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a divine vision
The canto opens with references to courtly (donna innamorata) and classical (nymph) poetry, however, it is deeply theological.
In the last 5 cantos of Purgatory, Dante embarks upon a theological argument that will make use of a lot of Scriptural imagery and motifs. In canto 29, he establishes the repertoire of allusions and images that he will be using, through a minute description of what he sees.
So what does he see?
Dante tells us that he and Matelda continue to walk along their respective riverbanks, like the mirror image of one another, until suddenly, a brilliant light illuminates the forest, like a lightning flash that never fades away. The light is quickly followed by sound, and Dante describes hearing the sweetest most uplifting melody, unlike anything human ears have ever heard.
Here he stops his description to make a small victim-blaming parenthesis against Eve. Dante feels that in eating the apple, Eve has robbed him of the pleasure to live eternally in this unearthly place. And here’s my parenthesis: it’s interesting that in discourse around humanity’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, it has become standard practice to point the finger at Eve as the person responsible. Eve was weak to trust the serpent, Eve was stupid to eat the apple, Eve was manipulative to give it to Adam - so the elders of the Church say. But I never understood why this argument (ostensibly popularised by men) expects a woman, traditionally believed to be second to man in all aspects, to be strong enough to go toe to toe with the literal Devil but we forgive Adam for being “seduced” by Eve…
Overwhelmed by the light and the song and what he starts to see unravel before his eyes, Dante does what any respectable poet would: he invokes the muses. More specifically, he invokes Urania, the muse of geometry and celestial things, thus marking the beginning of the third and final part of his work, in which he will be describing heaven.
As a sort of prelude to what he’s about to see in Paradiso, Dante is greeted by a procession that is undoubtedly divine in nature.
We’re told that seven golden trees appear on the horizon, which upon drawing closer, turn out to be seven tall candelabra. In his amazement, Dante turns to Virgil, who is utterly speechless. This is only a brief mention but an important one in driving home the idea that from this point onward Virgil is not only unsuitable to continue the journey due to his position as a pagan, but he is also useless as a mentor and guide.
Finally, here comes the procession. At first sight, the group of beings Dante describes looks like nothing more than a group of random, albeit odd people. What they actually are is an embodiment of the structure of the Scripture.
Dante says that once he arrives at a bend in the river where he is closest to the seven candelabra he stops, mesmerized by the streams of coloured light that the candelabra release across the sky. The reference to the seven streams of light is found in the book of Revelation, as well as Isaiah, where the prophet mentions seven representations of the spirit of God.
Behind the candelabra, there are 24 elders. They represent the 24 books of the Old Testament, through which God spoke to humans before the coming of Christ - the lilies on their heads are a symbol of faith that the redeemer is still to come.
Then come four winged animals, representing the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At this point, Dante addresses us directly to explain his inability to describe them more precisely but he does mention Ezekiel, who describes Mark as a lion, John as an eagle, Luke as an ox, and Matthew as a man.
In their midst, a gryphon draws a chariot. The gryphon was the mystic emblem of Christ, which encapsulated his double nature, human and divine.
Its head and wings are those of an eagle and they are all golden in colour, to symbolize nobility. The rest of its body is that of a lion, red and white in colour, which symbolizes Christ’s passion and purity respectively.
This is of course all conjecture - while the procession is made up of symbols that Dante takes from the Bible, the gryphon is his own invention, so we don’t know for sure what his intentions were in choosing this creature as a Christ figure.
Most scholars agree that the fact that he chose to make him half eagle, the symbol of imperial Rome, must be related to Dante’s political theory - especially considering that he then compares the image of the chariot to chariots used to celebrate the military triumphs of Rome.
But it’s hard to believe that Dante was too preoccupied with secular matters at this moment and, in fact, he is quick to observe that this chariot far exceeds in splendour any that has ever existed. If elsewhere the eagle is a symbol of the empire as justice, here we’re talking divine justice.
After the figure of Christ, we move to the era of the Holy Spirit, which descended upon humanity after the death of Christ and which takes the form of the seven theological and moral virtues. In the procession, they are represented by the seven women walking alongside the chariot, three on one side and four on the other. In the group of three, each woman has a different colour: white (representing Faith), red (Charity), and green (Hope).
On the other side, the remaining four moral virtues are wearing purple robes - purple being the colour of the Roman Empire (hence imperial purple). They are Courage, Justice, and Temperance, followed by Wisdom, who has a third eye.
Then there follow two groups of elders, which represent the scriptural books written in the early years of the Church. The first pair represents the Acts of the Apostles, written by Saint Luke, who was a doctor, hence the reference to Hippocrates, and the fourteen epistles of Saint Paul.
The next four “humble looks” are the four minor Epistles by James, Peter, John, and Jude.
Behind them, the last man in procession is a personification of Saint John’s Book of Revelation.
I wrote earlier that this canto offers us a list of all the biblical imagery that Dante will be using for the rest of Purgatorio. But that’s not the only interesting about it. First of all, it’s so visually and lyrically stunning. It’s also an impressive display of Dante’s knowledge and close reading of the Bible and other religious texts. But I think it’s also a message for us, the reader, about how he would like us to read his work. Look at the attention he gives to the way that the Bible is subdivided into 24 books of the Old Testament, the gospels of the evangelists, the minor epistles, etc. Check out all these numbers, he seems to say and pay attention to the numbers that my work is structured around. If only he knew how many people have fussed over it for the past seven centuries…