Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 23 | Summary

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Summary

Reaching the Fixed Stars—the eighth sphere of Paradise—Dante beholds the saints in triumph. At the head of the procession is Christ, imagined as a light too pure and bright for Dante's eyes to behold. This temporary blinding has a side effect, however, as Dante can now tolerate the comparably mild radiance of Beatrice's smile. Beatrice gently reproves him for staring.

Looking back over the rejoicing crowd of saints, Dante is still unable to find fitting words for what he beholds. Grasping for images, he likens the sight to a field of flowers, a sea of torchlights, and a "swirling crowd of splendours / flung out like thunderbolts." The angel Gabriel is heard singing a hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary, its refrain taken up by the other blessed souls: Regina Coeli, "Queen of Heaven." Dante marvels at the atmosphere of exultant love that seems to pervade this layer of Paradise.

Analysis

Dante treats the Virgin Mary with a special reverence. In Paradise he twice beholds her from afar but never directly speaks with her. Instead, he goes through intermediaries, including the archangel Gabriel (Canto 23) and Bernard, a saint (Canto 32). This differs markedly from Dante's treatment of other saints. With patriarchs, apostles, evangelists, and other high-ranking members of the heavenly court, Dante is happy to carry on imagined conversations. Mary, however, stands apart as an object of awed contemplation. She is, not coincidentally, the only character other than God Himself to have hymns sung to her in Paradise.

In according Mary a preeminent place in Heaven, Dante endorses the traditions of the early and medieval Church. Following the teachings of Saint Augustine, the Church of Dante's time distinguishes three kinds of reverence: dulia (sometimes translated from Latin as "honor"), hyperdulia (literally, "above honor," often translated as "veneration"), and latria (worship). Dulia is the kind of honor due to the saints, while hyperdulia is the reverence paid to the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, a living star and mystical Rose. Neither one constitutes worship in the strictest sense, which is due only to God. To use one of the ladder images of which Dante is so fond, Mary stands one "rung" above the other saints, but she is still a created being and therefore still below God. This tradition and the associated Marian devotions are substantially preserved in modern Catholicism and Orthodoxy, though rejected by many Protestant groups, one of the major distinctions of Catholicism and Protestanism, which has no convents and generally venerates Mary less.

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