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Dante's Guides


Virgil

 

At the beginning of the Inferno, Dante, the pilgrim, finds himself lost in the Selva Oscura or the Dark Wood of sin.  Three ravenous beasts, the Leopard, the Lion, and the She-Wolf block him from following the virtuous path leading to the colle luminoso, a small hill bathed in sunlight.  The pilgrim turns back in despair, sees a mysterious figure heading towards him, and fearfully cries out: “Have pity on my soul”. [1]

The figure is Virgil, the ancient Roman poet born in 70 BC, and the author of the Aeneid, the Eclogues, and the Georgics.  He tells the pilgrim that he has been sent by Beatrice, a lady whose “eyes shone brighter than the stars” [2] to guide him through the eternal place where the damned “bewail their second death” [3] and later, up the mountain where penitent souls purge themselves of vice.  In the Divine Comedy, the great Latin poet represents the limitations of natural reason: Virgil may serve as the pilgrim’s guide through hell and purgatory, but because he possesses neither the gift of grace nor the Christian faith, he cannot accompany him through heaven.  Beatrice, a more worthy soul, will take Virgil’s place.  

Upon first glance, it may seem strange that Dante gave a pagan such a central role in his epic Christian poem.  Virgil greatly influenced Dante’s poetic technique and, by having him serve as the pilgrim’s guide, Dante demonstrates to his readers that he is following in Virgil’s poetic footsteps.

Dante’s Virgil is more than just a simple guide.  Although he is pagan, he has extensive knowledge of Christian Theology and describes the moral order of hell and purgatory to the pilgrim.  In Purgatorio XVII, Virgil explains one of the central themes of the Divine Comedy.  He tells the pilgrim that people sin because they love worldly pleasures too much and heavenly virtue too little.  Throughout the Divine Comedy, Virgil displays tremendous courage and defends the pilgrim from the attacks by hideous devils and tormented souls.  He encourages the pilgrim to cross through the burning flames of Mount Purgatory.  In his final act as Dante’s guide, he crowns the pilgrim and declares his will “upright, wholesome and free”. [4]

 

Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
"Miserere di me," gridai a lui,
"qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!" (Inf. I.  64-66)

Beatrice


Beatrice is Dante's muse and inspiration for writing the Divine Comedy.  Thanks to Giovanni Boccaccio, the author of the Decameron and a biography on Dante, we know that Beatrice's real identity is Bice di Folco Portinari.  She married a prominent Florentine banker and died when she was only 24 years old.  

Metaphorically speaking, Beatrice is a mirror upon which divine love is reflected and, consequently, serves as the pilgrim's bridge to salvation.  She is a powerful character and a woman of action who descends into hell to call upon Virgil for his help and to instruct him to lead the pilgrim on an otherworldly journey.  Her love not only saves the pilgrim from the Dark Wood of sin, but also inspires him to cross through the purifying flames of Mount Purgatory into the peaceful bliss of heaven.  She is a strict guide, and often scolds and admonishes the pilgrim for his less than virtuous behavior.  

In one of the most memorable scenes of the Divine Comedy, Beatrice appears to Dante in Terrestrial Paradise.  She is dressed in white, green, and red, the colors of the three theological virtues representing faith, hope, and charity respectively, and is seated on a Griffin-driven chariot.  The Griffin has the wings and head of an eagle and the body of a lion, and in Dante's world, represents Christ.  During this poignant scene in the final cantos of the Purgatorio, Virgil disappears and Beatrice becomes the pilgrim's guide, leading him to the Beatific Vision in Paradiso XXXIII

 

 

Gustave Doré. Virgil and Dante in the Dark Wood of Sin. 'He soon as he saw/ that I was weeping, answered.' Inf. I 87-88. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Inferno. New Edition. New York. P.F. Collier, limited, 1883. Falvey Mem
Gustave Doré. Virgil and Dante in the Dark Wood of Sin. 'He soon as he saw/ that I was weeping, answered.' Inf. I 87-88. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Inferno. New Edition. New York. P.F. Collier, limited, 1883. Falvey Mem

 

 

 

