Classics Literature Theology

Understanding Dante’s Paradiso

Dante’s Divine Comedy is the greatest work of Christian literature, one of the greatest epic poems ever construed by human hands, and perhaps the greatest love song ever written by a mere mortal. T.S. Eliot famously said that the world is divided between Dante and Shakespeare and that there is no other in running contention. There are many facets and nuances to Dante’s poetic splendor, but in this essay I would like to examine Beatrice as a type of Christ—that in persona Christi that would have been well familiar to Dante’s sacramental vision of the world and of others, wherein Beatrice acts like a prophet of the Old Testament, pointing the way to Christ before being superseded by Christ herself.

Inferno opens with those famous lines, “Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood / for I had wandered off from the straight path.” Dante’s opening is remarkable in capturing everything about the human pilgrimage. He is having a quintessential mid-life crisis, so to speak, in recognizing his aimless wandering but not knowing how he sunk to the abyss that he is in. He craves meaning and purpose; he craves understanding. In awakening to find himself in a dark wood he is aware of his sin, his desolation, his utter emptiness for having wandered off the straight and true path of Love. Indeed, the entire movement of the epic is a pilgrimage through love: Dante learns how to love in hell, learns how to order his love in purgatory, and learns the nature of divine love in heaven.

When Virgil informs Dante that he is to be his guide through hell, the Roman poet informs the new Roman poet that a beautiful lady had summoned him and commanded him to help rescue the pilgrim poet from his aimless wandering. Beatrice’s first invocation in the epic is as an angel of beauty and grace, “With eyes of light more bright than any star / in low, soft tones she started to address me / in her own language, with an angel’s voice.” Though Beatrice is absent during Dante’s sojourn through hell with Virgil, she is with him in spirit through his sacramental guide, Virgil, who has directly received the command from Beatrice’s own voice. Here is part of Dante’s brilliance—he needs others, not just God, to guide him back to the straight and true (and thus the pilgrim Dante is always with someone instead of being alone like Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress).

The awakening of Dante to new life, then, begins with hearing the call of Beatrice through another, much like how God spoke through the patriarchs, priests, and prophets in the Old Testament. When the prophets speak to the people of Israel in the Old Testament history, they often begin with “Thus saith the Lord” or “Hear the Lord thy God.” The Church’s hermeneutical principle of typology led the official interpretation of the canon to mean that God, Christ, was literally speaking through the sages and prophets of old though he himself was not yet revealed in the flesh. Dante is drawing upon this hermeneutical tradition when constructing his poem.

Beatrice doesn’t appear to Dante until the thirtieth canto of Purgatorio. She is introduced as the embodiment of faith, hope, and love—the three theological virtues according to Christianity. “Covering all the chariot,” Dante says, “appeared a lady—over her white veil / an olive crown and, under her green cloak, / her gown, the color of eternal flame.” The colors that adorn her splendid gown each represent one of the virtues: white being faith, green being hope, and red—the “eternal flame”—being love.

That Beatrice is dressed, as she is, in the colors of the theological virtues gives a prefiguration of the transfigured glory of heaven and all the souls therein. Dante, as we know, had fallen madly in love with Beatrice in earthly life. Her death, in part, caused Dante’s downfall into darkness. Now her beauty is so majestic that it whets his appetites for more; but, more incredibly, her beauty orders his appetites to the proper order of things as established by God (and with the help of Beatrice who reminds Dante to order his desires always to God).

Read the rest here, part of my literary column at TIC: The Face of Love: Beatrice as a Type of Christ (18 Dec. 2019)

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