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Purgatory | Context


The Divine Comedy

The most immediate context for understanding Purgatory is the trilogy of which it is a part. Known to modern readers as the Divine Comedy (Italian: Divina Commedia), the poem is generally regarded as Dante's masterpiece. Each of its three books or cantiche describes a different part of the Christian afterlife: the Inferno offers a walking tour of Hell, with the damned grouped according to the nature of their transgressions. Purgatory is imagined as a mountain with distinct terraces on which sinners purify themselves. Heaven takes the form of a set of concentric spheres, with God at the middle. In all, the poem consists of 100 cantos, chapter-like units of about 140 lines apiece. One of these serves as an introduction; the remaining 99 are divided evenly among the three cantiche: Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise. The poem's richly allegorical style, combined with its wealth of allusions to medieval European politics, makes it a challenging read in Italian as well as in translation.


In the first volume, the Inferno, Dante undergoes a spiritual struggle which coincides with his arrival at middle age (35). Guided by the Roman poet Virgil, he descends into Hell and beholds the nightmarish punishments meted out to the damned. This cantica (religious or narrative poem), the most widely read and studied of the three, contains many memorable passages, ranging from piteous tales of betrayal to stomach-turning accounts of flaying and dismemberment. There is, however, little genuine drama or suspense in the Inferno, since apart from Dante and Virgil, everyone in Hell is there to stay. Poetic brilliance and philosophical complexity, rather than narrative excitement, are for the most part the Inferno's major achievements.


Following the Inferno is Purgatory, in many ways the most dynamic of the three cantiche. Here, the souls are still decidedly in the midst of their struggle toward perfection. They have been saved, but much work—not passive suffering, but active prayer and contemplation—remains before they are fit to enter Heaven. Neither as wretched as the damned nor as statically perfect as the blessed, the penitents on Mount Purgatory are the souls most akin to living human beings. They often retain vestiges of their sinful tendencies, coloring their personalities in a less dramatic way than their Inferno counterparts. Keen to enlist the prayers of the living, these souls are eager—sometimes painfully so—to have their stories told. On the surface, the penitent souls therefore seem to resemble the damned in Hell, who also want to be remembered among the living. But the souls in Hell are motivated by a mere desire to "live on" in fame and memory; they have entered a sort of cosmic "losers' bracket" where salvation is no longer a possibility. The souls in Purgatory, in contrast, are seeking prayers to help them in their own ongoing purification.


Finally, in Paradise, Dante will encounter those who are united with God in Heaven. Here, too, there is little of the action usually expected in an epic. Instead, Dante offers something more akin to a map of the virtues, associating different groups of souls with different celestial bodies or spheres. By organizing his poem according to the astronomical theories of his time, Dante answers the narrative challenge of distinguishing among souls who are all, in a fundamental sense, quite similar. He develops a complex scheme in which astrology, classical ethics, and theology are intertwined. Emphasizing one virtue at a time, the poem finally arrives at a contemplation of God's perfection and humankind's potential for sharing in it.

Purgatory in Medieval Christian Thought

The notion of a place of preparation or trial in the afterlife stretches back to pre-Christian times and is common to all three of the major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The Bible itself makes no mention of such a place, but in 2 Maccabees the practice of praying and sacrificial offerings for the dead is mentioned. Both concepts, however, were of interest to early Christian writers, and both were the subject of extensive disputation and scholarship among medieval theologians. Essentially, these theologians argued that praying for the dead would only make sense if the dead could somehow benefit from prayer. This, combined with a belief in the necessity of being purified before entering Heaven, became the main support for the doctrine of Purgatory. There was, however, no official depiction of what Purgatory looked like; to the contrary, canonical statements on the doctrine of Purgatory were often quite vague. A formal blanket assertion of its existence came about only shortly after Dante's death, at the Church's Council of Florence (1438–45).

Dante's vision of Purgatory, in all its lavish physical detail, thus has no direct precedent in the canonical writings of the time. It does, however, respond to a fundamental aspect of Christian thought—namely, the balance between God's mercy and God's justice. God's justice, in the Catholic view, requires sin to be punished: nobody gets into Heaven without first atoning for their sins. God's mercy, however, imposes limits on such a punishment, so that, for example, people guilty of shoplifting or overeating are not immediately consigned to Hell. For Dante the emphasis is on mercy, as evidenced by the potential to lighten or shorten a soul's "sentence" through prayer or sacrifices while still on earth.

After Dante's time the belief in Purgatory would continue to play an important role in the history of the Catholic Church. The notion of a temporal punishment after death led to the creation of indulgences, special works that could reduce one's own—or someone else's—time in Purgatory. Over time indulgences began to be bought and sold, a practice that became one of the landmark issues of the Protestant Reformation; many of the reformers responded not simply by rejecting the selling of indulgences, but by denying Purgatory altogether. In modern times the doctrine of Purgatory is a defined Catholic dogma. The Protestant and Orthodox churches do not acknowledge it.