Dor_Dante_transported_by_Eagle.jpg{'<br/>'}Gustave Doré. Dante transported by an eagle. 'There both, I thought, the eagle and myself/ Did burn; and so intense the imagined flames/ That needs my sleep was broken off.' Purg. IX. 29-31. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Purgatory and Paradise. new ed. New York [etc.]: Cassell & company, limited, 1883.
Dor_Dante_transported_by_Eagle.jpg
Gustave Doré. Dante transported by an eagle. 'There both, I thought, the eagle and myself/ Did burn; and so intense the imagined flames/ That needs my sleep was broken off.' Purg. IX. 29-31. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Purgatory and Paradise. new ed. New York [etc.]: Cassell & company, limited, 1883.
Dor_Beatrice_Canto_II.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Gustave Doré. Beatrice ascends to hell and tells Virgil he must accompany Dante on his pilgrimage to the otherworld. 'I who now bids thee on this errand forth,/ Am Beatrice; from a place I come/ revisited with joy. Love brought me thence,/ Who prompts my speech.' Inf. II. 70-73. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Inferno. New Edition. New York. P.F. Collier, limited, 1883. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Flaxman_The_lunar_sphere.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">John Flaxman. The Lunar Sphere. Par. II. 29. 'See that a grateful heart to God thou raise/ by whom to this first star we have been led.' Source: Dante Alighieri, Ichabod Charles Wright, and John Flaxman. The Divine Comedy. 5th ed. London: Bell & Daldy, 1867. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Flaxman_Beatrice_and_Dante.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">John Flaxman. Beatrice and Dante. 'But soon thy troublous doubts will I remove'. Par. VII. 22. Source: Dante Alighieri, Ichabod Charles Wright, and John Flaxman. The Divine Comedy. 5th ed. London: Bell & Daldy, 1867. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span>

 

 

 

St. Bernard of Clairvaux


St. Bernard belonged to the Cistercian order, served as the abbot of a monastery in Clairvaux, and was canonized in 1174.  His numerous theological works established him as one of the most important church leaders of the twelfth century.

In Paradiso XXXI, Dante turns to speak with Beatrice, but finds St. Bernard in her place.  He tells Dante that Beatrice has returned to the Empyrean and has instructed him to guide the pilgrim through the final stage of his journey.  The Empyrean is shaped like a white rose and is the highest heaven where the angels and the blessed reside. 

 

 

Gallery of Dante's Guides

 

 

