Tuesday, March 5, 2013
The Nexus in the Eye: Physical and Spiritual Vision in Dante's Divina Commedia
THE NEXUS IN THE EYE: PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL VISION IN DANTE’S DIVINA COMMEDIA - John C. Hancock
Submitted to Brigham Young University in partial fulfillment
of graduation requirements for University Honors
Comparative Literature Department
Advisor: V.S. Benfell Honors Dean: George Tate
Signature: __________________ Signature: __________________
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. The Vision of Man__________________________________________ 6
Dante’s Optical Heritage______________________________________________ 6
Optics in the Early Works of Dante____________________________________ 11
Rime and Vita Nuova___________________________________________ 11
Il Convivio____________________________________________________ 16
Physical and Spiritual Vision in the Divina Commedia_____________________ 20
A Survey of Contemporary Literature on Medieval Optics and Dante____20
Fallen Vision_________________________________________________ 22
Chapter 2. The Vision of the Beloved___________________________________ 27
Mediated and Redeemed Vision_______________________________________ 27
Chapter 3. The Vision of God ________________________________________ 40
Thomas Aquinas and the Relationship between God and Man _____________ 40
Dante and the Relationship between God and Man_______________________ 45
Conclusion ________________________________________________________ 50
Significant Quotations / Table of Figures____________________________53 / 55
Works Cited and Consulted__________________________________________ 58
THE NEXUS IN THE EYE: PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL VISION IN DANTE’S DIVINA COMMEDIA
The recurring image of the eye in literature and in holy writ captured my attention and gradually induced me to begin work on an honors thesis. The more I investigated the subject, the more I discovered that I was not alone in this interest. Once, as part of an assignment for a pre-optometry class, I had the opportunity to peer through an ophthalmoscope to see the human iris up close. The optometrist told me to look well because, in his opinion, the iris is one of God’s most beautiful creations. From both scientific and artistic points of view, the eye is a creation of wonder and beauty.
While my fascination with the eye was growing, I began to meet people who had been deprived of the gift of physical vision. Nevertheless, I found within certain friends of the visually impaired community a rare spiritual vision. It is hard to define the idea of spiritual vision, except to say that perhaps it is connected to physical vision in a way that thoughts are connected to actions. Dante’s Divina Commedia underscores this and other important links between physical and spiritual vision.
I was impressed by the natural optimism of a woman who had every reason to curse life and despair, but who chose to enjoy life to the fullest. Helen Keller’s enthusiasm sparked a new resolve in me to see the world with spiritual eyes and to appreciate its abundant beauty. Countless other examples illustrate the relationship between physical and spiritual vision. Dante’s works, however, provide more than ample space for this illustration and for creative interpretation.
Throughout the thesis I focus on questions concerning the vision of man, the beloved, and God. Each individual vision is in some way connected to the others. The physical manifestations of spirituality often shine through the eye of the characters of the Divina Commedia. One of the main questions to unravel, then, is this: what is the nature of the connection between physical and spiritual vision? In the course of this study, I hope to express some of the reasons why vision is a metaphor of the human soul and why this metaphor is important for understanding life’s journey.
In many ways this project is meant to symbolize my gratitude for those people who have shared their unique visions with me; the countless individuals whose eyes shine with love and truth continue to inspire me.
I am thankful for my friend Louise Nicholson, whose cheerfulness and kindness manifest her acute spiritual vision. Her friendship teaches me to see the world in a new way. I thank Stan Benfell for working as my thesis advisor, and for guiding me through the fascinating paths of the medieval world. I would also like to thank Madison Sowell for his course on the Divina Commedia (Italian 460), and George Tate for his help as an appraiser of my work in the honors program.
I am indebted to the coordinators of the Honors Program, especially Carolyn Tuitupou and Heather Price, for their patience and encouragement. Daniel Johnson and Paul Rosenvall assisted me with the images and text formatting. They truly helped me to reach my goals.
I am most thankful for my family. I thank my brother Jared for helping me to formulate my ideas and organize the thesis. I am thankful for Nathaniel and Annie for their support and interest in my pursuits. I am thankful for my little sister Abigail who has spent countless hours drawing with me and keeping me company. I am thankful for my parents Ralph and Julie, without whom none of this would be possible, and whose love makes me feel like I can accomplish anything.
Finally, I dedicate this project to my future “Beatrice.”
The Nexus in the Eye: Physical and Spiritual Vision in Dante’s Divina Commedia
The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body is full of light: but when thine eye is evil, the body is also full of darkness” (Luke 11:34).
Tigers have a special layer of reflective material on their retina, the tapetum lucidum, which increases their potential for vision in dimly lit places. Under such conditions, the eyesight of tigers and other species of cats is six times better than that of the average human being, enabling them to locate and capture their prey. A wide variety of disciplines cover the study of the eye, from biology and physics to psychology and the humanities. Nevertheless, most of these studies overlook an important aspect of the eye, which is, the nature of the connection between physical and spiritual vision. Fortunately, a pack of intellectual tigers has peered into and illuminated this connection, leaving distinct traces to follow.
Jesus taught that the light of the body is the eye. This revelation from the Sermon on the Mount evokes centuries of scientific, philosophical, and religious inquiry about optics, the nature of the eye, and spiritual vision. In the Republic Plato considered the eye to be the most sun-like of the organs of the body (Plato 6.508b). In the opening lines of the Metaphysics, Aristotle deemed ocular perception to be the best analogy for how humans acquire and process knowledge (Aristotle 4). St. Augustine and other theologians incorporated classical concepts of vision into the Christian pursuit of truth and spiritual vision.
Knowledge of the eye has expanded in modern times. Although methods have changed considerably over the years, early studies in optics still hold literary and scientific merit. In the early fourteenth century, Dante Alighieri applied the science of optics to an allegory of man’s journey toward God. Dante’s synthesis of corporeal and incorporeal spheres in the Divina Commedia provides a solid framework for analyzing questions of vision. Dante sheds light specifically on the pivotal role of the eye in both physical and spiritual matters, but he also clarifies the medieval dialogue between reason and revelation. His epic poem reiterates the idea that the work of the eye is not uniquely physical or empirical.
One of Dante’s major influences, St. Thomas Aquinas, also wrote about light and the eye. Aquinas dedicated several sections of the Summa theologiae (12.1-12.13) and the Summa contra gentiles (51-62) to ruminations on the vision of God. In large measure, these sections prefigure Dante’s beatific vision in the Paradiso, whereas other portions of Aquinas’ works set the stage for the punishments of the Inferno. Dante may have derived much of his knowledge of the physics and physiology of the eye from other sources, such as Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Pecham, and Witelo, but the thought of Aquinas is indispensable for understanding Dante’s conception of vision, especially the vision of God. Likewise, the enduring impact of Dante’s thought is evidence for the validity of his characteristic blending of the material and the immaterial worlds.
In his book Medieval Optics and Theories of Light in the Works of Dante, Simon Gilson situates Dante in the tradition of optical scientists, philosophers, and theologians. Gilson exposes the roots of Dante’s fascination with light and perspective, while challenging common explanations of light imagery in the Commedia. In recent years, scholars have also questioned the assumption that the dichotomy between the body and the spirit has shaped medieval thought in the same way that it has shaped modern thought. One scholar in particular, Caroline Walker Bynum, has explored the doctrine of resurrection in medieval Christianity. In The Resurrection of the Body Bynum asserts (xviii)
it is only by studying eschatological concepts of the body that we see how imprecise is the boundary between spiritual and material in most Christian writing and how psychosomatic is the medieval understanding of self.
In The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis raises similar questions that pertain to the medieval understanding of self. He asks, for example, “How can the soul, conceived as an immaterial substance, act upon matter at all?” (166) Although the efforts of Lewis, Bynum, Gilson, and others have produced a more complete comprehension of medieval vision, certain elements of this vision require further elucidation. Indeed much research has been conducted in the field of medieval optics, but to my knowledge not enough has been said about why the eye is so often represented as the nexus between physical and spiritual realms.
This project represents the culmination of various analyses of the eye ranging from interpretations of literary symbolism to investigations of ophthalmic and optometric practices. The eye figures prominently in literature as well as science, yet relatively few scholars (such as Richard Kay, Robert Podurski, and Monica Rutledge) venture deep into the shady corners in between. Notwithstanding the paucity of research in this specific area, the works of Dante Alighieri do much to highlight the apparent duality of the eye, revealing links between the physical and spiritual worlds. A new optical exegesis of Dante’s works, especially the Divina Commedia, contributes to an evolving conception of medieval intellectual history and helps to explain why physical and spiritual territories intersect at the eye.
The eye, the link between what is seen and what is unseen, not only embodies thoughts, ideas, and internal images, but also actions, creations, and external images. Dante’s works, replete with optical allusions, extol the virtues of vision, light and the eye in connection with the acquisition of spiritual understanding, and demonstrate the power of the eye over physical reality. Various verses cover kernels of optical doctrines, like eyelids that cover luminous eyes, but Dante encourages his readers to look beneath this covering (DC 1.9.61-63). The veil of verses lifts as Dante the Pilgrim draws closer to God until ultimately the words cannot replace vision. Thus, the poet invites his audience to open their eyes and to experience a vision similar to his own (DC 3.10.7-8).
This thesis is divided into three main sections. The first section examines the vision of man, with Dante the Pilgrim as the quintessential model. It contains a brief review of the history of optical studies, as well as an overview of optics in Dante’s early works. It also includes a survey of contemporary literature on the subject of physical and spiritual vision in the works of Dante, particularly the Divina Commedia. The second section moves to a higher level, namely, the vision of the beloved. Dante’s vision of Beatrice magnifies the relationship between the physical and spiritual realms, opening the Pilgrim’s eyes to greater understanding and preparing them for the theophany. Building on the thought of Aquinas and the conclusion of the Paradiso, the third section ponders the vision of God in his essence. The vision of God represents the ultimate union, the point of light where the boundary between physical and spiritual becomes indistinguishable.
Several pieces of artwork complement the subject matter in each section. The images are intended to draw attention to the importance of vision in Dante’s works and to avert the eye from a perfunctory reading of text. Much of Dante’s poetry is already ecphrastic, but these original images speak to the eyes in a way that the text cannot. Of course, each drawing or painting represents only a single example out of a multitude of visual possibilities. In the process of exercising artistic vision, perhaps the reader will consider these possibilities and understand the text in a new and clearer light.
Chapter 1. The Vision of Man
Dante’s Optical Heritage
The human eye is a miracle, but it was not meant to remain entirely mysterious. The ineffable beauty of the eye may defy even the best aesthetic descriptions, but its structures and functions invite analysis and interpretation. In the introduction to his Metaphysics, Aristotle asserted that: “Above all the other senses, sight helps us to know things and reveals many distinctions” (4). The thirst for knowledge is inevitably accompanied by a desire to understand how knowledge is gained, and vision plays a decisive role in this process.
