Claudio Monteverdi’s 1643 opera The Coronation of Poppea portrays a civilization ruled by a very different kind of love than Dante encounters at the culmination of the Paradiso. Set in first-century Rome, Poppea recounts the reign of the emperor Nero, who announces to his shocked advisers, “I care nothing for the senate and the people”. By the end of the drama, he has arranged for all those who oppose him to be exiled or killed, leaving him free to divorce his wife and marry his lover, a courtesan named Poppea. The rise of Nero and Poppea, we learn, has been orchestrated by Amore, the allegorical figure of Love, who intervenes in the drama to rescue Poppea from an assassination attempt by a jealous former lover. “Sleep, Poppea, earthly goddess,” Amore sings, “you are saved from rebel’s arrows by the love that moves the sun and other stars.”
Readers of Dante will recognize that the librettist of Poppea is quoting the final line of the Paradiso, one of the best-known lines of the entire Comedy, and the intent is clearly ironic: we are meant to be shocked to hear Dante’s hard-won insight into God’s providential ordering of the universe reduced to a catch-phrase and applied to characters so utterly lacking in virtue. And once we recover from the initial shock of this juxtaposition, we are likely to recognize that this is sometimes our own experience. By faith, we know that God’s love controls the movements of the celestial bodies, but it is all too easy for us to hold this belief as a pious abstraction, while we allow our own actions to be moved by less elevated forces. Most of us are not as dramatic in our transgressions as Nero and Poppea, but none of us can honestly claim, with Dante, that “Already were all my will and my desires / turned—as a wheel in equal balance—by / The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” [lines 143-145]
Such penitential thoughts seem out of place at this summit of the Paradiso; hasn’t Dante left such thoughts of sin and purification behind on his journey out of hell and purgatory? The answer, of course, is yes and no. The modern reader who has followed Dante this far through the hundred cantos of the Comedy, dutifully referring to the notes for explanations of the poet’s more obscure references, can hardly be blamed for feeling a sense of accomplishment. Yet Dante’s final line is not only a grand, culminating vision of God’s governance of the universe, but also an invitation to start the journey again, linking us subtly back to the two earlier canticas, both of which also ended with the word “stelle.” The stars are first shrouded from view in the subterranean world of the Inferno, appear later as objects of aspiration in the Purgatorio, and finally emerge as part of the perfect order of God’s creation in the Paradiso. Each of these three viewpoints will ring true for us earthbound readers at one time or another, making it profitable to return to the Comedy throughout our lives.
In an address to a meeting of the pontifical council “Cor Unum” in January 2006, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offered a reflection on Dante’s image of a love that “moves the sun and other stars.” The image of love as controlling the motion of the universe, Benedict pointed out, was hardly original to Dante: Aristotle wrote of eros as the power that moves the world. What is new in the Christian conception of love, instead, is its concreteness. “The eros of God is not only a primordial cosmic power; it is love that created man and that bows down over him, as the Good Samaritan bent down to the wounded and robbed man, lying on the side of the road that went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” God’s love, Benedict insists, “has a human face and—we may add—a human heart.”
It is this human figure, of course, that Dante glimpses as he gazes upon the Trinity, visualized by Dante as three interlocking rings of light. Having ascended bodily into heaven, Christ has not abandoned the human nature that he assumed in the Incarnation; in some manner that Dante cannot begin to understand, the humanity of Christ is joined forever to the triune Godhead. And this is why it is finally Mary who intercedes for Dante, allowing him to be granted this fleeting glimpse of God. As St. Bernard points out, it was Mary who made the Incarnation possible:
“Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,
humbler and loftier past creation’s measure,
the fulcrum of the everlasting plan,
You are she who ennobled human nature
so highly, that its Maker did not scorn
to make Himself the creature of His creature.
In your womb was the flame of love reborn,
in the eternal peace of whose warm ray
this flower has sprung and is so richly grown.” (l. 1-9)
The apparent contradictions of Bernard’s hymn to Mary remind us of the impossibility of expressing what Dante wishes to describe: Mary is both mother and daughter, both humble and lofty. Where the mellifluous St. Bernard is forced into paradox by the mystery of the Incarnation, Dante despairs of ever being able to communicate his brief vision of God. Dante the poet strings along image after eloquent image to describe his inability to articulate what Dante the pilgrim saw: the vision is gone like a dream forgotten upon awakening [lines 57-59], and vanished like the lost oracles of the Sybils [lines 65-66], so that his words are as weak as those of a small infant [lines 106-108]. Yet, as Dante would have known, we have it on the testimony of the Psalmist that God has perfected praise “out of the mouths of babes and infants” (Ps 8:2). The very vagueness of Dante’s description of the beatific vision reminds us that here we are brushing up against the very limit of human desire, “the quarry whom all these untiring huntsmen pursue, the candle to which all these moths move yet are not burned” (C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image).
This journey through the Comedy was inspired by Pope Francis, who commended Dante as a guide through the Extraordinary Year of Mercy now coming to a close. In accordance with the Year of Mercy, we might identify the human figure seen by Dante as he gazes at the Trinity with the “face of mercy” invoked by the Pope in his bull Misericordiae vultus. “The mission Jesus received from the Father,” writes Pope Francis, “was that of revealing the mystery of divine love in all its fullness. . . His person is nothing but love, a love given gratuitously.” What Dante saw at the end of his journey is therefore accessible to those of us who are still lost in the “dark wood” of this life: through that same love that moves the celestial bodies, we can approach God with the certain hope of receiving grace and forgiveness.
Aaron James is director of music at St. Mary’s Church in Auburn, NY, and an Instructor of Music History at the College Music Department of the University of Rochester. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, where he earned two doctoral degrees: a Doctor of Musical Arts in organ performance, and a Ph.D. in historical musicology. His research focuses on the Latin motet in the mid-sixteenth century.