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Hope in Dante's Divine Comedy - Part Two

Purgatory: The Ascent of Hope

By Joseph Gascoigne

"'Hold fast to hope, my dear son.'"[1]

Part one in this talk-piece series on hope in the Divine Comedy examined the role and purpose of hope in Hell. In "In a Hopeless State" I argued that Dante defines Hell as a place utterly devoid of hope. In this sense, I was following the commonly-invoked conception of hope as a belief that things - particularly one's circumstances - can and will get better. In Dante's Hell, this optimistic expectation is lacking in two senses. First, condemned souls in Hell have absolutely no reason to believe that their physical agony and contrapasso tortures will lessen or cease; punishment is the entire reason they are in Hell. Secondly, having lived a life of sin and distanced themselves from God's love (as Dante sees it), Hell's inhabitants have no possibility of attaining salvation and securing admittance to Heaven - the supreme goal which Dante saw as the ultimate object of hope. This second talk-piece turns to the second cantiche in the Divine Comedy and examines what role hope plays in Dante's conceptualisation of Purgatory, as explored in Purgatorio

The role of hope in Purgatory is a mirror image of its function in Hell. In the latter, citizenship and identity are predicated on the absence of hope; Dante's Purgatory on the other hand is defined by the presence of hope. This ingeniously reflects the inverted physical appearance of Dante's cosmology: Hell is an ever-narrowing pit, while Purgatory is a tapering conical mountain. On this mountain we meet souls whose virtue has been marred by some act or quality that forestalls their immediate entry into Heaven. Here, penitent souls must progress through multiple stages of repentance and reflection, purging themselves of sin before they can enter Heaven.

Imagining Purgatory

The concept of Purgatory has been debated by theologians and scholars for generations. Some sects, most notably the Church of England, reject the doctrine completely. Most Christian denominations propose that purgatory exists in some form or another - be that a physical place of purgation or an exclusively spiritual period of purification after death. Urgent questions of Purgatory's existence, form, and function were at the fore of theological debate during Dante's lifetime. The Catholic Church defined its doctrine of Purgatory for the first time at the Second Council of Lyon, in 1272, when Dante was a boy. Successive arguments over the doctrine, in particular its denial by the Eastern Orthodox Church, would have had a profound effect on the poet's evolving theological and cosmological thought. For Dante's contemporaries, Purgatory was broadly understood to be a process of purification by Christians who die in faith but before all their sins are repented for. There was no assertion at the Council of Lyons that Purgatory was a physical place.

However, Purgatory in a broader sense is not a Christian invention. The notion of what we might call a third realm, a place or state that exists between life and the afterlife, is found in many religions. Most belief systems in the past recognised some sort of transitory state through which souls of the recently deceased must pass. For many, this passage can be aided by the actions of those still alive. For example, the earliest human practices of caring for the dead, including bathing a corpse and conducting funeral rites, demonstrate a belief in this transitory state. The need to perform these rituals implies some sort of systematic transformation or pilgrimage on the part of the recently-dead. More complex and formalised belief systems such as Chinese Buddhism and Judaism reinforced the idea of a transitory state, with material offerings and prayers by the living believed to help the dead in their passage to the afterlife and any trials they may face along the way. So for Dante, there were two Purgatories: one was the newly-formalised Christian doctrine; and the other was a nebulous and deeply-rooted quasi folk-belief in the notion of a third realm, a place of passage between life and the afterlife. It was this rich and informal cultural milieu and religious heritage that enabled Dante to generate his own conceptualisation of Purgatory, one that remains extremely influential to this day.

As stated, Dante describes his Purgatory as a physical place - a literal mountain - of purgation. According to Dante's cosmological belief, when Lucifer was cast from Heaven he hit the Earth at the antipodal point of Jerusalem. Out of fear, or perhaps because of great geological convulsions, the land on that side of the Earth fled to the opposing hemisphere (Dante, like many contemporaries, believed in a spherical Earth, with one half covered in water and one half covered mainly with dry land, with Jerusalem at its centre. A cursory look at any globe shows he was not far wrong, particularly if one ignores the Americas.) But when Lucifer hit the Earth he did so with such force he plummeted right to its core, throwing up a great deal of sand, soil, and rock. This displaced debris eventually settled into a huge mountain, called Purgatory. It is here that souls whose virtue is marred must go to repent and be purified before they can access Heaven.

Souls are ferried to the mountain and ascend through seven terraces, each relating to one of the seven deadly sins. Where necessary, the penitent souls undergo labours designed to teach them the lessons of their sin. As with Hell, the punishments of Purgatory follow Dante's contrapasso logic. For example, the envious have their eyes sewn shut, blinding them to other people's possessions and fortune, while the proud buckle while carrying heavy boulders, echoing the weight of their own self-obsession. As they endure their punishments, the souls see in sculpture or hear in song stories that exemplify the virtue in which they were lacking. When their lessons are learnt, the purified souls may progress to an upper terrace, climbing the mountain until they ascend to heaven.

Time and Hope in Dante's Purgatory

One of the most important themes in Purgatorio is the passage of time. Dante's Purgatory is a place where time exists, in contrast to his Hell where condemned souls are locked in an ageless and interminable world of pain. Dante arrives at Purgatory at six o'clock on Easter morning; it then takes him three and a quarter days to reach the Garden of Earthly Paradise at its summit, from which he ascends to Heaven. The passage of these days is marked constantly by the transit of the sun across the sky and Dante's newly revived circadian cycles of sleep and wakefulness. This is in contrast to the preceding three days in Hell where the sun was blocked from view and Dante rested mainly when he passed out from some combination of fright, shock, and exhaustion.

Dante further brings the reader's attention to the passage of time in several ingenious ways. He has his characters remark upon the altered direction of the sun as it crosses the sky of the southern hemisphere. The narrator then explores the notion of time zones, explaining that it is six in the morning in Purgatory but six in the evening in Jerusalem, while India and Spain are six hours out either way (Purgatorio, Canto II). This discussion comes right at the start of Purgatorio, signalling that Purgatory is a place of time, of change, and of transformation. This is reinforced by constant references to the sun and to its daily phases, beginning of course with dawn and passing through to sunset. In all, there are fifty one references to the sun or sunshine in Purgatorio.

Another, more subtle means by which the passage of time is reinforced is through Purgatorio's many references to song. There is no music in Hell, but in Purgatory the penitent souls are heard to sing, almost constantly. As they are ferried across the sea, arrivals to Purgatory sing "In exitu Israel de Aegypto", a hymn used by Dante to demonstrate the souls' redemption made possible through their trials on Purgatory (Purgatorio, Canto II). Then, on each of the seven terraces, a different prayer or beatitude is heard sung aloud. The presence of music is significant as it relates to time. Songs have rhythm, which echoes the rhythm of the rising and setting sun or the patterns of the lived human day. Songs also have beginnings and endings and involve a lyrical journey from one to the other. This reflects the educational and redemptive journey penitent souls undertake as they ascend Purgatory, beginning in their state of marred grace and finding salvation through purification. Cumulatively the songs and prayers heard on Purgatory imbue the mountain and the poetry with a profound sense of movement. This could not be more highly juxtaposed with the deepest parts of Hell - Cocytus - where sinners are literally locked, mute and immobile, in a frozen lake of ice. 

Music therefore reinforces the notion that Purgatory is a place where time not only exists but is of great, even definitive importance. Time matters here because it is only by moving through time that the penitent souls can learn the lessons that Purgatory has to teach and, by undergoing their trials, purge themselves of sin. Moving through time thus permits movement through space and a progression, literally, upward towards heaven. Recognition of this, and an awareness of time, is what brings the penitent souls hope. Time passing is fundamental to the conceptualisation of hope that runs throughout these talk-pieces - that things can and will get better, by implication, over time. Those who suffer in Purgatory do so in the knowledge that what they endure is finite and that minute by minute they are moving closer to Heaven and to God. This is the ultimate hope that Dante believed in, as discussed in Part One - that a person can and will achieve salvation and entrance to Heaven. Again, this is in contrast to Hell where sinners have no expectation that their suffering will change, let alone end, and that no matter how much they thrash, wail, and curse, their condemned state is eternal. This is juxtaposed with Purgatory where time brings transformation; transformation from sin to holiness, from exile to inclusion, from punishment to paradise.

If we persist with the understanding that hope is a belief that things can and will get better, then hope is the defining characteristic of Purgatory. In an inverted echo of Inferno, almost all the characters Dante meets in Purgatorio are united by their common hope - that through their penitence they will ascend to heaven. That they have hope is the thing that unifies all of Purgatory's residents; hope is the nature of their citizenship. Just as Hell and those condemned to it have their identity, perspectives, and purpose defined by hopelessness, so in Purgatory these things are defined by the presence of hope.

This speaks to the wider theological function of Purgatory. The concept of a third realm and the possibilities of redemption and purification it brought provided hope to Christians who feared they or their loved ones were not assured of immediate acceptance to Heaven. This included the late-repentant, the excommunicated, and those who sinned lightly in an otherwise virtuous life. Importantly, belief in Purgatory also provided hope to the families of such people. These people found solace in the belief that their recently-deceased loved ones were not condemned to Hell, for their faults, but had the chance to pass through Purgatory and ultimately secure salvation. Hope is therefore fundamental to the function of Purgatory in broader belief systems and it also defines the nature of Purgatory in Dante's Purgatorio

[1] Purgatorio, Canto III, line 66. Translations from the Italian are my own, unless otherwise stated.