Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 13 Retelling — Second Ledge — Envy (Sapia)

Chapter 13: Second Ledge — Envy (Sapia) (Purgatory)

Dante and Virgil reached the next ledge: the second ledge of Purgatory Proper. This terrace was much like the one below it, but because it was higher on the mountain, the circle it made around the mountain was smaller.

Here no souls could be immediately seen. Here no sculpture could be seen. No bas-reliefs were on the wall or ledge of the mountain. The color of the rock was dark like a bruise.

Virgil said, “If we wait until someone comes whom we can ask directions from, we may lose much time.”

Virgil looked at the Sun, a symbol of God for many, but a symbol of Natural Reason to Virgil. Natural Reason — what we can learn from reason and from nature — is a good guide that we should follow unless it is superceded by something that is superior to it: Revelation from God.

Virgil prayed to what the Sun represented for him, “Light in whom I place my trust, please guide us. We are unfamiliar with this place, and so we need guidance. You are warm and light the world. We should always look to you unless you are superceded by something that is superior to you.”

Dante and Virgil walked along the ledge for a mile — quickly, for they wanted to climb the mountain quickly. Then they began to hear voices without bodies.

The first voice they heard said, “They have no wine,” as it flew by them.

Dante thought, Jesus’ very first miracle was turning water into wine so that the guests at a wedding in Cana of Galilee could celebrate. This is a miracle that Jesus performed at the request of his mother, Mary. This shows generosity on the part of Mary. She wanted other people to be able to celebrate a wedding properly. She was concerned with the happiness of other people, and she showed her love for other people.

Before the sound of the first voice had faded, Dante and Virgil heard another voice cry, “I am Orestes!”

Dante thought, When Agamemnon returned home to Greece after fighting the Trojan War for 10 years, his wife, Clytemnestra, killed him. She had taken a lover during the years that he was away from home. Her son, Orestes, killed her because she killed his father, and Orestes was sentenced to die. His friend Pylades was willing to die in Orestes’ place, although Orestes did not want him to, so both told the executioners, “I am Orestes!” In John 15:13, we read, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Pylades loved Orestes so much that he was willing to die for him.

Dante asked Virgil, “Where are these voices coming from?”

They then heard a third voice: “Love your enemies.”

Dante thought, Matthew 5:44-45 gives us the words of Jesus: “But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless them who curse you, do good to them who hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you; That you may be the children of your Father who is in Heaven: for He makes His Sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Virgil answered Dante’s question: “On the second ledge of the Mountain of Purgatory, the envious purge their sin. What you are hearing are examples of the virtues that are opposed to envy: kindness and the love of others. In addition to the examples of the virtue, you will learn examples of the sin itself.

“Now look ahead, and look carefully. Some people are over there; their backs are against the cliff.”

Dante looked ahead, and he saw souls wrapped in cloaks that were the color of bruises.

As Dante and Virgil came nearer to these souls, they heard the souls cry, “Holy Mary, pray for us” and “Michael, Peter, and All Saints.” The souls were singing the “Litany of the Saints,” of which this is a small part:

“Holy Mary, pray for us. 


“Holy Mother of God, pray for us. 


“Holy Virgin of virgins, pray for us.”

Dante the Pilgrim thought, Any person on Earth would feel pity if he or she saw what I saw. I cried. They looked like blind beggars asking for alms at the doors of churches. They ask for food, and one blind beggar leans against another blind beggar for support. Their cries arouse pity, and simply looking at them arouses pity. Blind people cannot enjoy sunlight, and these saved souls were still denied the light of Heaven until they could climb to the top of the mountain. The eyelids of the envious had been sewn together with iron thread, just as falconers will sew with silken thread the eyelids of falcons to make them quiet and tame them. These souls when living had looked upon their neighbors with envious eyes, and now they can no longer look upon anything. Because they are blind now, voices teach them the virtue of loving others. In life, their sin of envy had bruised their soul, and so now they wear cloaks of coarse cloth that is of the color of bruises. In life, they had wished evil upon their neighbor, but now they lean upon their neighbor for support or give support to their neighbor.

Dante felt guilty because he was looking at people who could not look at him, and so he turned to Virgil with a question.

Virgil, who could read Dante’s mind, answered the question before Dante could ask it: “Yes, you may talk to these souls. Speak briefly, and don’t be sidetracked.”

Dante was in the middle, between Virgil and the saved souls. Virgil, always protective of Dante, was walking along the outer edge where someone could fall.

Dante said to the souls, “Saved souls, you know that someday you will reach your goal and be in Paradise. Please help me. Is anyone here Italian? I may be of help if someone is.”

A saved soul replied, “All of us are citizens of the one true city that is Paradise. You mean to ask if someone here used to be a living person in Italy.”

Dante thought, No destructive factionalism is in Purgatory. Everyone is a citizen of the same place, and everyone helps each other.

Dante moved forward to where the voice had come and saw a female soul with a raised chin.

Dante asked, “If you are the one who spoke, please tell your name or tell me where you lived.”

The soul replied, “I lived in Siena. Like the others here, I am purging the sin of envy. My name is Sapia, or Wisdom, but I was not wise in life. I enjoyed the discomfort of other people more than the comfort of myself. Listen to a story that shows my lack of wisdom. The men of Siena were fighting a battle outside of the town of Colle. I prayed to God that the Sienese be defeated. The Sienese, led by my nephew Provencal Salvani and by Count Guido Novello, lost the battle, and my nephew, whom I envied for his rise to power, was killed. I rejoiced in the defeat of the Sienese, and I cried to God, “I no longer fear you.” I was like a blackbird that is afraid during the cold winter but is cocky during the warm summer.

“I did not repent until at the end of my life. I would still be in Prepurgatory if Peter the Combseller, a good and pious and virtuous man who would not sell a defective comb, had not prayed for me.

“But tell me who you are. If I am correct, your eyelids are not sewn together, and you breathe as you speak.”

Dante replied, “Someday my eyes will be sewn shut, but not for long because I seldom look at another person with envy. What fills me with fear is the great amount of time that I will spend on the ledge below that is devoted to purging the sin of pride. Already I seem to be feeling the weight of the stone that I will carry.”

Sapia asked, “Who has guided you here? How have you been able to come here if you think to return to a lower ledge?”

Dante replied, “This man beside me who has not spoken is my guide. I am still alive. If you want, once I am back in the Land of the Living I will help you.”

Sapia said, “This is a miracle! God really loves you! Yes, please help me. Say a prayer for me occasionally. I also ask you by what you hold valuable to please restore my reputation among my family in Siena. I was envious, but I repented and so I am on this mountain.

“My family lives among foolish people in Siena. The people of Siena are ambitious, but they pursue foolish projects. First they looked in vain for an underground river they named the Diana. Then they embarked upon the more foolish project of building a harbor at Talamone, a project that failed because of malaria and because the harbor filled with silt as quickly as it was dredged.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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