Dante’s beloved Beatrice has stepped out of the chariot in which she has been part of a religious procession. She admonishes Dante for straying from the way, he cries in contrition, then faints away.
He recovers consciousness as Matelda is plunging him into the River Lethe, and she then pulls him out of the water to the other bank.
Dante goes to Beatrice and the Gryphon, which alternates between eagle and lion in form. As Beatrice removes her veil, Dante is dazzled by her radiant beauty. He joins the procession as it makes its way back to the tree of knowledge within the lush forest. The Gryphon attaches the chariot to it, which brings new apple blossom on the tree. Dante falls asleep at its foot; when he awakes the Gryphon has left and he is encircled by seven nymphs representing the cardinal virtues.
Then there is a series of violent events (representing Christian church history): first an eagle crashes through the tree of knowledge, stripping its leaves and flowers, into the chariot. Finally, a giant appears and drags the chariot and a whore into the forest (representing the movement of the Pope from Rome to Avignon in France almost a century earlier).
Beatrice, in an enigmatic prophesy, tells Dante that God will soon send someone to destroy the giant and the whore, and restore the papacy. Matelda then leads Dante and Statius into the River Eunoë, where Dante is cleansed and remade.
It is now noon on the Wednesday after Easter, and Dante is ready to ascend to Paradise in the heavens.
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.
John Flaxman (1755–1826) was a British sculptor and draughtsman who occasionally painted too. When he was in Rome between 1787-91, he produced drawings for book illustrations, including a set of 111 for an edition of The Divine Comedy. In 1810, he was appointed the Professor of Sculpture to the Royal Academy in London, and in 1817 made drawings to illustrate Hesiod, which were engraved by William Blake.
Henri-Jean Guillaume Martin (1860–1943) was a French painter who was born in Toulouse, who trained in that city and with Jean-Paul Laurens in Paris. Although considered to be one of the later Impressionists, he also worked in realist style, and later was a Neo-Impressionist (Divisionist). His paintings were particularly successful between 1889 and the early twentieth century.
Odilon Redon (1840–1916) was born in Bordeaux, and studied briefly under Jean-Léon Gérôme before becoming a sculptor. He then turned to drawing and print-making before painting in oils and pastels, becoming one of the great pastellists of the early twentieth century. He is known now as a Symbolist, and throughout his career was highly experimental, producing unusual images that can appear surrealist.
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.
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.