The culmination of Dante’s journey through hell leads to a monstrous Lucifer and grievous sinners. Dante’s journey thus far has been an exploration of the levels of human sin; a hierarchy of wrongdoing. At the center of hell lies the most ghastly beast and three sinners: a three-headed Lucifer chomping on the head of Judas Iscariot and the legs of Brutus and Cassius. The most extreme punishment for the most extreme sin—betrayal of one’s benefactor, a sin akin to the betrayal of God. In the case of Judas, it is one and the same.
In understanding Dante’s depiction of Lucifer, the three sinners, and the center of hell, there is a glimpse into his notion of God and the sinfulness of humanity. First, Lucifer is a three-headed beast—a paradoxical image of the Trinity. For Dante, Lucifer is a distorted image of God, a sort of “anti-God”. The three heads of the beast correspond to the three persons of the Trinity; however these heads are three agents of divine retribution for the most sinful of men rather than three subsistent relations within a loving and merciful God.
Secondly, the three sinners receive the most extreme punishment. The three mouths of the three heads of Satan are busy chomping on them.
At every mouth he with his teeth was crunching
A sinner, in the manner of a brake,
So that he three of them tormented thus.
To him in front the biting was as naught
Unto the clawing, for sometimes the spine
Utterly stripped of all the skin remained.
“That soul up there which has the greatest pain,”
The Master said, “is Judas Iscariot;
With head inside, he plies his legs without.
Of the two others, who head downward are,
The one who hangs from the black jowl is Brutus;
See how he writhes himself, and speaks no word.
And the other, who so stalwart seems, is Cassius. [lines 55-67]
Judas Iscariot—his head being chomped on for eternity—committed the ultimate betrayal. Brutus and Cassius in like manner betrayed Julius Caesar—the first Roman Emperor. The image of Brutus and Cassius punished alongside Judas indicates how much hope Dante the poet placed on the Empire and the Emperor. The worst possible sin is the betrayal of the Emperor, a human being who represents God. This sin is akin to that of Judas who betrayed Jesus Christ, one who is both a human being and God. This form of sin contrasts perfectly with the unconditional love and mercy that God bestows on humankind.
Finally, Dante’s depiction of the center of hell and his journey out of hell—Virgil carrying him on his back around the beast—provides for us an opportunity to reflect upon the intimate connection that is meant to exist between God and humanity. Sin turns us upside down, just as Lucifer’s fall planted him upside down in the earth. To right oneself, you must travel around the beast to face upright again. Is this not similar to the Sacrament of Reconciliation? The grief and angst we feel, the guilt even, over our sins diminishes as we are absolved through this Sacrament. And we are once again able to put our faces toward God, reveling in the grace and love that God has for us. Like Dante, we look forward to some of the beauties that Heaven holds:
The Guide and I into that hidden road
Now entered, to return to the bright world;
And without care of having any rest
We mounted up, he first and I the second,
Till I beheld through a round aperture
Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;
Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars. [lines 133-139].
It is too late for Brutus and Cassius who are guilty of the betrayal of a man who represented God. It is too late for Judas who was guilty of the betrayal of God Himself. Yet it is not too late for us. Have we been untrue to God? We can still seek His mercy and forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Also, it is never too late for us to also bring the love and joy of the Gospel to others. In doing so, we are witnessing to God’s mercy and, in our everyday lives, turning on its head the betrayal of God and helping others to set their faces toward Heaven.
Mrs. Jodi Schott is the Director of Faith Formation at St. Kateri Parish in Irondequoit, NY. She has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies, has worked with children, youth and families in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester for ten years and enjoys teaching others about the faith. She lives with her husband and three children; their third child was born in January 2016.