Purgatorio XXII – The Light of Virgil

William Holman Hunt – The Light of the World – Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London – 1900-4

In the previous canto we already hinted at the complex role that Statius plays. Statius is not merely a new guide for Dante, a christian version of Virgil as it were. When Statius appears to the two wandering pilgrims, Dante the poet draws a comparison with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Statius is figured as Christ, his shade is the shade of Christ, an ‘umbra Christi’. Two cantos earlier the earthquake signaled the end of Statius’ time in purgatory. Like Christ, Statius is resurrected, an event celebrated by the other souls singing ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’.

What is so remarkable is the role that Virgil plays. Remember, Virgil was a pagan poet who has to spend eternity in Limbo because he did not believe in Christ. So how can Statius be converted through an unbeliever like Virgil? Dante finds his inspiration in Augustine. Augustine (354-430) described the Jews as a people who ‘carried in your hands the lamp of the law in order to show the way to others while you remained in the darkness’. With claims as these the church father further paved the way for a figural interpretation of the Old Testament; the exegesis of the Jewish Old Testament by reading and interpreting it in the light of christianity.

Similarly Dante describes Virgil as ‘You were as one who goes by night, carrying the light behind him -it is no help to him, but instructs all those who follow’ (‘Facesti come quei che va di notte, che porta il lume dietro e sé non giova, ma dopo sé fa le persone dotte’, Pur XXII, 67-69). This is a key passage, because it shows how Dante opens up pagan literature to a Christian interpretation, similar to what Augustine did with the Jewish Old Testament. Statius was able to convert to Christianity by reading Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, even though Virgil himself was oblivious to the christological meaning of his own writings.

Sources:
– Dante – Divine Comedy (translated by Robert Hollander)

– Francis Fergusson – Dante’s Drama of the Mind

– Giuseppe Mazzotta – Dante’s Literary Typology
– Giuseppe Mazzotta – Dante’s Poetics of Births and Foundations
– Robert Hollander – Allegory in Dante’s Commedia

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