Dante – Purgatorio/Purgatory from the Divine Comedy, 7-9

Canto 7

  • Sordello asked who they were. Virgil told him who he was. He’d not been able to go to Heaven because he had no faith. The soul dropped to his knees & bowed his head. He was clearly in awe of the Romans & their fame. Then he asked why they were there, if he was really from Hell & which part of it.
    • Virgil answered they had wandered through every part of Hell. He’d been sent by Heaven. It wasn’t by what he’d done that he was stuck in Hell but what he hadn’t done. To meet the Christian God, Sordello was looking to meet, he’d already died before the life of Christ. He lived in a part where the souls weren’t tormented but just living in eternal sighs. There were the unbaptized & those who didn’t have the 3 Holy Virtues – Faith, Hope & Charity, but didn’t live in sin. They knew the other virtues & followed them.
      • Virgil wanted to know if Sordello knew how to get to Purgatory’s true beginning. Sordello said he, as a late repentant, wasn’t bound to stay anywhere in particular. He would guide them as far as he could but since the day was dying, they’d have to stop. They couldn’t travel at night. He wanted to bring them over to some souls to meet & discuss things.
      • Virgil questioned why they couldn’t carry on at night. Was someone there to stop them? Or would they get lost? Sordello said no one would stop them but the gloom of the night weakened one’s will. In fact, one might even lose the progress already made without the light of the sun.
  • Sordello told them to take a look at the people down in the valley before speaking to anyone.
    • One man looking down at the people singing in the valley was Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph. He’d had the power to heal Italy’s wounds but was too preoccupied to do anything. Also there was Ottocar of Bohemia, Philip III of France, Henry III of England, Pedro of Aragon, Charles of Anjou & many others.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • The Rule of the Mountain: Throughout the Purgatory, the Sun is frequently taken as the symbol of God. Allegorically therefore the meaning of the Rule of the Mountain, which prevents all ascent between sunset & sunrise, is that no progress can be made in the penitent life without the illumination of Divine Grace. When this is withheld, the soul can only mark time, if it does not lose ground, while waiting patiently for the renewal of the light. Nights in Purgatory thus correspond to those periods of spiritual darkness the newly-converted.
  • The Late-Repentant: (3) The Preoccupied. The 3rd class of the Late-Repentant is compose of those who neglected their spiritual duties through too much preoccupation with worldly cares. They occupy the highest & most beautiful place upon the 2nd Terrace, because their concern was, after all, for others rather than for others rather than for themselves. As with the other inhabitants of Ante-Purgatory, the taint or habit of their former sin still clings to them: they continue to discuss & worry about the affairs of the family or the nation. As we learn from Paradise 17, Dante in his vision is shown only the most striking & illustrious representatives in each category; but we need not doubt that he would place in this class not only kings & statesmen, but also humbler examples of the Pre-occupied, such as anxious parents, busy organizers, & others who are so “rushed off their feet” that they forget to say their prayers. In his Convivio, Dante speaks with sympathy of “the domestic & civic cares by which the greater number of people are quite properly absorbed, so that they have no leisure for speculation.”

