At the summit of Mount Purgatory is the Earthly Paradise or Garden of Eden. Allegorically, it represents the state of innocence that existed before Adam and Eve fell from grace – the state which Dante's journey up Mount Purgatory has been recapturing. Here Dante meets Matilda, a woman whose literal and allegorical identity "is perhaps the most tantalizing problem in the Comedy." Critics up to the early twentieth century have connected her with the historical Matilda of Tuscany, but others suggested a connection with the dream of Leah in Canto XXVII. However, Matilda clearly prepares Dante for his meeting with Beatrice, the woman to whom (historically) Dante dedicated his previous poetry, the woman at whose request (in the story) Virgil was commissioned to bring Dante on his journey, and the woman who (allegorically) symbolizes the path to God (Canto XXVIII).
With Matilda, Dante witnesses a procession which forms an allegory within the allegory, somewhat like Shakespeare's play within a play. It has a very different style from the Purgatorio as a whole, having the form of a masque, where the characters are walking symbols rather than real people. The procession consists of (Canto XXIX):
- "twenty-four elders" (a reference to Revelation 4:4), representing the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, as classified by Jerome
- "four animals" with "six wings as plumage" (a reference to Revelation 4:6–8), a traditional representation of the four Evangelists
- "a chariot triumphal on two wheels," bearing Beatrice, which is drawn by…
- a griffin, representing the conjoined divinity and humanity of Christ
- "three circling women" coloured red, green, and white, representing the three theological virtues: Love, Hope, and Faith, respectively
- "four other women" dressed in purple, representing the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude
- "two elders, different in their dress," representing the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles
- "four of humble aspect," representing the general epistles
- "when all the rest had passed, a lone old man," representing the Book of Revelation
The appearance of Beatrice, and a dramatic reconciliation scene between Beatrice and Dante, in which she rebukes his sin (Cantos XXX and XXXI), help cover the disappearance of Virgil, who, as a symbol of non-Christian philosophy and humanities, can help him no further in his approach to God (and in the rest of the Divine Comedy, Beatrice is Dante's guide):
"But Virgil had deprived us of himself, Virgil, the gentlest father, Virgil, he to whom I gave my self for my salvation; and even all our ancient mother lost was not enough to keep my cheeks, though washed with dew, from darkening again with tears."
Dante then passes through the River Lethe, which erases the memory of past sin (Canto XXXI), and sees an allegory of Biblical and Church history, in which the chariot plays the role of the Church. This allegory includes a denunciation of the corrupt papacy of the time, and its ties to the French monarchy (Canto XXXII):
"Just like a fortress set on a steep slope, securely seated there, ungirt, a whore, whose eyes were quick to rove, appeared to me; and I saw at her side, erect, a giant, who seemed to serve as her custodian; and they again, again embraced each other."
Finally, Dante drinks from the River Eunoë, which restores good memories, and prepares him for his ascent to Heaven (described in the Paradiso). As with the other two parts of the Divine Comedy, the Purgatorio ends on the word "stars" (Canto XXXIII):
"From that most holy wave I now returned to Beatrice; remade, as new trees are renewed when they bring forth new boughs, I was pure and prepared to climb unto the stars."