Purgatory, Canto 9
DANTE, waking from a dream in which he is snatched away by an Eagle, finds that he has actually been carried up, in his sleep, by St Lucy to the Gate of Purgatory itself Here Virgil and he are challenged by the Porter, who, hearing that Lucy has sent them, invites Dante to climb the three steps that lead to the Gate, marks the sign of the Seven Capital Sins upon his forehead, and opens the Gate with the Keys of Peter. On entering Purgatory the Poets are greeted by the strains of the Te Deum.
The Prepatory Lecture
Questions for Reflection
The Canticle in this Canto
Purgatory, Canto 9 © Jan Hearn
Dante’s Dream of the Eagle: This is the first of the three dreams which Dante has, on the three nights he spends in Purgatory. All three symbolize and interpret something which is occurring or about to occur. On this occasion he dreams that he is walking, like Ganymede, upon Mount Ida, and, like Ganymede, is caught up to heaven by an eagle. The dream is induced by a reality (Dante’s dream-psychology is always plausible): he has actually been carried up the face of the Mountain by St Lucy, and this movement both induces and fulfils the dream which symbolizes it.
Ganymede was the son of Tros, ancestor of Aeneas and mythical founder of Troy. Enamoured of his beauty, Jove sent the divine eagle to fetch him one day as he was hunting with his friends upon Mount Ida, overlooking Troy, and Ganymede was carried away to Olympus to become cupbearer to the gods. The legend thus provides two threads of symbolism. (1) Primarily, it is a story in which God takes the initiative, moved by love for a human being, and carries the beloved away to be with Himself. (We need not let any prejudices about Olympian morality interfere with our, or Dante’s, allegorizing of the myths.) (2) Secondly, throughout the Comedy, the Eagle always symbolizes the true Empire and, in particular, the Justice of the Empire — a concept which we shall see fully elaborated in the Paradiso, in the Heaven of Jupiter (Para. xviii, xix, xx). To this true Empire (“The Rome where Christ Himself is a Roman”, Para. xxxii. 102) the souls of men are brought by the purgatorial path, which is the fulfilling of Justice. (See Introduction, p sqq.) Ganymede the Trojan, of the line that founded Rome, is thus the type of human society, taken up into the City of God, here and hereafter.
Lucy: St Lucy, it will be remembered, was the second of the “Three Blessed Ladies” who interested themselves in Dante’s welfare. It was she who was sent by the Blessed Virgin to call Beatrice’s attention to Dante’s peril in the Dark Wood (Inf. ii. 97 sqq.). As the saint who looks after people’s eyesight, she figures as a symbol of illuminating grace, and is thus fitly typified in the dream by the eagle which can, traditionally, bear to look on the sun with naked eyes. In the allegory, the intervention of Lucy means, I think, that in entering actively upon the way of Penitence and Purgation the soul is dependent upon God’s grace. It is too great a leap for it to make by its natural light and natural powers, though these will, of course, accompany and assist it. Thus Lucy is sent from Heaven to carry Dante up, and Virgil only “comes behind”.
The Three Steps: These are the three parts of Penitence: (1) Confession, (2) Contrition, and (3) Satisfaction. (See Introduction, .) The first is of polished white marble: the penitent looks into his heart, sees himself as he is, recognizes his sinfulness, and so admits and confesses it. The second is black, the colour of mourning, and cracked in the figure of the cross: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise” (Ps. Ii. 17, Vulg. l. 19). The third is of porphyry redder than blood: the colour symbolizes not only the penitent’s pouring out his own life and love in restitution for sin, but also the Blood of Christ’s “oblation of Himself once offered, to be a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world” (Book of Common Prayer), with which the penitent’s satisfaction must unite itself in order to be complete.
The Threshold of adamant is the foundation on which the Church is built: in her human aspect, the Rock which is Peter; in her Divine aspect, the Cornerstone which is Christ.
The Angel at the Gate: He is usually taken as representing the ideal Confessor, or the ideal Priesthood, and so, in the immediate context, he is; but in a wider sense he might be called, f think, the Angel of the Church. He wears the ashen garments of penitence, not only because the good confessor must himself be a penitent, but because the Church, so long as she sojourns in Time, must sojourn in sorrow and tribulation; he bears “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God”; and he is invested with the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, which were given to Peter as the Church’s authority to bind or unloose the bonds of sin. The Gate itself is the “Peter’s Gate” mentioned in Inf. i. 134: and we may note that the soul which is within the Gate and set on the Way of Purgation is already within “the Kingdom of Heaven”.
The Seven P’s: “P” stands for peccatum = sin; thus the Seven P’s represent the Seven Capital Sins which must be purged successively on the Seven Cornices of Purgatory. They “are signs of the conviction of sin, the new sense that sin is a ‘wound’, which is wrought in [the penitent] by the sword of the word” (J. D. Sinclair).
The Keys: These are the two parts of absolution: The Golden Key is the Divine authority given to the Church to remit sin; it is “the costlier” because it was bought at the price of God’s Passion and Death. The Silver Key is the unloosening of the hard entanglement of sin in the human heart: and this needs great skill on the part of the Church and her priesthood when administering the sacrament of Penance. Both keys must function smoothly for a valid absolution: the use of the golden key without the silver lands you exactly where it landed Guido da Montefeltro (Inf. xxvii. 67 sqq.): the silver without the golden (i.e. remorse for sin without seeking reconciliation) leads only to despair and the Gorgon at the Gates of Dis. (Inf. ix.)
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