Fifty years ago, I was a guest at the baptism of a friend’s son in the ancient church of a Tuscan hamlet. It was Easter, and lambing season. A Sardinian shepherd who tended the flocks of a local landowner came to pay his respects to the new parents. He was a wild-looking man with matted hair whose harsh dialect was hard to understand. Among our party was a beauty of fifteen, an artist’s daughter, and the shepherd took such a fancy to her that he asked for her hand. The girl’s father politely declined, and the shepherd, to show that he had no hard feelings, offered us a lamb for our Paschal dinner. My friends were penniless bohemians, so the gift was welcome. It came, however, with a condition: we had to watch the lamb being slaughtered.
The blood sacrifice took place after the baptism. That morning, the baby’s godfather, an expatriate writer, had caused a stir in the church, since none of the villagers, most of them farmers, had ever seen a Black man in person. Some tried to touch his hands, to see if the color would rub off; there was a sense of awe among them, as if one of the Magi had come to visit. Toward the end of the ceremony, the moment came for the sponsors to “renounce Satan and . . . all his seductions of sin and evil.” The godfather had been raised in a pious community, and he entered into the spirit of this one. His own experience of malevolence had taught him, as he wrote, that life “is not moral.” Yet he stood gravely at the font and vowed, “Rinuncio.”
I thought of those scenes last spring when I began reading three new translations of Purgatory, being published to coincide with the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death, at fifty-six, in September of 1321. The speech of the hamlet had primed my ear for the poet’s tongue. “Di che potenza vieni?” an old farmer had asked the godfather: “From what power dost thou come?” Purgatory, like the other two canticles of what Dante called his “sacred” epic, Inferno and Paradise, takes place during Easter week in 1300. In Canto I, the pilgrim and his cicerone, Virgil, emerge from Hell and arrive at the mountain “of that second kingdom where the human spirit purges itself to become worthy of Heaven.” Dante’s body, still clad in its flesh, inspires marvel among the shades because it casts a shadow. They mob him with questions: From where has he come?
Dante was a good companion for the pandemic, a dark wood from which the escape route remains uncertain. The plagues he describes are still with us: of sectarian violence, and of the greed for power that corrupts a regime. His medieval theology isn’t much consolation to a modern nonbeliever, yet his art and its truths feel more necessary than ever: that greater love for others is an antidote to the world’s barbarities, that evil may be understood as a sin against love, and that a soul can’t hope to dispel its anguish without first plumbing it.
An underworld where spirits migrate after death has always been part of humankind’s imagination. Nearly every culture, including the most ancient, has a name for it: Diyu, Naraka, Sheol, Tartarus, Hades. But there is no Purgatory in the Bible, or in Protestantism, or in Eastern Orthodoxy. In current Catholic dogma, it is a state of being rather than an actual realm between Hell and Heaven: an inner fire in the conscience of sinners that refines their impurities.
The concept of Purgatory was relatively new when Dante was born; it came into currency in the twelfth century, perhaps among French theologians. This invention of a liminal space where sinners who had repented but still had work to do on their souls was a great consolation to the faithful. It was also a boon for the Church. By the late Middle Ages, you could shorten your detention by years, centuries, or even millennia by paying a hefty sum to a “pardoner,” like Chaucer’s pilgrim. A popular ditty captured the cynicism this practice inspired: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / The soul from Purgatory springs.”
Before Dante, though, the notion of Purgatory was an empty lot waiting for a visionary developer. His blueprint is an invention of exquisite specificity. A ziggurat-like mountain ringed with seven terraces, one for each of the cardinal sins, rises from the sea in the Southern Hemisphere, opposite the globe from Jerusalem, with the Earthly Paradise at its summit. According to Dante, this mountain was formed by the impact of Satan’s fall to Earth. His descent brought grief to the children of Eve—those “seductions of sin and evil” that every godparent must renounce. But it also created a stairway to Heaven.