Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

Paradiso Cantos VIII-XIV

A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved

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Contents


Meditation LXXV: Paradiso Canto VIII

MedLXXV:1 The Sphere of Venus: Paradiso Canto VIII:1

Dante reminds us of the traditional association of the planet Venus with the ancient Goddess, and of her role as the deity of love in ancient times. Beatrice now rises with him into the third sphere of Venus, that of Charity, Pity and Love. Venus being in an inner orbit close to the Sun appears as a morning ‘star’ near sunrise, or an evening ‘star’ setting shortly after the sun. Dante recognises his presence in that sphere because of Beatrice’s increased beauty, and finds spirits manifested there, like sparks among flames, or voices among voices.

The spirits leave their circling, which derives from the highest of the three hierarchies of the nine orders of Angels, led by the Seraphim, and is imitated here in the lowest of the three hierarchies, led by the Principalities or Princedoms. The nine orders correspond to the nine spheres below the Empyrean, those of the planets, the stellar Heavens, and the Primum Mobile. As they advance the spirits sing the Hosanna, and the spirit of Charles Martel approaches and quotes Dante’s own opening line of the first canzone of the Convivio: ‘Voi che intendendo il terzo ciel movete: You who by understanding move the third circle’ Charles explains that the spirits are so filled with love that to give pleasure is also to receive it. This is the divine aspect of love that it increases by being mutually experienced, and that shared love is not a loss but an addition.

Dante receives permission from Beatrice and then asks who has spoken, with affection in his voice generated by this recognition of his own poetry in Heaven. The spirit is Charles Martel, who befriended Dante. Charles (1271-1295) was the eldest son of Charles II of Naples, and of Mary of Hungary the daughter of Stephen IV. Dante probably met him in March 1295 when he visited Florence, and was popular. He died in the August. He was married to Clemenz, or Clementina, the daughter of Emperor Rudolph of Hapsburg, and his line might have reconciled the Guelph and Ghibelline factions, but his early death quenched Dante’s hopes. His brother was Robert Duke of Calabria. His daughter Clemenza married Louis X of France. His wife Clemenz died in 1295 though Dante still appears to address her as living, in Canto IX. His son Caroberto became heir to Naples but was ousted by Robert, his uncle, in 1309 after the date of the Vision.

Dante then shows his geographical knowledge as Charles describes the regions over which he would have held power including Provence, of which the Angevin kings of Naples were Counts; Hungary of which he had already been crowned king in 1290 at Naples, holding it from his mother; and Sicily, which would already have been his had it not been for the Sicilian Vespers, in 1282, the rising in Palermo against the French that led to rule by the House of Aragon.

He then gives his brother Robert a prophetic warning. Robert and his brothers Louis and John were hostages in Spain after the release of their father Charles in 1288 (see the note on Charles II) until 1295. Robert was accompanied back to Italy by certain greedy Catalonian adventurers, whom he gave office to, when he succeeded to the throne of Naples, and their greed made them and him detested in Apulia. He was shipwrecked in 1301. Dante treats Robert as an example of meanness, though descended from a generous line (Dante gives no real evidence anywhere for this generosity.)

In this sphere Dante is dealing with love and its imperfections, one of which is excessive earthly love, and we can assume that Charles’ love for Clemenz was intense, just as Dante’s love for Charles was great.

MedLXXV:2 Heredity: Paradiso Canto VIII:85

Dante’s joy at the conversation is increased because he is aware that Charles is also aware of it, and is aware of it because it is divinely inspired. Charles’s comments allow Dante to ask a question regarding heredity (linked to the sexual act and therefore Venus), as to how a bad trait can emerge in a succeeding generation.

Charles explains that Divine providence structures and controls the creation in its nature and its continuing welfare. This is achieved through the angelic intellects present in the planetary spheres. Since God and they are perfect then the results must be regular and not chaotic, art and not disorder. Dante expresses his belief in the completeness of this created Nature.

