Divine Comedy: Purgatorio


At the shores of Purgatory, Dante and Virgil meet Cato, a pagan who has been placed by God as the general guardian of the approach to the mountain (his symbolic significance has been much debated). On the lower slopes (designated as "Ante-Purgatory" by commentators), they also meet two main categories of souls whose penitent Christian life was delayed or deficient: the excommunicate and the late repentant. The former are detained here for a period thirty times as long as their period of contumacy. The latter includes those too lazy or too preoccupied to repent, and those who repented at the last minute without formally receiving last rites, as a result of violent deaths. These souls will be admitted to Purgatory thanks to their genuine repentance, but must wait outside for an amount of time equal to their lives on earth.

The excommunicate include Manfred of Sicily (Canto III). The lazy include Belacqua (possibly a deceased friend of Dante), whom Dante is relieved to discover here, rather than in Hell (Canto IV):

".. From this time on, Belacqua, I need not grieve for you; .."[10]

Those not receiving last rites include Pia de' Tolomei of Siena, who was murdered by her husband, Nello della Pietra of the Maremma (Canto V):

"may you remember me, who am La Pia; Siena made, Maremma unmade me: he who, when we were wed, gave me his pledge and then, as nuptial ring, his gem, knows that."[11]

Also in this category is the troubadour Sordello who, like Virgil, is from Mantua. When Sordello discovers the great poet's identity, he bows down to him in honour. This helps keep Virgil in the foreground of the poem, since (as a resident of Limbo) Virgil is less qualified as a guide here than he was in Hell.[3] As a resident of Purgatory, Sordello is able to explain the Rule of the Mountain: that after sunset souls are literally incapable of climbing any further. Allegorically, the sun represents God, meaning that progress in the penitent Christian life can only be made through Divine Grace[3] (Cantos VI to VII).

Since the sun is setting, Dante and his companions stop for the night in a beautiful valley where they meet persons whose preoccupation with public and private duties hampered their spiritual progress, particularly deceased monarchs such as Rudolph, Ottokar, Philip the Bold, and Henry III (Cantos VII and VIII). Dante also speaks with the souls of contemporary Italian statesmen Currado Malaspina and Nino Visconti, the latter being a personal friend whom Dante rejoices at not having found among the damned.

As night approaches, the souls sing the Compline hymns Salve Regina and Te lucis ante terminum. Dante's beautiful description of evening in this valley was the inspiration for a similar passage in Byron's Don Juan:[12]

Purgatorio, Canto VIII, 1–6 (Longfellow) Don Juan, Canto 3, CVIII, 1–6
'twas now the hour that turneth back desire In those who sail the sea, and melts the heart, The day they've said to their sweet friends farewell, And the new pilgrim penetrates with love, If he doth hear from far away a bell That seemeth to deplore the dying day, Soft hour! which wakes the wish and melts the heart Of those who sail the seas, on the first day When they from their sweet friends are torn apart; Or fills with love the pilgrim on his way As the far bell of vesper makes him start, Seeming to weep the dying day's decay;

Waking from a dream, Dante finds that he has been carried up to the gate of Purgatory proper. This gate has three steps: polished white (reflecting the purity of the penitent's true self), black (the colour of mourning; cracked in the shape of a Christian cross), and red (symbolising the blood of Christ and the restoration of true life)[13][14] (Canto IX).

The gate of Purgatory, Peter's Gate, is guarded by an angel who uses the point of his sword to draw the letter "P" (signifying peccatum, sin) seven times on Dante's forehead, bidding him "take heed that thou wash / These wounds, when thou shalt be within."[15] With the passage of each terrace and the corresponding purgation of his soul that the pilgrim receives, one of the "P"s will be erased by the angel granting passage to the next terrace. The angel at Peter's Gate uses two keys, silver (remorse) and gold (reconciliation) to open the gate – both are necessary for redemption and salvation.[13]

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