Although Heaven and Hell have clear biblical roots, the concept of Purgatory as part of the Christian life after death is more recent. It originated in the early Christian Church, flourished in the Middle Ages, and ripened only in the Catholic Church after the schism of Protestants in the Reformation during the sixteenth century. It can be seen as a route to Heaven for those who had sinned on earth, so long as they had confessed and repented – the ultimate let-out clause, perhaps.
Dante had much greater freedom in imagining what Purgatory might be, and adopted a physical structure which is the exact inverse of his vision of Hell: a mountain rising through seven terraces to culminate in a terrestrial paradise at the summit. Each terrace then accommodates a class of sin, rising from pride at the foot to lust just below paradise.
Dante and his guide, the spirit of Virgil the great Roman poet, emerge from Hell to arrive at Purgatory by sea just before sunrise on Easter Sunday in 1300. They are met on the shore by Cato the Younger (of Utica), who as a virtuous pre-Christian statesman is the guardian of this island-mountain in the southern hemisphere. Cato is in some ways a strange choice for this role as, when defeated by Julius Caesar, he committed suicide rather than submit to Caesar’s tyranny, but seems to have been liberated during Christ’s Harrowing of Hell.
Virgil explains to Cato a little of Dante’s story, and Cato instructs him as guide to make a belt for him using a single rush, and to wash him thoroughly. Cato then leaves them to make their way across a plain towards the foot of the mountain.
As they do so, a ship approaches the nearby shore at high speed. As a parallel to Charon’s ferry on the periphery of Hell, Purgatory is also reached by boat, this time piloted by an angel, who is ferrying souls from the mouth of the River Tiber, downstream from the city of Rome.
The hundred souls on board disembark and ask Virgil the way to the start of the ascent. Among them is Casella, a friend of Dante and a fine singer. The new arrivals race off towards the mountain, as Dante and Virgil progress more slowly. When the two finally reach the foot of the mountain, their way up is barred by a sheer cliff. They ask a group of spirits where they should start their climb, but they notice that Dante’s body throws a shadow, demonstrating that he is still alive.
One of them introduces himself as Manfred, grandson of the Holy Empress Constance and illegitimate son of Emperor Frederick II, who was betrayed and died at the Battle of Benevento in 1266, but sought God’s forgiveness for his terrible sins just before his death. He explains how the prayer of those still alive on earth can shorten his period in Purgatory, which would otherwise be thirty times the period of their excommunication (in Manfred’s case). Virgil then finds a steep route up for them, and they scramble up shattered rock until they’re above the cliff.
Virgil assures Dante that the way will get easier as they rise up the slopes. They then come across a group of souls huddling under a large rock.
William Blake (1757–1827) was a British visionary painter and illustrator whose last and incomplete work was an illustrated edition of the Divine Comedy for the painter John Linnell. Most of his works shown in this series were created for that, although he did draw and paint scenes during his earlier career. I have a major series on his work here. Sadly, Blake’s illustrations of Purgatory were only at an early stage when he died, most still being rough pencil sketches.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was the leading French illustrator of the nineteenth century, whose paintings are still relatively unknown. Early in his career, he produced a complete set of seventy illustrations for translations of the Inferno, which were first published in 1857 and continue to be used. These were followed in 1867 by more illustrations for Purgatorio and Paradiso. This article looks at his paintings.
Philip Firsov (b 1985) is a British painter and sculptor who was born in Russia and trained in London, at the Slade School of Fine Art and Prince’s Drawing School. Further details of him and his works are here.
Robin Kirkpatrick (trans) (2012) Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, Penguin Classics. ISBN 978 0 141 19749 4.
Richard Lansing (ed) (2000) The Dante Encyclopedia, Routledge. ISBN 978 0 415 87611 7.
Guy P Raffa (2009) The Complete Danteworlds, A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy, Chicago UP. ISBN 978 0 2267 0270 4.
Prue Shaw (2014) Reading Dante, From Here to Eternity, Liveright. ISBN 978 1 63149 006 4.