Charles now links in an argument of Aristotle’s that human society requires varied conditions and qualifications amongst its members. In the Politics he shows that the individual is not self-sufficient but a part of a whole, and a State is a group of citizens providing all the necessary variety for a complete life. Functions and duties are distributed so that the State can be self-sufficient where the individual is not. Charles gives examples of diverse skills: lawgiver, soldier, priest, and inventor. Esau differs from his brother Jacob, and Romulus the god came from a humble background. Divine Providence is the force that creates dissimilarity between offspring, and between parent and offspring. The world drives people into roles not suited to them, and Dante’s recognition of individuality but love of order suggests it would be best for individuals to realise their inborn qualities (an interesting forerunner to the nature-nurture argument) in society, which would then be organised in the optimum way.


Meditation LXXVI: Paradiso Canto IX

MedLXXVI:1 Cunizza’s Prophecy: Paradiso Canto IX:1

Charles Martel’s final prophecies slide away into discreet silence as Dante rhetorically addresses Charles’s dead or living wife Clemenz. Then another spirit flares brightly and Dante interrogates it. This is the soul of Cunizza da Romano, sister of the infamous Ezzolino whose mother dreamed she had given birth to a firebrand that scorched the land. Cunizza was born in the castle of Romano, between Venice and the sources of the Brenta and Piave. Famous for her love affairs, she had four husbands and many paramours, of whom Sordello was one. In 1265 (when she was about 67 years old) and the last survivor of her father’s family, in the house of Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti she executed a deed of manumission liberating her father’s serfs. She died in Florence in 1279 or 1280. Dante suggests here she was a penitent. Her brother Ezzellino III da Romano, the tyrant (1194-1259), lord of Verona, Vicenza and Padua, called ‘the son of the devil’, was imperial vicar under Frederick II. Pope Alexander IV declared a crusade against him, and he was defeated at Cassano on the Adda, and subsequently died. He was the head of the Ghibellines in Northern Italy. Dante came across him in the seventh circle of the Inferno among the other tyrants.

Cunizza admits her excessive earthy love, but is satisfied with her state. With her is Folco, or Folcetto, a troubadour, a Genoese by origin, born at Marseilles shortly before 1160. A famous lover he became a Cistercian monk and was made Bishop of Toulouse in 1205. He was a friend of Saint Dominic, and persecuted the Albigensian heretics till his death in 1231. Cunizza prophesies his lasting fame, presumably for the heretic persecutions of the Albigensian Crusade, that sorry chapter in the history of the Papacy.

She continues with a prediction of Paduan disaster at Vicenza, probably that, in and about 1314, at the hands of Can Grande. Then of the murder of Riccardo da Camino, son of the ‘good Gerard’ of Purgatorio XVI. Gerard was Captain-General of Treviso from 1283 till his death in 1306 when Riccardo, who was the brother of Gaia, and husband of Giovanna Visconti, succeeded him, to be treacherously murdered at Treviso where the rivers Sile and Cagnano meet, in 1312. Finally Cunizza prophesies the treachery of Alessandra Novello Bishop of Feltre, who in 1314 surrendered certain Ghibelline gentlemen of Ferrara, in his protection, to Pino della Tosa, who then governed Ferrara as vicar of King Robert, by whom they were killed. (Her reference to Malta is to the tower near Padua where Ezzelino held his prisoners, or the Papal prison for criminal priests, sited either at Viterbo, or on the Lake of Bolsena.).

Having delivered herself of these prophecies related to Can Grande’s territories round Verona, and possibly written by Dante around 1316 when Can Grande offered him his protection, Cunizza falls silent. Before doing so she makes a reference to the third Order of Angels, that of Thrones, who signify the Power of God, manifested through the Angels and drawing them towards Him. They are the mirrors of his judgments, and also represent his steadfastness. Joy is connected with the Seraphim: trust in God’s power with the Thrones.

MedLXXVI:2 Folco of Marseilles: Paradiso Canto IX:67

Folco shines like a bright ruby, red with the flames of love, and Dante explains that the outward appearance of the spirits is bright in Paradise and dark in Hell, since the outer reveals the inner state of mind: namely joy in the Paradiso, sadness in the Inferno. Dante asks why Folco does not mirror Dante’s own desire and speak to him.

