The Divine Comedy: Purgatory, by Dante Alighieri
After Dante and Virgil complete their trip through the Inferno, they emerge into the light and begin their exploration of Purgatory. Purgatory is a place where the righteous repent of their sins before reaching Paradise. Throughout Purgatory, Dante is motivated by his love for Beatrice, and this often provides his only impetus for continuing onward. Purgatory is all about love. The seven levels of Purgatory represent 7 misguided loves, whereas the top of Mount Purgatory represents the greatest and purest form of love. In the first 3 terraces, the penitents love the wrong things. In the middle terrace (terrace 4), the penitents love too little. And in the last 3 terraces, the penitents love excessively.
The top of Mount Purgatory is where Beatrice resides. She represents the greatest love, which is untainted and pure. Dante’s love for Beatrice can be seen as symbolic for the divine love that we should have for God. Our love for Christ should be untainted and all-consumed by His beauty, just as Dante’s love is for Beatrice. Throughout Dante’s ascent through Purgatory, he meets contemporary penitents and experiences many Biblical symbols through sight and sound. This made it a very challenging poem for me to read. However, once I comprehended the verses, it was very enjoyable.
Before beginning his description of Purgatory, Dante again invokes the Muses to help his memory and poetry. When Dante and Virgil ascend from Hell into Purgatory, Dante notices 4 stars that nobody has ever seen before, and then he sees an old, white-bearded man who identifies himself at Cato. After instructing Virgil to cleanse Dante’s face, Cato grants them permission to enter the 7 levels of Purgatory.
Looking out upon the ocean, Dante sees a light. Virgil identifies the boat and light as an Angel from God. When the boat reaches the shore, it drops off a group of souls, all of whom are singing a psalm, and then immediately departs. The souls recognize that Dante is living.
While walking on the plain, approaching Mount Purgatory, Dante notices that he cannot see Virgil’s shadow. This prompts Virgil to explain that mankind cannot fully understand God, and that if we could, He would not have needed to send His Son to redeem us. Then, they meet a flock of souls. One of the souls, Manfred, explains that he was excommunicated from the church, and consequently, he needs to be cleansed at the base of the mountain for an extended period of time before he can ascend Purgatory.
Dante starts to climb up the mountain. Virgil explains that the start of the climb is the most tiresome and weary; towards the top, the climb gets easier. This implies that as sinners ascend Mount Purgatory, they repent of their sins, and their loads are lighter. Since they repent, they are carrying less weight, and climbing becomes easier. Dante meets Belacqua, who explains that he accepted Christ at the end of his life; therefore, he must wait at this location on the mountain until he can ascend further. He also explains that his journey can be accelerated by the prayers of the living righteous. In the previous Canto, Manfred said the same thing. If a saved soul on earth interceded on his behalf, then his time purging himself at the base of the mountain would be reduced. Prayer hastens their way to Paradise. This implies that prayers are heard and acted upon the by the Lord.
A group of souls is singing the Miserere, but they stop when they notice that Dante is a living body with a shadow. The souls here died violent deaths and were not able to repent of their sins before death. Therefore, they sing the Miserere to purge themselves of the sins that they could before they died. The Miserere is Psalm 51, one of the penitential Psalms, in which David cries out for the Lord’s forgiveness, “O Lord, have mercy on me.” In Catholicism, the other penitential Psalms are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143.
Virgil confirms that prayers can move heaven. They encounter a soul, Sordello, that hails from Italy. This spurs Dante into a long lament about Italy’s corruption.
Sordello is an admirer of Virgil’s poem. Sordello explains that Dante and Virgil cannot ascend Mount Purgatory in the darkness, and he directs to them to a valley of greenery and flowers where they can rest for the night. Here, there are some souls singing, “Salve Regina,” which means “Hail Holy Queen.” “Salve Regina” is an antiphon, a short line that is recited before or after a poem, that praises Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Two angels descend with swords that have no points. Sordello explains that the purpose of the angels is to protect Purgatory from the serpent. The serpent is not a threat in Purgatory. This is in contrast to Garden, in which the serpent was able to tempt Eve, and also in contrast to earth, where the serpent rules. During the night, three torches provide light.
