Advent and Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’

Detail, "Allegorical Portrait of Dante" by an unknown artist, late 16th century. Photo: Public Domain

While Inferno remains the most famous part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, the poems’ two subsequent parts, Purgatorio and Paradiso are necessary for understanding Inferno in its entirety. Much like understanding only one part of the Holy Trinity leaves one with an incomplete understanding of God, so too leaving two-thirds of Dante’s magnum opus unread is an injustice against literature.

To this end, with the season of Advent on the mind, it was only fitting to turn to Dante’s second installment, Purgatorio, to more properly get in the mood for this season of penance and preparation for a fast-approaching Christmas.

“Allegorical Portrait of Dante” by an unknown artist, late 16th century. Photo: Public Domain

Purgatorio opens immediately following Dante’s exit from Inferno, still guided by the Roman poet Virgil as they emerge from the underworld near a mysterious island in the Southern Hemisphere. An angel of God at the helm of a ferry, much like the mythical Charon in Inferno, sails the two poets across the sea to the island of purgatory, where upon its shores, grasping at the very faintest opportunity at salvation, Dante finds the excommunicate and those who chose far too late to attempt repentance for their sins.

While baptized and at one point among the faithful, their great errors and unwillingness to atone for turning their back on God until the very last moment has left them with the chance for redemption, but only after scaling the entirety of the mountainous island of purgatory. The sacrifices they had failed to make in their mortal lives will be made up for in a new struggle in the next.

Dante finds the excommunicate and those who chose far too late to attempt repentance for their sins.

As Dante is led to enter purgatory proper, the angel guarding the gates brandishes seven Ps upon his head which are rubbed away by each successive angel protecting the gates of each level of purgatory. In this way, Dante’s journey up the mountain of purgatory is his own process of purgation in anticipation of his entrance to heaven.

Much as it was in Inferno, upon Dante’s entrance to purgatory proper he is to witness the tribulations facing those weak to the seven deadly sins. Yet unlike those condemned to the punishments of the underworld, those in purgatory were not so given over to sin that it consumed the entirety of their being. Rather, those climbing up the mountainous island are those who, while not malevolent in their actions, were motivated to goodness through either selfishness or through a misplaced, excessive love of that which is good to the extent that it leads one down the path of sin.

In keeping with tradition, pride is considered the worst of all sins, and so those who allowed their pride to control them are found at the first, steepest level of purgatory. Here, those driven by their pride carry large stones on their backs with their faces able to see little more than the ground. All that is there to aid them are statues embodying the virtue of humility and its corresponding vice, so that those on this level might learn through the depictions of others what they themselves lacked.

Those who allowed their pride to control them are found at the first, steepest level of purgatory.

This theme of the penitent learning to embrace the virtue which is the opposite of their vice carries on through the rest of Purgatorio. The envious are denied the ability to see and must rely on their ability to listen to others, while the wrathful wander around in a smoke reminiscent of the clouding effects of anger. The slothful are meanwhile endlessly dedicated to keeping busy, spiritual lethargy repaid with physical exertion.

The top three terraces of the mountain, dedicated to those who loved good things to excess, are for those whose greed, gluttony, and lust all motivated their actions for better and worse. Through these sections Dante and Virgil are accompanied by Statius, another poet from antiquity who Dante believes (in the absence of hard evidence) was a convert to Christianity in the first century A.D.

Much how these manner of sinner are found at the top of the Inferno, their sins are the most forgivable. They lacked the temperance to keep their desires for natural goods in check, and allowed their actions to be driven by the need to acquire greater fortune, food, and flesh.

“Dante, led by Virgil, Consoles the Souls of the Envious” by Hippolyte Flandrin, 1835. Photo: Public Domain

At last, passing through the terraces of purgation, Dante has the last of the Ps wiped from his forehead as he reaches the Garden of Eden where he meets the woman Beatrice, Dante’s real-life love interest and idealized, virtuous woman in the Divine Comedy. She will be Dante’s guide in the third and last installment of work, Paradiso.

While the Inferno enchants through its vivid depictions of eternal torment, consigning the most wretched of history’s actors to their rightful place, Purgatorio provides the natural middle ground between eternal separation from God and dwelling within his kingdom in Paradiso.

While many religions have their afterlife of either punishment or luxury, Catholicism (and to a lesser degree Orthodoxy) make an important distinction that many will die neither a paragon of virtue nor a sinner totally unrepentant of their life. Much as in this life where we struggle to find virtue in spite of our tendency toward sin, those in purgatory had wanted to atone for their misdeeds, but had done so either too late or with insincerity.

Purgatorio may at times seem a more tame version of Inferno, but that is in many ways the point. It is, if anything, an optimistic work, one which does not dwell on the suffering of the malevolent, but on the hopes of the penitent. The desire, even when confronted by one’s own weaknesses, to rise above sin and to seek out God, is what permits the souls of sinners the chance for their redemption in purgatory. Dante’s ascent up the mountain is his own purgation of the soul, preparing him to enter heaven.

As we climb our mortal mountains during this season of Advent in anticipation of the approaching birth of the world’s redeemer, let us be wary not to lose our footing in the ascent.

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