Dante’s Divine Comedy is the greatest work of Christian literature, one of the greatest epic poems ever construed by human hands, and perhaps the greatest love song ever written by a mere mortal. T.S. Eliot famously said that the world is divided between Dante and Shakespeare and that there is no other in running contention. There are many facets and nuances to Dante’s poetic splendor, but in this essay I would like to examine Beatrice as a type of Christ—that in persona Christi that would have been well familiar to Dante’s sacramental vision of the world and of others, wherein Beatrice acts like a prophet of the Old Testament, pointing the way to Christ before being superseded by Christ herself.
Inferno opens with those famous lines, “Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood / for I had wandered off from the straight path.” Dante’s opening is remarkable in capturing everything about the human pilgrimage. He is having a quintessential mid-life crisis, so to speak, in recognizing his aimless wandering but not knowing how he sunk to the abyss that he is in. He craves meaning and purpose; he craves understanding. In awakening to find himself in a dark wood he is aware of his sin, his desolation, his utter emptiness for having wandered off the straight and true path of Love. Indeed, the entire movement of the epic is a pilgrimage through love: Dante learns how to love in hell, learns how to order his love in purgatory, and learns the nature of divine love in heaven.
When Virgil informs Dante that he is to be his guide through hell, the Roman poet informs the new Roman poet that a beautiful lady had summoned him and commanded him to help rescue the pilgrim poet from his aimless wandering. Beatrice’s first invocation in the epic is as an angel of beauty and grace, “With eyes of light more bright than any star / in low, soft tones she started to address me / in her own language, with an angel’s voice.” Though Beatrice is absent during Dante’s sojourn through hell with Virgil, she is with him in spirit through his sacramental guide, Virgil, who has directly received the command from Beatrice’s own voice. Here is part of Dante’s brilliance—he needs others, not just God, to guide him back to the straight and true (and thus the pilgrim Dante is always with someone instead of being alone like Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress).
The awakening of Dante to new life, then, begins with hearing the call of Beatrice through another, much like how God spoke through the patriarchs, priests, and prophets in the Old Testament. When the prophets speak to the people of Israel in the Old Testament history, they often begin with “Thus saith the Lord” or “Hear the Lord thy God.” The Church’s hermeneutical principle of typology led the official interpretation of the canon to mean that God, Christ, was literally speaking through the sages and prophets of old though he himself was not yet revealed in the flesh. Dante is drawing upon this hermeneutical tradition when constructing his poem.
Beatrice doesn’t appear to Dante until the thirtieth canto of Purgatorio. She is introduced as the embodiment of faith, hope, and love—the three theological virtues according to Christianity. “Covering all the chariot,” Dante says, “appeared a lady—over her white veil / an olive crown and, under her green cloak, / her gown, the color of eternal flame.” The colors that adorn her splendid gown each represent one of the virtues: white being faith, green being hope, and red—the “eternal flame”—being love.
That Beatrice is dressed, as she is, in the colors of the theological virtues gives a prefiguration of the transfigured glory of heaven and all the souls therein. Dante, as we know, had fallen madly in love with Beatrice in earthly life. Her death, in part, caused Dante’s downfall into darkness. Now her beauty is so majestic that it whets his appetites for more; but, more incredibly, her beauty orders his appetites to the proper order of things as established by God (and with the help of Beatrice who reminds Dante to order his desires always to God).
The arrival of Beatrice not only represents the supersession of pagan Rome, represented by Virgil, she also bears the three virtues which remind us of the Trinity—appropriate given that Dante is about to enter the abundant abode of the Trinity. Her radiance is now that which will guide Dante into the realm of Love itself, and her guidance is that of teacher and comforter like the Great Teacher and Comforter who walked the sands of Galilee. Beatrice has become a literal vessel of light in the darkness. She brings illumination to the world ruined in darkness.
