The Divine Comedy: Purgatory 10 An overview of Purgatory

William Blake (1757–1827), Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car (Dante's 'Divine Comedy') (1824–7), ink and watercolour on paper, 37.2 x 52.7 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchase with assistance of grants and donations 1919), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Before Dante takes us on from Purgatory to Paradise, I’d like to take a brief overview of the last nine articles in which he has taken us through Purgatory, looking at some of its finest paintings.

Artist not known, illustration from Dante and the Early Astronomers (1913) by MA Evershed, Gall & Inglis, London, PIMS, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante and Virgil arrive at the mountain-island of Purgatory by boat, just before sunrise on Easter Sunday in 1300. The peak’s structure is the exact inverse of hell, with a series of seven terraces through which the dead have to rise before they reach the ‘earthly paradise’ of the Garden of Eden at the top.

Philip Firsov (b 1985), Purgatorio (2015), Indian ink on paper, 59.4 x 84.1 cm, location not known. Courtesy of the artist, via Wikimedia Commons.

The whole book is summarised brilliantly in this ink drawing by Philip Firsov, in which you can trace each step and canto from arrival to Dante’s reunion with his beloved Beatrice at the top.

Dante and Virgil are greeted by the island’s guardian, Cato, who leaves them to make their way across the plain towards the start of their ascent. As they do so, a boat arrives with a hundred more souls being brought over from the mouth of the River Tiber, near Rome. Among them are Casella, one of Dante’s friends with a fine voice.

When they reach the foot of the mountain, they meet Manfred, who like others gathered there only sought repentance in the moments before his death. The pair then climb above a cliff, where they find others whose repentance was similarly delayed.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Pia de’ Tolomei (1868-80), oil on canvas, 104.7 × 120.6 cm, Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS. Wikimedia Commons.

Above them are those who only made their peace with God in the moments before they died violent deaths. Among these is La Pia, Pia de’ Tolomei, a virtuous wife who was murdered to enable her husband to marry a widowed countess. After her, they meet the mediaeval poet Sordello, who explains to them that upward progress is only possible when it’s light. As the sun is now setting, he leads them to a lush valley in which there are many former rulers serving their penance.

William Blake (1757-1827), Lucia Carrying Dante in his Sleep (from Dante’s “Divine Comedy”) (1824-27), watercolour, black ink, graphite, and black chalk on off-white antique laid paper, 37.2 x 52.2 cm, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum (Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop), Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

When Dante finally falls asleep shortly before dawn, he has the first of his dreams, in which he is abducted by a huge eagle and taken to Olympus, just as Ganymede was in myth. When he awakes, he discovers that it was Saint Lucy or Lucia who carried him up to the entrance gate to Purgatory itself.

Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839), Purgatory (detail) (1825-28), fresco, dimensions not known, Casa Massimo, Rome, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

The gatekeeper angel there tells Dante to ascend three steps symbolising penance, then traces with a sword on his forehead seven letters P, which are subsequently removed when Dante ascends from each terrace in turn. Dante and Virgil are then admitted through the gate with the warning that should Dante look back he will be returned to outside the walls of Purgatory.

Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839), Purgatory (detail) (1825-28), fresco, dimensions not known, Casa Massimo, Rome, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

The first terrace cleanses souls of their pride, and its occupants are bent double under huge boulders for their penance.

Dante and Virgil then pass up the steps to the next terrace, as a guardian angel removes one of the Ps from Dante’s forehead to mark his progress. Here are souls cleansing themselves of envy, by having their eyelids sewn together with wire.

The pair progress up to the next terrace, where souls pay penance for wrath by means of visions, including that of the stoning of Saint Stephen and his last prayer for the forgiveness of those who martyred him. With the sun setting again, they rest there for the night. Dante experiences a second dream, in which a malformed woman is transformed into a siren, one who had tried to lure Odysseus.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Avaricious, Purgatorio Canto 20 verses 16-18 (c 1857), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

When Dante awakes, he and Virgil move up to the next terrace where the dead rid themselves of avarice and prodigality by lying immobile, face down on the hard rock, and weeping. Among them is Pope Adrian V, who died just thirty-eight days after being elected. The whole mountain shudders as another soul completes their cleansing and moves up to its peak: this is the Latin poet Statius, who joins them.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Gluttons, Purgatorio Canto 24 verses 4-6 (c 1857), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The trio move together to the next terrace where souls are purged of their gluttony by being deprived of food and water until they adopt abstemious ways. Beside them are trees laden with fruit and well-watered. From there they ascend to the seventh terrace, where souls are cleansed of their lust by becoming chaste and passing through a wall of flames. As the light fades at the end of another day, Dante is told that he too must pass through the flames if he is to ascend any further. When he does, the three settle down for the night, during which Dante has his third dream.

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

In this dream, he meets Leah, who gathers flowers and weaves them into a garland. She became first wife of Jacob and represents the active way of life. Her younger sister Rachel, who became Jacob’s second wife, spends her time looking at her own reflection in a mirror, and in contrast represents the contemplative way of life.

The following morning, Dante, Virgil and Statius are ready to enter the Garden of Eden at the summit of the mountain. This is a lush forest with rich flora and fauna, where Dante soon meets Matelda, a beautiful young woman who is picking flowers.

Matilda*oil on canvas*51 x 93 cm*signed b.r.: GDL / 1859
George Dunlop Leslie (1835–1921), Matilda (1859), oil on canvas, 51.4 x 92.7 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante follows Matelda on the bank of the combined rivers of Lethe and Eunoë, until they come across a holy procession making its way along the opposite bank. Resembling a classical Roman triumph, in the midst of elders and animals is a richly-decorated chariot drawn by a Gryphon. Within it is Dante’s beloved Beatrice, who wears a white veil, green robe, and a dress the colour of flame. Dante is elated, but then realises that his companion Virgil had quietly departed.

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake (1757–1827), Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car (Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’) (1824–7), ink and watercolour on paper, 37.2 x 52.7 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchase with assistance of grants and donations 1919), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Beatrice steps out of her chariot, and admonishes Dante for his recent straying from the path of righteousness. Dante first weeps, then faints. When he recovers consciousness, he is being immersed in the River Lethe by Matelda. Dante approaches Beatrice, who removes her veil, dazzling him with her beauty.

The procession returns to the forest, where the chariot is attached to the tree of knowledge. Dante falls asleep, waking to find himself in the midst of the seven cardinal virtues. An eagle then crashes through the tree of knowledge into the chariot. A giant appears and takes the chariot with a whore into the forest.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Dante and Beatrice (1914), oil on canvas, 50 x 65.3 cm, Fujikawa Galleries Inc., Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Beatrice then gives the prophecy that God will send someone to destroy the giant and the whore (who represent the movement of the Pope from Rome to Avignon in France). Matelda leads Dante and Statius into the River Eunoë, where Dante is cleansed ready to ascend to Paradise in the heavens. It’s now noon on the Wednesday after Easter.

The next article in this series joins Dante as he journeys through Paradise, and shows paintings and illustrations of that third and final book of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The artists

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.

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.

Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839) was an Austrian landscape painter, who worked mainly in Neoclassical style. During his second stay in Rome, he was commissioned to paint frescos in the Villa Massimi on the walls of the Dante Room there, which remain one of the most florid visual accounts of Dante’s Inferno. He completed those between 1824-29. He also appears to have drawn a set of illustrations for Dante’s Inferno in about 1808.

George Dunlop Leslie (1835–1921) was a British painter who trained at the Royal Academy Schools in London. He specialised in genre painting, and was also a successful illustrator. He became part of the Saint John’s Wood Clique, and was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites although his own style remained light academic. The painting shown here was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860, and was well-received by critics. It was bought by a wine merchant known for his collection of works by Rossetti, Alma-Tadema, Leighton, and Arthur Hughes.

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. He had a succession of relationships with his models and muses, including Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, and William Morris’s wife Jane, and it was Jane Morris who was his model for the paintings shown above. His finished painting wasn’t exhibited at the Royal Academy until the year after Rossetti’s death, and was bought by FR Leyland.

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.