On the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) there are several initiatives taking place around the world to celebrate this great medieval poet. Among them, Pope Francis wrote an Apostolic Letter to celebrate Dante as “prophet of hope and poet of mercy”. The magnitude of Dante’s significance for Western civilization is too extensive to be properly handled in a short article and would deserve specific expertise that I have only in part. Here the focus will be to sample Dante’s relationship with the Bible in the Comedy – his most known work – and to see how the Bible shapes its overall theological orientation. As Dante was led by Virgil (through the Inferno and Purgatory) and by Beatrice (through Paradise), in my journey I will be led by Giuseppe Ledda, La Bibbia di Dante (2015), since on my own I would get lost in the “dark forest” given the complexity of the task. Of course, the theological evaluations will be mine.
Where to start talking about the influence of the Bible on Dante? Perhaps making reference to numbers. There are about a thousand references to the Bible present in the Comedy. Sometimes they are direct quotations from the Latin Vulgate or in vernacular translations provided by Dante himself, other times they are allusions to characters or episodes of the biblical story intertwined in the events of the poem. The Bible is pervasively present and is one of the texts from which Dante drew constant inspiration. Scripture is a constitutive element of his religious imagery.
1. Bible Reminiscences at the Beginning of the Comedy
The beginning of the Comedy is universally known: “When half way through the journey of our life”. Dante immediately recalls a biblical text such as Psalm 90:10. The fact that he does not speak only of his (Dante’s) life but of “our life” (of all humanity) is connected to the verse of Psalm of Moses according to which “the years of our life are seventy”. For this reason, scholars believe that Dante was 35 years old when he wrote the Comedy. The point is that in calculating the duration of life Dante uses a biblical parameter: 70 years. Furthermore, the first verses of Inferno speak of life as a “path”. That of the journey is a biblical metaphor to describe life. Dante uses it to talk about his life and that of all humanity.
Beyond these indirect references, in the incipit there is a clear allusion, almost a reworking, of Isaiah 38:10 in which King Hezekiah, after being healed, writes: “In the middle of my days I must depart”. As Hezekiah escaped death by being allowed to continue living, so Dante passes through a “forest dark”, but comes out of it when he finds himself in front of an illuminated hill.
Dante had lost the “the path which led aright”. Within the metaphor of the journey, the “path” has very strong resonances in the Old Testament (e.g. the path of the righteous: Psalm 1) and in the New Testament (Jesus as the only way, John 14:6). In the first verses Dante acknowledges that he has lost his way and that he has gone into a dark forest, in sin and backsliding.
Arriving in front of the illuminated hill (Inferno I,16-18), he looks up, echoing Psalm 121:1, which says, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come?”. The gesture of looking up is the beginning of a change in the midst of a trial. Looking up, man can find the light of God to get out of the darkness of sin.
Starting the climb up the hill, Dante’s journey is interrupted by the presence of three ferocious animals: a leopard, a lion and a wolf (I,31-54). For the poet they are representations of evil that obstruct the path and try to prevent it. Although not in the same order, they are the same animals found in Jeremiah 5:6. Dante attributes to these animals a symbolic meaning of deadly sins, but the imagery from which the animal representation is drawn comes from the Bible.
Obstructed by the fairs, Dante rolls down and sees a figure with indistinct outlines to whom he asks for help with the words, “Have pity on me” (I,65). The reader of the Bible immediately recognizes the quotation from Psalm 51:1: “Have mercy on me, O God”, the most famous penitential psalm of the collection. It is the cry of the sinner who, in contrition and repentance, invokes divine mercy to be forgiven. Dante will repeat the same quotation from Psalm 51 in Paradise XXXII, 10-12. David, who exclaims that request for help from the Lord, becomes for Dante a model of a repentant sinner to inspire him on his journey as a penitent sinner.
As can be seen from these hints, from the first verses of the Comedy, it is clear that Dante’s imagination is significantly shaped by biblical elements. Whether or not his overall vision is biblical is another matter: certainly it is steeped in direct and indirect references to the Bible, but this is not in itself a guarantee that his poem reflects a biblically oriented journey. Its biblical references are mediated by a medieval theology and spirituality which, although rich in biblical ideas, is at the same time marked by other points of reference far from Scripture.
2. Biblical Themes and Imagery in the Inferno
The Comedy is a journey into the realms of the afterlife. Dante imagines the world beyond death and, to do so, draws on classical and biblical sources in an original mix of settings and encounters. His journey starts from Hell (Inferno) which is a biblically attested space even if he imagines it as a chasm in the shape of an inverted cone, a shape that has no biblical origin.
