Grammars of Grace: Dante’s Poetry of Sanctification

The most obvious part of Dante’s Divine Comedy to which a Reformed reader might respond skeptically is the Purgatorio. The setting of this middle third of Dante’s epic is a location that most Protestants would say does not exist and which might seem, at best, a dangerous distraction or, at worst, a denial of God’s grace. And yet the questions which the doctrine of purgatory aims to answer are questions to which Protestants nevertheless also presume answers. For example, if no Christian dies in a state of moral perfection, and yet without holiness no one can see the Lord (Heb. 12:14), how is a Christian, in the interval between death and the vision of God, made ready for that vision? A Protestant might suppose that this transformation happens in an atemporal instant of eternity rather than through the kind of temporal sequence that purgatory involves. If that is the case, however, then Dante’s Purgatorio resembles instead the kind of sanctification process that Protestants understand to happen on this side of death. As a result, the text offers profound spiritual benefit to Reformed believers seeking to grow in holiness here and now.

The Divine Comedy is not a dogmatic outline of what lies beyond death. Rather, each of its three narrative movements (canticles) offers a revelation to living readers about their present condition.  The journey through hell in the Inferno reveals the true character of various vices as corruptions of the good for which humans are made. By contrast, Purgatorio reveals, through the ascent of Mount Purgatory, not simply the vices but a manner of responding to divine agency that makes growth in virtue possible—it shows how to go from vice to virtue. Paradiso reveals how humans participate in the vision of God in fulfillment of our highest powers and our greatest joy. Purgatorio, then, is arguably the most practical section of the poem for anyone interested in being set free from vice and growing in virtue.


Canto 9 of Purgatorio describes how Dante the Pilgrim (the character rather than the author) is taken up to purgatory in a passive condition (i.e. asleep), transported by a character whose name means “light” (Lucia). Dante the poet thus depicts salvation as being only by grace through faith in Christ, the light. However, the Pilgrim’s ascent up Mount Purgatory, his growth in virtue, happens through response to this divine grace, embodying the relationship between what Protestants call justification and sanctification. Dante dramatizes the process of sanctification through what I call “grammars of grace”—that is, verbal modes of rendering (grammars) that draw attention to the dynamics of divine self-giving (grace). For Dante, such poetic practice is based on a vision of the unity of truth, goodness, and beauty found in Christ—a self-giving reality in which believers are called to participate. Dante’s dramatization works by drawing on the late-medieval practice of “spiritual reading” or “fourfold exegesis”—or what the theologian Bonaventure might have called “triune reading.” In order to show how such “grammars of grace” operate throughout Dante’s poem, this essay focuses on Canto 10 of Purgatorio. We shall first consider how the medieval practice of “spiritual reading” that Dante had inherited provides an analogy for the unity of truth, goodness, and beauty. Ultimately, I suggest that Purgatorio 10 dramatizes participation in that same unity in a manner that draws readers to participate in that self-giving reality.

The Divine Comedy is not a dogmatic outline of what lies beyond death. Rather, each of its three narrative movements (canticles) offers a revelation to living readers about their present condition.

Spiritual reading has its roots in the New Testament and in Patristic writers like Augustine, but it was Gregory the Great (in his commentary on the book of Job) who arguably first articulated the principles that would become spiritual reading, or fourfold exegesis. By the time scholastics like Aquinas or Bonaventure were writing, they could assume four senses were at work in any given passage of Scripture: 1) a literal sense, 2) an allegorical (i.e. Christological) sense, 3) a moral sense, and 4) an anagogical (i.e. eschatological) sense.

These categories are worth briefly considering, as they are often misunderstood by modern readers. The confusion is due partly to the modern tendency to presume that “literal” means “tangible.” By contrast, medieval writers used the word “literal” to indicate something more like the obvious “literary” or “grammatical” sense of a text. The literal sense could refer to historical actions when a narrative provides testimony about an event; however, the literal meaning of a parable would be its obvious teaching, not merely the tangible things to which it refers (e.g. a vineyard and its tenants). This is why Aquinas, for example, counted metaphor as part of the literal sense.

