Dante’s “earthrise” moment is entirely imagined – no astronaut’s photos were available in 1320. Its emotional impact is no less powerful for that.
As we leave Saturn, the most remote of the planets, to enter the heaven of the fixed stars, Beatrice addresses him:
In the array of the seven planets, each sphere enclosing another in diminishing size, Dante sees a perfectly ordained order – their size, speed and distance from one another reflecting the very mind of the Creator. Finally, at the centre of the universe, his eyes settle on planet earth:
The metaphor of our world as a threshing floor wracked by violence is characteristically Dantesque in its originality and directness. It’s also surprisingly down to earth! With it, Dante evokes the toil and sweat of our working lives since the Fall, the pettiness of our squabbles over natural resources, the bitter conflicts and struggles that blind us to the world’s beauty. There may also be a reference to the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz, where kindness and generosity to strangers express a different morality, one that prefigures the compassion of Jesus.
We are far above the world and all its battles, wheeling in the constellation of Gemini, Dante’s birth sign. From this vantage point we can see the tiny earth – paltry, even mean, as Dante calls it – yet fragile in its beauty, its hills and river mouths gleaming green and blue.
Perhaps Dante is asking the same question we ask today: will we have the sense to preserve and nurture our planetary home? Or will we, in being ‘fierce’ with one another, destroy it?
His answer, which he implies should be ours too, is to turn to the eyes of Beatrice – to the sources of love and knowledge that nourish us, so that we come to understand our true identity.
L’aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci. A vivid, uniquely Dantesque metaphor that throws into relief the pettiness of our squabbles when seen from beyond our world.