Politics in Dante's Poetry

During his lifetime Dante's birthplace of Florence was embroiled in not one but two major political conflicts. Northern Italy at the time of his birth was a complicated patchwork of feuding city-states and other small principalities. The dominant family factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, supported the Pope and Holy Roman Emperors respectively. Dante was fortunate enough to be a Guelph partisan during a time of Guelph ascendancy, but he remembered the warring between the two factions bitterly. In Purgatory, however, the Guelphs and Ghibellines in Purgatory are often on friendly terms, having learned through their penance to let bygones be bygones. The vale of princes, depicted in Cantos 7–8, shows Guelph and Ghibelline rulers conversing with one another in a courtly and civil manner. Canto 14, an even better illustration, shows Guido del Duca (a Ghibelline) commiserating with Rinieri da Calboli (a Guelph) over the decline of their dynasties. This hatchet-burying behavior is in sharp contrast to the Inferno, where Ghibellines and Guelphs continue to torment one another for eternity. In Inferno 32, for example, the Guelph partisan Ugolino della Gherardesca gnaws away perpetually at the skull of his enemy, the Ghibelline Ruggieri degli Ubaldini.

Once the Guelphs had undisputed control of Florence in the early 14th century, they themselves became subject to infighting. Two groups emerged, the Blacks and the Whites. Dante belonged to the Whites. As with the previous conflict, a record of Dante's allegiances and enmities worked its way into the Divine Comedy, including Purgatory. The Black Guelph magistrate Fulcieri da Calboli, for example, is described as a worthless heir to his uncle Rinieri. The language used to describe these conflicts suggests they were fresh and painful in Dante's memory.

In 1302, while Dante was away on an official diplomatic mission to Rome, he found himself exiled by the Black Guelphs in absentia as part of a papally backed coup. The sentence—initially two years, but soon extended to life—precipitated a period of wandering that lasted for more than a decade. Barred from Florence on pain of death, he traveled to Bologna, Padua, and possibly Paris before settling in Ravenna in 1317. Having spent so many years on the road, dependent on the kindness of strangers and remote acquaintances, Dante had a special place in his poetry (and perhaps in his heart) for those who showed him hospitality. The Malaspina family, who served as Dante's benefactors during this period, are mentioned favorably in Canto 8. More broadly, Dante's experiences as an exile provide him with a great deal of empathy for the souls in Purgatory, who are barred (albeit temporarily) from the joys of Heaven, and for his guide, Virgil, who is "exiled" from Heaven eternally since he lived in pagan times before Christ.

Later Visions of Purgatory

Purgatory is often compared to the writings of Saint Bridget of Sweden, a 14th-century mystic who offered her own grisly account of purgatorial suffering. Her version contrasts sharply with Dante's in emphasizing the gruesome and passive nature of this suffering: the soul in her version of Purgatory is pictured as having its head squeezed in a disfiguring vice. Indeed, in many respects Bridget's Purgatory is more like a temporary Hell, whereas Dante's Purgatory is a purposeful journey in which the soul willingly participates, and the tribulations and tortures will end.

Later poets and artists were more directly inspired by Dante's Purgatory. Two of the most famous visual representations of the poem are the watercolors of English painter and writer William Blake (1757–1827) and the engravings of French artist Gustave Doré (1832–83). Blake's illustrations, commissioned in 1824 and produced in 1825–27, capture key moments of the Divine Comedy and are more evocative than realistic in style. Those from Purgatory include an ethereal-looking rendition of the vale of princes (Cantos 7–8), two depictions of Dante on the mountain's final terrace (Canto 27), and an almost cartoonishly vivid portrayal of the allegorical pageant from Canto 32. In all, Blake produced 102 watercolor illustrations of the Divine Comedy, though some are little more than sketches.

Better known to modern readers are Doré's more detailed illustrations, which, like Blake's, form part of a complete Divine Comedy set. Blake achieves his effects through color, sometimes opting for a largely monochrome palette and sometimes for vivid contrasts of hue and intensity. Doré, in contrast, relies mainly on value—degrees of darkness and lightness—to conjure up the mood of the Comedy's different settings. In Purgatory, he opted for a generally dark and sober landscape, contrasted with the eerie chiaroscuro (contrast of light and dark) of the Inferno and the airy brightness of Paradise. Having since appeared in hundreds of illustrated editions of the Comedy, Doré's engravings have exercised an outsized influence on the way readers engage with Dante's poem. "Nearly 150 years after their initial publication," writes art historian Aida Audeh, "[Doré's] rendering of the poet's text still determines our vision of the Commedia."
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