Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy has so permeated literature and theology that much of what he wrote about the afterlife is though by many to come from the Bible. T.S. Eliot said “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.”
As Terry Glaspey wrote in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :
The Divine Comedy was the first great poem written in Italian, the language of the ordinary person, rather than Latin, the language of the priest and scholar. It gave an aura of dignity to the Italian language and opened the door for others to write serious literary works in their native tongue. Dante’s epic poem was an immediate sensation among his contemporaries, and has remained a classic down to our time. In the twentieth century alone there were more than fifty different translations of Inferno into English!
The poem works effectively on a number of levels. First and foremost, The Divine Comedy is a creative work of poetic genius and intricate structure. Dante shows great imagination in ordering the afterlife around the seven deadly sins and the virtues that are their positive counterparts. Mirroring the medieval fascination with numbers, and especially with the number three (symbolizing the Trinity), he structures of the entire work around it.
There are three major parts: Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory), and Paradiso (heaven). Each contains thirty-three cantos (Inferno has an additional introductory canto). Each stanza in each of the cantos also reflects the trinitarian fascination with the number three, as there are three lines in each one, a rhyme scheme we now call “terza rima.” (Chaucer borrowed this same technique for The Canterbury Tales.) Nine, which is of course the result of multiplying three with itself, is also an important number: the number of circles of hell through which Dante passes on his descent through that dark kingdom and the number of spheres in paradise. Seven, the traditional number of perfection, is used for the seven stages through which he passes on his ascent of the great mountain of purgatory, seeing sinners being cleansed of the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, anger, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, and lust).
But there is much more here than numerological symbolism, for Dante’s work, though about the divine realm, is also thoroughly human, filled with both compassion and indignation. Throughout his poetic journey Dante crafts scenes of humor, horror, pathos, and transcendent vision. Even those who cannot accept Dante’s theology can revel in this adventure of the human soul in search of ultimate reality.
The Divine Comedy portrays Dante’s vision of heaven and hell. What is yours?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by John Ciardi. New York: New American Library, 1970.
———. Vita Nuova. Translated by Mark Musa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.
Holmes, George. Dante. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Italian poet and philosopher. Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Florence, lost his parents before he was 18, was betrothed at the age of 12 and married in 1293. In 1274 he first met his Beatrice (prob. Bice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine citizen and wife of Simone dei Bardi), and he became her poet nine years later. Her death in 1290 led to a crisis, resolved by writing the Vita nuova (prob. in 1292, possibly later) in which he promised her a poem ‘such as had been written for no lady before’, a promise fulfilled in the *Divina Commedia. He then turned to the study of philosophy, prob. under the *Dominicans at Florence, and wrote a series of allegorical Canzoni or odes on the Lady Philosophy and literal ones on Courtesy, Nobility, Liberality, and Justice. In 1294 he entered politics but, having supported the opponents of Pope *Boniface VIII, he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and travelled widely in Italy. He returned to the study of philosophy and wrote the incomplete De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin and began the Convivio (Banquet), which was designed to comment freely on his earlier philosophical Canzoni. In the course of the fourth book he became aware of the significance of the Roman Empire; the appearance of the Emp. Henry VII in Italy at the same time (1310) converted Dante into an ardent supporter of the Emperor, for whom he wrote in Latin the treatise De Monarchia (1312–14?). This work, which was condemned as heretical (*Averroist) in 1329, argued the need for a universal monarchy to achieve the temporal happiness of mankind and the independence of the Empire from the Pope and the Church, which should abandon all temporal authority and possessions and concentrate on happiness in the world to come. Dante’s political prospects were shattered by the death of Henry VII in 1313, and in 1315 his native city of Florence renewed its sentence against him. He spent some years at *Verona and from c. 1316 lived at *Ravenna, where he died. The last period of his life was devoted to the completion of the Divina Commedia (q.v.), which established him as one of the few poets who belong to all times and all nations.
I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.
Let’s explore together!
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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.
He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.
He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.
He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.
Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com
Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
Order it HERE today.