered my mortal body and I laid down on the grass where the five of us were sitting.[1]With the prayer of Compline and the drama of the serpent’s appearance now finished Dante begins this wonderful canto of transition with an image of the moon rising bejeweled with the stars that … Continue reading

            When swallows begin their plaintive singing before dawn (perhaps remembering sorrows from the past), that time when sleep is deep and our minds wander freely and dreams are sometimes prophetic – dreaming, I looked up and saw a great golden eagle hovering above me, with its wings outstretched and ready to swoop down on me. I was like the beautiful Ganymede who was snatched up to serve the gods on Olympus by Jove disguised as an eagle. “Was this the only place this eagle comes to?” I wondered. “It may be that he only takes his prey from here.”[2]Here the Poet has taken us about nine hours forward to that pre-dawn time when sleep is deep and, according to ancient and medieval traditions, dreams are sometimes prophetic. Ronald Martinez, in his … Continue reading

            And as I dreamed, I saw that he continued to circle above me; but then he dropped upon me like a lightning bolt and carried me up into the sphere of fire. The eagle and I were both burning, and the heat of that fiery dream became so intense that I jolted awake.[3]As we think back on the two myths Dante puts to work early in this canto, we see that it’s really the story of Ganymede whose framework he uses rather than the more dramatic and horrifying story of … Continue reading

            For a moment, I was dazed like the young Achilles, waking up in a place he had not fallen asleep in. To keep him from the war, his mother had taken him from Chiron, his tutor, and hid him on Skyros – where Ulysses and Diomedes would eventually find him.

            Still dazed, even though I was now completely awake, I felt myself go pale with fright. Next to me was my beloved Virgil – but only him. It was morning and stretched out before me was the sea.[4]By now we’re used to how Dante the Poet stretches our senses of anticipation and imagination by not telling us everything at once. Awake now from his amazing dream, the Pilgrim discovers that … Continue reading

            “Don’t be afraid,” my guide said. “You’ll be happy to know that we are now much farther along on our journey. Don’t stop now; rather, keep climbing with all your strength. Consider where we are – here before us is Purgatory. Look there, see the great wall that surrounds it. And over there in that gap, that’s the gate.[5]Virgil, sensing that Dante has awakened from his dream in a fearful state, encourages him with the good news that, as become obvious to us, they are further along on their journey up the Mountain … Continue reading

            “Before sunrise, while you slept so deeply down there among the flowers of that lovely valley, a lady came to us and said, ‘I am Lucia. Let me take up this one here who sleeps because I want to speed his journey up this mountain.’ At daybreak, she gathered you into her arms and carried you here. I followed her; Sordello and the others remained behind. Before that gracious lady laid you down here, she pointed me to the gate with her lovely eyes. As she left, your sleep went with her.”

            Hearing this, I was no longer confused and fearful. His words brought back my confidence and I was a changed man. Seeing the change in me, Virgil started climbing up the bank there and I followed right behind him.[6]At last, Virgil explains/interprets Dante’s fascinating dream, bringing him from his mythical state back to reality. For a second time, St. Lucy has come to the Pilgrim’s aid. It was she, in … Continue reading

            By now, you can see the breadth of my journey’s great theme. Don’t be surprised if I begin to match its splendor with greater subtlety. As we continued upward, we came to a place where there was a gate. Before, it just seemed to be a gap along the mountain’s face. Three steps led up to it, each one was a different color, and I could see a silent angel guardian sitting at the top. His face was so brilliant I had to look away quickly. In his hand he held a great sword. So dazzling was it as it reflected the rays of the sun that I couldn’t look at it. Seeing us approach, the angel said: “Stop there and speak from where you are. What do you want? Where is your escort? Think carefully: you may regret coming to this place.”[7]As Dante and Virgil approach the Gate of Purgatory, the Poet addresses the reader directly for the ninth time in the Poem and the second time here in Purgatory. Words like “breadth,” “great … Continue reading

            Virgil answered: “A lady from Heaven who knows this place showed me the way. ‘There is the gate,’ she told me. ‘Go there now.’”