Epistemological questions such as those posed by Aristotle create a background for approaching ancient, medieval and Renaissance perceptions of the human eye. Even before Aristotle, however, Plato theorized that the eye functioned actively in the visual process, emitting rays of light that sensed objects much like fingers. In Book VI of the Republic, the character of Socrates agrees with his pupil Glaucon that the eye “is the most sun-formed of the organs of the senses” (Plato 188). Aristotle rejects Plato’s theory of eye beams in favor of an intermediary sort of vision (Lindberg, Science 338-42). Instead of the eye reaching out toward surrounding objects, those objects emanate images toward the eye. The images then intermingle with the medium between the object and the eye, and the eye receives the image in the visual spirits. The visual spirits carry the information to the mind for evaluation. Aristotle’s theory of vision does not conform to the atomistic theories of a totally passive eye that receives the emanations from objects, or eidola, nor does it embrace the platonic theories of an active eye that sends out beams like purified fire. Aristotle’s conduit theory, a veritable “golden mean” of optics, proved to be highly influential in subsequent currents of optical research.
Eventually the ideas of the Greek philosophers reached the great libraries of the world, namely the library of Alexandria, and from there the texts were copied and translated. Only a few decades before Plato, the great physician Hippocrates began studying the anatomy and physiology of the eye. In his writings Hippocrates mentions the anatomy of animal eyes, but his knowledge of the human eye was limited. The term ophthalmia was used to describe eye diseases and inflammation. Not long after Hippocrates, another Greek philosopher produced a monumental work on the anatomy of the eye. Herophilus wrote a book called The Book of the Eye, which no longer exists except in fragments through other writings. Herophilus probably worked by dissection and by graphic depictions of the human body, but his ideas are preserved mainly through the records of another great luminary of antiquity. Claudius Galen (AD 130-200) was born in what is modern-day Turkey, but he traveled, studied and practiced medicine in Alexandria and Rome (Albert 26). Galen, who was greatly influenced by both Herophilus and Plato, did not perform dissections, except on cattle and monkeys, but he outlined the three-layered structure of the eye, including the retina and optic nerve, the aqueous and vitreous chambers, and the ocular muscles and the lens. Although his anatomical system contained many errors, Galen became one of the principal authorities on optics in the Middle Ages (Oyster 80). His theories on vision closely resemble those of Aristotle. On the other hand, Galen argued that a small portion of visual spirit exits the eye in order to transform the surrounding air and produce vision. Thus, Galen’s idea of vision is still more active than that of Aristotle, but less active than that of Plato (Lindberg, Science 341). Of course, the Ancient Egyptian and Chinese philosophers and physicians also conducted important studies on the human eye.
In the ninth century A.D. Arab philosophers incorporated Galen’s discoveries into their own research on the eye. Perhaps because of the high incidence of eye-disease in the Near East, the practice of ophthalmology became a distinguished pursuit. Abu Yusuf Ya qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi wrote a work entitled, in its Latin translation, De aspectibus. His contemporary, Hunain ibn Ishak (Joannitius, AD 808-873), was one of the first to diagram the various structures of the eye based on Galen’s work. He was a Christian physician from Baghdad who wrote Ten Treatises on the Eye (Albert 29). His illustrations reveal several misunderstandings, such as a spherical lens and a chamber containing the “visual spirit.” This latter invention reflects the influence of the Greeks and the belief that an ether-like substance carried information from the eye to the mind. The great mathematician Ibn Al-Haytham (Alhazen of Bosra, AD 965-1038) simplified the work of his predecessors by subtracting the visual spirit and adding concepts of refraction and geometry, inherited from Euclid (Optika, 280 BC) and Ptolemy (Optics, 2nd century AD), to the study of the eye. As soon as Alhazen’s works were translated into Latin, they were adopted and elaborated by several scholars of the Middle Ages, namely Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Pecham, and Witelo (Oyster 81). Other Arab scholars who influenced thinking about the eye include Ali ibn Isa, Ammar, Abu Ruh, Gafiqi, Khalifah, Silah al-Din, and ibn Sina of Avicenna (Albert 31).
The transition between early medieval Arabian optics and late Renaissance optics and anatomy of the eye is full of complicated twists and turns. Aristotle became the primary authority in medieval intellectual circles even though relatively few works of the Greek philosophers were available in direct translation. Much of the knowledge of Ancient Greece that reached Western Europe was filtered through Galen and Arabic sources. In general, optical theories followed three major tracks. First, great minds of the Middle Ages followed the Aristotelian concept that the medium between the object and the eye determined the nature of vision. Some believed instead, following more closely the ideas of Euclid and Ptolemy, that the eye emitted a ray or several rays of light that struck the object and then returned to the eye. The intromissive theory held that objects radiated tiny particles that entered the eye in the same shape of the object. These three theories, delineated by the modern historian David C. Lindberg, are not meant to be mutually exclusive. Students of the eye in antiquity and the Middle Ages often developed a combination of these and other theories to form their own theory. The purposes of their research, whether philosophical, mathematical or anatomical, often determined their affinity toward a particular area of optics (Albert 36).
Albertus Magnus established the authority of Aristotle in every field, including the field of optics (Lindberg, Science 350). Albertus Magnus taught Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian, thus promulgating Aristotelian optical theories into the body of medieval Christian doctrine. The admixture of Aristotelian philosophy, filtered through centuries of Greek and Arabic commentaries, and contemporary Christian discourse produced a remarkable effect on optics in late thirteenth century Europe. When the Classical and Christian eye collided, a new sort of vision emerged, one that is perhaps best understood through the eyes of Dante Alighieri.
Although he is primarily known to the world as a great poet and father of the Italian language, Dante Alighieri of Firenze (1265-1321) was also an avid student of optics. In his quest to create a great compendium of knowledge, following in the footsteps of Aquinas, the science of optics occupies a significant portion of his Divina Commedia. Dante lived on the cusp of the fourteenth century, and drew from multiple fonts of knowledge to complete his allegory of man’s journey toward the beatific vision. Dante’s heritage includes not only Christian theologians such as St. Augustine and Aquinas, but also the pagan poets and philosophers. In this way Dante’s syncretism spills over into his descriptions of light and the eye; optics is both a physical and a metaphysical science. Dante’s major opus communicates such complex ideas through poetry instead of scientific prose, but the poetry itself often borders on the scientific. Although it is difficult to trace the exact roots of his ideas on optics (or perspectiva, as the science came to be known in the Middle Ages), scholars suggest that Dante probably encountered Aristotelian discourses on optics through the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas and his teacher Albert the Great. Dante and the poets of the dolce stil novo demonstrate through their poetry that they knew and understood the works of Alhazen as well (Ardizzone 661).
The debate over Dante’s influences will continue, but Dante certainly contemplated the importance of the eye and of vision in a way that combined both philosophy and religion. Therefore, the works of Dante supply an ideal set of tools for investigating the connection between physical and spiritual vision. Indeed the distinctions between different areas of knowledge (and different types of vision) are often merely modern constructions that have comparatively little bearing on ancient or medieval thought processes. In the Divina Commedia as well as in earlier works such as the Convivio, Dante labored to show the importance of optics as a scientia media, a middle ground, not only between mathematics and physics, but also between the physical and spiritual realms. Although his works do not directly relate to Renaissance studies of the anatomy and physiology of the eye, Dante’s theories of vision represent an important juncture in the development of optics because they synthesize and allegorize the ideas of the great philosophers who preceded him.
Optics in the Early Works of Dante
Rime and Vita Nuova
Because of Dante’s noble status, he was able to procure the best possible education in Florence at that time. He was a student of the illustrious Brunetto Latini, and he learned the art of rhetoric and writing in Latin. Early on Dante discovered a talent for poetry and a love for the art of rhyme, “l’arte del dire parole per rima” (VN III). This discovery inspired him to follow the paths that had been paved by the scuola siciliana and poets such as Guido Guinizzelli (1230 c. -1276?) and Guido Cavalcanti (1259 c. -1300) (Getto 39). Dante’s early lyrics already demonstrate an interest in the eye and the process of vision, especially as they relate to the love of Beatrice.
Between 1293 and 1295 Dante compiled and commented on a series of rhymes that pertained specifically to Beatrice (Getto 49). He named the compilation, in honor of Beatrice’s revitalizing power, the Vita Nuova, or New Life. The Vita Nuova is both an autobiographical and allegorical masterpiece, but it still fell short of what Dante hoped to write in praise of the deceased Beatrice: “spero di dicer di lei quello che mai non fue detto d’alcuna” (VN XLII). Thus, the Vita Nuova is only a shadow of Dante’s new vision, the novella vista, which comes forth in the Divina Commedia.
The first direct reference to eyes in the Vita Nuova occurs in Chapter II when Dante meets Beatrice for the first time. Beatrice appeared to Dante’s eyes (“quando a li miei occhi apparve prima la gloriosa donna de la mia mente”) when they were both only nine years old. Significantly, Dante uses a passive construction to describe his first encounter with Beatrice; he did not actively see Beatrice. Rather, her beauty acted upon his youthful and inexperienced eyes. The first vision of Beatrice seems to conform to the atomistic theory propounded in the fifth century B.C. by Leucippus of Miletus. According to Leucippus, light causes minute particles called eidola (later called simulacra or species) to emanate from objects and then enter into the eye (Park 35). This sort of vision is the precursor to other theories of intromission, and it corresponds to Dante’s passivity, but it appears to contradict Dante’s strong Aristotelian and Islamic intellectual heritage. In other words, Dante’s vision in the Vita Nuova should not be a completely passive experience, but a combination of active and passive, extramissive and intromissive vision.
Possible explanations for Dante’s original passivity find expression in the Divina Commedia, in which the Pilgrim gradually increases the active power of his eyes through stages of blinding flashes and healing recoveries. Perhaps the nine-year-old eyes at the beginning of the Vita Nuova simply lack the strength to view actively. At such a young age Dante is completely dominated by a god that is stronger than he. The God of Love conquers his eyes, or more specifically, his visual spirits. On another occasion Dante recognizes Beatrice in a crowd of women, and his visual spirits are almost destroyed by her radiance. The visual spirits continue to operate, but outside of their instruments, that is, outside of the eyes (VN XIV). Note that the eyes are instruments. Under the influence of Beatrice’s shining beauty Dante’s whole body, especially his “instruments,” need to be transfigured in order to restore vision and equilibrium. Dante often returns to the theme of transfiguration in the Divina Commedia. (See, for example, the neologism trasumanar in DC 3.1.70) From these and other references it appears that Dante ascribes to visual theories popularized by Galen that a refined substance in the eye, a visual spirit, exits the pupil and transforms the surrounding air. Aristotle and other ancient philosophers were terse in their descriptions of the actual mechanisms of vision, but in general it was accepted that something between the eye and the object must facilitate vision. Visual spirits fit conveniently into this gap.
