Salvador Dalí created illustrations to Dante's immortal poem The Divine Comedy.
Dante states his supreme theme as Paradise itself and invokes the aid not only of the Muses but of Apollo.
Dante and Beatrice are in The Earthly Paradise. Dante sees Beatrice turn her eyes to stare straight into the sun and reflexively imitates her gesture. At once it is as if a second sun had been created, its light dazzling his senses, and Dante feels the ineffable change of his mortal soul into Godliness.
Beatrice must explain to him what he himself has not realized: that he and Beatrice are soaring toward the height of Heaven at an incalculable speed. So they pass through the Sphere of Fire, and so Dante first hears the Music of the Spheres.
Dante and Beatrice are soaring to the Sphere of the Moon at a speed approaching that of light. Dante warns back the shallow reader: only those who have eaten of the knowledge of God may hope to follow him into the last reaches of his infinite voyage, for it will reveal such wonders as only faith can grasp.
He and Beatrice enter the Sphere of the Moon and pass into the substances of the moon as light into water, as God incarnated himself into man, or as a saved soul enters into God. Dante does not understand how there can appear on the diamond-smooth surface of the moon those markings we know as the "Man in the Moon". Beatrice asks for his explanation, refutes it, and proceeds to explain the truth of the moon's markings.
As Dante is about to speak to Beatrice he sees the dim traceries of human faces and takes them to be reflections, he turns to see what souls are being so reflected. Beatrice explains that those pallid images are the souls themselves. They are the "Inconstant", the souls of those who registered holy vows in Heaven, but who broke or recanted them.
Among them Picardia Donati identifies herself, and then identifies the Empress Constance. Both had taken vows as nuns but were forces to break them in order to contract a political marriage.
The Spirit identifies itself as the soul of the Emperor Justinian and proceeds to recount its life on earth. It proceeds next to a discourse on the history of the Roman Eagle.
Thomas Aquinas has finished speaking. Now, anticipating the wish Dante has not yet realized is his own, Beatrice begs the double circle of Philosophers and Theologians to explain to Dante the state in which the blessed will find themselves after the Resurrection of the Flesh.
As Solomon finishes his discourse and the souls about him cry "Amen!" Dante becomes aware of a third circle of souls, higher and more radiant even than the first two. Its radiance dawns slowly and indistinctly at first, and then suddenly bursts upon him. Only then does he realize that he and Beatrice have been ascending and that he has entered the Fifth Sphere, Mars. There Dante beholds, shining through the sphere of Mars, the vision of Christ on the Cross.
Beatrice and Cacciaguida already know what question is burning in Dante's mind, but Beatrice nevertheless urges him to speak it, that by practising Heavenly discourse he be better able to speak to men when he returns to Earth. So urged, Dante asks Cacciaguida to make clear the recurring dark prophesies of Dante's future.
Cacciaguida details Dante's coming banishment from Florence, identifies the patrons Dante will find, and reassures Dante of his future fame. He warns Dante not to become bitter in adversity assuring him that the Divine Comedy, once it becomes known, will outlive the proudest of the Florentines and bring shame to their evil memories for ages to come.
79 CROSS OF JUST RULERS
Beatrice comforts Dante, who is pondering the bitter and the sweet of Cacciaguida's prophesy, then instructs him to turn back to Cacciaguida, who proceeds to name among the souls who form the cross of Mars the "Great Warriors of God". They flash like shooting stars along the arms of the cross.
Dante turns back to Beatrice, sees her grow yet more beautiful, and knows they have made the ascent to the Sixth Sphere. He sees the pale glow of Jupiter replace the red glow of Mars and in that silvery sheen he sees the vision of Earthly Justice, a spectacular arrangement of lights that spell out a message, letter by letter, and then form as an Eagle (The Empire) ornamented by glowing lilies (France).
81 LADDER OF CONTEMPLATION
Beatrice and Dante enter the Sphere of Saturn. Beatrice does not smile in her new bliss to announce their arrival, for her radiance would then be such that Dante's mortal senses would be consumed, as Semele was consumed by the Godhead of Jupiter. Rather, Beatrice announces that they are there and commands Dante to look into the crystalline substance of that Heaven for the vision he will see of the Souls of the Contemplative.
