Canto 17: A Tale of Two Cities

city of godBy Fr. Christopher Gray

Following our guide’s own example, pause for a second to marvel at the amazing things Dante is accomplishing in his mashup of images and sources. Just a couple cantos ago, we encountered three examples of mercy: in the episode of the finding of Christ in the temple (Canto 15, lines 85-93; Luke 2:41-8); in the story of Pisistratus who held back vengeance, asking if it were reasonable to kill those who love you (Canto 15, lines 94-105; Valerius Maximus “Factorum et dictorum” 5,1,2); and in the story of St. Stephen’s martyrdom, who not only refused to condemn his attackers but begged the Lord for their pardon (Canto 15, lines 106-114; Acts 7:57-9). In Dante’s cloud of imagination at the beginning of Canto 17, he gives us three more stories, though all of these are gruesome depictions of how the violent and angry suffer their own vice: first a passing, nearly hidden reference to the affair of Philomena, Procne, and Tereus [lines 19-21] (Ovid “Metamorphoses” 6, 424-674); then a more drawn out depiction of the crucifixion of Haman, who nearly exterminated the Hebrews except for the intervention of Queen Esther and Mordechai [lines 25-30] (Esther 7:10,8:7); and finally Amata, who killed herself when she thought her husband had died, and was found by her heartbroken daughter Lavinia [lines 34-39] (Virgil “Aeneid” 12.593) Of course, Dante doesn’t give chapter and verse for these citations; these vignettes are themselves the language with which he composes the moral poetry of humanity.

However, he is sneaky about this technique: Three examples of mercy, three of wrath, built with three pagan examples and three religious examples, all carefully arranged. In mercy, two New Testament citations sandwich a pagan example; in wrath, two pagan stories sandwich an Old Testament crucifixion. Furthermore, it’s not a hard leap to continue Dante’s advice and use our imagination to realize he’s just presented two thieves on either side of a scriptural crucifixion; after all, Procne stole her own son’s life and Amata stole her own daughter’s mother, while Haman tried to lead the Jews’ king into the people’s destruction. The Christian scripture is associated with mercy, the Hebrew story aligned with the fruits of anger; wicked Haman is the anti-type of the meek Christ, and it’s the reader him- or herself who waits to hear “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Not so fast—Purgatory still has much to teach us.

Of course, what Dante has just done to us doesn’t stop with the mere reveal of symbolism; a person who is well-read enough to know both the Bible and the barn-burner classics like Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and Virgil’s “Aeneid” will inevitably realize that Dante has just written an extra book of St. Augustine’s “City of God,” now updated for readers who are also familiar with St. Thomas Aquinas. What did St. Augustine have to say? Two loves built two cities, the earthly city by the love of self even to the contempt of God; the heavenly city by the love of God even to the contempt of self. St. Augustine uses the “City of God” as a vehicle to tell the history of the world with reference to love, two loves which are opposed for the salvation and destruction of many—a theme that is most familiar to fellow pilgrims through Dante’s landscape. Like the positive and negative examples that have already been mentioned, St. Augustine uses similar kinds of moral stories from scriptural and pagan history to excite the reader’s moral imagination to chose one kind of love over another, one kind of destiny over another. But Virgil’s teaching during the transition from Canto 17 to Canto 18 expands upon St. Augustine’s thought and draws upon the language of St. Thomas Aquinas. Dante holds all learning in his hands while he weaves his tale; if he is the one to sort the inhabitants of earth into their rewards, he’s already shown himself to be in the know about all the things!

Passing from one layer of Purgatory to another, Dante’s Virgil softens the reader in an explanation of the moral structure of Purgatory, a structure which is based on love. This love is linked to one’s nature and also to one’s choice. It is precisely this love which can lead a person to bliss if it is properly balanced, otherwise to some kind of bad object, with not enough intensity or with too much.

But what about the reader? Lest we be blinded like Dante not only by the cloud but also by the light [lines 52-54], examine again the figure of Haman. Where does it say in the book of Esther that Haman was crucified? Depending on the version of the scripture we read, he was either hanged or crucified, though the preference of the Vulgate is the image of crucifixion contrary to modern translations. With due drama, this scene was painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Along with the stories of David and Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, and across from the depiction of the bronze serpent raised up by Moses, the crucifixion of Haman is forcibly set in the context of the Christian drama as one of the corners of the ceiling, foundational not only to the physical painting but also to its meaning; furthermore, Haman’s death is flanked by the images of the prophets Jeremiah and Jonah, drawing a clear line from the crucifixion of the unjust man to the Crucifixion of the Just and Merciful judge, the Christian trump that is the victory over all vice, over all sin, over deception, over death. In this figure is prefigured the Divine Drama that becomes the Divine Comedy. Dante knew this, and his readers do well to fill their minds with these thoughts. After all, none of the residents of Purgatory are citizens there; ultimately there are only two cities, and all will have citizenship in only one.

Fr. Christopher P. Gray is a priest of the  Diocese of Salt Lake City in residence at the Pontifical North American College (Casa Santa Maria). He is currently doing doctoral work at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome building upon his previous research. In 2014, he was awarded a License in Sacred Theology (STL) for his thesis entitled “Amatores Pulchritudinis: The search for beauty in Augustine as the search for Christ.” Formerly, he worked for the Intermountain Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, and served at St.s Peter & Paul Parish in West Valley City.

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