As Beatrice begins to guide Dante through the spheres of heaven, she reminds him, “Direct your mind and gratitude / to God, who raised us up to His first star.” Like Christ, Beatrice’s role, here, is to remind us of God above all things. Like Christ, she leads the way for the wayward pilgrim to be directed to all things good, true, and beautiful. She has become Dante’s teacher about the truths of the cosmos, of life, and of salvation:
Among all things, however disparate,
There reigns an order, and this gives the form
That makes the universe resemble God.
Therein God’s higher creatures see
The imprint of Eternal Excellence –
That goal for which the system is created,
And in this order all created things,
According to their bent, maintain their place,
Disposed in proper distance from their Source;
Therefore, they move, all to a different port,
Across the vast ocean of being, and each
Endowed with its own instinct as guide.
This is what carries fire toward the moon,
This moving force of mortal heart,
This is what binds the earth and makes it one. (Canto I, 103-117)
Love, according to Beatrice, is the law of life, the law of the cosmos, and the law that makes all things whole. Love is what also orders our lives to derive the happiness that we seek. As she later tells Dante as they near the central sphere of heaven, “On that Point / depend all nature and all the heavens. / Observe the circle nearest it, and know / the reason for its spinning at such speed / is that Love’s fire burns it into motion.”
As Dante grows with Beatrice in his understanding of love, the divine love that unaided human reason cannot know, the formerly overburdening beauty which shamed Virgil and Dante is transformed into a blessed and joyful smile that brings only happiness whenever Dante looks upon her face. Instead of fear, shame, or trembling, Dante is now enraptured by her beauty and wisdom. Moreover, after meeting the wise men of the fourth sphere of heaven, including King Solomon, St. Albertus Magnus, and St. Thomas Aquinas, Beatrice reminds Dante to still give thanks to God. “Then Beatrice said: ‘And now give thanks, / thanks to the Sun of Angels by whose grace / you have ascended to this sun of sense.” Dante tells us, “No mortal heart was ever more disposed to do devotion and to yield itself to God so fully and readily.” Beatrice’s words are efficacious to the pilgrim, just as Christ’s words are efficacious to those who hear and obey.
In paradise Beatrice is a sort of high priest, conductor, and prophetess to the pilgrim Dante. She reveals to him the intricacies of the cosmos. She reveals to him how the divine love of heaven, that true love of God, is self-giving and freely receptive and that all other types of love fall short in comparison to this free giving and freely receptive love that binds together the Trinity and the whole cosmos. It is the self-giving and receiving love of the Trinity which flows forth to create and order all things to Love.
Like Mass, heaven is a place of constant worship, music, and harmony. Songs break out in perfect melody. Prayers are heard by the many congregants, so to speak, who are present in the cathedral that is heaven. For example, after Justinian’s discourse he ends with joyful prayer, “Hosanna, sanctus Deus Sabaoth / superillustrans claritate tua / felices ignes horum malacoth” (Hosanna, holy God of hosts, you illuminate with your brightness the blessed flame of these realms).
This prayer by Justinian is apt because as Dante proceeds through the additional spheres of heaven, paradise grows brighter and more beautiful as he journeys closer and closer to the Trinity itself. All the while, with Beatrice as his companion, his light in the darkness, his first fruit guide to Divine Love itself, Dante is transfigured and transformed in Beatrice’s presence and through Beatrice’s wisdom. In fact, Dante’s purification, transfiguration, and transformation, is contingent with the light and wisdom of Beatrice (just as our purification, transfiguration, and transformation is contingent with the light and wisdom of Christ).
Through the course of the poem God uses Beatrice to reach out to Dante to bring back this wayward son. Like the Old Testament prophets, whom God used to reach out to his wayward sons and daughters prior to the coming of Christ, Beatrice is the instantiated person from whom God’s wisdom and grace flows to those who need it. And like the Old Testament prophets, whom Christ spoke through, Divine Wisdom also speaks through Beatrice.
