Johns Hopkins University Press

And now the Pilgrim is about to encounter God, and the Poet is about to write the last words of the Commedia. Neither Pilgrim nor Poet will have an easy time with closure—if closure this actually is—nor will the reader. This last song—which sings of the Pilgrim’s return both to his Divine Home and to his mundane one— invites our vision to lift itself più alto verso l'ultima salute (Par. 33.27–28).2 This canto, offering the highest verses of the poem, is among the most beautiful penned in Western literature. How can one convey in words That Which is beyond words? Can the ineffable be expressed only through sleight of hand, in the negative space that exists between words? Or does that task demand the total of all words resounding together? Or, if in the beginning was the Word (John 1:1), then perhaps That Word is the only one that can speak Itself? “Seeing God,” as William Franke states, “could only be a form of ‘writing.’ ”3 Metaphors for God, he continues, “are fundamentally metaphors of language.”4 Whether the Pilgrim actually sees God in his essence, or has a mediated experience of God, or imagines what it would be like if he did see God, or merely understands that the nature of the Incarnation is a matter of continued debate, the Poet chose to indicate that such a meeting, which he calls a visïone (62), took place. As the Pilgrim/Poet circles the Word with words, but does not speak It, centuries of readers wheel around with him, co-performing the encounter. [End Page 188]

The Pilgrim and Poet are twice impaired: first by the a-verbal experience itself, and then by the memory that cannot recall even a fraction of the Pilgrim’s vision. What ensues in Canto 33 is a monument to paradox, metaphor, simile, and periphrasis. Time flickers between past, present, future, and eternity. The distinction between beginning and end dissolves, or rather, “comes unsealed” (disigilla, 64). Circles are everywhere. Threes are everywhere. The Trinity-Incarnation is “internalized” (s'interna, 85) within the volume of the universe, and then becomes the bookbinder eternally gathering together all things—the sun, stars, Poet, Pilgrim, and reader included—with Love, into that volume. Here, in a lightning-fast flash, is the Vision within the vision, and the simultaneous return to Home and home. Here is the Commedia’s happy ending and, as centuries of commentators have suggested, its beginning: Dante’s true vita nova.

Prayer to the Virgin

Par. 33 opens with a feeling of urgency. It is written in the present tense and in direct discourse, rich with enjambment and exalted passion. This santa orazione (Par. 32, 151) continues the previous canto, which ended with a colon and caused the poem to “jump.”5 Saint Bernard—the Pilgrim’s last guide, as well as the last character to speak in the Commedia—prays to the Virgin for help in facilitating the Pilgrim’s encounter with God, his words recalling those of his sermon on the Song of Songs.6 This great devotee of Mary, the “pupil of her eye,”7 knows that only Mary can make the appeal to God for such a thing. But Bernard is not the only one who prays to Mary on Dante’s behalf. Beatrice, and many saints with her (con quanti beati, 38), as well as the Pilgrim himself, clasp their hands in appeal to the Virgin. The word prego/priego appears in various forms six times in this canto, more than anywhere else in the text except Purg. 6, which includes seven variations. Here, in Par. 33, the supplicants petition for Dante’s final purification.8

Scholars have discussed how the prayer may be parsed into the five sections of the medieval ars dictamini: salutation (1–12), exhortation (13–21), narration (22–24), petition (25–36), and conclusion (37–39). Most have divided Bernard’s prayer into two main sections, seeing in this structure a parallel to classical eulogy, which Boethius is thought to have [End Page 189] introduced to the Christian Latin world and thus to the Judeo-Christian eulogy format: verses 1–21 (an invocation), and verses 22–39 (a supplication). The prayer Dante drafts for Bernard shares similarities in form, content, and language with the saint’s writings, and many commentators argue that Dante borrowed directly from Bernard’s works (e.g., Lana, Benvenuto, Buti, Anonimo Fiorentino, and Bosco and Reggio).9 Some, such as Giovanni Fallani, have identified sources for the prayer in Luke, Peter Damian, Boethius, Ambrose, and others.10 Other scholars, including Peter Dronke, have questioned how familiar Dante was with Bernard the person, since Dante portrays him as a gentle, loving contemplative, while history reveals him as an active, fiery promoter of temporal power for the Church and a vocal proponent of the Second Crusade.11 Marco Ariani questions the influence of Bernard’s actual writing on the prayer, identifying instead a strong presence of other voices, such as that of Pseudo-Dionysius.12

In the invocation (seven terzine), which some have called a captatio benevolentiae,13 Mary is entreated, described, and praised. Echoes of Ave Maria and Salve Regina are strongly present. The first two verses of the canto name Mary in three paradoxical ways: Vergine madre, figlia del tuo Figlio, / umile e alta. There is even a fourth paradox, with Mary as the means through which God took human form. She is a “fixed term of eternal counsel” (Par. 33.3), because with her, Christian time and soteriological history begin. She is then described in three more ways, corresponding to the three Christian virtues: her perfect faith, which makes her the ideal vessel for God’s son (4–9)14; her role as “noonbright torch of love” in Heaven (meridïana face / di caritate, 10–11); and her role as “lively fountain of hope” on Earth (di speranza fontana vivace, 11–12). Erich Auerbach observes that in Bernard’s writing the images of the “noon-bright torch” and the “spring” referred to Christ, not Mary, and Mary functioned instead as an aqueduct through which the holy waters flow to us. Whether Dante changed these referents to suit his poetic needs or personal interpretations, or whether he created them independently of Bernard’s writing, we do not know. It is not difficult, however, to see how both Christ and Mary could function in each of these capacities.

John Hollander notes in his translation of Paradiso that the te’s (19–20) match up with Virgil’s Georgics (4.465–66), in which Orpheus is described as lamenting Eurydice. Bernard thus serves as a better Orpheus singing of a better Eurydice. As Rachel Jacoff observes, Dante [End Page 190] says he prays to Mary each morning and evening (Par. 23.88–89), and Orpheus sang to Eurydice in the same intervals.15 Bernard and Dante are both correctives of Orpheus here—and Dante will show himself to be a corrective of numerous other classical personae in this canto, as he so often has been before.

As the eulogy to Mary continues, Bernard now describes her as the source of compassion, generosity, and every goodness (19–21). Mary is the fons vitae, the matrix, the mater, the matter that received form— human form—of God and the Spirit, and is thus aligned with “making” and “doing” (fattore, farsi, fattura, 4–6; also Convivio 4.5.5). She is also the mediatrix, as only she can help Dante to see That Which is beyond form. Through her perfect love and faith she receives form, gives form, and mediates between forms and the Formless.

Bernard then begins the petitio, first introducing Dante (22–24) by offering a recapitulation of his journey and that of the poem, and then invoking the Virgin’s grace on the Pilgrim’s behalf (25–39). Bernard uses a second series of antitheses, but this time the antitheses are not paradoxes. They are a series of buts in reference to the Pilgrim. The saint announces Dante’s desire to see God but recognizes his lack of ability to achieve this goal on his own (13–18), and he asks the Virgin to help dissolve, or untie (disleghi, 31) ogne nube of Dante’s mortality (30–32) so that God si dispieghi (unfolds Himself, explains Himself, 33). These images of clearing away and opening are echoed later in the canto, particularly with the images of distillation (distilla, 62) and melting/unsealing (disigilla, 64). In both pairs of images knowledge is gained not through addition, but through subtraction: dispersing and unsealing yield clarity. For the True to be known, the Pilgrim in his experience and the Poet in reliving that experience must each allow for a stripping away. This kind of releasing-to-receive is performed in medieval Christian contemplative practices, such as those outlined by Bonaventure in The Journey of the Mind to God, Richard of St. Victor in the Benjamin Major, and in the apophatic tradition of the via negativa.16 In the last of these, knowledge of the Divine is that which remains after all that He is not has been named. In so doing, the idea of trasumanar or oltrarti (Par. 1.70 and Par. 32.146) becomes a process of jettisoning the sense-related and intellective links to the physical world that hold one back from experiencing Divine Love. Bernard, in On Loving God (10.27), says that a soul drunk with Divine Love forgets itself. Ideally, [End Page 191] this is what the Pilgrim must, and will, do. The Poet, consequently, also partakes of this necessary forgetting. Fortunately for us readers, he is not annihilated in his Vision.

