Meditations on the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri
Paradiso Cantos XV-XXI
A. S. Kline © Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved
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- Meditation LXXXII: Paradiso Canto XV
- Meditation LXXXIII: Paradiso Canto XVI
- Meditation LXXXIV: Paradiso Canto XVII
- Meditation LXXXV: Paradiso Canto XVIII
- Meditation LXXXVI: Paradiso Canto XIX
- Meditation LXXXVII: Paradiso Canto XX
- Meditation LXXXVIII: Paradiso Canto XXI
Meditation LXXXII: Paradiso Canto XV
MedLXXXII:1 Cacciaguida: Paradiso Canto XV:1
Silence falls, by grace of the double circle of spirits, enabling Dante to direct his inward prayer towards them. Those people who deny themselves this paradise of love for the sake of transient things should mourn, he says.
Dante now turns in this Canto from the religious and spiritual thread of the previous sphere of the Sun, towards the personal. A spirit flashes like a meteorite from the right of the Cross to its base and on towards them. It is the soul of his ancestor Cacciaguida, who comes forward to speak to him like Anchises, Aeneas’s father, in Virgil’s epic. The comparison is significant. Anchises is remembered in all three Cantiche, though in Purgatory it is by a reference to his words concerning the funeral of Ascanius (Iulus), in that loveliest passage of all Virgil’s writings, one filled with his strange strong sweetness. Book VI of the Aeneid was a vital sourcebook for Dante’s poem, and at the beginning of Inferno II it is Aeneas Dante thinks of as a fore-runner, a man who himself crossed to the Underworld. Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise, and Cacciaguida here, both stand in the same relationship to Dante as Anchises to Aeneas at the end of Aeneid Book VI. With love, they reveal things to him, they kindle his imagination with a passion for the glory to be, they clarify and confirm his mission, and they prophesy the future. By the reference to Aeneas the history and destiny of Troy and Rome is tied to Christian history, all part of a single Divine unfolding. And Dante himself becomes heir to Aeneas and Paul, the gate of heaven to be twice-opened to him, now in life and afterwards in death, which is Cacciaguida’s subtle prophecy.
Dante turns towards Beatrice, and there is the flare now of light that accompanies that marvellous image. Her smile in her eyes, the loving Beatrice, the theological within the cardinal virtues, the beauty of divine truth and grace, overpowers him, until he touches as he thinks lo fondo, the limit and end and profoundest depth of his grace and his Paradiso. Is this beyond the erotic, and wholly spiritual? Or is it charged with the erotic? Why should not those who believe in the Resurrection in the flesh be filled still with the power of beauty on seeing the beloved, even in Heaven? Does not the erotic go beyond the physical to encompass the intellectual, the emotional, the full content of mind and spirit, or rather it embraces body, soul and mind, not as a hierarchy, but as a Oneness, a Trinity. Far from denying the physical, the erotic, beauty and its visual charge, Dante’s triumph is to surround and infuse that love with supreme love, so that he does not go beyond Beatrice, leave her behind, in the final moments of Vision, he gazes with her at the Love that transcends, that empowers, that fills the Universe. And so here, the Medieval Mind, more ready than ours to see body as an appendage to spirit and not the other way round, and therefore less troubled by the reality of the incarnate intellect, is content with the living symbol, the word made flesh, Beatrice as both woman and intellectual ideal.
Cacciaguida, his profound speech at first beyond Dante’s understanding (this should be compared with Nimrod’s mention in the three Cantiche, the speech of Babel cannot be understood because it has been corrupted. Here the lack of understanding is because language has been elevated beyond mortal comprehension) now expresses his love and joy at seeing his descendant Dante, whose thought and desire to know who he is plain to him, without Dante speaking. He tells Dante to speak though so that he can hear his voice and fulfil his own desire, another confirmation of the desire for the physical in the spiritual. Dante replies that for the spirits who see God and His perfection, intellect is equal to emotion and can express it, but for Dante expression falls short of desire. He now asks Cacciaguida to reveal his name.
