Big Man in the Cosmos

A giant in the world of which he wrote, laurel-crowned Dante stands holding his Divine Comedy open to the first lines: "Midway this way of life we're bound upon, / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / Where the right road was wholly lost and gone." Of course, his copy reads in Italian. Dante was the first major writer in Christendom to pen lofty literature in everyday language rather than in formal Latin.

Coming 'Round the Mountain

Behind Dante sits multi-tiered Mount Purgatory. An angel guards the gate, which stands atop three steps: white marble for confession, cracked black stone for contrition, and red porphyry for Christ's blood sacrifice. With his sword, the angel marks each penitent's forehead with seven p's (from Latin peccatum, "sin") for the Seven Deadly Sins. When these wounds are washed away by penance, the soul may enter earthly paradise at the mountain's summit.

Starry Heights

In Paradiso, the third section of the Comedy, Dante visits the planets and constellations where blessed souls dwell. The celestial spheres look vague in this painting, but Dante had great interest in astronomy. One of his astronomical references still puzzles scholars. He notes "four stars, the same / The first men saw, and since, no living eye" (Purgatorio, I.23-24), apparently in reference to the Southern Cross. But that constellation was last visible at Dante's latitude (thanks to the earth's wobbly axis) in 3000 B.C., and no one else wrote about it in Europe until after Amerigo Vespucci's voyage in 1501.


The gate to Dante's hell, on the left side of the painting, bore the dire message "Abandon hope, all who enter here." Condemned sinners didn't actually walk into hell but were ferried there by Charon, whom ...

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