Canto 8

  • The day was winding down & Dante stopped listening to Sordello & started watching a man guiding others in a prayer & a hymn. They sang while staring out into the Heavens expectantly. 2 Angels came down with swords in hand. Each one landed on opposites of the crowd. Their faces were glowing.
    • Sordello explained the Angels had been sent by Mary in response to a hymn sung to her. They were meant to guard the valley from a serpent. Both Virgil & Dante were worried at the mention of a snake. Sordell invited them to go down & speak to the souls.
    • Dante had only taken 3 steps before he recognized Nino Ugolin (the one whose uncle, Count Ugolin, had betrayed him). Nino asked him how long he’d been dead & in Pre-Purgatory. Dante told him he’d only left Hell that morning & he wasn’t dead yet. Both Nino & Sordello were taken aback. Nino called down Conrad Malaspina to come & look at what great thing God had done.
    • Nino asked Dante to go to his daughter Giovanna & ask her to pray for him. His wife didn’t love him anymore since he’d finished mourning. He thought she was fickle in love. It would have been better his daughter’s honor if her mother had died a widow than to remarry.
      • Dante was distracted by the fact that the stars he’d seen early that morning were gone & others were in the sky. Virgil told him the 4 stars (Cardinal Virtues) were hidden behind the mountain & the other 3 stars (Holy Virtues) came out at night.
      • Just then Sordello spotted the snake they’d all been worried about. The Angels swooped down to attack & the snake ran off. The Angels returned to their posts.
    • Malaspina wished him luck on his way up & asked if Dante could stop by his family’s place & tell them what had become of him. He was no longer called by his title & their family name was just something they hung onto out of vanity.
      • Dante said he’d never stepped foot in his neck of the woods but of course everybody in Europe knew his name. Dante made a promise to do as asked. Conrad told him he had a feeling Dante would know his region very well soon.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • The Serpent & the Angels: The intrusion of the Serpent “such as gave Eve the bitter fruit, maybe”, into this Eden-like valley naturally raises the question whether, in the literal story, the souls in Ante-Purgatory are still liable to temptation & sin. It would appear that they are – not in the conscious will, which in the hour of death was firmly set towards God – but in the subconscious, the region of dreams, which is not yet subject to the will, so that a special intervention of Divine Grace is needed to protect it from assault. (The souls in Purgatory Proper are definitely beyond the reach of sin).
    • The green robes of the Angels are the color of Hope – specifically the hope of salvation. Their fiery swords remind us of the flaming sword of Genesis 3:24, set at the gate of Eden after the expulsion of Adam & Eve; but these are blunted at the point: “salvation, in these souls, is now working out the reversal of the Fall” (JD Sinclair). The blunted points are usually taken to signify Mercy as opposed to Judgment; but it is, perhaps, rather that the contest with the Serpent is now hardly more than a fencing bout: the creature needs only to be routed & not slain, for sin “has retreated to its last stronghold” (JS Carroll), & is reduced to a mere fantasy, which can only trouble & not corrupt.
      In its allegorical application – i.e. to the experience of the soul in this world – the episode may perhaps be taken to mean that so long as the will truly intends penitence & amendment, the Christian need not, & should not, be unduly troubled about the involuntary aberrations of the unconscious, but should simply commend the matter to God, in the confident assurance that it will be taken care of.

    The Three Stars: These typify the Theological Virtues (or Graces): Faith, Hope & Charity.

Canto 9

  • The moon came out among the stars between 8 & 9 p.m. Dante, feeling the fatigue from the day, fell asleep on the grass. About an hour before dawn, Dante had a dream:
    • In his dream, he saw a gold-feathered eagle with its wings spread out as if it was going to swoop down on him. Dante thought of Ganymede attacked by an eagle by Zeus to take him off to Mount Ida. Dante thought he ought to move away. Then the eagle came down towards him like a bolt of lightning & pulled him up into the sky.
    • Dante woke up as terrified as Achilles would have been waking up on the island of Scyros with Chiron (the centaur in Hell, 12) to keep him out of the Trojan War. Dante was drained from the dream.
    • Virgil was next to him when he woke up. He explained what had happened in the middle of the night. They had reached Purgatory. There was a winding path spiraling up the side of the mountain. Virgil pointed at the gate. A lady, St. Lucy, had come up to Dante, telling Virgil that she would carry him up to the gate to continue his journey. All the others they’d spent the evening with were back in the valley.
      • Virgil had followed Lucy. She set Dante down & showed Virgil where to continue the next day.
  • Dante was still out of it trying to make sense of it all. They saw a small crack in the rock they passed through. It emptied into an opening where there was a gate. There was a porter standing there holding a sword. 3 different colored steps in front of the gate.
    • The porter asked what Dante wanted, where his escort was. He warned him not to enter if it would harm him. Virgil answered that a lady came down from Heaven & told them where the gate was & to go to it quickly.
    • The porter responded positively & asked them to approach the steps. The first step was made of white marble polished like a mirror. The 2nd step was black, rugged & cracked. The 3rd step was blood red.
    • The Angel door man was standing on an adamantine threshold. Virgil led him up the steps & told him to ask the nice man to unlock the door/gate.
      • Dante fell at the angel’s feet & prayed for mercy’s sake to be let in. He beat on his chest 3 times. The angel wrote on Dante’s forehead Ps 7 times with the point of a sword. He said the wounds would wash off in Purgatory. Then the angel took out 2 keys, 1 gold, 1 silver. He said if either one of the keys didn’t turn, the gate wouldn’t open.
      • One key was costlier & the other needed good stock & wit to turn it. Peter had given him these keys telling him to be more likely to pass them out than to hold them back.
      • He opened the gate, pushing the doors. He warned Dante he’d go back outside if he looked behind him once he’d entered. The lock turned with a rusty screech. As the doors opened, he though he’d heard singing.