Folco explains his origins. Marseilles is on the same meridian as Bougia in Algeria. At Gibraltar where the Mediterranean runs out of the Atlantic the sun is on the horizon when it is noon in the Levant, so the Mediterranean makes zenith at its eastern end of what was horizon at its western end. i.e. it extends over a quadrant. Julius Caesar’s fleet won a victory over the Pompeians near Marseilles in 49BC. He quotes three examples of intense love from the ancient world, Dido, Phyllis and Hercules.

Folco asserts that the spirits are beyond the state of repentance, and thoughts of their sins, and dwell on the power that made the order of the universe, beautifying it with its Art, and on the goodness that allows the earthly world to return to the spiritual.

Here too, interestingly, is Rahab the prostitute of Jericho who helped Joshua’s spies. They in turn swore to save her and her family (‘our life for yours’). She was told to fasten a scarlet thread to her window so that she and her family could be identified at the taking of the city. She was converted to the Israelite cause, and became a symbol of the Church, the scarlet cord signifying the blood of Christ, and the two spies the two Testaments. (See Joshua ii and vi 23-25.) Dante uses the examples of Folco and Rahab to assert that their faith or conversion and support for the cause (however dubious we might consider their actions, religious persecution in Folco’s case, treachery towards Jericho in Rahab’s) redeemed their past lives of excessive dependence on earthly love and sexuality, and placed them in Heaven. Rahab is particularly exalted, as the first ‘convert’ to the Jewish God, so elevated by Christ, and a symbol of the victory of the Crucifixion, despite having been a prostitute, and of another nation.

The mention of Rahab allows Dante, through Folco, a diatribe against Florentine usury and worldliness, along with Boniface’s corruption of the Papacy, and his indifference to the aim of the Crusades.


Meditation LXXVII: Paradiso Canto X

MedLXXVII:1 The Sun’s Sphere: Paradiso Canto X:1

Dante urges the reader to gaze with him at the order of the universe, in mind and space, and the art of the Maker, while invoking the Trinity as composed of the primal Power, the Son, and the Holy Spirit or breath of Love. The reader’s eyes will see that creation which the eyes of the Creator never leave. The Spring equinoctial point where the Ecliptic meets the Celestial Equator is the point where the sun rises, in Aries, in the Vision. Dante treats the band of the ecliptic that the paths of the sun and the other ‘planets’ appear to follow against the fixed stars, as necessarily tilted (at 23.5deg, since the axis of the earth is so tilted relative to the plane of its orbit round the sun), so that the sun and planets have varying influences throughout the year (by creating the seasonal changes and the varying declinations of the planets in the sky). This is Divinely ordained as an aspect of the order and art of the Universe.

The Sun measures time, and rises earlier and more northerly each day from mid-winter to mid-summer and later and more southerly each day from mid-winter to mid-summer, so that it appears to travel on a continuous spiral through the sky during the year. Beatrice has led Dante, in a timeless moment, to the sphere of the sun while he was unaware of it. He cannot express the increased brightness through intellect, art or knowledge, but it can be a subject of faith and hope. Beatrice urges Dante to show his gratitude for the ascent, and in doing so Dante momentarily forgets Beatrice and goes beyond her, as adoration of the divine goes beyond divine philosophy, and Beatrice smiles with laughing eyes, her smile being a symbol of the theological virtues and of faith, her eyes of the cardinal virtues and reason. Faith and intellect are one.

It is the first sphere of the cardinal virtues, that of the Sun and Prudence, that Dante and Beatrice have reached. Prudentia is practical wisdom, appropriate to the sphere of the sun that brings life to the earth, and here the spirits are manifested who reconciled spiritual and earthly wisdom, pagan and Christian learning and history, and celebrated, explained and directed the virtuous Christian life on earth. The Sun’s is a sphere of light, creation and wisdom.

