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Dante in the National Gallery

First slide

Clad in a rose-red tunic and crowned with laurel, the poet Dante Alighieri sits on a rock before a vast landscape gazing over his shoulder to the steep seven-story mountain of purgatory with the verdant earthly paradise at its peak. A tiny boat ferries the souls of the saved across the blue water to begin their penitential ascent.

With his left hand, Dante — who died 700 years ago this month — holds open Paradise, the final book (“Canticle”) of the “Divine Comedy.” His eloquently foreshortened right hand gestures to a nocturnal image of his native city of Florence with its unmistakable dome, and below it, the fires of hell.

This arresting panel, called “Allegorical Portrait of Dante,” was painted sometime in the 16th century in Florence by an artist who remains to be identified. In honor of the Dante Year, it is again on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and curator Gretchen Hirschauer hopes it will stay there and much more will be learned about it — perhaps even who painted it and when.

Prophet of hope

The picture encapsulates what Pope Francis meant when he called Dante the “prophet of hope.” In his apostolic letter issued March 25, the Holy Father observed that “Reviewing the events of his life above all in the light of faith, Dante discovered his personal vocation and mission. From this, paradoxically, he emerged no longer an apparent failure, a sinner, disillusioned and demoralized, but a prophet of hope.”

The text written on the open pages of the Washington painting bears this out. It quotes the first 42 verses of Canto XXV of Paradiso, almost a third of the entire text of that canto. The word canto, invented by Dante, corresponds to a chapter. There are 33 cantos in each Canticle, or book, another Dante-coined term, plus one extra at the beginning. Each canto has three-verse stanzas (tercets) in an interlocking rhyme scheme he invented, called terza rima.

In Robin Kirkpatrick’s blank-verse translation the first six lines read: “If ever it should happen that this sacred work,/ To which both Earth and Heaven have set their hands/ (making me over many years grow gaunt)/ Might overcome the cruelty that locks me out/ From where I slept, a lamb in that fine fold,/ The enemy of wolves that war on it,/ With altered fleece, with altered voice, I shall/ Return as poet, taking at my fount/ Of baptism, the laurel for my crown.”

Vision of the afterlife

In the Divine Comedy, his long narrative poem, Dante describes the journey of a pilgrim — himself — who is lost in a “dark wood of error” in the year 1300, the acme of his career as a Florentine public official. Guided by spirits from the beyond, Dante descends to hell (Inferno), described as a cone blasted into the earth by the fall of Lucifer, and emerges on the other side of the earth to climb Mt. Purgatory. Three sages from classical antiquity — the poet Virgil, the statesman Cato, and a second poet, Statius, whom Dante imagines to be a Christian convert — guide him. Having purged the seven deadly vices on the mount, Dante meets a fourth guide, Matelda, and then his beloved Beatrice, who demands a confession before he is finally purified to rise to paradise.

Dante of course did not invent hell or paradise, which are present in the Gospels. His hell is very different from the usual medieval descriptions, though. Not only is each sin assigned to an appropriate circle in descending order of gravity, but there is little of the usual fire or pitchfork-bearing demons. In the pit of hell, treason sinks into a lake of ice. Dante peopled his inferno with charismatic figures who provoke the reader to reflect on what makes sin attractive.

Paradise also had a substantial literary history long before Dante, and he drew on earlier writers for angelic choirs and a cosmology based on Aristotle and Ptolemy. What surprises is that he includes science, philosophical debate, thorny questions of justice, and politics — particularly the politics of his own time, which had caused the bitter exile from Florence to which he refers in Canto XXV. 

In a way, though, Dante did invent Purgatory. The teaching had only been adopted by the church a few centuries earlier, and it was imagined exactly like hellfire, but temporary. Dante created the mountain of the National Gallery picture — night and day, light and shadow, art and music, struggle and repose — like a mirror of life on earth, but moving toward a purpose, as Pope Francis put it: “pointing toward the ultimate goal of that journey: happiness, understood both as the fullness of life in time and history, and as eternal beatitude in God.”

Hamerman writes from Reston. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021