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Introduction to The Paradiso

At noon on Easter Wednesday Dante mounts with Beatrice straight up into the world of light. The planets and stars he passes through spell out in images and language a vision as lost to us as the classical myths once read so popularly in the constellations. Not lost entirely, perhaps, for Dante teaches the reader how to sift the seeds of light from the chaff of mere superstition. Although the earth-centered Ptolemaic universe has vanished, as C. S. Lewis observes in The Discarded Image, each of us can still place ourselves in the midst of the galaxies by gazing up into the starlit night sky and wonder at our consciousness of such myriad lights. We may not be the physical center any longer, but in a profound spiritual sense our knowledge of the cosmos has never been more exciting, honest, and searching.

Through the nine spheres of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Fixed Stars, Primum Mobile, and beyond them to the Empyrean, Dante the pilgrim moves up into the rose of paradise to the vision of the triune God. Resuming the imagery of the sea-voyage in Purgatory, the poet cautions those readers following him in little skiffs to turn back to port. The sea he ventures upon has never been crossed before and those who sail in his wake will be more amazed than were the first seafaring Argonauts by the exploits of Jason. Only the wayfarers who look for manna from heaven will take this journey:

You other few who stretched your necks on high
In time to taste the bread of angels which
People here feed on, but never have their fill,
You well may put your boat out on the deep
By staying in the furrow of my wake
Before the water flows back smooth again.
                                                (Paradise II, 10-15)

Greater than the power to see visions is the gift of interpreting them, Saint Augustine claims. Pharaoh has dreams but Joseph gives them meaning; Belshazzar sees the hand-writing but Daniel tells him its significance. Dante’s vision of Holy and Easter Weeks in 1300 raised him to mystic heights, but how was one to re-visit such an apex of human consciousness and make it real to others? In the opening of Paradise the poet sounds a note that he will ring often again in the lines that follow:

I have been to that heaven where his light
Beams brightest and seen things that none, returning,
Has the knowledge or the power to repeat,
 
Because as it draws near to its desire,
Our intellect sinks down to such a depth
That memory cannot trace its way back there.
                               (Paradise I, 4-9)

So overwhelming was the experience that the mind cannot retain the profound dimensions felt at the time.

The poet must now seek the aid not of the Muses but of Apollo, god of sunlight and poetic inspiration. He asks the god to "come into my breast and breathe in me," as if the deity were another Holy Spirit. The gift of verbal music is not just for himself but for the poets with greater talents who shall follow Dante:

A little spark is followed by huge fires:
Perhaps, after me, prayers will be so raised
With stronger voices that Cyrrha may respond.
                               (Paradise I, 34-36)

The peak of Parnassus called Cyrrha was dear to Apollo — already the interpretation of the vision begins with these references to the pagan god who is himself being metamorphosed by the poet.

Dante’s task is to put the transcendent into speech until God grant others the similar grace of rising, here and now, above the human condition:

This passing-beyond-the-human cannot be
Expressed in words; let the example then
Serve him for whom grace reserves the experience.
                               (Paradise I, 70-72)

Dante employs the verb "trasumanar" to express the action of "transhumanizing" or moving above the earthly state into the heavenly realm. Like Saint Paul, the wayfarer does not know how he ascends, "whether in the body or out of the body" (2 Corinthians 12:2).

Even as he speaks and without being aware of it, the pilgrim soars with Beatrice at incalculable speed to the first sphere. The pair enters the moon, and Dante first sees faces like reflections in water, as faint as a pearl on a white forehead. He turns to look at the faces he thinks mirrored in front of him, but he finds nothing there. The reflections are real! Among souls he meets Piccarda, sister of his friend Forese Donati and cousin of his wife Gemma. These spirits have been inconstant like the moon. Dante wonders whether or not they aspire to a higher place in heaven, and Piccarda responds with one of the central themes of Paradise:

"So, how we dwell from threshold up to threshold
Throughout this kingdom gladdens the whole kingdom
And the King, too, who wills in us what He wills.
 
