The chief imagination of Christendom,
Dante Alighieri, so utterly found himself
That he has made that hollow face of his
More plain to the mind's eye than any face
But that of Christ. —W. B. Yeats
Scanning the "Book Review" section of the New York Times in 1999, I was surprised to see on the final page—a page generally devoted to a human interest story—the image at left. I will not speculate on the motivations of the editors for printing it; I doubt they were intending to further Christianity.
I can, however, guess what many readers were thinking: Science has brought us so far from that silly myth. But diagramming the great beyond was never Dante's main objective. He was less interested in the question, "What happens when we die?" than the more pressing question, "How should we live in light of eternity?"
Is it not instructive that the picture in the New York Times needed no caption, no comment? Seven hundred years after Dante's composition, his images remain familiar and forceful. This is because the principles that shape the images of the Divine Comedy, even if vehemently denied, still answer to something deep within the human consciousness. And it is the principles, not the images as such, that really matter.
What it is, and isn't
Dante was fully conscious that he knew no more about the realities faced by departed souls than does anyone else. But as a mature Christian of his time, he was convinced of the reality of hell, purgatory, and heaven.
These convictions guided his fertile imagination as it speculated upon the concrete forms these realities might take. In giving them narrative embodiment, he expended great effort to achieve utter consistency, thoroughness, and comprehensiveness.
The form and structure of the Divine ...