Purgatory 2013: Art, Education, and Purgatory (Cantos 10-13)

Finally entering Purgatory, our pilgrim gets into some of the coolest parts of the poem, those passages that start to form both a theology of desire and a theological account of art as part of Christian existence.

Art as Exemplar

The grand marble sculptures that Dante sees upon entering the terrace of the proud stir the interest in all sorts of ways.  The exempla themselves come not only from Christian saints’ lives and not even from Christian plus Old Testament history but from a range of sources that includes the history of pagan Rome and Greek mythology.  In other words, art in Purgatory, exerting as it does an educational function for the saved, pulls on any stories that will teach and uses them without apology.

The exempla fall into two categories that reflect the influence of the Ancients on Dante’s conception of art and its goodness.  In one group of exempla, the Pilgrim sees represented (in ways that make his senses wonder whether they’re real or representations, and that’s important) stories of humility, the virtue that stands opposite to pride.  Students of the Classical and Theological virtues will note that humility is not one of the “big seven,” and that’s alright: the point of Purgatory is to purge the seven deadly sins, not necessarily to inculcate the four Classical and three theological virtues.  (Some of those, like courage and justice, will be celebrated in Paradise, so all is good.)  The angel descending to Mary in order to announce the conception of the Christ-child is one example of a being who forsakes ontological superiority to talk with mortals.  The sculpture of David dancing naked before the Ark of the Covenant displays a king regarding lightly his royal pomp.  And the statue of Trajan exhibits a pagan emperor who’s also a paragon of humility, delaying military glory in order to pursue more mundane and domestic justice.

Against those exempla are the warnings against pride.  The range here is greater: from the hubris of Arachne as she challenges Minerva to a contest of skill to the arrogance of Sennacherib, who boasted that no god could stop his Assyrian army, a rich range of the arrogant lie on the floor of Purgatory for the stooped proud to behold and lament.

Dante’s education in the nature of virtue happens as he watches the saved educated in humility.  The positive exempla, the negative exempla, and the punishment of bearing large stones reflect an awareness of the grand educational debates of antiquity that followed Christianity (and still animate many policy debates at Christian colleges): in Dante’s vision are Plato’s concern for stories of goodness; Aristotle’s awareness that fear and pity, the proper response to a well-crafted tragedy, also form the soul for good; and the broad Classical realization that virtue is best taught AND theorized come together in a comprehensive system of developing virtue.  On each of the terraces, the full range of helps goes along with the full range of sinners.

Cimabue, Giotto, and Artists in Purgatory

First, I love that Giotto gets mentioned in this stretch of Purgatory.  I’m one of those people who goes nuts when figures from different streams of my own education show up in each other’s neighborhoods, and Giotto, the great medieval painter, is a welcome cameo in the poetic part of my mind.

Beyond that, Dante makes a statement by following a proud military leader, Omberto, with Oderisi, the proud illuminator of manuscripts.  Art, the poem implies, holds the same sort of dangers for the soul as the public life does, the desire to exceed one’s neighbors instead of remembering one’s connections to other artists and the drive to elevate one’s self in public acclaim.  Oderisi’s brief meditation on Cimabue’s greatness, supplanted seemingly overnight by Giotto’s, reminds a reader (especially one familiar with Boethius) that any public endeavor, the art scene as well as the halls of power, present temptations to pride.

It’s only after the Pilgrim and Virgil reach the next terrace that Dante notes that the terrace of Pride is his likely stopping place when he gets to Purgatory for real.

Envy is not Jealousy

I’ll have more to say about the terrace of the Envious in the next post, but for now the following should suffice:

  1. Like the Proud, the Envious encounter not only physical discipline (shutting their eyes rather than bowing their necks) but also positive and negative exempla, in media proper to their terrace.
  2. Envy, as Dante lays it out (anticipating Chaucer, for what that’s worth), is not identical with jealousy but the inverse of Christian love: where love celebrates with those who rejoice and mourns with those who weep, envy celebrates when others weep and mourns when others rejoice.  It’s an entire rejection of the neighbor as one who participates in the same divine economy.
  3. Prayer remains a central, crucial question in the Purgatory.  As you’re reading along, keep your eyes open for other places where Dante, Virgil, and other characters discuss the nature of prayer.

I’m not going to end with questions this time, largely because I’m late posting, but I’ll try to get back in that groove when I write my next post, covering Cantos 14-17.

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