Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 16 – enlightening grace

Dante and the Eagle. Doré, licensed under Wikimedia Commons

The Divine Comedy is primarily a vision. It is the story of how one man, through grace, becomes pure in heart and hence able to see God. During his first night on the mountain, Dante’s damaged inner sight is cleansed and healed in preparation for the work of penitence that awaits him in purgatory proper. This is the first episode in a process that culminates in the moment of perfetto veder, perfect seeing, that comes at the end of the Paradiso.

In the chill night air, at the hour when the pale bright moon is rising in Scorpio, Dante falls asleep beside Virgil. Towards dawn he has a prophetic dream:

This dream sequence is extraordinarily vivid! The sudden awakening is a brilliant touch, so true to life. The strength of the sun, beating on Dante’s eyelids, is the counterpart in reality of his dreamed experience of burning.

The golden-feathered eagle, majestic and powerful, has a twofold meaning. Here as throughout the Comedy, it stands for the Holy Roman Empire, in its ideal, divinely intended form, as the bringer of peace and fulfilment to human life on earth. Sinclair comments:

“The terrible lightning swoop of the eagle and the scorching fire that broke Dante’s sleep indicate the overwhelming character of such an idea of perfected humanity for a mind used to the harsh realities of the world.” 

The eagle is also a symbol of spiritual regeneration through the purification of vision. Eagles were revered in medieval times for their sharp eyesight. According to legend, as their sight dims in old age, they fly up to the sphere of fire (beneath the moon), where they are blinded and scorched before plunging into water, a cycle that restores their youth. Dante signals this meaning at the start of the dream, when he tells us it occurs under the sign of Scorpio, associated with healing. And this is the meaning that reflects what has actually happened while he has been asleep.

Virgil explains that, as he sat watching over his charge, a lady appeared who said her name was Lucy and that she had come to pick Dante up and carry him up the mountain. Virgil had followed in her steps and Lucy had set Dante down here, close to the gate of purgatory proper.

Dante clearly had great reverence and affection for St Lucy, whose name means bringer of light. Her dwelling place is high in the mystic rose of heaven, where we will meet her again in Paradiso. Representing enlightening grace, Lucy is the messenger sent by the Virgin Mary to Beatrice, asking her to contact Virgil and send him to Dante’s rescue (see Inferno 2). She is thus an important link in the chain of command responsible for the poet’s salvation.

Saint Lucy, patron saint of the blind. By Gandolfino_da_Roreto, licensed under Wikimedia Commons

As patron saint of the blind, Lucy may have had a special place in Dante’s prayers. He is known to have suffered from poor eyesight when a boy and problems with his eyes seem to have persisted into adulthood, doubtless worsened by long hours of study. The aspiring poet would also have appreciated another of Lucy’s roles: patron saint of writers!

Lucy’s appearance in ante-purgatory represents a special type of guidance: the divine action that cleanses the inner vision, giving sudden and mysterious help along the way. Swift and unseen, her intervention lifts the poet to a new stage on his journey, a new level of consciousness.

As Sinclair comments,

“Dante has been brought by a power beyond himself to the place of his own committal, to the threshold of that purgation by which alone a disordered humanity can ever become a divine order.”

Dante Before the Gates of Purgatory. By Bela Čikoš Sesija, licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

Before him lies the gate of true purgatory. Now it’s time for the real work of penitence to begin.

Genius line:
Ivi parea che ella e io ardesse. The eagle and the poet seem to burn together, a powerful image of purification. Compare “For He is like a refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2).