            “Well, then,” the angel said gently, “may she continue to lead you to what is good. So now, approach our stairs.”[8]The lady from Heaven is St. Lucy who, just moments ago, had carried the dreaming Dante up from the Valley of the Kings and laid him, awakening, at the feet of Virgil. Note that Dante the Poet makes a … Continue reading

            We did as he directed. The first step was made of pure white marble, so highly polished I could see myself reflected in it. The second step was charred stone, dark purple in color, with its surface cracked across its length and breadth. And the third step was a thick slab of what seemed to be flaming red porphyry the color of blood. The angel sat at the threshold of the gate, made of adamant, with his feet resting on the third step.[9]There is much rich symbolism to pay attention to here as Dante and Virgil prepare to pass through the Gate of Purgatory. The three different steps each represent a phase of the Christian Sacrament of … Continue reading

            My master now led me gently up these three steps, saying: “Humbly, now, ask him to open the gate.” As I went down on my knees at those holy feet, beating my breast three times, I begged the angel, for mercy’s sake, to allow me to enter. Then with his dazzling sword, he carved seven “P’s” onto my forehead, telling me: “Once you pass through this gate, make sure you clear away all trace of these wounds.”[10]Up to now, we have only observed the various elements of the gateway into Purgatory proper and their qualities: the three steps of different kinds of stone, and the angel sitting on the adamantine … Continue reading

            His robes were the color of ash, and reaching beneath them he brought out two keys, one silver and the other gold. He put the silver key into the lock and then the gold one. At that, the gate opened for me as I had asked. The angel said: “If either of these two keys fails to open the lock, this gate will remain closed. The gold key is the more precious of the two, but the silver one unlocks only with wisdom and skill – it’s the key that enables the other one to work. St. Peter gave me these keys and directed: ‘Let in more than less, as long as they humbly ask for mercy.’”[11]The ash-colored robes worn by the presiding angel here signify penitence. Recall how the gorgeous green robes worn by the angels just below in the Valley of the Kings signified hope. Like the others … Continue reading

            Then he pushed against that holy door, saying: “Come in, now. But be warned: if you look back you’ll have to come out.” The great hinges on that sacred portal were made of heavy metal and they made a deep and creaking sound as they turned  – louder than when Caesar opened and seized Rome’s treasury at the Tarpeian rock.[12]The angel’s final words are both a welcome and a warning. The warning stands out in particular because we have come across it in Scripture and other places with rather serious consequences. In … Continue reading

            The sound of those creaking hinges now blended with music as I heard the Te Deum being chanted. The beauty of this new harmony brought to my mind great ceremonies in church where the singing is accompanied by the organ. Sometimes the words are clear and at other times they’re lost in the music.[13]Dante closes this canto with a deliberate harmonization of the singing of the Te Deum, a late fourth century Christian hymn of unknown origin and authorship, accompanied by the organ and the … Continue reading

Text of the ancient hymn Te Deum.[14]You are God: we praise you;You are God: we acclaim you;You are the eternal Father:All creation worships you.To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,Cherubim and Seraphim, sing in endless … Continue reading

Notes & Commentary

Notes & Commentary
1 With the prayer of Compline and the drama of the serpent’s appearance now finished Dante begins this wonderful canto of transition with an image of the moon rising bejeweled with the stars that make the constellation of Scorpio. It’s about 9pm, and after an amazing first day in Purgatory he falls asleep with Virgil, Sordello, Nino de’Visconte, and Corrado Malaspina still nearby. Note that it is only in Purgatory (which exists in time) that Dante falls asleep, whereas Hell and Paradise are eternal and sleep is unnecessary.
2 Here the Poet has taken us about nine hours forward to that pre-dawn time when sleep is deep and, according to ancient and medieval traditions, dreams are sometimes prophetic. Ronald Martinez, in his commentary here quotes from the medieval natural philosopher, Adelard of Bath: “…in dreams the soul, as it is in some way then freer from the irritations of the senses, focuses its sight and sometimes apprehends the truth about the future or a resemblance of it; it is least deceived under the dawn” (De eodem et diverso). And in his Convivio Dante writes: “Further we witness constant experience of our immortality in the divinations of our dreams, which might not be if there were not some immortal part in us” (II, viii,13). Quoting Cicero (De Senectute XXII, 81), Charles Singleton notes: “And yet it is when the body sleeps that the soul most clearly manifests its divine nature; for when it is unfettered and free it sees many things that are to come.” And quoting St. Augustine (De Genesi ad litteram XII, xii, 27), Charles Singleton adds: “While it [the soul] is burdened with the weight of a body and fixes its attention on sense-objects, it is less capable of receiving such thoughts. Hence, when it withdraws from the senses, either in sleep or in sickness or by any other way, it thereby becomes more susceptible to the influence of the higher spirit. So, being severed in this manner from its physical connections, the soul foreknows the future with the help of a revelation by a higher spirit, who can reveal these future things, because, as has been said, he knows them either by his natural knowledge or in the Word.”