Also appearing within Bernard’s prayer to Mary is the cycle of Dante’s journey in its entirety. It was Mary who set Dante’s journey in motion in sending Saint Lucy to Beatrice, and Beatrice to Virgil, and Virgil to the Pilgrim lost in the dark wood (Inf. 2). In Par. 33 the journey has come full circle. Virgil has turned Dante over to Beatrice, who has turned him over to Bernard, who has turned him over to Mary, whose eyes now turn from Dante to the Light, drawing Dante’s eyes with them.17 Bernard not only prays that Dante will see God, but also that he will be able to take something of that vision back with him to earth, completing yet another cycle. There is a series of “pre-endings,” as Teodolinda Barolini describes them, in this canto, with one closure after the next.18 By verse 38 Beatrice fades away from the Pilgrim’s sight, and from ours; then Mary disappears (46), then Bernard (50), and then so, apparently, do the other members of the Rose. We can, however, view these successive disappearances as Dante’s fading away from all of them, turning away from them and moving toward God.19 The Pilgrim’s encounter with God is, as far as the reader can tell, a solitary one. In mystical doctrines that allow for a face-to-Face encounter with God—if this is what the Pilgrim in fact experiences, and that is debatable—the seeker, to achieve the Vision, must first release all guides and beloveds and be totally distilled to one’s essence. The seeker must even, in a final step, release the individual awareness of self, as the Pilgrim will ultimately do, if only for an instant. For all of Par. 33 the Pilgrim is silent. The poem—albeit not the Poet—also progressively silences itself through a language of the small (poco, 69, 74, 123; favilla sol, 71; corta/o, 106, 121; fioco, 122); of the uncertain (alquanto, 73; quasi, 89; credo ch’i’ vidi, 92; parvermi, 116; parea, 119; parveva, 127; parve, 131); of surrender and loss (cede, 56, 57; cessa, 61; disigilla, 62; perdea, 66; smarrito, 77; mancò, 142); of simplicity (semplice lume, 90; semplice sembiante, 109); and of numerous forms of negation.20

As opposed to the ambiguity of the Pilgrim’s encounter with Lucifer—where the Poet is also at a loss for words and admits, horror-struck, that he does not know if he is dead or alive (Inf. 34.25)—when the Pilgrim is before God, with the clouds of his mortality removed, he knows he is truly, fully alive. The sight of the Divine takes his breath away, but [End Page 192] not his life. It completely in-spires him—as Bernard’s Sermon 72 on the Song of Songs may have—breathing into him true or new life.21 What remains after this stripping away and scattering is, as we will see later in the canto, quite full, indeed.

Scattered Leaves

Like a dream that dissolves as you wake, but you feel it still; like the snow that melts but soaks the earth with a liquid trace; like the leaves blown by the wind but inscribed with the visions of the ancient seer, the Sibyl—this is how Dante conveys his experience of seeing God: the memory escapes him, but a residue/residual memory remains. In just three verses (64–66), the Poet articulates three metaphors of a powerful, but now vague impression. The seal of God has just been pressed into the wax of Dante’s human mind/heart.

Dante Poet has felt this strain of memory many times before in the Paradiso. While Bernard prays for Dante to continue to “feel” God upon his return home—that is, to preserve his feelings of the experience (li affetti suoi, 36)—Dante prays, in his final invocation in the poem,22 that even the tiniest bit of what he saw (un poco di quel, 69) will be given back or re-lent (ripresta, 69) to him by returning (ritornare, 73) to his memory. He prays that his lingua (70) can leave to posterity even a favilla sol (71) of God’s glory. He is battling to fix the image in language and have it function as his memory, to re-member its parts, and yet he realizes that the oculus imaginationis cannot equal in image what was seen in reality.23 What is more, the bulk of the memories that remain for the Poet are not intellectual or visual, as such, but heartfelt impressions (the affetti for which Bernard prayed, 36), perhaps not coincidently evoked by the word ricordare (to remember or learn by heart). Dante ricorda (79) that the vivo raggio (77) of the somma luce (67)—from which the favilla sol (sol as the Sun, one, and only or alone) derives—was so acute and powerful that he could not turn away from it. Had he averted his eyes, he believes, he would have been smarrito (77), as he had been at the beginning of this journey (Inf. 1.1–3). Since the Pilgrim does not, in fact, look away, his vision gains strength from the Divine object of its gaze (79–81), a phenomenon discussed by Thomas Aquinas (Contra Gentiles 3.54 and Summa 2.1, q.5 a.4), among others. [End Page 193]

Commentaries on the first two metaphors—the dream and the snow—have focused primarily on their poetic ability to convey slow dissipation and loss, but also on the dynamic motion of dissolving/melting as opposed to the frozen stasis of Hell.24 The third and final metaphor of the triad, however, has been more extensively discussed.25 The prophetess Sibyl, as described by Virgil in the third book of the Aeneid, wrote her messages on leaves, which, when set on the ground in her cave, were often blown out of order, or away entirely. Aeneas asks her for a prophecy about his father but requests that she speak or sing it to him, instead of writing it down. Dante Poet’s version of this narrative now shifts from the Pilgrim as a new Aeneas-about-to-see-the-Father to the Poet as a new Sibyl. In claiming to share with us his visïone (62) the Poet steps into the role of the seer, writing a divine message that itself cannot fully be revealed on a different kind of “leaves” (foglie, 65), albeit in a fashion that is less likely to be dispersed by the winds of chance. The Christian God safeguards Dante’s vision, his song, from dispersion. John Ahern’s study on the transmission history of the Commedia recalls that the cantos were released to copyists in segments, and that Dante died before he could see his entire poem bound in one volume.26 In including the image of the Sibyl’s leaves, the Poet may well have been hoping that we would ask that the poem (as well as the Divine Word) come to us in full song, and not in scattered verses.

Gathered Leaves

Appearing among the approach-retreat, revealing-concealing, adding- subtracting, remembering-forgetting movements of this canto is Dante’s vision of the luce etterna (83).27 Although his eyes (and desire) are growing stronger, he admits he is actually losing his physical sense of sight altogether (84): this is, once again, a progression (not a regression), as the Pilgrim continues to strip away and purify his limited faculties. Later, an analogous “regressive-progression” will underlie the Poet’s cognitive return to a pre-linguistic state—another human faculty stripped away, preparing Dante for his transformation.

Now enriched by this process, the Pilgrim’s mental sight, or insight, can see more deeply. Inside the Light, he perceives that all the things that appear scattered in the physical universe—the substances, accidents, and [End Page 194] modes of operation (substanze e accidenti e lor costume, 88)—are actually united. In other words, in God, all things are gathered, all connected (Aquinas, Summa 1, q.3, a.6; q.4, a.2). In this renowned image rich in scholastic metaphysics, the Poet believes he has seen la forma universal (91) legato con amore in un volume (86).28 How exactly these things were bound is difficult for the Poet to describe, however; he says they were quasi (“almost” or “as if,” 89) conflati insieme (89). The Latin conflati, a hapax in the Commedia, connotes a fusing together of melted metals; a kind of co-penetration; and, as most commentators note, a being “blown together,”29 as Isidore of Seville writes in his Etymologies (13.20.2). The last connotation functions as the corrective image of the Sibyl’s wind-blown leaves, as well as the wind generated by Lucifer’s wings, which keeps all things frozen in the depths of Hell.

Dante further elaborates this scattering and “blowing together” with terms such as s’interna (85) and si squaderna (87). As some readers have observed, embedded within these two words are the numbers three (tre in interna) and four (quad in squaderna), which allude to the ongoing relationship between threes (the Trinity, the spirit) and fours (the elements of the natural world, the human) at this climactic point in the journey and in the text. Most scholars have discussed how Dante alludes to the actual process of binding a book with the word quaderno. God is the bookbinder, gathering all things in the universe and enfolding them into a single thing, a single volume (in terms of space and of content within that space). The previously scattered fours, bound by Love, become threes, transformed and perfected by Love, similar to the stars in Ante- Purgatory’s Valley of the Rulers, which appear to the Pilgrim as four in Purg. 1.23, representing the four cardinal virtues, and are later seen as three in Purg. 8.89–90, symbolizing the Christian virtues.

The image of the volume has been variously interpreted as a spherical, revolving heaven; the book of the cosmos; God’s book (the Bible); and, less directly, as Dante’s own book. The word volume may refer here to a scroll, as it comes from the Latin volvere (to roll or to turn). Isidore (Etymologies, 6.13.2–3), speaks of early texts written on the inside of tree bark, which was itself rolled up when removed from a tree. Giuseppe Mazzotta shows how Dante distinguishes between the concept of a libro (book) and a volume (scroll), thus connecting the image of the scattered leaves (belonging to the unbound book) with the concept of the bound codex or volume, as well as the rectilinear page and the cylindrical roll.30 [End Page 195] The quadrilateral book and the round scroll—two kinds of volumes— anticipate, in fact, the circle-and-square pairings that will follow.

We will soon see God as a circle (or, rather, three circles) encompassing and uniting with the human form of Christ as a square, or cross, as some scholars have proposed.31 It is not uncommon for readers to wonder if Dante’s seeming parallel of his volume to God’s volume, and his writing to that of God’s, is great hubris, or worse, blasphemy. St. Paul never wrote a book describing his encounter with God, and even said it was not lawful for a person to speak of such things (2 Cor. 12:4). Yet, as Peter Hawkins notes, Dante was also hesitant to write down and reveal all, only giving us a copy of a copy of an ineffable Original.32 In fact, it is not clear what the Pilgrim/Poet saw at any point in Paradise. From the moment of his entrance to the Divine Realm, all of his encounters were tailored to his human way of seeing and comprehending. Only at the very end, when he is suddenly revolving with Divine Love, does he truly see; but this final Vision the Poet cannot, and will not, try to describe.