MedLXXXII:2 Cacciaguida’s Life: Paradiso Canto XV:37
Cacciaguida now explains that Dante is a leaf of that family tree of which he is a root. Dante’s great-great-grandfather, whose son was Alighiero I, and who having died, according to Dante, some hundred or so years before (but may have been still alive in 1201) had been in Purgatory in the first terrace of Pride, since that time. Dante is clearly referring to a family trait! Cacciaguida’s wife was Alighiera of the Aldighieri family of Ferrara from whom the family name was believed to originate. He himself took part in Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s unsuccessful second Crusade of 1147, under the Emperor Conrad III, and was killed. His brother’s name Eliseo suggests a connection with the Elisei family.
Cacciaguida takes the opportunity to extol the simple virtues of early Florence. The Badia, the belltower from which the ancient canonical hours were rung (tierce at nine, nones at twelve) was close to the ancient circle of walls, within which, in Cacciaguida’s time Florence was still enclosed. The second circle of walls was built in 1173, the third circle which is still intact in part, was built at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Life was simple, daughters waited to be married, dowries were appropriate, great families lived and dressed modestly: none were decayed or in exile: and the founding of Florence by Cataline’s Romans, and of Fiesole before it by Electra, were remembered.
He himself, a knight, died fighting the Muslim infidel, and he makes clear his view that the Holy Land should of right be administered by Christians. This is ancient Florence speaking, upright and firm, simple and virtuous, staunch and filled with fortitude. Dante is creating echoes of ancient Rome and the Republic, rather than the later Empire, but the effect is Virgilian and calls to mind Augustus’s personal adherence to plain values and simple virtues. Here also is the Church Militant in Crusader action. Dante, the exile, asserts his own Florentine roots in defiance of those who have exiled him, and implies the corruption of modern times compared with Florence’s former greatness.
Meditation LXXXIII: Paradiso Canto XVI
MedLXXXIII:1 Ancient Florence: Paradiso Canto XVI:1
Dante, valuing his ancestry and regretting how nobility may diminish with time, addresses Cacciaguida in the manner in which Julius Caesar was once addressed, according to legend, when he achieved pre-eminence, as voi instead of tu. It was a purely Roman custom, but disused there in Dante’s time. He is confirming the link between the militant Church and the militant Empire in terms of historical destiny. Beatrice smiles at Dante’s acknowledgement of his relationship with Cacciaguida as the Lady of Malehaut coughed discreetly at Guinevere’s first acknowledgment of Lancelot.
Dante asks about ancient Florence, its patron saint being John the Baptist. The Florentines adopted St John the Baptist as their patron, displacing the Roman Mars, whose sphere we are now in, and whose statue had stood on the site of the Baptistery. The statue was then removed and set up by the Arno. According to legend, when the city was destroyed, by the Goths (Attila being confused in the story with Totila the Goth leader) the statue fell into the river. Florence could not be rebuilt it was believed until the statue had been reinstated, and according to legend again it was rescued and set on a pillar on the Ponte Vecchio, when the city was restored by Charlemagne. It remained there till the great flood of 1333 carried away the bridge and statue. Their rejection of the war-god Mars was believed by Florentines to be at the root of the endless factional conflict in their city.
Cacciaguida, speaking in the ancient Tuscan language, spells out his date of birth, precisely, as 580 revolutions of Mars in its orbit since Christ’s birth, by which we assume Dante means the start of the Christian era also. Cacciaguida was therefore born, according to Dante, in 1091 (if calculated from the period of Mars orbit, 687 days, multiplied by the 580 orbits mentioned, which gives 1091 years 8 months and a few days. The actual visual Mars return was in June, though Dante’s astronomy may not have been accurate enough to calculate this, since it allows for precession and Mars position in its orbit. Dante suggests Mars was in Leo at Christ’s birth when in fact at the beginning of 1AD it was astronomically in the constellation of Aries the Ram, the sign of the equinox and of Christ as the Lamb of God. It is possible, but unlikely given astronomical knowledge in his day, that Dante is being both knowledgeable and subtle, and that by ‘his own Lion: al suo Leon’, Dante means the sign of Aries which Mars rules astrologically, and that Christ the Lamb is intended by ‘his own Lion’!) Cacciaguida was then fifty-six when he joined the Crusade if born in 1091. He then gives his place of birth no less precisely. An annual race was run along the Corso. Of the six sections into which Florence was divided, the sesto of San Piero was the last to be entered. The Elisei house was on the right.
