Perhaps a word should be given to the originality of Dante’s vision of purgatory. The Roman Catholic understanding of purgatory is based on solely as a staging place for the souls to be purified before entering heaven. It’s based on tradition which came from the Church Fathers (Saints Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, Origin, Tertulian, etc) which was derived from Judaism’s praying for the dead, several references in the Old Testament, and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 10-15), where he states
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it,11for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.12If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw,13the work of each will come to light, for the Day* will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work.14If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage.15But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved,* but only as through fire.
That purging fire cleanses the soul who then is made worthy for heaven. Catholics situate the place which that occurs by the name of purgatory; Eastern Orthodox acknowledges the purgation but do not situate a locale; most Protestants don’t seem to acknowledge either. So at best, purgatory is an amorphous notion without much detail. That people have a vision of purgatory as a structured place where various types of sins are healed is solely a result of Dante’s creation. It is a testament to how influential to its culture the Divine Comedy became.
Dante’s structure for purgatory in one respect mirrors the structure he gives hell. Sins increase in severity as one corkscrews downward to the heart of hell; sins in purgatory decrease in gravity as one winds (also in corkscrew) up the mountain. Purgatorio is located on an island in the southern hemisphere in polar opposition to Jerusalem. But unlike hell, there is daylight on purgatory, perhaps its most significant difference, where sunshine and shadow metaphorically reflect the complex nature of life. There is daytime and nighttime here, struggle and dreams of contemplation, song and suffering, acknowledgement of one’s transgressions and desire for refinement, and ultimately a desire for freedom, a freedom from one’s compulsions and disorders. The journey here is a journey to growth in love, a love that unbinds the soul from human constrictions. I personally find Purgatorio more interesting than either Inferno or Paradisio. It’s the most human of the three canticas.
Let me discuss Ante-Purgatory in this post, reserving the other sections for their own posts. The portal of Ante-Purgatory is actually the beachhead of the island, and the attendant is the ancient Roman, Marcus Porcius Cato. Right there in the very first canto we have an unusual character for purgatory. Cato was a pagan, born and died prior to Christ, and he committed suicide, a mortal sin. Purgatory and heaven are reserved for baptized Christians, let alone for those that commit suicide. There was a realm in hell where Dante situated the virtuous pagans, those who did not have the opportunity to know Christianity but led moral lives. So as one enters the realm of the saved (all those in Purgatory will undoubtedly after purification be allowed into heaven) we have incongruity, which I think is Dante’s way of showing that God is not fixed by rules. But why Cato? Apparently there has been a long debate through the centuries on this. Cato was a noble citizen of Rome, a man involved in the issues and actions of his day, of the highest moral integrity, and of uncompromising faith in his tradition, all attributes that reflect on the themes of the Commedia. But in addition, Cato stood on the side of freedom in the Roman Civil Wars that ended the Republic, and purgatory is a realm of liberation. Cato then is a perfect selection.
When those in front saw that the light on my
right side was broken, so that the shadow extended
from me to the cliff,
they stopped and drew back somewhat, and all
the others that were coming after, without
knowing why, did the same.
“Without your asking, I confess to you that this
is a human body you see, by which the light of the
sun is split upon the ground.
Do not marvel, but believe that not without
power that comes from Heaven does he seek to
surmount this wall.”
So my master; and that worthy folk: “Turn
back,” they said, “walk on ahead of us, therefore,”
making a sign to us with the back of their hands.
And one of them began: “Whoever you are, as
we walk turn your eyes to me: consider if you have
ever seen me back there.”
I turned toward him and looked at him closely:
he was blond and handsome and of noble appearance,
but a sword-blow had divided one of his brows.
When I had humbly denied ever seeing
him, he said: “Now see,” and showed me a wound
high on his breast.
Then smiling, he said: “I am Manfred,
grandson of the Empress Contance; and so I beg
you when you return,
go to my lovely daughter, mother of the honor
of Sicily and Aragon, and tell her the truth, if
something else is being said.
After I had my body broken by two mortal
thrusts, I gave myself up, weeping, to him who
Horrible were my sins; but the infinite
Goodness has such open arms that it takes
whatever turns to it.
-Canto 3.88-123, Durling translation.
Manfred had been excommunicated, like his father Frederick II who Dante met in hell, both Kings who were quite sinful to put it mildly. You can read about the historical Manfred, and Frederick II. But Manfred is different than his father. He approaches Dante with a smile—there is no smiling in hell—shows him his horrible wounds and asks Dante when he returns to earth to tell his daughter to pray for him as prayers help the people in Purgatory move faster to their goal. A man with such horrible wounds and yet smiles holds no bitterness. Prayers and smiles are a sign of a soul with hope, and hope is paramount. “Horrible were my sins,” Manfred says (admission the first step toward repentance), but the infinite/Goodness has such open arms that it takes whatever turns to it.”
To turn is to convert, and to convert is to appeal to God. But notice that even though he has been excommunicated—removed from the Church—he is saved, and then contrast that with his father and the several popes Dante situates in hell and realize that though the Church is helpful toward salvation (Manfred still has the longest journey to reach paradise) it is not definitive, either in getting you saved or preventing you from being saved.
