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Visions of Dante

The Theories of Vision Used by Dante

It was Dante’s intention to place the challenging moral and political issues of his day into an ethical and metaphysical framework structured by specific theories of vision.

The main influence was that of St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE), who converted to Christianity in mid-life, and became a bishop in North Africa. Indeed, it is possible to read the Divine Comedy as a reiteration of Augustine’s own spiritual journey from depression and acedia to the joy of redemption and inner peace. In his Confessions, a very influential model for medieval writers, Augustine examined the meaning of his existence, as Dante did. Augustine insisted on the devastating death of a dear friend: “My heart was utterly darkened, and whatever I looked upon was death (Confessions IV, 9). Similarly, halfway through his life, Dante found himself wandering alone “in a dark forest, having lost my way on the true path” (Inferno, 1). Augustine eventually accepted God, “an unchangeable Light above the same eye of my soul” (Confessions VII, 10.). Similarly, Dante experiences God not as an old, bearded patriarch, but as the overwhelming radiance of Truth.

In addition to Augustine, what informed the dramatic staging of Dante’s visions in the Divine Comedy was his reading of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), to whom “sight, more than all the other senses, helps us to know things and reveals many distinctions"—in particular, the distinction between good and evil, true and false, natural and unnatural. Thus, the sense of sight is closely connected with insight. Moral rhetoric consists in bringing values before the eyes of the audience by way of plot (mythos), characters (psychology), the music of words, and some visual apparatus (opsis = sight, but also spectacle.)

During the Middle Ages, the metaphysical and ethical system of Aristotle was preserved by the Muslim scholar Averroes (1126–1198 CE) and made acceptable by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74 CE). Aquinas was the master of the scholastic tradition that was taught in medieval universities, and he was celebrated by Dante in Canto 10 of Paradiso when the poet holds theological discussions with several authorities of the Church, including Aquinas.

Italian, ca. 1350
Manuscript Fragment from a Copy of the Divine Comedy
Ink on paper
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

In this fragment of Inferno, Virgil answers Dante's question about the perfectibility of sinners with a paraphrase of Aristotle: “Consult your knowledge, that decides/ That as each thing to more perfection grows/ It feels more sensibly both good and pain.” For Aristotle and his Christian adaptors (including Dante), philosophy is the human capacity for questioning, reasoning, and seeking the Truth. Remarkably enough, in the Divine Comedy, even the souls of the damned in Hell continue to live; that is, to improve their vision of reality.

Unidentified artists
French, Troyes, 15th century
Illumination of the Annunciation, from Hours of the Virgin
Ink and tempera on vellum
Image: 7 x 5 1/2 inches (17.78 x 13.97 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(1 image)

This book of hours—a private devotional manual containing a calendar and prayers for the canonical hours of the day—prompts a consideration of vision in the Middle Ages.

In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the question, “Why would the Angel of the Annunciation appear in a bodily vision to the Virgin?” For a medieval theologian, this was a source of perplexity. First, the Virgin is supposed to be in direct communication with God. Second, even the highest angels could not fully know the mystery of the Incarnation. Finally, intellectual visions were thought to be superior to physical visions.

In fact, the incarnation of the Angel was fitting in light of what was announced: that Mary would bear Christ (a Man-God) in her womb while remaining pure. This kind of theological argument was an invitation for Dante to flesh out his intellectual and mystical visions in the form of imperfect human bodies.

Italy, ca. 1100
Augustine of Hippo
North African, 354-430
Fragment from a Commentary on The Gospel of John, Chapter 15, verses 7-9
Ink on vellum
6 x 8 inches ( 15.24 x 20.32 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(2 images)

The passage highlighted in the image is derived from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1:25. One may translate it as follows: “Jesus in the flesh is weak, but as for you, take care not to remain weak. In His infirmity, you will find strength, because infirmity in the case of God results in men being stronger.”

Augustine reflected on the paradox of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ: Christ’s apparent weakness and real strength. Believers face a very challenging vision: Christ, the only son of God and himself supposedly a lord (dominus), appears in the form of a slave (forma servis). He is whipped, degraded, and crucified like an inferior human being and a fool. For Augustine, the meaning and justification of this abasement is revealed by Christ’s subsequent resurrection and elevation to God’s heavenly throne. By the sacrifice of his flesh, Christ makes us strong, but this strength will not be found in our body (in carne). Instead, it is dependent on our faith in the Holy Spirit. Dante theorized this kind of multi-layered reading and interpretation of narratives in his treatise on methods of learning, The Banquet.

14th century
Leaf from an unidentified dialogue between the body and the soul
Ink on vellum
15.7 x 9.4 inches (40 x 20 cm)
Cornell University Library, Rare and Manuscript Collections
(4 images)

This medieval manuscript was acquired in Germany for Cornell’s first president A.D. White by George Lincoln Burr, who described the text as “a vision of Hell, as seen by the soul of the Rich Man.” According to the narrator:

in the stillness of a winter’s night…the following vision was granted to me... The Soul said, You, wretched Flesh! While thou art allowed to be free from torture, thou shall never be released from punishment!”

What is particularly striking is that the Soul, accompanied by two devils “darker than pitch”, defies representation: “All the writers and painters in the world could not fully describe the scene.” Similarly, at several points in the Divine Comedy, Dante expresses doubts about the capacity of any poetic language to make us see all that is happening. He leaves it to our own imagination.

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