Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 32 Retelling — Forest of Eden — Pageant of Church History

Chapter 32: Forest of Eden — Pageant of Church History (Purgatory)

Dante stared at Beatrice. She had died in 1290, and he had 10 years of longing to look at her to satisfy. Sight was the only sense he used, and he used it so intently that he was oblivious of his other senses.

He stared at her smile, and he was as attracted to Beatrice as he had been when she was still alive.

But then he heard the three ladies complain, “He should not look so intently.” Dante was not yet ready to look intently at Beatrice and all she represented about Paradise.

Dante was blinded like someone who had stared at the Sun. His blindness lasted only briefly.

He regained his sight and was able to look at things that seemed dim compared to what he had been staring at, and he saw that the spectacular procession had moved. The golden candlesticks, 24 elders, and all the rest had started making a right-turn-about. The procession had come from the East, but having moved it was now facing the Sun. The seven candlesticks were still in front.

Like soldiers, those in front had moved and turned first, and now the seven ladies took their places by the wheels of the chariot, and the Griffin began to pull it. The Griffin easily pulled the chariot; not a single feather of the Griffin was ruffled.

Statius, Dante, and the lady of the Earthly Paradise moved behind the chariot as it turned.

They walked in the Earthly Paradise, which was empty of living Humankind except for Dante because of the sin of Eve, who had listened to the snake, sinned, and given cause for living humans to be banished.

The procession continued moving, and Beatrice got out of the chariot. The procession murmured, “Adam,” the name of he who had been the partner of Eve in sin, and the procession surrounded a tree with branches but without leaves or fruit.

The tree was very tall, and the taller it was the more its branches spread. This tree resembled the tree on the ledge of the gluttonous, and so Dante knew that this was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as described in Genesis. This is why the procession had murmured Adam’s name.

The members of the procession sang, “Blessed are you, Griffin, for you did not eat of the bark of this tree. The bark tastes sweet, but it causes illness.”

The Griffin replied, “And so I preserved the seed of righteousness.”

Beatrice thought, The bark of this tree represents the things that religious people ought to resist, especially including material wealth. Jesus lived in holy poverty, and so he was able to concentrate on spiritual wealth rather than on material wealth.

The Griffin had pulled the chariot with pieces of wood that made a pole with a crossbar that formed a cross. Now the Griffin tied the pole to the tree, which grew purple blooms.

Beatrice thought, This tree represents the Roman Empire, as shown by the height of the tree. Tall trees are used in Scripture as symbols of the great empires of Assyria and Babylon. This tree is higher than the highest trees of India and so the Roman Empire is superior to the empires of India. When Empire and Church are properly connected and related to each other, things can bloom. The tree had been barren, but now that it is connected again with the Cross, all is well. The true Cross was made of wood taken from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and so those pieces of wood are now united again with the tree. The tree’s blooms are purple, representing the blood of Jesus when he died to save Humankind.

The procession began to sing a hymn that Dante did not recognize because that hymn is not sung on Earth — and Dante fell asleep. In falling asleep, he missed experiencing what else the procession did.

He woke up when a voice called, “What are you doing there? Arise!”

Dante thought, Peter, John, and James had fallen asleep after the death of Jesus. They were awoken by a voice saying, “Arise!” That was the word with which Jesus had awoken Lazarus, who had been dead. Peter, John, and James heard “Arise!” and then saw the resurrected Jesus before he entered Paradise.

Dante looked up, and the lady of the Earthly Paradise was bent over him. He asked, “Where is Beatrice?” He was afraid that she had gone.

The lady replied, “She is sitting on the roots under the tree’s newborn leaves. The procession has left with the Griffin and gone to Paradise.”

The lady may have said more words, but Dante did not hear them because he was paying attention to Beatrice.

She was guarding the chariot that the Griffin had left connected to the tree.

The seven ladies were with her, and they were holding the seven golden candlesticks that had led the procession.

Beatrice told Dante, “For a short time, you will continue to dwell in the Land of the Living, and then you will be with me forever in Paradise. You will be saved. You will not be sentenced to eternal torment in the Inferno.

“Watch carefully now. You will see things that I want you to remember and to tell the living.”

Dante wanted to be of service to Beatrice. He watched carefully.

