Wakefield: Heaven, Purgatory or Hell? From Isolation, via Education, to Harmony is a project led by the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies in collaboration with the Education Department at Wakefield Cathedral and the Black Horse Poets and asks whether images of community found in a poem written over 700 years ago might still resonate today, and, if so, in what ways.
Dante is best known for his Inferno, and for the strap-line: ‘Abandon all hope, you who enter here’. Perhaps less well-known is the fact that he described both Hell and Heaven as cities or communities. Hell is a city gone wrong, a city devoid of community, where it’s every soul for her- or himself. Punished cheek-by-jowl in a situation of squalor and violence, the souls feel deeply alone, cut off from hope and from one another. In Heaven, on the other hand, the idea of community is taken to its ultimate fulfilment. Heaven may not look like a city – Dante’s Heaven is made of pure light – but it feels like one, and a perfect one at that, to the souls who enjoy its peace, harmony and understanding. Between Hell and Heaven, Dante situates Purgatory: a place where souls are re-educated and learn to live together, to support one another, to create community.
Viewed from this perspective – as a series of questions about how we do, or should, live as members of a community, Dante’s ideas about what might make a community ‘good’ (heavenly) or ‘bad’ (hellish) continue to feel relevant. In this project, therefore, we have been interested in exploring the ways in which the communities in which we live and work today – especially modern-day Wakefield – might be construed as heavenly or hellish. How are Wakefield’s citizens working together today to create community so that they can live together in peace and harmony? Can community be ‘taught’, in the way that it is in Dante’s Purgatory? Can art and poetry be one of the ways in which we try to communicate what community is, or even to create it? On the other hand, how does it feel to be deprived of a community, to be isolated – perhaps isolated even in the midst of people, as the souls are in Dante’s Hell? Can a city like Wakefield be a heaven or a hell for its citizens?
Members of the local community were invited to submit photographs and poems which explore these ideas. The Leeds Centre for Dante Studies also led a fascinating afternoon of discussion and reflection on these issues at the Mirfield Centre in April. Some of the images and poems received were displayed in the cathedral in May 2016; all the poems received and some more of the images can be seen via this page. We hope that they will all provoke further reflection on the idea of communities – bad, developmental, and good.