Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 29 | Summary

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Summary

Now that she has sung the praises of the Earthly Paradise, Matelda goes her way, still singing. Dante follows her from his own side of the riverbank; she beckons him to be still and watch what is about to happen. A radiant light shines out, and Dante interrupts his narrative to entreat the Muses for help in describing what follows. A magnificent procession appears: first, seven golden candle stands are brought forth, with the flames leaving a trail of rainbow-colored light as they cross the poet's field of view. A group of 24 elders in white robes follows the candles, singing a hymn to the Virgin Mary.

From here the spectacle grows even more extraordinary. Four winged creatures, whom Dante only glancingly describes, come next, escorting a splendid two-wheeled chariot pulled by a gryphon. Three ladies—red, green, and white in color—dance alongside the chariot to its right, while four ladies in purple garments walk to its left. Seven more figures, all male and each wearing a crown of roses, bring up the rear. With a sound of thunder, the procession comes to an abrupt halt.

Analysis

This canto is positively crammed with religious symbolism and, as such, is among the most difficult in Purgatory. The seven flames have been variously interpreted, but translator Robin Kirkpatrick identifies them as the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: "wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, [and] fear of the Lord." The seven ladies who escort the chariot are, according to Dante scholar Teodolinda Barolini, the seven virtues. The tricolored trio are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, while the four in purple are the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. This image perpetuates Dante's distinction between earthly wisdom (as embodied by Virgil) and divine revelation (as represented by Beatrice). The gryphon—half-eagle and half-lion—represents Christ, whom Christian theology describes as both human and divine.

Most of the remaining figures, as Barolini explains in her Digital Dante commentary, represent the books of the Bible. The 24 elders are the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament. The four winged creatures, whom Dante describes only briefly, are the four evangelists; their traditional identification as a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle comes from the Book of Ezekiel. The seven men who follow the procession represent, collectively, the other books and letters of the New Testament.

Above and beyond the individual symbols, this scene is a pivotal moment in Dante's journey. The procession, which continues into the remaining cantos of the book, is an elaborate point of contact between Heaven and earth. Through its incorporation of the Scriptures, the liturgy, and both human and divine virtues, it shows the ways in which—to a Christian—God's majesty is made manifest to humanity. As such, it should not be viewed as merely the "end credits" to Purgatory, but a point of transition between Purgatory and Paradise.
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