This week marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri. Dante is responsible for the Italian language spoken today and is one of my favourite writers. His most famous work “ The Divine Comedy” is a poem of 14,230 lines divided into 100 cantos (canti) which tracks Dante’s personal journey through hell, purgatory and heaven.
I want to relate one of my favourite parts of the “Commedia” found in Canto 29 of Hell (Inferno).
I was recently reminded of Dante’s work when I read of the criminal charges laid against Catholic Cardinal Angelo Becciu for alleged fraud involving multi-million dollar property deals using Vatican funds.
It appears that clerical corruption has a long history and it is wonderfully captured in the following passage in Dante’s travels through hell.
Remember that Dante’s work is set in the year 1300 during the reign of Pope Boniface VIII.
“O Simon Magus! O scum that
followed him! Those things of
God that rightly should be
wed to holiness, you, rapacious
for the price of gold and silver,
prostitute. Now in your honour,
I must sound my trumpet
for here in the third pouch you dwell……”
Simon Magus (Magician) is a character from the Bible’s New Testament (Acts 8). He is impressed by the miracles of the early Apostles and asks them how much he should pay to gain similar powers.
He is roundly rebuked by the Apostles for his materialist approach. Peter says to him “May your silver be lost forever, and you with it, for thinking that money can buy what God has given for nothing.”
The term “Simony” describes the offence of selling religious offices and favours for money.
Medieval legend and art tells us that after being rejected, Simon improved his own magic and wizardry. He developed a following that perturbed the early Apostles.
One day Peter was addressing a crowd when he sighted Simon Magus flying overhead. Peter prayed silently to God, imploring Him to curb Simon’s influence.
Listening to Peter, God. caused Simon to fall from the sky and crash head-first into the ground with only his legs protruding and flaying about.
This is an important framing reference for what follows in Dante’s poem.
“I saw along the sides and on the
bottom, the livid-coloured rock
all full of holes; all were the
same in size; and each was round. ….
From the mouth of every hole
were sticking out a single sinner’s
feet, and then the legs
up to the calf – the rest was stuffed inside.
The soles of every sinner’s feet
were flaming; their naked
legs were twitching frenziedly –
they would have broken any chain or rope.”
One of the creative features of Dante’s description of hell is the weird and cruel punishments he invents for the occupants of this place. In this instance, Dante is confronted with legs kicking out of a hole, as flames lick the soles of the sinner’s feet.
This is a direct reference to the Christian feast of Pentecost which commemorates the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The early Apostles were hiding in a room, when they were interrupted by tongues of flame that descended on to their heads. The flame was the Holy Spirit. The experience gave the Apostles the courage and confidence to leave their refuge.
Dante inverted this Biblical passage and has tortured this sinner with a flame at the other extreme of their body.
But who is this sinner? Dante asks the sinner to identify himself. And the sinner replied……
“He cried: “Is that you, here,
already, upright? Is that you
here already, upright, Boniface?
By many years the book has lied to me.
Are you fed up so soon with all
that wealth for which you did
not fear to take by guile from the
Lovely Lady, then tear her asunder? …..
If it concerns you so to learn my
name that for this reason you
came down the bank, know
that I once wore the great mantle.
But actually I was the she-bear’s
son, so greedy to advance my
cubs, that wealth I pocketed
in life, and here, myself.
Beneath my head are pushed
down all the others who
came, sinning in simony,
before me, squeezed rightly
in the. fissures of the rock.”
The sinner is one “who wore the great mantle”, a reference to the Papacy, who hailed from the family of the she-bear. Gian Orsini (of the little bears) was appointed Pope Nicholas III in 1277.
Pope Nicholas believes he is addressing his successor Pope Boniface who he denounces for stealing from the Lovely Lady, a reference to the Church.
What is more galling for the reader is that Pope Nicholas explains he is only the latest corrupt cleric to find himself upside down in hell, as beneath him are all the others who were guilty of simony.
One can see Dante did not favour the papacy.
In this passage Dante cleverly contrasts the Simons in the Bible. He depicts the greedy and selfish Simon upside down in the rock, and compares him to Simon Peter who was selected by Jesus as the rock on which he was to build his Church.
Time will tell if Cardinal Becciu ends up on the rock or upside down in the rock.
All praise to Dante on his anniversary!