With a beautiful descriptive passage Dante introduces the coronet of twelve living lights (like the months of the solar year, the hours of the clock) dancing and singing around himself and Beatrice, like a halo round the moon (implying a moon goddess identity for Beatrice). The lights circle them three times like stars round the pole then rest like ladies from a dance. The voice of Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian, now satisfies Dante’s craving to know who they all are. We can take it that Dante is also introducing his own prime sources of theological knowledge among them, many of whom tackled the hard truths of Christianity, those requiring subtle philosophical argument from a position of faith. Aquinas stands at the threshold of deeper knowledge as Dante leaves the lower spheres reached by Earth’s shadow, and enters the sphere of the Sun. He may in a sense also reflect a movement from the first three liberal arts, the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic), to the succeeding four of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music)of the medieval schools, in that he bridges the gap between the tools of knowledge, and the realities of wisdom: between the speech and argument of philosophy, and the mathematical dance and singing of the higher spheres.

Aquinas sought to achieve a synthesis between Aristotelian philosophy and Christian thought, reconciling the philosophical method and ancient learning with the truths of spiritual revelation. The ‘Angelic Doctor’ of theology, and medieval philosopher (c1225-1274), he was the pupil of Albertus Magnus, Albertus of Cologne (1193-1280), the ‘Universal Doctor’. The two Dominicans ‘christianised’ Aristotle adapting his philosophy and making him a treasury of pagan learning. Aquinas completed the work in Summa contra Gentiles, and Summa Theologica. A man of sweetness and holiness he was canonized in 1323, two years after Dante’s death, and influenced Dante greatly.

Gratian is there, the Italian Benedictine monk who brought ecclesiastical and civil law into harmony with each other. His Decretum was the first systematic treatise on Canon Law. And Peter Lombard (c1100-1160) an Augustinian, known as ‘the Master of the Sentences’ who wrote his four books on God, the Creation, Redemption, and the Sacraments and Last Things, as the chief summary of medieval theology before Aquinas, who commented on it. In the prologue he speaks of himself as ‘desiring with the poor widow (Luke xxi 1-4) to cast something out of our poverty into the treasury of the Lord.’

Next is Solomon, the fifth light, The King of Israel, son of David and Bathsheba, so wise, before Christianity, that there was a debate, here resolved, as to whether as a Jew he was damned or saved. See First Kings iii 12. He was unequalled in earthly wisdom, that of ‘the understanding heart’, and chose as his gift from God, practical Wisdom. (See First Kings iii 5-15.). The sixth is Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint Paul’s convert on Mars’s hill, see Acts xvii, to whom the mystical sixth century writings of the pseudo-Dionysius were ascribed, especially one on the Celestial Hierarchy, which were possibly composed in the fifth or sixth century. Dionysius was supposed to have learned of the hierarchies and other matters from Saint Paul, who had seen them when rapt up into the third heaven. Paulus Orosius is next, an early fifth century writer, whose Historia adversus Paganos was an apologetic treatise written at the suggestion of Augustine to show that Christianity had not ruined the Empire, as Pagans contended.

The eighth is that major influence on Dante, Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boëthius (c475-525), Roman consul and philosopher who was condemned to death by Theodoric, at Pavia. He wrote the Consolation of Philosophy while in prison, defending the virtuous life and justifying the ways of God. He stressed philosophical truth, and the earthly life, rather than revelation and the afterlife, and though a Pagan with Christian connections was accepted as a Christian teacher. He argued the timelessness of God’s view of existence, and the validity of Human Freewill. Cieldauro (Golden Ceiling) is St. Peter’s Church in Pavia where he was buried. Since his opponents were Arian heretics, he is claimed as a Catholic martyr.

Isidore of Seville (c560-636) author of the Cyclopaedia, the main Medieval Encylopedia, follows, with Bede (c673-735) the English Ecclesiastical historian who died in Jarrow, and Richard of Saint Victor the Augustinian mystic (died 1173), and friend of Saint Bernard, who wrote a treatise called De Contemplatione.

