Terrace 1: the prideful
As the poets walk through the gate of Purgatory, Dante’s description of the environment is punctuated by references to the difficult nature of humankind’s journey towards God.
Canto 9 already established that getting through this gate is not the easiest feat: there’s a guardian angel, there are two keys, and the gate makes a horrible crash whenever it opens and closes. Quite the faff compared to the eternally open, silent, unguarded gate of Hell.
The first 13 verses emphasise this difference through the use of “narrow path” imagery (for lack of a better term). Verse 3 refers to the “crooked way”, while the entrance into Purgatory is described as a small rock corridor which is accessible through “a through of fissured rock”, later referred to as a “needle eye”. The cave-like way into Purgatory is also seemingly moving, ebbing and flowing constantly, making it an unpredictable journey, which in turn makes the poets’ steps “few and hesitant”.
As they come out of the rocky corridor, Dante tells us they find themselves on “a road far lonelier than any desert track”, once again stressing how difficult it is to get to this part of the realm and how few people make it here.
Once on the first terrace, however, the landscape opens up again. Dante tells us that he and Virgil find themselves on the lip of the mountain as wide as the span of three human body lengths and as long as the eye can see.
But the most interesting aspect of the mountain is its wall, which we are told is made up of the most brilliant white marble and which bears carvings of religious narratives.
The first one Dante describes is the story of the Annunciation, in which the archangel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary to tell her she would conceive and birth the son of God.
The depiction is so fresh and full of energy that Dante has trouble believing it’s a static image and not a real moving scene. It seems to him that the marble angel is speaking and that the noble image of Mary is reacting to the news she has just received.
This ambiguity around the static/moving nature of the marble continues in the next two scenes Dante sees. The second one illustrates King David’s arrival in Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant. Happy to have made it, he lifts his robes and dances in humility before it, while his wife Micah watches him disapprovingly from a window.
The third scene tells the story of Emperor Trajan who according to some medieval texts was persuaded to postpone his military campaign by a widow whose son had been killed. She begged the emperor to avenge his son and Trajan, moved by her plea, stopped his journey to do so.
All these stories are depictions of humility - not in the sense of humiliation, but humility as the quality of being humble, of putting oneself and one’s desires on hold in the name of advancing a collective interest or of letting a greater power work through you. This is, of course, related to the penitents Dante meets on this first terrace, namely the proud.
As Dante marvels at the lively marble carvings, Virgil calls out to him and points to a crowd of people whose appearance is rather confusing. Dante stares at them for a moment, trying to work out what exactly he is seeing. He first thinks that he’s looking at a bunch of stone gargoyles, before realising that they are in fact, people. These are people who are purging the sin of pride.
But before describing them fully, Dante addresses the reader directly to warn them not to let themselves be distracted (“bewitched”) by the penitents’ suffering. He tells us not to focus on “the worst”, but rather think of what is to come: salvation.
Unlike Inferno, the ethical purpose of Purgatorio is not only to condemn the sins of the penitents but also to explore the ways in which the virtue that corresponds to each particular vice can be fulfilled.
Dante gives us a very vivid description of the penitents who are destined to carry heavy boulders around to make up for their prideful lives. The “punishment” follows a sort of contrapasso like the punishments of the sinners in hell - those who exalted themselves and thought themselves superior to other people in life now have to physically bend over and keep low to the ground under the weight of stones.
But this comes after the long description of examples of humility we saw inscribed on the marble wall. And immediately after the description of the punishment, Dante reminds us that this temporary suffering will lead to the penitents’ transformation into angelic butterflies that will eventually commune with God.
Dante also conveys humility stylistically, through the decision to no longer focus on a single character as he did in Inferno. We’ve seen, of course, conversations with individual people, but there are not the prideful Capaneus or Ulysses we met in hell.
In Purgatory there is a marked interest in groups of people as if to signify not only that souls are equal in the eyes of God, but that cooperation plays a huge role in attaining salvation. Think about the psalms that the penitents sing together, or how the prayers of family members on earth can help a penitent’s journey along.
But more about the nature of pride and its relationship to art and the individual in the next canto!