[Originally posted on May 2nd, 2007 -- re-posted to begin the 2008 Commedia series.]
Having gone through St. Peter's gate in to Purgatory proper, Dante climbs up a long narrow path, and onto the first terrace of purgatory, where the proud work to purge themselves of their attachment to that root of all sin. Here he sees that the inner wall of the terrace is made of beautiful white marble, on which are carved scenes of conspicuous humility.
From that spot we had yet to take a step
When I discerned that all the inner cliff-ring,
Which rose so steep there was no way to scale it,
Was pure white marble, and so decorated
With carvings that they would have put to shame
Not only Polycletus but nature too.
The angel who came down to earth decreeing
The peace which, deeply mourned for many years,
Has opened heaven from its long interdict
Appeared before us there so faithfully
Chiseled out in his soft-spoken bearing
That he did not seem to be a silent image:
One would have sworn that he was saying "Ave,"
Since she who turned the key to open up
Love on high was also imaged there,
And her attitude appeared stamped with the words:
"Behold the handmaid of the Lord," as sharply
As a figure is engraved on sealing wax.
(Purg. X, 28-45)
No where in hell was art ever to be seen, but here on the terraces of purgatory beautifully made works of art will consistently be used to give the repentant souls images of the virtues they must cultivate, and the vices they must reject. Purgatory is the place in which souls must purge away their attachment to the sins they loved on earth, and as such this is the appropriate place for sacred visual art. The souls are not yet ready to behold the wonders of heaven directly, but through beautiful images etched in the earth, they are preparing themselves for the heavenly vision.
Moving up the terrace from the carving of the Annunciation, they also view scenes of Kind David dancing before the ark of the covenant and the Emperor Trajan halting his army in order to administer justice on behalf of a poor widow. (This famous story of Trajan's compassion led to medieval myths that Trajan had secretly converted to Christianity -- or even that he had returned from the dead to be baptised by Pope Gregory the Great.)
Having viewed these examples of the virtue opposite to pride, Dante then catches site of the proud themselves, approaching slowly, bent double, carrying great rocks upon their backs. Dante is at first shocked and can barely look at them. But the souls themselves are hopeful, knowing that through their present suffering they are coming with each step closer to heaven, and shedding their attachment to sin that keeps them from it. As they walk they pray together:
"Our Father, who art in heaven, not bound there,
But dwelling in it for the greater love
Thou bearest toward thy firstborn works on high,
"Hallowed be thy name and be thy worthiness
Through every creature, as it is most fitting
To thank thee for the sweet breath of thy wisdom.
"Thy kingdom come to us in peacefulness,
Because we cannot reach it by ourselves,
Unless it come, for all our striving effort.
"And as the angels do thy will in heaven
By sacrificing theirs, singing hosanna,
So let the men on earth do with their wills.
"Give us this day our daily manna, since
Without it, through this bitter wilderness
He retreats who tries hardest to advance.
"And as we pardon all for the trespasses
That we have suffered, so in loving kindness
Forgive us: do not judge by our deserving.
"Our strength so easily fails: lead us not
Into temptation through our ancient foe,
But deliver us from the evil he provokes.
"This last petition, dearest Lord, we make
Not for our sake, since now we have no need,
But for those people who remain behind us."
This way the souls, praying godspeed for both
Themselves and us, trudged on beneath a burden
Like that one pictures sometimes in a dream,
Unequal in their anguish, all of them
Plodding wearily around the first terrace,
Purging away the black dross of the world.
(Purg. XI, 1-30)
Virgil addresses the penitents, asking them where they can find the stair by which they can ascend to the next level. One comes forward who identifies himself as Omberto Aldobrandesco, a powerful nobleman whose pride quite literally led to his downfall forty years before when he made war against Sienna and was killed in their retaliation. He tells his story and briefly sums it up:
"I am Omberto. And not only has pride
Damaged me but it has dragged down all
My kinsfolk with it into catastrophe.
"And for this sin I here must bear this weight
Until I give God satisfaction — since I
Gave none among the living — among the dead."
(Purg. XI, 67-72)
Dante also recognizes a painter of manuscript illuminations. The penitent acknowledges that he is the artist Dante recognizes, but responds with a meditation on the transitory nature of earthly fame:
"Oh," I cried out, "are you not Oderisi,
Honor of Gubbio, glory of that art
Which in Paris they call ‘illuminating’?"
"Brother," he said, "the pages painted by
Franco Bolognese smile more brightly:
All his the honor now — and partly mine.
"Certainly I would have been less courteous
While I was alive, through my vaulting zeal
For excellence to which my heart aspired.
"The price of pride like this is paid out here;
And still I’d not be here if it were not
That, capable of sin, I turned to God.
"Oh, the vainglory of our human powers!
How brief the time the green grows on the hilltop,
Unless the age that follows it is barren!
"Cimabue thought he held the field
In painting, but now the hue and cry is for
Giotto, and the other’s fame is dulled.
(Purg. XI, 79-96)
Yes, it's that Giotto, whom Oderisi is talking about. Giotto was two years younger than Dante and was at the height of his powers in 1300 when the Commedia takes place. His teacher Cimabue is still certainly regarded as a good artist, but his work is still very much rooted in a medieval sensibility, while Giotto brought a new expressiveness to his art which marked him in some ways as the father of Italian Renaissance in art.
Continuing on along the terrace, the poets see that in the rock on which they tread is carved another set of images in low relief. On the ground are the images of prominent examples of pride, from Lucifer and King Saul to Arachne and the ruins of once-lofty Troy.
Climbing on over these reminders of the sin that must be cast off, the poets come to the angel that guards the stair up out of the terrace of pride. The angel brushes his wing over Dante, who feels a great weight lifted off him as he climbs the stairs up to the next terrace. When he asks Virgil the cause of this, Virgil points out that one of the seven P's with which his forehead was marked is now gone. With the attachment of pride worked off, Dante's climb will now be all the easier.
The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter
The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum
And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.