Strangely perhaps Sigier (or Siger) of Brabant (d. c. 1283) is here also, a professor in the University of Paris, where the ‘straw-littered’ Rue du Fouarre ran close to the river in the Latin Quarter, and was the centre of the Arts Schools at Paris. He disputed with the mendicant orders, and Aquinas was one of his opponents, so that Dante’s thought is reflected back from Sigier onto Aquinas himself. He was ultimately driven from his University chair, and assassinated, or executed, at the papal Court at Orvieto. Sigier was the most famous Averroist thinker in late thirteenth century Paris, arguing non-Christian interpretations of Aristotle. Dante presumably admired his syllogistic method, rather than all of his conclusions. Placing him last in the circle, effectively juxtaposes him with Aquinas who is first, and so reconciles the two opponents. Sigier while putting forward Averroist arguments, including those concerning the nature of the soul, and determinism which Aquinas and Dante specifically refute, nevertheless suggested the inferiority of philosophical argument to faith, where they were irreconcilable. Dante is keen to promote reconciliation in this sphere of practical wisdom, and it may be this ‘simplistic’ aspect of Sigier’s thought he is stressing.

Like a clock striking the hour of Matins, when the Church rises and sings to Christ, the wheel of the twelve spirits now revolves sweetly and harmoniously around Dante the pilgrim and Beatrice, Divine Philosophy. So the regular ordered measure of theological truth and practical wisdom, of the harmonious Church and its Orders, circles around the revelatory and divine grace of Beatrice. (The iconography here mirrors that of Revelation 12:1, of the woman crowned with twelve stars). God’s Universe moves to the harmony of mathematics, and the regularity of the solar cycle. All is order at this level, far from the chaos of politics, the city, and human destructiveness.


Meditation LXXVIII: Paradiso Canto XI

MedLXXVIII:1 Dominic and Francis: Paradiso Canto XI:1

Above the distractions of the world Dante’s thoughts are understood by Aquinas, and he highlights two questions in Dante’s mind that follow from his previous speech.

Aquinas first identifies Dominic and Francis the founders of the two great mendicant Orders, as the guides of the Church, exemplars of the practical wisdom needed to wed religion to human life. Francis associated with love, and the Seraphim, Dominic with wisdom, and the Cherubim. And Aquinas the great Dominican now praises Francis, as Bonaventura, the great Franciscan, will shortly praise Dominic. Dante is setting the two Orders together, uniting them, their objective being the same. It is vital to Dante’s purpose in the whole Commedia that his political, spiritual and personal histories should meet in one vision of the harmonious plan of God’s world. His politics must be justified by his religion, his personal life by his spiritual understanding.

MedLXXVIII:2 The Life of Saint Francis: Paradiso Canto XI:43

Aquinas tells us about Francis’s life. Giovanni, later Francesco, of Assisi (c1182-1226) was the Founder of the Order of Friars Minor or Franciscans. (They wore a brown or grey habit, with three knots in the girdle representing the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.) Francis was the son of a wool and cloth merchant, Bernadone Moriconi. His birthplace, Assisi, lies between the Rivers Tupino and Chiascio that rise in the mountains near Gubbio, where St Ubaldo (Bishop of Gubbio 1160) chose a hermitage. Ascesi an old form of Assisi may be translated ‘I have ascended’ and Francis was often compared to the rising Sun, making this sphere of the Sun particularly appropriate to him.

His love of ‘Lady Poverty’ is a spiritual equivalent to Dante’s initial courtly love of Beatrice, and there is a sense in which Dante wishes to transfer that spirituality to Beatrice as he transforms her from a representative of the erotic tradition to that of the divine. Dante may well have been deeply involved with the Franciscan schools and order during his lifetime. He certainly was inspired by its fervour and passion, and its worldly simplicity. As Aquinas stresses, it was Francis who embraced the life naked of possessions that Christ inspired, in a manner closest to the original. It was Francis who transferred the attitudes and language of love to a purely spiritual and ideal ‘lady’. Here was a source of Dante’s inspiration for the later idealised figure of Beatrice.