Still speaking of the first vision of Beatrice, Dante declares that all of his senses were overcome, and he began to marvel. In particular, the poet mentions the effects of the apparition on the visual spirits, li spiriti del viso. Of course, the preeminence of eye imagery in poetry did not begin with Dante. Dante was influenced by the poet Guido Cavalcanti, who also incorporated the theory of visual spirits, known earlier as pneuma, or breath, into his love poetry (Gilson, Medieval 40). Historian David Park explains:
Spirit is a fluid related to the ether of which stars are made, refined from blood and carried through the body by nerves and veins. It is so thin that it is almost like a vapor, so volatile that no one need be surprised if it does not show up under dissection. (Park 112)
The Vita Nuova emphasizes the phenomenon of visual spirits, but the actual composition of the spirits remains highly enigmatic. Another optical precursor to Dante, Robert Grosseteste (1170-1253), considered that the sensible spirits resemble and receive power from light. The nature of visual spirits plays a fundamental role in understanding why the eye is the bridge between the physical and spiritual realms. The eye, like the visual spirits that it contains, is not completely physical, nor is it completely spiritual. Somehow it is both.
The frequent occurrence of dreams in the Vita Nuova and Dante’s later works also demonstrates the difficulty of explaining the process of vision. After pondering the virtue of Beatrice’s greeting upon their second encounter, Dante falls into a deep dream in which Love personified holds Beatrice in his arms and forces her to eat Dante’s heart. Dante’s dreams often include the qualifying verb parea because the vision seems to take place outside of reality. Again Dante blurs the line between physical and spiritual, between real and unreal. Soon after his macabre and erotic dream, Dante finds Beatrice sitting in a church. He did not want to give the impression that he was staring directly at Beatrice. Fortunately for him another gentlewoman sat in the line (retta linea) of his vision so that it appeared that Dante was staring at her instead. The position of this screen-woman (donna schermo) indicates the author’s familiarity with Euclidian geometric optics, a science that developed the idea of the visual cone. The visual cone converges at the pupil and spreads its base upon the object of vision. Objects positioned in a straight line perpendicular to the eye are the most visible. Dante repeats this concept in Chapter II of the Convivio: “E qui si vuol sapere che avvegna che più cose ne l’occhio a un’ora possano venire, veramente quella che viene per retta linea ne la punta de la pupilla, quella veramente si vede” (2.9.4).
In Chapter IX of the Vita Nuova Dante laments the death of his beloved Beatrice, and the God of Love appears to him again. This time Love moves his eyes, forcing him to look at the ground (“guardava la terra”), or turning them toward a clear stream. In the Divina Commedia, Dante and other characters will repeat eye motions similar to those of the God of Love. Although Dante can move his eyes, looking downward in shame, sideways in searching, or upward in hope for salvation, his eyes are still complacent in comparison with the eyes of his beloved. In the infant stages of his new life, and in the sub-Empyrean world, Dante has power to receive light through his eyes, but unlike Beatrice, he has no power to bestow light upon others.
As shall be shown in more detail hereafter, Beatrice wields a visual power to reflect and radiate the light of God. Dante describes her power, hinting at the platonic visual ray, in the first two lines of his sonnet Ne li occhi porta: “Ne li occhi porta la mia donna Amore, / per che si fa gentil ciò ch’ella mira” (VN XXI). Beatrice ennobles and beautifies everything she sees. Her glance causes hearts to tremble. She attracts the gaze of every onlooker. She carries love, not just visual spirits, in her eyes. Love, an ostensibly spiritual power, provokes physical as well as spiritual reactions.
The weakness of Dante’s eyes in contrast with the strength of Beatrice’s eyes underscores the fact that the vision of man has been, and always will be, flawed. Initially, Dante does not have complete control over his own eyes. In fact, his eyes lead him into various temptations that impede his progress, namely the sin of lust: “Io venni a tanto per la vista di questa donna, che li miei occhi si cominciaro a dilettare troppo di vederla” (VN XXXVII). At this point Dante engages in a futile discussion with his cursed eyes (maladetti occhi), and blames them for the pain that he
feels. He recognizes the weakness of his eyes when confronted with Beatrice’s beauty, drawing an analogy from Aristotle: “con ciò sia cosa che lo nostro intelletto s’abbia a quelle benedette anime sì come l’occhio debole a lo sole: e ciò dice lo Filosofo nel secondo de la Metafisica” (VN XLI).
The conclusion of the Vita Nuova reinforces the theme of weakness in human eyes while praising the power of the eyes of the beloved Beatrice. Whereas Beatrice looks continually and actively into the eyes of God, Dante can only passively hope to turn and glimpse the glory of the woman whom God has chosen.
The sorrow inflicted by Beatrice’s death prompted the poet to seek consolation in philosophy. Simultaneously he sought to elevate the Italian vernacular. At the conclusion of his next great work in the vernacular, the Convivio, Dante makes a prophetic announcement to justify a linguistic revolution. This announcement foreshadows an advance in the vision of man, one that attributes to man a certain power to exude light: “Questo sarà luce nuova, sole nuovo, lo quale surgerà là dove l’usato tramonterà e darà lume a coloro che sono in tenebre e in oscuritade, per lo usato sole che a loro non luce” (1.13.12). De vulgari eloquentia established essentially the same prophecy in Latin instead of Italian. Both works exhibit Dante’s thirst for light and knowledge, but the Convivio addresses more specifically the problem of vision and theories of optics.
The Convivio apparently was written between 1304 and 1307. By that time Dante was already a political exile. Despite its erudite philosophical subject matter, the work was not intended for the scholars of Florence, but for the intelligent and noble men who lacked a scholarly education. In her work Love at First Sight, Dana Elizabeth Stewart asserts that the Convivio follows Cavalcanti’s tradition of combining optical theory with love poetry. Like the Vita Nuova, the Convivio presents an active female vision in contrast with the more passive vision of a male admirer. Dante describes the process of vision in both poetry and prose. The examples of Dante’s optical theory set forth in the Convivio presage even bolder doctrines in the Divina Commedia.
The original plan for the philosophical work was to include fourteen commented canzoni, of which Dante completed only the first four. Although the Convivio remains incomplete, Dante expounds several philosophical doctrines that highlight his sense of vision and the virtues of the contemplative life. Applying the methods of Aquinas, Dante provides four interpretive keys to his works, namely the literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical meanings. When used in order, these keys, particularly the first two, open up the treasures hidden beneath the cloak of poetic imagination (“che si nasconde sotto ’l manto di queste favole”) (2.2.2-15). Dante repeats the story of his first vision of Beatrice, and once again he alludes to the visual spirits. This time however, the visual spirits become friends to the beloved woman (“che li spiriti de li occhi miei a lei si fero massimamente amici”) (2.2.2). The original feeling of fear in the face of such glory gives way to a sweet sense of mutual affection. Perhaps the strong spirits of Beatrice’s eyes commingle with and soothe the weaker spirits of Dante’s eyes.
When Dante receives the vision of Beatrice, he looks directly at her, and she looks directly at him. The poets of the dolce stil novo placed emphasis on the converging glances of two sets of eyes because Love is more apt to shoot his arrows when eyes meet. Given Dante’s knowledge of visual spirits, the question arises as to whether Love’s arrows are physical or spiritual entities. The eyes of the lover seem to bond with the eyes of the beloved both physically and spiritually. Dante certainly believes that man is composed of two parts, body and spirit, but the two parts are so tightly intertwined that it is hard to know where one ends and the other begins, especially in matters of the eye.
The first book of the Convivio condemns, among other things, the vice of spiritual blindness (“cechitade di discrezione”) (1.11.2). Dante contends that the eye is a microcosm of man, manifesting the same physical and spiritual dichotomy. The physical eye, as he explains, learns to differentiate and discern exterior phenomena, whereas the spiritual eye discerns the order and teleological relationship of the phenomena. In this way, the spiritual eye is superior to the physical eye and can be equated with the faculty of reason.
The distinction between the physical and the spiritual eye becomes more complex with the introduction of new objects and new sources of vision, namely the vision of the beloved. Revelation, the vision that combines and surpasses physical and rational capacities, prepares Dante for the final vision of God. The Convivio alludes to other optical marvels that figure into the great allegory of the Divina Commedia such as the optic nerve (2.9.5), blinding light (2.13.16), Dante’s own weak eyes (3.9.15-16) and the eye as a window (3.10.4).
Monarchia, a brief treatise written in Latin, explains the relationship between political and ecclesiastical government. Although the subject matter does not apply directly to a discussion of optics, Dante includes several references to light and the eye that provide interesting comparisons to his other works. Furthermore, since Dante began writing the Divina Commedia before he finished Monarchia, the two works overlap considerably.
Dante’s central claim is that the papacy and the emperor both receive light from God to accomplish their similar yet separate duties. The two rulers he compares to two suns, reigning simultaneously in their separate spheres. It would not be too gross of an abstraction to compare the worldly monarch to the physical eye and the papal monarch to the spiritual eye, because like the physical and spiritual eye they both receive their light from God, who is the absolute monarch of heaven and earth.
Dante pushes the eyes of his mind, the oculos mentis, into profound depths to discover the utopian equilibrium of monarchical power. He avows that the problems of government are resolved in two ways: by the light of human reason and the light of divine authority. In the second chapter of Monarchia Dante insists upon the cooperation of the two lights which, as shall be shown in greater detail, relates to the unity of the physical and spiritual eye, as well as the balance of reason and revelation: “Veritas autem questionis patere potest non solum lumine rationis humane, sed etiam radio divine auctoritatis: que duo cum simul ad unum concurrunt, celum et terram simul assentire necesse est” (2.1.7).
In Monarchia Dante also emphasizes the necessity of understanding God’s will, which is invisible. Nevertheless, by quoting from Paul’s epistle to the Romans (1: 20), he explains that invisible things are most often understood by means of visible things, which are the works of God. Toward the conclusion of the treatise Dante announces two aspects of God’s will for mankind: happiness in this life and the happiness of eternal life. Once again, this binary system reflects not only the similarities between the terrestrial and eternal worlds, but also the inevitable physical and spiritual overlapping. Finally, eternal happiness consists in the vision of God, which vision is unattainable without the help of divine light, lumine divino.
Physical and Spiritual Vision in the Divina Commedia
A Survey of Contemporary Literature on Medieval Optics and Dante
David C. Lindberg has conducted an array of studies on the history of science, ranging from Aristotle to Kepler and beyond. Dante plays only a minor role in these studies, but other scholars such as Simon A. Gilson have benefited from Lindberg’s detailed research in the history of optics. Building upon the background furnished by Lindberg, Gilson categorizes and reconfigures Dante’s optical heritage to support the hypothesis that Dante was not, as many have supposed, at the forefront of thirteenth-century thought on optics. Gilson argues instead that Dante relied upon a more general body of medieval sources to create an innovative poetic vision. Rather than dwell extensively on Dante’s intellectual heritage, Gilson focuses on Dante’s unique, creative vision. In a similar vein, the present thesis emphasizes Dante’s personal inspiration and innovation in binding physical and spiritual matters with the symbol of the eye.