The precision indicates Dante’s care once more to establish his own Florentine ancestry: the exile’s love for his roots, his pride in them, and his desire to assert his rights. (Note that Cacciaguida to Dante spans five generations since Cacciaguida is his great-great-grandfather, and then note the allusions to the number five in what follows. We are also in the fifth sphere.).
Cacciaguida now talks about the growth of ancient Florence, which was a fifth smaller than in Dante’s day, two hundred years later. The statue of Mars stood by the northern end of the Ponte Vecchio, in the south of the city by the Arno, and the Baptistery is in the north, marking the old boundaries. New families filtered in from the towns of the Contado. In the eleventh century, Galuzzo and Trespiano were the southern and northern limits of Florentine territory, which did not include Aguglione or Signa, places whose families have contaminated the city according to Dante. Simifonti was a fortress in the Valdelsa destroyed by the Florentines in 1202. The Conti Guidi sold their castle at Montemurlo, between Pistoia and Prato, to Florence in 1254 being unable to defend it from the Pistoians. Acone was probably in the Val de Sieve. Luni was on the Macra, the northern boundary of Tuscany. Urbisaglia was in the March of Ancona. Chiusi, is ancient Clusium, in the malarial Val di Chiana. Sinaglia is on the seashore north of Ancona.
Cacciaguida laments the passing of the purer stock, and the smaller but more effective city. His perspective is historical, greater than one life. It is noticeable how in Dante the detailed historical perspective of poetry has widened, compared with the less historical, more mythical epics of Greece and Rome.
Cacciaguida now mentions the great families of ancient Florence. Amplifying the text, the gate of St Peter was where the Cerchi lived in Dante’s time. They had purchased the houses over the gate before 1300, which had belonged to the Ravignani, from whom the Conti Guidi were descended through Bellincion Berti’s daughter Gualdrada.
The Pigli arms were barred with ermine=vair. The Chiaramontesi lived in the Saint Peter quarter. One of the family, in Dante’s time, around 1299, Messer Durante de’ Chiramontesi, officer of the customs for salt, reduced the standard measure for the issue of salt to the Florentines.
The Calfucci were a branch of the Donati. The Uberti were once the dominant Florentine family. Their pride was exhibited by Farinata. The golden balls were the device of the Lamberti, of whom Mosca was one. The ancestors of the Visdomini and Della Tosa families while having the revenues of the Bishopric of Florence in their hands were accused of perverting them to their own uses whenever the See was vacant.
Filippo Argenti belonged to one branch of the Adimari family. Ubertino Donati, the ancestor of Dante’s wife Gemma, had married one of the daughters of Bellincion Berti, a sister of Gualdrada, and strongly objected to his father-in-law giving the hand of a third daughter to one of the Adimari. A fourth daughter may have been the wife of Dante’s great-grandfather Alighiero I.
The Della Pera in Dante’s time had dwindled to the extent that it seemed incredible a gate of the city had been named after them. Hugo of Brandenburg, Imperial Vicar of Tuscany for Otho III, died on Saint Thomas’s day. He had created many knights of the families, who all retained his coat of arms (barry white and red with divers charges). The Della Bella had a gold border to the arms.
The Uccellini and Gherardini were associates of the Amidei. Associates were members of a family who joined the tower-club of another for the purposes of its military maintenance, and were legal consorts of that family. These were members of a family, which had ceased to act with their true family, and were therefore regarded as no longer belonging to it.
Buondelmonti was betrothed to a daughter of the Amidei, but broke faith at the instigation of Gualdrada Donati. In the debate as to whether he should be killed Mosca said the evil word, ‘A thing done has an end.’ Buondelmonte was murdered, at the foot of the statue of Mars, on the Ponte Vecchio, in 1215. The family originated from Valdigreve and settled in the Borgo Saint Apostoli. To reach Florence they would have crossed the small stream called Ema. The family divisions created the Guelph and Ghibelline factional conflicts. So Dante, through Cacciaguida, neatly brings us back to Mars and the civil strife that is diminishing Florence.
The old standard of Florence carried white lilies on a red field. The Ghibellines maintained this, but the Guelphs adopted a red lily on a white field in 1251. Cacciaguida remembers the ancient banner.
Dante has now asserted his ancestry, established the nature of ancient Florence, and the contemporary failings of the city, and tied all this to Cacciaguida’s noble fortitude as a militant Christian loyal to the blood of Christ, compared with the factional Florentines dedicated to blood-stained Mars. Cacciaguida having endorsed Dante’s ancestry, can now, like Anchises speaking to Aeneas, endorse his mission, and prophesy his future.
