The Divine Comedy


"I prefer to paint people's eyes rather than cathedrals, because there is in people's eyes something which does not exist in cathedrals, majestic and important as they are."

Vincent Van Gogh.

Dante's Divine Comedy is one of the greatest works of Wisdom literature in the Western world - if not the greatest after the Bible. It was written between 1300 and 1320 as an account of an imaginary "journey" into the afterlife, undertaken by the Italian poet and shared by the reader. The journey is in three parts, "Inferno", "Purgatorio", and "Paradiso" - or Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

Dante starts out "from a Dark Wood" in which he is lost, mid-way through his life, i.e. when he was 35 years old. He finds a guide, the Roman poet Virgil, who is sent by Providence to help him find his way - or at least to find his way up to the point where Virgil can no longer help him; thereafter he is guided by Beatrice, the spirit of a deceased young acquaintance of Dante's, who to Dante embodied pure Love.

At this mid-point in his life Dante knows much about humanity, its weaknesses and strengths, but is lost as to the deeper meaning in life, even though he is a loyal, if somewhat errant, son of The Church. The Dark Wood represents Sin and Error that obscures the Right Way from the pilgrim's path through life. Dante in real life has at the time of his writing become an outcast from his own city Florence by virtue of his involvement in its politics and the poem incorporates many references to his contemporary society.

Each part has 33 chapters, "Cantos", (Hell actually has 34, the opening Canto being an introduction to the whole work). In this journey Dante sees the destiny of the souls of the departed from all walks of life: where they end up, or where he finds them, depends upon their performances during their earthly lives. Inevitably Dante is playing judge and jury here, but he makes it clear to the reader why each person is here through the mouth of his guide Virgil and, later, through Beatrice.


Hell is structured as a descending pit constructed as a series of nine circles, each one of which is populated with 'sinners' who have succumbed to particular earthly temptations and during their lives would appear to have had no intention of correcting their errors. The deeper the travellers go into the pit the worse are the sins represented and the more miserable the punishments - eternal punishments since there is no chance of redemption. High up in the pit are those representing personal weaknesses of indulgence, loss of self control and violence. Further down are the more powerful sins that affect others indiscriminately (e.g. the misuse of power) and deeper still are those who lead others away from spiritual truths and from trust, which Dante saw as more heinous than physical self-destruction and personal violence to others. At the centre of Hell is Lucifer locked in a lake of ice

In the first circle of Hell is Limbo, where Dante meets those who lived before the time of Christ, a time when "no one could know Salvation" (Canto 4 line 63). Immediately after the Crucifixion and before the Resurrection Christ went into Hell to release the souls of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets who prepared His Way. The rest - the great humanists of the Classical and Ancient world - are judged by their own humanist standards in Limbo.


Purgatory is reserved for those who erred in their earthly lives yet had every intention of doing better - and who had a Christian faith, however rudimentary. Here again the structure is a series of concentric circles, but this time they are placed around a steep mountain. The journey is a climb involving effort - as opposed to an erratic descent in Hell. The same sins that were encountered in Hell - where they destroyed peoples' souls - are in Purgatory represented as weaknesses that can be overcome. Whereas in Hell it is easy to slip through 'gravity' ever deeper into worse and worse sins - i.e. to be seduced by the ways of the world and one's own weaknesses - in Purgatory a conscious act of the will has to be involved in climbing ever higher towards the Truth that will eventually be revealed to those who persist.


Paradise can only be guessed at. Dante places here the many great people from all walks of life who have dragged humanity not only from the barbarity that human life so easily descends into, but through civilizing influences towards knowledge of pure beauty, wonder and truth.

Annick Gaillard writes:-

Why paint the Divine Comedy in the year 2000? Botticelli, William Blake, Gustave Doré, Rodin and other great artists have worked on it. Michelangelo made this work his bed-side reading. Dante's text is an inward journey in which the poet confronts aspects of himself and of the world at large in order to find his own path. Such an extraordinary and ultimately beautiful odyssey is available to anyone sufficiently humble and courageous to take the first step.

I 'saw' the work as a series of portraits, since despite the picturesque environments the poem essentially describes meetings between Dante and other human beings - and meeting people is, I believe, the best way to learn anything of real value. I intuitively felt the models for the souls in Paradise needed to be artists - musicians, painters, writers etc - since it is they, above all, who have given the world so such beauty, inspiration and hope over the centuries. At about the same time I came across Van Gogh's observation quoted above.


In his commentary, Painton Cowen has occasionally drawn on Dorothy Sayers' comments on the Inferno in the Penguin Edition.

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