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Dante’s Divine Comedy: An Analysis of Paradise XXVI

Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy is considered one of Western literature's greatest works of art. Its final section, Paradise, is a profound meditation on the nature of God and the human soul. Canto XXVI stands out as a pivotal chapter in the poem's narrative frames, among the many significant moments in the Paradise. Here, Dante is engaged in a theological discussion with Adam, the first man created by God, and it concludes with Dante being granted the theological virtues necessary to continue his journey toward the final vision of God. Through this encounter, Dante gains a more in-depth understanding of the nature of sin, the importance of divine love, and the evolution of human language over time. As such, Paradise, Canto XXVI, represents a crucial moment in Dante's spiritual journey. For centuries, the significance of Paradise, Canto XXVI has been analysed and discussed by scholars, revealing valuable insights into the complex symbolism and allegory present throughout the Divine Comedy. The present article aims to explore its most significant verses to offer a deeper understanding of the themes of love, language and the divine.

The setting is the eighth circle of Paradise, namely the Heaven of the Fixed Stars. The dominant figures within this celestial realm are the cherubs and the triumphant spirits. Several notable figures have been encountered in this location, including Dante, Beatrice, St. Peter and St. James (who first appear in Canto XXIV and XXV of Paradise respectively). Within the confines of this Canto, Dante also meets St. John (who makes his entrance towards the conclusion of Canto XXV of Paradise) and Adam, the progenitor of humanity. Canto XXVI of Paradise can be divided into two separate sections. In the initial segment, Dante experiences a transient loss of vision, prompting St. John to scrutinise him on the subject of caritas (Love that comes from God; virtue opposite of envy). Dante's visual faculties are subsequently restored through the power of Beatrice’s gaze. In the second, the character of Adam is introduced, and the poet asks him four questions. Adam’s replies draw the Canto to a conclusion (Sambugar & Salà, 2007).

Figure 1: The Ordering of Paradise (Caetani, 1855)

Dante's temporary vision loss is attributed to his prolonged exposure to the light emanating from St. John, who softens the poet's sense of uncertainty and reassures him that his condition is merely transitory. St. John also encourages him to rely on the faculty of reason to compensate for his visual impairment while inquiring into the nature of caritas, questioning Dante on the focal point of his charitable impulses, the motivating factors underlying his expressions of love, and the sources of inspiration that drive his benevolent inclinations. These sources of Caritas are metaphorically portrayed as "teeth that bite him" (Par., XXVI, vv. 51). Finally, St. John tells Dante that Beatrice has the same healing power as Ananias, who restored the sight of St. Paul through divine intervention. By comparing Beatrice and Ananias, St. John emphasises the miraculous and divine nature of Beatrice's ability to restore Dante's spiritual vision.

Dante is further compared with St. Paul, who was divinely summoned from heaven to disseminate God's message on earth. Similarly, Dante's journey is endowed with a divine purpose, and he, too, will transmit to the world the sights he has witnessed during his sojourn through the realms of the afterlife. This parallelism between Dante and St. Paul underscores the idea that both men were called forth by a divine mandate, and their respective missions were intended to serve a higher purpose in the grand scheme of God (Sambugar & Salà, 2007; Pirovano, 2015).

According to the critical analysis of Donato Pirovano (2015), the passage in which Dante experiences a temporary loss of vision evokes a striking parallel with another episode in his journey, namely Canto XVI of Purgatory. In this earlier segment, Dante finds himself enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke that shrouds the third frame of Purgatory, leaving him disoriented and vulnerable. In this state of disorientation, Virgil supports Dante, who extends not only his hand but also his shoulder for Dante to lean on. Thus, with Virgil's guidance, Dante can see, although without visual clarity (Pirovano, 2015).

Figure 2: Dante's Purgatory XVI book edition (Doré, 1800-1899)

In Canto XXVI of Paradise, Dante finds support in his reasoning faculty, St. John's counsel, and Beatrice's moral fortitude. In response to St. John's probing questions, Dante avows that Beatrice, whom he venerates as his muse and spiritual guide, can restore his sight at will, having first captivated him with her radiant visage. He further expounds that his love for God is predicated on the scriptural accounts that attest to the divine nature of truth and love, which he has assimilated through his studies of philosophy and the holy texts. Dante’s sources of inspiration encompass the teachings of Aristotle and Plato, the words of God to Moses, and the apocalyptic prophecies, which collectively attest to the transcendental essence of God's love. This cumulative evidence establishes that the love for God is paramount and superlative (Sambugar & Salà, 2007).

Dante further discloses that the prime object of his charitable affection is God, the ultimate source of all things, the Alpha and Omega of creation. Moreover, he asserts that he loves every creature in the Divine Garden precisely as God loves them. With these utterances, Dante experiences an ecstatic vision of the heavenly choir, who intones the sacred phrase "Santo, santo, santo!" (Par., XXVI, vv. 69) thrice over, thus evoking the liturgical chant of the Mass. This enraptured moment culminates with Beatrice and other blessed souls interceding for Dante's healing by chanting this phrase with a salvific gaze that restores his sight. At first, Dante is confused and disoriented, but he gradually adjusts to it and, in doing so, discerns a fourth light, which he identifies as the figure of Adam.