Meditation LXXXIV: Paradiso Canto XVII
MedLXXXIV:1 Dante’s Future and Mission: Paradiso Canto XVII:1
Dante turns to Beatrice for confirmation of what he has heard of his ancestry, as Phaethon did to Clymene his mother, concerning his birth as a child of the Sun. Perhaps Dante is also thinking of the pride that led to Phaethon’s downfall. Re-assured by Beatrice he shares his fears of the future with Cacciaguida, based on the dark prophecies made in Hell and Purgatory, notably by Ciacco, Farinata, Brunetto, Vanni Fucci, and Guido del Duca bearing on the fate of the Whites and his own exile. He anticipates that Cacciaguida can see future events as we can see the almost self-evident truths within Euclidean geometry.
Cacciaguida confirms his powers of future vision, but denies pre-destination, as Boethius did, God and Paradise being extra-temporal, outside the flow of events, in the same way as the eye does not affect the course of the river it sees. Dante is concerned to preserve the integrity of individual free will without which the concept of responsibility for sin is meaningless. (An endless religious debate, which carries within it a paradox only overcome by faith, since God does intervene in the world and history according to Christian tradition and belief. It is of course an issue in non-religious ethics also, concerning the effects of genetics and environment, nature and nurture, on the ability of the individual to be fully moral and have full ‘free-will’.)
Cacciaguida reveals Dante’s fast approaching exile from Florence, engineered by the corrupt Papacy. Like Hippolytus Dante will be accused of a crime, which is actually that of his accuser(s), in Dante’s case barratry. Dante was sentenced with four others to fine and banishment on January 27th 1302. With fifteen others, he was sentenced to death by burning, on March 10th. The Whites were expelled from Florence on April 4th, Between June 8th 1302 and June 18th 1303 he broke away from them (becoming ‘a party of one’) in disgust and took refuge with Bartolommeo della Scala at Verona, where he also found the young Can Grande. Bartolommeo was Lord of Verona, his arms, significantly, a ladder (scala) surmounted by the imperial eagle. Dante took refuge with him sometime between the summer of 1302 and Bartolommeo’s death in March 1304. Can Grande della Scala, his younger brother Francesco (1291-1329), was probably the ‘Greyhound’ of Canto I, Dante’s patron at Verona to whom the Paradiso was dedicated and who sheltered him from 1316. He received the last thirteen Cantos of the Paradiso, left unfinished at Dante’s death, from Dante’s son Jacopo. He was born in Verona (between Feltre in Venetia and Montefeltro in Romagna see Canto I). He became lord of Verona in 1311, was an Imperial Vicar, and in 1318 the head of the Ghibelline party. He was an art patron, and kept a civilised and stately court. Can Grande was one of the great military men of his age. In 1311 he showed his mettle by recovering Brescia and taking Vicenza.
He was nine years old (nine years and one month in April 1300) at the time of the Vision, born so Dante suggests with Mars significant in his birth chart, and would be noted for virtue, as above, before Clement cheated Henry. Henry of Luxembourg, became Emperor Henry VII (1308-1313). Of insignificant wealth and background he hoped to establish his prestige by his coronation in Rome (1312), and revival of the Imperial claims south of the Alps. Pope Clement V attempted to use him to further his own ambitions. Henry was in Italy between 1310 and 1313, and was hailed by Dante as the Liberator. He reached Milan in December 1310, but failed as honest broker to reconcile the Guelph and Ghibelline factions. He was driven into leadership of the Ghibelline party and aligned himself with Federico III of Sicily. Clement then swung back to the Guelphs, and repudiated the alliance. Henry died at Buonconvento of disease in 1313, as he was marching on Florence and planning a campaign against Naples, ending the dreams of Dante and the Florentine exiles. Dante here identifies two of the possible candidates for his ‘Greyhound’, or Saviour of Italy, Can Grande and Henry VII, though these words may imply that Henry VII and Dante’s hopes in him were already dead when Dante completed this part of the Paradiso.
