David Bruce: Dante’s PURGATORY: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 32: Forest of Eden — Pageant of Church History”

Canto 32: Forest of Eden — Pageant of Church History

  • What is going to happen to Dante in the future?

Dante is being shown sights as a living man that few living men ever see. In fact, he is blinded for a while after looking too hard at Beatrice.

One of the sights he sees is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but here in the Earthly Paradise the tree is bare of leaves and fruit.

Dante has confessed his sins, and he is ready to ascend to Paradise, and yet he is still living. This kind of experience should change his life. How will his life change?

We will discover in Paradisethat Dante will be given a mission for the rest of his life. He must write The Divine Comedy. Here we have preparation for what we will learn in Paradise. A second spectacular pageant is performed for Dante, and Beatrice tells him to watch it closely so that he can write about it later:

Encircling her, a cloister made themselves

The seven Nymphs, with those lights in their hands

Which are secure from Aquilon and Auster.

“Short while shalt thou be here a forester,

And thou shalt be with me for evermore

A citizen of that Rome where Christ is Roman.

Therefore, for that world’s good which liveth ill,

Fix on the car thine eyes, and what thou seest,

Having returned to earth, take heed thou write.”

(Longfellow 32.97-105)

Beatrice says that when Dante dies he will go to Paradise.

We also learn that Beatrice expects Dante to write about this spectacular pageant when he returns to his mortal life on Earth.

When Dante writes The Divine Comedy, he will be writing about eternal things — such as eternal damnation and eternal salvation. One purpose of this journey through the afterlife is to save Dante’s soul; another purpose is so that Dante can save other souls by writing The Divine Comedy.

  • Briefly describe the pageant that Dante sees in Canto 32. What allegorical interpretations can be made of what Dante the Pilgrim sees in Canto 32?

This pageant is about the history of the Church. People often see the history of the church as being divided into seven different ages. The first age is the incarnation of Christ (Christ takes bodily form), and the last age is the Last Judgment. However, this pageant has a narrower focus.

Mark Musa refers to this pageant as that “of the Church Militant — the church struggling with the forces of evil in history” (349). The pageant is about the challenges that the Church has faced since Jesus ascended to Heaven a few days after his resurrection up until 1300. These challenges are often difficult to interpret, but the below interpretations of some of the parts of the pageant are probably accurate.

The Roman Persecution of Christians

One such crisis is seen when an eagle attacks the chariot. The chariot is a symbol of the Church. The eagle is a symbol of Rome. The Roman legions carried standards into battle. The standards were poles with insignia or symbols at the top. The Roman standards often had the figure of an eagle at the top. When the eagle attacks the chariots, it symbolizes the persecution of Roman emperors such as Nero against the Church.

The Early Heresies of the Church

Another attack symbolizes another challenge. We read about a fox that symbolizes the early heresies of the Church. A heresy is an opinion that differs from orthodox doctrine. For example, to the Christians a disbelief in immortality is a heresy. We read:

Thereafter saw I leap into the body

Of the triumphal vehicle a Fox,

That seemed unfed with any wholesome food.

(Longfellow 32.118-120)

The Donation of Constantine

Here we see yet another attack:

Once more the eagle swooped down through the tree:

this time into the framework of the car,

to shed some of its golden feathers there;

(Musa 32.124-126)

This attack is of a different kind. Instead of tearing at the chariot, the eagle sheds “golden feathers” (32.126) on it. This is a reference to what was known as the Donation of Constantine.

Way back in Inferno 19, Dante the Pilgrim addresses Constantine, who is not in the Inferno but is instead in Paradise, in an apostrophe:

“O Constantine, what did you sire,

not by your conversion, but by the dower

that the first wealthy father got from you.”

(Musa Inferno19.115-117)

Constantine was the first Christian Roman emperor. When he moved from Rome to the city of Constantinople, he supposedly gave much power and many material possessions to the Pope. The medieval belief was that Constantine deliberately moved East in order to reward Pope Sylvester with power and possessions because Pope Sylvester had cured him of leprosy. Dante believes that this Donation of Constantinople corrupted many Popes and the Church.

Actually, the so-called Donation of Constantine turned to be a forgery, but this was proved long after Dante’s day; in the 15th century, the so-called Donation of Constantine was proved to be a forgery.

This Donation of Constantine turned out to have bad consequences, according to Dante, who believed that it caused a crisis in the Church because suddenly the Popes became more concerned about money and power than they were concerned about God. In fact, Dante believed that the Donation of Constantine was having bad effects in Florence and Rome 1,000 years after Constantine gave his Donation to the Church. Constantine lived from 288? to 337, and Constantinople is named after him. He is known as the first Christian Roman Emperor.

Philip the Fair and the Corrupt Papacy

Another sight Dante witnesses is the harlot and the giant. Probably, the giant is King Philip IV (the Fair) of France. Probably, the harlot is the corrupt papacy. This scene refers to the present crisis of the Church. King Philip IV of France has the power, not the Popes. In Dante’s perfect system, the Holy Roman Emperor would have power over secular matters and the Pope would have power over spiritual matters. Both men would be good men, and they would not engage in a power struggle.

The Attack Against Pope Boniface VIII

In this scene, however, the giant beats the harlot and drags both the harlot and the chariot away. The beating of the harlot refers to an event that occurred in 1303, when the bullyboys of King Philip IV (the Fair) attacked Pope Boniface VIII.

The Avignon Papacy

The dragging away of the harlot and of the chariot (which has turned into a monster) refers to an event that occurred in 1305, when Clement V was elected Pope; he moved the papacy in 1309 to Avignon, France, instead of Rome, where Dante thought that it should be. In all, seven popes, all of whom were French, stayed in Avignon, France, from 1309 to 1377, when Pope Gregory XI moved the Papacy back to Rome.

Of course, Dante died in 1321, so he knew of only a couple of the Avignon Popes:

Pope Clement V: 1305–1314

Pope John XXII: 1316–1334

Pope Benedict XII: 1334–1342

Pope Clement VI: 1342–1352

Pope Innocent VI: 1352–1362

Pope Urban V: 1362–1370

Pope Gregory XI: 1370–1378

This spectacular pageant gives Dante an outline of some of the major challenges that the Church has faced.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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PURGATORY: CANTO 31 RETELLING

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PURGATORY: CANTO 32 RETELLING

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PURGATORY: CANTO 33 RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 1  RETELLING

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PARADISE: CANTO 4  RETELLING

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