"For in His will is our peace. It is the sea
To which all things existing flow, both those
His will creates and those that nature makes."
                               (Paradise III, 82-87)

The poet here transforms the ocean imagery into a sea of light. The individual souls literally bathe in the single radiance of God which pours down through the nine spheres like luminous rain.

In the wheeling spirals of the sparkling souls that dazzle his gaze amid the planets and constellations, Dante is delighted to discover patterns within patterns of light. One of his most elaborate and complex configurations occupies the first eight stanzas of Canto XIII. In the previous two cantos the poet has described two twirling rings of twelve dancers that move around him as they sing their praises. Dante asks the reader three times to "imagine" the scene by taking any fifteen stars of the first magnitude, the seven stars of the Big Dipper, and the two stars from the mouth of the Little Dipper and then grouping them in two concentric circles, each like the Corona Borealis which, in Greek mythology, was made from the bridal wreath of Ariadne when she was brought to heaven to be the wife of Dionysus. With these twenty-four stars spinning in two circles, we may try to picture the two rings of twelve dancers rotating one within the other’s circle and in opposite directions, but such a splendid design would be only a pale shadow of what the poet witnessed, as far from the experience as the swift motion of the Primum Mobile is from the sluggish flow of the Chiana river in Tuscany. In one multi-layered epic simile, Dante fuses heaven and earth, sky and legend, vision and interpretation, into one coherently brilliant image.

In the pure white light of the planet Jupiter, the pilgrim watches as souls fly up like birds to form themselves into sparkling letters; their sky-writing spells out a message in Latin for rulers, the last character M becoming in turn a unit composed of many spirits:

And I saw other lights descend to where
The top of the M rose, and come to rest
There, singing, I believe, the Good that draws them.
                               (Paradise XVIII, 97-99)

In the next canto, the letter becomes an eagle that speaks with a single voice — the most unusual of all Dante’s conversationalists — and with clarity and vigorous warnings defends God’s justice.

Dante’s most inspired pattern is the white rose with its yellow center which the souls form in the highest heaven, the Empyrean. The rose is like a massive Colosseum with souls of both Dispensations seated in tiers that rise up higher and higher. It is divided vertically and equally between the Old and New Testaments with the upper rows on one half lined with souls who believed in Christ to come and on the other half those who believed in Christ when he came. Along the one dividing line sits Mary and downward under her the holy Hebrew women; opposite them sits John the Baptist and along the dividing line under him are Christian male saints.

Did Dante draw the pattern for his rose from the great rose windows of the French Gothic cathedrals? His first two biographers, Villani and Boccaccio, state that in the early years of his exile Dante visited Paris and attended the University. In Canto X the poet mentions the rue du Fouarre which begins on the left bank of the Seine across from the church of Notre-Dame. The rose of the poem combines the North and South windows in Notre-Dame’s transept, one depicting Mary with the Child Jesus surrounded by witnesses of the Old Dispensation and the other showing Christ ringed with the faithful from the New Covenant. About Mary are enthroned in the North rose first the sixteen prophets; in the second circle sit the thirty-two kings, royal ancestors of her Child; and in the outermost circle are thirty-two patriarchs and high-priests. The South rose (completely restored in the nineteenth century) pictures Christ surrounded by similar ranks of martyrs, confessors, and saints.

Not only does Dante join the ranking groups into one image but he also reverses our perspective. Instead of being a bystander gazing up at the flower from the outside, the pilgrim moves up through the tiers from within. As a result, Dante turns the rose inside out so that it is seen entirely in reflection, all mirrored in the one radiance that shines down from above:

The whole expanse is fashioned by the ray
Reflected from the top of the first-moved
Sphere from which it takes its might and motion.
 
And as a hillside is mirrored in a lake
Below, as if to look on its own beauty
When it is lush with flowers and fresh grass,
 
Just so, above the light and round and round,
Reflected from more than a thousand tiers,
I saw all those of us who have returned there.
                               (Paradise XXX, 106-115)

The pilgrim wonders: if the lowest ranks where the innocent children are ranged looks so vast, how wide must be the circumference of the "farthest-reaching petals"!

One of the problematic patterns that confounds the wayfarer and the reader involves reconciling the concentric model of the universe and its ever-widening orbits around the fixed earth with the center of the heavens in the Point of God on which all depends. In the first model the Primum Mobile occupies the outermost circle and in the second version the Primum Mobile forms the innermost ring. How can the universe possess two opposite centers? In Canto XXVIII Beatrice distinguishes between the material earth-centered cosmos and the Light-pivoting heavens. Employing the paradox of mysticism, she explains that the contradiction is only apparent since the principles of both patterns is the same and the spheres accelerate in speed as they draw nearer to God: the Primum Mobile whirls fastest in both worlds. To each physical sphere an angelic Intelligence is assigned with a wonderful correspondence between them. God as the center of the hierarchy of angels and as the circumference of the material cosmos manifests his omnipotence and omnipresence as both the immanent and transcendent One. And the earth? It recedes into insignificance.

The poet has turned the pilgrimage upside down and inside out, from a universe that takes the earth as its starting-point to a universe that offers an Archimedean point outside space and time, a total change in gravitation from the Satanic pull of the Inferno to the divine attraction of Paradise. This otherworldly reorientation takes place in human consciousness — Dante’s mystical vision intends to transform his readers in the here and now, in the course of moving through the Comedy. Kierkegaard remarked in a journal entry for 1848: "The Archimedean point outside the world is an oratory where a man really prays in all sincerity — and he shall move the earth." Dante has moved the earth with the fulcrum of his vision: first it moved him as an actual turning around of his life in 1300 and then it moved him again to write the poem.

Twice the pilgrim looks back from paradise to peer downward at the physical world so far below him:

I traveled back in gazing down through all
The seven spheres, and then I saw this globe
So paltry that I smiled at its appearance.
 
And that opinion I approve as best
Which holds the earth as least, and he whose thought
Is elsewhere may be named as truly upright.
                               (Paradise XXII, 133-138)

In his second farewell glance in Canto XXVII, Dante sees the madcap course followed by Ulysses, recalling the Greek’s speech in Inferno XXVI and the island of Mount Purgatory. Like the Omega Point of Teilhard de Chardin, the Point that attracts the pilgrim and all the blessed is a lodestone of Love, of dynamic energy and light, and of converging forces that receive their motion and charge from its attraction.

Like the previous canticles, Paradise proceeds to its climax through a series of personal encounters between the pilgrim and the spirits of the dead. Dante’s drive to go onward first comes from his contact with Beatrice as she grows more luminous and gracious in his eyes. But Dante also learns from others along the way. In Canto VI, the Emperor Justinian provides Dante with a summary of heroic deeds accomplished under the ensign of the Roman eagle. Dante’s great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida in Canto XVI offers a detailed account of the past achievements of noble families in Florence. Both histories follow a pattern of rise and fall, the ancient prowess yielding to gradual decline and breakdown into factions. The Holy Roman Empire on the national and local levels has fallen on evil days. As Charles Martel of Anjou predicts in Canto VIII, darker days of warfare lie ahead.

The panoramic view of Roman history provided by Justinian and the story of the Florentine families and of Dante’s own lineage recounted by Cacciaguida present the public and personal narratives that the poet balances in turn with the past and future summaries of events. The public prophecy of Martel is counterpointed by the private revelations of Cacciaguida regarding Dante’s own exile and suffering:

"You shall leave everything most dearly loved:
This is the first one of the arrows which
The bow of exile is prepared to shoot.
 
"You shall discover how salty is the savor
Of someone else’s bread, and how hard the way
To come down and climb up another’s stairs."
                               (Paradise XVII, 58-63)

This rising and falling pattern also marks two of the most perfectly symmetrical speeches in the Comedy: the eulogy of Saint Francis by Saint Thomas Aquinas in Canto XI and the eulogy of Saint Dominic by Saint Bonaventure in Canto XII. In each case the speaker follows his words of praise for the founder of the other religious order with a denunciation of the present state of his own: Thomas laments the degeneracy of the Dominicans while Bonaventure grieves for the loss of the original Franciscan fervor. The same rhythm that sends the exile up and down the stairs of strangers marks the cadences of the lives of popes, princes, and ordinary people.

From the fall of man, however, all are called to rise through the cross and resurrection of Jesus to the summit of new love. The poet’s path traces the footsteps of the scriptural authors and their interpreters who mapped out the road before him. To Saint Bonaventure, Dante possibly owed not only the Christological bent of his mysticism but also the framework for his triadic poem. Like Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum (The Soul’s Journey Into God), Dante’s Comedy derives its inspiration from a mystical experience, takes the form of an ascent toward the Being of God in Christ, and employs the number three and its combinations as the key to order the passage into the eternal. The threefold way according to Bonaventure begins with the physical world, then enters into the soul itself, and finally goes beyond it to attain the vision of the Trinity. These three ways conform to the triadic existence of things: matter, creative intelligence, and eternal art; to the three parts of the day: evening, morning, and noon; and to the triple substance of Christ, who is the ladder to God: the corporeal, spiritual, and divine. Lastly, the threefold way embodies the very nature of the person: body, spirit, and mind so that the whole being mounts up to God, loving him with all one’s mind, with all one’s heart, and with all one’s soul (Mark 12:30). Dante’s journey begins on Good Friday evening in the material world of Inferno, climbs on Easter morning up the spiritual mountain of Purgatory, and rises on Wednesday at noon to the mind of God in Paradise.

Three visions of Christ occur in the journey through paradise: the cross seen in Mars in Canto XIV, the triumph of the risen Lord in Canto XXIII, and the vision of the human Jesus in the center of the circle of Godhead in the final canto. These experiences complete the initial sight of the divine and human natures of Christ shining in the eyes of Beatrice as she gazes on the half-eagle, half-lion griffin at the climax of Purgatory XXXI. Seen against the ruby-red glow of Mars, the white light of the cross within the circle, traced by the radiant spirits glittering as they proceed through the sky, surely forms one of Dante’s most brilliant configurations:

Here now my memory outruns my talent,
For Christ flamed from that cross with such a flash
That I can find no pattern fit for it.
                               (Paradise XIV, 103-105)

As he looks on the moving lights, Dante hears hymns of praise being sung within the cross, and he grows "enraptured" and "moved with loving." Heaven, Saint Augustine says, is "one Christ loving himself."

In the sphere of the Fixed Stars, the pilgrim is directed by Beatrice to turn his eyes to the shining followers of Christ in triumph, all illumined by his light:

I saw, above a million burning lamps,
A Sun that kindled every one of them
As our sun lights the stars we glimpse on high;
 
And through its living light the shining Substance
Glowed out so brightly down upon my gaze
That my eyes dazzled and could not endure it.
                               (Paradise XXIII, 28-33)

Dante is overwhelmed by the vision but, encouraged by Beatrice, he recovers to find that his mind, now enlarged, breaks free from itself, although his mind cannot "recall what it became" at the moment. The vision prepares him for a new, profound insight into the smiling face of Beatrice; she tells him:

"Open your eyes and look at what I am,
For you have seen such things that you are able
Now to withstand the vision of my smile!"
                               (Paradise XXIII, 46-48)

Just as Lucia prepared Dante for the ascent of Mount Purgatory by raising him to the threshold during his first night of sleep on the mountain, so Beatrice introduces the poet to the Queen of Heaven who with them made up the trinity of women, in Canto II of the Inferno, responsible for Dante’s salvation.

