Friday, 14 April 2017

The Divine Comedy Cantica III: Paradiso by Dante.

Dante con in mano la Divina Commedia (Dante and His Poem) by Domenico di Michelino (1465). Hell is depicted on the left of the painting, Purgatory behind, and Paradise in the sky.

My re-read of Dante's The Divine Comedy (1308 - 1321) has drawn to an end as I reach the third and final part of the poem, Paradiso. So far we've seen Dante travel with Virgil through the nine circles of Hell (Cantica I):

  • The First Circle: Limbo (Canto IV - V)
  • The Second Circle: Lust (Canto V)
  • The Third Circle: Greed (Canto VI)
  • The Fourth Circle: Avarice (Canto VII)
  • The Fifth Circle: Wrath (Cantos VII - VIII)
  • Gate of Lower Hell, or, City of Dis (Cantos VIII - IX)
  • The Sixth Circle: Heretics and Sceptics (Cantos IX - XI)
  • The Seventh Circle: Violence (Cantos XII - XVII)
  • The Abyss (Canto XVII)
  • The Eighth Circle: Fraud (Cantos XVIII - XXX)
  • The Pit of Cocytus (Canto XXXI)
  • The Ninth Circle: Treachery (Cantos XXXII - XXXIV)
  • Centre-point of the Earth (Canto XXXIV)

And then through the seven terraces of Purgatory (Cantica II):

  • Ante-Purgatory (Cantos I - IX)
  • The First Terrace: Pride (Cantos X - XII)
  • The Second Terrace: Envy (Cantos XIII - XIV)
  • The Third Terrace: Wrath (Cantos XV - XVII)
  • The Fourth Terrace: Sloth (Cantos XVII - XVIII)
  • The Fifth Terrace: Avarice (Cantos XIX - XXI)
  • The Sixth Terrace: Gluttony (Cantos XXII - XXIV)
  • The Seventh Terrace: Lust (Cantos XXV - XXVII)
  • The Earthly Paradise (Cantos XXIX - XXXIII)

Now in Cantica III Dante leaves Virgil behind and travels through Heaven with Beatrice, through the nine celestial spheres of Heaven up to Empyrean, the highest heaven. Here each part is divided into 'spheres' and corresponds with the planets and stars, and as Hell and Purgatory correspond with the seven deadly sins (though treated differently), Heaven corresponds with the four cardinal virtues (Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude) and the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity), and the Christian angelic hierarchy.

Illustration by Gustave Doré.
The poem begins,
The glory of him who moves everything
Penetrates the universe and shines
In one part more and, in another, less.
I have been in the heaven which takes most of his light,
And I have seen things which cannot be told,
Possibly, by anyone who comes down from up there;
Because, approaching the object of its desires,
Our intellect is so deeply absorbed
That memory cannot follow it all the way.
Nevertheless, what I was able to store up
Of that holy kingdom, in my mind,
Will now be the matter of my poem.
Dante and Beatrice fly upwards through the sphere of fire to heaven until they reach the moon, the first sphere of Paradise.

First Sphere: The Moon (The Inconstant; Cantos II - V)

Dante describes the moon like a jewel, "like a diamond caught by the sun" and the "eternal pearl". Beatrice and Dante discuss the moon in both theological and Medieval-scientific terms, and then they begin to see the first souls of heaven who are described as inconstant, like the beautiful moon that waxes and wanes. These are the people who broke their vows or lacked moral strength, such as Piccarda who was forced by her brother Corso Donati to leave her convent and marry a man. They also see Constance, Queen of Sicily, who was forced into marrying Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor (1191 - 1197). Beatrice explains the sanctity of vows, and making vows or 'rash promises' is not enough, one must adhere to them at all earthly cost.

Second Sphere: Mercury (The Ambitious; Cantos V - VII)

Here Dante meets "a thousand brilliances", glowing figures who swarm to him like fish in a pond. This is where the ambitious reside, those who did good for fame. He meets Justinian I, who reformed Roman laws (Codex Justinianus), and he talks of the history of the Roman Empire. In doing so the crucifixion is discussed, particularly the idea that it at once redeemed mankind, but also killed the son of God.

Third Sphere: Venus (The Lovers; Cantos VIII - IX)

Venus, the planet associated with the goddess of love, is the place where all the lovers are. They are the ones who lacked temperance, and here Dante meets a king of France (unnamed, but we know it's Charles Martel of Anjou who reigned from 1271 - 1295) who he talks to about the necessity of diversity. He also meets Cunizza da Romano, an Italian noblewoman and lover of Sordello: her brother  Ezzelino III da Romano, though being of the same kin, is in the seventh layer of hell. Dante then meets Folquet de Marseilles and they talk about love and temptation, as well as corruption in the priests of Florence.

Fourth Sphere: The Sun (The Wise; Cantos X - XV)

This section features in it some very famous writers and thinkers from ancient times to the high medieval. Dante meets -
  • Thomas Aquinas (author of the Summa Theologica)
  • Albertus Magnus (Magister Sententiarum)
  • Gratian (Decretum Gratiani)
  • Peter Lombard (The Four Books of Sentences)
  • King Solomon (Book of ProverbsEcclesiastes, and Song of Songs)
  • Dionysius the Areopagite (Corpus Dionysiacum)
  • Orosius (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans)
  • Boethius (The Consolation of Philosophy)
  • Isidore of Seville (Etymologiae)
  • Bede (Ecclesiastical History of the English People)
  • Richard of Saint Victor (The Book of the Twelve Patriarchs)
  • Siger of Brabant (De anima intellectiva)
  • Bonaventure (Commentary on the Sentences of Lombard)
In this section Thomas Aquinas recounts the life of St. Francis, and they talk too of St. Dominic as well as the relationship between knowledge and God. It is, or at least I found it, a particularly complex part of The Divine Comedy.