The Shadow of the Argo

It is only for an instant, un punto solo (94) in time and arguably in space, that the Pilgrim sees the forma universal (91), or rather, believes he does (credo ch’ i vidi, 92). It is so overwhelming a sight—and one in which the Pilgrim’s mind was so sospesa . . . immobile e attenta (97–98)—that the Poet, upon trying to recall this vision, both continues to marvel and finds himself completely at a loss. He uses the word letargo, which has been interpreted to mean “forgetfulness” (especially by early commentators, such as Lana, L’Ottimo, Benvenuto, and more recently by Durling and Martinez and Hollander) as well as “stupor” (by Anonimo and Scartazzini).33 Letargo is, in fact, particularly suitable for the double experience the Poet is describing. On the one hand, Dante parallels his “stupor” to that of Neptune, god of the ocean, who marveled at the shadow of the first ship, Jason’s Argo, sailing over the waves above him. On the other hand, Dante compares his “forgetfulness” to the memory that his contemporaries might retain of that seemingly miraculous event, which according to myth occurred approximately 2,500 years before the time of the Pilgrim’s journey, in the year 1200 BCE. Both terms can have positive or negative valences: a “stupor” can be the result [End Page 196] of a mental limitation or laziness, or it can be the result of a rapture or ecstasy. Similarly, “forgetfulness” can be a weakness of the mind, or it can be a “divine ailment,”34 a transcendent experience of forgetting one’s small self in the presence of God. Moreover, that the Poet parallels his “stupor” and his “forgetfulness” to the sight of the Argo’s ombra (96) and not to the Argo itself further reinforces the mystery of what the Pilgrim actually saw when staring at God, and the fact that he only thinks he saw what he did.

The word letargo is a hapax legomenon in the Commedia; and just as Neptune marveled only once at seeing a ship’s shadow, so only once (in time and space) did Dante observe the whole universe bound in un volume (86). The Argo’s “enterprise” (95) is like Dante’s volume, his singing ship (legno, che cantando varca, Par. 2.3): the first to cross such a difficult sea (Par. 2.7). But Dante is also stunned by his own journey, his Commedia, which is now nearing its end. He knows his ali (15) (which have also been metaphors for oars and pens elsewhere in the poem, especially in contexts of moral failure and folly) need help both to see the Divine and to be able to put into words what he has seen and experienced. Already a new Glaucus (Inf. 1.68) and Jason, the Pilgrim is now a new Neptune seeing a new kind of shadow.

As the Pilgrim’s eyes adjust to the Divine Light, his mind grows ever-more accesa (99) and less capable of turning away from the Light (100–102; also 76–81). It is as if the Pilgrim were absorbed into, or reabsorbed into, the enfolding Light, the punto solo (94) in the sense that philosophers such as Boethius and Alan of Lille gave it: the One. The Poet addresses this Divine Light here with the feminine pronoun lei (101, 104) and describes his inability to recall and speak of this Light as analogous to the pre-linguistic condition of the infant at the mother’s breast (106–8). As he laments that his favella (106) will inevitably be brief—constrained by his infant lingua (108)—one hears an echo of the favilla sol (71) and lingua (70) from a few tercets above. But the Poet realizes that his tongue has not in actuality been made as possente (70) as he had hoped. It is as if the Pilgrim, in his return to God, were experiencing a return to the womb, the matrix, the Mother. And here again in this canto, the loss of something—in this case language—can be read as a positive gaining or regaining of something, as the Pilgrim and Poet become more like nursing infants who silently and purely sing God’s praise even as they receive spiritual nourishment.35 As Dante [End Page 197] returns where the human and the Divine are joined in Mary, he is further prepared for the next step in his vision, that is, to go back to the Father: God-as-Trinity-and-as-One—something even more difficult to grasp and articulate.

One in Three in One

In returning to the Mother and Father, the Pilgrim returns to Light. As his awareness of all this grows, he feels as if the Light were changing, when really he knows that it is he who is changing (mutandom’io, 114), he who is gaining a vista nova (136).36 What the Pilgrim saw as a point of light on his first entrance to the Empyrean in Par. 28.16 he has now seen take numerous forms, or rather, he has been able to see the True Form more and more clearly. In this canto, he first saw the Divine as a vivo raggio (76), and then as a unified whole (85–90), and finally as a sola parvenza (113); now he sees God as the Trinity. What he sees looks to him (or perhaps “appears” in the sense of coming into vision) like three giri (116)—usually translated as “circles,” but also as “circlings,”37 or “rounds,” “rings,” or “wheels”—of three different colors. These forms, the Poet writes, were all of one “circumference” (contenenza, 117); or, as Robert and Jean Hollander translate it, “inhering in a single space.”38 That Dante chose the word giri, which clearly recalls a verb implying “gyrating” or “circling,” instead of a noun referring to a geometric circle or physical ring or wheel, is worth noting. He seems to be alluding to the action of these entities, rather than their form. And the action itself could be that of entities gyrating (spinning, orbiting) around their own centers, or undertaking these motions around each other, or both. I have written extensively on the shape, motion, size, color, and configuration of Dante’s tre giri in a previous publication written with mathematician Aba Mbirika and will only summarize a few of the observations made in that article here.39

Adding further complexity to this tricky image, the Poet says that one of the giri was a reflection of the other one (l’un da l’altro, 118), come iri da iri (119), and that the third, seemingly made of fire (parea foco, 119), was breathed by, or equally shared breath (igualmente si spiri, 120) with the first two (quinci e quindi, 120; see also Par. 10.1–3 and 13.55–57). Departing from Aristotle’s theory of the nature of secondary rainbows in De [End Page 198] Iride—which purported, incorrectly, that the secondary rainbow was fainter because it was further from the viewer—Dante held, correctly, that a secondary rainbow seen outside a primary one was a reflection of the inner one, with its spectral order reversed (Par. 13.10–18).40 As a metaphor, God the Father reflects Himself as the Son; and they both breathe (inspiring and respiring, if you will) the third circling, the Holy Spirit.

Yet in Dante’s image, the reflected, secondary rainbow (perhaps the Son?) cannot, like double rainbows, be concentric to the primary, reflecting rainbow, nor can the fiery circle be concentric to either Father or Son, as all three giri are said to be of the same dimension. The orientation of inner and outer does not hold here. How, then, are the three circles oriented and how can they exist in a single space? Are they shifting positions on a single plane, or rotating through a plane and forming what looks like a sphere? One way of managing this complicated image is to let it remain a Divine Mystery, let it be what it is (and let the poetry be simultaneously precise and open), as many commentators propose. The Pilgrim could not quite understand it, the Poet could not quite recall or depict it accurately, so why should we bother to parse it out? Simply because, I would argue, the Poet put in the effort to create this conundrum, clearly valuing the beauty of paradox and the contemplation it requires.41

Firstly, the three giri seem circular—not, it seems, spherical, although in the Convivio Dante says dico ‘cerchio’ largamente ogni ritondo, o corpo o superficie (Conv. 2.13.26)—and the circle, as a universal topos of the most perfect of forms (Conv. 2.13.26), is the one most appropriate for representing the Divine. Equally fundamental to this image is the Nicene Creed, which made doctrinal the representation of God as having a Triune nature. Representing the Trinity as three interlocking rings, while not uncommon in the Middle Ages, signals a particular visualization and spatialization of God.

St. Augustine used three gold rings as an analogy to the Trinity (De Trinitate 9.4.7), and Petrus Alfonsus (Dialogi contra Iudaeos, Tit.6) depicts the Trinity as three connected, although not interlocking, rings. The twelfth-century abbott Joachim of Fiore, among the blessed in Canto 12, also presented a striking illustration of the Trinity as three rings.42 In his Liber figurarum, Joachim pictures the Trinity as three linked rings on a horizontal plane (left to right) with the Father as the first ring (color green), the Son in the center (blue), and the Spirit as the last ring [End Page 199] (red); these three colors were also used to represent the main colors of the rainbow. Perhaps it is not by chance that Dante places Joachim in the same sphere (the Sphere of the Sun) in which he also discusses rainbows (Par. 22.10–18). Revelation 4:2–3—a text from which several images in this canto may have been drawn—describes an emerald-like rainbow surrounding God (who Himself is described as of jasper [which can be green, yellow, or red] and carnelian [dark red]). The color blue, however, is missing in this image. Explaining the colors of these three giri, as well as their orientation, has occupied much scholarly attention. I refer readers to my comments on “color” in Dante depiction of the giri.43

Although tracing Dante’s three rings back to Joachim’s image is tempting, even given the difference in the colors, on comparison we see an interesting problem: Joachim’s three rings are interlocked in such a way that if one were removed, the other two would remain linked. But the Nicene Trinity implies that all three entities are inextricably linked and equal in size and form, and that they all exist as a three-and-one whole. Whether Dante knew of the chain-link topology of Joachim’s Trinity rings, and whether he found that topology to be a problem, we do not know. Medieval Europe proffered many examples of three interlocking rings, crescents, branches, leaves, and other items arranged in a triangular layout, and with varying types of intersections, many of which Dante would likely have seen figured in church mosaics, rose windows, intarsias, and pavements throughout Italy.44 One such intersection, or “knot”—a term especially relevant when recalling the nodo holding together the forma universal (91) and holding the body together with the soul45—is what the mathematical field of topology today calls Borromean Rings, or a Brunnian Link. These rings, arranged in a triangular format, have a particular kind of linking—a braiding, if you will—such that if one ring were detached, the remaining two would slide apart as well. All three together make up the figure’s link. An illustration within a thirteenth-century French manuscript from Chartres with the words “Trinitas” and “unitas” written inside the loops offers a two-dimensional representation of Borromean Rings.46 It is impossible to create perfectly flat Borromean circles in three dimensions, as each must bend slightly to link the other two. But in the spaceless-timeless Empyrean Borromean giri could be united without having to bend.

