eyes sewn shut
We move from pride to envy. Canto 13 opens on the tail end of Dante and Virgil’s ascent to the second terrace of purgatory. Narrower than the first, the second terrace is completely bare of vegetation. There are no trees or shaded spaces, Dante tells us, only red-blue stones.
As soon as they make it on the terrace, Virgil notes that there’s no one around to ask for directions to the next staircase, so he begins a strange prayer to the sun in which he asks for guidance.
Pagan as this may seem, Virgil’s prayer, which goes on for 5 verses, is actually inspired by Saint Francis’ “Hymn of Brother Sun”, in which the sun is exalted as the one element of Creation that closest resembles God.
The use of sun imagery is not random of course: Dante will soon learn that the sin purged on the second terrace is envy, which in Dante’s moral universe is synonymous with an inability to recognise greatness in ourselves and the ones around us. And since every one of us was made by God, envy ultimately represents an inability to recognise the greatness of God’s creation.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The theme of envy is first introduced via sound. Shortly after Virgil finishes his sun speech, Dante begins to hear “voices of spirits”, each invoking a story of generosity and self-sacrifice - the opposite of envy.
The first voice says “vinum non habent”, Latin for “they don’t have wine”, which alludes to the story of the Marriage at Cana from the New Testament, where, noticing that the guests were out of wine Virgin Mary asks Jesus to do something about it.
The second voice says “I’m Orestes”, a line from Cicero’s De Amicitia. In the story, Orestes and Pylades are captured by the tyrant Tauris who wants to kill Orestes. Since Tauris had never seen Orestes before, Pylades tells him that he is Orestes in an attempt to save his friend, at which Orestes stood up and revealed that he was the real Orestes, in an attempt to protect Pylades (there are many reasons to believe they were super special friends).
The third voice brings us back to the biblical with the classic “love those by whom you suffer harm”, which alludes to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, recounted in the gospel of Matthew.
At this point, Virgil reveals that the sin punished here is envy. We also learn that the reason why these examples of virtue are auditive and not visual (like the marble carvings we saw with pride) is that the penitents here are blind. More specifically, their eyes have been sewn shut with metal wires.
Which brings us back to the sun and envy.
I said a couple of weeks ago that the punishments of purgatory also operate according to a sort of contrapasso, like the punishments of hell. In the case of envy, which is a sin that operates through the eye as the individual looks upon their peers with a critical eye, taking the ability to see away makes perfect sense.
But envy is also a refusal to see. Dante’s view of envy is that it convinces the individual that they lack excellence, which makes them fear and want to destroy it when they see it in their fellow humans.
A closer look at the Latin word for envy offers a bit more clarity about the insidious nature of envy.
“Invideo” is formed from the prefix “in” meaning after and “video” meaning to see but also to understand.
The problem of the envious isn’t just that can’t stand to see greatness - they simply can’t understand it.
The sinner that Dante meets here helps drive this point home. When speaks out to the crowd asking if there are any Italians there that he can speak to. One of them, a woman, calls out and introduces herself.
Her name is Sapia, another form of the word “savia” which means “wise”. The first thing she says, in fact, is that despite her name, she lacked wisdom in life.
She tells a horrific story about how she was so sick with envy that she got more joy out of someone else’s misfortunes than her own good fortune.
To the point where, watching the battle of Colle di Val d’Elsa, where the Sienese (her city men) were fighting against the Florentines, she prayed to God for the downfall of her own people!
When her wish was granted, she says, she began cursing at God, saying that she need not be scared of him any longer. She was only redeemed by the prayers of Pietro Pettinaio, a hermit of the Franciscan order who prayed for her.
This is an extreme example of the misery and wickedness of an envious person. However, Dante doesn’t lack compassion, or even respect for these penitents.
Before speaking to Sapia, Dante tells Virgil that it feels unjust to walk past and size up these people who cannot look back and do the same to him.
Even the fact that their eyes are sewn shut “like a sparrow hawk’s” evokes a certain level of reverence. In Dante’s time, a hawk’s eyes were sewn shut with a silk thread (allegedly painless lol) was done to help tame the animal. But these hunting birds were incredibly sought-after and respected and it was believed that properly disciplined they could become some of the noblest animals out there.
So even though they physically can’t see the sun and have spiritually been blinded to the warmth and generosity of divine creation, the envious, like everyone else in purgatory, are on the path of salvation, which makes them noble by default.