No less confusing, however, is the modern tendency to mistake the term “spiritual” as a synonym for “figurative” or “unreal.” In the tradition that Dante inherited, the spiritual sense indicated the eternal realities revealed through the literal sense of a given passage of scripture—those eternal realities could include the Christological, the moral, or the anagogical sense.

A third point of possible confusion is that medieval writers used the term “allegory” to indicate what Reformed biblical interpreters would call “typology”: that is, an interpretation of a given passage (whether Old or New Testament) in the light of Christ. In addition to the Christological sense of any given passage, there was also the moral interpretation—what a given passage reveals about how Christians should live. The final sense was called “anagogical” (from the Greek word for “leading up”)—referring to what a given passage reveals about the future realities of the New Creation. Reformed exegetes supposedly disavowed late-medieval “allegory,” but what they typically rejected was excessive allegorizing; in fact, they often continued to rely to some extent on typological interpretation and moral interpretation (often calling it all “literal”).

Thus, for medieval writers like Dante, “spiritual” does not mean “disembodied.” Just as the typological connections of allegorical interpretation are concerned with concrete particulars, so also moral interpretation concerns the embodied practice of virtues, and anagogical interpretation concerns the life of not simply souls but resurrected bodies as they participate in the vision of God. These three levels of interpretation are called “spiritual” not because they are abstract or disembodied; rather, they are called spiritual because they reveal the means by which the Spirit of God mediates his presence to humans through the sensible realities of concrete particulars.

The three spiritual senses are analogous in practice to the three transcendentals: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Just as the transcendentals are different aspects of a reality that is one, so do the spiritual senses depend on the literal sense of Scripture.

All of the above was commonplace in the exegetical traditions that Dante inherited. What is not often appreciated, however, is that the three “spiritual senses” are, I suggest, analogous in practice to the three transcendentals: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. In effect, just as the three transcendentals are different aspects of a reality that is ultimately one, so also the three spiritual senses are rooted in and depend on the literal sense of Scripture. The medieval theologian whose work suggests such a view is Bonaventure, in his small but dense work De Reductione Artium ad Theologiam—“Retracing the Arts to Theology.” He does not make the point explicitly, but he implies that the same unity among what he calls the “allegorical,” the “moral,” and the “anagogical” aspects of Scripture directly parallel the unity of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

Ultimately, Bonaventure’s account shows that “spiritual reading” is not a “system” or “method” of interpretation in the modern sense. It is not a “system” because it does not provide a complete map of the necessary and sufficient causes of all things. Nor is it a modern “method” because it does not guarantee the production of specific results. Rather, it offers a vision of Christian maturity in which we participate in Christ’s life in a way that unites truth, goodness and beauty. How does this lead to “maturity?” Consider this: most people begin life with a tendency to favor one transcendental to the exclusion of the others, mistaking it for the whole of reality. The lover of truth risks becoming a dogmatist; the lover of goodness risks becoming a moralist; the lover of beauty risks becoming a hedonist or an aesthete. Maturity, then, means learning first to discern in Christ the fullness of truth, goodness, and beauty and then, through the process of spiritual reading, to experience the unity among them. In this view, readers can learn to discern the fullness of reality in Christ by being formed in the habit of moving from allegorical to moral to anagogical interpretation—all rooted in the literal sense.


In Canto 10 of Purgatorio, we see Dante the Pilgrim undertake just such spiritual reading and are thus invited to participate in it ourselves. In Canto 10, Dante the Pilgrim has crossed the threshold into purgatory proper. Having confessed his faith in Christ which alone saves him from destruction, he begins ascending the seven terraces of the Mountain of Virtue, each devoted to purging one of the seven root vices (“deadly sins”), the first being pride. Dante looks up at the face of the mountain and sees a stunning piece of artwork—a sculpture depicting the Annunciation. Dante (the poet) presents here what rhetoricians call “ekphrasis,” a vivid description of a work of art within a narrative:

And standing there, before we took a step,
I realized that all the inner cliff,
Which, rising sheer, offered no means to climb,

Was pure white marble; on its flawless face
Were carvings that would sure put to shame
Not only Polyclete but Nature too.

