The Divine Comedy: Purgatory 7 Dante’s dream of Leah and Rachel

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Dante's Vision of Leah and Rachel (1887), watercolour, 36.5 × 49 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante, Virgil and the Latin poet Statius are making their way up the final climb towards the top of the island-mountain of Purgatory. As they reach the steps which lead from the seventh terrace, where lust is purged, to the terrestrial heaven, night has fallen and they are unable to go any further upward.

Dante once again falls asleep just before daybreak, and has his third dream, of Leah and Rachel. Unlike his two previous dreams, this third one is both tranquil and clear.

The two Biblical sisters, who both married Jacob, are presented in a pastoral setting. Leah, who is conventionally seen as representing the active way of life by ‘doing’, gathers flowers and weaves them into a garland. She became Jacob’s first wife, and bore him seven children. In contrast, she refers to her younger sister Rachel, representing the contemplative way of life by ‘seeing’, who she says is constantly looking at her own reflection in a mirror. Rachel became Jacob’s second wife, and died during childbirth according to the account in Genesis Chapters 29-30 and 35.

Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah 1855 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Dante’s Vision of Rachel and Leah (1855), watercolour on paper, 35.2 x 31.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by Beresford Rimington Heaton 1940), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),
Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Leah, Purgatorio Canto 27 verses 97-99 (c 1857), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.
Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Dante’s Vision of Leah and Rachel (1887), watercolour, 36.5 × 49 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

When they awake in the morning, Dante, Virgil and Statius ascend the remaining steps and enter the terrestrial heaven which lies above the slopes of Purgatory. Virgil has completed his mission as guide, and tells Dante that he can now wander where he wishes. Heaven is described as a lush forest with a rich flora and fauna, and gentle breezes.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Terrestrial Paradise, Purgatorio Canto 28 verses 22-24 (c 1857), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante meets Matelda (who I will detail in the next article in this series), who is strolling and plucking flowers in much the same way that Leah was in his dream. Dante follows Matelda along the bank of the combined Rivers Lethe and Eunoe, until they come across a holy procession on the opposite bank. Further on there are seven trees of gold.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Apocalyptic Procession, Purgatorio Canto 29 verses 83-84 (c 1857), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In the procession are twenty-four elders walking in pairs, then four animals each with six wings, between which is a two-wheeled chariot, as might have been in a classical Roman triumph. Beside one wheel are three women, who are sometimes considered to represent the personifications of faith, hope and charity, although Dante doesn’t identify then explicitly.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Charity, Hope and Faith, Purgatorio Canto 29 verses 122-126 (c 1857), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In the next article about Dante’s visit to Purgatory, he will meet his beloved Beatrice at last.

The artists

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.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) was of Italian descent but born in London. In 1848, he co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and was a major figure in British painting until his early death in 1882. A published poet and author himself, many of his paintings were in response to literature, particularly the poems of John Keats. His painting shown above comes from his early career, and isn’t well-known.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927) was an outstanding watercolour painter who was born in London, into an affluent family of Greek origin. With her cousins, she became known in Pre-Raphaelite circles as one of the ‘three Graces’, and modelled extensively for Rossetti and others. She was a pupil of Ford Madox Brown, and specialised in highly-worked watercolours, several of Italian literary themes, which are comparable to the better paintings of Rossetti. I have written a series of three articles about her life and work.



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.