Barbara Vellacott contemplates the indescribability of beauty in Dante’s ‘Paradiso’
The ‘Divine Comedy’ by Dante Alighieri is regarded as a masterpiece of world literature, depicting the spiritual journey of the soul from the depths of hell (Inferno) through a process of purification (Purgatorio) to the heights of heaven (Paradiso). In the first two books, Dante is guided by the Roman poet, Virgil, but in ‘Paradiso’ he is led by his ideal woman, Beatrice, who takes him through the nine celestial spheres into the very presence of God. Here Barbara Vellacott, a teacher of poetry, contemplates the way that Dante, and the later artists who illustrated the poem, allude to the realms of divine beauty which are beyond all concept and image.
all thought of Beauty…
the memory of the sweetness of that smile
deprives me of my mental powers.
In his journey through the spheres of Paradise, with Beatrice leading him, Dante reaches a higher level of vision – he sees a river of light. Take a moment to imagine this… a torrent of pure light, with living sparks scattering from it and settling on the flowers on its banks. The sparks and flowers are angels and blessed souls. Then the river changes into a circular sea of light.
the lofty triumph of the true kingdom,
grant me the power to tell of what I saw.
in the Empyrean Drinking at the River of Light.
The Tate Gallery, image via Wikimedia Commons.
my phantasy cannot repeat it.
And so my pen skips and I do not write it,
for our imagination is too crude, as is our speech,
to paint the subtler colours of the folds of bliss
How can we describe beauty – the beauty of anything? We simply exclaim: “It’s beautiful!” Beauty itself is in the experience, and relating it is the act of reflection afterwards, when often we say, “I can’t describe it.”
In writing Paradiso Dante is re-imagining an experience he apparently had many years before, so it is necessarily related to memory, as he himself recognised. In the final canto he invokes the divine Light again:
grant that in memory I see again
but one small part of how you then appeared
and grant my tongue sufficient power
that it may leave behind a single spark
of glory for the people yet to come.
compared to what I still recall my words are faint.
And so the beauty experienced by the poet and expressed in the poem continues vibrating as we read it, revisit it, share it, and, I hope, as I write now. Let us say that beauty is a divine vibration which sings in poet, poem, reader and listener. But its essence is nevertheless indescribable, and the supreme vision must in its very nature be so.
Visual artists and Paradiso
It is interesting that when illustrating the Divine Comedy, visual artists are usually much more ready to depict the horrors of hell than the ineffable beauties of Paradise. To convey transcendence, ecstatic movement or a realm beyond time and space must be a challenge to the artist. What do these states look like?
Illustration of Canto 15 by Giovanni di Paolo. Dante and Beatice ascend to the sphere of the sun. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Moments of vision
Why then do we even attempt to describe the beauty that is indescribable when we know that it is so? This brings us back to reflection, and the memory of moments of vision that are gone. Such moments leave their trace and we are not as we were. We make them real to ourselves by trying to describe them – “I saw….”, “I felt…” – and in the process bring the indescribable into form, into time and space, and go on refashioning it in imagination so that it grows in us. And we may want to write or speak about it, at first hesitantly then perhaps more formally in poetry or art. This must surely be the process of all mystical art.
The extraordinary thing about Dante’s Paradiso is the sustained nature of this visionary poem – thirty-three cantos with nearly 150 lines in each. In the vision there is a long journey, much movement, and theological discourse – no mere visionary moment you might think. And yet all this may have sprung from one moment of mystical experience containing eternity and infinity. There is a sense of rising ecstasy in Dante’s claim:
rose higher and higher through the ray
of the exalted light that in itself is true.
Events of Time start forth & are conceived in such a Period,
Within a Moment, a Pulsation of the Artery
I start with a personal realisation. I was reading Paradiso in the good English translation from which I quote here, preparing sessions for a group exploring the Divine Comedy, and feeling: “Well, alright, but this is difficult.” My vaguely searching eye saw that years before, when I had been studying it under an Italian tutor, I had written ‘Italian!’ against a verse in Canto XXX. So I read it aloud to myself:
l’altro trïunfo del regno verace,
dammi virtù as dir com’ïo il vidi!
Dante's Paradiso, Canto XXX
We can find other beauties in Paradiso. There are Dante’s famous images, as when the blessed souls fly into the heart of the Celestial Rose…
deep into blossoms and, the very next, go back
to where their toil is turned to sweetness…
XXXI, 7 ff
Dante's Paradiso, Canto XXX
by love into a single volume bound,
the pages scattered through the universe.
There are many more things one could point to – the beauty of thought, or spiritual enquiry, of certain characters we meet, of nature and human nature (not forgetting the dark side of these). But one vital final connection by which we recognise beauty must be discerned: beauty is always connected with love – is always both the cause and effect of love. Love is Dante’s theme throughout the Divine Comedy. Even in Inferno we are aware of its universal presence: when Dante and his guide, Virgil, see the fallen rocks as they pass the Minotaur, Virgil remembers the time this landslide occurred,
so that I thought the universe felt love.
Inferno, XII, 40–41
Within Paradiso, love and beauty are threaded together with light. Dante is compelled by love to gaze on the beauty of Beatrice. (XXX, 13) The heaven of pure light is full of love. (XXX, 40) The love that calms this heaven prepares Dante for his next level of vision. (XXX, 52–54) He sees visages informed by heavenly love, resplendent with Another’s light. (XXXI, 49) It is love that, in the image mentioned above, binds the scattered pages. Love holds everything together.
And, finally, in the last stanzas of the poem, Dante’s vision of the beauty of the eternal Light itself surrenders into complete union with
Banner: Monika Beisner, illustration to Canto 5.
Our thanks to Monika Beisner for giving permission to use images of her paintings for this article, and to Julia Hartley for reading Canto XXX.
Other Sources (click to view)
The illustrations mentioned can be found in:
La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) by Dante Alighieri. Inferno | Purgatorio | Paradiso: English edition in three volumes translated by Robert and Jean Hollander with 100 illustrations by Monika Beisner. Edizioni Valdonega, Verona, 2007.
William Blake’s Divine Comedy Illustrations. Dover Publications Inc., New York, 2008.
Paradiso: The Illuminations to Dante’s Divine Comedy by Giovanni Di Paolo by John Wyndham, Sir Pope-Hennessy. Random House, London, 1993.
Sandro Botticelli: The Drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy by Schulz Altcappenber, Henry H Abrams, London, 2000.
With a background in adult education and overseas development issues, Barbara Vellacott now teaches poetry. She enjoys encouraging the reading of poetry – aloud wherever possible – as a form of personal and shared engagement with life, which is musical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Particular interests are William Blake and the English Romantic poets. In recent years the study of Ibn ʿArabī has also been a great inspiration. She lives just outside Oxford, UK.
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