In the first canto of Inferno, Virgil explains to Dante that, having come out of the dark forest, one cannot climb the hill of happiness except by taking another path through the kingdoms of the afterlife. It was forbidden to human beings, except for Aeneas (in the Aeneid) and Paul (according to an interpretation of 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, which in reality does not speak of hell but of heaven). In this double inspiration (classical and biblical) we find the sources of Dante’s thought: on the one hand the classical graeco-roman heritage, on the other the biblical one interpreted according to the canons of medieval Christianity. Dante does not feel worthy to retrace the footsteps of these great characters of the past and objects by saying: “I’m not Aeneas, nor yet Paul am” (Inferno II,32). In the perplexity of his ability to face the journey, Dante echoes the doubt that Moses had when he said to God: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Exodus 3:11).
Dante’s Inferno is preceded by “limbo”, a place not attested in the canonical gospels, but in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. In this place that is neither hellish nor heavenly, he meets the virtuous non-Christians who lived before Christianity. There he finds a string of biblical characters from the Old Testament: Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Jacob and others. Here Dante, while showing great familiarity with the biblical text, differs substantially from the Bible which instead considers these believers before Christ as belonging to the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12) and therefore destined for Paradise. A sacramental interpretation of baptism as necessary for salvation (and which these Old Testament believers had not received) makes Dante think that the saints of the Old Testamentare are not truly saved. This theology is outside of biblical teaching and is within medieval Roman Catholicism.
Entering Hell, Dante shows off a poetic imagination imbued with many biblical elements. At canto XIX he meets the “simoniacs”, churchmen who take their name from Simon the magician who wanted to buy the power of God with money (Acts 8:20-21). The simoniacal church is seen by Dante as fornicating with kings (XIX,108) evoking the image of the “harlot” of Revelation 17:1-8. The poet shows that he is imbued with Roman Catholicism in his theological vision, but is at the same time very “free” to criticize the ecclesiastical institution which he sees as guilty of serious compromises.
Continuing on his journey to Hell, Dante meets other biblical characters, such as Caiafa (XXIII,109-126), the high priest who condemned Jesus. At canto XXXIV there is Lucifer holding Judas – the traitor of Jesus – in his mouth. The pains that Dante assigns to each person is a parody of his sin, and their execution makes use of the technique of retaliation: what they caused in life with their sins, they now receive in return in their infernal existence.
Summing up, the punishment of hell seems to be a retribution for the evil works committed in life and is proportionated to the gravity of the same. When Dante speaks of divine grace, he associates it with sacramental grace and dilutes it in a view of the Christian life still encrusted with a work-based gospel. Far away is the biblical gospel of grace received by Christ alone by faith alone, which was preached by the apostolic church and which would be fully rediscovered by the Protestant Reformation three centuries after Dante.
3. What Does Purgatory Have to Do With the Bible?
The second canticle of the Comedy is Purgatory. Through Dante’s poetry this place (which is the fruit of the Roman Catholic religious imagination) has taken on a universally recognized literary guise. Purgatory is a child of medieval theology that broke off from the biblical vision of the afterlife, which added a state to that of the blessing of heaven for believers and the reprobation of hell for non-believers, and adapted it to the need to have an “intermediate” place between Hell and Heaven. For the historian Jacques Le Goff, Dante’s Purgatory is a “middle way placed at an unequal distance between the two extremes, which extends towards Paradise” (The Birth of Purgatory, 1986; Italian edition: La nascita del Purgatorio, Torino: Einaudi, 1982, p. 401).
In the prevailing conception of the Middle Ages (and which Dante makes his own in the Comedy), salvation is not a gift that is received by faith alone according to the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. Salvation for Dante is a path of continuous purification which, once earthly life is ended, continues in Purgatory and then finally reaches its completion in Paradise. Except for the saints (the heroes of the faith), for the “normal” Christians salvation is always “incomplete”. As the readers of the Bible know, the gospel of Jesus Christ gives the believer a certainty which is not the fruit of personal arrogance, but the result of the completeness of the Savior’s work received by faith. Evidently, with his vision of Purgatory, Dante does not know the benefits of justification by faith based solely on the work of Christ alone: for this reason he must provide for an otherworldly “middle ground” through which Christians pass in order to be purified. For Dante, salvation is a mountain to be climbed from below with a view to progressive sanctification, not a divine declaration on the penitent sinner which clothes him with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
One of the biblical metaphors that Dante uses in Purgatory to describe the Christian life is that of the exodus: life is a slavery from which one is liberated through a journey of purification. To underline the parallel between life and the exodus, it is no coincidence that the souls destined for Purgatory sing Psalm 114:1, “When Israel went out from Egypt” (Purgatory II,46-48), evoking the idea that it is a journey back to God by us pilgrims (II,63). Again, Dante mixes biblical elements with themes and trajectories present in medieval Christianity. They are more dependent on the theology of the time based on a conception of salvation by works and through penance than on the biblical message centered on the perfect righteousness of Christ freely given to the believing sinner.
