In terms of structure and themes, canto 15 is one of my favourites so far. It’s divided into two distinct parts, each revolving around outer and inner sight and their physical aspects, light and darkness.
Dante uses the opening verses to establish the position of the sun in the sky. We are told that it’s the hour of Vespers, which in liturgical terms means it’s three hours before sunset. And since it’s three hours before sunset in Purgatory, based on Dante’s geography, it is three hours before sunrise in Jerusalem, which means that in Florence (which in line 6 he calls “our clime”) it’s midnight.
Suddenly, Dante says, a greater splendour than that of the sun dazes him, to the point that he has to raise his hand and shield his eyes from it. The light is not only bright but it seems to come from everywhere as if reflected by the surface of the mountainside as it would reflect from a glass or a body of water.
Personally, I love this image, however, the simile in lines 16-22 with the reference to the theorem that the angle of reflection is equal to the angle of incidence (which Dante probably knew from Euclid’s Optics) felt super clunky to me. And I don’t often criticise Dante’s stylistic choices. But we move on.
The source of light is an angel, who waits for the two poets at the bottom of the staircase to the 3rd terrace. Virgil explains that the angel is here, as others will be in the future, to wipe off another P from Dante’s forehead.
He also explains that, although Dante finds angels difficult to look at right now - presumably because of his spiritual inadequacy - as they continue up the mountain, “such things as these will bring not stupor, but delight” (v. 31-32).
The angel also reveals something related to this: the stair to the third terrace is less steep than those before, which emphasises the idea that the further into the journey of purgation the soul gets, the easier the going gets.
As they leave the angel behind, Dante is thinking back on the conversations he had on the second terrace and expresses his confusion to Virgil. In the previous canto, the envious Guido del Duca is lamenting his sin (envy) and the way it made him “flush to liver green” when he saw someone else’s joy.
In lines 86-88, he says:
You human creatures, why repose your hearts
Where you are banned from mutual exchange?
Dante (like the rest of us, I imagine) doesn’t fully understand the veiled meaning of this outburst.
Virgil’s explanation is the following: in the human understanding of wealth, resources are limited, which is why people feel envy when they see someone else succeed. In their mind, someone else’s success means that there’s now less success left in the world.
And while this might be the case for material success, when it comes to divine Love, not only is there enough for everyone, but the more people rejoice in each other’s closeness to God, the brighter that love burns. In fact, the word used to define this love here is caritas, which is Latin for “love”, “compassion”, “charity”. As a concept, caritas expresses an overall lenient and loving disposition towards those around you.
Dante, who is still thinking in human terms, still doesn’t get how a good distributed to a larger number of people can make each of them richer than if distributed to a few. Virgil does his best to restate the above, but eventually ends the explanation by telling Dante to ask Beatrice when he gets to heaven if he still doesn’t get it.
At this point, as if in response to Dante’s failure to “see” Virgil’s point, the latter begins to have a “sudden-seeing ecstasy”.
Without going too far into detail, Dante describes a three-part vision that reveals to him three different instances of gentleness.
The first one is a scene from the episode of Christ in the Temple, when while at the market with his parents, Jesus leaves them and sneaks into the temple where he starts discussing theology with the church elders. Dante sees the part when Mary bursts into the building and her relief at finding her son far exceeds the anger she felt at his disobedience.
The second scene reveals the wife of Pisistratus, the ruler of Athens, in the process of asking him to avenge their daughter. One day, when the girl was out and about, a boy who liked her kissed her in public, which the mother took as an affront and wanted him punished. But Pisistratus disagrees and says something along the lines of “what are we going to do to those who hate us if this (punishment) is what we do to those who love us?”
Now, line 101 does say something about a “rash embrace”, which suggests a relative lack of consent from the girl, but clearly, this is not a problem for the 13th-century reader.
The last example of gentleness is a crucifixion scene, in which Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, looks down on the Israelite crowd that crucified him for heresy and asks God to forgive them.
When he comes back from his trance-like state, Virgil tells Dante that his steps looked like those of a drunk man. Dante wants to explain why that was and what he saw, but Virgil reveals that actually, he can read Dante’s mind????
He says that actually, he was just commenting on his walk because he wanted Dante to speed up the pace lol.
At this point, Dante looks up and sees before them a rising cloud of smoke, dark as night and which “took from us our eyesight and pure air”.
What or who is on fire, we’ll find out next week.