Heaven of the Fixed Stars (Cantos XXII-XXVII)
Reading the Heaven of the Fixed Stars
Paradiso XXIII can be divided into three sections:
Beatrice and Dante wait for what is about to happen (1–15)
the heavily triumph of Christ and of the Church (16–87)
the heavily triumphant Mary (88–139).
- Beatrice makes a request to the souls of the Heaven of the Fixed stars. In responding to her request, St Peter comes forward and is invited by Beatrice to examine Dante on the nature of faith (1–45)
- Dante is examined by St Peter on the nature of faith (46–154).
- Dante expresses his hope of returning to Florence to be crowned as poet (1–12)
- Beatrice invites St James to examine Dante on the nature of hope (30–39)
- Dante is examined by St James on the nature of hope (40–99)
- Dante, Beatrice, St Peter and St James are joined by St John the Evangelist (100–17)
- Dante is blinded in his attempt to see the body of St John (which, in fact, is still buried on earth) (118–39).
- Dante is examined by St John on the nature of charity (1–66)
- Dante regains his sight (67–81)
- Dante's encounter with Adam (82–142).
- the souls of the Heaven of the Fixed Stars glorify the Trinity (1–9)
- St Peter speaks out against the corruption of the earthly Church, and the departure of the souls of the Heaven of the Fixed stars (10–75)
- ascent into the Primo Mobile (76–120)
- Beatrice speaks out against the earthly greed of human beings (121–48).
Key themes: The Triumph of the Church
The Heaven of the Fixed Stars is one of the most extended episodes of the Commedia. Dante ascends with Beatrice into the Heaven of the Fixed Stars at the end of Paradiso XXII, where he is conjoined with the constellation of Gemini, under the influence of which he was born. The scene is then set in Paradiso XXIII with Dante witnessing the heavenly triumph of the Church, of Christ and of the Virgin Mary. In the following cantos Dante is examined by St Peter, St James and St John on the nature of the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. Dante then encounters Adam, who offers explanations regarding his life regarding the nature of original sin and language. Finally, before ascending into the Primo Mobile, Dante witnesses the prophetic rage of St Peter at the corruption of the church. Significantly, the episode of the Heaven of the Fixed Stars is framed, in Paradiso XXII and XXVII, by Dante's being invited by Beatrice to turn to look down and assess the nature of their journey’s progress in relation to the universe below them.
Read Paradiso XXIII, 1-87. Take time to appreciate the beauty of lines 1–15. What do you think is their significance in the light of the rest of the canto? What do you think is the precise significance of lines 46–48? Why should Dante be able to see Beatrice's smile again only after being overpowered by the sight of the body of Christ? Why is Dante then ‘told off’ by Beatrice on line 70–72 and invited by her not only to fix his gaze on her beauty but also on that of the Church as a whole?
Key themes: Faith, Hope and Charity
In Paradiso XXIV–XXVI Dante is examined on the nature of faith, hope and charity by St Peter, St James and St John. Who were Peter, James and John? What did they do and what were they generally venerated for in the Middle Ages? Why does Dante pick these three figures to examine him, respectively, in faith, hope and charity? And what is the significance of the fact that it is Beatrice who is actually orchestrating Dante’s examination?
In Paradiso XXIV, 52–154 we learn about Dante's idea of faith.
You might find it helpful to breakdown Dante's dialogue with Peter in Canto XXIV into sections:
- 52–66: St Peter asks Dante what faith is. Dante replies (quoting St Paul) that faith is the ‘substance’ of that in which one hopes, and the ‘argument’ for that which one does not see.
- 67–81: St Peter asks Dante to clarify his last statement. Dante replies that faith is the ‘substance’ of that in which one hopes because it is only in faith that heavenly truth can have being on earth; and because it is only on this ‘substance’ that one’s hope in heavenly truth may be based. He also replies that faith is the ‘argument’ for that which one does not see because one can, on the basis of faith, construct arguments relating to the heavenly truths one cannot see.
- 82–87: St Peter asks Dante whether he has faith as well as knowing so well what it is. Dante replies by strongly affirming that he does possess it.
- 88–96: St Peter asks Dante where faith came to him from. Dante replies that faith came to him from Scripture.