Another soul Dante meets in Ante-Purgatory, though further up with those who died unabsolved is the medieval troubadour poet Sordello de Goito. As I mentioned in the first post on Purgatorio, one of the themes of the Commedia is how beauty stems from God, and the beauty most discussed is that of poetry. Of the many poets Dante the character meets throughout his journey, the majority of them must be (I haven’t counted to be sure) in Purgatorio. Why this is, I’m not exactly sure. On the one hand art created to reflect God’s beauty is virtuous, but the act of creation rivals God and inherently inflates pride. Later when Dante passes through the terrace of pride, he will say that pride is the sin that he most struggles with. After all he is the greatest poet to have ever lived, and he realized his genius.
The character and rendition of Sordello provides a excellent example of how integrated the themes of the Commedia are. Dante and Virgil meet Sordello in Canto Six. Uncoincidentally canto six in all three canticas, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio contain political themes. Here in Purgatorio Dante and Virgil, unsure of the route forward espy a soul, who turns out to be Sordello, lying down alone. Virgil comes up to him and asks him what the best path forward is.
We came up to it: O Lombard soul, how
proudly and disdainfully you were holding
yourself, and how worthy and slow was the
moving of your eyes!
The soul said nothing to us, but was letting us
go by, only gazing, in the manner of a lion when it
Still Virgil drew near to it, begging that it show
us the best upward path; and it did not reply to his
but asked us of our city and our life; and my
sweet leader: “Mantua…” and the shade
all gathered in itself,
rose toward him from the place where it had
been, saying, “O Mantuan, I am Sordello from
your city!” and each embraced each other.
-Canto 6.61-73, Durling translation.
After the virtuous, glad welcomes had been
repeated three or four times, Sordello drew back
and said, “Who are you?”
“Before souls worthy to rise to God were turned
to this mountain, my bones were buried by
I am Virgil, and for no other crime did I lose
Heaven than for not having faith.” Thus my
leader replied then.
As one who suddenly sees before him a
thing that makes him marvel, who both believes
and does not, saying “It is, it is not…”:
so did that other appear; and then he bent his
brow and humbly turning toward Virgil,
embraced him where the lesser takes hold.
“O glory of the Italians,” he said, “through
whom our language showed its power, O eternal
honor of the place I was from,
what merit or what grace shows you to me? If I
am worthy to hear your words, tell me if you come
from Hell, and from what cloister.”
-Canto 7.1-21, Durling translation.
Notice how rich that little scene is, so simple and subtle, but with so much meaning. And I didn’t even probe the intertextuality of that scene with others. Dante’s Divine Comedy is that deep and complex. I must give credit to an essay which helped me along in the analysis I just put forth: “Bertran de Born and Sordello: The Poetry ofPolitics in Dante's Comedy,” by Teodolinda Barolini, published in Modern Language Association, May 1979. You can access it on the web here. It’s well worth reading.
Finally I want to end this post on Ante-Purgatory with the twilight setting at the beginning of Canto Eight, a famously beautiful passage, perhaps one of the best poetic narrative passages in history. I’m going to pick the Esolen translation for its poetry, but while Esolen does a fine job in translation, it still pales to Dante’s Italian. There’s no way for Esolen to reproduce the vowel sounds, and the “l,” “s,” and soft “c” consonant sounds that give the coming evening a lulling and hushed sound. Try to read it in Italian here. You can also hear it read on youtube here, you’ll have to go 30 seconds in for the reading to begin and the 33 lines I quote ends at 2:45. Just to orient you, what’s happening is that Dante hears the Compline bells ring as evening drops and sees a man pray the Te luces ante (Thee Before Nightfall) and then the surrounding souls join him by singing it. Then suddenly two angels with swords come down to protect the souls from the serpent for the evening.
That hour had fallen when the sailor bends
his yearning and his softened heart toward home,
the day he’s bid farewell to his sweet friends;
The hour that wrings the pilgrim just away
should he hear home’s bells afar
that seem to mourn the dying of the day—
When I began to let all sound slip by
as beheld one spirit rise and ask
attention, with a gesture of his hand.
He joined his palms together, raised them high
as if he prayed, “I have no other care,”
fixing his gaze upon the eastern sky.
“Thee Before Nightfall” so devoutly
came from his lips, with notes so sweet, they made
me move beyond my mind in ecstasy,
While all the rest with sweet and pious love
followed the soul in singing the whole hymn,
holding their eyes upon the wheels above.
Reader, my veil is woven now so thin,
sharpen your eyes to look upon the truth
and easily shall your vision pass within.
Silently then I saw that princely host
gazing on high as sentinels on the watch,
waiting, in pallor and humility.
And I saw come from Heaven and descend
two angels brandishing their fiery swords,
but those were cropped and blunted at the end.
Green as the fresh leaves springing on the stem,
so green their garments were, and wings of green
swept them astream behind them in the wind.
-Canto 7.1-33, Esolen translation.
I might add that in Purgatory there are hymns and psalms sung in every scene it’s part of the therapy of transformation toward holiness for the penitents. In this canto, you’ll have another hymn sung later on, the Salve Regina. This would make such a great movie scene. I hope you go on to read the entire passage.