Study Guide

Paradiso Spirituality

By Dante Alighieri


Just as, returning through transparent, clean
glass, or through waters calm and crystalline
(so shallow that they scarcely can reflect),
the mirrored image of our faces meets
our pupils with no greater force than that
a pearl has when displayed on a white forehead –
so faint, the many faces I saw keen
to speak: thus, my mistake was contrary
to that which led the man to love the fountain.
As soon as I had noticed them, thinking
that what I saw were merely mirrorings,
I turned around to see who they might be;
and saw nothing; (Par. III, 10-22)

This is Dante's first encounter with blessed souls and they are so faint in appearance that he can only make out "the mirrored image of [their] faces." He is fooled into thinking they are "merely mirrorings" and turns around with the expectation of seeing more solid and vibrant forms. In doing so Dante makes a mistake. This is a reference to the story of Narcissus found in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Narcissus was a beautiful youth who, upon looking into a fountain, saw himself reflected and fell in love with himself. Dante makes the opposite mistake, failing to recognize the souls as themselves. The comparison of their light to "a pearl…displayed on a white forehead" is a comment on their beauty, since noblewomen would often wear pearls against their foreheads to show off their pale complexions.

Just as the sun, when heat has worn away
thick mists that moderate its rays, conceals
itself from sight through an excess of light,
so did that holy form, through excess gladness,
conceal himself from me within his rays;
and so concealed, concealed, he answered me
even as the next canto is to sing. (Par. V, 133-139)

This is the first inkling we get of the cause of the souls' radiant clothing. Justinian's brilliance results from his "excess gladness." This gives us a clue – confirmed later – that the souls' love for God makes them shine. Ironically, this soul's light, which would only make his face more visible to those with perfect sight blinds Dante and "conceal[s]" Justinian from him, so much so that Dante cannot identify him.

And I saw many lights, alive, most bright;
we formed the center, they became a crown,
their voices even sweeter than their splendor:
just so, at times, we see Latona's daughter
circled when saturated air holds fast
the thread that forms the girdle of her halo.
In Heaven's court, from which I have returned,
one finds so many fair and precious gems
that are not to be taken from that kingdom:
one of those gems, the song those splendors sang. (Par. X, 64-73)

In the Fourth Heaven of the sun, the blessed souls form a "crown" around Dante and Beatrice, perhaps in homage to Beatrice as the avatar of Divine Wisdom. Interestingly, the most fitting comparison Dante can find for the sun souls' beauty is to the moon, "Latona's daughter." This is the first, but will not be the last, time the souls use their beauty to form shapes fitting to their particular star.

[King Solomon]: …"As long as the festivity
of Paradise shall be, so long shall our
love radiate around us such a garment.
Its brightness takes its measure from our ardor,
our ardor from our vision, which is measured
by what grace each receives beyond his merit.
When, glorified and sanctified, the flesh
is once again our dress, our persons shall,
in being all complete, please all the more;
therefore, whatever light gratuitous
the Highest Good gives us will be enhanced –
the light that will allow us to see Him;
that light will cause our vision to increase,
the ardor vision kindles to increase,
the brightness born of ardor to increase.
Yet even as a coal engenders flame,
but with intenser glow outshines it, so
that in the flame the coal persists, it shows,
so will the brightness that envelops us
be then surpassed in visibility
by reborn flesh, which earth now covers up." (Par. XIV, 37-57)

Solomon's words inform us that the souls' light stems from their love for God. The depth of their love for God comes from the perfection of their vision. Interestingly, their lights serve as a sort of substitute for their earthly raiment – physical bodies. When Judgment Day comes, the blessed shall be reunited with their physical bodies and shine even brighter because they will be complete and merit more of God's grace.