Beatrice was everything to Dante. This produced the double-edged sword that led Dante wayward after her death. Dante loved Beatrice to the point of forgetting God. Beatrice’s arrival begins with a rebuke. She accosts Dante for having strayed after her death. Yet God knew the love that Dante had for Beatrice. So he sent Beatrice to resurrect him. In this way Beatrice is acting in prefiguration that which Christ does: resurrect us from death and usher us into the gates of paradise (which is precisely what Beatrice does for Dante). Beatrice is, at once, Dante’s downfall and salvation simultaneously.
And so Beatrice is again reminiscent of the prefigured Christ of the prophets. The prophets were the double-edged sword that caused carnal Israel so much trouble during their existence. The prophets accost the people for forgetting God. The people, in turn, begin to idolize some of the prophets instead of God, or, in the case of Jeremiah, loath the prophet altogether and attempt to kill him. The prophets are sent by God to resurrect his people. The prophets were, at once, the downfall and salvation of Old Testament Israel. They came to announce judgement. They also came to announce repentance and wisdom—as does Beatrice to Dante. In her final words of instruction to the pilgrim-poet, she reminds him of the coming Judgment and Resurrection (like the Prophet Isaiah to the Israelites long ago), “The greater goodness makes for greater bliss; / a greater bliss calls for a greater body, / if it is perfect in all of its parts; / therefore, this sphere which sweeps all of the world / along with it must correspond to this, / the inner ring, that loves and knows the most.”
The prophets, however, were not God in the flesh. They were, at most, a type of Christ who foreshadowed and prefigured the Messiah and God whom the Israelites waited on. Likewise, Beatrice is not Christ. She is not the Son who bore the iniquities of the world and conquered Hades, leading captive souls from Limbo into heaven and whom we, as pilgrims on earth, need to follow in our upward ascent on high. This is why, repeatedly, Beatrice reminds Dante to always keep his mind and eyes set on the True Prize, the True Prize that is Christ. After reminding Dante of this truth, he repeatedly tells how Beatrice’s words devoted him to cleave onto that which he had abandoned at the poem’s beginning.
The Old Testament patriarchs and prophets pointed the way to Christ. They were individuals whom God used to reach out and instruct his sons and daughters. In every way Beatrice mirrors this typological and sacramental reality. God sent Beatrice to reach out and instruct Dante, to bring him back to the flock. But in doing so, Beatrice speaks the eternal wisdom of Love just as the prophets did. Thus it is not Beatrice, per se, who is speaking to Dante. It is God speaking through Beatrice to reach the formerly obstinate and prideful poet. Dante sees Beatrice but he hears Love itself in her voice and in her teaching. It is his hearing Love that allows for his transfiguration and ascent through the spheres of heaven.
As the two pilgrimage closer and closer to the final sphere, Beatrice is subsequently superseded by another gatekeeper, another type of Christ, the great theologian of love—St. Bernard of Clairvaux. However, Beatrice as a type of Christ affected such great transformation in Dante that it is appropriate that she, like the Old Testament prophets, would leave him. Elijah was assumed up into heaven and some Jewish apocalypticists waited for his return. Elijah was not the Messiah, though Elijah was a prefiguration of the Messiah in many ways. They had set their eyes to the wrong thing, having forgotten what Elijah had taught them. The greatest of the prophets, John the Baptist, paved the way for Christ before fading away and giving way to Christ. Beatrice follows this biblical and typological pattern in the poem.
God does not leave man, let alone his sons and daughters, without teaching and instruction from other humans. The Old Testament is filled with teaching and instruction. Christ’s very ministry was grounded in teaching and instruction. Beatrice served as that agent of teaching and instruction to help perfect Dante’s nature with the supernatural grace and love needed to transfigure a broken and wounded man into a blossoming flower of life.
Thus as Dante nears that heavenly bud to behold Christ and the blessed Trinity Beatrice fades away to take her place among the chorus of angels and saints to give praise to God. The tripartite journey to heaven is complete. We realize, at long last, that Dante learned love, ordered his love, then enjoyed the eternal fruit of love. As the Trinity takes center stage in Dante’s heart and eyes, he takes his place in the eternal choir to sing of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on December 18, 2019.