This canto is filled with imagery and symbolism. In the talons of flaming golden eagle, Dante is brought to the entrance of Purgatory. Dante awakes from his dream when he feels himself scorched by the flames engulfing the eagle. When he awakes, Virgil explains that the angle, Lucia, carried him to the entrance of Purgatory. Ante-Purgatory ends here. Before the entrance of Purgatory, there are three steps, and angel, and a door. The first step is marble, and is like a mirror, so that Dante can see himself. This step is symbolic of seeing yourself and recognizing your sins. The second step is darker in color and cracked. It symbolizes that you see your brokenness and imperfections. The third step is porphyry, which is a red stone used in the Roman empire. Its bright red color symbolizes the blood that Jesus shed in order to cleanse us of our sins. At the top of the steps, Dante bows before the angel and asks to be admitted to Purgatory. The angel complies, but first uses his sword to inscribe the letter P seven times on Dante’s forehead. The seven Ps stand for the seven capital sins, which each occupy a level of Purgatory. In Italian, peccato means sin, and in Latin, peccatum means sin. Thus, P is an appropriate letter since this poem was originally written in Italian. To open the door, the angle uses a silver key and a gold key. When the door of Purgatory is opened, Dante is greeted with melodious singing of “Te Deum laudamus,” which means, “Thee O God, we praise.”
On the first level of Purgatory, Dante sees white marble sculpted with images of humility: the angel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary and David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. The first level of Purgatory is for Christians to seek repentance for the sin of pride. Christians on this level are burdened with carrying a heavy boulder on their backs. The weight of the stone represents the weight of their sin.
The prideful penitents recite the Lord’s Prayer, noting that they are praying for the people still on earth. Dante meets a few of the souls on this level.
On the floor, Dante notices more carvings. These carvings, located at the exit of the first level of Mount Purgatory, are examples of Biblical and mythical characters who succumbed to pride. On the floor, Dante sees Lucifer, who was thrust out of heaven because he thought he was greater than God, Briareus, who was one of the Hecatonchires in Greek mythology that had 100 arms and 50 heads, Nimrod, who build the Tower of Babel in an attempt to reach heaven, Saul, who disobeyed God by not killing the Amalekites, and many others. At each level of Purgatory, there is a symbol of the correct behavior at the entrance and a symbol of fallen behavior at the exit, all related to the level’s sin, which is pride in the first level. At the end, an angel removes one of the Ps from Dante’s forehead, and Dante remarks that the climb feels much easier.
Dante and Virgil enter the second level of Mount Purgatory, where souls seek repentance for the sin of envy. The souls here are leaning on one another for support, and they have their eyes wired shut. Blindness is an appropriate method for purging envy. For, we experience envy when we see what others have and desire for those things to be our own. By being blind, the souls in this level cannot see what have, and consequently they cannot be envious of what others have. One the souls notes that Dante is still living.
Two souls discuss the corruption of Italy. Their discussion reflects Dante’s political views. Then, they hear two voices cry out, exemplifying envy. The first cry is from Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, and the second cry is from Aglauros, who was turned to stone for being envious of her sister.
Dante leaves the second level of Purgatory and enters the third, losing one of the P’s on his forehead in the process. Leaving the level of envy, Virgil explains that if Dante’s attitudes were more eternally focused, then Dante would better understand charity and focus less on earthly things. Before entering the third level of Purgatory, Dante has visions of mercy triumphing over anger. The third level of Purgatory purges the sin of wrath. In the first vision, Dante sees Mary who restrains herself from reprimanding Jesus after they search for him for three days before finding him in the temple courts of Jerusalem with the teachers. This vision refers to Luke chapter 2. In the second vision, a father refuses to punish a boy who publicly kisses his daughter. In the third vision, a man is being stoned to death, but rather than being angry at his executioners, the man cries out to heaven to forgive his persecutors. These visions exemplify how to conquer wrath.
