Major Themes: The Body

Canto XXV: the unity of body and soul

There was a very rich debate in medieval philosophy about the relationship between the soul and the body. One view was put forward by Bonaventure. Bonaventure believed that soul and body can each be considered separately; they are each composed of their own material. These two separate entities do desire each other, however: the soul longs for the body, and the body longs for the soul. The soul cannot be fully happy unless the body is returned to it. In theory at least, however, a human body could exist without a soul.

Another view was put forward by theologians such as Albert the Great and Aquinas. Aquinas believed that the soul was the thing which gave the body shape. For these theologians, the body could have no meaning without the soul; indeed, it could have no existence without the soul.

In Purgatorio XXV, Statius gives us an account of the relationship between the body and the soul. His view is much closer to that of Aquinas, than to that of Bonaventure. He gives a very vivid and memorable comparison to make his point: ‘Guarda il calor del sol che si fa vino,/giunto a líomor che de la vite colaí (77-8). The soul is as important in making the human being as the sunshine is in ripening the grapes that make the wine. There are three major stages:

1. The foetus is created, and the brain takes shape in the foetus (67-9).

2. God turns to the foetus, and adds a ‘spirito novo’, a new spirit which is full of capability; whatever ability was already in the brain (the brain before the arrival of the soul is like an animal’s brain) is drawn into this new spirit into a single soul (70-74). This new soul ‘vive e sente e sé in sé rigira’ (75): is able to live, to feel (i.e. to have sensory perception), and to reflect on its own existence.

3. After death, the soul leaves the body, and retains the powers of memory, understanding and will in even stronger form than before; it lands on ‘líuna de le rive’ (i.e. it is damned or saved). As soon as it arrives, the very same power which gave shape to the body projects out into the air around it (85-90). It produces what is sometimes called an ‘aerial body’, or a ‘shade’, which contains all the bodily organs, which can experience all sensory perception. This aerial body responds to all of the emotions of the soul.

This passage provides the concepts on which much of Dante’s conception of the afterlife is based. Dante has not simply assumed that the soul after death can suffer, can be seen, can speak, etc: he has actually worked out an entire theory of the body and the soul. A shade is, put simply, a soul which radiates a substitute for the body out of itself.

Real bodies and aerial bodies

The importance of the body is also made clear in the moments where the shades of the Purgatorio seem to point towards their own lack of the body. The fact that Dante-personaggio was himself making the journey in his body was highlighted in the Inferno: but there it was a source of fear, for the souls and demons of Hell showed anger.

On the whole, passages in the Purgatorio display a good deal of humour. They are three ‘comic’ moments (in the modern sense of the word): the shades of Canto II crowd around Dante, ‘quasi oblïando díire a farsi belle’ (75), forgetting any sense of decorum; in Canto V they break off their rather serious singing of a psalm to let out an inarticulate ‘oh!’ sound; in Canto XXI we have the prolonged humour of Statius declaring himself to be Virgil’s number one fan without realising he is talking to the great poet himself, and then throwing himself, star-struck, at Virgil’s feet. We can smile at these comic moments, because the aerial bodies know that at the time of the Last Judgment their flesh will be resurrected (as Christ’s flesh was resurrected); and once reunited with their bodies, they will be even better equipped to enjoy the heavenly bliss that awaits them.  

The limitations of the body

There is another consequence to the theory of the unity of body and soul which Statius presents. This is to do with the idea that the body is a product of the soul, and that each human soul is put into each body by God (XXV, 68-72). It follows from this that the pursuit of pleasures which are limited to the body is a denial of the spiritual dimension of human beings. Indeed, each of the vices purged in Purgatory might be seen as a denial of the spiritual dimension of the human being; each might be said to involve placing more importance on the body than on the soul.

Christ’s body in the Purgatorio

There is one final dimension to the role of the body in the Purgatorio: the relationship between the bodies (or aerial bodies) of the souls in Purgatory, and the body of Christ. In Inferno, we saw how the Church was often presented as being like the body of Christ. St Paul, for instance, talks about the Church as being the ‘mystical body’ of Christ:  

"The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body […] and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body […] The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don't need you!’ Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it."

(1 Corinthians 12: 12-16, 21, 27)  

In this metaphor, the community of the Church is like the body of Christ, made up of many parts. This is clearly a metaphor which is applicable to Purgatory: the souls there depend on each other, and help each other (the souls of the envious, who physically lean on each other because they cannot see, are an obvious example of this).

There is more to be said about the body of Christ in the Purgatorio. For Christ’s body, when it was resurrected after the Crucifixion, was seen by Christians as the manifestation of humanity’s redemption from sin. In medieval culture, as we have seen, the imitation of Christ was one way in which the faithful could participate in that redemption. (The Eucharist, the ritual in which the faithful believed they ate the body and drank the blood of Christ in the form of communion bread and wine, was another clear example of this.) In the Purgatorio, there are some instances where the souls make their ‘aerial’ bodies resemble Christ. As we saw in reading the Purgatorio, Statius’s appearance to Virgil and Dante, and Manfred’s identification to Dante, are good examples of this.

The body of Christ is therefore a very important idea for the Purgatorio. In leaving behind the vices which attach them to their bodily desires, the souls of Purgatory unite themselves with the resurrected body of Christ.

© 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