Fifth Sphere: Mars (The Warriors of the Faith; Cantos XIV - XVIII)

Here dwell the souls of those who fought for and died for God. There he meets Cacciaguida, a crusader and great-great-grandfather of Dante. He also meets Joshua; Judas Maccabeus, who led the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire in the Second Century B.C.; Charlemagne or Charles I, king of the Franks; Roland, a military leader under Charlemagne; Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the leaders of the First Crusade; and Robert Guiscard, who rescued Pope Gregory VII. It is Cacciaguida who urges Dante to write of all he's seen in Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

Sixth Sphere: Jupiter (The Just Rulers; Cantos XVIII - XX)

As the moon is seen as inconstant, Venus associated with love, the sun with light, and Mars with war, Jupiter is associated with gods or rules. Here Dante meets 'just rulers', those rulers who have applied justice and mercy to their judgements. He is guided by an eagle symbolising the Roman Empire, and he quickly condemns evil Christian rulers: those who rule and claim to be Christian but their actions prove them to be anything but. Dante meets King David, Hezekiah who reigned over Judah, the Roman Emperor Trajan, Constantine the Great, William II of Sicily, and Ripheus, who appears in Virgil's Aeneid, and who was given a chance to convert.

Seventh Sphere: Saturn (The Contemplatives; Cantos XXI - XXII)

Saturn represents temperance, and in this sphere each person Dante meets embodies this virtue. Here he sees St. Peter Damian, once known as Peter the Sinner, and they talk of corruption and failure of the church, predestination, and monasticism. He also meets St. Benedict, Macarius, and Romualadus, and they speak of Empyrean among other things.

Eighth Sphere: The Fixed Stars (Faith, Hope, and Love; Cantos XXIII - XXVII)

The eighth sphere represents the Church Triumphant, which refers to those who have beatific vision. He sees the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, who discusses with him aspects of faith, St. James who talks of hope, and St. John who talks of love. He also sees an overwhelming vision of Christ, who passes forward to the ninth sphere. Again the church is criticised, particularly Pope Boniface III.

Ninth Sphere: The Primum Mobile (The Angels; Cantos XXVII - XXIX)

This is considered the final sphere of the physical universe and it's where the angels live. The point of the sphere is moved by God, which in turn causes everything else to move. Dante sees God as a bright light surrounded by nine rings of angels:
  1. Seraphim
  2. Cherubim
  3. Thrones
  4. Dominations
  5. Virtues
  6. Powers
  7. Principalities
  8. Archangels
  9. Angels

The Empyrean (Cantos XXX - XXXIII)

We now reach the final part of The Divine Comedy. Dante started his journey in the wilderness on the night before Good Friday in the year 1300; now he reaches the Empyrean (from the Greek ἔμπυρος meaning 'in the fire'), the abode of God, and it is the Wednesday following Easter Sunday. Nearly a week has passed. Beatrice who has accompanied him throughout Paradiso has become steadily more beautiful and now it renders Dante speechless. He then sees a rose with a bright light shining at the centre, and as his eyes grow accustomed to the light he sees a stream:
And I saw light in the form of a stream
Of resplendent brilliance, in between two banks
Painted with all the marvels of spring.
From this river there issued live sparks
Which everywhere settled themselves in the flowers
Like rubies which have been set in gold.
Beatrice, who has represented theology, now leaves Dante and returns to her place in the rose, and Dante is taken by his third and final guide - St. Bernard. They talk of predestination before Dante finally sees God, three circles representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He contemplates the circle, and Paradiso ends,
So was I faced with this new vision:
I wanted to see how the image could fit the circle
And how it could be that that was where it was;
But that was not a flight for my wings:
Except that my mind was struck by a flash
In which what it desired came to it.
At this point high imagination failed;
But already my desire and will
Were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
By the love which moves the sun and the other stars.
Paradiso, even compared with Inferno and Purgatorio, is an intensely difficult read. It's often difficult to grasp its meaning. I felt some small degree of confidence with the first two, but not with this. Despite that I admire it greatly, it is one of the most beautiful works I've ever read. I've read The Divine Comedy three times now, but still I want to read it again. Perhaps the fourth time I'll get further into it, but for now, as ever, I love reading it and learning more about the Medieval world view, politics, religion, art, and beliefs on the afterlife. There's a vast array of characters, many from Dante's own times, and many more from Ancient times, but the more I read (of this and others) the more I begin to recognise more names. Still, though, I find myself fumbling for words. I'm in awe of it, but this last part is one tough read.


  1. i admire your persistence; you probably said which translation it was, but i missed that... surely you didn't read it in the original!? i've never read it, but it's on the list... my dad read it a short time before he died and seemed to like it, so i ought to, i guess(he say's with not a whole lot of enthusiasm...) if i do, i'd try the Dorothy Sayers version, i think...

    1. No, not in the original :) Translator was C. H. Sisson. I've read Sayers Inferno and really enjoyed it. I would give it a go if I were you - Inferno and Purgatorio are great, very readable. It's Paradiso that's particularly tricky...

  2. I've only read The Divine Comedy once, but I agree that Paradiso is the most difficult to understand. But it also stuck with me the longest, such is its beauty. Someday I'll read these again.

    1. It is so beautiful. I wish I understood it better to enjoy it better...


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