Such, of course, is God’s omnipotence. And such is the Pilgrim’s inability to understand how that Divine possibility can occur. After [End Page 200] his lament on the limits of speech (121–23), Dante describes God in yet another paradoxical and circular fashion: O luce etterna che solo in te sidi, / sola t’intendi, e da te intelletta, / e intendente te ami e arridi (124–26). There is a circularity to this self-directed dwelling, knowing, loving, and smiling of the Eternal Light, echoing so many other circles in this canto, in this canticle, and in the poem as a whole.47

Following this exclamation, the Poet returns to describing what was being held in the Pilgrim’s gaze. The Pilgrim’s eyes are fixed upon the inner contents of the reflected-rainbow circle, which he calls a circulazion (127). His eyes had to circle around it, or with it, in an appropriately circumspect way (circunspetta, 129), perhaps because the giri were moving. Only then, and with effort, could he see la nostra effige (131)—a redeeming echo, perhaps, of our nostra vita, our life, in Inf. 1.1. He admits his inability to conceive of our human form as part of God’s infinite and perfect form. This hypostatic union between Christ’s human and Divine natures, this expression of non-duality, seems even harder for him to comprehend than the three circles coexisting in una contenenza (117). The Pilgrim/Poet then likens himself to a geometer trying to solve the famously intractable problem of squaring the circle. Although he calls it a vista nova (136), it is not la nostra effige or the imago (138; also Gen. 1:26; 1 Cor. 11:7) itself that Dante finds impossible to grasp. What he feels unable to comprehend is spatial or dimensional: how the curiously “painted’ (pinta, 131) image “fitted” or “was commensurate with” (si convenne, 137) the reflected circle and “enwheres itself there” (vi s’indova, 138). How, he wondered, could our effige simultaneously exist as a depiction of our human form, and also embody, in sussistenza (115), the essence from which it descends? What was being reflected, exactly?

Perhaps the Pilgrim saw Christ’s face in the reflected rainbow circle. But if we read the word viso (132) as “face” rather than “sight,” and era messo (132) as “placed into” rather than “all absorbed,” could it mean that what the Pilgrim actually saw in the circulazion was his own face? That would seem blasphemous, and yet as Enrico Fenzi observes, “vedere l’Uomo è vedere Dio e riconscerlo nella sua opera.”48 Donato Pirovano, alternately, proposes that the Pilgrim did not see a face, but rather the round shape of the Eucharistic Host.49 Or maybe what Dante saw was Christ’s whole figure, with arms and legs outstretched like a Greek cross or the crucifixion cross; as Pirovano notes, crosses are often stamped onto sacramental wafers.50 If the Pilgrim saw either a whole outstretched [End Page 201] body or a cross inside the circulazion, that would reveal the square-and-round volume pairing I mentioned earlier, as well as reflect not just the upcoming squaring of the circle conundrum, which I will now discuss, but also the rota (144) in the penultimate verse of the poem.

The Circle and the Square

While some commentators have considered the geometer image a cold and almost clinical vehicle for describing the Divine, most cite the prevalence of sacred geometry in the Christian Middle Ages, and Dante himself speaks of geometry as something pure and beautiful, bianchissima and senza macula d’errore (Conv. 2.13.27). Dronke proposes that Dante may have been inspired for the geometer image by Alan of Lille’s “Exceptivam actionem” in his Rhythmus de Incarnatione and by Plato’s Timaeus.51 Indeed, the Old Testament God was said to have disposed all things by measure, number, and weight (Wisdom 11:21), and God himself was regularly thought of in the Middle Ages as a geometer or architect constructing the universe (Colui che volse il sesto a lo stremo del mondo, Par. 19, 40–41).52 Moreover, as Mario Fubini puts it, the more sublime a topic or object, the more precise the language Dante sought to describe it.53

The problem of squaring the circle originates in the realization that there is no rational value for the ratio between the diameter and the circumference of a circle. In antiquity, the ratio (what we now designate with the notation π = 3.1415 . . .) was calculated to more decimal places than one might expect. Archimedes, for example, utilizing the first principle of Euclid’s Tenth Book, based his calculation on the difference between the perimeter of a 96-sided polygon circumscribing a circle and a 96–sided polygon inscribed in the same circle. He developed a system called the method of approximation and found the value of π to be between 223/71 and 22/7 (that is, between 3.1408 . . . and 3.1428 . . .).54

While Dante does not directly reference Archimedes in his works and little of Archimedes’s writing was available in Latin in the European Middle Ages, a few recent commentators have pointed out how common it was in Dante’s time for the value for π to be thought of as—or at least approximated as—22/7,55 and some have noted instances in the Commedia where they see Dante alluding to this value.56 Some scholars [End Page 202] have even cited Archimedes as a source for the image of the geometer,57 and recently, some propose that Archimedes’s On the Measure of the Circle was a text Dante may have known in some form.58

A value of π = 3, however, is something that could exist only in the realm of the Divine. In the Old Testament there are a number of passages regarding Solomon’s Sea of Bronze (1 Kings 7:23, 2 Chron. 4:2) in which the value for π appears to be 3. The Mishna of the Babylonian Talmud says, in reference to Solomon’s Sea, that it is in circumference three hands broad to one hand broad in width.59 Numerous early commentators have recognized that this particular value for π was intended to be seen as a religious and symbolic expression, rather than as an accurate mathematical calculation. The 3:1 ratio, interestingly but not surprisingly, also shows up in two words (and various forms of those words) that appear more frequently in this canto than in any other canto in the poem: etterno (5 times), and universo (3 times). Embedded within etterno is the number “three” (Latin, ter), and within universo is “one” (uni).

Perhaps Dante saw this conceptual π-as-3 as expressing the divinity of Solomon’s Sea—a structure, like the Empyrean itself, that transcends physical laws. Or perhaps, as when Dante uses another mathematically intractable problem in reference to Solomon in the Commedia, the Poet might be signaling that knowing such things is of little importance.60 On the other hand, given Dante’s metaphor for certainty in Par. 17.14–15 that no triangle can have two obtuse angles—and given how powerfully the Poet centers in Par. 33 the pairing of circle and square—it seems more likely that the Poet is indicating that in the realm of the Divine, the value for π may, in fact, be a perfect 3.61

Like Euclid and Archimedes, Dante (and most other educated thinkers of his time) did not declare squaring the circle to be conceptually impossible. Euclid in Book 12 of the Elements proves it is possible to find the area of a circle in the abstract. Rather, the contemporary view was that squaring the circle could not be achieved given the imposed constraints of using only a compass and a straight edge (and a finite amount of time). Dante writes with apparent conviction in the Convivio that the circle per lo suo arco è impossibile a quadrare perfettamente (2.13.27). In the Monarchia he says that “geometers do not know how to square the circle, but they do not dispute the question [that an area of a circle and that of a square cannot be equal]” (3.3.2).62 In Par. 13.125, he mentions the sophist Bryson, who tried in vain to square the circle, and who [End Page 203] Aristotle considered a mere syllogizer. In Par. 33, then, when Dante says Qual è ‘l geomètra che tutto s’affige / per misurar lo cerchio, e non ritrova, / pensando, quel principio ond’ elli indige (133–35), he continues to assert the demonstrated impossibility of a legitimate means (that is, with compass and straight-edge alone) to squaring the circle. A circle’s area can only be approximated, as Euclid and Archimedes showed.

Similarly, Dante’s understanding of how the human effigy, the imago (138), “enwheres itself” (s’indova, 138) within the reflected circle of the Trinity is also a matter of approximation. The effige—if referring to the whole body of Christ as tetragonus63—could be oriented in a number of ways. The two most commonly cited, as mentioned earlier, are Christ nailed to the cross with arms outstretched and feet joined like the plus-sign orientation of the Greek cross Dante describes in Par. 14, or Christ standing with arms and legs stretched out—hands and feet touching the inside edges of the circle—in the shape of an X like the Greek χ, used often in the Middle Ages as an abbreviation for Christ, as in St. Andrew’s cross.64 Thomas Hart suggests that Dante could have seen examples of either type of cross inscribed in circles in the mosaics and architecture of churches such as those in Ravenna, and Linda Flosi theorizes that the Pilgrim may have seen the two kinds of cross superimposed on one another, forming the rota (144) that is described in the final verses of the poem.65 Flosi also points to Par. 14, where the Pilgrim sees a cross within a circle as Christ (100–104).66 As Mark Peterson has noted, an X inscribed in a circle gives rise to a square, which then, if the inner angles of the square are bisected, will give rise to an octagon, and if those inner angles are bisected there will emerge a 16-sided polygon, and so forth. This method approximates the area of a circle through the iterative increasing of the sides of a regular polygon. The method Archimedes proposed in On the Measure of the Circle holds that the more sides the polygon has, the more closely it will approach the curve of the circle, although perfect commensurability cannot be reached in a finite number of steps. In infinity, however, as in the heart of the Trinity itself, it would seem that the circle can be squared. The straight lines of the X (the human) come to be fused with the perfect curve of the circle (the Divine). The angles are slowly decreased and stripped away. Especially if spinning, like a wheel, the square becomes like a circle.