While Gilson recognizes the medieval interest in light, vision, and the eye, his studies leave open the issue of the role of light in intellection, as well as the nature of the connection between physical and spiritual vision. Monica Rutledge fills in some of the lacunae in Gilson’s research by pointing out “the strong physical foundations of the spiritual light-tower Dante raised to highest heaven” (Rutledge 151). Moreover, Rutledge indicates an important motivation behind the growing interest in optics during the thirteenth century. “To study optics,” she writes, “was to come to a closer knowledge of how God operates in the world” (Rutledge 152). Thus Dante’s insistence upon a scientia media pertains as much to the relationship between reason and revelation as it does to the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds.
Siding with Alessandro Parronchi, Rutledge concludes that Dante probably drew inspiration from the fathers of “light-metaphysics” such as Robert Grosseteste. Gilson, on the other hand, prefers to trace Dante’s main optical inspiration to theological writers such as Aquinas. Although Rutledge succeeds in her review of the physical components of Dante’s optics and cosmology, she underestimates the influence of Aquinas (favoring the perspective of Roger Bacon, and later John Pecham and Witelo). Nevertheless, her assumptions lead her to a most convincing observation:
The eye and the brain form together the meeting-place between the corporeal individual and two sorts of external information: sensory news from this world, and intellectual or spiritual intuitions from God. I would also emphasize something that the more metaphysical interpreters tend to forget: how very firmly, clearly and logically Dante saw the material and the spiritual realms to be linked: there was no great jump into the void between the two; nor is either to be scanted for beauty and worth. (Rutledge 153)
Rutledge solves some of the central mysteries of Dante’s optical theories, but her notion of a “meeting place” deserves further attention. Among other scholars, Maria Luisa Ardizzone, D. E. Stewart, Patrick Boyde, Robert Podurski, and James Gaffney also contribute significantly to the conversation concerning optics in Dante’s Divina Commedia. More recently the medieval scholar Richard Kay has devised a plan of Dante’s Empyrean modeled on the anatomy of the eye. Kay concludes that God’s position in the Empyrean corresponds to the position of the lens in the eye (52). Dante the Pilgrim’s final vision of God relates to a phenomenon of reflection that scholars of the medieval optical tradition referred to as the aranea or spider’s web (Kay 58). Kay combines vital knowledge of medieval optics and anatomy of the eye with a creative vision of Dante’s Empyrean to form a unique understanding of man’s relationship to God. He acknowledges, “the perception that the human image is somehow related to that of God forms the climactic revelation of the Comedy (Par.33.130-32), for the pilgrim sees the reflection of his own image” (Kay 63). Kay’s research allows for a much larger application of Dante’s optics, stretching the possibilities of interpretation of the Commedia to cosmic proportions.
The vision of man is fallen. At some point in his life, Dante the Pilgrim drifts from the path of righteousness, losing himself in a dark wood, a “selva oscura.” The scarcity of light in this forest inhibits physical vision just as sin obstructs spiritual vision; thus distorted vision can result from aberrations within or outside of the eye (Gilson 89). Fortunately, the Pilgrim receives guidance to redirect his sight toward God and to overcome the effects of sin. He learns gradually to discern between good and evil. His eyes begin to seek the light of truth. On the other hand, the eyes of the condemned souls in the Inferno bespeak the torments that result from sin and the harsh consequences of spiritual blindness.
The word occhio occurs frequently throughout the Divina Commedia, eighteen times in the singular form in the Inferno alone. In the first canticle it also occurs forty-nine times in the plural form, occhi. The words vedere and luce cover even more terrain. Such word choices and other visual cues magnify the reality of Dante’s experience. One of the most recognizable features of almost any figure in the Divina Commedia is their eye.
The journey from sin to repentance and finally to salvation illustrates the transformation of the soul, but on a microcosmic scale this journey is visible through a change in the eyes. As Dante notes in the Convivio, the eyes are windows to the spirit. In order for that spirit to see and be seen clearly, the eyes must be purified and pointed toward the supreme source of light. Thus the Pilgrim’s eyes undergo several phases of purification and positioning until they overcome their fallen nature. The process of transfiguration occurs in both the physical and the spiritual eye; the inner eye is healed, and light dispels darkness from the surrounding environment.
Although the Pilgrim’s eyes are too weak to emit any beams of light, he possesses a certain amount of control over their movement. That is to say that the movement of his eyes reveals something about the state of his soul. Besides the fact that the Poet is recounting the story, the first indication that the Pilgrim is destined to overcome the trials of hell can be seen in his eye movements. Exiting the dark valley, the Pilgrim reaches the foot of a hill, whereupon he turns his eyes upward. The upward gaze is almost always a gesture that signifies hope.
It is not easy for the Pilgrim to maintain the same level of hope during his voyage. Quite often he turns his eyes downward in shame or in spite (17.120), or to the side (6.91), or backward in fear (1.26). For example, when he desires to understand why the souls are so anxious to cross the river, his guide responds curtly that the answer will be clear when they arrive on the banks of the Acheronte. The Pilgrim, with shameful and downcast eyes (“occhi vergognosi e bassi”), ceases to speak (3.79).
Other obstacles blur the vision of Dante the Pilgrim. At the sight of the metamorphosis of the Florentine thieves, the Pilgrim’s eyes are confused (“li occhi miei confusi”) (25.145). Occasionally he stares fixedly at some object in hell, trying to comprehend it (“ficcai li occhi per lo cotto aspetto”) (15.26). As darkness thickens and sights become more and more unfamiliar, distance also impedes the Pilgrim’s vision. Dante most likely obtained information on optical illusions caused by distance from commentaries on Aristotle’s De anima (Gilson 94). Nearing the valley of the giants, the Pilgrim seems to behold a city of towers. Virgil corrects him, advising him to draw closer to the towers before judging, “Tu vedrai ben, se tu là ti congiungi, / quanto ‘l senso s’inganna di lontano; / però alquanto più te stesso pungi” (31.25-27). As he approaches the towers, his vision improves:
Come quando la nebbia si dissipa,
lo sguardo a poco a poco raffigura
ciò che cela ‘l vapor che l’aere stipa,
così forando l’aura grossa e scura,
più e più appressando ver’ la sponda,
fuggiemi errore e cresciemi paura. (31.34-39)
The illusion of the towers in the Inferno mirrors the Pilgrim’s entire voyage, emphasizing the relationship between distance and accurate sense perception. The more the Pilgrim approaches God, the more accurate is his vision, as if a veil were being lifted from his eyes. At the beginning of the voyage, Dante the Pilgrim relies greatly upon Virgil’s vision. He asks Virgil to describe things that are too dark for him to discern: “ma li occhi vivi / non poteano ire al fondo per lo scuro” (24.70). Virgil directs the Pilgrim’s vision (“Or drizza il nerbo del viso su per quella schiuma anticha”) (9.73), and he constantly urges the Pilgrim to lift his vision beyond the darkness of hell.
Dante the Pilgrim praises Virgil’s vision: “O sol che sani ogne vista turbata” (11.91), but even Virgil’s vision is limited (9.4-6). The Pilgrim’s vision differs from the vision of the other souls that he encounters in hell because he is not yet deceased. Furthermore, his vision is superior because he enjoys the added perspective of the poet Virgil. In a more removed sense, Dante the Pilgrim can see beyond even Virgil’s view because heavenly messengers assist him. For the most part, the Pilgrim exhibits the same passive sort of vision that characterizes the figure of Dante in the Vita Nuova. The first appearance of Virgil resembles Dante’s first vision of Beatrice because an image acts upon the Pilgrim’s eyes: “dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto / chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco” (1.63-64).
When the Pilgrim describes the horrible sights of hell, boiling blood, the fiery demons with whips, a three-headed Satan and the like, the reader can safely assume that the account is fictional. When the Poet claims to recount the journey as an eyewitness (“o mente che scrivesti ciò ch’io vidi”) (2.8), the fiction slowly begins to fade into reality.
The eye is an organ of light and vision, but hell is a region of physical and spiritual darkness. Ironically, some rays of light, the light of Christ in the harrowing of hell, Dante and Virgil’s light, and the light of the three blessed women, still penetrate into the abyss. The vast majority of hell is composed of sinners who have lost the light of their eyes, the gift of intellect (“c’hanno perduto il ben de l’intelletto”) (3.18), but the souls of the great thinkers, those who lived by the light of reason, still emit a faint glow (4.121-51). Nevertheless, most of the souls are in one way or another blind. Hell is described as a blind prison (“cieco carcere”) (10.58), a blind world (“cieco mondo”) (4.13), (27.25), and the sinners there live a blind life (“cieca vita”) (3.47). Their eyes were often the culprits of their sins, such as Francesca da Rimini, and their eyes reveal their punishments. Finally, the eyes of the beasts of hell burn with unnatural color and ardor, Cerberus has red eyes (6.16), Caron has eyes like cinders (“occhi di bragia”) (3.109), and Satan cries out of six ghastly eyes (“con sei occhi piangea”) (34.53). Tears abound in the Inferno, and the paragon of pain is Satan’s freezing tears.
The faltering vision, the feeble eyes and the thick darkness cause Dante the Pilgrim to stumble through the circles of hell, until he and his guide finally emerge to see the stars again. The light of reason, personified by Virgil, is sufficient to lead Dante the Pilgrim out of damnation, but a new light and a new vision are necessary to carry him to salvation.
Chapter 2. The Vision of the Beloved
Mediated and Redeemed Vision
The light of reason guides Dante the Pilgrim safely through the underworld. Of course, the light of reason is merely a ray emanating from a greater source of light, the light of revelation, whose power can be felt even in the dark recesses of hell. Virgil announces the purpose of the treacherous journey by recalling the glorious trinity of women and the origin of the Pilgrim’s mission:
Io era tra color che son sospesi,
e donna mi chiamò beata e bella,
tal che di comandare io la richiesi.
Lucevan li occhi suoi piú che la stella. (1.2.52-55)
Beatrice goes on to explain to Virgil how she received her calling from Lucia, who had received her calling from Maria, the mother of God. As Dante the Pilgrim ascends the mountain of Purgatorio, the light emanating from the three holy women grows stronger. The fountainhead of this light is God. God’s light has the power to redeem the fallen vision of man, but usually this light reaches man’s eyes through a mediator. Jesus Christ is the true mediator between God and man, the link between physical and spiritual vision, but Dante filters the light of Christ through three blessed women, Maria, Lucia and Beatrice. The combined vision of the female trinity characterizes the vision of the beloved, which, as a symbol of Christ’s vision, has the power to enlighten, purify and save.