As, graced with lesser and with larger lights
between the poles of the world, the Galaxy
gleams so that even sages are perplexed;
so, constellated in the depth of Mars,
those rays described the venerable sign
a circle's quadrants form where they are joined.
And here my memory defeats my wit:
Christ's flaming from that cross was such that I
can find no fit similitude for it.
But he who takes his cross and follows Christ
will pardon me again for my omission –
my seeing Christ flash forth undid my force.
Lights moved along that cross from horn to horn
and from the summit to the base, and as
they met and passed, they sparkled, radiant: (Par. XIV, 97-111)

The first sign that Dante sees upon entering the heaven of Mars is the souls forming an image of the Cross. These warrior souls combined with the image of the Cross bring to mind the Crusades, of which this flaming cross was the emblem. Interestingly, Dante can describe the individual souls, but cannot describe them collectively when they form such a holy sign. Here, their beauty escapes Dante's powers of expression.

She did not smile. Instead her speech to me
began: "Were I to smile, then you would be
like Semele when she was turned to ashes,
because, as you have seen, my loveliness –
which, even as we climb the steps of this
eternal palace, blazes with more brightness –
were it not tempered here, would be so brilliant
that, as I flashed, your mortal faculty
would seem a branch a lightning bolt has cracked." (Par. XXI, 4-12)

Like the souls themselves, Beatrice's beauty and smile become more brilliant as Dante ascends. Upon entering the heaven of Saturn, the brilliance of Beatrice's smile becomes too bright for Dante. She implies that were he to look now, he would go blind or "[his] mortal faculty [of sight] / would seem a branch a lightning bolt has cracked." The souls' brilliance, then, is a reflection of their closeness to God.

Peter Damian]: "Your hearing is as mortal as your sight;
thus, here there is no singing," he replied,
"and Beatrice, in like wise, did not smile." (Par. XXI, 61-63)

Just as Dante's mortal sight could not endure the brilliance of Beatrice's smile here in the Seventh Heaven, his equally mortal hearing could not endure any of the blessed souls' singing, were they to hymn. It seems that the blessed souls make allowances for Dante, reining in their various superhuman qualities to ensure Dante's well-being.

But time between one and other when
was brief – I mean the whens of waiting and
of seeing heaven grow more radiant.
And Beatrice said: "There you see the troops
of the triumphant Christ – and all the fruits
ingathered from the turning of these spheres!"
It seemed to me her face was all aflame,
and there was so much gladness in her eyes –
I am compelled to leave it undescribed.
Like Trivia – at the full moon in clear skies –
smiling among the everlasting nymphs
who decorate all reaches of the sky,
I saw a sun above a thousand lamps;
it kindled all of them as does our sun
kindle the sights above us here on earth;
and through its living light the glowing Substance
appeared to me with such intensity –
my vision lacked the power to sustain it. (Par. XXIII, 16-33)

The reference to "heaven grow[ing] more radiant" and Beatrice's later allusion to "the triumphant Christ" implies that Jesus is like a sun to this heaven. Indeed, his followers are described as "fruits / ingathered," which probably come from the work of the Holy Spirit. And the congregation of so many shining souls is compared to "a thousand lamps," whose collective light is so bright that Dante goes temporarily blind.

Even as he who squints and strains to see
the sun somewhat eclipsed and, as he tries
to see, becomes sightless, just so did I
in my attempt to watch the latest flame, (Par. XXV, 118-121)

St. John's appearance in his clothing of light is so brilliant that Dante "becomes sightless." The comparison of St. John to a "sun somewhat eclipsed" may refer to his wisdom, extending far beyond that of the souls located in the sun.

[St. John]: "On earth my body now is earth and shall
be there together with the rest until
our number equals the eternal purpose.
Only those two lights that ascended wear
their double garment in this blessed cloister.
And carry this report back to your world." (Par. XXV, 124-129)

St. John dismisses a popular legend: in heaven he was one of the few allowed to wear his physical body along with his brilliant soul. St. John tells Dante the truth, that only the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ are allowed such a privilege. Only on Judgment Day will all the other souls be allowed to wear their bodies again.