Yet even understanding the method of approximation, even believing that in God the square can be circled, the human and the Divine can [End Page 204] be united, and π can equal three, the Pilgrim still maintains an earthly mind (Par. 17.14), and in Par. 33.139 admits he is unable to grasp the mystery of the Incarnation. But then, in a fulgore (Par. 33.141), amazingly, he seems to . . .

See God

. . . understand. The Pilgrim’s feathers/wings (penne, 139, recalling also his last name, alagerus, meaning wing-bearer) were not able, before now, to carry him to such a comprehension, nor could they record such a flight. But when his mente (140) was struck by this fulgore (141), it suddenly—somewhere between verses 140 and 141 of the poem—received what it had desired (in che sua voglia venne, 141). But what, exactly, did the Pilgrim/Poet see/understand? What happened in the unreported space-time between the lines?

In the Epistle to Cangrande (§28) Dante mentions Paul’s rapture to the Third Heaven and how Paul himself was unsure if he was taken up in the body or not. As mentioned earlier, Paul believed it was unlawful to write about what he saw there.67 Similarly, it seems, the Poet has led us as close as he could, and should, to God. Could, because how could God be described in words; could because how could the Poet go against his own poem’s structure to take his readers all the way, when the Pilgrim’s own guides had to step aside for him to have his Vision? Should, because it would be quite an act of hubris to reveal God’s true form, not to mention failing to heed God’s warning in Exodus 33:20, “You cannot see me and live.”

While the question of whether Dante really had an encounter with God is inevitable, scholars have generally disregarded it in light of engaging the poem’s purpose and artistry.68 A related question has, on the other hand, received a good deal of attention: if we posit that the Pilgrim saw God, then how did he see Him—face to Face (per speciem / facie ad faciem), or indirectly (per fidem / per speculum), or in some other mediated format? Was Dante saying that he was a new Moses or Paul, who theologians such as Augustine believed saw God face to Face (2 Cor. 12:2–4), or was he saying something more modest, something more akin to what Jacob, Isaiah, the seventy-four elders, Gideon, Ezekiel, and other Old and New Testament people [End Page 205] were thought to have seen of God (and what Richard of St. Victor and Bernard believed was possible to see of God)—that is, aspects or forms of God, theophanies, but not His Face? Does the Pilgrim have an intellectual and visual raptus or an affective ecstasy? Was he imagining a conglomeration of many depictions of God he had seen in the visual arts of his time, or a kind of layered or shifting image, like the curious, multi-dimensional, changing forms that appear in our dreams, as Mirko Tavoni has proposed?69

Among the numerous statements about seeing God the Poet includes throughout the Commedia, two concepts are particularly relevant to this final encounter. In Par. 19 the Eagle explains to the Pilgrim that human vision can see of God only what He allows to be seen (49–60);70 and in Par. 28 Beatrice explains to the Pilgrim that l’esser beato ne l’atto che vede, / non in quell ch’ama, che poscia seconda (109–11). Aquinas holds that vision is the cause of delectio (Summa 1.2 q4 a2), and thus the more one sees the more one desires, wills, and loves (Contra Gentiles 3.54, and Summa 2.1, q.5, a.4). Many medieval theologians discussed levels of vision (e.g., Augustine), rapture (e.g., Aquinas), or contemplation (e.g., Bonaventure) with respect to seeing God, although they had differing views on whether love was superior to, or preceded, the intellect in the act of seeing. At least syntactically in verse 143, Dante seems to hold that intellectual vision (to see/know) follows love, as the Pilgrim’s will (velle, 143) to see/know literally follows his desire (disio, 143) to see/know. In any case, like most theologians and dogmatic thinkers of Dante’s time, Dante believed that Paul experienced the third and highest of these levels, the super nos as Bonaventura calls it,71 although not even Paul could see God in his total essence.

Perhaps what God wants Dante to “see” (or rather, understand) when looking deeply into Him is His Word, both as Christ incarnate (the last image the Pilgrim sees before he “gets it”) and as the Book of Cosmos. It is Paul who says that seeing God is seeing His Word, and can only happen through faith, hope, and charity (1 Cor.), the theological virtues on which the Pilgrim was examined and assumedly passed (Par. 24–26). Bernard, Pseudo-Dionysius, William of St. Thierry, and other theologians Dante knew well held that to see is to know, to know is to love, and to love is to see—a sublime circularity that reflects God’s circular perfection. And Love, too, is both a circle and its center, as Dante writes in his Vita nova (Book 12). Dante’s vista nova (136) of God Incarnate, as [End Page 206] Susan Noakes has pointed out, does indeed seem the sublime inversion of the corporeal love-vision found in the Poet’s Vita nova.72

There are many classical authors and early and medieval Christian thinkers from whom Dante may have derived this and other paradoxical images of the Divine. The School of Chartres, the Victorines, Pseudo- Dionysius, and other more mystically inclined theologians drew much from Presocratic, Platonic, and Neoplatonic sources. Less commonly mentioned in Dante scholarship, however, is a brief anonymous and untitled Latin text known as Liber viginti quattuor philosophorum [The Book of the Twenty-Four Philosophers]. The earliest version of the text, thought by some modern scholars to be written in the fourth century,73 and believed by others to be by a twelfth- or thirteenth-century hand,74 was in the Middle Ages most often attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, although also variously to Empedocles, Proclus, Calcidius, Alan of Lille, and members of the School of Chartres. Of the twenty-four definitions of God the twenty-four unnamed philosophers in the book propose, the first two circulated widely in the Middle Ages. It is possible Dante knew them (and a number of others) either directly from the Liber, or from discussions of related ideas in Augustine, Boethius, Alain of Lille, Grosseteste, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, and others. Definition 2 (of a decidedly Parmenidean or Empedoclean slant and similar to Definition 18) says “God is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, and circumference is nowhere.” This, paired with Definition 1 (“God is a monad that generates a monad and in itself reflects a single flame of love”), is what late medieval and early Renaissance commentators Benvenuto da Imola and Cristoforo Landino are referring to when they mention “Mercurio Trismegisto” and Augustine as sources for the images in verses 115 through 132.75

Other echoes of the Liber reverberate throughout the Paradiso, such as definitions of God as “Forever immovable within movement” (Def. 19; see Par. 24.131; Par. 27.109–14) and “Beginning without beginning, process without change, end without end” (Def. 7; see Par. 26.16–18; Par. 33.111–14). Dante’s description in Canto 33 of God’s knowledge, love as knowledge, and the love of his creation, that is, of His Self (124–26) strongly resembles Definition 17: “Only God can think of Himself, because he generates Himself.”

While it is true that the Liber itself was not always viewed favorably by the Church, and it is true we cannot confirm Dante’s knowledge of this [End Page 207] text, many of the Liber’s ideas filtered into philosophical and theological treatises Dante would have known. Furthermore, there do seem to be Trinitarian elements in the twenty-four paradoxical definitions, as well as allusions to the redemption of human history (especially Definitions 4, 10, 12, 22). That there are twenty-four definitions is also interesting. This number recalls the twenty-four saintly stars (or piante, as he calls them in Par. 12.96) in the Sphere of the Sun (Par. 10–14), which likely recall the twenty-four sages seated around God in Revelation 4 (which Dante cites in Purg. 29.82–84) and perhaps the belief that twenty-four books comprised the Old Testament.

The Book of the Cosmos, Dante’s own volume, and the Liber: each is about the arts of writing and reading the greatest of mysteries. In this final canto, the Pilgrim’s passionate longing has now reached its limit (finii, 48). The poem has reached its ending, but an ending that signals the beginning of its own writing. Dante, like most medieval Christians, believed that God was infinite, and that the finite, human mind could not comprehend infinity (nor would God allow himself to be comprehended by a finite mind). In God’s infinitude, an infinite circle is equivalent to a single line; the beginning and end are joined; the smallest and the greatest coincide; inside and outside are one and the same; subtraction leads to addition; π can equal 3; and the circle can be squared.

Turning Wheels

Similar to scholars’ negative critiques of the geometer image (133–35) are those offered regarding the very last image of the Commedia, that of a turning wheel. Natalino Sapegno has suggested, for example, that the Poet’s failure of alta fantasia (142) here coincides with his failure of poetic representation;76 Benedetto Croce and others have been dismayed by what they see as Dante’s sacrifice of poetic vision in favor of abstract thought.77 Numerous readers, however, have seen these final few verses as a remarkable example of philosophical, theological, and poetic compression.

