Divine Comedy: Purgatorio

Ante-Purgatory

Shore of the Island (Cantos I – II)

In Purg. I.4-9, with the sun rising on Easter Sunday, Dante announces his intention to describe Purgatory by invoking the mythical Muses, as he did in Canto II of the Inferno:

Now I shall sing the second kingdom there where the soul of man is cleansed, made worthy to ascend to Heaven.

Here from the dead let poetry rise up, O sacred Muses, since I am yours. Here let Calliope arise...[4]

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). The Purgatorio demonstrates the medieval knowledge of a spherical Earth,[5][6] with Dante referencing the different stars visible in the Southern Hemisphere, the altered position of the sun, and the various timezones of the Earth. For instance, at the start of Canto II, the reader learns that it is dawn in Purgatory; Dante conveys this concept by explaining that it is sunset at Jerusalem (antipodal to the Mount of Purgatory), midnight (six hours later) over India on the River Ganges (with the constellation Libra overhead there), and noon (six hours earlier) over Spain. The journey is conceived as taking place during the vernal equinox, when the days and nights are of the same length.

"By now the sun was crossing the horizon of the meridian whose highest point covers Jerusalem; and from the Ganges, night, circling opposite the sun, was moving together with the Scales that, when the length of dark defeats the day, desert night's hands; so that, above the shore that I had reached, the fair Aurora's white and scarlet cheeks were, as Aurora aged, becoming orange."[7]

In a contrast to Charon's ferry across the Acheron in the Inferno, Christian souls are escorted by an Angel Boatman from their gathering place somewhere near Ostia, the seaport of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber, through the Pillars of Hercules across the seas to the Mountain of Purgatory. The souls arrive singing In exitu Israel de Aegypto[8] (Canto II). In his Letter to Cangrande, Dante explains that this reference to Israel leaving Egypt refers both to the redemption of Christ and to "the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to the state of grace".[9]

The Excommunicate

The poets begin to climb in the early hours of morning. On the lower slopes (designated as "Ante-Purgatory" by commentators), Dante and Virgil encounter two main categories of souls whose penitent Christian life was delayed or deficient: the excommunicate and the late repentant. The former are detained at the base of the cliff for a period thirty times as long as their period of contumacy. The excommunicate include Manfred of Sicily. Manfred explains that prayer from those currently alive and in the grace of God may reduce the amount of time a soul spends in purgatory.[10] The meeting with Manfred is over by about 9 AM.[11] (Canto III).

The Late-Repentant

The Late-Repentant includes (1) those too lazy or too preoccupied to repent (the Indolent), (2) those who repented at the last minute without formally receiving last rites, as a result of violent deaths, and (3) the Negligent Rulers. 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 lazy include Belacqua (possibly a deceased friend of Dante), whom Dante is relieved to discover here, rather than in Hell. The meeting with Belacqua is over by noon (Canto IV).

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."[12]

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.[1] As a resident of Purgatory, Sordello is able to explain the Rule of the Mountain: that after sunset souls are 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[1] Virgil's conversation with Sordello ends as the sun is moving downward, that is, after 3 PM[13] (Cantos VI to VII).

It is sunset, so Dante and his companions stop for the night in the beautiful Valley of the Princes 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). John Ciardi writes that these Negligent Rulers are "elevated above their negligent subjects because their special duties made it difficult for them to think about the welfare of their own souls".[14] 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:[15]

Purgatorio, Canto VIII, 1–6 (Longfellow) Don Juan, Canto 3, CVIII, 1–6
'twas now the hour that turneth back desireIn 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 bellThat seemeth to deplore the dying day, Soft hour! which wakes the wish and melts the heartOf those who sail the seas, on the first dayWhen they from their sweet friends are torn apart;Or fills with love the pilgrim on his wayAs the far bell of vesper makes him start,Seeming to weep the dying day's decay;

Dante falls asleep at 8:30 PM; his dream takes place just before the dawn of Easter Monday[16] and he awakens just after 8 AM.[17] Waking, 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)[18][19] (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."[20] 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.[18]


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