Dante’s Purgatory has a mountain shape divided into seven terraces. In each of them the souls are purged of one of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. Only after they are purified will they be admitted to heaven. In this path of purification, in addition to abandoning vices, souls will have to embrace the Christian virtues that Dante identifies in the beatitudes contained in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12): humility, merciful love, meekness, diligence, detachment from earthly goods, temperance and chastity. For Dante, each of these Christian virtues finds its supreme realization in Mary. The evangelical episodes of her life are considered illustrations of Mary’s virtues that souls must learn. Mary is “humbler and loftier than any creature” (Paradise XXXIII,2). Also in this case, in line with the Roman Catholic Mariology of the Middle Ages, Mary is considered “more than a creature”, endowed with the highest level of Christian virtues and the model par excellence of Christian life. It is true that Dante also recalls other biblical characters such as, for example, King David (humility), Stephen (meekness), Daniel and John the Baptist (temperance). However, Mary surpasses everyone in that she eminently embodies the virtues/beatitudes that Jesus Christ proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount. Even in this pervasive Mariology, Dante is more of a spiritual and cultural child of his time than a believer whose faith is shaped by the Bible.
4. The (Un)Biblical Paradise
After crossing the seven terraces of Purgatory, Dante and Virgil arrive in the earthly Paradise, which is located on the top of the mountain of Purgatory. Here Virgil, who has been the guide up to now, disappears, and Beatrice appears. She will accompany Dante on the remaining journey. Beatrice reflects divine beauty and is full of Christological reminiscences, a sort of alter Christus (i.e. another Christ). She personifies the love that saves and encourages the poet to penance. In fact, in order to proceed Dante must undergo a further purification rite to become worthy to ascend to heaven. In the procession in which Dante takes part, he refers to elements of the books of Revelation and Ezekiel, as well as being inspired by the story of the transfiguration in which the apostles taste an anticipation of the glory of Christ and are somehow overwhelmed by it.
Entering Paradise, Dante still refers to classical and biblical motifs, in this case from the poet Ovid and from the apostle Paul. In particular, it is Paul’s abduction to third heaven that serves as a model for Dante. The intertwining of pagan and Judeo-Christian literature provides for the poet the categories within which he “sees”, “feels” and experiences Paradise. Dante’s poetics were born at the confluence of these currents (classical and biblical). He blended them together with his literary genius in the context of his medieval theological vision.
Arriving at the sky of the stars, Dante meets Peter, James and John who examine him respectively on the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love. Once again, Dante must demonstrate that he knows and possesses these virtues. In heaven one is not welcomed for the merits of Christ on the basis of the imputation to the sinner of His virtues received by faith alone, but, in line with Roman Catholic theology, on the basis of a journey of sanctification that passes through successive stages in which one must demonstrate something infused and grown in himself. The canticle of Paradise is imbued with biblical references and Christian ideas, but the theological framework is not evangelical. Salvation is a mountain to climb and a state to deserve, not a confident response of faith to a gift already accomplished by Jesus Christ. In Dante sanctification effectively swallows and in the end cancels justification.
Towards the end of Paradise, Dante reaches a peak of Marian devotion, further demonstrating the profound but spurious character of the biblical influence on his poem. Mary is defined as “the face which to the Christ is most resemblant” (XXXII,85-86). The climax is a Marian prayer placed in the mouth of Bernard of Clairvaux (a Father of the medieval church much loved by Dante) which opens with the famous verses, “O Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son, humbler and loftier than any creature” (XXXIII,1-2). The vision of Mary is followed by that of God, the unitary principle that gives meaning to the chaos of the universe, the divine Triunity and a special mention of the Son who is seen in the image of a human being. A sort of trinitarian architecture is also witnessed in Dante’s choice to write in triplets, to write three canticles, each of which is composed of thirty-three chants, which also evoke the years of the life of Jesus Christ (even if Inferno, in reality, has an extra song that serves as a preface to the Comedy).
To the vision of God at the end of Paradise, language is placed in front of its limits and Dante concludes by referring to theology as “high imagining”, a lofty knowledge that cannot but resort to poetry in the face of the unspeakable. Compared to contemporary scholastic trends aimed at rationalizing or intellectualizing the discourse on God, Dante presents a poetic theology in which truth and beauty, proclaimed and experienced, go together.
The Comedy is a masterpiece that, in its extraordinary richness and complexity, reflects a culture mixed with those ingredients that made Italian culture in particular what it is: ingeniously absorbed by a religiosity that mixes the Bible and pagan culture, artistically interwoven into a spirituality that does not understand the gospel as a gift from God received by faith alone, strongly attracted to the figure of the “mother” (Mary) and the “woman” (Beatrice) in whom to look for love. It is this comedy that, from Dante onwards, is the canvas of Italian life.