To begin with, in verses 139–45 there is a striking resemblance between Dante’s final vision of God and certain elements of the Divine as described in Revelation 4 and in Ezekiel 1. Ezekiel depicts four sparkling creatures, each with four heads and four sets of wings, but also with the [End Page 208] likeness of a man. They are connected in a formation that seems both like a line (depicted as always moving forward) and like a circle; and they are encircled by winds, light, and a fire that is said to be “infolding you” (1:4). They are followed by turning wheels of crystal or chrysolite with eyes embedded in them (1:16–18). Above the creatures and wheels sits God, radiating a fiery amber light and surrounded by a rainbow. Ezekiel says that the creatures are outside the wheels, but their spirits are inside the wheels. It is not clear what force is turning the wheels, but it would seem to be both God and the movement of the creatures themselves, given their perfect harmony. Similarly, in Dante’s last image, the Love that moves the sun and the stars is the agent turning the Pilgrim’s disio, the desire of the intellect to see/understand, and velle, the will of the intellect to obtain its object of desire (143; also Par. 4.25).78 This disio, perhaps not coincidently, was first announced in verse 46, precisely 100 verses before the final verse of the one hundredth canto of the Commedia.79

In a somewhat complicated fashion, perhaps to assure that the word Amor lands in the final verse of the poem and operates as the force that turns the sun and the other stars, the Poet says Love already già volgeva (143) his disio and velle, just as a rota (144) is evenly turned. Love functions as a sort of diazeugma, reaching toward the turning of Dante’s desire and will, and toward moving the whole of the cosmos, uniting these movements. But how is the turning of two things (desire and will) analogous to the moving of a single wheel? Some scholars, such as John Freccero, have considered the image as two parts of a single wheel;80 others have seen the two faculties as if they are one and the same thing.81 In a different vein, Giuseppe Ledda follows a number of early commentators to interpret volgeva as “turned away from” or “turned in another direction,” rather than rotating in a circular fashion “with.”82 In his analysis, it is God (as Love) who ultimately turns Dante (his disio and velle) away from Him, re-turning the Poet/Pilgrim home. Even if such a re-turning follows the Pilgrim’s flash of understanding, it is possible that before the flash, the Pilgrim (his desire and will together) is revolving like a planet on its own axis83 and also orbiting God, in step with the angels and the heavens.84 With this singular-plural image Dante may be recalling the Trinity—of one essence such that it allows both “is and are” (sono ed este, Par. 24.141).

While the terms disio and velle have been considered by some to mean the same thing, most scholars see them as referring to the distinct [End Page 209] faculties of “affect” and “intellect,” or affetto and senno, as Dante calls them in Par. 15.74: though distinct, these are of the same peso (Par. 15.75) in the blessed. At this final moment, in front of God, the two are not only equal in weight but also united with themselves and with God. The Pilgrim’s desire (affect) and will (intellect) for knowledge of God have joined with God’s desire and will to be known; and his love has joined with Divine Love (Par. 24.132). As such, the Pilgrim (his desire and will, that is) is now revolving in the presence of the Prime Mover, who moves the cosmos but is Himself unmoving (Par. 24.131–32). Like a perfectly made wheel on a perfectly frictionless surface, the Pilgrim is moved igualmente (143)85 around his center (soul) and around the Divine Axis, in harmony with the Ptolemaic cosmos, the angels, the Rose, and matter and form.

Plato (Timaeus 7.34ab), Plotinus (Enneads 2.2.2), and Pseudo-Dionysius (On Divine Names, 4.8; On Celestial Hierarchy, 7.4), among others, attribute three principal movements to the universe’s soul (its anima mundi): circular when adoring God, rectilinear when ministering to man, and spiral when doing both.86 The combination of these two models—that of the world soul and that of the human soul—should be considered together in order to understand what Dante is saying here. Freccero has offered an interpretation of the final image as a single wheel rotating both on its own axis and with the rest of creation that is wheeling upward, around God.87 He shows the importance of imagining the literal, physical object of the terrestrial wheel—its compound motion of turning around its own center and moving rectilinearly with respect to the earth—and not just the metaphoric concept of the circle.88

The Pilgrim has moved in a spiral in his descent to Hell and up the Mountain of Purgatory. Now he seems to be engaged primarily in a circular, wheeling motion, although depending on how one interprets this motion, he could here, too, be moving in a spiral. His soul (his desire and will) is revolving in a circle inside him as it contemplates God, but because he is still in human form—or because he is writing this experience as the Poet—his soul is also moving in a rectilinear fashion. This fusion of circular and straight motion, which results in a spiral, is perhaps what instigates a curious back and forth in these final lines. Dante claims that his wings are far too weak to bring him to see God, but then says he was struck by a light that gave him what he sought (140–41); his imagination fails, but his desire and will are moving in step [End Page 210] with God (142–44). For just a moment, Dante’s humanity and his divinity are joined within him and within the Divine. He moves a little like the angels, who wheel around God, and a little like the blessed, who sit in the Rose and whose movement is an interior wheeling of desire and will; and he moved a little like a human, in a forward-moving straight line up toward God. He has perhaps experienced what he anticipated: lo primo e ineffabile Valore / quanto per mente e per logo si gira / con tant’ordine fé ch’esser non puote / sanza gustar di lui chi ciò rimira (Par. 10.3–6). Although this rapturous movement is invisible to the reader, it is there. It is in the spaces between the last twists of the poem’s tercet chain, written on the leaves of the Poet’s volume. As St. Paul said after his vision of God, “It is now no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The wheel of the soul, and of the poem, has made a full turn.

The Song of the Return

Dante has himself become a hysteron proteron,89 an arrow that strikes, flies, and leaves the bow (Par. 2.23–24). He has reached his Divine Target, which also happens to be a return to his (the Poet’s) origin, the Divine Bow. God is the Alpha and the Omega,90 He is the beginning and the end, the still-point of origin and the goal. He is the center and the circumference of a finite but boundless universe. Dante has sung to us of the soul’s journey to know the Knower, and of the soul’s eternal beginning and return. He has sung to us of the mystery of Love. And as his own guides have stepped aside, so he steps aside from us. Dante concludes his song of the return on the highest of notes, which now begins its function as a sonorous lantern lighting our way (Purg. 22.68) out of the wood, should we choose to follow.


1. This lectura was originally written in 2008 for Lectura Dantis: Paradiso (University of California Press), a volume that has been pending for many years. I am grateful to the volume’s editors, Charles Ross and Anthony Oldcorn, for allowing me to publish this piece in Dante Studies. I have updated my reading of Par. 33 to include scholarship published since 2008, primarily in North America, Italy, and the UK.

2. All citations of the Commedia are from La Commedia secondo l’antica vulgata, ed. Giorgio Petrocchi (Milan: Mondadori, 1966–1967). All translations are from The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, ed. and trans. Robert Durling and ed. Ronald Martinez (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996–2011) unless otherwise noted. All citations from the commentaries available on the Dartmouth Dante Project ( will simply note the commentator’s name.

3. William P. Franke, “Scripture as Theophany in Dante’s Paradiso,” Religion and Literature 39, no. 2 (2007): 5.

4. Franke, “Scripture as Theophany,” 8.

5. Teodolinda Barolini, The Undivine Comedy. Detheologizing Dante (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

6. Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

7. Piero Boitani, “The Sibyl’s Leaves: A Study of Paradiso 33,” Dante Studies 96 (1978): 83–126.

8. On the prayer to the Virgin, see especially Erich Auerbach, “Dante’s Prayer to the Virgin (Paradiso 33) and Earlier Eulogies,” Romance Philology 2, no. 1 (1949–50): 1–26; Antonio Calistri, Lectura Dantis: Canto 33 del Paradiso: Inno alla Vergine e visione di Dio (Perugia: Grafica, 1959); Giorgio Petrocchi, “Dante e la mistica di San Bernardo,” in Letteratura e Critica: Studi in Onore di Natalino Sapegno, ed. Walter Binni et al. (Rome: Bulzoni, 1975): 213–29; John Guzzardo, “Paradiso 33: St. Bernard's Prayer,” Italian Culture 12, no. 1 (1994): 45–57; Pier Angelo Perotti, “La preghiera alla Vergine (Par. 33 1–39),” L'Alighieri: Rassegna Bibliografica Dantesca 36, no. 6 (1995): 75–84; Giorgio Bàrberi Squarotti, “La preghiera alla Vergine: Dante e Petrarca,” Filologia e critica 20 (1995): 365–74; Richard Kay, “Dante in Ecstasy: Paradiso 33 and Bernard of Clairvaux,” Medieval Studies 66 (2004): 183–212; Cécile Le Lay, “Synthèse des fonctions mariales: Prière finale,” in Marie dans la Comédie de Dante. Fonctions d’un ‘personagge’ féminin (Rome: Aracne, 2016): 373–87; and Alessandro Vettori, Dante’s Prayerful Pilgrimage. Typologies of Prayer in the Comedy (Leiden: Brill, 2019); and Christian Trottmann, “L’espoir de Dante et la présance de Sant Bernard dans les trois derniers chantes du Paradis,” Revue des Etudes Dantesques 3 (2019): 11–48.

9. See also Kay, “Dante in Ecstasy.”

10. Giovanni Fallani, “Il canto 33 del Paradiso,” in Paradiso: Letture degli Anni 1979–1981 (Rome: Bonacci Editore, 1989), 849–68.

11. Peter Dronke, “The Conclusion of Dante’s Commedia,” Italian Studies 49 (1994): 21–39.

12. Marco Ariani, “Canto XXXIII: La mistica preterizione: il dicer poco dell’ultimus cantus,” in Lectura Dantis Romana. Cento canti per cento anni 3. Paradiso 2. Canti 18–33, ed. E. Malato and A. Mazzuchi (Rome: Salerno, 2015): 971–1011.

