Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 10 | Summary

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Summary

Dante and Virgil take their first tentative steps beyond the gate of Purgatory, eventually reaching a wide, even road that wraps around the mountain. On the inner side of the road is a long marble wall, carved with strikingly detailed reliefs of biblical scenes. First depicted is the Annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary and declares her the Mother of God. Next follows a carving of the Ark of the Covenant, followed by a procession of carved figures so realistic they seem to sing. King David dances before the Ark while his wife Michal looks on scornfully.

As the road continues, the carvings shift from the biblical to the classical. The next story depicted is that of Emperor Trajan of Rome (d. 117), who according to medieval legend interrupted a military campaign to seek justice for a poor widow. As Dante admires the artwork, a group of penitents approaches, each bent beneath a heavy stone slab. Horrified at their suffering, Dante nonetheless acknowledges the aptness of their punishment when it's explained.

Analysis

Pride is the first sin punished and corrected within Purgatory. Accordingly, the unifying theme of the marble carvings is the virtue of humility. Mary's response to the angel, given by Dante in Latin, translates to "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord." King David's self-abasement before the Ark—dancing was seen as an undignified act for a king—wins him the disdain of his wife but reveals his devotion to God. The heavy, clumsy stones borne by the penitents serve as a counter-image to the graceful, lifelike carvings: humility, the poem suggests, is beautiful, whereas pride weighs the soul down.

The Trajan story is notable in that it seems, at first, to violate the overall order of the Divine Comedy. Dante has laid out a clear and largely consistent set of rules whereby those who die unbaptized belong in Limbo (if virtuous) or elsewhere in Hell (if not). Trajan, who never converted to Christianity and in fact presided over the persecution of Christians, might thus seem like an odd figure to juxtapose with the Virgin Mary. His inclusion reflects a miraculous twist on the medieval story told above. According to the legend, Pope Saint Gregory the Great (reigned 590–604), was moved by Trajan's example and prayed for the long-dead emperor's soul. God, in response, brought Trajan back to life just long enough to be baptized—and therefore eligible for salvation.
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