Three Tantalizing Enigmas in Dante’s Heaven of the Sun

In Canto Ten of the Paradiso, Dante and Beatrice arrive in the Heaven of the Sun, the heaven of the theologians. They will abide here through Canto Fourteen. The Sun is the first of the heavenly spheres that escapes the shadow cast by earth. Thus, it is fittingly the place where the wise manifest themselves to Dante in undimmed splendor.

Significantly, Canto Ten begins with an invocation of the Trinity. “Gazing upon his Son with the Love which the one and the other eternally breathe forth.” Though the Trinitarian character of the poem is clearly evident in its terza rima versification and in the numerological division of its presentation (three cantica, each of thirty-three cantos, plus an introductory canto), in these cantos, where Wisdom is celebrated, Trinitarian doxology plays a perspicuous role. It is as though we were hearing an anticipatory echo of Dante’s glorious vision of the Triune God, which is the culmination of the poem in Paradiso Thirty-three.

Twin dancing circles of resplendent flames, each circle composed of twelve saints, inspire and inform the revelatory movement of these cantos. Each of the luminous circles has a spokesman who opens some portion of Wisdom’s book to Dante. The two are Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, both deceased a bare quarter century before the Divine Comedy’s symbolic occurrence in the Holy Year 1300.

One of the wonders of Dante’s poetic imagination receives striking expression in this heavenly sphere. Transcending earthly rivalries, Aquinas the Dominican sings the praise of Francis, while the Franciscan Bonaventure extols Dominic. Conversely, each levels harsh criticism at the failure of the members of their own order to follow their founder faithfully. Thomas laments that faithful Dominicans have become so few that only a little cloth would suffice to stitch their cowls. A sentiment Bonaventure picturesquely echoes in his own diatribe against his feuding brethren.

The energetic praise and lament that constitute the substance of Cantos Eleven and Twelve give way to Canto Thirteen, which, by contrast, reads like a rather dry scholastic disquisition by Thomas on God’s direct and indirect creative action. Thomas argues that Solomon was not the wisest of creatures (that distinction is accorded to the humanity of Adam and of Christ, directly created by God), but, rather, the wisest of rulers. The canto even concludes with some pedantic (if salutary) cautions by Thomas concerning the failure to make distinctions and the consequent hasty judgments indulged in by both intellectuals and ordinary folk.

Robert Hollander, the fine Dante scholar and translator, acknowledges the “unpoetic quality” of this canto. And others agree. However, I fail to find in the commentators I have read any suggestion that Dante, who leaves little to chance, may have intended precisely this effect and affect. In other words, Canto Thirteen is a “set up” for Canto Fourteen to follow, which is one of the most “poetic” and affective of the entire Divine Comedy.

It may be telling therefore that at the beginning of Canto Fourteen the poet remarks of the loquacious Aquinas (in my reading, a bit wryly): “si tacque la gloriosa vita di Tommaso”—“the glorious living soul of Thomas fell silent.” I am reminded (no doubt mischievously) of the beginning of the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Just before launching into the exuberant choral finale of the symphony, the bass intones: “O friends, no more these sounds! Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy!”

The song of joy that bursts forth in the Fourteenth Canto celebrates both the ever-living Trinity and the resurrection of the glorified body. As we shall see further, for Dante there seems a surprisingly intimate nexus between the two themes, the two realities of Trinity and bodily resurrection.

In this sequence of cantos, Dante the Pilgrim, for the only time in the Divine Comedy, does not speak. It is Beatrice who articulates the Pilgrim’s unspoken concern: whether the risen body will be so overwhelmed by the glorious splendor of the soul as to be blinded, its senses annihilated. And the respondent to his dubium is neither Thomas nor Bonaventure, as we might have been led to expect, but, rather, one of the “flames,” whose name is never given, save by indirection. Earlier, as a member of the first circle of souls, he was introduced by Thomas as “tra noi più bella”—“the most beautiful among us . . . whose wisdom had no rival” (X, 109, 113-4). Now, still unnamed, he steps forward from among the dancing circles as “la luce più dia” (XIV, 34)—“the most brilliant light.”

The great majority of commentators concur in identifying this figure with King Solomon, the wisest of Israel’s kings and the canonical author of the “Song of Songs.” Pointedly, the Poet prefaces Solomon’s response by remarking upon his “modest voice” that resembled that of the angel’s to Mary (XIV, 35-6). So the reader must ready herself to be privy to a new annunciation.