The third level of Purgatory is engulfed in smoke, which symbolizes the smoke that clouds one’s vision when he/she is engulfed by wrath. Therefore, penitents in this level cannot see because their vision is clouded. In this level, Dante hears the souls singing “Agnus Dei,” which means “Lamb of God.” Dante speaks to a soul who explains that heaven guides human actions, but each person has free will to decide precisely how he/she acts.
At the end of terrace 3, Dante sees three visions of wrath, including one of Haman being executed. In the Book of Esther, Haman hated the Jews, and in wrath, he tried to manipulate the King to kill them. These visions of wrath are in opposition to the first 3 visions of mercy that Dante sees at the beginning of terrace 3. Next, Virgil explains that all people are filled with two types of love – the first is natural love, which can never be distorted, but the second type of love can be perverted. The first 3 levels of Purgatory are examples of perverted love. Pride casts down one’s neighbor by elevating one’s own power, envy thinks that a neighbor’s power means less power for everyone else, and those who are wrathful are greedy for revenge, which causes harm to others. In the fourth terrace, the sin of sloth is purged, in which sinners lack initiative to pursue loving actions.
Virgil attempts to explain how love and free will work. When we see a real thing which strikes our fancy, it stirs a desire inside of us, and we have love for that thing. Virgil says that our loves are innate and stirred by the things that we see. Therefore, it is possible for our loves to be either good or bad based on what we see, but we have free will that enables us to act on certain loves and not on other loves. Virgil explains that he does not know all, but when they reach Beatrice in Paradise, she can explain further.
Dante sees a vision of Siren, who has a beautiful voice, but is ugly inside. The siren is an example of how we can love something that we see, even when that something is not good. A siren is a metaphor for temptation. One of the P’s is removed from Dante’s forehead, and then, Dante and Virgil ascend to the fifth terrace. On level 5 of Mount Purgatory, penitents are lying face down, purging themselves of avarice (greed). They lie face down, because they were captivated by earthly riches, that is, things of the earth which have no more value than dust. Therefore, the penitents are forced to lay in the dust and cast their sight upon its worthlessness.
Dante meets souls who struggled with avarice and worldly riches. The mountain trembles, and voices cry out, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” (Glory to God in the highest!)
Dante and Virgil meet Statius, a Roman poet who explains the mountain’s tremor. Mount Purgatory shakes with joy whenever a new soul is fully purged of its sin and free to choose heaven. After being freed from sin, however, the soul must choose to ascend the rest of the mountain towards heaven. Statius himself was just cleansed, and this was the cause of the tremor that Dante and Virgil experienced.
As Dante climbs with Statius and Virgil towards the sixth terrace, another P is erased from his forehead. Statius explains that he was stuck on level 5 for 500 years, serving penance for prodigality, which is punished in the same level as avarice. Statius also served time in the fourth level (sloth), because although he was a Christian, he hid his faith in fear of prosecution. Along the path, the three men see a lush apple tree. From within the tree’s foliage, a voice cried out with examples of temperance: Mary, Daniel, and John the Baptist.
Level 6 is for the gluttonous. Hence, they are tempted by the sweet fruit on the apple trees. On this level, the voices sing, “Labia mea, Domine” (Open my lips, Lord).
Dante sees another apple tree, and he meets some of the souls that inhabit the sixth terrace.
Dante, Virgil, and Statius ascend towards the seventh and final level of Mount Purgatory. At the edge of the seventh level, they see flames, and there are souls walking through the flames.
Like the penitents on the other levels, the penitents of the seventh terrace notice that Dante is living, and they inquire. Before responding, Dante is distracted by the souls in the fire. Level 7 is for the lustful. Dante sees two souls kiss and then separate. To exemplify homosexual lust, the souls shout, “Sodom and Gomorrah,” which were two Biblically sinful cities known for homosexuality. To exemplify bestial lust, the souls shout about Pasiphae, who became the mother of the Minotaur after having sex with a bull. And thirdly, one of the souls characterizes his own lust as, “hermaphrodite,” which typically means heterosexual love. The seventh level of heaven, which purges the sin of lust, is closest to heaven. Does that mean lust is the least atrocious sin to God? King David struggled with lust, and he was named “a man after God’s own heart,” so maybe the sin of lust is the least punishable of all the sins?