Nevertheless, says Cacciaguida, you will be more famous than your enemies, and to Dante cautious about telling his Vision for fear of inciting his enemies, but equally anxious not to ‘lose life’ by failing to transmit his great poetry to future generations, Cacciaguida replies that he should tell all, and strike, proudly, with the truth, at the most important names since that brings most honour. That is the reason why Dante has used famous names as examples, to encourage those who read to understand and take note. Cacciaguida endorses Dante’s heritage, his destiny, and his mission, and his counsel is one of endurance, courage, steadfastness, truthfulness, and fortitude. He is truly an Anchises to Dante’s Aeneas.
Meditation LXXXV: Paradiso Canto XVIII
MedLXXXV:1 The Warriors of God: Paradiso Canto XVIII:1
A startling, profound and beautiful moment. Beatrice tells Dante to attend to Cacciaguida’s final speech, and he becomes wholly absorbed in the love in her eyes, and the joy that streams from her lovely face, and is overcome by her smile, until she gently, sweetly and lovingly rebukes him: ‘not only in my eyes is Paradise.’
The charge of earthly love is there, in Dante. We can consider it spiritualised, but its location in eyes and smile and face gives it an irresistible erotic content too. This is the old Courtly love transfigured but still alive. And of course there is an allegorical meaning also. Divine Philosophy is not the only path of religion: the Church Militant is another facet, represented by Cacciaguida. There are many faces of Paradise. The contemplative life complements the active life. Dante turns back to hear the warrior. Fortitude complements Love.
Cacciaguida now compares the neo-platonic universe to a tree, with God as the crown of the tree. The sphere of Mars is the fifth canopy of that tree. As Cacciaguida names seven other spirits along the Cross, they move and flare. The great warriors of God, the defenders of the old and new faith, are firstly Joshua, the son of Nun, Moses’s minister, and successor, who crossed the Jordan and led the Israelites in taking the Promised Land, and Judas Maccabeus One of the five sons of Mattathias. It was Judas Maccabeus, ‘The Hammerer’, who resisted the enforced Hellenization of the Jewish people practised under Antiochus IV of Syria (175-164). He took Jerusalem and re-consecrated the Temple (25 Kislev, 165BC, remembered bythe Chanukah festival) Peace was achieved in 163BC and the enforced Hellenization halted. He and his brothers died in the continual fighting until, in 143, Simon, the last survivor expelled the Syrians. Simon became the first High Priest and civil ruler of the newly established state, with the title Nasi.
Dante then turns to later history with Charlemagne, Roland, William of Orange and Renard: Charlemagne was Charles (Born 742, Ruled 768-814 AD), the son of Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. He conquered the Langobard kingdom in 773-774, and extended his empire into Slav territory. As the Founder of the Holy Roman Empire, Pope Leo III (795-816) crowned him Emperor 23-24 December 800, with the Imperial title ‘Romanorum gubernans imperium’. By the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 812, the Eastern Roman Emperor, Michael I, recognised Charlemagne as Emperor in exchange for the surrender of Istria, Venetia, and Dalmatia. He died at Aix-la-Chapelle in 814 and was entombed in the Dome. He was the legendary rebuilder of Florence, and Justinian earlier mentioned Charlemagne in the summary of Imperial history, as having protected the Church by use of Imperial force and right.
Roland (Orlando), Charlemagne’s nephew, and the hero of the battle of Roncesvalles, went down to defeat with his Franks, fighting against the Saracens, while attempting to hold the valley in 778AD. He blew his horn in desperation, to alert his uncle eight miles away, but Charlemagne was misled by the advice of the traitor Ganelon, and did not provide aid. The epic is told in the Old French Chanson de Roland, the ‘Song of Roland’, where the intensity of Roland’s blast on the horn shattered it. The defeat allowed Arab incursions into Narbonne in 793, but Dante proclaims it as part of the continuing war against the Muslim threat to Christianity.
William of Orange was a hero of French Romance, historically one of Charlemagne’s knights, who, after fighting the Saracens, retired to die as a monk in 812, and Renard a converted Saracen, his mythical brother-in-law and his companion in battle, who retired with him to become a monk.
Godfrey, Duke of Lorraine, was a descendant of Charlemagne who led the First Crusade which captured Jerusalem in 1099. (On Friday July 15th he was the first Crusader to drop down from the wall into the city, close by Herod’s Gate) The capture was followed by indiscriminate massacre of the inhabitants, ‘the knights riding up to their knees in blood, in the Haram enclosure, where the Mahomedans sought refuge’. He ruled there, as king, until his death of illness the following year, but refused the royal crown and title. He was buried in the Holy Sepulchre where his tomb (and sword) survived until the great fire of 1808. Despite the massacre, he was remembered as the best and wisest of the Christian leaders.