The first of the enigmas that these cantos present, then, is: why is Solomon thus privileged among the twin circles of the wise, surpassing his soul mates?

Consensus among the commentators is to dwell upon two aspects of Solomon’s fame that have a particular appeal for Dante. First, of course, is his fame as ruler, who prayed the Lord for wisdom to govern his people and, in doing so, found favor with God (1 Kings 3:3–14). Dante, the great promoter of the Emperor as guarantor of unity and universal peace, promotes Solomon as precursor to a restored Empire. The second aspect of Solomon’s figure, perhaps even more salient, is his authorship of the “Song of Songs.” In this regard Solomon appears not only as precursor to the ardently desired Emperor. He is precursor to the ever so present poet: Dante.

In the Church’s tradition the “Song of Songs” represents the mystical love of Christ and his spouse, the Church. For Dante it testifies to the possibility of the transfiguration, not renunciation of earthly love, of eros. Indeed this is the very leitmotif of the Divine Comedy: earthly loves—for nature, native place, human accomplishments, concrete others—not denied, but purified and transformed on the way to deification: the trasumanar of Paradiso I, 70. And Dante, who scorns false modesty, clearly asserts the originality of his poetic enterprise—and of himself as its pioneer.

At the very beginning of Canto Ten, he had put his readers on notice: “now all my force is focused on that matter of which I have been made the scribe” (X, 26-7). “Scribe,” like Solomon! Presumptuous? Here is how, later in Paradiso, he speaks passionately of his undertaking: “’l poema sacro/al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra”—“the sacred poem upon which both heaven and earth have set their hand” (XXV, 1-2). Dante is the evangelist, not of a new dispensation, but of a new realization of the order of grace.

In his penetrating study of Dante in the third volume of The Glory of the Lord III, Hans Urs von Balthasar (no novice given his knowledge of the whole of the theological tradition) daringly declares of Dante’s undertaking:

The love, which began on earth, between two human beings, is not denied, is not bypassed on the journey to God; it is not, as was always, naturally enough, hitherto the case, sacrificed on the altar of the via negativa; no, it is carried right up to the throne of God, however transformed and purified. This is utterly unprecedented in the history of theology. (32).

So it is scarcely by chance that Dante entrusts the celebration of the resurrected body to the author of the “Song of Songs,” that paean to love human and divine.

However, there may be a further reason that the chosen celebrant is Solomon, not Thomas. Thomas most certainly taught the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Moreover, he steadfastly maintained that disembodied souls lack a fundamental constituent of their very nature as the form of the body. Yet, Thomas also taught that the resurrected body will be resplendent, not of itself, but due to the overwhelming brightness of the soul which animates it. He writes in his Summa contra Gentiles that “the soul, enjoying the beatific vision is filled with a spiritual luminosity, so that, by a certain overflow from the soul to the body, the body itself, in its own manner, is clothed with a glorious brightness” (SCG, Lib IV, caput LXXXVI).

Solomon exults: “When we will be clothed again in our flesh, made glorious and holy, our person will be more pleasing for being all complete”—“più grata fia per esser tutta quanta” (XIV, 43–45). And Thomas Aquinas, of course, would assent.

But then Solomon goes further and rhapsodizes: “This radiance which already encircles us [referring to the disembodied soul] will be surpassed in its visibility by the flesh which earth still covers”—“fia vinta in apparenza de la carne” (XIV, 55–57). Thus not only will the body have a radiance proper to it, it will even surpass that of the soul.

Robert Durling, in the notes to his translation of Paradiso, opines, apropos these verses: “Dante somewhat complicates the matter by imagining a glory proper to the body”. But I contend that the “complication” is the point! Dante here strides beyond Aquinas, and, perhaps, the entire Scholastic tradition. No wonder Solomon serves as his chosen spokesperson.

So then the second enigma arises. If indeed we witness here a provocative advance beyond the theology of the Schools, in what does it consist? What is the import of the view attributed to no less an authority that the scripturally-sanctioned Solomon?

I think we discover significant clues in the remarks that the poet annexes to Solomon’s astonishing attestation. First, he records the joyful response that issues from the double ring of the wise. Both choirs intoned an “Amen!” thus showing their ardent desire for their dead bodies”—“che ben mostrar disio d’i corpi morti” (XIV, 63).” Tellingly, however, Dante uses the Tuscan dialect form for Amen: “Amme!” The great proponent of the use of the vernacular here introduces even its colloquial expression into the heavenly realm.