Dante turns and beholds a vision of a Golden Ladder on which countless splendors arise and descend wheeling like birds in flight. That host of the blessed descends only as far as a given rung, but one radiance among them draws closer to Dante and indicates by its radiance that it is eager to bring him joy. It is the soul of Peter Damiano, a Doctor of the Church, renowned for a severely ascetic life even in high church office. Peter Damiano explains to Dante that the Mystery of Predestination is beyond the reach of all but God, and that men should not presume to grasp it. He concludes with a denunciation of Papal corruption, and at his words, all the souls of Saturn fly down to form a ring around him and thunder forth Heaven's righteous indignation at evildoers, his senses reeling at that thunderclap of sound.
Dante's senses still reeling, he turns to Beatrice, who reassures him and prophesies that he will live to see God's vengeance descend on the corrupters of the Church. She then calls his attention to the other souls of this sphere. Looking up, Dante sees a hundred radiant globes, one of which draws near and identifies itself as the heavenly splendor that had been St. Benedict.
Benedict explains that the Golden Ladder, like the contemplative life, soars to the summit of God's glory, and he laments that so few of his Benedictine monks remain eager to put the world behind them and begin the ascent, for they are lost in the degeneracy of bad days. Yet God has worked greater wonders than would be required to restore the purity of the church.
So saying, Benedict is gathered into his heavenly choir of radiances, and the whole company ascends to the top of the sky and out of sight.
Beatrice then makes a sign and Dante feels himself making the ascent to the Eighth Sphere, the Sphere of the Fixed Stars. But before the souls of that Sphere are revealed to him, Beatrice bids him look back to see how far she has raised him. Dante looks down through the Seven Spheres in their glory, seeing all the heavens at a glance, and the earth as an insignificant speck far below. Then turning from it as from a puny thing, he turns his eyes back to the eyes of Beatrice.
92 The Virgin Mary
Beatrice stares expectantly toward that part of the sky where the Sun is at its highest point, and Dante, moved by the joy of her expectation, follows her look. Almost at once there descends from the highest Heaven the radiant substance of the vision of Christ Triumphant as it rays forth on the garden of all those souls who have been redeemed through Christ. The splendor of too much for his senses, Dante swoons. He is recalled to himself by Beatrice and discovers that, newly strengthened as he has been by the vision of Christ, he is able to look upon her smile of bliss.
Beatrice urges him to look at the Garden of Christ's Triumph, upon the Rose of the Virgin Mary and the Lilies of the Apostles. Christ, taking mercy on Dante's feeble powers, has withdrawn from direct view and now rays down from above.
Dante fixes his eyes on the brightest splendor (the Virgin Mary) and sees a crown of flame descend to summon her back to the Empyrean. It is the Angel Gabriel. So summoned, Mary ascends to where her son is, and the flames of the souls yearn higher toward her. There, among the souls that remain below, Dante identifies St. Peter.
Christ and Mary having ascended to the Empyrean, St. Peter remains as the chief soul of the Garden of Christ's Triumph. Beatrice addresses the souls in Dante's behalf, and they, in their joy, form into a dazzling vertical wheel of spinning radiances.
Beatrice then begs St. Peter to conduct an examination of Dante's Faith. St. Peter thereupon questions Dante on the nature of faith, the possession of faith, the source of faith, the proof of the truth of faith, man's means of knowing that the miracles of faith actually took place, and finally on the contents of Christian faith.
Dante answers eagerly, as would a willing candidate being examined by his learned master. The examination concluded, St. Peter shows his pleasure by dancing three times around Dante.
Dante, blessed by St. John himself as a reward for his labors and his hope, declares that if his poem may serve to soften his sentence of exile from Florence, he will return to his baptismal font at San Giovanni and there place on his own head the poet's laurel wreath. Such is one of the great hopes of his poem, and on that note St. James, the Apostle of Hope, shows himself.
Beatrice begs James to conduct the Examination of Hope and she herself, in answer to the first question, testifies to Dante's possession of Hope. Dante then replies on the nature of hope, on the content of his hope, and on the sources of hope.
The examination triumphantly concluded, a cry in praise of the grace of hope rings through Paradise, and thereupon St. John the Apostle appears. Dante stares into John's radiance hoping to see the lineaments of his mortal body. The voice of John, the Apostle of Love, calls to him that what he seeks is not there, and when Dante looks away he discovers he has been blinded by the radiance of Love.
John assures Dante that Beatrice will restore his sight. Dante expresses his willingness to await her will since he knows her to be Love. John, thereupon, begins the Examination of Love, asking Dante to explain how he came into the possession of Love, and what drove him to seek it. He then asks Dante to describe the intensity of love and to discuss the sources of Love.
Dante concludes with a praise of God as the source of Love. At his words all Heaven responds with a paean, and immediately Dante's vision is restored.