Robert Guiscard (d 1085), the Son of Tancred de Hauteville, was the founder of the Norman dynasty in southern Italy and Sicily. He waged war in Sicily and Southern Italy from 1059 to 1080, against the Greeks and Saracens and won the title Duke of Apulia from Pope Nicholas II in 1059, and died in 1085.
Dante is wholly orthodox in celebrating the aggressive sweep of Jewish and Christian history, and the right of the Israelites and Christians to adopt these tactics is implicitly and explicitly assumed.
MedLXXXV:2 The Sphere of Jupiter: Paradiso Canto XVIII:58
The red blush of Mars is replaced by the white light of Jupiter as Dante and Beatrice ascend into a wider orbit, the sixth sphere of Justice. Jupiter is associated with Justice and Wisdom, with Jupiter the Roman god, and therefore with the Roman Emperors, and with the Christian God. Jupiter is also described as the temperate planet between the cold of Saturn and the heat of Mars in Ptolemaic astronomy. Here Dante sees the spirits rising like a flock of birds to form one by one the 35 letters of the opening text of the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon in the Vulgate: ‘Diligite justitiam qui judicatis terram: love righteousness you judges over earth.’ Dante calls on the Muse to assist his poetic inspiration here, retaining each letter as the spirits pause until they have spelt out the whole sentence. Then they rest forming the m of the last word, terram: Earth. This is the M of Monarchia, in the title of Dante’s treatise on kingship, and a symbol of the Empire and Imperial Law. And also the M of Mente, the Mind of God. M in the Latin and Italian alphabets, lacking a w, is also the central letter of the whole alphabet.
More spirits join them and eventually form the head and neck of an Eagle, the emblem of Rome, the Divine sign of Empire and Justice, above the filled-in M representing the body and wings. The spirits during this process entwine themselves with the shapes of lilies indicating the Frankish influence on Christian history. The eagle, with the della Scala ladder, was also part of Can Grande’s coat of arms. The Mind of God inspires the earthly forms, the nests, where intellect builds, and creates justice.
Dante now asks that Divine Mind to turn itself towards Boniface’s corrupt Rome, where smoke obscures Divine light, where indulgences are sold, where excommunication is used to wage war, and where the Pope is in love with gold Florins stamped with the head of John the Baptist, Florence having been dragged to destruction by the seductions of his political dance.
Meditation LXXXVI: Paradiso Canto XIX
MedLXXXVI:1 Divine Justice: Paradiso Canto XIX:1
The multiple spirits forming the shape of the Eagle speak with one voice, like the glow from many coals, as the refracted light shines on Dante, and he tries to tell what has never before been spoken, written or imagined.
The evil recognise Justice even if they fail to follow it. Quickly Dante asks to be enlightened, his hidden question is that concerning the justice of the un-baptised who lived without knowledge of the faith and are excluded from salvation, and the eagle shakes its feathers like an un-hooded hawk before replying. God has measured out the universe, what is visible and what is concealed, and his Word is infinitely beyond human beings. Even Lucifer as one of the angels was too limited to understand everything without God’s help, and in fact fell through his own impatience. Human vision is even more limited, and God’s justice in the matter is not be questioned. It is a matter of faith. Conformity with God’s will is what is required. The answer is crystal clear. Only those who believe in Christ rise into Paradise. The Old Testament and other pagans who entered we assume anticipated his coming, or were guided to belief. Dante clearly agonised over the question, as he did over that of the un-baptised infants in Limbo. Trajan and Ripheus are visible in this sphere as we shall see, and new light is cast on the issue.
