Heaven of the Sun (Cantos X-XIV)

Reading the Heaven of the Sun

Paradiso X can be divided into four sections:

  • the order of the universe (1–27)
  • description of the Heaven of the Sun (28–63)
  • arrival of the first crown of blessed souls (64–81)
  • Thomas Aquinas introduces himself and the other souls of the first crown (82–148).

Paradiso XI can be divided into four sections:

  • criticism of the earthly concerns which turn people away from God (1–12)
  • two doubts arise in Dante's mind (13–27)
  • Thomas praises St Francis and tells the story of Francis's life (28–117)
  • Thomas speaks about the degeneration of the Dominican order (118–39)

Paradiso XII can be divided into four sections:

  • arrival of the second crown of blessed souls (1–30)
  • one of the soul's praises St Dominic and tells the story of Dominic’s life (31–105)
  • the same soul speaks about the degeneration of the Franciscan order (106–26)
  • Bonaventure introduces himself and the other souls of the second crown (127–45).

Paradiso XIII can be divided into four sections:

  • description of the dance and song of the two crowns of blessed souls (1–30)
  • Thomas's explanation regarding the supreme wisdom of Adam and Christ (31–87)
  • Thomas's explanation regarding the wisdom of Solomon (88–111)
  • Thomas warns human beings to take the greatest care in making judgements (112–42).

Paradiso XIV can be divided into five sections:

  • Thomas and Beatrice (1–18)
  • new description of the song and dance of the two crowns of blessed souls (19–33)
  • Solomon’s explanation regarding the resurrected body (34–60)
  • the souls’ response to Solomon's speech (61–81)
  • ascent into, and description of, the Heaven of Mars (82–139).

Key Theme: Order, Harmony and the Trinity

Cantos X-XIV of the Paradiso are among the most celebrated of the Commedia. These cantos present Dante’s meeting in the Heaven of the Sun with the souls of those who in life stood out for their wisdom (as such, they present themselves as an obvious counterpart to Inferno XXVI). One of the terms most often associated with Paradiso X-XIV is harmony. In the Heaven of the Sun we see dancing side by side figures who on earth had bitterly argued against each other: Thomas Aquinas and Sigier of Brabant, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio and Joachim of Fiore, Aristotelians and Neo-Platonists. We also find a harmonious picture of the relationship between Franciscans and Dominicans, at a time when on earth the two orders were often in bitter conflict. The episode is, generally speaking, dominated by images of harmonious dance, courteous conversation and interaction, communal, consonance. Moreover, the beginning of the episode is characterised by extended reference to the harmonious movement of the whole universe.

Discussion point: Trinity

In Paradiso X, 1-27 and XIII, 49–87, there is a strong emphasis on the fact that the order of the universe depends on God understood as Trinity. In Paradiso X, 1–6 we are told that God created the universe looking in/on his Son with the love which both Father and Son eternally breathe forth. What are we to make of this statement? How do you think it may contribute to understanding Dante's idea of the relationship between the universe and God?

One of the most important things to note in relation to a passage such as Paradiso X, 1–6 is that divine being is presented in the dynamic terms of love. Although Dante believed that God was indivisibly one, he also believed that one could properly understand the nature of divine being only in terms of the unfolding of the relationship of love. The order of the universe, for Dante, originates from the love uniting the three persons of the Trinity. The harmonious movements of the heavenly bodies, and the order deriving from this, are a reflection of the harmonious relationship existing in divine being itself.

You also need to remember that, for Dante, the second person of the Trinity (the Son) was associated with divine wisdom. The Son is thus presented in Paradiso XIII, 52–60 as the ‘idea’ which shines through the whole universe and which, in so shining, gives being to everything that exists.

Key theme: Francis and Dominic

One of the central features of Paradiso X to XIV is the way in which the narrative action in these cantos is constructed around the telling of the stories of Francis and Dominic. Thomas, a Dominican, praises and tells the story of Francis, and this invites Bonaventure, a Franciscan, to praise and tell the story of Dominic.

The rise of the mendicant orders (and especially of the Franciscans and Dominicans) was one of the most momentous phenomena in the history of mediaeval Europe. It greatly influenced not only the religion but also the culture, arts and politics of the later Middle Ages. Something of this momentousness is, indeed, captured in passages such as Paradiso XI, 28–42, and Paradiso XII, 31–45. One of the defining characteristics of the mendicant orders was their commitment to poverty. Indeed in the telling of the stories of both Francis and Dominic in Paradiso XI and XII there is a strong emphasis on the embracing of poverty.

