"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Dante's Purgatorio Cantos XXIX – XXXIII, Summary

Canto XXIX
Walking along with Matelda, though on opposite sides of the river bank, he hears Matelda sing from Psalm 31, “Blessed whose sins are covered and forgiven,” when she stops to tell him to watch and listen.  An intense light flashed and glimmered throughout Earthly Paradise so that the air was glowing.  Dante in awe appeals to the muses to conceive the poetic language that will allow him to describe it all.  Ahead, on the other bank, he sees what first look like trees but turn out to be golden candelabra with flame lit at each of the seven tips.  He turns to Virgil, who is also struck in silent awe.  Behind the candelabra follows a parade in full pageantry, each of the people in the parade representing a book from the Bible.  First came the twenty-four representing the Old Testament.  Between the last four men, representing the four Gospels, was a chariot drawn by a Griffin, a creature half eagle, half lion, symbolizing Christ with his two natures.  Three ladies were to the chariot’s right side, representing the three Christian virtues, and four ladies, representing the Cardinal virtues were on the other side.  Seven more men, each representing Acts, the various Epistles, and the Book of Revelation, completed the pageant.  Once the chariot had reached opposite where Dante was standing, it and everyone stopped, and a sound like thunder boomed.

Canto XXX
As the procession stops, a herald sings out “Come forth from Lebanon, my bride,” and the voices of those in the parade respond with “Blessed are you who come.”  Flowers are then cast up in the air and the voices now sing, “Oh give the lilies with full hands.”  All this is for the dramatic entrance of a veiled woman dressed in white, green, and red, the colors of the Christian virtues.  Dante recognizes her as Beatrice and is in awe.  He turns to speak to Virgil but finds Virgil gone and suddenly feels a panic as a child does when he can’t find his parents.  In distress he starts to weep.  And Beatrice speaks, “Dante, because Virgil has departed/do not weep, do not weep yet—there is another sword to make you weep.”  She stands in the chariot as an admiral on his ship.  Her voice is hard and scornful.  She announces she is Beatrice, and upon further reproaching him, Dante lowers his eyes onto the stream and sees his reflection and feels shame.  The angels about plead for her to have mercy for him.  In response Beatrice tells them that she can only do so when “sin and sorrow be of equal measure.”  She accounts how having inspired him through her eyes when young, he strayed and sinned when she no longer was near.  He had sunk so low that only through this pilgrimage through the supernatural life could he be reformed.

Canto XXXI
Completing her response to the angels, she turns “the sword point of her speech” back toward Dante and demands whether all she has described be true.  Dante, confused and trembling, cannot speak.  Again she demands a response.  All he could force out of his throat was a mumbled “yes,” and then fell down and bawling tears.  She asks him why he had so strayed.  Through tears he admits that false pleasures lured him away when she was no longer in his sight.  This is the confession she was after but she digs the sword once more by telling him he had so much talent that went astray.  Ashamed and sorrowful he gets himself up, and she mocks his manhood by telling him to lift his beard.  Lifting his head up, he sees the Griffon, the symbol of Christ, and feels the sting of conscience in his heart and collapses in a feint.  When he awakes he feels Matelda drawing him into the river and while holding him dunks him below.  After the dunking Matelda sends Dante to dance with the ladies who represent the four Cardinal Virtues.  Shortly they lead him toward the Griffon and Beatrice where the three ladies representing the Christian virtues sing to turn her “holy eyes” toward him and reveal her “second beauty.”

Dante now sees Beatrice’s second beauty, her smile, as now the veil has been lifted from her face.  The first beauty was her eyes, but now her second beauty dazzles like the sun.  The Griffon then swings the chariot around so that he is facing east and the entire procession turns with it.  Everyone takes their place but mow Matelda, Statius, and Dante follows with the three Christian virtues on the right side.  Passing through the woods with angelic song in the air they come to a barren tree where Beatrice descends from the chariot.  The music and moment overcomes him, so that he falls asleep and when he wakes he asks where Beatrice is. Matelda points her out as sitting alone on the tree’s root beside the chariot which is now unhinged from the Griffon.  Dante and Statius then witness an allegorical drama of an assault upon the chariot, which represents the Church.  The beasts include an eagle, representing the Roman Empire, both as pre-Christina and post Christian, and then the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, the fox, representing heresies, a seven headed beast, a harlot, and a giant, all representing various corruptions within the Church. 


The allegorical drama now complete, all seven virtues in tears sing Psalm 79, “O God the heathen have come into your inheritance.”  Beatrice, rising, responds, “A little while and you shall not see me.”  Rearranging the procession, Beatrice now has Dante follow closely to her and entices him to ask questions.  He responds shyly, and she insists he break free of fear and shame.  She warns that those who broke God’s vessel (the Church) will suffer Divine wrath, and prophesies that one will come to restore church and earthly order.  She tells him to write this prophesy down for those still living and to not forget to mention how the tree of knowledge has now been despoiled twice.  She sees that he cannot fully understand what she is prophesying but asks him nonetheless to take it back.  Dante acknowledges but asks why her words are so hard for him to understand.  She responds that the school of thought he had been following prevents him from understanding the divine purpose.  But he cannot remember being estranged from her, and she says that is because he has drunk from Lethe, and that now to fully be reborn he must be doused into the river Eunoe.  She has Matelda bring him over and once dunked he feels remade, pure, and prepared to now “rise up to the stars.”

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