Sunday, 16 October 2011

La Divina Commedia – Il Dio

The Representation of God in Dante’s Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy, an epic poem written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, has many a time been named amongst the greatest literary works in the world. Recently, I have been working my way through this grand piece of literary genius, and I can now fully appreciate why it has been hailed as such a brilliant work. For those who don’t know, the story that goes with this epic poem is centred around the character Dante, the author placing himself directly in his work, whom is led through the cosmos. In this poem, the cosmos is an interpretation of the Christian Doctrine concerning the afterlife and Dante finds himself led through the Inferno (Hell) and then through Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paridiso (Heaven).

The entirety of the poem is filled with the most vivid imagery. I would call it beautiful if it were not for the fact that much of what we witness in the Inferno is horrific, unsettling imagery that was almost certainly intended to horrify. However, the message of this poem is two fold. On the one hand, it serves to represent the historical views held by the Christian faith. This is not to say that the Church necessarily believed that Dante had actually been on this voyage or that they saw the afterlife as being exactly as he says it is, but I think that it shows us that the Church did believe that such torments were possible and that the damned deserved such. On the other hand, it allows us to examine Dante’s own views on such things, especially in the way that his avatar reacts to the horrors he witnesses. Many debates rage over where one ends and the other begins.

And yet, despite all the horrors and pain that we are privy to as Dante wanders the Inferno and ascends the Purgatorio, we are reminded consistently of God and his presences throughout the poem. For, as we must remember, Dante only braves the Inferno so that he might bare witness to Paridiso and the soul of God itself. The figure of God is prevalent throughout the entirety of the plot, and God is the central theme of this epic poem.

What struck me as I began to read this epic poem was that from the very beginning, we are assailed by the presence of God all around us. This presences is revealed at first through light and brightness. Light is a pervasive symbol throughout the works and is referenced many times, each time it seems to emphasise that even though Dante begins this tale lost and feeling alone, that God is always there beside him. We don’t actually personally meet God through the eyes of Dante until the end of the poem, when he and his second Guide, Beatrice ascend to the Empyrean, a place beyond the physical realm where God resides.

God is also made known to us through the character of Virgil, a roman poet who lived before the birth of Christ, in the way that he acts as a guide and friend to Dante. He is a father figure to Dante which is seen in the way that he protects him from the dangers of the Inferno and also appears to be a figure of great inspiration for Dante’s own works. Not only that, but Virgil makes references to the fact that he is with Dante and that Dante is walking the path through the Cosmos because God wills it to be so (or at least because an emissary from Heaven will it so). It is interesting that Dante chooses Virgil to be his guide. In the poem, Virgil is long dead and in his death has been confined to the first of the hells, a place called Limbo. Here, there is no painful torment or evil but instead, the punishment for the souls here is that they know they shall eternally be separated from God. Limbo is for those who did not sin, but did not have faith in God. It has been argued that this is because Dante himself had a great love for the classics and yet this love and his Christian faith were at war with one another. We can assume that in this internal battle, Christianity won, for we see that many classic figures (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer ect) are confined as well in Limbo and that Virgil is limited in the way that, although he is with Dante because God wills it, he is still not permitted to enter into Heaven.

Another limitation of Virgil’s is seen when the pair attempt to enter the City of Dis, and find themselves unable to gain entry, despite the best efforts of the Roman Poet. What saves them and allows their journey to continue, is intervention from on high in the form of an Angel, whom simply taps the gate with a wand, which opens it, and then leaves. This scene is highly important in how God is represented to us. Although Virgil is portrayed as a God-like figure, he is given very clear limitations and it is made clear to the reader that only God and those in heaven are unlimited and that those in Hell may be powerful, but when compared to the Divine, they are nothing. This is strongly shown in the scene outside the gates of Dis. These gates are watched over by fallen Angels and when Virgil attempts to reason with them, he cannot. Yet, this Angel throws wide the gates without any level of resistance. It is made more evident in that fact that Virgil could not pass fallen Angels and yet an Angel of God finds those Angels not of God easily overcome.

This second limitation shows us that Virgil, though a father figure and in many ways a symbol of God’s presence in the entire poem, is still separate from God. Virgil represents God in as far as he is good and he acts as a father figure and a wise guide for Dante, yet it is made very clear that, for all his good, Virgil is not God, for he is obviously limited.

Only at the end of the poem do we see God directly. These segment of the epic poem so clearly represents the power and awesome might of God. The first way in which this is shown is through the fact that God exists in the only area of the poem known to be beyond the physical that exists above all else. This is a symbol for the greatness of God when compared with mankind. We are also told that before he may enter into this place and witness God, Dante is enveloped in light. This idea that mortals must be rendered fit before they may see God is another of the Church's views which has entered into the poem.

The imagery in this part of the poem are highly symbolic. For example, Dante sees a rose, which has a long tradition of being considered linked to love, upon which many faithful souls have thrones. He then portrays the Angels as bees, whom spread peace and love as real bees spread the pollen.

Then we see God himself, and from the outset we are introduced to how impossible he is for us to understand. God is represented as being three circles of different hue but which occupy exactly the same space. These three circles represent the trinity of God as it is found in the Christian religion, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the centre of these circles, we can see the human shape of Christ. That these circles occupy the same space and yet are still distinct represents to the reader that God is beyond mortal understanding, how he operates outside the laws of reality and the logic we know. This is tied in with the poems ending, in which Dante is questioning how the circles fit together before he realises that he not meant to understand the figure of God, but instead is meant only to accept his love.

God is a central figure throughout the entirety of the Divine Comedy, though we see him only at the end. Dante attempts to show us how God cannot be understood by us and how we are not meant to understand him as he is, hence the metaphor of the three distinct circles which occupy the same space and yet still appear as different. Instead, God is made known to us through the good and noble natures of the guides that led Dante through the three layers of the after world. However, we are reminded that, though his guides represent God, they are not him in full. God is at the centre of the Divine Comedy. His figure permeates it.


  1. This certainly sounds like an interesting read, and one of these days I'll have to pick myself up a copy. Which of the three sections would you have said you preferred, and why?

  2. I cannot chose one which I like more that the others, for each segment is immersive for many different reasons. Inferno is one of the most horrific and yet illuminating things you can read, whereas the imagery in Paridiso is beautiful. You should definately read them in order, however, and then you can capture the full aspect of emotion of this journey Dante embarks upon.