Maria is the closest to God because she is the mother of God (3.4.30). She is the rose where the Divine Word took upon himself a body of flesh and blood (3.23.73). In ecstasy, Dante catches a glimpse of Maria and Christ as they descend into the midst of the blessed souls in the heaven of the fixed stars. Beatrice describes Christ as the true connection between heaven and earth (3.23.37-39), but Maria is positioned directly underneath the rays of her divine son. Beatrice prods Dante the Pilgrim to look beyond her in order to perceive Maria, and the light overcomes the Pilgrim’s eyes until he can no longer follow Maria’s ascension. He sees only the outstretched arms of the blessed souls.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux also instructs Dante the Pilgrim to look upward toward Maria because she is the last great vision that precedes the vision of the Holy Trinity (3.31.113-17). As the last step in the progression toward God, Maria is not only close to God in spatial proximity, she is also the being who most resembles Christ (3.32.85-87). Maria’s resemblance to her Son solidifies the relationship between physical and spiritual vision by showing that in order to see Christ, one must also be like Christ. To draw near to the Divine Center of the cosmos, the “Punto solo” (3.33.94), is tantamount to obtaining a personal imprint of Divine Image. Finally, St. Bernard leads Dante the Pilgrim in a prayer to Maria that enables him to pierce deeper into the beatific vision.
Maria represents an important link between Dante the Pilgrim and the final vision of God. She is the instrument of the miracle of the Virgin Birth and the incarnation of Christ, and as such, she occupies an exalted position in the heavens. From this exalted position, Maria sees more, and sees more clearly, than any other being besides the members of the Trinity.
The modern notion of hell as a place void of light can be traced etymologically to the Anglo-Saxon verb helan, meaning to cover or to conceal. Contrasting images of light and darkness in the Divina Commedia cover or conceal symbols of physical as well as spiritual conditions. In many respects even Santa Lucia, who is one of the brightest figures of the poem, remains hidden beneath obscure shades of interpretation (1.9.62-63).
In the Divina Commedia Santa Lucia, like Maria before her and Beatrice whom she sends, connects the physical world to the spiritual world. In his essay "Santa Lucia as Patroness of Sight: Hagiography, Iconography, and Dante," Anthony K. Cassell sheds light on the role of Santa Lucia in the Inferno, and provides insights into a deeper understanding of the entire Divina Commedia. With convincing evidence, Cassell contends that Santa Lucia represents the light of grace that would save the roaming Dante. It is commonly supposed that Dante himself venerated Lucia, and that Lucia was indeed a protector of sight, but Cassell broadens the argument to include more crucial questions about the underlying purposes of Santa Lucia in the Divina Commedia. For example, what is Santa Lucia’s relationship to Dante the Pilgrim? Why did Dante the Poet place Santa Lucia in the trinity of glorious women? Moreover, how does Santa Lucia embody the relationship between physical and spiritual vision in the Divina Commedia?
History and mythology help to respond to such questions and begin to uncover the mystery of the relationship between the solid and ethereal worlds of the Divina Commedia. The clues found in the different accounts of the martyrdom of Santa Lucia vary greatly, but a few essential components of the story may be established. To begin with, Lucia lived in the city of Siracusa during the reign of Diocleziano around the end of the third century A.D. She converted to Christianity after her mother was miraculously healed at the tomb of Sant’Agata of Catania, and it was revealed to her that she was destined to become the patron saint of Siracusa. Upon discovering her vows of chastity and her devotion to Christ, Lucia’s promised spouse denounced her to the prefect, who in turn condemned the virgin to death. She was first subjected to the vile sexual tortures of a brothel. After resisting this punishment and miraculously surviving the flames at the stake, Santa Lucia died a martyr’s death by the sword. Numerous legends have sprung out of the story of Santa Lucia, some of which correlate well with Dante’s poetry. In the Inferno and throughout the Divina Commedia Santa Lucia is both literally and metaphorically a savior.
The first noticeable connection between Santa Lucia and her role as a savior is found in the etymology of the name Lucia. In direct opposition to hell, a place where there is no light or where light is covered up, Lucia is a luminous being. The name Lucia derives from the Latin noun lux, which means light. For this and other reasons, Santa Lucia came to be known as the patroness of sight and the “grazia illuminante soprannaturalemente l’intelligenza.” As the patroness of sight, Santa Lucia's role is central to the Divina Commedia because she emanates both physical and spiritual light. It is she, along with Virgil and two other blessed women, who redeem the lost Dante from the darkness of hell. In fact, Beatrice describes Lucia as the “nimica di ciascun crudele” (1.2.100). Sent from God, Lucia’s light overcomes the darkness of Dite.
Dante and others honor Santa Lucia for her powers of spiritual discernment, but other reasons exist for her popularity. Besides combating evil and graciously bestowing spiritual vision upon her disciples, Santa Lucia possesses the power to correct physical diseases of the eye. This is significant in light of the fact that Dante himself suffered from eye troubles. Perhaps as much as Dante the Pilgrim relies on her as a source of spiritual light, Dante the historical figure petitioned Santa Lucia for physical light, that is, a cure for the physical weakness of his eyes. In the Convivio Dante mentions his own weak vision:
Io fui di questo l’anno medesimo che nacque questa canzone [scil. “Amor che nella mente mi ragiona”], che per affaticare lo viso molto, a studiare di leggere, in tanto debilitai li spiriti visivi che le stelle mi pareano tutte d’alcuno albore ombrate. (3.9.15-16)
The light from Santa Lucia cures physical ailments, such as the blurriness of Dante’s eyes, but more importantly it cures spiritual ailments, such as hampered discernment. On the other hand, intense light, like the light that emanates from Santa Lucia or the sun, can also be an obstacle to discernment or discretion, if only for a brief moment. Once the eye adjusts to such light, vision is greatly enhanced. Although Dante did not know Plato’s Republic directly, the allegory of the cave presents an interesting parallel to the blinding light of Santa Lucia:
Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye. (Plato 7)
Dante the Pilgrim has his eyes "bewildered" in both ways, first by straying from the light, and then by moving through inferno, purgatorio and paradiso toward the light of God. Once the Pilgrim becomes accustomed to Lucia's light, his discernment increases. In the same way that she helps to light the physical path through progressively brighter spheres, Santa Lucia enlightens the spiritual path to God that Dante the Pilgrim is to follow.
As a member of the feminine trinity, Lucia symbolizes more than just light. Some have recognized in Santa Lucia a symbol of Hope in the triune doctrine of Faith, Hope and Charity. That is to say that Beatrice embodies the principle of Faith because she acts on behalf of the Pilgrim, whereas Maria or the Madonna represents the principle of Charity, whose natural offspring is Lucia, or Hope. However many conjectures have been made, Dante's description of the three holy women remains open to debate. Nevertheless, scholars such as Cassell place the problem of Santa Lucia's identity under a new and provocative light.
Is it too much to wonder if Dante the historical figure, like Dante the Pilgrim, underwent a similar process of enlightenment? Indeed, Santa Lucia represents the guiding light of truth, a light of salvation, and a savior who unites the physical and spiritual realms.
When Dante met Beatrice di Folco Portinari for the first time in 1274 both of them were only nine years old. In spite of their young age, it seems as if Dante already knew the “gloriosa donna” (VN2) of his mind. The appearance of Beatrice made an indelible impact on the soul of the poet and the most powerful effect of their encounter was the image of Beatrice that penetrated his eyes. The beauty of the woman so stirred the visual spirits that Dante was moved to repeat the words of Ulysses at his first vision of Nausicaa: “Ella non parea figliuola d’uomo mortale, ma di deo” (VN2). At the end of the Vita Nuova Dante declares his objective to produce a greater work that would be worthy of Beatrice. Through the words of the Divina Commedia the poet reached his goal, “dicer di lei quello che mai non fue detto d’alcuna” (VN42). The search for the proper way to depict Beatrice’s ineffable beauty led Dante to adopt the symbol of the eye. Ultimately, Beatrice’s eyes lead the Pilgrim to the vision of God (DC 3.18.4).
Certain aspects of the language of sight are indispensable for understanding the salvific mission of Beatrice. Beatrice’s eyes emit physical and spiritual light, beauty and truth. Her eyes communicate physical and spiritual love, compassion, hope, faith, humility, creation, chastisement and intelligence. Most importantly, her eyes reflect the light and the attributes of God. Dante commits to follow Beatrice’s example because she keeps her eye focused on the glory of God:
E poi piaccia a colui che è sire de la cortesia, che la mia anima se ne possa gire a vedere la gloria de la sua donna, cioè di quella benedetta Beatrice, la quale gloriosamente mira ne la faccia di colui qui est per omnia secula benedictus. (VN42)
Beatrice’s consistency in looking toward God inspires faith in the Pilgrim. When Dante dreams of the death of Beatrice, he seems to hear her say: “Io sono a vedere lo principio de la pace” (VN23). The eyes of Beatrice, her glances of pity and her gifts of light, prepare Dante for the beatific vision because she already enjoys perfect vision, “perfetto veder” (DC 3.5.5).
As Dante’s guide, Beatrice is also a figura Christi. Besides preaching of the life and sufferings of Christ (Sowell 164-67), Beatrice reflects in her eyes the divine attributes of charity, hope and faith. Her eyes attract the eyes of Dante, directing them toward celestial light: “lume fia tra ‘l vero e lo ‘ntelletto. / Non so se ‘ntendi : io dico di Beatrice” (2.6.45-46). In this synecdoche Beatrice’s eyes shine as a light of example for the Pilgrim. As Christ declared: “Verily, verily I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do; for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19). Beatrice cannot impart light without first receiving it from God.
Often Beatrice’s eyes express charity or compassion for Dante the Pilgrim. Beatrice descends into hell to call Virgil, leaving behind her celestial throne as Christ left his throne for the benefit of mankind: “venni qua giù del mio beato scanno” (1.2.113). When the Pilgrim poses a question on the essence of vows, Beatrice looks at her faithful follower “con li occhi pieni / di faville d’amor cosí divini” (3.4.139-40). In the sphere of Mars Beatrice turns her eyes toward Dante the Pilgrim in a manner so sweet as to defy all description: “e quela io allor vidi / ne li occhi santi amor, qui l’abbandono” (3.18.8-9). Nearer to the extremely luminous point in the Empyrean, Dante looks “ne’ belli occhi / onde a pigliarmi fece Amor la corda” (3.28.11-12). Since Beatrice plays a role in the feminine trinity (Maria, Lucia and Beatrice) that corresponds to the mission of Jesus Christ, the pure light of love that pours from her eyes brings salvation to the Pilgrim.