An eagle swooped to earth and attacked the tree, tearing off its bark and its blooms. Then the eagle attacked the chariot, which resembled a ship in a storm, battered by waves.

Dante thought, The chariot is a symbol of the Church, and the eagle is a symbol of the Roman Empire. The Roman legions carried standards into battle. The standards were poles with insignia or symbols at the top. The Roman standards often had the figure of an eagle at the top. Here I am seeing a representation of the persecutions of the early Christians by Roman emperors such as Nero and Diocletian.

Then a skinny fox jumped into the chariot. Whatever food it fed on did not nourish it. Beatrice chased the fox away and accused it of abominations.

Dante thought, The fox is a symbol of the early heresies that the Church had to confront. The Church was successful in resisting the heresies, which provide no nourishment to Christians. A heresy is an opinion that differs with orthodox doctrine. For example, a disbelief in immortality is a heresy.

Again the eagle swooped down. It had golden feathers, and it left a few golden feathers in the chariot. Dante heard a voice from Heaven cry, “My little ship, the cargo you carry is not worthy of you.”

Dante thought, A ship is often used as a symbol for the Church, so that is what the voice is referring to here. This scene is a reference to the document known as the Donation of Constantine. Constantine was the first Christian Roman emperor. When he moved from Rome to the city of Constantinople, he gave much power and many material possessions to the Pope. Constantine deliberately moved East in order to reward Pope Sylvester I with power and possessions because Pope Sylvester I had cured him of leprosy. This Donation of Constantinople corrupted many Popes and the Church. The Donation of Constantine caused a crisis in the Church because suddenly the Popes became more concerned about money and power than they were concerned about God. In fact, the Donation of Constantine is having bad effects in Florence and Rome 1,000 years after Constantine gave his Donation to the Church. Constantine died in 337, and Constantinople is named after him.

Beatrice thought, Dante is mostly right. The golden feathers do represent material riches. When the Church began to pursue material riches rather than spiritual riches, corruption began. It started slowly at first. However, the Donation of Constantine document that Dante believes in is a forgery, as will be proven after Dante dies. Still, Dante got the main point right.

Then a dragon came up from the ground between the wheels of the chariot. It drove its tail up through the floor of the chariot, causing a division in it. The dragon wandered away slowly, as if it might return and do more damage to the chariot.

Dante thought, This represents the schisms that have divided the Church. One such schism is between the eastern and the western Church. And Mohammad started another schism with Islam.

Then the chariot appeared to grow feathers. Possibly, the feathers grew with good intentions, but they soon covered the chariot.

Dante thought, People such as Constantine gave material riches to the Church with good intentions. Constantine did not mean to hurt the Church. He meant only to help the Church. But once the Church got a taste for material riches, it wanted more and more. This led to corruption — lots of corruption.

Then the chariot changed into a monster. Seven heads grew on it. Three heads grew on the pole of the chariot, and a head grew on each of the chariot’s four corners. The heads on the pole of the chariot had two horns each; the other heads had one horn each.

Dante thought, The heads are the Seven Deadly Sins.

Then Dante saw a half-dressed whore sitting on the monster that had been the chariot and looking sluttishly around. A giant stood by her, and he and she kissed. But when the whore cast a sluttish glance at Dante, the giant became enraged and beat her. Then he dragged her and the monster that had been the chariot away out of sight.

Beatrice thought, Dante can tell other people what he sees here. The telling can provide knowledge to the living, if they will listen to Dante. But he and they will not know the proper interpretation of this until it occurs in the future.

The whore represents the Pope. When the whore casts an inappropriate glance at Dante, the whore represents Pope Boniface VIII, who will get Dante exiled. The giant represents King Philip IV, aka Philip the Fair, of France. In 1303, Philip had his bullies beat up Pope Boniface VIII, who died a month after the attack.

When the giant drags the whore and the chariot out of sight, this represents Philip the Fair rigging the election of Pope Clement V in 1305 so that he could move the Papal Seat to France instead of Rome. Seven Popes, all of whom were French, will stay in Avignon, France, from 1309 to 1377, when Pope Gregory XI will move the Papacy back to Rome.

For a while, King Philip IV of France will have the power, not the Popes. The Holy Roman Emperor should have power over secular matters and the Pope should have power over spiritual matters. Both men should be good men, and they should not engage in a power struggle.

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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