All of this is by of prelude to situating the dream Dante has in this canto. But before he actually discloses his dream he calls to mind the sad singing of swallows before sunrise which – almost universally among commentators – brings to mind the terrible legend of Philomela and Procne recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (6:424-674). It’s fascinating how just a word or two can evoke a story, and sometimes, as in this case, a story with tenuous connections to what is at hand. Nevertheless, Ovid’s stories are amazing and the fact that they are often unforgettable, like this one, bears witness to how a classical text doesn’t die because it retains its ability to speak to and move us from out of the past. Because it is so much a part of the tradition of Dante commentary, let me give a brief summary of the legend.

Philomela and Procne were sisters. Procne’s husband, Tereus, king of Thrace, raped Philomela, and to prevent her from telling anyone about it he cut out her tongue. However, she wove a tapestry which depicted the atrocities committed against her and sent it to her sister, Procne. In horror and revenge, Procne murdered her son, Itys, and, with Philomela’s help, cooked him and fed him to her husband, Tereus. When Tereus discovered what he had eaten, he chased the two women with an ax. But before he could kill them the gods turned all three into birds. Tereus was changed into a hoopoe, Philomela a nightingale, and Procne a swallow. And this is the (tenuous) connection with Dante’s reference to the swallow singing mournful songs at dawn. Quite amazing, actually.

Now for Dante’s dream. Imagining that he is like the mythical Ganymede, who was taken up to the abode of the gods by Jove disguised as a great eagle, Dante sees a great golden eagle hovering over him with its wings outstretched, ready, it would seem, to snatch him up like Ganymede. Here. the subtle sexual undertones of Ganymede’s kidnaping by Jove links with the sexual violence in the story of Philomela and Procne.

And he talks with himself in his dream as though he might be Ganymede. While that mythical boy was tending his sheep on Mount Ida, Dante is a different Ganymede on Mount Purgatory, where the work at hand is the cleansing of the soul and not the bucolic wanderings of a shepherd. One wonders whether he might have included reference to this myth as a way of seeing himself, like Ganymede, chosen by God for this journey into the realms of the afterlife.

As for the eagle, it symbolizes many things: nobility, power (Rome, empire), authority, courage, freedom, sight, and vision to name a few. Commentators on this canto also link the eagle with God and Heaven, spiritual wisdom, intelligence, and grace. In the Tetramorph (the symbols of the Four Christian Evangelists), the symbol of St. John is an eagle. Several Psalms use the image of the wings of a great bird (God) that provide shelter and safety to the faithful, especially in times of difficulty (e.g., Ps 17:8; 36:8; 57:2; 63:8; 91:4). Exodus 19:4 proclaims, “You have seen how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” And in 1976, Michael Joncas wrote the popular Christian hymn, On Eagle’s Wings, with these lines as the refrain: “And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings, / bear you on the breath of dawn, / make you to shine like the sun, / and hold you in the palm of his hand.

In the end, it is fascinating to see so many themes working together (and against?) in the introduction to this transitional canto. The fact that a dream takes center stage gives this canto a mythical and mystical tone, a sense of two worlds – the dream world and the real world, with Dante in the middle of it all. As we will soon learn, Virgil will make everything clear. For now, we leave the great golden eagle hovering over the dreaming Pilgrim.

3 As we think back on the two myths Dante puts to work early in this canto, we see that it’s really the story of Ganymede whose framework he uses rather than the more dramatic and horrifying story of the two sisters, Philomela and Procne. Note how the language Dante uses highlights the sexual energy in the Ganymede story which he now co-opts. Jove, filled with passion for the beautiful young man, circles his sexual prey (“cruises” in modern jargon), drops onto him like a (phallic?) lightning bolt (his favorite weapon) and carries him off in a fiery climax (pun intended) whose burning heat flings him back into the real world with a jolt. What a ride!

The sphere of fire in Dante’s cosmology (similar to the system of Ptolemy) refers the sphere or ring of fire that was believed to surrounded the earth above the atmosphere and between it and the sphere of the moon. It is sometimes considered to be a symbol for God. The intense heat or burning that finally jolts Dante awake is also a symbol for the purging of sin from the souls at various places on the Mountain – literally so at the highest terrace just before the Earthly Paradise. And, of course, it is a symbol of both divine and human love.