In the dark abyss of hell, Virgil ignites the Pilgrim’s hope by describing the beauty of Beatrice’s eyes, “Lucevan li occhi suoi più che la stella” (1.2.52-55). Although hell is a region of darkness, the rays from Beatrice’s eyes penetrate Dante’s eyes by means of Virgil or reason. In the final cornice of purgatorio Dante the Pilgrim is afraid to enter into the wall of fire to purify the sin of lust. Virgil consoles him and encourages him, reminding him of the proximity of his beloved: “Li occhi suoi già veder parmi” (2.27.54). Each step through the phases of paradise engenders hope in the Pilgrim. Beatrice’s eyes reinforce Dante the Pilgrim’s eyes, giving him the hope to lift his eyes to God.
Continuing to comment on the theological virtues in reverse order, it follows that Beatrice’s eyes also burned with faith. In fact, in the trinity of blessed women Beatrice symbolizes distinctly the first virtue. If, however, “fede è sustanza di cose sperate / e argomento de le non parventi” (3.24.64-65) according to the confession of Dante the Pilgrim to Saint Peter, perhaps Beatrice’s eyes negate the necessity of faith. In other words, faith and vision are mutually exclusive. Beatrice’s eyes suggest on the other hand that faith is a type of elevated vision, supernatural and celestial, but not without ties to physical or terrestrial vision. Although Dante witnesses the miracles of heaven, his vision will never include all of heaven’s mysteries. Faith is still required in heaven. Nevertheless, Dante, like Beatrice before him, succeeds in perceiving with his eyes that which he had already perceived with the eyes of his mind (3.10.121).
The dialogue between vision and faith, between reason and revelation, follows a rich religious and philosophical tradition. Suffice it to say that Dante drew inspiration from this source to form the image of Beatrice’s eyes. Beatrice’s eyes represent not only the attributes of God and Christ, but also the perfect knot between physical and spiritual vision. The symbol of the eye in the Divina Commedia shows how false or misleading are many of the distinctions between the physical and spiritual worlds (Dannhauser 35).
Beatrice’s eyes also transmit the virtue that is most lacking in Dante the Pilgrim, which is humility. Ascending to the second cornice of purgatorio the Poet complains about the sin of pride: “O superbi cristian, miseri lassi, / che de la vista de la mente infermi” (2.10.121-22). Pride weighs down the soul of the sinner, but it also affects vision. On the same cornice Guiglielmo Aldobrandesco, a noble and powerful man on the earth, does not have the strength to lift his eyes to look at the Pilgrim: “dal sasso / …onde portar convienmi il viso basso” (2.11.52-54). Purification from vanity and pride requires great effort, but Dante profits by Beatrice’s humility, reflected in her eyes, to escape from this impurity. Usually down-turned eyes signify shame, humiliation and pain, but Beatrice’s humility is different. She already possesses a perfect character and a perfect vision, and when she turns her eyes low it is not a result of sin. Through Virgil her eyes come to succor the eyes of the sinner: “li occhi lucenti lagrimando volse” (1.2.116). At the commencement of the celestial voyage Beatrice looks at her follower with a motherly humility: “li occhi drizzò ver’ me con quel sembiante / che madre fa sovra figlio deliro” (3.1.101-2). Perhaps the greatest example of humility in the eyes of Beatrice is found in the circle of the sun when Dante’s heart swells with gratitude toward God:
e sí tutto ‘l mio amore in lui si mise,
che Beatrice eclissò ne l’oblio.
Non le dispiacque, ma sì se ne rise,
che lo splendor de li occhi suoi ridenti
mia mente unita in più cose divise. (3.10.59-63)
Besides humbly descending to lighten the heavy burden of pride, Beatrice rejoices and exults in the glory of God. Her eyes light up more, and she is not offended when Dante the Pilgrim receives light directly from God instead of from the mirror of her eyes. As soon as the Pilgrim loses all desires outside of the desire to behold Beatrice (3.18.15), she warns him with a resplendent smile: “Volgiti e ascolta; / ché non pur ne’ miei occhi è paradiso” (3.18.20-21). Beatrice continually gives the glory to her Creator.
Beatrice’s humble invitation parallels the Poet’s invitation to the reader. Like Beatrice, the Poet discerns the truth with divine light and desires to share that truth with others. Therefore, he encourages the acute reader to study the essence of the poetry (1.9.61-63). The search for truth is both an intellectual and a spiritual exercise that requires the efforts of the eyes. In the valley of the princes the Poet persuades the reader to “aguzzare ben li occhi al vero” (2.8.19). The clarity of Beatrice’s eyes affords a glimpse of the truth of the Empyrean only for those who are able to endure its luminosity.
Beatrice’s eyes shine with unearthly splendor. Her eyes are beautiful beyond all imagination, but the superlative adjectives and the descriptions of her attributes run the risk of overshadowing an important facet of her beauty. The repeated hyperboles could invoke the praise of the creature in place of the praise of the Creator (Pearce). The transcendent beauty of Beatrice’s eyes would be emptiness had Dante not insisted upon the physical reality and the humanity of his lady. Beatrice is beautiful not only because the Pilgrim imagines her divine form close to the “tre giri / di tre colori” (3.33.116), but also because each of her metaphysical virtues weaves into her tangible body. Dante transforms the sensuality of the troubadours into an amorous religion that adapts itself to the Christian religion (Lewis, Allegory 21). Hence, in Beatrice’s eyes reason and revelation converge as well as Eros and charity. The Poet does not subjugate the spiritual world. He elevates the physical world to its proper place in the celestial order.
The eyes that struck Dante at the age of nine are the same eyes that lift the Pilgrim to the vision of God, but the power of her glance augments in proportion to her proximity to God. For the most part Dante rejects the platonic theory of eye rays, but he recovers the theory in the case of Beatrice because her eyes manifest an extraordinary power. Having overcome the trials of inferno and purgatorio, he was ready to reunite with his lady; but even before Beatrice appeared, Dante the Pilgrim could feel her presence:
E lo spirito mio, che già cotanto
tempo era stato ch’a la sua presenza
non era di stupor, tremando, affranto,
sanza de li occhi aver più conoscenza,
per occulta virtù che da lei mosse,
d’antico amor sentí la gran potenza.
Tosto che ne la vista mi percosse
l’alta virtù che già m’avea trafitto
prima ch’io fuor di puerizia fosse. (2.30.34-42)
At the end of the voyage through purgatorio Beatrice demands the attention of the Pilgrim in a similar fashion: “con li occhi li occhi mi percosse” (2.33.18). The light that emerges from Beatrice’s eyes operates almost like an appendage to her body, like an arm or a hand.
This extension of light has the power to create love, to console or to reprove. After much time spent in separation from his beloved, Dante the Pilgrim might expect to receive a warm and loving welcome, like the prodigal son after his penitence. Instead Beatrice chastises her tardy disciple: “Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice. / Come degnasti d’accedere al monte?” (2.30.73-74). The light of Beatrice’s eyes shakes the Pilgrim because he is a human being, imperfect and not accustomed to such marvelous light (Pearce). It is not the first time, nor will it be the last time that the brightness overcomes the Pilgrim’s vision. In fact, the power of Beatrice’s eyes is often great enough to cause blindness. Fortunately, these same eyes have the capacity to cure blindness (“ha ne lo sguardo / la virtú ch’ebbe la man d’Anania”) (3.26.12).
Although Dante ascribes to Aristotle’s doctrine of intermediary, passive vision, the Divina Commedia does not completely reject the doctrine of active vision, particularly in the character of Beatrice. Her eyes demonstrate her intelligence and her creative power. Little by little the intercession of Beatrice teaches Dante the Pilgrim to submit his will to the will of God. The eyes of the Pilgrim, the same down-cast and bashful eyes of inferno, confused or askance in purgatorio, are nourished by the light reflected by Beatrice until they are prepared for the vision of God: “io, che tutto ai piedi / d’i suoi commandamenti era divoto, / la mente e li occhi ov’ella volle diedi” (2.32.106-8). If the first encounter with Beatrice in the streets of Florence pushed Dante toward a change of heart and a “vita nuova,” his epiphany in the terrestrial paradise at the top of the mountain of purgatorio produced an even greater change. Beatrice’s eyes first conferred a new life, but in the long run they directed Dante’s eyes toward a new vision, a “vista nuova” (3.33.136), that is, the vision of God. Only then could Dante enjoy the same perfect vision as the woman who always gazed “ne la faccia di colui qui est per omnia secula benedictus” (VN42). Together their eyes were opened in the view of God, he who “tutto discerne” (2.14.151) and who “tutto vede” (1.10.131, 3.9.73).
Chapter 3. The Vision of God
Thomas Aquinas and the Relationship between God and Man
The vision of man and the vision of the beloved unite to receive the vision of God, but the vision of God holds two primary meanings. The vision of God describes how man sees or perceives God, but it also describes how God sees or perceives in general, that is God’s vision. Both notions are tied together in a single phrase because the means by which man perceives God derives from the power of God’s perception. Of course, this twist of terminology applies in a similar way to the vision of the beloved, because Beatrice’s eyes give light for the Pilgrim’s eyes to see. Nevertheless, Beatrice’s eyes are not the source of the light, but only the medium, the conduit or the intercessor. As Beatrice and the Pilgrim are rapt in the vision of God, the medium becomes almost indistinguishable from the source; the vision of man and the vision of the beloved become similar to the vision of God. By looking at God with a fixed gaze, they receive both the vision of God and Godly vision.
Thomas Aquinas wondered, like others before him, if it were possible for man to see God in this life and in all of his glory. Aquinas approached such questions in writing. Following the example of his teacher Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas dedicated himself to assimilating all of the wisdom of Aristotle into his personal works, most of all in the Summa contra gentiles and the Summa theologiae. Whereas Albertus Magnus sought to unify all natural knowledge, Aquinas attempted to unify Christian theology (Park 115). Today Aquinas is well known as the official theologian of the Catholic Church, but during his lifetime his ideas were controversial and sometimes scandalous. In spite of the opposition that he faced, Aquinas succeeded in defending the rationality of the doctrines of the church, while demonstrating at the same time that reason does not contradict revelation.
Although his philosophy confronts theological problems, Aquinas worked to elevate human reason. Man apprehends truths about the world and about God by means of the senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Nevertheless, there is a truth that surpasses the capacity of reason and the senses: the absolute truth of God. The beatific vision is not accomplished through the senses or by human efforts. To know God one must believe that He is beyond all human intelligence.
That which distinguishes the thought of Thomas Aquinas from the thought of previous theologians is the value that he places on truth obtained by the faculty of reason. According to Aquinas the truth of reason and the truth of revelation are not contradictory. In fact, God created the natural principles that man learns through the senses, and the wisdom of God makes it possible for man to exercise his faculties. The greatest miracle is that divine inspiration persuades man to reject that which is visible in order to comprehend that which is invisible (Helm 110).
