By Joseph Pearce
Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book is Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute, 2019). His website is jpearce.co.
The Divine Comedy is arguably the greatest poem ever written. It is also profoundly Catholic to its theological and philosophical core. Its author, Dante Alighieri, spent over ten years writing it, completing it a year before his death in 1321. It is fitting, therefore, that we should celebrate this finest of poetic masterpieces on the 700th anniversary of the death of its illustrious composer.
Dante was an avid disciple of the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, the preeminent of all Catholic theologians and philosophers, and it is no surprise, therefore, that St. Thomas’ theological and philosophical presence animates the poem from start to finish.
The poem is narrated in the first person by Dante himself, who appears, as it were, as a character in his own imaginative work. It serves as a memento mori, a reminder of death, prompting the poet and his readers to contemplate the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
The Comedy begins, symbolically, on Maundy Thursday, the night on which Christ suffered his Agony in the Garden, with the poet trapped in the Dark Wood, in the midst of what might now be called a midlife crisis. He is unable to escape because of his slavery to sinful habits and is rescued by the ghost of Virgil, who has been sent through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and through the agency of St. Lucy (patron saint of the blind), and Dante’s beloved Beatrice. In one important sense, Beatrice, the woman whom Dante loved and whose early death devastated him, is the spiritual litmus test by which Dante’s progress can be measured. His spiritual ascent is accompanied by the purification of his love for her.
Virgil leads Dante into the depths of Hell on Good Friday morning, enabling him to see the horrific consequences of unrepented sin. As they descend deeper and deeper, passing through circles of Hell in which each of the seven deadly sins is punished, Dante gains a deeper knowledge of the hatefulness of sin, ending at last in the very pit of Hell, in the presence of Satan himself, who is trapped miserably in a sea of ice, ravenously and insatiably famished, devouring the damned souls of the worst of prideful traitors for all eternity. Symbolically, Dante places Satan at the center of the earth, the furthest “down” that anyone can fall, reminding us perhaps of Chesterton’s quip that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly whereas the devil falls by the force of his own gravity.
Having hit rock bottom, Virgil and Dante climb upward toward the distant light, emerging at the foot of Mount Purgatory on Easter Sunday morning. Like the Lord Himself and by His power, they have risen from the dead into the land of the living.
Dante reminds us that Purgatory is the antechamber of Heaven, the place of cleansing for those already saved, by placing St. Peter’s Gate at its entrance. Guarded by an angel, not by St. Peter who is with the Lord in Paradise, the Gate is approached by ascending three steps. The first is made of white marble, which is polished to such a gloss that Dante can see his own reflection in it, signifying confession. The second is black and cracked both lengthways and across, so that the cracks intersect, forming the shape of a cross, signifying contrition. The third is as red as blood, signifying satisfaction.
The symbolism continues when the angel makes the mark of seven P’s upon Dante’s brow, signifying the seven deadly sins (the “P” standing for peccatum, the Latin word for sin). Each of these P’s is removed as Dante ascends through the various parts of the mountain in which each of the seven deadly sins is purged. Finally, at the summit of Mount Purgatory, Dante finds himself in the Earthly Paradise, the prelapsarian Eden, the place of primal innocence in which there is no stain of sin. It is here that Dante finally meets Beatrice, and it is here that Virgil takes his leave, the latter being unable to take Dante to Paradise.
Beatrice leads Dante into the heavens, symbolized by the planets and the stars, where he meets many saints. St. Thomas Aquinas emerges as the spokesman of the wise, singing the praises of St. Francis and his Lady Poverty, and St. Bonaventure comes forward to praise St. Dominic. In this way, by getting a Dominican to praise St. Francis, and a Franciscan to praise St. Dominic, Dante pours gentle scorn on the tensions between the Dominican and Franciscan orders which existed in his day. In Heaven, Dante is telling us, all such worldly differences will be transfigured by perfect love.
Moving further up and further in, Dante meets the apostles and is examined by St. Peter in the virtue of faith, by St. James in the virtue of hope, and by St. John in the virtue of love. His love for Beatrice is purified in a heavenly consummation, each loving the other in their being mutually consumed in the love of God. Moving toward its celestial climax, Dante finally beholds the beauty of the Blessed Virgin and is transported by St. Bernard’s prayer of praise to her. The poet’s ecstasy is brought to fulfillment in the Beatific Vision itself, shining forth in triune and incarnate splendor, culminating in the poem’s final lines in homage to the love that moves the stars.
Maurice Baring, one of the most cultured and well-read men of the last century, summarized the brilliance of Dante’s ecstatic conclusion to The Divine Comedy:
Scaling the circles of the Paradiso, we are conscious the whole time of an ascent not only in the quality of the substance but in that of the form. It is a long perpetual crescendo, increasing in beauty until the final consummation in the very last line. Somebody once defined an artist…as a man who knows how to finish things. If this definition is true—and I think it is—then Dante was the greatest artist who ever lived. His final canto is the best, and it depends on and completes the beginning.
Echoing Baring, T.S. Eliot remarked that he was so in awe of Dante’s brilliance that he felt that there was nothing to do in his presence but to point to him and remain silent. Thus does the greatest poet of the twentieth-century pay homage to the greatest poet of all time. Nothing else needs to be said.