Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 32 | Summary



Saint Bernard now points out other notable figures in the court of Heaven, whose ranks are divided into two sets of hemispheres. Women, including not only Mary, but Eve, Rachel, and other biblical figures, sit above the divine presence at the circles' center. Men are enthroned below it. Laterally, the court is divided between "those who showed belief in Christ to come" and "those / who turned their countenance to Christ now come." The ranks of the former—the faithful from before the coming of Christ—logically are now full, with no room for new additions. The ranks of the latter still contain some vacancies. The souls of baptized children, "spirits loosed from earth / before they ... could conceive free choice," sit along the midline.

Expecting Dante to take issue with the justice of saving some children and not others, Bernard prepares an answer. In the earliest days, he says, children of the faithful were saved automatically, but since the coming of Christ baptism has been requisite for salvation. Unbaptized souls from this time onward have been allocated to Limbo, a painless border region of Hell. This fate cannot be understood rationally, Bernard warns, but must be chalked up to the mysteriousness of God's will. Bernard next directs Dante's gaze once more to the Virgin Mary, who—he says—is alone able to make Dante fit to look upon God. As Dante watches, the archangel Gabriel flits through the heavenly court singing Ave Maria gratia plena—"Hail Mary, full of grace."


It is best not to read too much into the arrangement of figures in the Empyrean. Although some particularly prominent saints are situated in the outermost circle, there is no obvious "ranking" of saints as there is for the choirs of angels. Nor does the split between "believers in Christ to come" and "believers in Christ already come" mean these two groups will eventually be equal in size. It is perhaps more helpful to see these different categories—male/female, pre-Christian/Christian—as ways of conveying Heaven's scope and diversity to a medieval reader. As an educated Christian of his time, Dante is likely to hold that such differences are not important in God's eyes. Paul, in his Epistle to the Galatians, puts the matter as follows:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

The differences are, however, of great potential importance to Dante's readers, who might "see themselves" in some saints more than in others. By insisting on the variety of characters who people the court of Heaven, Dante is giving earthly believers a panoply of role models to identify with.

Moreover, a few "diagrammatic" features of the Empyrean are worth pointing out because they shed light on Dante's theology. The Virgin Mary sits at the top of the outermost circle, not to indicate she is "farther" from God, but to underscore her exceptional status among the saints (see Canto 23). Below her is Eve, who has a special connection to Mary: one is the earthly mother of the living, the other—in Catholic tradition—their spiritual mother. (Several of the early Church fathers, noting this parallel, bestowed on Mary the epithet of "New Eve.") Eve is at the feet of Mary, since Eve caused the first sin while Mary closed it and provided salvation. Present are Rachel, Leah, Sarah, Rebecca, Judith, and Ruth—all the virtuous and heroic Hebrew forerunners of Mary. Opposite Mary—at the bottom of the circle—is John the Baptist. Again, this placement does not indicate John is the "best" saint in some hierarchical way. It does, however, call attention to the parallels between John's role and Mary's. One brings Christ into the world; the other prepares the world to receive Him.

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