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Whereas Shakespeare’s virtuously iconic heroines are saints in the making, fighting the good fight for the Church Militant in the hope of heaven, Dante’s holy women have already won the fight and are in the eternal Presence of God in the Church Triumphant. They are not saints in the making but saints who have been made.

In my last essay, I wrote of Shakespeare’s holy women, those wonderfully gracious heroines who grace Shakespeare’s plays. This week, I’d like to turn our attention to Dante’s holy women.

Whereas Shakespeare’s virtuously iconic heroines are saints in the making, fighting the good fight for the Church Militant in the hope of heaven, Dante’s holy women have already won the fight and are in the eternal Presence of God in the Church Triumphant. They are not saints in the making but saints who have been made.

Before admiring these saints, let’s begin by looking at ourselves.

The character of Dante in The Divine Comedy is something of an imaginative self-portrait of the poet but it also, in a broader sense, a portrait of the reader. He is an Everyman figure who represents all of us in our sins, our need for repentance and our desire for heaven. At the beginning of the poem, the middle-aged Dante is lost in the Dark Wood of sin. He is facing a mid-life crisis in which he realizes that he has lost his way in life and has lost his moral bearings. He is unable to escape the Dark Wood because of three ravenous beasts, representing the seven deadly sins, which prevent his escape. Unable to rescue himself, he is in need of help. It is then that the holy women come to his rescue.

The one who initiates the rescue mission is the Blessed Virgin who asks Saint Lucy to approach Beatrice, Dante’s beloved, and it is Beatrice who asks Virgil to serve as Dante’s guide. Dante is saved, therefore, by no fewer than three holy women who work together, in communion, to free him from his slavery to sin. It is fitting, of course, that it should be the Mother of Christ who should instigate the process by which Dante will be led to her Son. It is equally fitting that the Virgin would then ask Saint Lucy, who is the patron saint of the blind and whose very name means “light”. Who could be more symbolically appropriate as an intercessor to lead Dante from the Dark Wood, the darkness of his own sinfulness?

Saint Lucy then approaches Beatrice, the woman whom Dante loves and who had been his Muse. She is the very figure of feminine beauty who had been his inspiration and his aspiration. She is in Heaven, canonized by the poet even if not technically canonized by the Church. It is she who sends Virgil to rescue the sinner.

The only way that Dante can escape from his addiction to sin is to look sin squarely in the eye. He must know the true ugliness of sin. He must see it as it truly is. He must understand that it is choosing the madness of self-delusion over goodness, truth and beauty. He must be led into Hell in order to see it as it really is and to see those who have chosen it as they truly are. He comes to understand that the damned are those who have lost the good of the intellect. They have abandoned reason. They have divorced faith from reason and are living in the great divorce they have chosen. He must come to understand that sin is madness and that sanctity is sanity. This is only possible because the three holy women have gained for him, from God, that supernatural assistance that theologians call grace.

Having descended into Hell on Good Friday, he emerges into the light at the foot of Mount Purgatory on Easter Sunday morning. He can now ascend penitentially and therefore purgatorially. He is visited by Saint Lucy while he’s sleeping and discovers upon awakening that she had carried him in his sleep to the very gates of Purgatory. “As the saint who looks after people’s eyesight,” writes Dorothy L. Sayers, “she figures as a symbol of illuminating grace.” Her presence and her help signify that the penitential soul, whether on earth or in Purgatory, is in need of God’s grace, of which Saint Lucy is an agent.

At the top of Mount Purgatory, Dante reaches the Sacred Wood in the Earthly Paradise, the place of primal innocence, untouched by sin, which is the antitype of the Dark Wood from which he had set out and the antidote to its poison. It is here that he meets a beautiful Lady, whose name, we discover later, is Matilda. She serves as Dante’s theological guide, explaining to him that the Earthly Paradise is Edenic, it is the place of innocence from which man had fallen. It is then that a glorious light in the east, accompanied by beautiful music, announces the Pageant of the Sacrament, which resembles a Corpus Christi procession, in which Dante is presented with an allegory of salvation history. The three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are shown in the form of three beautiful ladies clothed respectively in robes of white, green and red. Dante was no doubt inspired in this allegorical presentation of the virtues by the words of Pope Urban IV on the feast of Corpus Christi: “Let faith sing psalms, let hope dance, let charity exult.” There then follow four ladies clad in robes of purple, signifying the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.

The Pageant continues and a song is sung, with a refrain from the Canticle of Canticles (or Song of Solomon), Veni, sponsa de Libano (Come, bride of Lebanon), which signifies the espousal of the soul to God (the Bridegroom), the espousal of the Church (the Bride of Christ) to God, and also the mystical union of the Blessed Virgin with God as the Bride of the Holy Ghost.

This allegorical theological preamble sets the scene for the appearance of a Lady in a white veil, a green cloak and a red gown. This is Beatrice, Dante’s beloved, who is clad in all three of the theological virtues. She reproaches him for his infidelity and his fall into sin and explains that his journey through Hell and Purgatory had been a necessary “forfeit of repentant tears”.

Escorted by Beatrice, Matilda and the Seven Ladies of Virtue, Dante drinks from the water of Good Remembrance and is ready for the ascent into Heaven. As Virgil had been Dante’s guide in Hell and Purgatory, Beatrice is his guide as he ascends, explaining to him the secrets of the cosmos. As they rise higher through the heavenly spheres, Dante is aware that Beatrice grows ever more beautiful the closer she gets to God.

As we approach the climactic moments of Dante’s ascent towards the Godhead, Beatrice takes her leave and takes her place among the saints. Dante’s hymn of thanksgiving to her is the consummation of his love and its purification. Beatrice, ”so distant fled”, smiles in answer to his prayer and turns towards the eternal fountain of God’s Presence. Almost immediately, Dante is gifted with a vision of the Virgin, Heaven’s Queen, who is adorned with the light of God, the highest and most blessed of all His creatures. There is then a deferential nod in the direction of Saint Lucy, appropriately enough, before Saint Bernard, Dante’s guide during these final climactic moments, sings a beautiful hymn to the Virgin. Commencing with paradoxical praise to the “Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy son”, he concludes with a prayer that the Virgin might intercede with her Son so that Dante might be gifted with a glimpse of the Beatific Vision. Conveying her acceptance of the prayer, she turns her eyes above. Dante, doing likewise, sees the resplendence of the Trinity and the Incarnate Christ. His will and his desire are turned by love as he beholds “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”.

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The featured image is “Beata Beatrix” (between 1864 and 1870) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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