The Eagle now asserts that there are many who think themselves Christians whose behaviour belies it, and reveals the unjust actions of the Christian kings of 1300, and the state of the potential Empire. The Emperor Albert Albrecht I of Hapsburg, King of the Germans, and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1298-1308) carried out an aggressive campaign against Bohemia in 1304, confiscating it as an expired fief of the crown. Philip IV of France (1285-1314) debased the coinage by two-thirds in 1302 to defray the cost of his Flemish campaign. Edward I of England (1272-1307) claimed the crown of Scotland and suppressed William Wallace’s popular uprising. Later Scotland obtained national independence under Robert the Bruce, at Bannockburn, in 1314. Ferdinand IV, King of Castile and Leon (1295-1312), was noted for his luxurious style of living at the expense of his kingdom. Wenceslaus of Bohemia, Wenceslas II (1278-1305), was noted for his sybaritic ways according to Dante. Charles II of Anjou, (1243-1309), titular King of Jerusalem, is ineffectual and debased, as is Frederick King of Sicily (1296-1337), and his uncle James of the Balearic Isles (1276-1311), and his brother James II of Aragon (1291-1327). And we go on with the list of these sad days, Dionysius (1279-1325) of Portugal, Hakon (1299-1319) of Norway, Stephen Ouros II (1275-1321) of Serbia, called Rascia from its capital, who issued counterfeit Venetian coins, Andrew III of Hungary, and finally Henry of Lusignan King of Cyprus (died 1324), whose bad rule Dante cites as a warning to Joanna wife of Philip the Fair, concerning her separate kingdom of Navarre. Dark times indeed!
Meditation LXXXVII: Paradiso Canto XX
MedLXXXVII:1 The Just: Paradiso Canto XX:1
When the Eagle falls silent Dante is able to hear the spirits singing, just as the stars shine out with Divine light when the Sun vanishes. Then the Eagle speaks again, and Dante weaves delightful similes to express the transitions.
The Eagle tells him to gaze at its eye intently, since the six most important of the just spirits are there. Firstly David, whose psalms are rewarded in Paradise. David was the earthly ancestor of Christ, born at the time when Aeneas came into Italy, so making manifest the Divine ordination of the Roman Empire.
Then Trajan, adopted Emperor (98-117AD) after the mutiny of the Praetorian Guard (97). He was the first Emperor of Provincial origin. He was given the title Optimus by the Senate in 117 and oversaw the greatest extent of the Roman Empire, conquering Dacia, Armenia, Assyria, Mesopotamia, and Arabia. Dante in Purgatorio X and here refers to the popular story of Trajan and the widow derived from the Fiore di Filosofi. Pope Gregory supposedly interceded on his behalf through prayer, to bring about Trajan’s deliverance from Hell, to allow him time for repentance. Dante explains that God’s will was not altered in that his return from Hell to his body at Gregory’s intercession was predestined and he was then saved at the second death. Prayer does not alter God’s plan but fulfils what God has ordained to be fulfilled by prayer. This seems at odds with Dante’s previous thoughts on free will but the implication is that while some events are ‘pre-determined’ pre-ordained judgements, others are free. God in this reading guides history but does not fully predetermine it.
Next is Hezekiah the King of Judah, whose life was extended by the Lord, for the sake of his past sincerity and virtue, and his penitent prayers. The word of God came to him through the mouth and actions of Isaiah. (See Second Kings xx.) Aquinas taught that God’s decrees are consistent with prayer, because again prayer does not alter the Divine plan, but fulfils what God ordained to be fulfilled by prayer.
Constantine follows, whom Dante has previously referred to in Inferno, the ruler of the Western Roman Empire (lived c280-337) after his victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber in 312 AD. The son of Helena, he defeated Licinius at Adrianople and Chrysopolis in 324, becoming sole ruler of the eastern and western empire (totius orbis imperator). Byzantium was renamed Constantinople in 330 and made the second Rome, and the Christian capital as he had embraced Christianity. He died in 337 after receiving baptism on his deathbed. He consolidated Diocletian’s structure of the absolute state, to emphasise the divine nature of the Emperor. The Donation of Constantine was a forged document of the Middle Ages, in which Pope Sylvester I was supposed to have cured Constantine of leprosy, he then resolving to transfer his capital to Constantinople, leaving the Pope with temporal power in Italy. Dante saw this as the source of the fatal involvement of the Church in temporal power, and as a consequence the Empire’s involvement in coveting the spiritual power of the Church. He considered the Donation invalid as the Emperor could not relinquish temporal power, nor could the Pope receive it. (See Dante De Monarchia iii 10 etc). Dante implies that Constantine was not to blame for an action that intended good.
Now William the Good, the Norman King of Sicily and Naples (1166-1189), the last king of the House of Tancred, reigning over ‘The Two Sicilies’. He was the nephew of the Empress Constance and is here considered a model ruler by Dante.