4 By now we’re used to how Dante the Poet stretches our senses of anticipation and imagination by not telling us everything at once. Awake now from his amazing dream, the Pilgrim discovers that he’s not in the same place where he fell asleep in the Valley of the Kings. He’s alone with Virgil and before him is the limitless view of the sea at sunrise on this second day in Purgatory. His reference to Achilles comes from the unfinished epic of the Roman poet Statius, the Achilleid (I:247ff). In order to thwart a prophecy that Achilles would be killed in the Trojan War, his mother, Thetis, took the sleeping lad off and hid him on the island of Scyros. She amplified her ruse by dressing him as a girl. Unfortunately, he could not escape the two cunning “detectives,” Ulysses and Diomedes, who tricked him into revealing his identity and lured him away with them to the war. The rest of the story will be completed by Homer. We met Ulysses and Diomedes in canto 26 of the Inferno in a tongue of flame, suffering for their numerous tricks and frauds. Chiron was Achilles’ tutor. We met him in canto 12 of the Inferno as chief of the centaurs who guard the violent sinners in the river of boiling blood. Hollander, in his commentary, notes the contrast between Achilles and Dante here: “Achilles is carried down from his mountain homeland to an island from which he will go off to his death; Dante is carried up a mountain situated on an island toward his eventual homeland and eternal life.”
5 Virgil, sensing that Dante has awakened from his dream in a fearful state, encourages him with the good news that, as become obvious to us, they are further along on their journey up the Mountain that when they (he) went to sleep in the Valley of the Kings. Virgil’s encouraging words here remind us other places where the two of them have been climbing – the first of which was in canto 23 of the Inferno as they climbed up out of the pit of the hypocrites. It’s time for both physical and spiritual strength as the Pilgrim finds himself alongside the great wall that separates Purgatory proper from the realm of Ante-Purgatory below. And before them is the gate which will bring with it another fascinating ritual.
6 At last, Virgil explains/interprets Dante’s fascinating dream, bringing him from his mythical state back to reality. For a second time, St. Lucy has come to the Pilgrim’s aid. It was she, in canto 2 of the Inferno, who was sent by the Blessed Virgin to exhort Beatrice to commission Virgil to guide the lost Dante through all the realms of the afterlife in the hope of saving his almost-lost soul. While Dante dreamed of a great golden eagle carrying him (Ganymede) off into the spheres, it was really Lucia (divine light). We have no sense from the text that she was sent by anyone this time. She seems to be keeping an eye (sight, vision) on Dante and his journey. Representing light and sight, it is no coincidence that she carries the Pilgrim up the Mountain at daybreak. Her last task is to motion with her eyes – again, sight – the proximity of the Gate of Purgatory. Dante is obviously changed by Virgil’s explanations and they begin at once toward the gate, Dante following his mentor.

The story of the martyr St. Lucy of Syracuse in Christian hagiography is a fascinating one. She is one of the more popular early Roman martyrs, executed in Syracuse by the Emperor Diocletian in 304 AD. Among the many strands of her story throughout the centuries we know that she vowed to remain a life-long virgin which enraged her suitor who accused her of being a Christian to the local authorities. Lucy is actually among several virgin martyrs of that era. One needs to understand that women had no real status the society of that time, and to declare oneself a virgin – apart from being a Christian – was a crime against the state. Marriage and children were the social foundation of the Empire. Arrested and forced to offer a sacrifice before an image of the Emperor, she refused. She was tortured and died by a sword thrust to her throat. (Note how she was referred to as the “enemy of cruelty” in Inferno 2.) By the 700s she was already included, with several other women martyrs, in the Eucharistic prayers of the Liturgy. She was widely venerated in the Middle Ages and is honored until this day as the patron saint of the blind and those with illnesses of the eyes, most likely because a later strand of her story included having her eyes gouged out as part of her torture. Her relics are venerated at many shrines in Europe and most of her body is enshrined in the church of San Geremia in Venice. She seems to make her first appearance in western literature three times in Dante’s Commedia (once in each of the three Canticles). And there is every reason to believe that Dante himself venerated her as a patron. He also recounts in his Convivio (III:9) that he suffered from a fogginess of his eyes because of too much intense reading. Luckily, he notes, he was able to treat himself with rest (including his eyes) and cool compresses.