13. See commentaries by Pietro di Dante and Mattalia, and by Porena against this reading. See also Steven Botterill, Dante and the Mystical Tradition. Bernard of Clairvaux in the Commedia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

14. See also Par. 26.91–94.

15. Rachel Jacoff, “Shadowy Prefaces: An Introduction to Paradiso,” in Cambridge Companion to Dante, ed. Rachel Jacoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 208–25.

16. For discussions on the mystical sources for Dante’s description of his encounter with God, see especially John Freccero, “The Final Image: Paradiso 33, 144,” MLN 79, no. 1 (1964): 14–27; Lino Pertile, “Paradiso 33: L’estremo oltraggio,” Filologia e critica 6 (1981): 1–21; Edward Hagman, “Dante’s Vision of God: The End of the Itinerarium Mentis,” Dante Studies 106 (1988): 1–20; Giuliana Carugati, Dalla menzogna al silenzio. La scrittura mistica della “Commedia” di Dante (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1991); Botterill, Dante and the Mystical Tradition; Peter S. Hawkins, “Augustine, Dante, and the Dialectic of Ineffability,” in Dante’s Testaments. Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999): 214–28; Franke, “Scripture as Theophany”; Giuseppe Ledda, La guerra della lingua. Ineffabilità, retorica e narrativa nella Commedia di Dante (Ravenna: Longo, 2002); Christian Moevs, The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Jason Aleksander, “The Problem of Theophany in Paradiso 33,” Essays in Medieval Studies 27 (2011): 61–78; Ariani, “Canto XXXIII”; Marcello Ciccuto, “Per una teologia delle immagini dantesche. Agostino e la visio ultima del Paradiso,” Letteratura & Arte 16 (2018): 13–22; Giuseppe Ledda, “Come finisce la Commedia? Per una diversa interpretazione del verso ‘Ma già volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle’ Par. 33.143,” Studi e problemi di critica testuale 103 (2021): 222–32; and Mirko Tavoni, “The Vision of God (Paradiso 33) and Its Iconography,” in Interpretation and Visual Poetics in Medieval and Early Modern Texts: Essays in Honor of H. Wayne Storey, ed. Beatrice Arduini et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2022): 94–121.

17. See Diego Fasolini on the “phenomenology of gazes” in the Commedia in “ ‘Illuminating’ and ‘Illuminated’ Light: A Biblical-Theological Interpretation of God-As-Light in Canto 33 of Dante’s Paradiso,” Literature and Theology 19, no. 4 (2005), 298, and Christopher Kleinhenz on Mary’s gaze upward as what moves the Pilgrim upward gaze in “Lectura dantis: Paradiso 33,” in Dante Intertestuale e interdisciplinare. Saggi sulla Commedia (Rome: Aracne, 2015), 464.

18. Barolini, The Undivine Comedy, 223.

19. See Olivia Holmes, “The ‘Little While’: Departure and Return,” in Dante’s Two Beloveds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008): 157–93.

20. See Hawkins, “Augustine, Dante, and the Dialectic of Ineffability.”

21. See also God’s breathing forth of life in Par. 7.142–44, Par. 10.1–5, and Par. 10.49–51.

22. On the invocations in the Commedia, see Robert Hollander, “Dante’s Nine Invocations Revisited,” L’Alighieri 41 (2013): 5–32, and his previous “The Invocations of the Commedia,” in Yearbook of Italian Studies 3 (1976): 235–40.

23. Giuseppe Mazzotta, Poet of the Desert. History and Allegory in the Divine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

24. See, for example, Rowan Williams, “33 and 34. Ice, Fire and Holy Water,” in Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy, vol. 3, ed. George Corbett and Heather Webb (Cambridge, UK: Open Books, 2017), 218.

25. See, for example, Boitani, “The Sibyl’s Leaves,” and Robert Hollander, “The Sibyl in Paradiso 33.66 and in De civitate Dei 18.23,” EBDSA, October 4, 2007,

26. John Ahern, “Binding the Book: Hermeneutics and Manuscript Production in Paradiso 33,” PMLA 97, no. 5 (1982): 800–9.

27. The amount of scholarship on God as Light in Par. 33 is massive. Two recent studies are Diego Fasolini, “ ‘Illuminating’ and ‘Illuminated’ Light”; and Marco Ariani, Lux inaccessibilis: Metafore e teologia della luce nel Paradiso di Dante (Rome: Aracne, 2011).

28. On the image of the volume, see especially Ahern, “Binding the Book,” and “Dante’s Last Word: The Comedy as a liber coelestis,” Dante Studies 102 (1984): 1–14; Marguerite Mills Chiarenza, “Legato con amore in un volume,” in Dante e la Bibbia, ed. Giovanni Barblan (Florence: Olschki, 1988), 227–34; Giuseppe Mazzotta, “Cosmology and the Kiss of Creation (Paradiso 27–29),” Dante Studies 123 (2005): 1–21; Antonio Rossini, Dante. Il nodo ed il volume (Pisa: Fabrizio Serra, 2011); and Samuele Pinna, “ ‘La forma universal di questo nodo’: La prima visione di Dio nel Paradiso di Dante (33, vv. 55–105): Parte seconda,” Città di Vita: Bimestrale di Religione Arte e Scienza 73, no. 3 (2018): 259–71.

29. On the word conflati, see especially the commentaries by Benvenuto, Torraca, Sapegno, Mattalia, and Chiavacci Leonardi; Ahern, “Binding the Book”; and Boitani, “The Sibyl’s Leaves.”

30. Mazzotta, “Cosmology and the Kiss of Creation.”

31. See the section “The Circle and the Square” later in this essay.

32. Hawkins, “Augustine, Dante, and the Dialectic of Ineffability.” See also Chiarenza, “Legato con amore.”

33. On the word letargo and the metaphor of the Argo, see especially H. D. Austin and Leo Spitzer, “Letargo (Par. 33, 94),” MLN 52 (1937): 469–73; Eugene M. Longen, “The Grammar of Apotheosis: Paradiso 33, 94–99,” Dante Studies 93 (1975): 209–14; Piero Boitani, “From the Shadow of Ulysses to the Shadow of the Argo: Dante’s Dangerous Journeys,” in Speaking Images: Essays in Honor of V. A. Kolve, ed. Robert F. Yeager and Charlotte C. Morse (Asheville, NC: Pegasus Press, 2001), 73–93; and Paola Allegretti, “Medea, Giasone e Argo: l’impresa dopo 25 secoli di letargo,” Letteratura Classensi 46 (2017): 59–91.

34. Dronke, “Conclusion of Dante’s Commedia.”

35. See Ps. 8:2; Matt 21:16; 1 Pet. 2:2 and Gary Cestaro, Dante and the Grammar of the Nursing Body (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2003).

36. On the vista nova, see Susan Noakes, “Dante’s Vista Nova: Paradiso 33, 136,” Quaderni d’Italianistica 5, no. 2 (1984): 151–70.

37. See Singleton’s commentary.

38. On the word contenenza, see my article with Aba Mbirika, “The Three giri of Paradiso 33,” Dante Studies 131 (2013): 237–76, in which we discuss a manuscript variant—contingenza—that allows for the idea of the giri “co-tinting” one another.

39. Saiber and Mbirika, “The Three giri of Paradiso 33.”

40. Saiber and Mbirika, “The Three giri of Paradiso 33.”

41. For a longer discussion on why it is valuable to try to understand what it is that the Poet depicts the Pilgrim seeing, see Saiber and Mbirika, “The Three giri of Paradiso 33.” For other studies specifically on the tre giri, see especially H. D. Austin, “The Three Rings: Par. 33, 116,” Philological Quarterly 17, no. 4 (1938): 406–11; Steno Vazzana, “Parvemi tre giri (Par. 33, 116),” L’Alighieri: Rassegna Bibliografica Dantesca 24 (1983): 53–61; Mark Peterson, “The Geometry of Paradise,” The Mathematical Intelligencer 30, no. 4 (2008): 14–19; Enrico Fenzi, “Dio e uomo nel cerchio della Trinità: qualche nota ai versi finali della Commedia,” Letteratura e Arte 16 (2018): 23–52; and Tavoni, “Vision of God.”

42. On Joachim of Fiore’s illustration of the Trinity as inspiration for Dante’s tre giri, see the above mentioned articles in footnote 39, as well as Leone Tondelli, Marjorie Reeves, and Beatrice Hirsch-Reich, Il libro delle figure dell’Abate Gioachino da Fiore, 2 vols. (Turin: Società Editrice Internazionale, 1990); Marco Rainini, Disegni dei tempi. Il Liber Figurarum e la teologia figurativa di Gioacchino da Fiore (Rome: Viella, 2006); and Rossini, Dante. Il nodo ed il volume.