Before leaving the seventh level of Mount Purgatory, Dante and the other penitents must cross through a wall of fire. The fire is meant to cleanse and purify, not burn. Virgil encourages Dante through the fire by reminding Dante that his love, Beatrice, is waiting on the other side to guide him through Paradise. Dante, whenever his spirit is down, is encouraged by the promise of meeting Beatrice, a woman who he admired in real life from afar. As they approach the fire, an angel says the final Beatitude, “Beati mundo corde” (“Blessed are the pure of heart”). In this canto, Dante has another dream about Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s wives, who represent doing and seeing, respectively. Both activities, acting and observing, are important to obtain admittance into Paradise. Dante, Virgil, and Statius pass through the fire. However, on the other side, Virgil’s journey ends. Virgil cannot accompany Dante any further on his journey through Paradise.
Dante enters Earthly Paradise. He meets a woman who explains that Dante is in the Garden of Eden. It is appropriate that the Garden of Eden is located at the top of a mountain and inaccessible to the denizens on earth.
This canto is filled with symbolism. Although there are many possible interpretations, I like the interpretation that the images in this canto represent ways in which God manifests himself to humanity. Specifically, God manifests himself through his Son (Jesus), the Bible, and right ways of living. Thus, the scene that Dante sees helps transition from Purgatory to Paradise. The procession goes like this:
7 candlesticks that look like golden trees. These represent the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord
24 figures dressed in white, walking 2-by-2. Do these represent the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh)?
4 creatures, each with 6 wings. Dante tells the reader to read Ezekiel chapter 1 to get a fuller description of these creatures. They appeared in a vision to Ezekiel as well as in John’s vision in the book of Revelation
1 chariot drawn by a griffin. The griffin, which is half-lion and half-eagle, is a symbol of Christ, who is both human and divine. The chariot is Christ’s Church.
3 women on the chariot’s right, dressed in red, emerald, and white. These women represent the 3 theological virtues: faith, hope, and love
4 women on the chariot’s left, all dressed in purple. These women represent the 4 cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice
7 men with crowns of roses. 6 of them precede the most aged and tired 1. Do these men represent 7 books of the New Testament?
Dante finally meets Beatrice. She reprimands him for the sinful life that he led after she died. Dante is only permitted on this journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven because Beatrice petitioned God. Dante looks for his guide, Virgil, but he’s not there, and Dante is distraught. Beatrice tells him that separating from Virgil is the smaller of two pains. The second pain, which is significantly more severe, comes from Beatrice’s rebuke.
Beatrice again rebukes Dante for pursuing worldly things instead of the greater good, which is God, and she demands his repentance. Dante finally breaks down, cries, and admits his sin. Then, he is cleansed in the river Lethe. This cleansing is a baptism that erases his sins, and prepares him to enter Paradise.
Encouraged by the 7 virtues, Beatrice unveils her face so that Dante can see her beauty. Then, the procession proceeds to the Tree of Knowledge, which is bare. This is the tree that Adam and Eve ate from, consequently introducing sin into the world. When the chariot attaches to the tree, it flourishes again. However, the chariot gets attacked by an eagle, a fox, and a dragon. These animals represent the persecution of the church, and they symbolize Dante’s interpretation of the Apocalypse. After these animals attack the chariot, a whore and a giant appear. They embrace one another, but eventually the giant pummels the whore. These two characters might represent the beast and false prophet discussed in the Book of Revelation, which supports the interpretation that Dante is describing the Apocalypse. Eventually, the White Knight defeats the beast and the false prophet, just like the giant and the whore disappear into the woods.
Dante is cleansed in the river, Eunoe, which strengthens his remembrance of good deeds, just as the river, Lethe, purged the memories of his sins. Now, he is prepared to enter Heaven.