by Dante Alighieri
Purgatorio Art and Culture Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Canto, Line). We used Allen Mandelbaum's translation.
“Te lucis ante” issued from his lips
with such devotion and with notes so sweet
that I was moved to move beyond my mind.
And then the other spirits followed him –
devoutly, gently – through all of that hymn,
their eyes intent on the supernal spheres. (Purg. VIII, 13-18)
As the first of many songs, this hymn represents the best social use of art (in Dante’s perspective): the espousal of Christianity and praise of God. Translated from the Latin, this hymn reads, “Before the light of You,” although it’s often glossed as “Before the ending of the day.” In it, the singers ask God to protect them from any evil or tempting dreams, essentially guarding them against even the most unconscious kinds of sin. Because this hymn comes from the lips of the Late-Repentant, it could be a plea of continued vigilance.
There we had yet to let our feet advance
when I discovered that the bordering bank –
less sheer than banks of other terraces –
was of white marble and adorned with carvings
so accurate – not only Polycletus
but even Nature, there, would feel defeated.
The angel who reached earth with the decree
of that peace which, for many years, had been
invoked with tears, the peace that opened Heaven
after long interdict, appeared before us,
his gracious action carved with such precision –
he did not seem to be a silent image.
One could have sworn that he was saying, “Ave”;
for in that scene there was the effigy
of one who turned the key that had unlocked
the highest love; and in her stance there were
impressed these words, “Ecce ancilla Dei,”
precisely like a figure stamped in wax. (Purg. X, 28-45)
Purgatory often uses the visual arts as means of impressing its moral lessons on its penitents. Here, on the first terrace of the Prideful, carved right into the cliff side, sculptures abound that show images of Gentle souls – counterexamples to pride. The “angel […] with the decree of that peace” is Gabriel and the “one of turned the key that had unlocked the highest love” is the Virgin Mary accepting the Annunciation from God. The fleeting reference to nature in the first lines reinforces the idea of Nature (through God) as an artist. And the fact that these sculptures “did not seem to be […] silent image[s]” reveals just how incredible an artist God is in his ability to make lifeless stone seem alive.
“Oh,” I cried out, “are you not Oderisi,
glory of Gubbio, glory of that art
they call illumination now in Paris?”
“Brother,” he said, “the pages painted by
the brush of Franco Bolognese smile
more brightly: all the glory now is his;
mine, but a part. In truth I would have been
less gracious when I lived – so great was that
desire for eminence which drove my heart.
For such pride, here one pays the penalty;” (Purg. XI, 79-88)
When Dante meets a famous artist, the renowned illuminator immediately shows how deeply he has absorbed his lessons here in Purgatory. Instead of smugly acknowledging his fame, Oderisi humbly deflects the remark, claiming his colleague Franco Bolognese paints better than he. He is perhaps an exemplar that Dante strives to be, because, as a fellow artist, Dante has not yet purged himself of pride.