The Divine Comedy is a powerful portrayal of a lowly poet’s journey to spiritual growth, written to alert mankind to the horrific consequences of humanity’s errant sinning upon Earth. Its intention was to divert a spiritually lazy society back to a path of Faith so that, upon death, man could once again ascend to the heavens to enjoy eternal life in the glory and perfection that is Paradise. To not do so, the poem warns, is to condemn oneself to eternal death in the barbaric and apocalyptic inferno of Hell. Our hero is on a mission to save mankind from spiritual destruction. It’s one heck of a task.
Through both the language of the poetry and its artistic interpretations (Botticelli, Doré, Blake) the message of Inferno is loud and clear. Avoid! Avoid! Avoid! Renounce sin or book your one-way ticket to Hell. To eternal pain. Eternal torture. Eternal death. So successful was Dante at portraying the horrors and barbarity of the inferno, convincing readers to reject sin, that the rest of The Divine Comedy remains largely overlooked, particularly by the modern reader. In fact, many would be hard pressed to name the other two poems that make up this epic prose, despite its reputation as a seminal piece of literature. For the record, they’re Purgatory and Paradise.
So, Inferno rocks. In the literary world anyway. It’s a graphic, dramatic, striking and emotive piece that really stirs the senses provoking shock, distaste, pity and heartbreak. And, Dante hopes, fear. But it’s just the beginning. He has a bigger message to convey. Let’s break the three poems down into bite-size descriptions and consider the sacrilege that Purgatory and Paradise have been largely ignored as poor relations, given that each has its own very worthy message. Indeed, one could argue that of the three, Inferno’s pales into insignificance. Yes, really!
Inferno - punishment of sin
Purgatory - atonement through penance
Paradise - spiritual reward
As I say, Inferno is a dramatic, explicit, extraordinary portrayal of the first realm of the afterlife, previously only referenced by barren landscapes and tumbleweed blowing away into the distance. The story captivates with a vivid, gory, violent narrative - it’s theatrical. There’s fire, centaurs, serpents, torture, behemoths, giants. And Satan. It’s a real page turner. By comparison, Purgatory tells of man’s uphill struggle to atone, to repent, to seek redemption through penance. His reward, on reaching its peak, is salvation. Naturally then, it’s calmer, more tranquil, more peaceful. Whilst there is struggle, there’s no torture. Here, all pain is tolerable. Maybe the reader felt a bit…meh. More blood! More pain! More torture! they demanded. And then closed the book.
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger
Set against a backdrop of the striking Mountain of Purgatory, this impressive rock demonstrates the magnificence, wonder and dominance of God. The might of God. The glory of God. The power of Faith. To scale the heights of Purgatory is to place one foot on the Holy Steps, those that lead to the Heavens above. To ascension. To Paradise. It’s a place for contemplation, self-analysis, deliberation; a place for spiritual reflection, where God demonstrates clemency. The pace is much gentler but it’s still dramatic. Picture those angels aboard the Ship of Souls, steering the boat to the shore with their magnificent wings. Or the penitent Envious with their eyes sewn closed with iron stitches, weeping rust-coloured tears. Or the griffin, heading the astonishing Pageant of the Sacrament, exerting such spiritual control his feathers don’t even flutter in the breeze.
And, finally, to our destination. That place where God has invited mankind to spend eternal life in death. To know this realm, so breath-taking in its perfection, so spectacular in its glory, so amazing in its beauty, is to know God. For this is Paradise. Home of Angels. Kingdom of Heaven. Our literal and spiritual climax. It is here that Dante will navigate the celestial planets to the sweetest melodies of the angelic chorus; the music of the spheres. It is here the Virgin Mary will intercede on Dante’s behalf, where he will meet the Eagle of Justice, King Solomon, the apostles, Adam & Eve. It is here he will witness his beloved, his dead sweetheart Beatrice, reclaim her throne in the celestial rose. And boy, what a realm this is. Sublime doesn’t cut it.
And now Dante realises just how onerous the task placed upon him is. He’s a poet. Mortal man. How is he to convey his message to humanity using mortal words? Meagre words. Paltry words. They are ineffective, for the barbarity, brutality and horrors of the inferno may never be accurately portrayed with the trifling, wretched lexicon of earthly man. Nor, indeed, the magnificence and force of the towering Mountain of Purgatory. But, more importantly, he needs to convey the glory, the beauty, majesty, splendour and wonder of the heavenly spheres of Paradise. He’ll need celestial, not mortal words and this struggle weighs heavy on his shoulders and is the cause of much anxiety.
The message of The Divine Comedy, the absolute crux, is clear. Restore your faith in God. Inferno is just a starting point, a warning that failure to reject sin during life on Earth is to condemn oneself to eternal death in Hell. There will be no ‘get out of jail free’ card. Ever. Even on the last day of humanity when the dead are resurrected and all humankind are judged, sinners will never journey on to Heaven. You have been warned. Remember those ominous words above the gateway to Hell? All hope abandon, ye who enter here. Quite.
If one stops reading The Divine Comedy at the end of the first poem, it would be easy to accept its message is that eternal death in the apocalyptic, barbaric Inferno is so terrifying, insufferable and heinous it must be avoided at all costs – so stop with the sinning. Yet to read on to Purgatory and Paradise is to understand that the story promotes a need to recapture one’s connection to God in order to attain spiritual salvation and journey to the Heavens above. Because ascension is your reward for being Faithful. And this is the lesson Dante aims to communicate. Being virtuous alone i.e. without sin, will not guarantee invitation. Atoning for one’s sins, relocating your faith in God demonstrates you are following a path of love, tolerance, benevolence and charity, the prize for which is to receive a summons to enjoy eternal life in the heavenly spheres; the celestial Paradise.
This is the crux of the prose. It's about exploring man’s intention. Do I stop sinning because the Inferno is so dreadful, a place too torturous and barbaric to endure, or rather because Heaven is waiting for me? A place of bliss, abundant with joy and love, and it is my desire, in death, to enjoy eternal life in the perfection of Paradise. The reader of Purgatory and Paradise would understand that ascension is reward for atonement, penance and redemption; for Faith. Indeed, rejecting sin alone does not guarantee your invitation to Paradise – you must maintain and demonstrate your Faith. Yet, it is not until you read on past Inferno that this essential message is conveyed. Virtue will only get you so far. You need to be Faithful to ascend.
The Divine Comedy serves as a warning. That until the day of Final Judgement your eternal place in the afterlife could swing either way. So, resume your relationship with God. Find your faith. Restore your faith. Demonstrate your faith. Love God. The invitation to Paradise is in your hands. Literally.