Figure 3: Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven (Doré, 1867)

The delay in Beatrice's help can be understood in light of the notion of caritas, or Christian love, as Donato Pirovano notes: by withholding her assistance, Beatrice guides Dante to a more in-depth understanding of the true nature of love (Pirovano, 2015). According to Pirovano, then, the experience of love can be encapsulated in two gazes: the first distant gaze, which kindled Dante's love for Beatrice, and the second saving gaze, which heals and allows him to see the highest mysteries. Beatrice's delay in restoring Dante's sight underscores the transformative power of this second gaze, which represents the true, divine nature of love. Pirovano suggests that Beatrice's goal is to help Dante realise that the only true love is caritas, whose principal feature is its selflessness, Christ-like love. By forcing Dante to rely on his reason and his own efforts to compensate for his temporary blindness, Beatrice aims to teach him the importance of cultivating this type of love in himself. Ultimately, it is only through the saving gaze of caritas that Dante can see the fourth light, symbolising Adam, and achieve a more in-depth understanding of God's plan for humanity (Pirovano, 2015).

Upon regaining his vision, Dante experiences a profound realisation of his identity as a poet of love, celebrating its transformative power in human existence. In this sense, Dante's poetic vocation is intimately connected to his spiritual journey, as he seeks to reconcile the human and the divine through his poetical production (Pirovano, 2015). With the arrival of Adam, Dante is filled with a sense of awe and wonder. However, despite his eagerness to ask Adam four questions, Dante is informed that his curiosity has already been perceived and that Adam already knows what he wishes to ask. This suggests a deep sense of interconnectedness between Dante and the souls he encounters in Paradise, as their knowledge and insights are not bound by time or space but transcendent in nature (Pirovano, 2015).

Paradise XXVI, vv. 109-114 alongside English translation:

‘Tu vuogli udir quant’ e che Dio mi puose

Thou fain wouldst hear how long ago God placed me

ne l’eccelso giardino, ove costei

Within the lofty garden, where this Lady

a cosi lunga scala ti dispuose,

Unto so long a stairway thee disposed.

e quanto fu diletto a li occhi miei,

And how long to mine eyes it was a pleasure,

e la propria cagion del gran disdegno,

And of the great disdain the proper cause,

e l’idioma ch’usai e che fei.

And the language that I used and that I made.

Figure 4: Dante and Beatrice on the banks of the river Lethe (Rojas, 1889)

In responding to Dante's inquiries, Adam elaborates on the origins of language and its significance. He explains that all human beings spoke the same language in the beginning and were unified in their thoughts and actions. However, after the construction of the Tower of Babel, this unity was destroyed, and different languages were born. Adam asserts that language is not a mere human invention but a divine gift that enables humans to express their thoughts and communicate with one another. He continues arguing that language serves as the mediator between the spiritual and the material worlds, allowing for the possibility of intellectual contemplation and the communication of ideas. The ability to name things and understand their essence is a fundamental aspect of language that distinguishes humans from animals. Furthermore, he states that the proper use of language can lead to a greater understanding of the divine and a more profound appreciation of God's creation (Pirovano, 2015).

Paradise XXVI, vv.124-138 alongside English translation:

La lingua ch’io parlai fu tutta spenta

The language that I spake was quite extinct

innanzi che a l’ovra inconsummabile

Before that in the work interminable

fosse la gente di Nembròt attenta:

The people under Nimrod were employed;

ché nullo effetto mai razïonabile,

For nevermore result of reasoning

per lo piacere uman che rinovella

(Because of human pleasure that doth change,

seguendo il cielo, sempre fu durabile.

Obedient to the heavens) was durable.

Opera naturale è ch'uom favella;

A natural action is it that man speaks;

ma così o così, natura lascia

But whether thus or thus, doth nature leave

poi fare a voi secondo che v'abbella.

To your own art, as seemeth best to you.

Pria ch’i’ scendessi a l’infernale ambascia,

Ere I descended to the infernal anguish,

I s’appellava in terra il sommo bene

_El_ was on earth the name of the Chief Good,

onde vien la letizia che mi fascia;

From whom comes all the joy that wraps me round

e El si chiamò poi: e ciò convene,

_Eli_ he then was called, and that is proper,

ché l’uso d’i mortali è come fronda

Because the use of men is like a leaf

in ramo, che sen va e altra vene.

On bough, which goeth and another cometh.

Figure 5: Paradise XXVI from an early printed edition of the Commedia (Siegel, 2017)

In the initial tercet of Adam's explanation, he refers to Nembrod, a giant encountered by Dante and Virgil in Canto XXXI of Inferno. According to legend, Nembrod was linked to the Tower of Babel construction, a structure intended to reach the heavens. The language of the giants, unintelligible to humans, is regarded as a factor contributing to language confusion at Babel. Virgil provides Dante with this explanation when encountering the giants (Pirovano, 2015).

Inferno XXXI, vv. 67-69 alongside English translation:

"Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi",

“Raphael mai amech izabi almi,”

cominciò a gridar la fiera bocca,

Began to clamour the ferocious mouth,

cui non si convenia più dolci salmi.

To which were not befitting sweeter psalms.