Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 29 – through a glass darkly

Semele: death by divine magnificence – what a way to go! Jupiter and Semele, from Game of Mythology, Stefano della Bella

In the sphere of Saturn Dante meets a kindred spirit, Peter Damian, who leaves him in no doubt about the limits to human knowledge.

Saturn is the outermost of the seven planets, the coldest and most remote from earth. This is the heaven of the mystics – those who, on earth, led a contemplative life dedicated to union with the Divine Essence. The atmosphere here is different, more serious than in the lower spheres, more like that of a monastery.

The first thing Dante notices is that Beatrice isn’t smiling. Were she to smile, she explains, he would be damaged, like a tree struck by lightning:

To illustrate, Beatrice cites the example of Semele, a mortal who, in Greek legend, became the mistress of the king of the gods, Zeus. Semele asks Zeus to reveal himself in all his splendour. He warns her of the danger, but she insists. He complies – and she is burnt to a cinder!

Peter Damian: portrait in a Ravenna library.

Beatrice’s explanation sets the theme for this heaven, namely the utter transcendence of God, such that He lies beyond the grasp of our human faculties, especially the grasp of the intellect, which may be confounded, even destroyed, by the merest taste of Him. Until now the spheres have seemed familiar and welcoming, but in this last sphere we enter deepening mystery, deepening darkness, deepening danger – the danger of being mentally impaired, even annihilated, by divine magnificence. It’s a risk run by all serious mystics and, to ward it off, you need a strong dose of common sense, an ability to keep your feet on the ground and a willingness to laugh at yourself. For humour, Sufi mystics reach for Mullah Nasruddin, but I have no idea whether Peter Damian, or Dante himself, had anything similar to turn to, let alone whether they would actually have done so, given their ascetic tendencies.

We are on the outer edge of the known universe, looking out towards the heaven of the fixed stars, which shines with remote brilliance across the void. Dante sees a ladder:

This image, which would have been familiar to Dante’s readers, is borrowed from the story of Jacob’s dream, in the book of Genesis: “Behold a ladder set up on earth, and the top of it reached to heaven, and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28: 12). According to Sinclair, preachers often used the golden ladder as a metaphor for the monastic life, in which the mystics “climb by contemplation up to God himself and descend by compassion among men (St Bernard, quoted by Gardner)”.

One of the lights stops near Dante and glows extra brightly, signalling love. Dante hesitates to speak but Beatrice encourages him. Dante addresses him as vita beata che ti stai nacosta dentro a la tua letizia, “blest living soul that remains hidden in your happiness”. Not yet knowing who he is, Dante asks him a couple of “why” questions: “’the reason why you have been brought so near to me, and why in this wheel the sweet symphony of paradise is silent.’” Damian answers the second question first, saying that the silence here is for the same reason that Beatrice has no smile: ‘Tu hai l’udir mortal sì come il viso’, “’Your hearing is mortal, even as your sight.’” As to the first question, he says only that he has come down the ladder specially to welcome Dante, out of ‘alta carità’, “’deep charity’” – the charity or love that “’makes us prompt to serve…’”.

“’Why you and not another?’”, Dante persists. Here he is really asking about predestination and, in so doing, pushing beyond the limits of what we mortals are permitted to know. The light spins and answers austerely: ‘Luce divina sopre me s’appunta’, “’ A divine light is focused upon me’”, raising him so far above himself that ‘i veggio la somma essenza della quale è munta’ “’I see the Supreme Essence from which it is drawn.’” But, he says, even the most illuminated souls or angels will not answer Dante’s question, ‘”For what you ask is so far removed in the abyss of the eternal ordinance that it is cut off from every created vision.’” Damian continues:

This is a stern rebuke, not just of Dante’s impudent questioning but of all humanity’s arrogant presumptions in second-guessing the mind of God. It’s also a refutation of Dante’s earlier assertion of the power of the rational intellect to reach the truth (see Note 25). Dante the mystic knows that the ultimate nature of reality, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”, can only be revealed, not reached by reason. But the Renaissance man in him, the curiosity-driven scientist in him, needs reminding of this. He gives up his question and humbly asks the speaker who he is.

Fonte Avellana, the remote monastery where Peter Damian spent his last days in seclusion. Photo by Giacomo Alessandroni via Wikimedia

Born in poverty in Ravenna, Peter Damian (990-1072) became a monk and then abbot in the monastery of Fonte Avellana, high in the mountains of Le Marche. He was widely known for his learning and devotion as well as his ascetic severities. His name would have been venerated in Ravenna, where Dante probably wrote this canto. Dante may also have lodged for a time in Damian’s old monastery, where he could have studied the saint’s writings. At the pope’s insistence, Damian “came down the ladder”, so to speak, to take up the posts of bishop and cardinal, outward-facing roles that brought him into contact with corruption in the Church. Eight years later, he returned to his mountain cloister to end his days.

Although he lived two centuries before Dante, Damian clearly had a similar temperament – and temper: many in the Church fell under the lash of his tongue, according to Sinclair. He shared Dante’s indignation at greedy and corrupt prelates, writing, for example, that those who squander donations made by the poor “crucify Christ a second time”. Karl Vossler, in his authoritative Introduction to Dante and His Times, notes that Damian was part of a movement of monks and hermits that sought internal reform of the Church and believed the emperor had both a right and a duty to intervene in Church affairs as a moral reformer, views similar to Dante’s.

This great shout, echoing through the silent reaches of space: what does it mean?

Dante does not tell us – he cannot, for he doesn’t understand it himself. Perhaps it is a cry of protest at the evils that beset the Church on earth. Certainly, it fulfils Damian’s earlier warning that Dante’s hearing, like his vision, is mortal and therefore deficient. It also echoes the example of Semele given earlier by Beatrice, Zeus being the god of thunderbolts.

My own feeling is that the shout is best left unexplained: like all the imagery in this canto, it speaks to a deepening sense of mystery.

None knows Him save Himself. That is the chill message of Saturn.   

Genius line:

La mente, che qui luce, in terra fumma. Echoes the biblical idea that in this life we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13: 12). Earth-bound minds are like glass obscured by smoke. Only after death will we see “face to face”.