- 97–102: St Peter asks Dante on what grounds he believes Scripture to be the word of God. Dante replies that it is on the grounds of miracles.
- 103–14: St Peter asks Dante how he can be sure that those miracles actually happened, given that Scripture is itself the only proof he can have for them. Dante replies that even if those miracles had not happened, the fact that the world turned from paganism to Christianity would in itself be enough to prove the divine origin of Scripture.
- 115–47: Dante replies that he believes in one God, the only and eternal God, who moves the universe through love and desire but is not himself moved; and that this belief derives not only from philosophy but also from the writings of Moses and the prophets, from the Psalms in the Gospels, and from the writings of the apostles. Dante also professes belief in the Trinity and says that this belief derives from numerous passages of the Gospels.
- 148–54: St Peter manifests his approval of Dante's words.
When thinking about the idea of hope presented in Paradiso XXV you may find it helpful to ask the following questions:
- What is Dante's idea of the relationship between hope and faith?
- How can hope be related to certainty?
- Dante's understanding of hope is largely defined in terms of the Resurrection.
- What is the significance of the fact that Beatrice says that there is no one who has more hope than Dante?
When thinking about the idea of charity presented in Paradiso XXVI you may find it helpful to ask the following questions:
- What is the significance of the fact that for Dante charity may derive both from Scripture and from philosophy?
- What is the significance of the fact that Dante’s examination on the nature of charity takes place while he is temporarily blind?
- What sense can one make of the claim in Paradiso XXVI, 58–60 that one's own and the world's existence, the Crucifixion and Resurrection might all equally lead one to charity?
- How might the reflection on charity be related to the discussion on the body of St John in Paradiso XXV, 115–29?
Key theme: Dante and Adam
Dante's encounter with Adam is one of the most significant of the entire Commedia. Of particular significance are the explanations given by Adam regarding the nature of original sin and regarding the language which he spoke in Eden. The explanation regarding the nature of original sin is relatively short, yet has profound implications for our understanding of Dante's idea of the relationship between human beings and God.
In Paradiso XXVI, 115–17 Dante outlines the nature of original sin. Original sin, for Dante, did not consist in the actual eating of the forbidden fruit but in going against the will of God. Why might this distinction be significant? What constituted original sin, according to Dante, was the attempt to go beyond the limit or ‘segno’ imposed by God on human nature; to go beyond the limits inherent in human nature as created by God. In going beyond the ‘segno’ Adam wished to transcend the human condition and be like God. In doing so he attempted to bridge the gap between creator and creation; a gap which, as we have seen in previous sections, Dante thought could not, even in principle, be bridged. As we have seen, Dante thought human beings could be at one with God not by asserting their will over that of God but by being open, in love, to have their will defined by that of God and other human beings.
In Paradiso XXVI, 124–38 Adam states that human language has always been in a state of flux, always dependent on the particularity of different historical and communal contexts. This corrects an opinion Dante had expressed in the De vulgari eloquentia, where he argued that human language had only been is in a state of flux since God's destruction of the Tower of Babel, and that even after this confusion of languages the language originally spoken by Adam lived on and was the same language which was spoken by Christ. Why would Dante want to insist in the Commedia on the constant mutability of language? Why does he abandon the idea of the perfect language, as well as his claim that it was a perfect language that Christ spoke? How might all of this be related to the ‘segno’ of the Paradiso XXVI, 117?
Key theme: the Commedia as 'poema sacro'
The opening of Paradiso XXV is generally regarded as one of the most significant passages of the Commedia. Yet there is much disagreement among commentators as to how exactly Paradiso XXV, 1–12 ought to be read. The Commedia is referred to in these lines as a ‘poema sacro’ a sacred poem the authorship of which may be seen as both human and divine, a poem which is both a product of Dante's art and of divine grace. Are Dante’s claims presumptuously exaggerated or humbly respectful of the truth which he believed God to be? Commentators are divided on this question. Some suggest that Dante cannot but be seen as presumptuous in claiming divine authority for his poetry; others suggest that in claiming divine authority for his poem Dante is simply saying that his poem ought to be seen as an expression of the truth/love which he believed God to be.
© 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