As they journey through heavenly Paradise, Dante and Beatrice move upwards from the shell containing Mars to the next containing Jupiter.
Here they are greeted by a pure white heaven, where spirits arrange themselves to form the sequence of letters spelling out a Latin direction to rulers to cherish justice: diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram, ‘cherish justice you who judge the earth’.
The last letter M then transforms into a huge eagle.
Dante then prays for unjust rulers, particularly those of the church, to be punished. The eagle responds by listing some of the sins of Christian rules, spelling the Latin word for ‘plague’. Some of the best examples of just rulers are gathered in the eye of the eagle.
These include King David, King Hezekiah, the emperor Constantine, William II “the Good” of Sicily, and (surprisingly) two pagans, the Roman emperor Trajan and Ripheus, a minor Trojan praised by Virgil in the Aeneid.
The couple ascend further from Jupiter to the shell containing Saturn, where Beatrice’s beauty has become so radiant that she has to avoid smiling for fear of turning Dante into ash. Within this shell of heaven is a golden ladder of contemplation which reaches high up into the Empyrean, the highest heaven above.
One of the spirits descending down to this level is Peter Damian (1007-1072), who explains that there is no music here, in order not to overwhelm Dante’s hearing with its intensity. Peter had been a monk at a Benedictine monastery south of Florence, and had lived a deeply contemplative life, rising to become Abbot there, then a Cardinal.
He condemns many of the contemporary clergy for their lives of gluttony and promiscuity, rather than the simplicity and purity of the apostles. The spirits shout in support of this point, almost deafening Dante. He then meets Saint Benedict (c 480-547), founder of the order and author of the rules governing monastic life, hence of monasticism in Europe more generally. After hearing about the saint’s life, and being told that the golden ladder is the same as that seen by Jacob in his dream, the spirits are swept up in a whirlwind, and they, Dante and Beatrice ascend the ladder.
Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia (c 1403-1482) was a prolific Italian painter who worked primarily in Siena, and was one of the more important members of the early Sienese School. He started work painting miniatures, later making some important altarpieces as well. He created sixty-one images of Paradise for the “Yates Thompson” Dante commissioned by King Alfonso V, and now in the British Museum in London.
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.
Francesco Scaramuzza (1803–1886) was an Italian painter who specialised in mythological and historical narratives. He became quite obsessed with Dante’s Divine Comedy, and for much of his career worked on producing paintings and drawings of its scenes. He worked mainly in Parma, in Italy.
Philipp Veit (1793–1877) was a German Romantic painter who was partly responsible for the revival of fresco techniques in the early nineteenth century. He was a pupil of Caspar David Friedrich in Dresden, and later trained in Vienna. A prodigious draftsman, he preferred watercolours to oils. He went to Rome where he joined the Nazarenes, later returning to Frankfurt, where he became professor.
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.