The Apostle Paul defined faith as sperandarum substantia rerum, argumentum non apparentium (Heb. 11:1). In effect, Aquinas focused on the demonstration of the invisible and the realization of the promises of faith. Even though his works do not treat specifically the science of optics, Aquinas reflected on the importance of light, vision and the eye. He conceives of light as a quality or a property without substance. Light is necessary for vision, but it is also necessary for comprehension:
human knowledge is assisted by the revelation of grace. For the intellect’s natural light is strengthened by the infusion of gratuitous light, and sometimes also the images in the imagination are divinely formed. (Aquinas 1.110)
Therefore, both the light of reason and the light of revelation originate with God and are harmonious.
The twelfth question of the Summa theologiae considers how God is known by man. To respond to this question Aquinas makes a distinction between two kinds of light, lux and lumen. Lux is the intelligible light of God. Lumen is the light created by God. Since the most profound desire of each human soul is to know God, and to see him, the greatest happiness consists in the vision of God in his essence, as he really is. The only way to see God is in his essence, by means of the intelligible light. Thus, God is at the same time the object and the means of this vision.
This discourse leads back to another scripture of the Apostle Paul: Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate: tunc autem facie ad faciem (1 Cor. 13:12). The interpretations of this scripture are vast and various, but Thomas Aquinas affirms in the Summa contra gentiles that man is not capable of seeing God with the physical eye. The eye of the body sees only corporeal objects. Access to the vision of God requires the power of God to elevate the vision of man. Only the spiritual eye, a gift from God, can perceive the truths that are invisible to the physical eye (1 Cor.2:2).
The physical eye is also a gift from God, but it is not sufficient in itself for attaining the vision of God. The physical eye is comparable to the light of reason or lumen. As a created quality, lumen shines forth from God, but it does not illuminate the vision of God in his essence. Lumen illuminates all other physical creations, but lux, which is the essence of God, is necessary to draw men into the presence of God. All men have access to created light, but access to the light that is the essence of God depends entirely on the will of God.
How is it possible then to obtain the spiritual eye or the divine light (lux)? In the first place, the great theologian proposes that divine light cannot transform or illuminate a body that is altogether different from the divine image. Man must participate in the image of God. For example, man must possess the attributes that resemble the attributes of God in order to receive the divine light. Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived approximately a century before Aquinas, underlined the importance of charity as a requirement for the beatific vision. He believed that the essence of God is love. Charity, like divine light, is the source and the means of the vision. According to St. Bernard charity is the true knowledge of God (Gilson, Medieval 226).
Although man may possess a portion of charity or of divine light, he is still imperfect. Since God is unchanging, man must be perfected and elevated by the power of God. Human nature must change and created light must surrender to divine light.
All created intelligence desires the light of its Creator. The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas forms a comparison between sensible knowledge and intellectual knowledge. This comparison clarifies the connection between created light (lumen) and the intelligible light of God (lux):
Now, owing to the fact that we derive our knowledge of intelligible beings from sensible things, we transfer the terms employed in sensible knowledge to our intellectual knowledge; especially those terms that pertain to the sight, which of all the senses is the highest and most spiritual, and therefore most akin to the intellect. (Aquinas 2.96)
Man uses the same words to describe the natural world and the supernatural world. Sight in particular is the most noble of the senses because it represents precisely created light, which closely resembles intelligible light. It appears as though there is a contradiction in the reasoning of the theologian: if the physical eye cannot see God in his essence, why praise the visual faculty of man? If that which is essential is also invisible, why give credence to that which is visible? Evidently the vision of God is the most important concept. Physical vision is only a symbol:
It is for this reason that intellectual knowledge is called sight (visio). And because bodily sight is not effected without light, those things which serve for the perfection of intellectual vision are called light (lux). (Aquinas 2.96)
Physical vision depends upon created light. In the same manner spiritual vision depends upon the intelligible light of God. Nevertheless, created light (lumen) exists outside of the being that perceives it, whereas the intelligible light of God (lux) must act from the interior of the soul. In other words, natural light illuminates objects so that the physical eye may perceive them, whereas supernatural light illuminates the interior of the spiritual eye so that it may comprehend the essence of the object.
In the following section, Aquinas responds to questions that seem to deny the possibility of the vision of God in his essence. Fortunately, the divine essence is not completely out of the reach of the human soul because divine light strengthens the spiritual eye and infuses it with grace. As it receives the divine light of grace, the spiritual eye prepares itself for the vision of God in his essence. Thus man may know God, but never as well as God knows himself, nor as well as God knows his creations. Man cannot see all of the essence of God, for God is infinite and eternal.
For Aquinas it is impossible to see the essence of God with the corporeal eye. This declaration directly opposes the doctrine of St. Augustine:
Therefore the power of those eyes will be extraordinary in its potency – not in the sense of being a sharper eyesight than that possessed, they say, by snakes and eagles (for however keen-sighted those animals may be, they can see only material things) – but in the sense of having the ability to see the immaterial. (City of God 22.29)
Toward the end of his great work the City of God, St. Augustine wrote that the corporeal eye is glorified and prepared for the vision of God. Thomas Aquinas believed, on the other hand, that only the spiritual eye might see God; the natural world and the supernatural world do not cross paths. The vision of God requires the unification of the divine essence with the created intelligence. This union evokes the idea of the communion between lux and lumen. Since lux is the divine essence that does not change, it is lumen that must change.
Dante and the Relationship between God and Man
The change in lumen corresponds to the improvement in Dante the Pilgrim’s vision. The juxtaposition of the Pilgrim’s weak and wandering eyes in the Inferno with his clear and concentrated eyes in the Paradiso reveals the purifying power of divine light. With what is perhaps a subtle reference to Aquinas’ Summa, Dante invokes God for the power to express the beatific vision:
O somma luce che tanto ti levi
da concetti mortali, a la mia mente
ripresta un poco di quel che parevi
e fa la lingua mia tanto possente,
che una favilla sol de la tua gloria
possa lasciare a la futura gente;
ché, per tornare alquanto a mia memoria
e per sonare un poco in questi versi,
più si conceperà di tua vittoria. (3.33.67-75)
In this poetic prayer Dante does not invoke his own high genius, Calliope, the muses or even Apollo. He invokes God. He implores the greatest light to transmit through the poetry a spark of his glory, so that future readers will praise God. This final supplication encapsulates the experience of the beatific vision, for only by divine light can divinity be perceived. In a sense, Dante becomes the instrument of God’s light, much like Beatrice. Dante becomes the mediator between the reader and God in the same way that Beatrice was the mediator for Dante the Pilgrim. Virgil, Beatrice and others guides constantly urge Dante the Pilgrim to lift up his eyes. Dante the Poet, in turn, invites his readers to do the same. (3.10.7-12, 2.8.19)
The idea of mediation reflects chapter XIV of the Vita Nuova in which Dante describes his eyes as instruments. The eyes are in many ways the instruments or mediators of the soul, converting sensory information into intellectual knowledge and spiritual wisdom, receiving and reflecting physical and spiritual light. In order for Dante the Pilgrim to receive the light of revelation, his instruments undergo a series of purifying trials. The progress of the Pilgrim’s soul corresponds directly to the improvement in his eyes and in his vision.
Dante the Pilgrim learns, by following Virgil’s counsel, how to control and direct his eyes toward the light of truth. The Pilgrim admits to Beatrice that he sinned by following the false pleasure of present things (2.31.34-6), but he repents and receives forgiveness. In fact, Virgil’s last words indicate that the Pilgrim’s eyes are so fixed on the light of truth that they no longer require his “ingegno” or “arte” (2.27.130). Virgil looks directly into Dante the Pilgrim’s eyes and encourages him to continue upward toward Beatrice without him. By this point, the Pilgrim’s desires conform to righteousness:
Non aspettar mio dir piú né mio cenno;
libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,
e fallo fora non fare a suo senno. (2.27.139-41)
Yet even after being delivered to his own just volition, the Pilgrim must endure several tests to purge and prepare his eyes for the vision of God. Although his instruments are pointed in the right direction, they still must undergo trials and purifying blasts of light. Nymphs guide Dante the Pilgrim’s eyes to Beatrice, but when Beatrice unveils herself the light overpowers her lover. After ten years of desiring to see her again, her appearance is overwhelming:
e la disposizion ch’a veder èe
ne li occhi pur testé dal sol percossi,
sanza la vista alquanto esser mi fée. (2.32.10-12)
Slowly the Pilgrim regains his vision. From this point on, Dante the Pilgrim fixes his gaze more firmly on his beloved, except to behold God (3.10.10-12). Beatrice’s eyes, as well as her words (2.33.75), continually overpower the Pilgrim in order to cure him of his spiritual blindness. Dante the Pilgrim is able to receive more and more light because his eyes endured the darkness of inferno as well as the luminosity of Beatrice’s glance and visage.
The strains of darkness and the washings of light prepare Dante the Pilgrim’s eyes like the refining of glass. The eyes are like windows (Convivio 3.8.10) that show the condition of the soul and receive light from outside of the soul. The proportions of exiting or entering light depend partially upon the clarity or purity of the windows (DC 3.21.88-90).
Certainly the light that blinds Dante in the Paradiso is more than a physical substance, for instead of leaving him blind the light actually cures him of blindness. This light is a spiritual reality, exemplified by Christ’s appearance to Saul on the road to Damascus (see for example Dante’s use of the word circunfulse in 3.30.46-51), which heals the wounds of sin and facilitates the process of conversion. In Canto II of the Paradiso Dante explains the action of divine light in conjunction with the apparent imperfections in the surface of the moon. The different shades do not denote blemishes, rather they denote varying degrees of virtue. This engenders another analogy involving a specific anatomical structure in the eye:
Per la natura lieta onde deriva,
la virtù mista per lo corpo luce
come letizia per pupilla viva. (3.2.142-44)
Virtue mixes with the body to produce light that shines like joy from the pupil.
Thus the vision of God, which constitutes mankind’s greatest joy, requires both exterior and interior light. The light that shines from the outside illuminates the vision of God to the physical eyes, a vision that Dante describes as three circles or spheres, “tre giri / di tre colori e d’una contenenza” (3.33.116-17). The light that shines from the inside, a mixture of virtue and body, illuminates the meaning of the vision to the spiritual eyes. Both trajectories of light originate with God and are required for the vision of God.
The vision of God is the apogee of truth as well as beauty. Ascending through the spheres of heaven, Dante the Pilgrim notices an increase in Beatrice’s beauty (3.8.15). The increase in her beauty involves two main factors. As they approach God together, Beatrice reflects greater portions of light. Her beauty augments in proportion to her radiance. The change that the Pilgrim witnesses from the outside is matched only by the change in his inner perception of beauty. In other words, Beatrice grows more beautiful, but more importantly, Dante the Pilgrim grows more sensitive and receptive to real beauty. Since God does not change, the Pilgrim’s soul must transform and acquire divine attributes in order to truly see God in his essence.
