In the third bolgia Dante and Virgil observe the simonists: the sinners are locked upside down in a rock with protruding legs. Their shins are broken and their feet are on fire. Surely, a strange sight.
In general the sin of simony is the buying and selling of spiritual goods. Simonists were named after Simon Magus who offered Peter and Paul money to teach him how to perform miracles. Predictably Peter and Paul rejected Simon’s offer. So he challenged them to a flying contest. When Simon was happily flying through the air, Peter made the sign of the cross and Simon came crashing into the ground, head first. To some extent this explains the awkward position of Dante’s simonists.
But Dante wouldn’t be Dante if this was the only layer of meaning woven into the text. Just as simonists pervert the divine moral order by placing worldly goods above spiritual values, so the sinners are now physically reversed and stand head down and feet up.
Simon Magus is not the only Simon in the bible. Originally Peter’s name was also Simon, but Christ renamed him ‘Petrus’, meaning ‘rock’. Because it is on Peter, the rock, that Christ built his church. Ironically, it is in a rock that the simonists are locked.
When the apostle Peter was martyred he refused to be crucified in the same way as Christ. Therefore Peter was crucified upside down: to emphasize that he was no second Christ, as a sign of humility towards his true Lord. The simonists are also upside down, but not out of humility, but rather out of pride. Tellingly, Satan who rebelled against God also took a fall and crashed head-first into the earth (as we will see in Inferno XXXIV).
Dante and Virgil standing next to the inverted simonists remind of the iconography of Peter and Paul watching Simon Magus crash into the ground.
– Dante – Inferno, translated by Robert Hollander
– Charles S. Singleton – Inferno XIX: O Simon Mago
– Mark Musa – E questo sia suggel ch’ ogn’ uomo sganni (Inferno XIX, 21)
– John A. Scott – Understanding Dante – Richard Lansing – From Image to Idea