Ascent_to_Primum_Mobile.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Sandro Botticelli. Heaven of the Fixed Stars. Beatrice and Dante Ascend to the Primum Mobile. Par. XXVII. Source: Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, Mario Casela, Henry Francis Cary. La Divina Commedia or Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri. New York. Nonesuch Press, limited, 1928. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Botticelli_Asent_to_the_heaven_of_fire_with_Beatrice.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Sandro Botticelli. Beatrice and Dante ascend from Garden of Eden and pass through the sphere of fire. Par. I. Source: Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, Mario Casela, Henry Francis Cary. La Divina Commedia or Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri. New York. Nonesuch Press, limited, 1928. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Botticelli_Beatrice_and_Dante_in_Heaven_of_Mercury.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Sandro Botticelli. Heaven of the Moon: Eternal abode of those forced to break their religious vows. Beatrice and Dante. Par. V. Source: Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, Mario Casela, Henry Francis Cary. La Divina Commedia or Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri. New York. Nonesuch Press, limited, 1928. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Botticelli_Beatrice_explains_to_Dante_where_the_blessed_reside.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Sandro Botticelli. Heaven of the Moon: Eternal abode of those forced to break their religious vows. Beatrice speaks to Dante. Par. IV. Source: Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, Mario Casela, Henry Francis Cary. La Divina Commedia or Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri. New York. Nonesuch Press, limited, 1928. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Botticelli_Dante_and_Cacciaguida.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Sandro Botticelli. Heaven of Mars: Eternal abode of Holy Warriors. Dante reacts to shooting star. Beatrice maintains her composure. Par. XV. Source: Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, Mario Casela, Henry Francis Cary. La Divina Commedia or Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri. New York. Nonesuch Press, limited, 1928. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Botticelli_Dante_heaven of the sun.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Sandro Botticelli. Beatrice and Dante in Heaven of the Sun: Eternal abode of the Wise. Beatrice and Dante. Par. XIII. Source: Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, Mario Casela, Henry Francis Cary. La Divina Commedia or Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri. New York. Nonesuch Press, limited, 1928. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Botticelli_Dante_converses_with_Piccarda.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Sandro Botticelli. Beatrice and Dante in Heaven of the Moon: Eternal abode of those who were forced to break their religious vows. Source: Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, Mario Casela, Henry Francis Cary. La Divina Commedia or Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri. New York. Nonesuch Press, limited, 1928. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Botticelli_Dante_in_Fourth_Sphere.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Sandro Botticelli. Beatrice and Dante in Heaven of the Sun: Eternal abode of the Wise. The ascent of Beatrice and Dante. Par. XIV. Source: Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, Mario Casela, Henry Francis Cary. La Divina Commedia or Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri. New York. Nonesuch Press, limited, 1928. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Botticelli_Dante_in_Heaven_of_the_sun.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Sandro Botticelli. Beatrice and Dante in Heaven of the Sun: Eternal abode of the Wise. Beatrice and Dante. Par. XIII. Source: Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, Mario Casela, Henry Francis Cary. La Divina Commedia or Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri. New York. Nonesuch Press, limited, 1928. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Botticelli_Justinian_and_Dante.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Sandro Botticelli. Beatrice and Dante in Heaven of Mercury: Eternal abode of the Just. Beatrice's discourse on divine justice. Par. VII. Source: Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, Mario Casela, Henry Francis Cary. La Divina Commedia or Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri. New York. Nonesuch Press, limited, 1928. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Botticelli_Justinian_talks_to_Dante.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Sandro Botticelli. Heaven of Mercury: Eternal Abode of the Just. Dante gazes at Beatrice after hearing the Emperor Justinian's discourse on the Roman Empire. Par. VI. Source: Dante Alighieri, Sandro Botticelli, Mario Casela, Henry Francis Cary. La Divina Commedia or Divine Vision of Dante Alighieri. New York. Nonesuch Press, limited, 1928. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Dor_Canto_IX_Angel.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Gustave Doré. An angel descends to hell and rescues Virgil and Dante. 'To the gate /he came, and with his wand touched it, whereat/ open without impediment it flew.' Inf. IX. 87-89. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Inferno. New Edition. New York. P.F. Collier, limited, 1883. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Dor_Dante_and_Virgil_Canto_II.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Gustave Doré. Virgil and Dante. 'Now the day was departing'. Inf. II. 1. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Inferno. New Edition. New York. P.F. Collier, limited, 1883. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Dor_Dante_and_Virgil_Inferno_34.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Gustave Doré. Virgil and Dante in hell. 'Thence issuing we again beheld the stars.' Inf. XXXIV. 139. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Inferno. New Edition. New York. P.F. Collier, limited, 1883. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Dor_Dante_and_Virgil_Inferno.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Gustave Doré. Virgil and Dante in hell. 'The guide, who mark'd/ how I did gaze attentive, thus began:/ Within these arduous are the spirits, each swathed in confining fire'. Inf. XXVI. 46-48. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Inferno. New Edition. New York. P.F. Collier, limited, 1883. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Dor_Dante_and_Virgil_leave_inferno.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Gustave Doré. Dante and Virgil exit from hell. 'Thence issuing we again beheld the stars.' Inf. XXXIV. 139. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Inferno. New Edition. New York. P.F. Collier, limited, 1883. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Dor_Dante_and_Virgil_speak.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Gustave Doré. Virgil and Dante speak. 'By that hidden way/ my guide and I did enter,/to return to the fair world.' Inf. XXXIV. 127-129. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Inferno. New Edition. New York. P.F. Collier, limited, 1883. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Dor_Dante_with_Beatrice_in_Paradiso.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Gustave Doré. Dante and Beatrice in Paradiso. 'And I beheld myself,/Sole with my lady, /to more lofty bliss.' Par. XIV. 77-79. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Purgatory and Paradise. new ed. New York: Cassell & company, limited, 1883.</span> Dor_Dante_with_Beatrice_in_Paradiso.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Gustave Doré. Beatrice and Dante in Paradiso. 'Such saw I many a face,/ All stretched to speak.' Par. III. 14-15. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Purgatory and Paradise. new ed. New York: Cassell & company, limited, 1883.</span> Dor_Virgil_and_Dante.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">Gustave Doré. Virgil and Dante at the Gates of Hell. 'All hope abandon, ye who enter here.' Inf. III. 9. Source: Dante Alighieri, Henry Francis Cary, and Gustave Doré. Inferno. New Edition. New York. P.F. Collier, limited, 1883. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Flaxman_The_poets_guided_by_an_angel.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">John Flaxman. The Poets Guided by an Angel: 'Enter' with joyful voice, he said, 'this height/ presents a stair far easier than the rest'. Purg. XV. 35. Source: Dante Alighieri, Ichabod Charles Wright, and John Flaxman. The Divine Comedy. 5th ed. London: Bell & Daldy, 1867. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Flaxman_the_poets_resting.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">John Flaxman. The Poets Reposing. 'A step his pillow each of us had made' Purg. XXVII. 73. Source: Dante Alighieri, Ichabod Charles Wright, and John Flaxman. The Divine Comedy. 5th ed. London: Bell & Daldy, 1867. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span> Flaxman_The_Descent_of_Beatrice.jpg<br/><span style="font-size: 70%;">John Flaxman. The Descent of Beatrice. 'Dante weep not that Virgil leaves thee...no.../weep not as yet'. Purg. XXX. 55. Source: Dante Alighieri, Ichabod Charles Wright, and John Flaxman. The Divine Comedy. 5th ed. London: Bell & Daldy, 1867. Falvey Memorial Library. Special Collections.</span>

 

 

 

References

1.  Citation:  Inf.  I.  66. Dante Alighieri, and Mark Musa. Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

2.  Citation: Inf.  I.  117.  Dante Alighieri, and Mark Musa. Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

3.  Citation:  Inf.  II.  55.  Dante Alighieri, and Mark Musa. Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

4.  Citation:  Purg.  XXVII. 140.  Dante Alighieri, and Mark Musa. Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

5.  Scott, John A. Understanding Dante. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004.