by Dante Alighieri
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Is it just us or does Matilda’s entrance in Canto XXVIII strongly mirror something we’ve heard before…where was it? Oh yeah. In the last canto.
Matilda seems to be a foil (albeit, a fictional one) of Leah, the exemplar of the active life in Dante’s final dream sequence. Compare the language:
[for Leah]: [...] I seemed to see a woman
both young and fair; along a plain she gathered
flowers, and even as she sang […] (Purg. XXVII, 97-99)
[for Matilda]: I saw a solitary woman moving,
singing, and gathering up flower on flower –
the flowers that colored all of her pathway. (Purg. XXVIII, 40-42)
That sounds about identical. So what does it mean? Well, if Leah symbolizes the active life, then it makes sense for Matilda to represent something similar.
Matilda is certainly is happy. She herself points out how strange it is that she should smile and laugh in a place where original sin was committed, and that her touchstone piece of Scripture is the Delectasti Psalm which reads, “For thou, Lord, hast made me glad through Thy work; I will triumph in the work of Thy hands.”
The fact that she takes such joy in this garden is proof that she “triumph[s] in the work of [God’s] hands.” This is because the very description of the Earthly Paradise early in the canto says how picturesque the place is; it’s like a painting and even the birdsong is called “art” at one point. We don’t need many reminders that God fashioned this place as an artist, because the Bible makes a big point of saying that God made Eden specifically for the enjoyment of Adam and Eve.
Finally, her beauty seems to reflect that of the earth. Her figure is always fraught with bright flowers, her singing is wordless and unintelligible like the birdsong in her garden, and she “keeps her soles close to the ground” as if dependent on it. Dante describes her as Proserpina, the daughter of the earth goddess Ceres in Roman mythology (she is known as Persephone in Greek).
Proserpina is traditionally thought to come up from Hades (the underworld) after winter to bring joyous spring. If we think about the Earthly Paradise, with its lack of bad weather and constant sunlight, we might be tempted to think of it as an eternal spring. How appropriate.