The Divine Comedy provides not only a poetic summa of the literature, philosophy, and religion of the Middle Ages, but a medieval Christian interpretation of all human history. Borrowing freely from Ptolemaic cosmology and the speculations of Church leaders, Dante also found the epic poets, particularly Homer and Vergil, enlightening when it came to describing the realm of the dead. Only here could Dante freely mingle fictional personalities from earlier literature with semilegendary characters from epics and real figures from the Italian city states. Only within this locale, constructed from his borrowings and own dreams and visions, could he hope to succeed in his acknowledged goals: to compose a Christian epic celebrating Italian civilization; and to honor Beatrice, the woman he had loved from childhood.
Purgatory. The pangs of purgatory are mitigated by hope. All souls here will eventually be released. Some of these penitent shades discourse on the transience of human fame and the vanity of human wishes. Others answer Dante’s questions about free will and the influence of the stars upon earthly lives. Amazingly, even in this place, despite the urgency of purgation, the affairs of the Italian city states remain pressing, and several of these penitents have political discourse with the visiting poets. Dante uses the unique setting not only to exercise his satiric vision but to air some of his own political opinions.
Paradise. Final destination in Dante’s journey–heaven, a place of perfect happiness, populated by saints, that calls on Dante to employ all of his powers to make interesting. In Paradise, Vergil is no longer Dante’s guide, having had the misfortune to be born shortly before the redeeming advent of Christ. Beatrice now takes his place. Paradise thus becomes the only setting in which Dante could truly have absorbed the great lesson of Christian neo-Platonism. On earth he had worshiped this woman from childhood, and she had inspired his art, even after her death. To see her again in Paradise had been his abiding hope. Yet as he progresses through the Heavens–meeting apostles, doctors of the Church, the Virgin Mary herself–Beatrice’s own presence slowly fades and at last Dante is able to perceive the ultimate reality toward which Beatrice’s image has always beckoned. He is to contemplate the radiance of Divinity and to submerge himself in the most ecstatic of mysteries, the Triune God and the God-Man.