Francis renounced his possessions before the Bishop, of Assisi in the presence of his father Pietra Bernadone. He gathered disciples. Aquinas mentions Bernard of Quintavalle, Egidius and Sylvester. The popular stories told of him are the Fioretti.

The Franciscan Rule was approved by Pope Innocent III in 1210 and confirmed by Honorius III in 1223. In 1219 Francis went to the East to try and convert the Sultan, a journey from which he returned unsuccessful. Christ gave him the third confirmation of his work in 1224 on the ‘hard rock’ of La Verna where he received the stigmata, the five wounds of the Passion. He died at Assisi on October 4th 1226, stretched naked on the ground in the arms of ‘his dearest lady’ Poverty.

Aquinas then reminds Dante how great Dominic must be to equal Francis’s spirituality, and attacks the contemporary state of the Dominican Order, the sheep who have strayed into strange pastures.


Meditation LXXIX: Paradiso Canto XII

MedLXXIX:1 Bonaventura: Paradiso Canto XII:1

A second circle of lights now turns with the first, harmonised with it, with a singing beyond the earthly. In a complex nested simile, Dante compares the twin coronet to a double rainbow, the one echoing the other, like the bow of Noah’s covenant. The two circles fall still together, as eyes open and close together. The twenty-four lights now echo the twenty-four elders representing the Old Testament who preceded the chariot of the Church in the Divine Pageant, as the two coronets of the mendicant Orders echo the wheels of that chariot. Dante now hears the voice of Bonaventura from the new circle.

Giovanni Fidanza, the Franciscan ‘Seraphic Doctor’ Saint Bonaventura (1221-1274) was born at Bagnoregio near Bolsena. He was a friend and colleague of Thomas Aquinas, and Minister-General of the Franciscan Order from 1256. He wrote the official life of Saint Francis, and shortly before his death was made a Cardinal and Bishop of Albano by Pope Gregory X. Bonaventura worked against extremism in the Order, and was noted for his humility, piety and learning.

He now tells the story of Saint Dominic, to complement Aquinas’s life of Francis. Saint Dominic (Guzman) (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, called Dominican or Black Friars. He was born at Calahorra in Spain of noble parentage. His mother Giovanna Guzman dreamed before his birth that she was whelping a dog with a burning torch in his mouth that would set the world on fire. His godmother had a dream in which she saw a star on his forehead illuminating the earth. He founded the Order at of Dominicans or Friars Preachers at Toulouse in 1215. As a young man he became a canon and preached against heresy. He was active among the Albigensians, trying to convert by persuasion, as Simon de Montfort was perpetrating his massacres. He preached throughout Europe and stimulated the study of theology in the universities, dying in Bologna in 1221. Dante stresses his labours on behalf of the Church, and his efforts to combat heresy, the civil war within the Church.

Bonaventura then echoes Aquinas by criticising the state of his own Franciscan Order and its extremism, singling out Ubertino da Casale (1259-1338) leader of the Spirituals, the party of strict observance within the Franciscan Order, and at the other extreme Matteo d’Acquasparta, one of Boniface’s cardinals, Minister-General of the Franciscan Order from 1287, who relaxed the observances, and as Papal Legate interfered in the affairs of Florence in 1300-1301, with disastrous consequences.

Bonaventura then names the other lights in the second circle, Illuminato Bishop of Assisi in 1282 who joined the Franciscan Order in 1210 and accompanied Francis on his mission to the Soldan, and Friar Agostino who also entered the Order in 1210, and died on the same day as Francis after a vision of Francis ascending into Paradise. They are followed by Hugh of Saint Victor (c1097-1141), one of the great mystics of the Abbey of Saint Victor at Paris. It was the centre of conservative learning as opposed to the scholastic Aristotelian learning of the progressives. He was the master of Peter the Lombard and Richard of Saint Victor.