The angel who came down to announce on earth
The peace longed for by weeping centuries,
Which broke the ancient ban and opened Heaven

Appeared before our eyes: a shape alive,
Carved in an attitude of marble grace,
[A form] that could have spoken words.

One would have sworn that he was saying “Ave!”
For she who turned the key, opening for us
The Highest Love, was also figured there;

The outlines of her image carved the words
Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, as clearly cut
As is the imprint of a seal on wax. (Purgatorio 10.28-45, Musa trans.)

Dante does here what he does throughout the Purgatorio: he makes a direct connection between an experience of beauty, an encounter with truth, and formation in virtue (i.e. goodness).  Dante repeatedly uses visual images, as well as song, to help the Pilgrim ascend Mount Purgatory. In this case, the stunning beauty of the white marble sculpture embodies the story of the incarnation (Truth becoming flesh), as well as modelling the virtue of humility. The challenge faced by the Pilgrim, and the reader, is how to practice, rather than merely observe, this virtue. The poem implies that the Pilgrim learns to do this by enjoying and inhabiting the biblical story as one’s own story through the kind of spiritual reading outlined above.

This sculpture, however, is just one in a set of three. The narrative goes on to describe a second sculpture depicting the return of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem—a depiction so vivid that it defies the senses. Among the many people singing and the smoke of the frankincense, there is King David. Dante describes him: “Before the holy vessel [the Ark]/Leading the way in dance and reveling,/his skirts tucked high, the humble psalmist came,/at once appearing more and less than king” (Purgatory 10.63-66, Esolen trans., emphasis added).

Beyond that sculpture is a third depicting a legendary story from Roman history about the Emperor Trajan. The sculpture shows the manner in which he responds to an appeal from an “old widow” who is “at his horse’s rein” (10.77). Instead of narrating the exchange, Dante gives us imagined direct dialogue:

The poor old woman […] 
      seemed to say, “Justice, Lord! Avenge my Son!
      He’s murdered, and the sorrow breaks my heart,”
And he responded, “Wait till I return,”
      and she as one whom grief still hurries on [says],
      “What if you never do return, my lord?”
“The man who takes my place, he’ll see it done” [he says].
      And she, “What will his good deed do for you?
      He performs his, and you forget your own.”
[Thus he replies], “Take comfort. I must do
      my duty in this place before I move.
      Justice demands it, pity holds me here.” (10.82-93)

By choosing to address the widow’s request before he leaves, Trajan exemplifies the humility of a political ruler who unites justice and mercy in responding to those under his authority.

On the terrace of pride, then, the artwork depicts its opposing virtue, humility—exemplified by Mary, David, and Trajan. Dante could assume that his readers would have known all three of these stories, two of them biblical and the third a well-known legend. In putting them together, Dante reveals something further about the character of humility. Initially, the three sculptures might seem simply to reveal humility at work in each respective mode of spiritual reading: each sculpture might seem to correspond to one of the transcendentals. What we find, however, is that, in the same way that truth, goodness, and beauty are ultimately one, so also each story depicted by a given image engages all three spiritual senses. Nevertheless, each story also has its characteristic aspect that is most apparent, in the same way that each person begins life favoring one of the transcendentals. Again, maturity consists in learning to discern and participate in the implied unity among the transcendentals.