There appears before him a fourth great splendor which Beatrice identifies as the soul of Adam. Dante begs Adam to speak, and learns from him the date of Adam's creation, how long Adam remained in Eden, the cause of God's wrath, and what language Adam spoke in his time on Earth.
St. Peter grows red with righteous indignation and utters a denunciation of Papal corruption. All Heaven darkens at the thought of such evil. Peter's charge, of course, is that the papacy has become acquisitive, political, and therefore bloody. Having so catalogued the crimes of the bad popes, Peter specifically charges Dante to repeat among mankind the wrath that was spoken in Heaven.
The triumphant court soars away and Dante is left with Beatrice who tells him to look down. Dante finds he is standing above a point midway between Jerusalem and Spain, and having seen earth (and all its vaunted pomps) as an insignificant mote in space, Dante once more turns his thoughts upward as Beatrice leads him in the ascent of Primum Mobile, discoursing en route on the Nature of Time (which has its source in the Primum Mobile). The time of Earth's corruption, Beatrice tells Dante, is drawing to a close.
Dante turns from Beatrice and beholds a vision of God as a non-dimensional point of light ringed by nine glowing spheres representing the angel hierarchy.
Dante is puzzled because the vision seems to reverse the order of the Universe, the highest rank of the angels being at the center and represented by the smallest sphere. Beatrice explains the mystery to Dante's satisfaction, if not to the reader's, and goes on to catalogue the orders of the angels.
Beatrice, gazing on God, sees Dante's unspoken questions and explains to him God's intent in willing the Creation, the eternity of God, and the simultaneity of Creation.
She proceeds then to explain the time from the Creation to the revolt of the angels, how the loving angels began their blissful art, and that Grace is received according to the ardor of Love.
She then denounces foolish teachings, and concludes by pointing our the infinity and the distinction of the angels.
The great theme is drawing to a close. Here in the Empyrean, Beatrice is at last at home, her beauty made perfect, and Dante utters a lofty praise of Beatrice.
Beatrice promises Dante a vision of both Hosts of Paradise. He is blinded by a new radiance, hears a voice announce that he shall be given new powers, and immediately he sees a vision of a river of Light. As in the Terrestial Paradise, he is commanded to drink. No sooner is his face submerged in the water than the vision grows circular and re-forms as a vision of the Mystic Rose.
The second soldiery of the Church Triumphant is the Angel Host and Dante now receives a vision of them as a swarm of bees in eternal transit between God and the Rose.
Dante turns from that rapturous vision to speak to Beatrice and finds in her place a revered elder. It is St. Bernard, who will serve as Dante's guide to the ultimate vision of God. Bernard shows Dante his last vision of Beatrice, who has resumed her throne among the blessed. Across the vastness of Paradise, Dante sends his soul's prayer of thanks to her. Beatrice smiles down at Dante a last time, then turns her eyes forever to the eternal fountain of God.
Bernard, the most faithful of the worshippers of the Virgin, promises Dante the final vision of God through the Virgin's intercession. Accordingly, he instructs Dante to raise his eyes to her throne. Dante obeys and burns with bliss at the vision of her splendor.
98 VIRGIN AND GABRIEL
His eyes fixed blissfully on the vision of the Virgin Mary, Bernard recites the orders of the Mystic Rose, identifying the thrones of the most blessed.
Mary's throne is on the topmost tier of the Heavenly Stadium. Directly across from it rises the throne of John the Baptist. From her throne to the central arena descends a line of Christian saints. These two radii form a diameter that divides the stadium. On one side are enthroned those who believe in Christ to Come; on the other, those who believed in Christ Descended. The lower half of the Rose contains, on one side, the pre-Christian children saved by Love, and on the other, the Christian children saved by baptism.
Through all these explanations, Bernard has kept his eyes fixed in adoration upon the Virgin. Having finished his preliminary instruction of Dante, Bernard now calls on him to join in a Prayer to the Virgin.
St. Bernard offers a lofty prayer to the Virgin, asking her to intercede in Dante's behalf, and in answer Dante feels his soul swell with new power and grown calm in rapture as his eyes are permitted the direct vision of God.
There can be no measure of how long the vision endures. It passes, and Dante is once more mortal and fallible. Raised by God's presence, he had looked into the Mystery and had begun to understand its power and majesty. Returned to himself, there is no power in him capable of speaking the truth of what he saw. Yet the impress of the truth is stamped upon his soul, which he now knows will return to be one with God's Love.
© PROMETHEUS 131/2008
PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 131, May 2008