Then we have Pietro Mangiadore or Petrus Comestor, ‘Peter the Eater of Books’ (d. 1179) who wrote the Historia Scholastica, a History of the Church from Genesis to Acts, paraphrasing the Scriptures. He too belonged to the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris, and became Chancellor of the University of Paris in 1164. Next is Pietro Ispano or Petrus Hispanus who succeeded Adrian V for a few months, and was killed in 1277, in the fall of the Papal Palace at Viterbo. He wrote a much-used treatise on Logic in twelve books. The well-known Memoria Technica verses, Barbara Celarent etc, are derived from it.

Nathan follows who denounced David’s sins (See Second Samuel xii.), and then John Chrysostom, or Golden Mouth (c 344-407) that Archbishop of Constantinople, of fearless eloquence, who denounced the vices of the Court and was persecuted and exiled by the Empress Eudoxia. Ninth and tenth are Aelius Donatus who wrote an elementary Latin Grammar in the fourth century, and Rabanus, Bishop of Mayence (c766-856) who compiled a cyclopaedia De Universo in twenty-two books, and was in favour of orthodoxy to the point of unwitting heresy. He was a Benedictine and pupil of Alcuin, and wrote voluminously, summarising ninth century learning. Dante, through Bonaventura, is again emphasising practical wisdom, but also the more radical Franciscan criticism of the established Church and Papacy, which explains the addition of Joachim of Flora, or Fiore, in Calabria (c1130-1202), a Cistercian monk, who founded a monastery there. He claimed to have the power to interpret the prophetic books of the Bible with special reference to the History of the Church. A new dispensation (of the Holy Spirit, after the Father’s, and the Son’s), the third epoch, was at hand, he said, of perfect love and spiritual freedom. This was known as the Eternal Gospel. The spiritual party among the Franciscans seized on it, and Fra Gherardo da Borgo San Donnino (Gerardua) wrote an Introduction to the Eternal Gospel condemned as heresy in 1256. Bonaventura in fact helped to suppress the Joachists. Dante nevertheless places Joachim alongside Bonaventura in the circle, both as an indication of the reconciliation he is asserting in this sphere, and also giving approval to the purer radical strain in Franciscan thought, with its prophetic interpretations, which influenced his own Apocryphal and revelatory pre-disposition. Dante is endorsing the prophetic and the radical inasmuch as it interprets the human mission correctly, and leads back to that supreme order on earth and in heaven.

It is easy, at about this point in the Paradiso, as the theological content unfolds, of losing sight of Dante’s fundamental subject matter, which is still the ethical journey of individual spirituality. Having investigated sin and its purgation, Dante is now revealing the way, which leads via the seven cardinal and theological virtues, to God. ‘And the greatest of these is Love’. Intellect is in the service of that Love, and while Dante uses theology, though without being an innovative theologian, and while he is still concerned to hold out for his perfected Empire and Papacy, his ultimate aim is now the Vision of the Universe filled with Love. The Poet is the mouthpiece of that Vision, and the poem is his attempt to bear witness to it. Its power is not generated only by its artistic poetic craftsmanship, but by its depth of seriousness, its profound feeling, and its sincerity. Dante is speaking about what can be spoken of, religion and its meaning, and the paths of right action, in order to move towards what cannot be spoken of, the mystical Vision, which is love filled with intellect, and mind filled with love.


Meditation LXXX: Paradiso Canto XIII

MedLXXX:1 Aquinas on Solomon: Paradiso Canto XIII:1

In a complex simile, utilising among others the stars of Ursa Major and Minor, and Ariadne’s constellation the Corona Borealis (the myth implying marriage with a god, and therefore the wedding of these spirits to God), Dante asks us to envisage this dance of the double crown of stars, in which the twenty-four spirits sing the Trinity, and the twofold nature of Christ. Aquinas then begins to answer Dante’s second question concerning the merits of Solomon. Since Adam and Christ received the full measure of human possibility within them, how can the fifth light here, Solomon, be held up as an unparalleled example of wisdom?

