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Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.
Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy is a famous Medieval Italian epic poem depicting the realms of the afterlife. Dante (who was born in 1265) wrote The Divine Comedy somewhere between 1308 and his death in 1321, while he was in exile from his hometown of Florence, Italy, which had been enduring civil war.
The Divine Comedy is divided into three separate volumes, each containing 33 cantos (or chapters). These volumes are Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
Dante is both the author and the central character of this trilogy. He travels through all of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven to make his way back to God, meeting several characters from history and literature on his way.
As an exile, the poet Dante felt rather lost in his life; so, at the beginning of Inferno, the character Dante is likewise lost both physically and spiritually. The ancient Roman poet Virgil (a hero of Dante's) appears in the poem to guide Dante through Hell in an effort to save Dante's soul. Hell exists in the middle of the Earth and is made up of nine circles.
The sinners in Hell have never repented while on Earth. They suffer the consequences of the sins they committed during life, which are turned back on them, a concept called contrapasso. For example, canto 20 depicts circle eight, where sorcerers who used dark magic to see forward into the future now have their heads painfully turned backwards for all eternity.
Hell is structured like an upside down cone, with each descending circle becoming smaller and containing more depraved souls and more intense suffering. Right outside the gates of Hell are those who neither accepted nor rejected God.
Within the gates of Hell, the first circle holds the unbaptized and the pagans born before Christ (such as Plato, Aristotle, and Virgil himself). The other circles are defined by the major sin committed by those condemned to that circle: lust (circle two), gluttony (circle three), greed (circle four), and wrath and depression (circle five). The final circles make up the infernal city called Dis, with circle six containing heretics, circle seven containing those who committed violence, circle 8 containing deceivers, and circle nine containing those who betrayed trust. At the deepest region of circle nine, a three-faced Satan, stuck in a frozen lake, chews on the worst betrayers of all time: Judas (who betrayed Jesus), and Brutus and Cassius (both of whom betrayed Julius Ceasar).
After the harrowing experience in Hell, Dante and Virgil climb out and enter Purgatory, where penitent souls endure punishment in order to fully purge themselves of sin before entering Heaven. Purgatory is shaped like a mountain and is divided into seven different levels, associated with the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, wrath, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, and lust.
Contrapasso still exists to some extent; for example, those who struggled with the flames of lust on Earth literally endure a purging fire in Purgatory. But, unlike the souls in Hell, these souls embrace their punishment because it is making them holy. They sing and praise God in the midst of their punishment, and implore Dante to ask people on Earth to pray for their souls. Also unlike the souls in Hell, they are free to move between the seven levels as they purify themselves. Beyond the seventh level at the top of the mountain is the earthly paradise of Eden, where Virgil disappears and is replaced by Dante's next guide.
As a pagan, Virgil cannot enter Heaven, so he is replaced by the next guide, Beatrice, who takes Dante from Purgatory to Heaven. Beatrice was Dante's real-life love interest and muse for much of his poetry, so it is fitting that she acts as Dante's guide to the divine. She also seems to be the main agent of his salvation here, so critics have long noted how Beatrice acts as a sort of Christ figure for Dante. At times, the poem seems to be as much about Dante's praise of Beatrice as it is about his journey to God.
Heaven is arranged in a series of nine spheres, which loosely correlate to the planets' orbits. Music and delight characterize Heaven, and the souls and supernatural beings there bask in the light of God's holiness. Dante and Beatrice again meet historical and religious figures, such as the Christian philosopher Augustine and the saints from the Bible. These figures teach Dante about God's nature.
Interestingly, some of these figures also praise Dante's poetry, saying it will give him fame as well as reveal divine truth to those on Earth. Once Dante and Beatrice reach the ninth sphere, Dante's heart has finally been fully sanctified, and he can now go beyond the spheres to the Empyrean, where God resides. The poem ends as Dante sees God, and his heart becomes full of love and knowledge of God.
The Divine Comedy is full of historical, theological, and literary allusions, and has been interpreted in numerous ways by critics. One popular interpretation of the poem is that it is an allegory of a soul's voyage to salvation. A soul must acknowledge sin in all its darkness, repent, and then come to know God. The poem is also considered to be a theological portrayal of the structure of the afterlife, according to the Medieval Christian worldview. Other critics argue that it is a very personal look into Dante's character, since so much of the poem praises Beatrice as well as his own poetry.
Still other critics see the poem as a critique of the political, social, and even religious culture of Dante's time. Many of the characters in the poem are Medieval Italian politicians or dishonored religious figures, and this poem is Dante's chance to criticize the very corruption that led to his exile and the disintegration of Florence. Other critics argue that Dante writes this poem as a testament to his own poetic genius and his moral superiority; after all, Dante the poet assumes the role of God by judging who makes it into Heaven and Hell.
Dante's The Divine Comedy has intrigued critics and readers alike for several centuries. Virgil guides Dante through Hell in Inferno, where sinners hopelessly endure contrapasso as eternal punishment of their sins. Purgatorio depicts sinners who undergo punishment as a way to cleanse their souls. Paradiso depicts Heaven and the Empyrean, where Dante sees God and achieves his salvation, though this seems to be as much attributed to the idealized Beatrice as it is to God. Dante was not shy in asserting this work of poetry to be almost as divine as its subject matter. Divine or not, Dante's work has certainly endured as one of the most popular and epic depictions of the supernatural realms beyond our world.
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Back To CourseAP World History: Help and Review
31 chapters | 407 lessons