Dante's Divine Comedy depicts three possibilities of life after death: Inferno, or Hell, where the unsaved spend eternity, Purgatorio or Purgery, where the saved who still have some sins to account for go, and finally Paradiso, or Paradise, the final destiny of the faithful. The Canto's of each possibility are told through the viewpoint of Dante and Virgil, who make the journey together. The discussion that follows is focused on the insights and meaning derived from the two artists' journey through Purgatorio.
The Spiritual Meaning of Purgatorio
The main, spiritual meaning of Purgatorio focuses on the fact that it is a transitory state between the death of the body and the spirit's ascendance to heaven. In contrast to Inferno, the souls doing penance here have the hope of its end and of their final admission into paradise. The atmosphere in this place also substantiates the feeling of hope. The souls here are praising and worshiping God. The joyous atmosphere is further substantiated by the four holy stars that Dante sees when entering Purgatory. These symbolize virtues rather than sins. This is in contrast to Hell, where only sin is seen. The virtues depicted by the stars are Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice.
These were recognized as the Cardinal Virtues during Dante's time.
With Purgatory comes the dawn after the darkness of the Hell that Virgil and Dante had been through. The coming dawn in Purgatory symbolizes the hope of new life and salvation, which results in the final rest of Paradise. It is also because of this hope that the attitude of those in Purgatory is radically different from what it is in Hell.
Purgatory is depicted in stages, where the souls move from the bottom of a mountain to the top, where Heaven waits. This is similar to the structure of Hell, although Hell is stagnant. Purgatory is in a constant state of upward movement. The tragedy of Hell is that no soul can escape its eternal punishment, whereas in Purgatory there is only a limited time of mobile penance towards the final reward.
The initial stages of Purgatory are arduous, but the burden is gradually lifted. The reader progresses with Virgil and Dante, and it is interesting to see that some of the same sins punished in Hell are also dealt with in Purgatory. The religious premise here is that those in purgatory have accepted and loved God during their lifetime. The souls in Hell have refused his salvation.
The punishment is also similar. Souls who have committed certain sins on earth, relive these, or do penance for them while in Purgatory. An example is Sloth. Those who were lazy are forced to run wildly on the Fourth Terrace. They must also sing praises and produce examples of those who lived life more virtuously than themselves.
The depiction of Purgatory is parallel to the spiritual belief of Dante's time. Salvation is dependent upon one's belief in God, but to enter the holiness of Paradise, the believer first has to be purified through a process in purgatory. Purgatory, being non-static in nature, is then closer to life than either Paradise or Hell. It is an evolution of the soul that parallels the evolution of souls on earth. On earth the soul is in waiting to be reborn after death. After death the soul is further refined through the suffering of Purgatory to become perfect. As the body is on earth, the soul in purgatory is in a state of continuous change through suffering. Suffering is then also seen as a spiritual process of refinement rather than punishment. Hell is punishment for sin, but Purgatory serves as a refinement process.
For Dante The Divine Comedy, and Purgatory particularly, is a depiction of his personal frustrations and fears. He intends to provide a guideline for both his readers and himself in a world that he views as increasingly corrupt. His own and others' corrupt ways also inspire him to create a work in which all is not lost. While he is dismayed at the sin he finds in the world, Dante still recognizes the difficulty of being perfect. He thus depicts Purgatory as a way to become perfect. This provides penalties for the sins on earth, but at the same time Purgatory means a future hope, just as a future hope exists on earth.
Through Purgatory then Dante comforts his readers with the idea that all that is truly needed for salvation is the acceptance of God. The flesh is weak and sinful, but God provides ways to still become holy. Thus the hope in Purgatory is also the hope on earth: perfection is possible, and sins can be forgiven as a reward for no more than faith.
Dante's aim is furthermore to make the Bible accessible to the readers sharing his world by providing them with terms and images that they understand. Thus his graphic descriptions of punishments to endure while waiting for Heaven is meant as a cautionary approach for his readers. He gives them the warnings in the hope that they will choose a more righteous path. This is also the role played by Beatrice with regard to Dante. She helps and supports in the hope that he may eventually be worthy of Paradise.
Dante however does not only aim to encourage and warn. He also wishes to explain the nature of the spiritual world. This is done through questions that are asked of guides and spirits in this realm. Moral and spiritual questions are addressed. Readers for example learn about the importance of prayer as a delivering device from Purgatory. In this way readers learn that they can play an active part in the "lives" of their departed loved ones by themselves also becoming closer to God through prayer. This is meant both as caution and encouragement.
Dante also addresses the importance of spiritual duties, without which thousands of years might have to be spent in Purgatory. While these deeds in themselves are not the core of salvation, they do help the spiritual traveler to attain a degree of holiness that is closer to heaven.
The central spiritual theme of Purgatory is that human beings are born to love God. This love however becomes corrupted by the lesser delights offered by the physical realm. The deepest yearning of the human heart thus becomes obscured to such a degree that only an extended time in Purgatory can clarify it. Purgatorio thus represents the spiritual human journey. It is the mirror of the physical journey on earth, that becomes more spiritual as time passes and the person matures. The symbol of the mountain is used to depict the human ascendance to God and final glory.
The Physical Perspective
The Divine Comedy does not depict only the realm of the spirit, but is also a representation of Dante's physical Universe. Dante's fourteenth century world is used as the basis for his depiction of the three realms of spirituality after death. The fact that Purgatorio is the only spiritual real actually situated on the earth makes it adequate in its task to mirror human affairs, both physical, spiritual and political, in this world.
From a physical perspective, Dante attempts to give his three worlds a concrete location. This is done by means of stars and astrological signs. According to these criteria Purgatory is in the middle of the ocean, and lies just below the equator. The scientific systems used during the time of Dante's writing would have dictated a belief in these physical "maps." All belief systems were in fact based upon this limited understanding of the world. Dante also attempts to combine the physical and spiritual worlds by explaining scientific questions by means of spirituality. Thus Dante's scientific understanding of the world is depicted by means of the spiritual world. His depiction of Purgatory then deals with such questions as why people sin and what happens to the body and soul after death.
The Political Perspective
Dante's beliefs regarding politics are also dealt with in the Comedy. Dante's life was closely intertwined with politics, and this is evident in his depiction of the three spiritual realism (Hollander, 1969). Dante was a White Guelph, and believed that state affairs should be handled by the emperor while religious affairs were to be the pope's realm. Thus also certain roles are ascribed to the various figures in Purgatory. With this in mind Dante criticizes his enemies fiercely, and depicts them in Hell, whereas his allies are depicted as those ruling the higher realms of Purgatory and Paradise. Thus his poems are used as both a spiritual and political platform. The hierarchy depicted throughout Purgatorio is also a mirror image of the hierarchy of human affairs as it should be present in the world.
The Personal Meaning of Purgatorio
The end of the journey through Purgatory is intensely significant for Dante and Virgil. He is brought into repeated contact with poets and memories. The most poignant of these is Beatrice.…