The least known of the three books which make up Dante’s Divine Comedy, at the time it was arguably its most important. In Inferno, he details the eternal sufferings of the damned; in Purgatory, there are the acts of penance required of those who would ultimately make it to earthly paradise. Only in (heavenly) Paradise does Dante reveal the carrot, the incentive for not sinning. Without that, there would seem little point.
His heavenly Paradise has its own distinctive structure. Inferno is a series of circular terraces forming an inverted cone, descending to Satan’s pit at the bottom. Purgatory is a series of terraces spiralling up an island mountain, culminating at the top in earthly paradise. Heavenly paradise is a series of spherical shells rising from the top of the earth’s atmosphere, each with a heavenly body in orbit, rising to the realm of fixed stars, beyond which is the Empyrean, the mind of God.
With Beatrice as his guide, Dante first ascends through the layer of fire above the earth’s atmosphere to the shell containing the moon.
Here, Dante meets spirits of those who broke their religious vows, including Piccardia Donati, who was forced to leave her convent in order to enter into a political marriage. He then meets the Empress Constance, who underwent similar removal from holy orders for an arranged marriage.
The next shell up contains the planet Mercury, where Dante and Beatrice meet the spirits of those whose love of God was reduced in their high ambitions for fame. Among these are the Roman emperor Justinian.
Beyond that, Dante enters the shell containing the planet Venus, where they meet the spirits of those whose lives were dominated by carnal love and desire – which many Christians would consider strange if not heretical. Among these are Charles Martel, Cunizza da Romano, and the troubador Folco of Marseille, each of whom had lives driven largely by their libido.
Ascending above Venus, Dante and Beatrice reach the shell of the Sun, where they meet the spirits of the wise. Notable among them are Saint Thomas Aquinas with eleven companions including King Solomon, who was a Dominican and outlines the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. Then they meet Bonaventure with his eleven companions, who balances matters with an account of the life of Saint Dominic.
When Dante and Beatrice move up to the shell of Mars, they are greeted by a cross formed by the spirits of holy warriors.
At the foot of that cross, Dante meets his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida, a pious and righteous man who died ‘fighting for God’ in the Second Crusade, and identifies other spirits present including Joshua, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon (from the First Crusade).
They next enter the shell of the planet Jupiter, where spirits form the letters of an exhortation to rulers to cherish justice, the last of which forms itself into a huge eagle.
The eye of the eagle is formed from Kings David and Hezekiah, with other just rulers such as the Emperor Constantine around it.
The next shell up contains the planet Saturn, where Dante and Beatrice see Jacob’s ladder of contemplation. Descending this ladder is the spirit of Peter Damian, a former Benedictine monk who rose to become a Cardinal. He condemns contemporary clergy for their licentious lives. Dante then meets Saint Benedict, founder of the order and author of the rules of monastic life.
As they approach heavenly Paradise itself, Dante and Beatrice reach the realm of fixed stars, as they were thought to be at that time. They arrive under Dante’s birthsign of Gemini, the twins. Here Dante sees Christ himself above his triumphant armies, and far below the pitiful little earth. He is joined by the apostles Peter, James and John who successively examine him on the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.
Dante moves up to the first moving sphere, which is the origin of time. He is surrounded by concentric rings of angels, arranged in order of their power from the seraphim out to ordinary angels. This gives Beatrice the opportunity to explain the vast numbers of angels before they ascend further.
Finally, Dante and Beatrice reach the Empyrean, the realm of the mind of God, beyond time and space. Spirits form themselves into a celestial white rose, in which Beatrice assumes her place. Dante is now guided by the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux, for his closing visions of the Holy Trinity and the mystery of the Incarnation, with the love of God holding together the whole universe.
So the Divine Comedy comes to a close.
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.
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.
Federico Faruffini (1831–1869) was an Italian realist painter and engraver, who specialised in history and other narrative works. He rose to fame during the 1860s, culminating in an award in the Paris Salon in 1867. However, he was never commercially successful and tragically committed suicide in 1869 at the age of only 38.
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.
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.