The Art of Purgatory


To course across more kindly waters now,
my talent’s little vessel lifts her sails,
leaving behind herself a sea so cruel;

and what I sing will be that second kingdom,
in which the human soul is cleansed of sin,
becoming worthy of ascent to Heaven.[1. Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 1.1-3]

Dante’s Divine Comedy is perhaps best known for its first part- Inferno– in which Dante is led by the poet Virgil through Hell. Less familiar is Purgatorio, the second part in Dante’s continuing saga; yet in this kingdom of cleansing we find a profound approach to beauty and art.

While Dante certainly understood Purgatory to be an actual reality, Purgatorio is nevertheless additionally an allegory, which is immediately signaled by one constant fact: Dante is still alive. It is into this realm of purgation and refining where the crooked loves and affections of the soul are straightened out and purified that Dante discovers the way to heaven that lies open even to those who still cling to this mortal coil. Purgatorio becomes a description of this life now, and as Dante encounters the art of Purgatory, he encounters the entrance to the contemplation of beauty, which leads ultimately to the love of God.

First things first. Dante is firmly within the Scholastic tradition of Medieval theology and philosophy, which, while oftentimes extremely dense, is nevertheless profound. Such is the case with the approach to beauty and art, which frame Dante’s perspective on art and beauty in Purgatory.

For Dante, Beauty is a transcendental. While Beauty was not characterized as such by Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas (whom Dante follows philosophically and theologically), Aquinas at least implicitly viewed it as such, with beauty attaining that status through what amounts to a metaphysical backdoor.

Transcendentals, within Scholastic philosophy, are concepts that transcend the limits of category while being co-extensive with being. That is, a transcendental like beauty cannot be defined or exhausted in any one thing, but neither is it merely an abstract reality apart from things.

For example, for Aquinas the (explicitly named) Transcendentals were Being, Unity, Otherness, Truth and Goodness. Being as applied to something that comes to exist (say, this cat) inheres in that which comes to exist, (this cat has being) yet is not conceptually or actually limited by the existence of that which comes to exist. (this cat as a being is not the sole description or container of being) In other words, while this cat has being, being is not limited to this cat, but also applies to other cats, and, much to the chagrin of cats, even to dogs.

Since transcendentals are above all categories, they are ultimately convertible with one another. That is, they are not in reality distinct, but rather different conceptual ways of approaching that which is. Thus, that which is Beautiful is also Being, is also Good, is also True, is also One, etc.

But back to beauty. Since sensible beauty (that which presents itself to our senses) is only realized imperfectly in the objects of our senses, it leads to the conclusion that beauty must transcend the realm of that which we can apprehend and be located in that which is perfect. As God is the predicate of any perfection, the upshot is that for Dante, the contemplation of sensible beauty can function as a starting point for the contemplation of God.

That brings us to the world of things. Dante understood that all material things are a composition of form and matter. The ‘matter’ refers to the stuff of which something is made- not necessarily the molecular composition, but ‘matter’ in a quasi-abstract sense as applying to all material things. A thing’s ‘form’ is actually what determines what that thing is. For example, a triangle is three-sided with angles equaling 180 degrees regardless of whether or not it is made out of paper or made out of rock. The ‘accidents’ of the rock (whether it is blue or red, hard or soft, etc.) do not determine its essence as a triangle; rather, the form provides the underlying ‘what this thing is’ since a blue triangle is as much of a triangle as a red one.

However, unlike Plato who considered Forms to exist independently of their instances of things in existence, Dante, following the Aristotelianism of Aquinas, understands forms as only having reality within the instantiations of them in concrete things that exist. That is, while we can conceptually abstract ‘Cat’ from every cat in existence, there is not some non-material or transcendental Cat to which all cats tend.

