Major Themes: Politics and the Church

This section, which is divided into two sections, examines the following topics:

  • Dante’s understanding of politics and the role of the Church, and how this is presented in the Purgatorio
  • the way in which Dante’s theory of the human body is explained in the Purgatorio, and the role of the body in the Purgatorio.

It is striking just how much the Purgatorio is concerned with politics. Dante-poeta’s most angry language in the Purgatorio is reserved for the political and religious leaders of Europe who, Dante suggests, have allowed Europe and Italy in particular to fall victim to destructive disputes and divisions.  

In Monarchia and Inferno Dante had outlined his position which in the Purgatorio he returns to:

  • For Dante, the Roman Empire (and its medieval counterpart, the Holy Roman Empire) was chosen by God to provide the conditions in which world peace could be achieved. The idea (put very simply) was that if all other worldly leaders recognised the divine nature of Empire, then disputes would not take place between them. Nor would greed cause rivalries within communities.
  • The Church, in Dante’s view, should not concern itself with political power, nor indeed with material possessions. It should be, instead, the community of those who believe in Christ. Dante has a very suggestive way of describing the role of the Church: the ‘form’ of the Church, he says, is the life of Christ. In other words, he believes that the Church should be the community of those who follow the example of Christ. As you may remember from Inferno XIX, in Dante’s view the Church was far from following this ideal.

Dante’s view of the relationship between empire and the papacy

In Dante’s day, there was intense debate regarding the relationship between the Church and political authority. The debate focused in particular on whether or not the authority of the Emperor derived directly from God or whether it was imparted to the Emperor by the Pope - i.e. on whether or not the Pope had the right to take a stand in political affairs. Boniface VIII, for example, argued strongly that all authority - political and spiritual - was given by God to the Pope, and that it was the Pope’s duty then to impart political authority to the Emperor. As we have seen, Dante disagreed strongly. He argued that the authority of the Emperor derives directly from God. More specifically, he argued that God had provided human beings with two guides: the Emperor to guide human beings in political terms and the Pope to guide human beings in spiritual terms.

The Church

Marco Lombardo’s discourse ends, in Purgatorio XVI, by referring to the way in which the Church has fallen in the mud, with consequences both for itself and its followers ‘befouling self and load’. Dante’s view, as is clear by now, is that this is a direct consequence of its involvement in worldly affairs.

As we saw, Dante believed that the Church should be modelled on the life of Christ. In many ways, the positive expression of what the Church should be occurs among the souls of the Purgatorio. By interacting as a community which has no concern with earthly wealth, and relating their own activities to the life of Christ, the souls in Purgatory form a group which does what Dante believes the Church should do.

There are other senses in which Purgatory is similar to a church. Some scholars draw attention to the structure of the Purgatorio, which resembles the approach to a church (Ante-Purgatory); the entrance to a church (the door of Purgatory, described in Canto IX); and, in the Earthly Paradise, we seem to be close to something similar to an altar. This is a suggestive idea, although it is important not to overstate it: there are plenty of elements in the Purgatorio which are not church-like (not least, the fact that Purgatory is, after all, a mountain).  

Another way in which the Purgatorio shows itself to be similar to a church is in the rituals which take place there. We have already seen that hymns, psalms and prayers are a major activity in Purgatory. There are other elements which seem to resemble religious rituals. These are not always identifiable as rituals which would have taken place in a Christian church, but they serve to give the sense that Mount Purgatory is a space in which church-like activities take place.

Although the souls of the Purgatorio seem to present a positive model of what the Church should be like, there also seems to be a sustained commentary on the fallen state of the Church in the Earthly Paradise. In lines 109-160 of Canto XXXII, the chariot (which is described as a ‘dificio santo’, a holy edifice (142), and therefore strongly associated with the Church) is attacked by an eagle and then by a dragon; the chariot sprouts heads; finally a whore and a giant sit on the chariot and the giant drives the chariot away.  

This description comes directly after Beatrice has instructed Dante to write down all he sees for the sake of the world. It therefore appears to have particular relevance for the condition of the Church at that moment in history.

© 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