“And further I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 19:24). These words of Jesus’ come to mind as we pass through the tortuous entrance into Purgatory. Virgil insists on the need for Dante to use “arte” (skill) to navigate through an extremely narrow passageway that projects here and recedes there so dramatically that the travelers must cling now to one side and now to the other if they are to pass through the eye of this needle. No shortcuts allowed! We are finally in true Purgatory, and for the first time our pilgrim Dante will join the penitents psychologically, and even physically, as they purge the sins they had not yet atoned for upon their deaths.
Dante had seen the carved marble pulpits of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano in Pisa, Pistoia, and Siena, harbingers of the coming Italian Renaissance. He invokes this kind of relief sculpture as a way to guide us through this terrace. Dante and Virgil look up at a series of carved scenes from the New and Old Testaments and classical history. The poet invokes the senses of sight, hearing, and smell as awakened by works of art, to invite us to feel what others are going through. Just as the worshiper in 1300 would walk around those great pulpits to follow the episodes of the life of Christ as they unfolded “cinematically”, Dante and Virgil learn the lessons of the first terrace by looking up as they walk.
Dante does not even tell us, at first, which sinful tendency is being purged. Rather, through the medium of sculpture made by the very hand of God, he preaches to us the virtue that opposes and ultimately vanquishes it—Humility overcomes the sinful tendency of Pride. But as we contemplate in our imagination the works of art that God provides for us here, another word springs to mind: Empathy. And perhaps this rather than any false modesty should be the lesson we take away from this canto. This is what Dante felt was the indispensable contribution of visual arts to salvation.
The first example of Humility, as on each of the seven terraces, will be Mary, portrayed here at the moment of the Incarnation when, Dante tells us, she unlocked heaven for humanity. Dante’s eyes experience the angel’s salutation and Mary’s reply, but his ears refute that. “Do not fix your mind on one part only,” counsels Virgil. The second relief portrays King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, as his proud wife Micol looks on in disdain. Now the ears and nose refute the evidence conjured up by the sculpted psalms and incense.
The third relief is a scene from the life of Trajan, revered in the middle ages as the good Roman Emperor. A poor widow confronts the emperor bound for battle, and begs justice for her murdered son. The visual dialogue snaps back and forth, until finally Trajan humbles himself to fulfill the widow’s plea. Again, Dante’s senses are at war with themselves, but he finally “gets it”—the three reliefs are about Humility.
And having gotten that, he is ready to see the penitents who crawl around weighed down by giant rocks—notably uncarved raw materials. These are the Proud. They remind Dante of corbels, sculptured figures in a crouch that hold up a roof or ceiling—or the bases of those pulpits by the Pisan masters. And here the poet evokes the empathy such figures arouse in us as we imagine their pain, bent under such great weights. Having felt this pain, we are now ready, with the poet, to purge ourselves of the most poisonous sin of all—Pride.
Mrs. Nora Hamerman is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to the Arlington Catholic Herald and is a presenter on the Divine Comedy for Adult Ed. at St. John the Beloved, McLean, VA, and at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins University.