Notes According to Dorothy Sayers

  • Dante’s Dream of the Eagle – This is the first of three dreams which Dante has, on the three nights he spends in Purgatory. All three symbolize & interpret something which is occurring or about to occur. On this occasion he dreams that he is walking, like Ganymede, upon Mount Ida, &, like Ganymede, is caught up to heaven by an eagle. The dream is induced by a reality (Dante’s dream-psychology is always plausible): he has actually been carried up the face of the Mountain by St. Lucy, & this movement both induces & fulfills the dream which symbolizes it.


  • Ganymede – was the son of Tros, ancestor of Aeneas & mythical founder of Troy. Enamored of his beauty, Jove sent the divine eagle to fetch him one day as he was hunting with his friends upon Mount Ida, overlooking Troy, & Ganymede was carried away to Olympus to become cupbearer to the gods. The legend thus provides 2 threads of symbolism: 1- Primarily, it is a story in which God takes the initiative, moved by love for a human being, & carries the beloved away to be with himself. (We need not let any prejudices about Olympian morality interfere with our, or Dante’s, allegorizing of the myths.) 2- Secondly, throughout the Comedy, the eagle always symbolizes the true Empire &, in particular, the Justice of the Empire – a concept which we shall see fully elaborated in the Paradiso, in the Heaven of Jupiter. To this true Empire (“The Rome where Christ himself is a Roman”) the souls of men are brought by the purgatorial path, which is the fulfilling of Justice. Ganymede the Trojan, of the line that founded Rome, is thus the type of human society, taken up into the City of God, here & hereafter.


  • Lucy – St. Lucy, it will be, was the second of the “Three Blessed Ladies” who interested themselves in Dante’s welfare. It was she who was sent by the Blessed Virgin to call Beatrice’s attention to Dante’s peril in the Dark Wood. As the sain who looks after people’s eyesight, she figures as a symbol of illuminating grace, & is thus fitly typified in the dream by the eagle which can, traditionally, bear to look on the sun with naked eyes.
    In the allegory, the intervention of Lucy means, I think, that in entering actively upon the way of Penitence & Purgation the soul is dependant upon God’s grace. It is too great a leap for it to make by its natural light & natural powers, though these will, of course, accompany & assist it. Thus Lucy is sent from Heaven to carry Dante up, & Virgil only “comes behind”.


  • The Three Steps – These are the three parts of Penitence: 1- Confession, 2- Contrition, & 3- Satisfaction. The first is of white marble: the penitent looks into his heart, sees himself as he is, recognizes his sinfulness, & so admits & confesses it. The second is black, the color of mourning, & cracked in the figure of the cross: “A broken & contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise” (Psalms 51). The third is of porphyry redder than blood: the color symbolizes not only the penitent’s pouring out his own life & love in restitution for sin, but also the Blood of Christ’s “oblation of himself once offered, to be a full, perfect & sufficient sacrificem oblation & satisfaction for the sins of the whole world” (Book of Common Prayer), with which the penitent’s satisfaction must unite itself in order to be complete.


  • The Threshold – of adamant is the foundation of which the Church is built: in her human aspect, the Rock which is Peter; in her Divine aspect, the Cornerstone which is Christ.


  • The Angel at the Gate – He is usually taken as representing the ideal confessor, or the ideal Priesthood, & so, in the immediate context, he is; but in a wider sense he might be called, I think, the Angel of the Church. He wears the ashen garments of penitence, not only because the good confessor must himself be a penitent, but because the Church, so long as she sojourns in Time, must sojourn in sorrow & tribulation; he bears “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God”; & he is invested with the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, which were given to Peter as the Church’s authority to bind, or unloose the bonds of sin. The Gate itself is the “Peter’s Gate” mentioned in Hell, 1: & we may note that the soul which is within the Gate & set on the Way of Purgation is already within “the Kingdom of Heaven”.


  • The Seven Ps – “P” stands for peccatum = sun; thus the Seven Ps represent the Seven Capital Sins which must be purged successively on the Seven Cornices of Purgatory. They “are signs of the conviction of sin, the new sense that sin is a ‘wound’ which is wrought in [the penitent] by the sword of the word” (JD Sinclair).


  • The Keys – These are the 2 parts of absolution: The Golden Key is the Divine authority given to the Church to remit sin; it is “the costlier” because it was bought at the price of God’s Passion & Death. The Silver Key is the unloosening of the hard entanglement of sin in the human heart: & this needs great skill on the part of the Church & her priesthood when administering the sacrament of Penance. Both keys must function smoothly for a valid absolution: the use of the golden key without the silver lands you exactly where it landed Guido da Montefeltro (Hell, 27): the silver without the golden (i.e. remorse for sin without seeking reconciliation) leads only to despair & the Gorgon at the Gates of Dis (Hell, 9).


Author: knowit68

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