Major Themes: Prayer

One of the most original features of Dante’s Purgatory is the prominent part which prayer plays. Even though, as we saw, most medieval theologians argued that the souls in Purgatory did not need to pray, the penitent souls in Dante’s Purgatory are almost all depicted at prayer. When Dante enters Purgatory-proper, he remarks that it is the sound of singing that makes Purgatory different from Hell (‘quivi per canti/ síentra, e là giù per lamenti feroci’ (113-4)). The text contains a large number of citations from the liturgy, as well as one re-writing of the Lord’s prayer (in the opening lines of Canto XI). You will need to refer to the Book of Psalms in the Bible.  

If you are interested in hearing how the hymns might have sounded when sung (and how Dante might expect his readers to imagine them), you can listen to them on the website of the Società Dantesca Italiana (www.danteonline.it). Some of the most important liturgical references occur in the following places:

II, 46 ‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto’

Psalm 113

V, 24 Miserere

Psalm 50

VII, 82 Salve Regina


VIII, 13 Te lucis ante


IX, 140 Te deum laudamus


XI, 1-24 Lord’s Prayer

Re-writing of the Pater


XIII, 50-1 ‘Maria, ora per noi’, etc.

Litany of the saints

XVI, 19 ‘Agnus Dei’

Prayer from the Mass

XX, 136 ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’


XXIII, 11 ‘Labia mea, Domine’

Psalm 50

XXV, 121 ‘Summae Deus clementiae’


On a number of occasions, Dante suggests that the whole of the text is to be imagined. For instance, in Canto II, when Psalm 113 is being sung, we are told that the souls ‘cantavan tutti insiem ad una voce/con quanto di quel salmo e poscia scripto’ [‘they sang this all together, in one voice,/with all the psalm that’s written after this’] (47-48). Although on other occasions it is less clear that this is the case, the familiarity of Dante’s audience with the liturgy suggests that brief citations from the liturgy would call to mind the whole of the text in question. When considering the liturgy in the Purgatorio, then, you need to ask yourself how the whole of a cited psalm, hymn or prayer might affect our understanding of the passage in which the citation occurs.

Another striking example of Danteís reinvention of the liturgy is the opening of Canto XI, which involves a new version of the Pater Noster (Lord’s Prayer).  

Christ and the Psalms

One of the most interesting and revealing uses of liturgy by Dante comes in Canto II, with the performance of Psalm 113 by the souls arriving on the shores of Purgatory, ‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto’. In this example, alongside other uses of psalms in the Purgatorio, medieval readers would have understood the presence of Christ. This section explores how this would have occurred, and the significance of this presence for purgation in the Purgatorio.  

There are some obvious points of comparison between the psalm and the souls’ situation which you might have noticed: the souls are leaving one state for another, just as the Israelites left Egypt, crossing a dangerous sea.

In the Convivio Dante describes how the psalm needs to be understood in terms of the individual soul, as well as through the historical reality it describes. In fact the psalm was understood by commentators in an even richer way than that. For Augustine, for instance, it was to be understood as being a prefigurement of the Crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, which was itself the redemption of humanity. In other words, the exodus from Egypt is a figure for the New Testament events. But as well as drawing out that relationship, Augustine agreed with Dante in considering that every individual, by entering into a state of grace, also went through a similar exodus. So in singing the psalm, the souls bring together the past event of the Exodus, the event it prefigured (the Crucifixion and resurrection) and their own individual redemptions.

The same can be said of some of the other liturgical performances of the souls in Purgatory. For instance, in Canto XXIII, the souls of the gluttonous are being purged. They sing the words, ‘labia mea, Domine’, which come from Psalm 50 (although the words occurred in several places in the liturgy). As we saw, the reference to lips refers both to the vice of gluttony, and to the performance of praise. But if we read the whole of Psalm 50, an even fuller picture emerges. At the end of the psalm, there is a reference to sacrifices (‘there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you’). 

For Augustine, again, this psalm prefigured the Crucifixion. He explained how this could be. ‘David’, he says, ‘was living at a time when sacrifices of animal victims were offered to God [i.e. the time of the Old Testament], and he saw times to come. Do we not detect ourselves in those words? Those sacrifices were figures, pre-announcing the one saving sacrifice [in other words, the Crucifixion]’. But Augustine did not stop there. For the psalm also referred to a self-sacrifice. ‘Shall we therefore offer nothing’ he asks. ‘Do not look outside yourself for cattle to kill; you have inside you what you may kill.’

All of this means that the performance of the psalm links together the past Old Testament event, the Crucifixion, and the individual experience of moving away from sin. One consequence of this is that the suffering of the individual in Purgatory is linked in some way to the suffering of Christ on the Cross.

© 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