As often happens with the stories of famous individuals, St. Lucy’s story has been embellished through the centuries. About her eyes, there is a strand of the story that has her plucking out her own eyes to spite a suitor. Another relates that when she was buried her eyes were intact in her head. Her iconography generally depicts a young woman holding a palm branch (an ancient symbol of martyrs’ victory) in one hand and a dish in the other holding her eyes. She is venerated in the Church on December 13, a fitting date when the darkening of the year is illuminated by the light of her glory.

Finally, Ronald Martinez, in his commentary, gives an amazing summary of this section of the canto and I feel compelled to enter it here in its entirety as a homage to his brilliant insights:
“Virgil now relates the ‘real’ events that took place during the ‘imagined’ events of the pilgrim’s dream. Virgil’s account also presents a gradual and maternal intervention (cf the reference to Thetis) rather than a violent, masculine one. Lucia’s arrival corresponds to the beginning of the dream (lines 13-14, 52 [in Dante’s text]), but Virgil minimizes the disjunction of soul and body (“your soul was asleep within you,” line 53; cf lines 16-17), feminizes the agent of grace (Lucy vs. the eagle) as well as the means of carrying the pilgrim (bosom vs. claws); rather than being shattered, the dream concludes with Lucia and sleep departing as one. In the use of classical allusion in the canto, there is movement from the archaic and terrible (rape, mutilation, and cannibalism in the Philomela story; the violence and arbitrariness of Jupiter toward Ganymede) to the epic and (for Dante) historical life of Achilles, to Virgil’s immediate, benign account. The myth of Ganymede mediates the extremes by including both erotic violence and sublime elevation.
“The commentators tend to suppose that Virgil’s account is to be taken as the last word; as Chiavacci Leonardi puts it, ‘In these lines Virgil explains Dante’s dream, which thus in fact [sic] represented a real event, … Lucia carrying Dante to the Gate.’ But the range of reference of the dream is much broader than that: 1. Lucia carries the pilgrim from the Valley of Princes (Mt. Ida) to the beginning of Purgatory (the fire); 2. Virgil ( the eagle among epic poets and the singer of the Roman eagle) will lead Dante from the mountainside of Inferno 1 through the fire of the last circle of Purgatory (for Dante this of course corresponds to the establishment of law, the preparation of humanity by the Roman Empire for the coming of Christ); 3. God’s grace takes the pilgrim from the mountainside of Inferno 1 all the way to the Empyrean [heaven of fire] at the end of the poem. The dream thus represents a powerful condensation of the entire poem, and this condensation itself is also the subject of the dream.”

7 As Dante and Virgil approach the Gate of Purgatory, the Poet addresses the reader directly for the ninth time in the Poem and the second time here in Purgatory. Words like “breadth,” “great theme,” “splendor,” and “subtlety” are signals that give meaning and context to what we have witnessed on the Mountain up to this point. At the same time, they portend even more to come and with deeper meaning and significance. Close at hand is the ritual at the Gate of Purgatory which we and the Pilgrim must interpret correctly in order to continue. As opposed to the ritual and drama of the previous canto, which was public, the ritual here will be much more personal and only involve the Pilgrim Dante. We will want to remember this brief address as we continue to climb the Mountain and enjoy the Poet’s art as he wraps us more and more in a mantle of wonder as we climb and consider the new sights and new meanings he lays out before us.

As the two travelers continue to climb upward toward the great wall of Purgatory, what they thought earlier was a kind of gap or crack in the face of the Mountain turns out to be an unusual portal – the actual Gate of Purgatory. And as Dante describes it, we understand immediately that this is no ordinary gate. Recall that we encountered the Gate of Hell in canto 3 of the Inferno. It was certainly larger and more grand than this, with the terrifying three tercets carved above it, ending with the words, “Abandon all hope you who enter here!” Not only this, it had no guard, and it was wide open, ready (sadly) to receive anyone who cared to enter through it. Here, on the other hand, the gate is closed and we have no grand entryway. It’s actually rather narrow, hidden from view, has no inscription over it, and, as we’ll see – contrary to Hell’s gate – there is an angel guard who – in order to pass through – requires participation in a ritual of reconciliation and hope. There are three steps of different colors that lead up to the angel who sits at the threshold of the portal holding a great unsheathed sword. Both the angel’s face and the sword shine so brilliantly that Dante cannot at them. One is reminded of the Cherubim who was stationed outside the Garden of Eden with a great flaming sword to prevent Adam and Eve from returning after they had been driven out (Genesis 3:24).

Seeing the two approach, the angel stops them in much the same manner as they were stopped by Minos in Inferno 5, Chiron in Inferno 12, and even Cato here in Purgatory (canto1). What do they want? What are their credentials? Be careful! This is not a path to tread lightly.

8 The lady from Heaven is St. Lucy who, just moments ago, had carried the dreaming Dante up from the Valley of the Kings and laid him, awakening, at the feet of Virgil. Note that Dante the Poet makes a slight error here in Virgil’s recounting of what St. Lucy “told” him. As a matter of fact, she didn’t tell him where the gate was. Noted as she is for the power of her eyes, she merely glanced at the gate with her eyes several lines back and, with a nod of her head in its direction, Virgil knew what she meant.

Recognizing that St. Lucy is one of the company of the Saints, the angel commends the pilgrims to her continued patronage and bids them approach the stairs in front of them.

9 There is much rich symbolism to pay attention to here as Dante and Virgil prepare to pass through the Gate of Purgatory. The three different steps each represent a phase of the Christian Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as the Sacrament of Confession or Penance.) The first step, white marble, is so highly polished that Dante can see himself reflected in it. This represents the first step in the Sacrament: a deep and careful introspection or examination of one’s conscience; humbly seeing oneself as they truly are, leading to true and sorrowful rejection of one’s sins.
This leads the penitent to the second phase of the Sacrament, the confession of sin at the rough, fire-blackened, bruise-colored second step, cracked across its length and breadth like a cross. Some commentators speak of these characteristics as representing the shame and pain the penitent feels. And like the stone, the penitent also feels him-/herself broken by their sins.

The third stone appears to Dante to be a large slab of blood-red porphyry. How appropriate that, as the third phase of the Sacrament, this symbolizes both the love and mercy of God and the blood of Christ poured out for the forgiveness of sins – all received in humble gratitude by the penitent. Note how the angel, who holds the dazzling sword (God) sits on the adamantine threshold of the Gate with his feet resting on this slab of red stone. Adamantine stone, sometimes confused with the properties of diamonds, here represents the authority of the Church, while the angel rests the feet of his authority on the Love inherent in the Beatitudes.

10 Up to now, we have only observed the various elements of the gateway into Purgatory proper and their qualities: the three steps of different kinds of stone, and the angel sitting on the adamantine threshold holding a naked sword – both too brilliant to look at. Now Virgil leads Dante up the three stairs and urges him to ask with humble voice that the angel open the Gate.

But stop and note for a moment that, while Dante has carefully observed and described the three stone steps, and we have provided the reader with symbolic explanations for everything that Dante saw – all within the context of the Church’s Sacrament of Reconciliation, Dante doesn’t actually go to confession here. Much later in this Canticle he will go to confession, but at this point in the Poem he has only seen the elements of a good confession and we have reviewed their deeper meaning in the context of the Sacrament. If we remember where we are in the Poem, the Sacraments are no longer necessary because all the sinners here are already saved. Yes, the sinners here undergo a painful purgation, but that is more like a final part of this Sacrament’s ritual – a penance. Dante, as a living sinner, will have need of this Sacrament more times during his life. But not here. This scene at the Gate is merely a dramatic reminder of the elements of a good confession: recognition of sin, confession, and repentance. In a moment, however, Dante will have an “extra-confessional” experience that no other recipients of the Sacraments would ever have.

Now at the top step, Dante kneels on the blood-red stone before the angel and begs to be admitted as he beats his breast three times. This latter gesture is an ancient one in the Church and is a sign of humility and remorse. It is even found in the Gospel (Luke 18:11-13): “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of men – swindlers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and pay tithes of all that I acquire.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance, unwilling even to lift up his eyes to heaven. Instead, he beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’” In the confessional prayer at the beginning of the Liturgy, the congregation tap their breast three times saying, “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

Now, in ritual unique to Dante in the Purgatorio, the angel takes his sword and carves the letter P (for peccatum = sin) seven times across Dante’s forehead, telling him that he must see that each one is erased before he leaves Purgatory. Why are there seven Ps? They correspond to the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust.

11 The ash-colored robes worn by the presiding angel here signify penitence. Recall how the gorgeous green robes worn by the angels just below in the Valley of the Kings signified hope. Like the others of his kind so far, though, he is far to brilliant for Dante to look at directly.

