Dante’s Inferno & Dan Brown: A Little Clarification

Dante Alighieri (from Wikipedia)

You already know I love Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

Ever since I read it in my college Great Books program, I just fell in love with the story. It had allegory, symbolism, mythology, history, religion–and a genius imagination to tie them all together. So, when I saw Dante’s familiar profile plastered on the cover of the latest Dan Brown book, it piqued my interest. I didn’t buy it, but it piqued my interest.

To sum up the plot of the book, a villain who likes to use the Divine Comedy as a vehicle for sinister plots and riddles attempts to wreak havoc on the world, and Robert Langdon takes on the task of stopping him. Of course, there’s a cute lady at his side along for the ride, and it all ties in with futuristic science and the issue of overpopulation.

So why am I writing this post? Because I am a devoted Dante fan, and I think some clarification is in order as once again, much of the reading public may walk away with misinformation or thinking Brown’s creative license is actually fact (Do Opus Dei and the Last Supper ring a bell?). Also, there are one or two pre-existing misconceptions aside from Brown’s novel that I might as well address:

1. Dante did not “codify” the Christian understanding of Hell

As much as I love Dante, the Christian doctrine of Hell was already codified before Dante was even born (see: The New Testament, and the Council of Orange 529 AD). The Church dogmatically teaches the following about Hell–it exists, those who die in unrepentant mortal sin go there, and it’s everlasting. Several early fathers of the Church (like Saint Augustine) have also written on the subject of Hell. Now, is Dante’s literary version of Hell way more vivid and interesting? And has it inspired amazing artwork and literature? Yes! Who could ever forget the kingdom of limbo where Virgil, Socrates, and Plato dwell? Or the 5th Circle, or the City of Dis? And the inscription on the Gate of Hell–“Abandon all hope, ye who enter…”

2. Dante did not place a pope in hell because he hated Catholicism

I’ve run into a few people who saw the presence of Boniface VIII in Hell as Dante’s proto-Protestant leanings. This is not the case. Dante placed Boniface in Hell because the pope was instrumental in Dante and the White Guelphs being exiled from his beloved home country during a fierce war. Also, Dante’s views on the balance between spiritual and secular power differed from Boniface’s. So, it was more a personal and political move on Dante’s part. In fact, Dante placed several of his enemies in Hell. He does place at least one friend, a former teacher, there as well.

3. Ultimately, it’s about Dante’s–and the individual soul’s–salvation

Dante winds up on the road to Hell because he saw mid-way through his life that he had lost his way. In fact, Inferno opens with him wandering through a dark forest. He can’t even maneuver this bleak terrain by himself. The Blessed Virgin Mary, watching him from Heaven, alerts Saint Lucy (the patron saint of eye sight), who then prompts the lady Beatrice (the girl Dante had loved since he first saw her at the age of five) to go and save him.

Beatrice goes to Limbo and visits the pagan poet Virgil, who represents the best of human reason and virtue unaided by grace, and directs him to lead Dante from the darkness and back into the light.

How awesome is that?

Dante clearly has a devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and she, along with two other heavenly women act as mediators to literally snatch him from the grips of Hell.

3. The Inferno is only the first part of the (dare I say it?) Divine Trilogy

I never understood why people only talked about the Inferno when Dante also wrote two other parts to this saga–Purgatory and Paradise (Heaven). Sure, there aren’t ghastly images, tortures and monsters running around, but these two parts are just as integral to Dante’s complete story. Purgatory takes you through the process of reparation and repentance, explores the concept of justice and what’s owed to both God and man, and Paradise unfolds some of the most beautiful imagery with the celestial spheres and the Mystical Rose. Dante gets to hang out with Beatrice, Saint Bernard, and when he finally reaches his destination (the vision of The Trinity), Mary once again steps in–she prays on Dante’s behalf, and in looking upon Mary’s face (which he says “most resembles that of Christ’s”), he is able to see that reflection of Divine Grace, and is wrapped up in love–“a love that moves the sun, and the other stars…”

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Okay, I’m done geeking out over the Divine Comedy. If you haven’t read it, I suggest the Dorothy Sayers translation (I own two sets).

Here are a few cool Dante-related sites to visit!

World of Dante

Divine Comedy Online

William Blake’s Illustrations of The Divine Comedy

Share your thoughts!