The Divine Comedy is a classic Christian theological text that uses strong poetic imagination and allegorical allusion. Though originally written in Italian between 1308 and 1321 AD, the book is widely translated and its themes are drawn upon by generations of writers since. Written in first person narrative, the comedy is about the imaginative events and experiences of Dante as he traverses through Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso (Hell, Purgatory and Heaven) in his afterlife. The people and conditions he encounters in these places pose moral dilemmas and questions to Dante. By successfully resolving such challenges, Dante (and by extension anyone with faith in Christ) steadily attains spiritual salvation.
The first part Inferno begins on the eve of Good Friday in the year 1300. The world of the Inferno is dangerous and dark. Dante is lost in a thick forest (a symbol for sin) and he is haunted by wild carnivorous beasts such as lions and wolfs. As Dante suffers in despair, the ancient poet Virgil comes to his rescue. Together, both of them seek repentance for their sins. Their sins are broadly classified under self-indulgent sins (lust, gluttony, wrath and greed), violent sins and malicious sins (dishonesty and treason).
Having successfully negotiated the diabolical challenges in the hellish underground, Dante and Virgil arrive at the Purgatorio, which is an imposing mountain situated on an island. As mark of rich symbolism, this mountain is said to have been created by Satan’s fall. The seven plateaus or terraces in the mountain represent the seven cardinal sins. Dante and Virgin reach the Purgatory on the Easter Sunday. Their objective is to transform their troubled souls, which are full of misery and suffering, to a state of godly grace.
The third part of the comedy takes Dante and Virgil to Paradiso, where the four cardinal virtues (Justice, Temperance, Fortitude and Prudence) and the three Christian virtues are extolled. These correspond to the seven spheres of Heaven, which are in turn equated to the prominent celestial objects such as Mercury, Moon and the Sun.
Written in epic verse form, the Divine Comedy is literature and theology both. Not only does Dante deal with core biblical themes of sin and repentance, but he also interrogates questions of virtue and ethics found in classical Greek and Roman mythology. The work is noted for its symmetry and mathematical arrangement of chapters and units. Though Dante’s epic poem fundamentally deals with Christian doctrine, it doesn’t allow itself to be dogmatic. This is evident from Dante’s picturization of a spherical earth, which is more in tune with the scientific view of the cosmos. Dante even depicts varying time zones across different geographies such as Jerusalem and Ganges.
Though the Divine Comedy is based on the understanding of sin, hell and heaven as portrayed in the Holy Bible, it goes beyond these references. It is these extraneous flights of creativity that have propelled the work to the status of a literary masterpiece. For example, on his arduous course to salvation, Dante encounters such luminous historical figures such as St. John, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. The story ends on a positive note, as Dante finally sees divine light. He at last gains a fleeting yet powerful insight into the true glory and magnificence of God.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: The Vision of Paradise, Purgatory and Hell, Illustrated by Gustave Dore, Translated by Rev. H. F. Cary, Released by Project Gutenberg on September, 2005. Retrieved from <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/8800/8800-h/8800-h.htm>