Whether or not he laid aside his shining sword we are not told. But once the angel had carved the seven Ps on Dante’s forehead he reached within his robes and brought out two keys with which he opened the Gate for Dante and Virgil to pass within. But not until he explained their separate uses and the difference between them. This is an important angel. He carries both the sword of God and St. Peter’s keys to the Kingdom of Heaven which were given to him by Jesus in the Gospel (Matthew 16:18f): “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Dante saw that one of the keys was silver and the other was gold. The silver one went into the lock first, followed by the gold one. Then the gate opened. And here things become somewhat complicated and mysterious. The angel explains that both keys must work in the lock(s) in order for the gate to open. Furthermore, while the gold key is the more precious of the two, it’s the silver one that enables the gold one to work.

To “unlock” the riddle of these two mysterious keys we need to understand something about the nature of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. First, the Catholic Church and several of the mainstream Protestant churches have seven Sacraments, each of which is the occasion of a special encounter with Christ: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Ordination, Matrimony, and the Anointing of the Sick. For each of these there is a particular ritual conducted by a priest or a bishop, with the exception of Matrimony, in which the couple marry themselves and the priest is merely an official witness. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, between an opening prayer and the closing absolution, the penitent privately tells the priest – representing Christ – whatever sins they may have committed since the last time they received this Sacrament, especially those (or the one) that are more serious. Before giving absolution the priest might ask a question or offer a point of advice for the penitent. This is followed by a “penance” – some prayers, or charitable deed, etc. to be done by the penitent. The absolution by the priest/Christ ends the ritual of the Sacrament.

It is before the priest grants absolution that the silver and gold keys come into play – perhaps in the asking of a question or the giving of some advice, or even privately to himself. However it’s done, he determines the penitent’s readiness to receive absolution. This is where the statement of Jesus to Peter in the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel quoted above fits in: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In essence, the gold key, the more precious of the two, represents the authority of the Church to forgive sins, which comes from God. The silver key represents the intelligence and discretion (“wisdom and skill,” says the angel) needed by the priest to read the penitent’s heart. Both need to work together to effect the absolution.

Referring to the keys, the angel, almost gratuitously, tells the travelers that St. Peter gave them to him with the command: “Let in more than less, as long as they humbly ask for mercy.” This is wonderful and hopeful, particularly after we have already met several outstanding examples of the mercy of God in Ante-Purgatory. And while they still have to wait to be admitted through the Gate, at least they are saved. We’ll want to remember St. Peter’s words as we climb the Mountain.

12 The angel’s final words are both a welcome and a warning. The warning stands out in particular because we have come across it in Scripture and other places with rather serious consequences. In chapter 19 of the Book of Genesis, we have the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the angel’s warning to Lot and his family not to look back as they flee the destruction. Unfortunately, Lot’s wife looks back (v.26) and is turned into a pillar of salt. In Luke’s Gospel (9:62), Jesus lays down a rather severe cost for following him: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.”

Dante often quotes from the great St. Augustine, and he obviously has his City of God (Bk. 16, Ch. 30) in mind here as the Saint supports the presentation of absolution he has just given us: “For what is meant by the angels forbidding those who were delivered to look back, but that we are not to look back in heart to the old life which, being regenerated through grace, we have put off, if we think to escape the last judgment? Lot’s wife, indeed, when she looked back, remained, and, being turned into salt, furnished to believing men a condiment by which to savor somewhat the warning to be drawn from that example.” Basically, to look back means to go out again, to regress back into the sins we have just confessed.
In mythology, there is also the tragic story of Orpheus and Euridice, whose happy marriage was cut short when Euridice was bitten by a snake and died instantly. Orpheus went down into the Underworld to find her in the hopes that he might bring her back with him. He played so sadly upon his lyre that Hades granted his wish – with one condition: that he not look back. Orpheus agreed, but just steps away from the upper world, he lost faith and turned around. Euridice, who was always behind him, vanished.

Interpreting the last part of this passage – the creaking gate – is a bit complicated. One can imagine the angel, having already unlocked the Gate, having explained how he came by the keys, and having warned Dante and Virgil not to look back, is now pushing strenuously against the Gate to make it open. (Perhaps my description will fall apart when the careful reader recalls that, in canto 9 of the Inferno, the angel opened the locked gates of the City of Dis with a mere tap of his wand!) The point is, by the screeching clamor of its bolts, this Gate is obviously not happy about opening, perhaps after being closed for a long time.

