The glory of Dante’s ‘Paradiso’

Dante's "Paradiso," first circle of the 12 teachers of wisdom led by St. Thomas Aquinas. Giovanni di Paolo, 1442–circa 1450. Photo: Public Domain

It is not just Star Wars which works well in trilogies (depending on the trilogy, at least). Dante, not one to leave his readers waiting in purgatory, completes the Divine Comedy with an expedition through heaven. Having seen the damned wallowing in the Inferno and the penitent working their way toward salvation in Purgatory, Dante concludes his odyssey by meeting with the saved, both those saints proclaimed by the Church up to when he was alive, as well as those he sees as most certainly being saved, despite no official pronouncement.

It is a journey beyond the universe as Dante knew it, and while its cosmology might seem quaint or even foreign to our modern eyes, it is an invaluable tool for understanding the medieval scholar’s conception of where he stood in the world, as well as before God.

In the medieval Aristotelian cosmology which was familiar to Dante, the earth was the center of the universe. Sol (the sun), luna (the moon), and the planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were the only ones known at the time) each moved around the earth. These celestial bodies were each given their own crystal sphere, which through the element of ether moved the planets across the sky. These spheres did not touch one another, but overlapped. Beyond these moving spheres was the first cause, the unmoved mover of the triune Godhead familiar to anyone who has read St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways.

Medieval view of the universe. Photo: Public Domain

Through these spheres, Dante is led by Beatrice, his real-life love interest whom he admired from a distance. Virgil, our guide through Inferno and Purgatorio, is unable to enter heaven due to being unbaptized and Statius, while Dante asserts that his other poetic companion was secretly baptized, must still atone for his sins in purgatory. Beatrice, or at the very least Dante’s idealized version of her, instead serves as the virtuous paragon who will guide Dante through the realm of the saved.

This journey is begun in the sphere of the moon where are found those who made vows to God and despite their otherwise virtuous lives were unable to keep entirely faithful to them. In the second sphere, aligned with Mercury, are the rulers of men who, while virtuous and noble, did what they did for their own glorification and vanity, and lacked the humility to fully dedicate their efforts to God. Venus, the sphere of lovers, is the domain of lovers who led virtuous lives, but who struggled in overcoming their temptations of the flesh. These three spheres are still inhabited by the virtuous, but by those who were deficient in their virtue in some way.

The four spheres Dante visits thereafter are occupied by those who truly exemplified the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1805–1809).

In the sphere of the sun, Dante finds the many great philosophers and theologians whose wise prudence has helped Christians in their understanding of God. Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Peter Lombard, and even King Solomon are all found here, gifting Dante with their wisdom so that he might ascend to a higher sphere.

Dante and Beatrice speak to the teachers of wisdom Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Peter Lombard, and Sigier of Brabant in the sphere of the sun, Philipp Veit, 1817–1827. Photo: Public Domain

Embodying fortitude are the warriors of the faith found in the sphere of Mars, where Dante conveniently finds one of his crusader ancestors, Cacciaguida.

The most just of rulers are found in the sphere of Jupiter, where the pagan Emperor Trajan is glorified by Dante as having been a Christian, for it is more fitting to imagine such than to see such a magnificent ruler confined to the border between the mortal realm and the inferno.

More miraculously, God’s justice is such that a pagan who even lived before the coming of Jesus, Ripheus of Troy, is saved by a vision of Jesus in the midst of the Trojan War. While an amusing compromise by Dante to see such a just and glorious ruler find his reward in heaven, such a diversion also speaks to God’s mercy on those who, despite not knowing Christ, are truly righteous, a theme not commonly spoken of in Dante’s own time and still contested even post-Vatican II.

In the sphere of Saturn are found the contemplatives, the tempered and patient who dedicated their lives to understanding the divine.

Beyond the spheres which embody the cardinal virtues are found the stars which are fixed in the sky, per the Aristotelian conception, and likewise the Virgin Mary and the apostles who question Dante on his own virtue.

Upon being deemed worthy, Dante passes into and beyond the last sphere of the universe occupied by the ranks of angels, and so enters the Empyrean, the realm beyond the universe where God, the unmoved mover, dwells. Here the most pious of the saints and the Godhead dwell in beauty Dante cannot accurately describe, only able to convey that he has gained a new and profound understanding of God’s love for humanity to which his soul is now totally oriented.

Dante and Beatrice see God as a point of light surrounded by angels, Gustave Doré. Photo: Public Domain

Dante’s trip through the three possible fates of the human soul is an enduring one not only because of its beautiful writing and cunning imagery, but because it, like all great literature, speaks to a fundamental truth. If there were no Inferno or Purgatorio, there would be nothing to gain from Paradiso, as Dante would have learned little and so deserved little reward. But having witnessed the sufferings of the lost and the damned in hell and the struggles of the flawed but repentant in purgatory, Dante improves himself so that he is worthy to enter heaven.

Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy is akin to his own life, and likewise all of our own. We are not born to enter paradise, the stain of original sin assures this. Instead, we must persist through our lives, watching those around us in that same struggle succumb to their weaknesses and fall into the fires of temptation. Only through resisting the Deceiver, by our trust in God and faith in the Resurrection, do we stand a chance to escape the yawning chasm, to ascend the mountain and rise beyond the spheres to the glory God hopes for all of us, the glory made manifest through the Incarnation.

The three circles of the Trinity by John Flaxman, 1793. Photo: Public Domain

What Dante’s ‘Inferno’ can teach us about death and sin

Advent and Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’

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