Lastly we have Ripheus a Trojan, who was killed at the fall of Troy. Virgil in Aeneid ii 426 et seq. says ‘he the most just of the Trojans, who never wavered from right, though the gods did not recognise his righteousness.’ Dante connects this incident with Acts x 34 ‘God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.’ Aquinas suggests that the good unbeliever will receive inspiration, or a teacher, from God to achieve his conversion. This opens the door to the virtuous Pagans, but note Paul’s weeping over Virgil’s tomb (traditionally), which suggests Virgil could not be saved in this way. Dante clearly struggled with the whole concept, regarding its natural justice.
Lovely similes follow: the eagle, the imprint of justice, is like a lark in the air, while Dante’s doubt about what he sees still shines through him as if through glass. It is as if philosophically he hears a thing’s name but does not comprehend its reality. The Eagle seeing he accepts through faith and not understanding, enlightens him.
Dante now celebrates the three theological virtues once more, in that the faith of Trajan and Ripheus, who followed and preceded Christ, resulted from in Trajan’s case the hope that informed Gregory’s prayers (apocryphally, since Gregory himself did not accept the efficacy of prayer for the damned) and returned Trajan’s will to the living flesh to allow him to believe and be saved: and in Ripheus’s case from the love with which he acted on earth, so causing God to instil belief in him even before the coming of Christ. Human vision is inadequate to understand all God’s provisions, and cannot judge who will ultimately be redeemed, and so we require faith to bridge the gap. The twin lights of Trajan and Ripheus quiver like eyes at the Eagle’s words.
Meditation LXXXVIII: Paradiso Canto XXI
MedLXXXVIII:1 The Sphere of Saturn: Paradiso Canto XXI:1
The preceding three spheres have taken us through the active religious life with its personal and political dimensions, and the virtues of practical wisdom, fortitude and justice, and now in the sphere of Saturn we reach the contemplative spiritual life of the individual, and the fourth cardinal virtue of temperance. Dante’s eyes are fixed on Beatrice who dare not smile lest she overpowers him, as we enter the higher and more deeply religious sphere. Saturn shines, as presumably it did at the Creation, in the sign of Leo, a position associated astrologically with strength of will. Saturn itself is associated with patience, caution and self-discipline, the characteristics of temperantia, or temperance. Saturn also is a reminder of the Golden Age when in myth Saturn ruled the earth, a time of simplicity, moderation and primal innocence.
Here Dante sees a ladder (reminding us of the eagle and ladder, the scala, in Can Grande della Scala’s coat of arms,) stretching upwards, as Jacob did in Genesis 28:12. Like the motion of a crowd of rooks (reminiscent of the starlings simile in the Inferno, and the doves of the Purgatorio) the spirits gather. Dante, who has balanced the joys of obedience and contemplation in turning his eyes from Beatrice, now pleads his obedience to her wishes before he dare question the spirit nearest to him.
The spirit answers Dante’s question as to why this sphere is silent by explaining that like Beatrice’s smile the singing would overpower him, and as to why he is near that is because he has been assigned to speak with Dante. On being asked why he was predestined to carry out the role, Dante is told that the human mind should not enquire into God’s will. He is assigned and that should be enough.
He reveals that he is Peter Damian, Saint Peter Damian, of Ravenna, some time Abbot of the monastery of Santa Croce di Fonte Avellana in the Apennines, beneath Monte Catria, near Gubbio. (Dante is said to have found refuge there after the death of Henry VII.) His parents’ poverty lead to him being exposed as an infant, but he was rescued and educated by his brother Damian, taking the name Damiani, ‘Damian’s Peter’, He was made Cardinal Bishop of Ostia in 1058, against his will, by Pope Stephen IX. He styled himself Peter the Sinner, Petrus peccator, and visited the monastery of Pomposa on an island at the mouth of the Po, near Commachio. He was an ardent reformer of Church discipline and one of the chief ecclesiastical writers of the eleventh century. He was a friend and ally of Hildebrand afterwards Saint Gregory VII, and died at Faenza in 1072. Peter Damian signifies simplicity and the moderation reminiscent of the early Church, and now criticises the modern Church, supported by the descent of further spirits in a deep resonance of agreement. Dante is overcome by this thunder of condemnation.