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Dante, prophet of the Year of Mercy

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Dante Alighieri is "a prophet of hope, a herald of humanity's possible redemption and liberation, of profound change in every man and woman, of all of humanity." So wrote Pope Francis last May as he saluted the celebrations of the author of the epic poem, The Divine Comedy, honoring Dante on the anniversary of his birth in 1265 - 750 years ago.

If you go soon to the National Gallery of Art in Washington you may be able to see a unique painting that's not always on view, the "Allegorical Portrait of Dante Alighieri," currently hanging near masterpieces of the 16th-century Italian Renaissance. The surrounding pictures are of religious scenes, or else, vivid portraits of contemporaries who lived in the 1500s.

The picture of Dante - not the usual devotional image and not the usual portrait - bridges the world between the individual and the sublime, just as his poetic worlds bridged the ancient and modern, the secular and sacred domains. Although the artist is not known, he was close to Agnolo Bronzino, a Florentine master who admired the great Michelangelo, who was, by the way, a lifelong devotee of The Divine Comedy.

Anyone familiar with the poses of the prophets who foretold the advent of Christ on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome, painted half a century before the National Gallery's portrait, will recognize that the anonymous artist of the Dante portrait has deliberately modeled the poet's pose on those heroic figures.

Dante sits on a rock overlooking a seascape, clad in a red robe, his brow wreathed in poet's laurel. His aquiline profile turns slightly away from us to gaze at the seven-story mountain of purgatory in the right background. On the lower left we glimpse the flames of eternal punishment in hell and just above this, a ghostly view of the dome of the Florence cathedral.

"Inferno" (hell) and "Purgatory" are two of the canticles, or major sections of Dante's famous poem, which he simply titled Comedy but what began to be called "Divine" around the time this picture was made. The third is "Paradise." The artist alludes to this third level by painting translucent angels in the dawning sky and above all, by the open pages of the book he holds, where the opening lines of Canto 25 of "Paradise" are legibly inscribed.

In that passage, the exiled poet voices his hope to return to the Baptistery of St. John in Florence "to which his thoughts turned during the last years of his life with the desire of being crowned poet at the very font where he had received baptism," as Pope Benedict XV wrote in an encyclical honoring Dante in 1921. Canto 25 goes on to define and describe the theological virtue of hope.

Preparation for the Year of Mercy

In May 2015, Pope Francis added his voice to all those who see the long-ago poet as still having "much to say and offer to those who desire to travel the way to true knowledge, to the authentic discovery of self, of the world, of life's profound and transcendent meaning." In a message sent to the Italian Senate, the Holy Father underlined the connection between reading Dante's writings and the upcoming Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which will begin Dec. 8, 2015 - exactly 50 years after the Vatican Council opened.

"The Comedy can be read as a great itinerary, rather as a true pilgrimage, both personal and interior, as well as communal, ecclesial, social and historic. It represents the paradigm of every authentic voyage in which humanity is called to leave behind what Dante calls 'the little patch of earth which makes us here so fierce' (Par. XXII, 151) in order to reach a new condition marked by harmony, peace and happiness."

Contrary to the popular view that Dante put his enemies in "Inferno" and his friends in "Paradise," the entire Comedy is intended to invoke the mercy of God. The late Dorothy Sayers, who penned a verse translation of the Comedy, pointed out that the difference between the punishments in hell and the penances in Purgatory is not their severity but whether they are "remedial" or "retributive." If the sinner refuses to accept his guilt, she said, then all punishments are only retributive, but if he admits that what he did was wrong, then all punishments, no matter how harsh, are remedial - merciful purgation on the way to heaven.

Dante is an ideal guide to mercy, because he created for the first time the image of the seven-story mountain of purgatory. Before his Comedy, purgatory was portrayed simply as a temporary version of hellfire. Moreover, his vivid narrative of sinners in "Inferno" is also merciful, as it offers living readers the chance to remedy their mistakes before it is too late, by seeing the consequences.

Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.

If you go

The National Gallery of Art, 6th and Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington. Open Mon. through Sat. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. 202/737-4215 or nga.gov.

Read it

Pope Francis suggests reading The Divine Comedy for the Year of Mercy. Go to worldofdante.org or etcweb.princeton.edu/dante.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015