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After they cross the threshold, which—Dante is proud to say—few men are privileged enough to pass, Dante hears the door close and fears looking back.
Their path is hard—running up the mountain and constantly doubling back on itself like waves on the sea. The difficult trail makes their going so slow that the moon has set before they find their way out.
They finally come upon an open space, realize they’re tired and lost, and stop.
The mountain ledge is deep, its depth measuring three times one man’s height on all sides. (In his distress, Dante takes the time to measure it.)
As Dante groans in frustration, he notices the opposite embankment. It’s less steep than theirs and also prettier, since it’s not only made of white marble but is also decorated with carvings so complex that even such artists as Polycletus and Nature herself would be overwhelmed.
Carved on that rock are images of Gabriel the angel, who opened Heaven to men after Adam and Eve had been banished from Eden. The artist rendered Gabriel so beautifully that he hardly seems to be just an image, and Dante claims one can almost hear him saying “Ave” (“Hail”) in prayer to a painted Virgin Mary in front of him. Even her very figure seems to cry out “Ecce ancilla Dei” (“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord”).
Virgil, on Dante’s right-hand side, interrupts Dante’s gape-mouthed staring to advise him to look at all the images.
So he looks some more. Past the figure of Mary is another Biblical story rendered in the stone. This one shows a cart drawn by oxen carrying a sacred ark. A crowd of people stands before it, divided into seven choirs.
These choirs seem so realistic that although Dante’s eyes are telling him they aren’t real, his ears can almost hear their singing. Similarly, his nose and eyes try to sense whether or not he’s really smelling the incense painted there. In front of the ark, King David is dancing, while Michael watches scornfully from the palace window.
Beyond that picture is another. There, Dante sees the Roman Emperor Trajan mounted on horseback and surrounded by golden banners emblazoned with the eagle emblem. Near him stands a poor widow. The representation is so detailed that Dante can hear the conversation being held. The widow begs God to avenge her son’s murder. The Emperor Trajan asks her to wait until he returns to fulfill her request. She asks sadly, what if he doesn’t return? Trajan responds that his regent will perform the duty for her. Still doubtful, she asks why he is neglecting his duty. He assures her that the act will be done before he leaves because his duty and mercy require it of him.
Dante is agape with wonder that God could make a picture seem so real. He explains that this is because God sees nothing new (including fantastic pictures), while men are fascinated by novelties all the time.
Virgil interrupts, drawing Dante’s attention to a group of approaching penitents. He hopes that they’ll be able to show them the way up the mountain.
Dante turns toward them, reluctantly tearing his eyes from the glorious paintings.
He warns readers that the punishment they’re about to see may be harsh, but not to dwell on that. Instead, he asks us to think about the salvation that lies beyond Judgment Day.
Wait, Dante thinks; those people coming towards us don’t seem like… people. He thinks his sight is just off and shares this thought with Virgil.
Virgil assures him that it’s not his vision; these people are punished by bearing heavy weights on their shoulders and are thus bent over.
On closer inspection, Dante finds that the forms beneath the stones are indeed human.
He laments that men could be so proud as to render them blind and force them to walk backwards. He asserts that men are worms and that only after they’ve gone through purgation can they morph into angelic butterflies. He asks the rhetorical question, why do men try to fly when they’re still merely worms—or sinful.
He then compares these bent-over penitents to corbels (wooden brackets used to support a roof), which are shaped like men in despair, with their knees drawn up to their chests.
When Dante looks again, the penitents' forms echo the despair. Everyone is bent over at different heights, according to the weights on their backs. All of them seem on the verge of collapsing. Poor guys.