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Dante e Virgilio nel Purgatorio, Domenico Morelli

A Pilgrimage of Thought, Pt 4: Dante Ascends Mount Purgatory


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Purgatory is presented within The Divine Comedy as a mountain that must be climbed to be overcome. Following Dante and Virgil's sojourn into Hell, he and his guide prepare to achieve the summit of Purgatory, proceeding into a similar pilgrimage as the one they just completed. 

Purgatory: The Afterlife for Sins Arising From Love

According to the textual Dante in this section, all sin arises from love and thus Purgatory consists of those who wanted to enact a crime for a good reason, but instead chose not to. Similarly, some of the people who reside in this afterlife accidentally committed a sin while living a good, promising life. This distinction is at the heart of the difference between the two realms, as it vastly influences the eternal outcome of the "sinners."

Location and Geography of Purgatory in the Divine Comedy

In the Divine Comedy, the foundation of the mountain of Purgatory is made up of two layers called "Ante-Purgatory" -  similar to an antechamber preceding the primary room. Seven other layers figuratively illustrating the struggles of overcoming the seven deadly sins succeeds the two antecedents, culminating in an Earthly Paradise at the mountain's crest. An island in the southern hemisphere, Purgatory apparently lies on the opposite side of the world from the entrance to Hell, as Dante's consciousness believes that Hell is beneath Jerusalem in the east.

Purgatorio, Philip Firsov

Purgatorio, Philip Firsov (Wikimedia Commons)


Interestingly, the first person Dante and Virgil meet on the lowest shores of Purgatory is Cato the Younger, a Roman politician made famous when he tried to kill himself by violently eviscerating his body. (Ironically, Cato was caught in the act and a doctor immediately tended to him, but when left alone again Cato repeated the job until he died. )

Dante, Virgil and Cato (1827) William Blake

Dante, Virgil and Cato (1827) William Blake (Wikimedia Commons)

Moving beyond Cato, the two travelers enter the two antechambers, first made up of those who were excommunicated from the church and later, those who repented too late in life to be considered true and worthy Christians. Eventually, those within the antechambers will become admitted into Purgatory, however both the excommunicated and repentant must wait for as many years as they lived on earth before being allowed to enter their afterlife.

The First Three of the Seven deadly Sins: Pride, Envy and Wrath

A much more peaceful place than the nine circles of Satan's inferno, Dante and Virgil willingly remain within the antecedent levels for the night, resting their weary bodies, as well as engaging in conversations with former rulers and Italian officials Dante himself had actually known when they lived. In the morning, Dante finds himself at the gate of the apostle Saint Peter, the entrance to Purgatory, having been lifted there by angels during his sleep. As the Inferno had nine circles, Purgatory has nine levels: the two antecedents and the upcoming seven terraces, each representing one of the seven deadly sins good Christians must overcome to end up in the highest afterlife they can gain, the Earthly Garden.

Dante and Virgil at the entrance to purgatory, Gustave Doré

Dante and Virgil at the entrance to purgatory, Gustave Doré (Wikimedia Commons)

The proud dwell on the first level, surrounded by symbols of humility, while they themselves are weighed down with heavy rocks.  Unlike the greedy within Hell, these people are intended to learn from their struggle rather than suffer for it.  Through hard work comes true peace, leading Dante to recognize the prideful nature within himself and become conscious of the change he must make to avoid this realm.

Envy comes next, the bane of wanting what one cannot have but never actually attempting to forcibly or illegally obtain what they want.  The eyes of the envious are sewn shut, so they may not see what it is they are wanting, leaving them with only the ability to listen to the stories of kindness and generosity expressed by others.

Dante gives his condolences to the blind (1835) Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin

Dante gives his condolences to the blind (1835) Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin (Wikimedia Commons)

The wrathful ambulate in a cloud of smoke on the third terrace, indicating the blind rage that can come from anger.  Dante envisions Procne, the mythological Greek wife of Tereus while here, a symbol of blind rage as she murdered her own son to feed to her husband after he raped and tore out the tongue of her sister, Philomena. 

Sloth, Greed and Gluttony

The fourth terrace is home to the slothful, those who were too lazy to go after the loves they desired or to attend to their religion in a dutiful manner. 

Cleverly, those who loved material objects far too much reside on the fifth terrace, prostrated on the ground to atone for their overwhelming avarice. 

Dante and Virgil on the fifth terrace (1868) Gustave Doré

Dante and Virgil on the fifth terrace (1868) Gustave Doré (Wikimedia Commons)

The gluttonous starve on the sixth terrace, their punishment not unlike that of Tantalus, head of the ancient Mycenaean House of Atreus, who was forever surrounded by food and water that he was never able to reach or eat. 

Lust, the Level that Almost Kept Dante

And finally, on the seventh level are those who physically and sexually desired those they could not have, running back and forth through flames indicative of their burning passions.

Dante nearly loses himself here, as his love for Beatrice was not allowed due to his marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, and it is only after Virgil reminds him that Beatrice herself is in the Earthly Paradise awaiting them that Dante is convinced to move on.

The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice in Purgatory (1853) Andrea Pierini

The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice in Purgatory (1853) Andrea Pierini (Wikimedia Commons)

The Garden of Eden: Farewell Virgil, Hello Beatrice

In the Divine Comedy, the Earthly Paradise is, in fact, the legendary Garden of Eden, and stands as the precipice upon which those in Purgatory strive to reach.

Beatrice does reunite with Dante here, as he had hoped, and takes the place as his guide through the final chapter of The Divine Comedy. Virgil, a pre-Christian unable to attain Heaven, leaves him with her and together Dante and Beatrice embark on a journey they were never able to take in life, crossing the river of forgetfulness from Greek mythology called Lethe to the river of good memories called Eunoë (created by Dante Alighieri for his book in the same vein as the previously mentioned rivers of the underworld in the Inferno). Finally, Dante makes his way into the realm of Heaven above.

Dante and Beatrice at the River Lethe (1889), Cristobal Rojas

Dante and Beatrice at the River Lethe (1889), Cristobal Rojas (Wikimedia Commons)

Featured Image: Dante e Virgilio nel Purgatorio, Domenico Morelli (Wikimedia Commons)

Coming Next: Dante attains Paradise

By Ryan Stone


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Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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