Aquinas first gives another version of the Neo-platonic structure of creation. All things, mortal and immortal, are created by the flow of Love and Light in the Empyrean, focused downwards through the nine moving heavens, until it engenders transient life forms on Earth. Nature is variable because the heavenly spheres vary their state, and therefore human beings vary in their qualities. Nature is like a creative artist, always acting imperfectly. However Adam and Christ were created perfect. Aquinas now clarifies that it is Solomon in the role of king whom he has declared superior among kings, because he chose ‘royal prudence, worldly wisdom’ as the greatest gift, and not knowledge of religion, logic, philosophy, or mathematics.

Aquinas then warns against false deductions, and intellectual pride, and quotes examples from Aristotle of philosophers, Parmenides, Melissus, and Bryson who reasoned falsely, and examples of two opposing heresies, that of Sabellius, who denied the separate persons of God and his son Christ though they are unified in essence, and of Arius who denied the essential unity of God and his Son though they differ in person. Both were guilty of error. He adds examples of practical wisdom, that one should wait until the end before judging: bad may end in good like the rose tree, good may end in bad like the ship’s course, and God’s justice is not Man’s.


Meditation LXXXI: Paradiso Canto XIV

MedLXXXI:1 The Resurrection: Paradiso Canto XIV:1

Beatrice’s voice is heard, in response to Aquinas, like a wave travelling outwards in water in a rounded dish, issuing from the centre to the circle of spirits. The circling spirits intensify their light and singing at her words, exalting the Trinity, and Solomon speaks from the inner circle (implying that the outer circle belongs to Bonaventura and the Franciscan paradigm, that is the circle nearer, though only slightly, to God, which reflects Dante’s own primary source of inspiration in Franciscan radicalism and the purer nature of its vision. The inner circle belongs to Aquinas and the Dominican Order with its closer involvement in worldly activity).

Solomon gives us a vision of the Resurrection, where the bright flesh will penetrate the spirits’ existing spiritual brightness making them complete, and will increase in power, increasing in turn their ability to see God and their ardour. The desire for the flesh is the desire for complete identity, eternal individuality, and an aspect of the love that is invested in what is unique, and what is beloved. Dante not only expresses this love of the individual in his poem that stresses individuals from all ages, brought together in the contemporaneousness of the afterlife, which he derived from the Classics and the Testaments with their stories of individual lives in history and myth, but he helped to feed that love of individuality forward into the Renaissance, where we see a continuing and conscious striving for originality and the creative definition of the self.

MedLXXXI:2 The Sphere of Mars: Paradiso Canto XIV:67

Dante half-sees the vision of a third circle of the Holy Spirit forming in the extreme brightness, and completing a symbol of the Trinity, flashing out then so that his eyes cannot withstand it, while Beatrice appears with too great a beauty for him to remember the sight. The initial dimness and then brightness of the third circle indicates the philosophical vagueness of the Holy Spirit (while the Father is essence, and the Son manifestation), but its intense religious reality as the Inspirer (one with the Creator and Redeemer). It therefore connects with the Joachist doctrine of the third epoch, which is indeed that of the kingdom or dispensation of the Holy Spirit.

Dante and Beatrice are now drawn upwards into the sphere of the planet Mars, that signifies the cardinal virtue of Fortitude. The red planet carries traditional associations of blood and war in myth and astrology, here of the Church Militant and of the Crucifixion. Dante prays to God at this sign of grace, and two blood-red rays form the sign of the Cross inside the circle of the planet, just as the Milky Way gleams between the poles of the heavens, raising questions as to its origin (Dante discusses this in the Convivio). A vision of Christ on the Cross is revealed, white within the redness, and beyond Dante’s powers of description. Like dust motes in a ray of light, spirits move along the arms and upright of the image, and they sing a hymn which is beyond Dante’s understanding but contains the words ‘Rise and conquer’. The spirits are those of the warriors of God, those who fought for the Chosen People of the old law, or Christ’s Church in the new.

Dante is totally absorbed in this vision, more so than any previous sight. In case this seems a slight on Beatrice’s beauty manifested in her eyes, he tells us that he has not yet looked at her in this sphere, and they will be more beautiful than before when he does so. Gazing at her is a pure joy that grows purer as they ascend.