Rather than a provincialism on the part of the proud Florentine, there is a deeply human impulse which becomes clarified in his remarkable commentary upon the ardent desire he has just described. He says: the desire is “not for themselves alone perhaps, but for their mothers, for their fathers, and for the others who were dear to them before they became everlasting flames”—“forse non pur per loro, ma per le mamme, / per li padri e per li altri che fuor cari / anzi che fossero sempiterne fiamme” (XIV, 64–66).

The use of the familial “mamme” (rather than madri) arises not merely from the exigencies of rhyme, but from a sensibility to the intimacy of relations that bind: from mother tongue to mother’s milk, embracing all those who have shaped the persons we have finally become.

What drives these crucial verses of Canto Fourteen, then, is not sentimental nostalgia, but affective wisdom. It is the wisdom that recognizes and celebrates the constitutive nature of the relationships, inscribed in our very bodies. What I call “somatic relationality.” It is this realization that accounts for the surpassing brilliance of the glorified body, for it extends beyond the individual to the person defined by his or her relationships.

In this light the striking presence of Trinitarian invocations and doxologies in these cantos takes on new meaning. For the Trinitarian relations that constitute the persons of the Godhead are the arche and telos of every person’s journey, coming forth from the Father through the Word in the Spirit and returning in the Spirit through the Word to the Father. This is the very journey that Dante’s theological-poetic masterpiece depicts. It celebrates the profoundly corporeal nature of salvation, incorporating in Christ cari, comunità, cosmo: dear ones, community, the cosmos itself.

No sooner does the poet cease his comment on the ardent desire expressed by the double circles that the third enigma bursts upon us. It takes form as the sudden epiphany of a bedazzling third circle. “Behold,” marvels Dante, “like a brightening horizon, there arose a splendor surpassing the former”—“un lustro sopra quell che v’era” (XIV, 68). He continues: “I seemed to see new figures forming a ring beyond the other two”—“un giro di fuor da l’altre due circumferenze” (XIV, 74). A new, third circle of numerous souls appear, underscoring the Trinitarian imagery that pervades these cantos.

The sight elicits this exclamation from the wondering Poet: “O true shining forth of the Holy Spirit! / how sudden and splendorous it appears / that my eyes, overwhelmed, could not bear it.” “Oh vero sfavillar del Santo Spiro / come si fece sùbito e candente / a li occhi miei che, vinti, nol soffriro!” (XIV, 76`78). Robert Hollander rightly characterizes these verses as “this supercharged passage,” so vatic and enigmatic do they appear. He and others speculate that Dante, following in the wake of Joachim of Fiora, here foresees the coming of a “Third Age” of the Holy Spirit, perhaps even distancing from the previous ages of the Father and the Son. The Third Circle of countless, still nameless, personages would be, then, those “spirituals” liberated from the constrictions of the previous eras.

However, I think this hypothesis implausible. First, because Bonaventure in his criticism of his Franciscan brethren in Canto Twelve had specifically inveighed against Umberto da Casale, leader of the so-called “Spiritual Franciscans.” It is unlikely that Dante would here repudiate what he had Bonaventure pronounce. Second, more crucially, because the reality and symbolism of the Trinity is so central to Dante’s vision that any implication of Trinitarian supersessionism would undermine his entire endeavor.

Yet clearly in “this supercharged passage” a novum is being proclaimed. In what does it consist? How resolve this third, clearly prophetic enigma? If not a new age, then what? Hans Urs von Balthasar provides a promising orientation when he speaks of Dante as the “originator” of a “new third theology.” Perhaps one might say a new “integration:” of sacred and secular, Christianity and antiquity, Church and Empire, theology and poetry, reason and affectivity, whose focus is always the concrete particularity of human persons, forged by their affective interpersonal relations in history. And the privileged vehicle to express this integration is the vernacular, the mother tongue in which these relations transpire.

Hence the appropriateness of the “Santo Spiro,” the Holy Spirit, as matrix of this new poetic theology. The Holy Spirit, not as the inaugurator of “Third Age,” but as the communion of persons both in the Godhead and among the Trinity’s created images. Thus the “Third Age” dawning is not Joachite, but Dantean. Dante the Pilgrim, who has never once spoken in the Heaven of the Sun, had no need to speak. He himself has become the inspired Scribe of this new mystical-political theology whose inauguration is the “Sacred Poem” itself.

