Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Paradise: The Final Vision

At noon on Easter Wednesday Dante mounts with Beatrice straight up into the world of light. The planets and stars he passes through spell out in images and language a vision. Through the nine spheres of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Fixed Stars, Primum Mobile, and beyond them to the Empyrean, Dante the pilgrim moves up into the rose of paradise to the vision of the triune God.

Dante’s vision of Holy and Easter Weeks in 1300 raised him to mystic heights, but how was one to re-visit such an apex of human consciousness and make it real to others? In the opening of Paradise, the poet sounds a note that he will ring often again in the lines that follow:

I have been to that heaven where his light
Beams brightest and seen things that none, returning,
Has the knowledge or the power to repeat,
Because as it draws near to its desire,
Our intellect sinks down to such a depth
That memory cannot trace its way back there
.(Paradise I, 4-9)

So overwhelming was the experience that the mind cannot retain the profound dimensions felt at the time.

Like the previous canticles, Paradise proceeds to its climax through a series of personal encounters between the pilgrim and the spirits of the dead. Dante’s drive to go onward first comes from his contact with Beatrice as she grows more luminous and gracious in his eyes. But Dante also learns from others along the way. In Canto VI, the Emperor Justinian provides Dante with a summary of heroic deeds accomplished under the ensign of the Roman eagle. Dante’s great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida in Canto XVI offers a detailed account of the past achievements of noble families in Florence. Both histories follow a pattern of rise and fall, the ancient prowess yielding to gradual decline and breakdown into factions. The Holy Roman Empire on the national and local levels has fallen on evil days. As Charles Martel of Anjou predicts in Canto VIII, darker days of warfare lie ahead.

The panoramic view of Roman history provided by Justinian and the story of the Florentine families and of Dante’s own lineage recounted by Cacciaguida present the public and personal narratives that the poet balances in turn with the past and future summaries of events. The public prophecy of Martel is counterpointed by the private revelations of Cacciaguida regarding Dante’s own exile and suffering.

Two of the most impressive speeches in the Comedy are the eulogy of Saint Francis by Saint Thomas Aquinas in Canto XI and the eulogy of Saint Dominic by Saint Bonaventure in Canto XII. In each case the speaker follows his words of praise for the founder of the other religious order with a denunciation of the present state of his own: Thomas laments the degeneracy of the Dominicans while Bonaventure grieves for the loss of the original Franciscan fervour.

Three visions of Christ occur in the journey through paradise: the cross seen in Mars in Canto XIV, the triumph of the risen Lord in Canto XXIII, and the vision of the human Jesus in the center of the circle of Godhead in the final canto.

Three moments of vision make up the movement of the final canto, climaxing in the last face to face meeting with the Incarnate Son.