Thus we find: a) Mary’s moment of declared willingness to bear the Messiah is crucial in making possible the Christological (typological) reading of the Old Testament—that is, her humility co-operates with the moment of the incarnation of the divine Logos; b) the story of David emphasizes moral interpretation, as he is the only character explicitly identified as a moral example of humility; c) finally, Trajan’s actions connect to anagogical interpretation in that his decision to grant the widow’s request unites justice and mercy in a manner that prefigures the last judgment and implicitly locates Trajan under that judgment (line 89). Lest we have any doubt regarding Trajan, he will later appear in Canto 20 of the Paradiso, in the circle of those who are distinguished by the virtue of justice, as they enjoy the vision of God. Whether we are talking about Mary turning “the key” for others to enter heaven, or David leading others in celebration, or Trajan administering justice, all three stories involve an action for the good of others.

Dante does here what he does throughout the Purgatorio: he makes a direct connection between an experience of beauty, an encounter with truth, and formation in virtue (i.e. goodness).

In addition to the obvious moral dimensions of each story depicted by these sculptures (that is, what they reveal about the human good), each one also offers a revelation of Christological truth and anagogical hope. With respect to truth, Mary literally receives the divine Word; David responds to the word of divine promise (and presence) indicated by the ark of the covenant; Trajan responds to the voice of the widow. In the case of Trajan, Dante arguably implies that the voice of the widow, as the voice of justice, is the messenger of God. In this way, all three stories reveal that the distinguishing feature of humility is the ability to hear and obey God’s voice—thereby showing the deep unity between goodness and truth (with respect to this particular virtue).

Where does this leave the anagogical sense—the spiritual sense which reveals the supreme beauty, or glory, whose enjoyment is the highest human purpose? As the Apostle Paul explains, human participation in the Kingdom of God consists in justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). What we find in these episodes is an explicit reference to each aspect of this eschatological reality, which is enjoyed only partially in this life: Mary’s humility enables her to communicate peace; David’s humility enables him to communicate joy in worship; Trajan’s humility enables him to rule with justice and mercy (i.e. righteousness). In this sense, all three characters reveal different ways that humility enables participation in these different aspects of the Kingdom of God. What these stories reveal is that to the extent that we fail to communicate the anagogical realities of justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, the root of our problem is pride.

In this respect, the ultimate gift of this passage is to provide readers with three ways to diagnose our own pride, bringing us back to the moral sense. Elsewhere, Dante describes a proud person as one whose chief love is the “[hope] for supremacy… through abasement [or degrading] of another” (Purg. 17. 117, Mandelbaum trans.). The examples of Mary, David, and Trajan reveal the character of humility, even as readers are drawn into the virtue through the engagement of the affections as well as the understanding. The larger point to appreciate, however, is that each sculpture does correspond respectively to truth (typological sense), goodness (moral sense), and beauty (anagogical sense), but it also does more. Each one also models the deeper unity among the transcendentals, showing the underlying unity that informs each appearance—thereby implying how one moves from a preoccupation with one of them to a participation in the reality that unites them all.

These sculptures, and the lines of poetry describing them, do more than simply provide examples of a given virtue. Through the opportunities for recognition, these tangible and verbal renderings provoke a re-ordering of the desires that constitute virtue.

The practical questions now become apparent. When God’s word comes to us, how do we respond? Like Mary, in a manner that brings peace to others? When we worship, do we rejoice like David, or do we hold ourselves in reserve, like Michal? When people under our authority think about how we treat them, do they thank God for our justice and mercy, as with Trajan? Such questions can become occasions for self-revelation but also occasions for increasing our desire for the good that these virtues embody. Thus, these sculptures, and the lines of poetry describing them, do more than simply provide examples of a given virtue. Through the opportunities for recognition, these tangible and verbal renderings provoke a re-ordering of the desires that constitute virtue. In this way, the poem models the process of sanctification, or growth in virtue, specifically because it depicts the process of ethical formation (goodness) as inseparable from the imaginative participation (beauty) in divine revelation (truth). Such grammars of grace make the Purgatorio a benefit to all Christians who are concerned to grow in holiness.

Phillip J. Donnelly (Ph.D., University of Ottawa) is Professor of Literature in the Great Texts Program and the English Graduate Program at Baylor University and is the author of The Lost Seeds of Learning: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric as Life-Giving Arts.


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