Dante's "Divine Comedy": A Spiritual Journey


2021 marks the 700th year of the death of Dante Alighieri. The Revd Canon Tony Dickinson, The Anglican Chaplain at The Church of the Holy Ghost, Genoa reflects on Dante's "La commedia" later and commonly known as "The Divine Comedy" as a Spiritual Journey. 


English histories of European culture have tended to caricature the Florentine politician, scholar and poet, Dante Alighieri, who died in 1321, as the man who put his enemies in hell and his friends in heaven.  Apart from the fact that it isn’t true, it is a very inadequate description of probably the greatest Christian poem and one of the finest accounts of the spiritual journey. Seven centuries ago, when Dante recorded his inward journey in the poem which English-speaking people generally know as "The Divine Comedy", he invited his readers to follow him, in imagination, into the depths of hell and out the other side.  700 years on Dante invites us to join him in that descent into the depths and then to climb the mountain where those on their way to salvation are made ready for heaven. Finally, he invites us to rise with him outside space and time and to journey among those who already enjoy God’s unveiled presence.

The journey in the "Divine Comedy" is a quest to deepen understanding of the relationship between Christian faith and human life. That includes commerce and finance, politics (international and local), and relationships of all kinds, between Church and state, between state and state, between individuals. Dante was writing in a turbulent world, where tensions in society could, and did, erupt into violent conflict within and between states. Traditional ways of life were being broken up by economic and social pressures; advances in scientific and philosophical thought were undermining long-held certainties; new religious movements were flourishing; issues in human sexuality were being discussed as never before and serious questions were being asked about peace and justice, wealth and poverty, the nature of the state, and about God.

Dante was active in much of this. An early biography says that as a young man he undertook serious literary and theological study. His own writings suggest close links with the Franciscans. He had taken part in the wars of Florence against her neighbours. He had held high political office. In the summer of the year in which the "Comedy" is set, Dante was elected (aged 35) as a "prior", one of the chief magistrates of Florence. He appeared to be a man with a bright future. But within eighteen months, the wheel of political fortune had turned and taken Dante the half-turn from the heights of prosperity to the depths of adversity. By Easter 1302 he was in exile, financially ruined, separated from wife and children, condemned to death by burning if he fell into the hands of the new regime in Florence.

For the rest of his life Dante was a wanderer, picking up a living as best he could in the households of the great, as a tame poet and philosopher, as a teacher, doing odd jobs as a part-time diplomat. There are rumours that he travelled as far as Oxford. It is more certain that he visited Bologna and Paris. He read much—and he wrote: poems and prose works, books of literary criticism, books about the theory and practice of politics. For some years Dante lived at the court of the della Scala in Verona and toward the end of his life he found a home in Ravenna. His bones are there still, despite repeated efforts by the Florentine authorities to reclaim them.  The magnificent tomb in Santa Croce remains empty. 

The "Comedy" was the great work of Dante’s exile. In it Dante draws together the different strands of his life and weaves them together with a strong, radical Christian faith into a rich tapestry.  The action of the poem begins on the evening of Maundy Thursday, 1300, in the middle of a dark and menacing wood, "where the right road was wholly lost and gone". It ends outside time, in the contemplation of God — a vision a vision beyond the power of human imagination to recall or human language to record — a blinding flash of insight into "the love that moves the Sun and the other stars". That dark wood is the outward expression of Dante’s inner intellectual, emotional and spiritual tangle, a way of describing the mess from which he could find no way out except by embarking on his inward journey, guided initially by the Roman poet Virgil and then by his lost love Beatrice; descending to the depths and finding a way out on the other side, the way out which leads him, in the end, to God.

Dante’s journey was the topic of three Holy Week addresses at the Church of the Holy Ghost in Genoa as part of the commemoration of the 700th Anniversary of the poet’s death in September 1321.

These are available now on the Diocesan YouTube channel here.

Photo: The Revd Canon Tony Dickinson

Other images in this piece (home page and above) are reproduced from Unsplash.