Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 14 – a dewy facial

Venus at dawn, making the east smile. Photo by Damilaska Ichinumi, Wikimedia Commons

The first canto of Purgatorio celebrates our release from the pain and grief of hell. Virgil washes Dante’s face in the morning dew.

Dante begins by announcing the change of mood:

Boats and ships feature strongly in the Comedy, as symbols of the soul’s journey towards the divine. Here Dante is at the helm, his poem a song that bids us follow in his wake.  We will meet this image again in the opening cantos of Paradiso.

It is the hour before dawn on Easter Sunday morning when the poets emerge from the hidden passage that connects hell and purgatory, and see the stars again. In the imitation of Christ, they, and we too if we follow them, are rising from the dead.

Purgatory is conceived by Dante as a mountain island, the only land mass in the southern hemisphere (see below). In the words of Sinclair, this realm is as “opposite to hell in situation and shape as in character and purpose.” Its lower slopes, grassy and flowered, form the ante-purgatory, where groups of souls such as the lethargic and the late-repentant must bide their time before being admitted to purgatory ‘proper’. The steeper mid- to upper slopes consist of seven terraces hewed out of the rock, where the penitent must work off their sins, starting with pride and ending with lust – the reverse order of Inferno. On the summit is the earthly paradise, a garden of grasses, flowers, forests and streams, where Dante will rest from his labours before being crowned master of himself and reunited with Beatrice.

The plan of purgatory

Image copyright Christel Chater

For the time being, however, we stand on the desert shore at the base of the mountain, rubbing our eyes in wonder and relief at our escape. The sight of the stars, pricked out against the gradually strengthening light, induces a mood of serenity and awe at the earth’s beauty, a wondrous contrast with the terror and claustrophobia of hell. Venus, planet of love, shines golden in the path of the rising sun. And Dante sees the Southern Cross, not visible to mortals since Adam and Eve were banished from the earthly paradise:

Cato, Dante and Virgil. William Blake

The poets are challenged by Cato, a virtuous pagan venerated in the Middle Ages and elevated by Dante to be the guardian of purgatory. Virgil explains that Dante is still in this life but “by his folly” had come close to death and damnation. Beatrice had asked him to come to Dante’s rescue and put him back on the right path. Cato permits them to continue, telling the poets that the rising sun will show them the way to the mountain’s lower slopes.

By now it is daylight:

The canto reaches its emotional climax in the joyful humility with which Dante submits to the washing of his face in the dew. Besides rinsing away the grime and grief of hell, the poets are tapping into a traditional pagan ritual, supposed to bring good health, looks and fortune. Strong in Scotland and Ireland as late as the 1970s, the tradition has since dwindled, but the meme lives on in today’s cosmetics industry.

Note the deliberate echoes of and contrasts with the opening cantos of Inferno. We stand upright on the earth’s surface, can see where we are going and are able to walk straight there over the open plain, in contrast to our halting progress in the mondo cieco, “the blind world” of hell.  This is our return to the “right way” that was lost in the dark wood of Inferno 1. And we are once again on a “desert shore” on the far side of death, but this time we have got there by a permitted route instead of being shipwrecked (see Inferno 1, lines 22 to 27 and the disastrous end to Ulysses’ voyage, Inferno 26).

New forces are at work. The attraction in hell was downwards – that elemental, gravitational pull which drew us to the earth’s centre. Now it is upwards: the sun, divine grace, is the new influence. It will measure and regulate the poets’ progress as it crosses from east to west while they climb round the mountain in a spiral movement. When the sun rises it gives the penitent souls power and virtue to climb; when it sets, their upward movement is arrested for the night.

The Purgatorio is the cantica of earthly experience. But although we are in this world, we are no longer of it. The natural world has been re-ordered to reveal the moral and spiritual drama of the soul’s salvation. Here love will be disciplined: the prayer of the penitent souls is that of the 13th century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi: Ordina quest’ amor, O Tu che m’ami, “Set this love in order, Oh You who love me.”

Sanctioned by divine grace, effective work on the self can now begin. 

Genius line:
Porsi ver lui le guance lacrimose. The emotional climax of this celebratory opening canto, a moving image of cleansing and renewal.