Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 12 | Summary

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Summary

Dante now finds himself surrounded by two circles of souls, which he likens to a double rainbow. Another soul—a saint named Bonaventure (c. 1217–74)—speaks up and narrates the life of Saint Dominic, whom Bonaventure imagines as a "knight" fighting under the banner of Christ. Wedded to Faith at a young age—just as Saint Francis was wedded to Poverty—Dominic grew up to become a "scholar of great worth" and a rooter-out of heresies. Meanwhile, Bonaventure laments, the Franciscan order has grown soft and no longer upholds its commitment to a life of poverty. Bonaventure concludes his speech by pointing out several of the other souls who occupy the sphere of the sun. Some of these are Bonaventure's fellow Franciscans, but others are Christian thinkers and preachers dating back to the 4th century.

Analysis

Although Bonaventure insists on the similarity—even the equality—between Francis and Dominic, the two saints are described in quite different terms. Dominic, in this canto, is the subject of an extended vineyard metaphor, appearing as the pruner and weeder-out of all that ails the Church. Heresy and schism are, in Bonaventure's imagery, like so much rot and blight on the good fruit of Christianity. Elsewhere, Bonaventure likens Dominic to a knight doing combat against the heretics. Francis, in contrast, is portrayed in Canto 11 as a lover, not a fighter. This is consonant with his modern reputation as a gentler man of peace in love with many species of creation.

Bonaventure's interpretation of Dominic and his order is, unsurprisingly, quite positive. This is, after all, one Catholic saint talking about another Catholic saint in a poetic movement devoted to saintliness. The Dominicans were not, however, as universally liked as Bonaventure's glowing portrait might suggest. A great deal of the historical ambivalence toward the Dominican order is captured in the punning nickname Domini canes, or "dogs of God." For Bonaventure and other admirers of Saint Dominic, this label connotes the loyalty and zeal of the Dominicans in preaching the Gospel. Others, however, have seen in the "dog" label something more malicious and wolflike. This is largely because of the Dominicans' role in the Inquisition, which their order formally headed from the 13th century onward. In Dante's lifetime the Dominican effort to suppress heresy was not limited to preaching orthodoxy, but—at times—devolved into tribunals, torture, and burning at the stake. These cantos give a rather full coverage of the varieties of Catholic faith at the time, including awareness of criticisms one party makes of the others. Such views were anything but foreign to the Florentine Dante living in unhappy exile for having the wrong political and familial allies.

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