In my reading, the commentators seem to have paid insufficient attention to the link that closely binds what I have been calling the “three enigmas:” the choice of Solomon as the final speaker, the extraordinary celebration of the risen body with its myriad defining relationships, and the mysterious epiphany of a Third Circle of theologians enfolding the other circles. Each enigma builds upon the former and, together, they mutually illumine one another. But they also significantly anticipate the climax of the Comedy in the last cantos of Paradiso.

Readers of Dante know that the Pilgrim’s journey culminates in his great beatifying vision of the Trinity in the Thirty-third Canto of Paradiso—the hundredth of the entire Commedia (both numbers replete with Trinitarian significance). Even more than before, the Poet struggles to give voice to the finally ineffable reality he experiences. The “apophatic” strain of the poem has been widely commented upon and appreciated. Dante does not presume to circumscribe the vision, but to be circumscribed, encircled by it. Here are the verses in the Hollanders’ translation:

In the deep, transparent essence of the lofty Light
there appeared to me three circles
having three colors but the same extent,
and each one seemed reflected by the other
as rainbow is by rainbow, while the third seemed fire
equally breathed forth by one and by the other (XXXIII, 115–120).

And yet the ultimate Reality is not a beckoning Void or inscrutable Nothingness, but manifests Trinitarian (personal and relational) contours. Even more, the “cataphatic” element is boldly confessed, as it must be in a work of Christic inspiration. For the vision reveals a further depth. Addressing the very Godhead the Poet exclaims:

That circling which, thus conceived,
appeared in you as light’s reflection,
once my eyes had gazed on it a while, seemed
within itself and in its very color.
to be painted with our likeness,
so that my sight was all absorbed in it (127–132).

What Dante perceives, enfolded in the very Mystery of the Triune God, is the glorified humanity of the Son. Christ’s Incarnation finds fulfillment, achieves its telos, in his Ascension whereby humanity is deified. Indeed, the glorified humanity of Jesus is the very condition for the possibility of every spiritual journey whose true destiny is a humanity transfigured.

The close association of Trinity and humanity’s bodily resurrection that we glimpsed in the Heaven of the Sun, we now contemplate fully realized in this last Canto. The God who lovingly formed humankind from the dust, Adam from earth, brings his beloved creation home—tutta quanta (whole and entire).

Those familiar with Charles Taylor’s (author page) monumental study, A Secular Age, recall that the last chapter is entitled “Conversions.” In it Taylor introduces the reader to a number of figures who, in his view, have “converted,” ventured beyond the limitations and negativities of modernity, to embrace a more fully human mode of existence and to articulate a more ample vision of reality. Among secularity’s constrictions that he identifies are the reduction of reality to an “immanent frame” that allows no scope for transcendence and the cultivation of a “buffered self,” supposedly liberated from entanglements and commitments.

Taylor suggestively sums up the deleterious undertow of secularity with the word “excarnation.” Excarnation is radical discomfort with bodily existence: with relationships and their demands, with community and its commitments, with history and its challenges.

Among those he celebrates for their conversion to a deeper vision and a fuller reality are Gerard Manley Hopkins and Charles Péguy.

Hopkins’s vivid sacramental sense, expressed in incomparable poetry, breaks out of the stifling one-dimensionality of the immanent frame. Péguy’s passionate advocacy of community and communion lays bare the impoverished state of the buffered self. Both hymn a world “charged with the grandeur of God.” They thereby echo the opening verse of “Paradiso:” “The Glory of Him who moves all things permeates the universe”—“La Gloria di Colui che tutto move / per l’universo penetra” (I, 1-2)

I would happily count both Hopkins and Péguy in the company of that Third Circle of living flames who Dante prophetically foresaw. But since the number of participants is both manifold and incomplete, the Circle is open for new membership. To Hopkins and Péguy I would personally enroll figures like Pascal and Newman.

Others may enlist other bards of this incarnational theological poetic, celebrants of embodied particularity. God knows the need is great and excarnation ever threatens. But, in that Third Circle, however many join the dance, Dante will remain the coryphaeus—even after 700 years.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is a welcome to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Dante's death in 2021.

Featured Image: Bela Čikoš Sesija, Illustration from Dante, c. 1931; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Fr. Robert Imbelli

Fr. Robert Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Associate Professor Emeritus at Boston College. He is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization.

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