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Paradise | Symbols

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In several of the spheres of Paradise, the souls of saints and angels assemble into distinctive shapes. Each soul, represented as a single point of light, takes its place in a sort of celestial drill formation designed to dramatize a specific virtue. The souls in the sun, for example, take part in an orderly and ever-turning dance representing wisdom. Those in Mars form a cross, the symbol not only of Christianity but also of Christ's redemptive sacrifice. In the sphere of Jupiter, they take on the shape of an eagle, an image Dante associates with earthly justice. The most prominent of these symbolic shapes are discussed in greater detail below.

Cross

When Dante reaches the sphere of Mars, he beholds a great jeweled cross, formed from the gleaming lights of individual souls. Mars is the sphere of courage, and it's no coincidence that it features the most prominent cross imagery of any region in Paradise. As Dante speaks with his ancestor Cacciaguida and learns of the other souls who populate the sphere of Mars, a definition of courage begins to develop. Courage is, in Dante's view, not merely risking life and limb, or overcoming one's enemy in battle, but willingly sacrificing oneself to a higher purpose, struggling for God's cause. Thus, for Dante, crusaders like Cacciaguida are courageous in a more morally significant way than are mercenaries, or soldiers serving an earthly king. His versions of Hell and Purgatory are, in fact, full of people who fought bravely but for the wrong reasons.

The Bible contains many stories of moral courage, from the defiant monotheism of the prophet Daniel to the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. The ultimate example of such courage, however—at least from a Christian viewpoint—is Jesus's willing submission to the Crucifixion. A cross thus appears in Mars as a beacon of true, self-sacrificing valor. Moreover, by visually forming themselves into a cross shape, the souls in this sphere join their sacrifices to Christ's. To the full extent that they can, they participate in His courage, just as the souls in the Empyrean participate in God's glory.

Eagle

In the sphere of Jupiter, the souls take on a more elaborate shape: that of the head and neck of a great golden eagle. This remarkable anthropomorphic creature speaks on behalf of all the sphere's souls, who surrender their individuality for a time and address Dante as a chorus. In choosing the Eagle to represent justice, Dante is drawing on the ancient symbolic association between eagles and Rome. The standards (flags or pennants attached to poles) of the Roman Republican legions—and later those of the Roman Empire—were capped with eagle figures, known in Latin as aquilae. As the central symbol of the army that subdued much of the Western world, the eagle soon became a symbol of Roman authority in general, including the authority of its laws and courts. Rome, for Dante, is the supreme earthly site of both secular and spiritual authority (see the Context section). Thus, it is natural for him to use its emblem as the "mascot" of just rulership.

Similar imagery resurfaces in Canto 26, where John the Evangelist is called "Christ's great Eagle." This is an allusion to the "four living creatures" who are mentioned in the biblical book of Ezekiel as part of a vision. Each creature is described as having four faces—those of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. With the advent of Christianity, these figures were reinterpreted as symbols of the four Evangelists, prefiguring the spread of the Gospels centuries in advance. The matching-up of author to creature varied from one source to another, but Dante follows Augustine of Hippo, Jerome, and other early Church fathers in identifying John as the eagle.

Various explanations have been given for assigning the eagle symbol to John, as most authors have followed Aquinas and Dante in doing. One distinctly "eagle-like" trait of John's Gospel is its "soaring" lyrical quality, in contrast to the more detailed and explanatory account of Christ's life to be found in the Gospels. The Gospel of John has also been said to "soar" in its emphasis on the Incarnation, the mystery of the "Word made flesh" enunciated in its opening verses. Moreover, in medieval times, eagles were believed to be capable of looking directly into the sun without harm—a feat setting them apart from other animals. Far from blinding the eagle, sungazing was thought to sharpen its eyesight, contributing to its famous prowess as a bird of prey. Thus, in calling John an eagle Dante is crediting him with an extraordinary acuity of spiritual vision, even by the standards of a saint.

Rose

When Dante arrives at the Empyrean, he nominally leaves time and space behind. However, he still finds himself reliant on visual images to capture—or at least to gesture toward—the true nature of Paradise. God, who is omniscient and therefore perfectly aware of Dante's limitations, makes the court of Heaven visible to the poet as a huge, spotless white rose. God sits at the center, the saints form the concentric petals, and the angels travel from layer to layer like numberless bees.

On the surface the rose might seem a suitable emblem for Heaven simply because—in Dante's time as still today—it represents beauty. Dante, however, likely had more specific aspects of rose symbolism in mind when he wrote Paradise. In the Hebrew scriptures the prophet Isaiah promises "the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose." Roses thus symbolize fulfillment and flourishing—particularly the fulfillment of a promise that seems unlikely. The rose of Heaven, like Isaiah's metaphorical blossom, emerges from a "desert" of its own: Earth, left barren by original sin in which no rose can bloom. Rose imagery is scarce elsewhere in the Bible, though flowers of many kinds can be found in the sensuously poetic Song of Solomon.

From the early centuries of Christianity, the rose was also associated with the Virgin Mary, who indeed occupies the place of honor in the heavenly court. Saint Ambrose, a 4th-century Church father, imagined the roses of Eden were without thorns until the fall of humankind. Mary, who in Catholic teaching was spared from original sin to become the mother of God, was thus popularly likened to a "rose without thorns." In imagining the entire court as a rose—and a thornless one at that—Dante is perhaps incorporating a further stroke of Marian imagery into his poem.

Finally, the image of a rose serves to express the heavenly court's living, growing quality. Although the Empyrean is ostensibly timeless, its membership is indeed growing over time as faithful souls either die in God's grace or "graduate" from Purgatory. In Canto 32 Saint Bernard even points out some of the "reserved seating" and informs Dante about Heaven's future occupants. The "unfinished" quality, however, in no way diminishes the beauty or perfection of Heaven in Dante's eyes. Like a rose, it is perfect while still in bloom, and as Heaven itself, will not fade away.

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