Lines 43–117 of Paradiso XI are among the richest and most beautiful of the Commedia. They tell the story of Francis, as seen in the light of the way his life was shaped by his commitment to poverty. The relationship between Francis and poverty is presented at the relationship between two lovers, and through language often recalling the registers of Dante's early lyric poetry. At the same time, this loving relationship is set firmly within the context of the theology of the Paradiso, and may be seen to develop many of the themes we have already looked at. You may remember, moreover, that the love between husband and wife was a popular image in the Middle Ages for referring to the relationship between Christ and the Church. Dante himself uses this image in Paradiso X, 139–48 and XI, 28–36. In Paradiso X-XIV Dante would seem to be suggesting, through the emphasis on poverty, that it ought to play an important part in one’s reflection on the nature of the pursuit of wisdom.

Key theme: Solomon and the resurrected body

On a first reading of Paradiso X - XIV, the presence of Solomon and the discussion on the resurrected body might well striking one as surprising. For it is not immediately clear, on the one hand, why Solomon, a king, should find his heavenly place, and indeed stand out, amongst theologians, philosophers, historians and canon lawyers; and, on the other, why Dante's encounter with the souls of those who stood out on earth for their intellectual endeavours should climax with a reflection on the resurrection of the body. On close scrutiny, however, the presence of Solomon and the reflection on the Resurrection reveal themselves as two of the most significant elements of Paradiso X–XIV, and as providing a key for understanding the episode as a whole.

The wisdom on account of which Solomon finds his place in the Heaven of the Sun is that required for good government. This suggests that for Dante the pursuit of wisdom is not something that pertains exclusively to the realm of the mind, but also to the way in which one engages, through the exercise of one's intellectual faculties, with the community one is part of. The fact, moreover, that the soul of Solomon is said to stand out amongst the souls of the first crown suggests that this is a recognition of crucial importance. 

In discussions of Paradiso XIII–XIV, commentators generally refer only to the first part of 1 Kings 3 (lines 1–15), in which Solomon prays for wisdom and in which God tells Solomon that his prayer will be granted. Yet the second half of 1 Kings 3 (line 16–28) might be just as significant as the first for an understanding of the importance of the figure of Solomon in the Heaven of the Sun. These lines famously tell of how two women presented themselves with a child before Solomon, both claiming to be the child's real mother. Solomon orders the child to be cut in two with a sword, so that each woman could have part of the child. The real mother cries out for the child not to be killed. Solomon is thus able to tell which woman is telling the truth, and orders that the child be given to its real mother. It is after this event, the text says, that the people of Israel were able to realise that the wisdom of God was with Solomon. And this could make it plausible to suggest that Dante's idea of the regal wisdom associated with Solomon is defined at least in part by his ability to appreciate the true value of the relationship between a mother and her child.

In Paradiso XIV, 34–36 we are told that Solomon spoke in ‘una voce modesta,/forse qual fu da l’angelo a Maria’ (‘a voice as modest/as, maybe, the angel’s to Maria’). This reference to the Annunciation would seem intimately to associate Solomon with the ability to appreciate the value of the relationship between a mother and her child. The mother and child in question are Mary and Jesus. It is in their relationship that, for Dante, lies the possibility for the redemption of mankind. It could therefore be significant that, in lines 64–66, the souls are said to desire their earthly bodies so as to be able more fully to enjoy their relationship with their ‘mummies’, their fathers and all those most dear to them. Dante's comment on Solomon's speech in lines 64–66 could thus be seen to make another connection between Solomon and the ability to appreciate the value of the relationship between mothers and children.

The lines in question would seem to present Dante's idea of the final, and most perfect, partaking in truth/divine being/God in terms of the unfolding of one's individuality as defined by the particular relationships of love which had characterised one's life on Earth. Paradiso XIV, 61–66 may thus be seen as a response to InfernoXXVI, 94–99 and as revealing, perhaps more than any other passage of the Commedia, the shortcomings of Dante's Ulysses (also, in fact, a king).

 © Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame