Dante’s Divine Comedy is the tale of one man’s spiritual journey in the quest for salvation. He enters the Gates of Hell, descends to the bowls of the earth where he encounters Satan, and eventually is able to ascend through Purgatory. His journey culminates with his contemplation of the Mystic Rose. Dante’s description of his journey to Hell is as gruesome as his depiction of its master. As ugly as he once was beautiful, Satan is depicted as a huge, hideous dragon-like beast, with a shaggy coat of matted hair. The beast has 3 heads, each with a set of wings.
The 3 colored faces, black, white, and yellow, are each gnawing on the body of a traitor that Dante considered the worst: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Described as the “Great Worm of Evil” who bores through life, he dwells in the center of all gravity, in complete and absolute darkness. Dante’s Satan is not the powerful lord of the underground; he is helplessly trapped in the ice of the frozen lake Cocytus. God is depicted as the powerful King of Heaven, the exact opposite of the Emperor of Hell. God is a beautiful, joyous being; the source of all light.
Where Satan has the 3 evil heads, God is the Trinity: God, the father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit. He is all-powerful, all knowing, and symbolized by the sun. The sun is divine illumination, meaning “He who lights the way”. As Dante emerges from Purgatory, he sees the stars, which I believe is also a symbol of God’s hope for the future. Dante’s description of hell was a surprise. Hell, for me, is full of fire and brimstone, and the flames of damnation. Satan is the fallen angel Lucifer. Because God made man in his own image, I imagine angels the same way.
So I was expecting to be met by a traditional version of the Devil, who in my mind would be the dark side of man, possibly with a tail and cloven feet, wielding a pitchfork. To be presented by a huge beast encased by ice was surprising. Instead of the evil genius of a powerful ruler, Dante’s Satan is helpless, immobile, and ignorant. The beast is flapping his wings in an effort to escape the ice, and does not realize the harder he flaps the more wind he creates, which serves to keep the ice hardened. He is trapped forever in hell. For Satan, and all the other sinners, time is t a standstill in Hell. At every level the sinners are trapped in an endless recitation of their punishment. Heaven described as a giant white rose is an easier idea to accept. A rose is the perfect flower, and white is the color of purity. The yellow core of the flower is the radiance of God. Dante is captivated by the Threefold Light and cannot look away. In what he calls “the abyss of light” he sees three colored circles. He speaks of squaring the circle, and feeling drawn into the power, knowing that he cannot go. His time is not now.
Dante espoused an idea from Aristotle: the Prime Mover. Since everything is in motion, something must provide the primary impulse. For Dante it is the Great Wheel that spins eternally, whose impetus is the Primal Cause, where everything observes an inner order and is impelled to find its proper station by the love of God. “Infinite order rules in this domain”. As Pythagoras believed that the number is the heart of all things and brings harmony to the universe, Dante speaks of studying the face of God like a geometer dedicated to squaring the circle, who cannot find the principle he seeks.
The medieval mind loved order. In Dante’s Paradiso there is a harmony to the universe, and all things fit together. By the end of this epic poem, Dante feels that the “wheel whose motion nothing jars” has altered his life. Although Dante has a rebirth of virtue and purposefulness, the reader never learns what he sees. His vision of God is not described in terms that can be fully explained. This is as it should be. I believe that man will be able to see the Lord until it is time for him to ascend to his place in Heaven.