Dante's Idea of Purgatory

The idea of Purgatory in Christianity has a particularly interesting history. In fact the Bible in no place states outright that Purgatory exists; for this reason, it has been a particularly flexible idea, and indeed since the reformation Protestants have denied that there is such a place at all.  

But since the time of the early Church, the faithful had prayed for the souls of the dead, and it was a major tenet that such prayers had an effect. For those prayers to work, the souls of the dead in question needed to be in a temporary condition, rather than a permanent one. In the Bible, Matthew had hinted that punishment after death involved the repayment of a debt (5: 25ñ6); this implied that the punishment could be temporary, rather than eternal.

It was only in the early thirteenth century that the idea of Purgatory actually became fully institutionalised. The most prominent modern historian of the idea of Purgatory, Jacques Le Goff, dates the term purgatorium to around 1170; and in 1215 the Church began to set out the actual length of time in Purgatory required of souls. It is easy to see how this might have been a useful development for the Church. If the idea of Purgatory was more firmly in the mind of the faithful, and if the faithful believed that they could reduce the amount of time they, and their friends and relatives, actually spent in Purgatory (often by paying the Church to hold masses on their behalf), then the Church’s importance became much stronger.  

However, little was said explicitly about exactly what happened in Purgatory. It was clear that some sort of suffering was undergone. Thomas Aquinas (or someone claiming to be him) offered a detailed account of Purgatory, which suggested that Purgatory was there for those who had been removed from a state of sin (and therefore had been saved from eternal damnation), but still owed a debt to God for that sin. The only punishment mentioned was fire. One important part of the standard view of Purgatory in Dante’s day was that, after death, it was no longer possible to have freedom of choice. This meant that the souls in Purgatory were not expected to become morally better: it was too late for that. Punishment was rather an act of restoration. And because the souls were no longer in a state of sin, but had been saved, they had no need to pray. (It was, however, important for those remaining on earth to pray for those who were in Purgatory.)

Where was Purgatory? There was little consensus about this. Some believed it was closer to Hell than it was to Heaven; some said the opposite; still others believed that purgation took place in the location where the sin being punished had actually happened; another widespread view in Italy was that Purgatory was Mount Etna, in Sicily. 

We can see, then, that when Dante came to write the Commedia, there was limited consensus on some of the key questions about Purgatory. It was clear that there was some sort of punishment; and that the souls in Purgatory had been saved from eternal damnation; and after that punishment had been completed, they would be able to enter Paradise. But few details were established in medieval culture about the type of punishment undergone; the psychological state of the souls in Purgatory was not in any way considered important; and the geographical location of Purgatory was a hotly debated issue.

Dante’s version of Purgatory is extraordinarily detailed and, in some key respects, strikingly original. First, he imagines Purgatory as being divided up into seven terraces, each one corresponding to a vice (in the order that Dante sees them: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice and Prodigality, Gluttony and Lust). On each terrace, there is a slightly different form of suffering: the envious, for instance, have their eyes sewn up; the proud are weighed down by stones. The range of forms of suffering is therefore considerably greater.  

But perhaps the most original aspect of Dante’s version of Purgatory is that the souls in Purgatory are in the process of moral change. They suffer, but not simply in order to repay a debt: they are suffering in order to become good. The consequence of this is that they willingly undergo the suffering, they understand the reasons for it, and they are acquiring the new habits of thought which will enable them to go to Heaven. For Dante, Purgatory is not only a place where you pay the debts you incurred when you sinned: it is in fact the place where you reflect on those sins, and where you change the psychological tendencies which led you to sin. This leads to extraordinary richness in the depiction of character. Whereas, in the Inferno, the sinners met by Dante tended to be fixed in the habits of thought which led them to sin, in the Purgatorio Dante faces the challenge of depicting souls who are in a process of change.

It is also a place of prayer. Throughout Purgatory, hymns and psalms are sung, and prayers are said. This element in Dante’s Purgatory -- radically new in depictions of Purgatory -- is in keeping with his imagining the general tendency of the souls of Purgatory to reflect on their failings.  

Its geographical location is also hugely inventive. For Dante, the Garden of Eden is placed at the top of Purgatory. Dante imagines that Eden is at the very antipodes of –the opposite side of the world from--Jerusalem. This is not a casual choice: for in doing so, Dante imagines that the place where mankind incurred guilt from original sin lies on the same axis as the place where salvation from original sin was won by Christ in the Crucifixion. Original sin and salvation are therefore strongly linked. This means that the journey forward in time, in Dante’s Purgatory, is also a journey back towards mankind’s condition in the Garden of Eden, to a time before original sin. This link between the Garden of Eden and Purgatory is, as far as scholars have been able to ascertain, without precedent in theology and literature.

Earlier versions of Purgatory had imagined that devils inflicted torments on the souls suffering there. But Dante imagined Purgatory as a place of moral change, as well as uffering. In keeping with this, his Purgatory has angels in the place of devils. This serves to confirm the idea that his Purgatory is not simply a temporary version of Hell (as Dante’s predecessors and contemporaries tended to imagine), but is in fact the route to Heaven.

Finally, Dante invents an entirely new region of Purgatory. As you will remember, Hell had a region which was invented by Dante, where the indifferent were punished (described in Inferno III). This was outside of Hell itself. Similarly, Dante imagines an area outside of Purgatory-proper, where those who have been negligent in some way or another have to serve a certain amount of time before entering Purgatory-proper. This area, known as Ante-purgatory, is described in Purgatorio I-IX. 

When you have finished reading the Purgatorio, it is worth taking a few moments to reflect once again on the originality of Dante’s version of Purgatory. His inventiveness is not limited to the geographical make-up of Purgatory: it is driven by his reassessment of the theology of Purgatory, and by his intense engagement with the psychological processes which he believed to be necessary to achieve salvation.

© 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