Three moments of vision make up the movement of the final canto, climaxing in the last face to face meeting with the Incarnate Son. In the first moment, Dante views the world as composed of numerous pages bound together in a single volume within the eternal light:

Within its depths I saw gathered together,
Bound by love into a single volume,
Leaves that lie scattered through the universe.
                               (Paradise XXXIII, 85-87)

The image is all important because, the poet states, he believes he saw in it "the universal pattern of this knot" that makes the whole cohere in one. The famous metaphor, in fact, contains a meaning too often missed. The volume here is a sacred text: in the book of nature we are to read the Word of God, the Lord revealed in the book of the Gospels.

A codex of the Gospels commonly began with a depiction of Christ in glory, Alpha-Omega, seated on the throne of majesty and circled by an oval mandorla around which stood the four figures of the Apocalypse, here representing the four evangelists. In his hand Jesus holds the book of the Gospels which is himself. The cover is studded with precious jewels. Each individual page inside shares in the beauty and unity declared from without, but each makes up only part of the whole. Thus the meaning of what is revealed cannot be grasped in one passage or in one human life; it is gathered up in one volume, the person of Jesus. Like the cover, nature too glitters in earth and sky with the variegated light of its maker. The book then is not a static symbol for Dante but alive with color, speech, and motion; it is a portal into the real and a container of the treasury of heaven.

The second moment of vision comes in the form of the three circles of Light; they are of "one dimension and three different colors":

One seemed to be reflected by the other,
Rainbow by rainbow, while the third seemed fire
Breathed equally from one and from the other.
                               (Paradise XXXIII, 118-120)

The poet confesses that his words fail to match his conception of the Trinity. All he can manage is to exclaim in the form of a prayer:

O everlasting Light, you dwell alone
In yourself, know yourself alone, and known
And knowing, love and smile upon yourself!
                               (Paradise XXXIII, 124-126)

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gaze, meditate, and smile upon its Self — the Three in One — circle within circle within circle as the Knower, Known, and Knowing and the Lover, Loved, and Loving.

The moment of the third vision arrives, the epitome and apex of the poem:

That middle circle which appeared in you
To be conceived as a reflected light,
After my eyes had studied it a while,
 
Within itself and in its coloring
Seemed to be painted with our human likeness
So that my eyes were wholly focused on it.
                               (Paradise XXXIII. 127-132)

Fascinated and drawn to this likeness of our features (nostra effige), Dante longs to know how in "this new vision" our image fuses into "the circle and finds its place in it." His own capacities fail, but then he is "struck by lightning" and grasps the God-man in the center as embodying divine Light that shines from within the features through the eyes. Gaze meets gaze, and the seer becomes one with the "Love that moves the sun and the other stars."

Dante prepares us for this vision by already seeing Christ reflected in the eyes of Beatrice when they meet in Purgatory and by the previous instances in Paradise when he has looked into her face. In fact, at the conclusion of the Vita Nuova, Dante sees the pilgrims who go to gaze on the Holy Shroud, which bears the imprint of the Crucified’s face, at the time he is imagining the blessed face of Beatrice in paradise. So all features join in the true image (vera icona) of Christ’s countenance, just as the pilgrim from far away Croatia comes to Saint Peter’s in Rome to look on the Veronica and cannot "see enough":

But in his thought says, while it is exposed,
"My Lord Jesus Christ, true God and Savior,
Was this your face then as you once appeared?"
                               (Paradise XXXI, 106-108)

The face the poet sees at the end of the poem is the true image of God, the "OMO" glimpsed in Canto XXIII of Purgatory.

In icons of Christ "made without hands" (archeiropoietos), as the image on the Holy Shroud, the head is modeled on the Omega form with the halo, the hair, and the face itself making three circles within each other. The pattern is intended to reflect the inner reality of the Triune God. The whole appears illuminated by a divine effulgence suffusing the countenance and by a harmonious inner light radiating from within the God-man. Around him the halo is inscribed with the revealed Name: "The Being." Dante’s last face to face meeting sums up the eternal art made human by the Artist Himself.


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