Curiously, by the way, for this Gate Dante employs a rarely-used Italian word, regge, which refers to the main door of a church, and which appears nowhere else in his writings. It is not (and would not have been) uncommon to see three doors at the front of large churches and cathedrals in Europe. It is often the case the central door is much larger than the others and is only opened on special feast days. Dante undoubtedly experienced this and might have heard the creaking of the bolts on occasions when that central door was opened. On the spiritual level here, the use of this unusual word makes Purgatory more of a sacred place, this being the gate by which one enters it.

Interestingly, though, this is not his memory here. Rather, he jumps back to Roman history and the story of Julius Caesar robbing the treasury. Having crossed the Rubicon, he came to Rome with the intent of seizing the vast treasury stored in the Temple of Saturn in order to finance his pursuit of Pompey and Cato. Dante’s source here is Lucan, in his Pharsalia (III, 154-168), who relates that the tribune, one Lucius Caecilius Metellus Creticus, loyal to Pompey, attempted to stop Caesar from breaking open the treasury doors. Faced with such nobility, Caesar half-threatened to kill Metellus, but he was finally convinced by friends to stand aside and let Caesar proceed. He continues: “Forthwith, Metellus led away, the Temple was opened wide. Then did the Tarpeian rock re-echo, and with a loud peal attest that the doors were opened; then, stowed away in the lower part of the Temple, was dragged up, untouched for many a year, the wealth of the Roman people, which the Punic wars, which Perseus, which the booty of the conquered Philip, had supplied; that which, Rome, Pyrrhus left to thee in his hurrying flight, the gold for which Fabricius did not sell himself to the king, whatever you saved, manners of our thrifty forefathers; that which, as tribute, the wealthy nations of Asia had sent, and Minoïan Crete had paid to the conqueror Metellus; that, too, which Cato brought from Cyprus over distant seas. Besides, the wealth of the East, and the remote treasures of captive kings, which were borne before him in the triumphal processions of Pompey, were carried forth; the Temple was spoiled with direful rapine; and then for the first time was Rome poorer than Caesar.”

This is a sad commentary on Julius Caesar whom Dante admired. Lucan makes him out to be a thief, and perhaps Dante uses this historical event to show, without particular names attached, that even great sins, like Caesar’s, can be forgiven by the mercy of God. We have seen examples of such sins below in Ante-Purgatory.

The Tarpaean Rock was a high cliff not far from the Temple of Saturn, a place used for the execution of major criminals by shoving them off.

13 Dante closes this canto with a deliberate harmonization of the singing of the Te Deum, a late fourth century Christian hymn of unknown origin and authorship, accompanied by the organ and the screeching and creaking of the metal hinges of the Gate of Purgatory against the stone portal which, strangely, he calls a beautiful “new harmony.” Here he is obviously drawing on his experience as a faithful Catholic in terms of the music that is generally part of major Church ceremonies. The Te Deum is a grand and somewhat lengthy hymn of praise in Gregorian chant sung on special occasions, and it makes sense as the musical accompaniment for this special moment when our pilgrims’ enter into Purgatory Proper (as will the Gloria in excelsis later). Dante’s mention of “harmony” here, however strange it might seem, is significant as the marker of another of Purgatory’s overarching virtues. Along with hope, harmony or unity will often stand out as the significant features of the souls’ purgation. The pain (screeching hinges) of purgation will harmonize with the growing beauty (singing) of souls cleansed and repaired before they rise to see God in the face. And what better way to celebrate Dante’s transition than with the sounds of singing accompanied by a great organ. Music is itself a mode of transit.

Just before he and Virgil arrived at the Gate of Purgatory earlier in this canto, Dante addressed the reader saying: “By now, you can see the breadth of my journey’s great theme. Don’t be surprised if I begin to match its splendor with greater subtlety.” Imagine how much the breadth of his “great theme” has increased since then.

14 You are God: we praise you;
You are God: we acclaim you;
You are the eternal Father:
All creation worships you.
To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,
Cherubim and Seraphim, sing in endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you:
Father, of majesty unbounded,
Your true and only Son, worthy of all worship,
And the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
The eternal Son of the Father.
When you became man to set us free
You did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death,
And opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come, and be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
Bought with the price of your own blood,
And bring us with your saints
To glory everlasting.
Save your people, Lord, and bless your inheritance.
Govern and uphold them now and always.
Day by day we bless you.
We praise your name forever.
Keep us today, Lord, from all sin.
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy.
Lord, show us your love and mercy;
For we put our trust in you.
In you, Lord, is our hope:
And we shall never hope in vain.