All this brings us to art and beauty. Art makes its approach to beauty in the way of being a secondary cause. For the Scholastics, art is wholly related to the imago dei, the image of God that characterizes human beings apart from the rest of creation. Human beings have the unique ability to share in bringing form to matter; in a sense, art is the participation in the creativity of God. For example, Michelangelo’s David began as a piece of marble. As he sculpted, it did not cease to be a piece of marble, but had the form of a statue imposed upon it. It is still a piece of marble, but is not merely a piece of marble, but is the David. In this way humans can take matter and form it into something beyond itself.

This mimicry of God’s creative activity in bringing form to matter is a way in which the human mind analogically relates to the divine mind. Chaos in the guise of formless matter is given shape and essence (in a secondary way, of course) when humans engage in art- Michelangelo gives form to a rock and transforms it into the David. In this world of change art imposes order on chaos; the image of God engages in the very work of God.

Eschatologically, Dante sees no place for art in Hell. Hell embodies the privation of sin, which leads to the diminution of the imago dei. For Dante, art represents a teleological analogy for humanity: as we image God, we grow more and more into that image, which has art as its corollary, since it engages in the creative act that is part and parcel of that image. Hell is the culmination of sin- the privation of good- and, as Good is a convertible transcendental along with Beauty, is equally the privation and diminution of beauty. Since sin is parasitic on the good, rather than form being imposed upon matter, form would have to be seen as being lost, as formlessness issues forth from the chaos of privation of sin. Art has its ultimate referent in Beauty, which is God, but hell is the eternal turning away from God, and thus from beauty and art.

In a similar yet completely opposite manner, neither is art proper to Heaven. Consider that Beauty is a transcendental, and ultimately has God as its perfect referent. For Dante Heaven is the Beatific Vision, in which the blessed have immediate and intuitive contemplation of God and his perfections. This contemplation, however, is NOT conceived of by Dante as a dull and static perpetual state of thinking (as moderns tend to think of contemplation) but is rather the dynamic and eternal unity of the human and the divine.

The upshot of this contemplation being immediate and intuitive is that nothing created serves as an intermediate to this vision. Rather than contemplating art which tends to beauty which leads to the contemplation of God, the blessed in Heaven have Beauty itself. Art cannot exist in heaven as a human act, for all of the artistic tending of humanity towards beauty has its referent in the Beatific Vision. As art has for its end the attainment and representation of beauty, in Heaven it is fulfilled in its essence, taken up into Beauty himself, and in its fulfillment ceases to be independent of Beauty, united eternally as One.

Thus, for Dante Purgatory (and by allegorical extension, this present life) is the proper abode of art. We finally begin to see how art functions in Purgatory, and how it leads to the attainment of God.

Dante first encounters art in Purgatory in the first level- the Terrace of Pride. He and Virgil ascend the terrace and perceive several carvings upon the wall.

There we had yet to let our feet advance
when I discovered that the bordering bank-
less sheer than banks of other terraces-
was of white marble and adorned with carvings so accurate—
not only Polycletus but even Nature, there, would feel defeated.[2. Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 10.28-33]

These carvings on the white marble wall depict three scenes that were, for the Medieval mind, archetypes of humility. The first of these is the Annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she shall conceive and give birth to the Son of God,

The angel who reached earth with the decree
of that peace which, for many years,
had been invoked with tears,
the peace that opened Heaven after long interdict,
appeared before us, his gracious action carved with such precision—
he did not seem to be a silent image.
One would have sworn that he was saying, “Ave”;
for in that scene there was the effigy of one who turned the key
that had unlocked the highest love;
and in her stance there were impressed these words,
“Ecce ancilla Dei,” precisely like a figure stamped in wax.[3. Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 10.34-45]

Dante describes the scenes as being so lifelike that they almost feel alive- the very stone into which they are carved seems to speak the words of the angel. The marble is the stuff of earth, and thus Purgatory for Dante shares with earth a sort of similar nature in which God’s creative acts outshine that of the greatest artists or even nature itself. Thus, art carries with it both the sense of a great gift as well as a great danger.

As aforementioned, humans bear the imago dei, from which the ability to impose form on matter is derived. In this participation humans share, by analogy, in the creative activity of God, perhaps the greatest of gifts. The danger is evident in that humans who have been given, as a secondary cause, the power of God have the latent tendency to think themselves to be God. The gift can become a curse when the human creator begins to perceive his creations as arising from his art and power alone, rather than having their source and summit in the Divine Artist.

Hence, on the Terrace of Pride reminders of humility are fashioned with the greatest of artistic skill.

The act of the Creator endowing the marble with life resonates with the Biblical passage in which human beings are first created from the natural earth.

The Latin term for earth is humus, the word that Thomas [Aquinas] believes is the source of the term humiliates. This again returns one to contemplate what Dante is saying about artistic creation. The power that he assigns to creative art, albeit a Divine Being’s art, reflects his own ideas as to the power of human creative art and in particular his own creative art.[4. Muller, Frank, “Dante’s Thomistic Vision: The Commedia” (2002). Honors College Capstone Experience/Thesis Projects. Paper 162.]

Dante next encounters the inhabitants of the Terrace of Pride- souls whose heads and bodies are pressed under a heavy wait, eyes towards the ground, as they trudge beneath their burden up the slope.

They were indeed bent down—some less, some more—
according to the weights their backs now bore;and even he whose aspect
showed most patience, in tears, appeared to say: “I can no more.”[5. Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 10.136-139]

One of the souls Dante meets is an artist, Oderisi, who was a renowned illuminator. Having reached the height of his art, his heart swelled with pride, and for that he was consigned to learn humility in Purgatory.

“Oh,” I cried out, “are you not Oderisi, glory of Gubbio,
glory of that art they call illumination now in Paris?”

“Brother,” he said, “the pages painted by the brush
of Franco Bolognese smile more brightly:
all the glory now is his; mine, but a part.
In truth I would have been less gracious when I lived—
so great was that desire for eminence which drove my heart.

For such pride, here one pays the penalty;
and I’d not be here yet, had it not been that,
while I still could sin, I turned to Him.

O empty glory of the powers of humans!
How briefly green endures upon the peak—
unless an age of dullness follows it.

In painting Cimabue thought he held the field,
and now it’s Giotto they acclaim—
the former only keeps a shadowed fame.[6. Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 11.79-91]

We see in Oderisi that his love has begun to be purified, in that he can speak of his artistic competitors with more graciousness than he could in life; in fact, he hints that he barely escaped hell for his pride. The irony is that the great gift of art which he had nearly cost him everything, and now only in the burden of Purgatory is he learning the true way.

Dante is actually making some really interesting theological points. For Dante (within the Thomistic and to some extent Augustinian tradition) sin is a privation. That means that nothing is evil in and of itself, but rather whatever has being is good. Sin is parasitic on the good in that it arises from a disordered or dis-proportioned love. Thus, as has already been mentioned, art tends towards Beauty, as humans share in God’s creative activity as a secondary cause. Beauty as a transcendental, has its ultimate referent in God, As such, all that is beautiful leads to the contemplation of God. However, when art becomes loved for its own sake as an end in and of itself, or when the artist forgets the source of creativity in the Divine Artist, then art becomes disordered, and love is out of proportion.

This is what happened with Oderisi. Rather than realizing in gratitude and humility the source of his creativity and art, he redirected art and beauty as towards himself. The truly interesting aspect of this is that his field of art was, at least to a great extent, religious; as an illuminator of manuscripts he would have been daily involved in illuminating the scriptures, commentaries on the scriptures, etc. In what is perhaps Dante’s subtle use of irony, even Oderisi’s competitors were involved in religious productions. As such, even art that has as its focus the divine can lead one away from God, when the love for the art overtakes the love for God.

In other words, how quickly and easily icons can turn into idols.

Humility is thus the most necessary virtue for the artist, in that it is the only sure defense against this kind of disordered love. Dante, in this sublime passage, considers the arts (of which he himself participates through his poetry) as a period of growth that must occur slowly and with great care. Humans are like the caterpillar who is meant to transform into the butterfly, and only by cultivating the virtue of humility can this metamorphosis not be aborted in hubris:

O Christians, arrogant, exhausted, wretched,
whose intellects are sick and cannot see,
who place your confidence in backward steps,

do you not know that we are worms and born to form
the angelic butterfly that soars, without defenses,
to confront His judgment?

Why does your mind presume to flight
when you are still like the imperfect grub,
the worm before it has attained its final form?[5. Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 10.121-129]

One interesting aspect of art in Purgatory is that its inhabitants cannot, in their prideful condition, easily or naturally view the positive depictions of humility in the carvings. In what is a fascinating irony, Dante depicts the proud- who in life have their heads held high in arrogance- as bent down and unable to stand erect, while humility gradually lessens the load they bear and enables them to regain the natural human posture. In the imposed humility, the proud must view other art, which consists of several equally ‘living’ cravings on the floor, all of which exhibit the consequences of pride. One of particular interest is that of Arachne.

O mad Arachne, I saw you already half spider,
wretched on the ragged remnants of work that you had
wrought to your own hurt![6. Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 12.43-45]

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne is a weaver who feels her craft and skill equal to or superior to the gods. In her pride she unintentionally takes on Minerva, who warns her to be content with being the greatest of human artisans. Arachne, however, continues the challenge. In the end, Arachne essentially creates a work equal to Minerva, who in jealously destroys Arachne’s creation. Arachne, distraught over the destruction of her art, uses the remnants of the piece to hang herself; subsequently, Minerva feels remorse and turns Arachne into a half-spider.

Dante modifies the moral of the story towards a more Christian understanding of sin and pride.

Arachne’s sin was not amended by Minerva’s act of imperfect justice, but in Purgatory, she is depicted as suffering sadly above her lost work of art. The fact that she mourns the loss of her weaving shows her to maintain the pride for which she was punished.[7. Muller, Frank, “Dante’s Thomistic Vision: The Commedia” (2002). Honors College Capstone Experience/Thesis Projects. Paper 162.]

These are the scenes the prideful in the Terrace of Pride must view to learn humility. Humility must involve both a proper proportion of love as well as the proper direction of affection. Arachne’s art was the gift of the gods, and to be the greatest of mortals in art is the proper proportion of love towards art and beauty. To go beyond, to set art above the gift that it is, to divorce it from its source and archetype is to overstep the bounds of humanity’s place; it is to attempt the butterfly’s flight without the time in the cocoon.

Thus we are brought to the conclusion of the art of Purgatory. Art is the gift of God to human beings; more than nearly anything else it is definitive of the imago dei impressed upon our very nature, for in the creation of art, in the imposition of form on matter we share in God’s creative ability. However, it is also the source of our greatest danger, for it can make a man think he is a god.

However, as we have seen, pride signals the destruction of art, for art is good as having its referent in Beauty, which is the Good and the True, which is God. To ultimately divorce beauty and art from its source and summit it to tear it into the shreds of Arachne’s weaving, which only ends in a noose.

Even art which has an explicitly religious purpose can lead away from God; for even icons can turn into idols. In fact, those who create religious art have an even greater danger and responsibility, for the greater the good, the more disproportionate the love can become.

Humility is the stuff of Purgatory, and must be the stuff of earth. Humility is the natural posture of the artist, for it is the posture of gratitude for the gift. Only in humility can the head be lifted high, for then its gaze is affixed on Beauty itself, until art and Beauty are consummated in the Beatific Vision, where Beauty itself is attained forever.

This invitation’s answered by so few:
o humankind, born for the upward flight,
why are you driven back by wind so slight?”[8. Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 12.94-96]

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