43. On the colors of the giri, see Saiber and Mbirika, “The Three giri of Paradiso 33.”

44. On inspiration from art and architecture for the tre giri, see especially John Leyerle, “The Rose-Wheel Design and Dante’s Paradiso,” University of Toronto Quarterly 47, no. 3 (1977): 280–308; John G. Demaray, “The Temple, Wheels and Rose of Heaven: Transfiguration and the Cosmic Book,” in Dante and the Book of the Cosmos (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1987), 61–104; Richard Kay, “Dante’s Empyrean and the Eye of God,” Speculum 78, no. 1 (2003): 37–65; Rossini, Dante. Il nodo ed il volume; Fenzi, “Dio e uomo nel cerchio della Trinità”; and Tavoni, “Vision of God.”

45. Marianne Shapiro, Dante and the Knot of Body and Soul (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

46. The manuscript was destroyed in WWII, but illustrated by Adolphe Napléon Didron in his Iconographie chrétienne. Histoire de Dieu (Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1843), 569.

47. Peter Hawkins, “All Smiles: Poetry and Theology in Dante,” PMLA 121, no. 2 (2006): 371–87.

48. Fenzi, “Dio e uomo nel cerchio della Trinità,” 52.

49. Donato Pirovano, “Dante e la visione di Dio,” Rivista di letteratura italiana 37 (2019): 9–19.

50. See the commentaries of Buti, Fubini, and Mattalia; Kay, “Dante in Ecstasy” and “Flash or Effulgence? Mental Illumination in Dante’s Paradiso 33.141,” in Dante’s Enigmas: Medieval Scholasticism and Beyond, (Burlington: Ashgate, 2006), 169–80; and Peterson, “Geometry of Paradise.”

51. Dronke, “Conclusion of Dante’s Commedia.”

52. On the sacred geometry of the Middle Ages, especially that of the circle, see Georges Poulet, The Metamorphoses of the Circle., trans. C. Dawson and E. Coleman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967).

53. Mario Fubini, Due studi danteschi (Florence: Sansoni, 1951).

54. See Marshall Clagett, Archimedes in the Middle Ages (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964).

55. See Silvio Maracchia, “Dante e la matematica,” Archimede 31 (1979): 195–208; Ronald Herzman and Gary Towsley, “Squaring the Circle: Paradiso 33 and the Poetics of Geometry,” Traditio 49 (1994): 95–125; Thomas Hart, “Per misurare lo cerchio (Par. 33.134) and Archimedes’ De mensura circuli: Some Thoughts on Approximations to the Value of π,” in Dante e la scienza, ed. P. Boyde and V. Russo (Ravenna: Longo, 1995), 265–311; and Peterson, “Geometry of Paradise.” See also Robert Levine, “Squaring the Circle: Dante’s Solution,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 86 (1985): 280–87.

56. See Maracchia, “Dante e la matematica”; and Hart, “Per misurare lo cerchio.”

57. See commentaries by Benvenuto da Imola and Chiose Vernon; Hart, “Per misurare lo cerchio”; and Peterson, “Geometry of Paradise.”

58. Peterson, “Geometry of Paradise.”

59. See Eruvin 14a. See Boaz Tsaban and David Garber, “On the Rabbinical Approximation of π,” Historia Mathematica 25 (1998): 75–84.

60. When the king asked God for various forms of wisdom to serve him in his role as king (1 Kings 3:4–15) he did not ask God if, within a semicircle, one can draw a triangle with no right angle (Par. 13.101–2)

61. See Herzman and Towsley, “Squaring the Circle.”

62. “Nam geometra circuli quadraturam ignorat non tamen de ipsa litigat” (Monarchia 3.3.2).

63. On the effige as tetragonus, see Guy Raffa, Divine Dialectic. Dante’s Incarnational Poetry (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2000).

64. See Linda Flosi, “The Geometry of Action in Dante’s Commedia,” (PhD diss., Northwestern University, 1990); Kay, “Flash or Effulgence?”; and Pirovano, “Dante e la visione di Dio.”

65. Flosi, “Geometry of Action,” 115.

66. Flosi, “Geometry of Action,” 108.

67. On Pauline raptus and visio, see Joseph Anthony Mazzeo, “Dante and the Pauline Modes of Vision,” Harvard Theological Review 50 (1957): 275–306; Giuseppe Di Scipio, “Dante and St. Paul: The Blinding Light and Water,” Dante Studies 98 (1980): 151–57; and Jason Aleksander, “Problem of Theophany,” on the final twenty-two verses as modeled.

68. Mazzotta, Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge.

69. Tavoni, “Vision of God.”

70. See Pirovano on how it is not the Pilgrim seeing God, but God who shows himself to man (“Dante e la visione di Dio,” 12).

71. See especially Georges Güntert, “La ‘prova glorificante’: Paradiso 33,” Cuadernos de Filologia Italiana 9 (2002): 33–48; Kenelm Foster, “Dante’s Vision of God,” in The Two Dantes and Other Studies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977): 66–85; Edward Hagman, “Dante’s Vision of God: The End of the Itinerarium Mentis,” Dante Studies 106 (1988): 1–20; and the sources cited in footnote 66 above.

72. Noakes, “Dante’s Vista Nova.”

73. See, for example, Françoise Hudry, ed. and trans., Liber viginti quattuor philosophorum, in Corpus Christianorum 143A (Turnhout: Brepols, 1997); and Anna Bagorda, “Il Paradiso e il Liber XXIV philosophorum: L’ente divino ai ot ach di una metafora” (PhD diss., New York University, 2010).

74. See Paolo Lucentini, ed., Il libro dei XXIV filosofi (Milan: Adelphi, 1999).

75. For discussion of the Liber’s resonances in Dante, see especially Carroll’s commentary; Georges Poulet, Metamorphoses of the Circle; Hudry, ed. and trans., Liber viginti quattuor philosophorum; Lucentini, ed. and trans., Il libro dei XXIV filosofi; and Bagorda, Il Paradiso e il Liber XXIV philosophorum.”

76. See Sapegno’s commentary.

77. See Benedetto Croce, Poesia antica e moderna (Bari: Laterza & Figli, 1966) and Giuseppe Ledda, “Come finisce la Commedia? Per una diversa interpretazione del verso ‘Ma già volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle’ Par. 33.143,” Studi e ot ach di critica testuale 103 (2021): 222–32.

78. On the simile of disio e ‘l velle to a moving wheel, see especially Bruno Nardi, “Sì come ot ach’igualmente è mossa,” in Nel mondo di Dante (Rome: Edizioni di Storia della Letteratura, 1944): 337–50; Demaray, “The Temple, Wheels and Rose of Heaven”; Freccero, “Final Image”; Lino Pertile, “La punta del disio. Storia di una metafora dantesca,” Lectura Dantis Virginiana 7 (1990): 3–28 and “Poesia e scienza nell’ultimo canto del Paradiso,” in Dante e la scienza, ed. P. Boyde et al. (Ravenna: Longo, 1995), 133–48; Charles M. Radding, “Fortune and Her Wheel: The Meaning of a Medieval Symbol,” Mediaevistik 5 (1992): 127–38; Diego Fasolini, “ ‘E io ch’al fine di tutt’i disii appropinquava’: Un’interpretazione teologica del Desiderium nel 33 canto del Paradiso,” Forum Italicum 37, no. 2 (2003): 297–328; Raffaele Pinto, “Il viaggio di ritorno: Pd. 33.142–145,” Tenzone 4 (2003): 199–226; Paolo Falzone, “Visione beatifica e circolazione celeste negli ultimi versi del Paradiso,” Bollettino di italianistica 7, no. 2 (2010): 46–77; J.C. Wiles, ‘Centro del cammin’: Centers and centrality in the Commedia,” Biblioteca Dantesca: Journal of Dante Studies 3.5 (2020): 107–146; Marcello Ciccuto, “L’immagine invisibile dell’invisibile: Per la visione finale dantesca di Paradiso 33,” in I passi fidi: Studi in Onore di Carlos López Cortezo, ed. Carlota Catter-mole Ordóñez et al. (Rome: Aracne, 2020): 149–157; and Ledda, “Come finisce la Commedia?”

79. See Kleinhenz on the final 100 verses of Par. 33 in “Par. 33,” 458.

80. See John Freccero, “Final Image”; and Durling and Martinez’s discussion of this in their notes to The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, 682.

81. See commentaries by Bosco and Reggio, for example.

82. Ledda, “Come finisce la Commedia?”

83. See Par. 21.79–81 and 136–39 on the blesseds’s wheeling motion around their own axes.

84. See esp. the commentaries of Mazzoni, Momigliano, and Hollander; and Pertile, “Paradiso 33: L’estremo oltraggio.”

85. On the word igualmente, see especially Bruno Nardi, “Sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa.” See also Pertile, “Poesia e scienza nell’ultima immagine del Paradiso”; and Falzone, “Visione beatifica e circolazione celeste.”

86. Nardi, “Sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa”; and John Freccero, “Dante’s Pilgrim in a Gyre,” PMLA 76, no. 3 (1961): 168–81.

87. Freccero, “Final Image.”

88. Freccero, “Final Image.”

89. See Christopher Kleinhenz, “Hysteron Proteron, Teleology, and Dante’s Commedia,” in Interpretation and Visual Poetics in Medieval and Early Modern Texts: Essays in Honor of H. Wayne Storey, ed. Beatrice Arduini et al (Leiden: Brill, 2022), 82–93.

90. See Par. 26, 17; Epistle to Cangrande §33; Rev 1:8, 21:6, 22:13.