To claim the vision of God is to claim, therefore, that the viewer shares some characteristics of divinity. Dante did not shy away from such a daunting doctrine. Rather than dismiss his vision as ineffable, Dante provided evidence for things that are not seen. Like Aquinas, he made the invisible world visible. At the climax of his vision Dante saw three rings or spheres (“tre giri”) of three colors and one dimension. One of the rings reflected from the Eternal Light seemed painted with the image of a man (“mi parve pinta de la nostra effige”) (3.33.131).
Finally, after fixing his gaze upon the image, a flash of light overcame the Pilgrim, and the vision of God closed. What was this final effulgent flash? Perhaps then that Dante realized that the vision of God opens up the true vision of man and the vision of the beloved.
Although he may not have been at the forefront of optical science in the fourteenth century, Dante certainly articulated a new vision. Dante’s treatment of optics, particularly in the Divina Commedia, points to an idea of vision that synthesizes and surpasses the physical and spiritual eye. As Dante the Pilgrim forfeits his own views, he gradually acquires a vision of things as they really are. This new vision is neither completely physical nor completely spiritual. It is not simply sight and physical proof. Nor is it merely knowledge and spiritual discernment. Dante’s new vision truly commences with the beatific vision because he begins to see as he is seen. Through the grace of a mediator, he obtains a vision that is beyond physical and spiritual vision, a vision that is eye to eye or face to face with God.
The form and functions of the physical eye complement the spiritual eye, but the vision of things as they really are occurs only when both are in harmony. The Pilgrim’s journey, assisted by Virgil, Beatrice and other souls, toward the vision of God illustrates beautifully the process of harmonizing physical and spiritual vision. Drawing from the thought of Aquinas, Dante demonstrates that a mediator is necessary to bring about this harmony, speaking of vision as well as the soul (3.30.100-2).
Ultimately, Dante creates a new theory of vision that meshes optical elements with Christian doctrines. Thus, the new vision consists in the direct application of optics to the Christian notion of salvation. The eye, like the soul, has need of a mediator in order to see. The light of man’s eye is necessary but insufficient for the vision of God. Infusions of divine light through Jesus Christ lift eyes in hope and transform eyes to see God. In Dante’s Divina Commedia, the divine light of Christ streams through the eyes of exalted individuals until it releases the fountain of light that is within the Pilgrim. At that point, light flows freely, in and out of his eyes, like the light in the eyes of his beloved Beatrice. In the tenth heaven or the Empyrean, Dante the Pilgrim is surround by pure light, “pura luce” (3.30.39). Once again the Pilgrim is blinded, overcome by light. Beatrice consoles him:
Sempre l’amor che queta questo cielo
accoglie in sé con sí fatta salute,
per far disposto a sua fiamma il candelo. (3.30.52-54)
This blindness stands in stark contrast to blindness in inferno because the latter leads to more darkness whereas the former leads to more light. Almost painfully, the pure light erases or eradicates sullied sights, creating clear vision that can sustain greater light.
Dante the Pilgrim then sees a river of light, coruscating with sparks that settle on flowers like bees. Beatrice invites Dante the Pilgrim to drink from the river of light, and he obeys gladly:
Non è fantin che sí súbito rua
col volto verso il latte, se si svegli
molto tardato da l’usanza sua,
come fec’ io, per far migliori spegli
ancor de li occhi, chinandomi a l’onda
che si deriva perché vi s’immegli;
e sí come di lei bevve la gronda
de le palpebre mie, cosí mi parve
di sua lunghezza divenuta tonda. (3.30.82-90)
The river of light improves the eyes, which the Pilgrim describes as mirrors, “spegli”. Throughout the Divina Commedia Dante uses the theme of mirrors to demonstrate optical theories, but also to reveal the importance of mimesis in creation. When Dante the Pilgrim peers deep into the celestial light, he ultimately sees his own reflection, suggesting that man is created in the image of God. The river of light does not only improve the eyes; it improves the whole soul. The eye is the juncture between the soul and the source of the soul’s salvation. Indeed, the eye is itself a type of mediator. As such, the eye possesses internal and external power, producing thoughts, ideas and images and creating words, motions and actions.
Finally, there can be no adequate substitute for personal vision. As much as each individual vision is connected to the whole, it is still incomplete if there is any dissonance or internal obstruction. Dante’s Divina Commedia shares a lucid and intimate vision that can be assimilated best through transparent eyes, but cannot match the value of personal vision.
Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
The body is the instrument of the mind. The body carries the record of our character.
-President Boyd K. Packer (Feb.2, 2003 CES Fireside)
Difference Between Body and Spirit
The spiritual part of us and the emotional part of us are so closely linked that it is possible to mistake an emotional impulse for something spiritual.
Elder Packer (“The Candle of the Lord”)
For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy. (D&C 93:33)
There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes;
We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter. (D&C 131:7-8)
In tracing the thing to the foundation, and looking at it philosophically, we shall find a very material difference between the body and the spirit; the body is supposed to be organized matter, and the spirit, by many, is thought to be immaterial, without substance. With this latter statement we should beg leave to differ, and state the spirit is a substance; that it is material, but that it is more pure, elastic and refined matter than the body; that it existed before the body, can exist in the body; and will exist separate from the body, when the body will be mouldering in the dust; and will in the resurrection, be again united with it.
(Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 207)
All things whatsoever God in his infinite wisdom has seen fit and proper to reveal to us, while we are dwelling in mortality, in regard to our mortal bodies, are revealed to us in the abstract… revealed to our spirits precisely as though we had no bodies at all; and those revelations which will save our spirits will save our bodies. (TPJS, 355)
I want to see truth in all its bearings and hug it to my bosom. (TPJS, 374)
And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come. (D&C 93:24)
As Man Approaches God He Is Enlightened
We consider that God has created man with a mind capable of instruction, and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect; and that the nearer man approaches perfection, the clearer are his views, and the greater his enjoyments, till he has overcome the evils of his life and lost every desire for sin; and like the ancients, arrives at that point of faith where he is wrapped in the power and glory of his Maker and is caught up to dwell with Him. But we consider that this is a station to which no man ever arrived in a moment. (TPJS, 51)
It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two. “The spirit of man,” as the scripture says, indeed “is the candle of the Lord.” (Prov.20:27)… Bear testimony of the things that you hope are true, as an act of faith. (Elder Packer, “The Candle of the Lord”)
Principles of Revelation
But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8)
A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas… and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfected in Christ Jesus. (TPJS, 151)
He could not convey, in words alone, so ordinary an experience as tasting salt.
We cannot express spiritual knowledge in words alone. We can, however, with words show another how to prepare for the reception of the Spirit. (2 Ne. 33:1)
Elder Packer (“The Candle of the Lord”).
Light and the Eye in the Standard Works
O.T.: Gen. 1:3, Gen. 3:5, 2 Kings 6:17, Isaiah 35:5, Isaiah 58:8, Isaiah 64:4
N.T.: Matt. 5:16, 5:29, 6:22, Luke 11:34, John 8:12, 9:6, 1Cor. 2:9, Eph. 5:14, 1Jn. 1:5
D&C: D&C 4:5, 50:24, 58:3, 59:1, 76:10, 12; 82:19, 84:85, 88:11, 67; 88; 93; 103; 110:1
BoM: Jacob 2:10, Mosiah 16:9, Alma 32:35, 40, 3Ne.12:16, 13:22, Ether 12:19, Morm. 8:15, Moro. 7:18
Table of Figures
Eight original pieces of artwork, as well as a few other images, appear in connection with the themes of this thesis. The first image, painted by my eight-year-old sister, depicts a beautiful eye in the simplicity that only a child could produce. I chose her painting for the introduction because of its purity and simplicity. Purity of the eye relates directly to purity of the heart, which qualifies a person for the vision of God. The following images reveal the struggle to regain this childlike purity and the steps on the way to the beatific vision.
The tiger symbolizes enhanced vision or powers of discernment, but it also signifies a fearless attitude toward learning and life. A tiger’s vision is a metaphor for faith because it seems to pierce the darkness in order to capture its prey.
With this metaphor in mind, and with the assistance of my sister Abigail, I produced the first in a series of works under the title of Nexus. The title reiterates the idea that vision connects the physical and the spiritual worlds.
Nexus 1: Intertwined: Physical and Spiritual Vision is a conglomeration of shapes and colors which emphasizes the interrelatedness of physical and spiritual vision, as well as the connection between reason and revelation. The long white board that we used for a canvas became a field of invention. As it relates to Dante’s works, the field of invention is not limited to a single subject. Dante treated many different topics with scholarly acumen and artistic dexterity. This rather abstract painting points to the idea that all things are bound up into one great whole, and the eye is a symbol of that whole.
Nexus 2: The First Vision of Beatrice is actually a portrait of Abigail that fits into Dante’s first encounter with Beatrice at age nine. The portrait does not do justice to Abigail’s beauty, but perhaps it will provoke some estimation of Beatrice’s beauty.
Nexus 3: L’Occhio debole, or The Weak Eye, incorporates color and fluid motion in patterns that lead the eyes in all different directions. The movement of the painting parallels the distractions that caused Dante the Pilgrim to falter and to stray from the path of righteousness. What are the green circles? Why is there a hand with a ring? In essence, this painting laments human weakness and fallen vision, but it acknowledges the beauty of vision that is strengthened by grace.
Nexus 4: Il dilettoso monte, or The Delightful Mountain, represents the beginning of Dante the Pilgrim’s journey toward the beatific vision. Virgil inspires Dante the Pilgrim to begin the journey of repentance. This journey is long and arduous, but it is also beautiful. The model for this mountain is Mount Timpanogas as seen from the slopes of Sundance Ski Resort.
Nexus 5: The Appearance of Beatrice, refers to that blessed day when Dante the Pilgrim reaches the top of the mountain of Purgatorio. Dante the Pilgrim passes through a wall of fire to purify and prepare himself for Beatrice. When she appears, her glory nearly consumes him.
Nexus 6: The Feminine Trinity depicts Lucia, Maria, and Beatrice from left to right. Note the colors of the three theological virtues: green (hope), red (charity), and white (faith). Each member of the feminine trinity embodies a particular attribute. Lucia carries her eyes on a tray, as commonly seen in iconography. Maria is the leader of the other two blessed women. I chose to represent Beatrice as a source of light that overpowers vision. Her face seems like a mirror because it reflects and emits great amounts of light.
Nexus 7: Lux et lumen shows three candles in progressing size and two glass objects. The behavior of light is such that often the medium becomes confused with its source. The light of the candles, whether great or small, is still only the created light of God, lumen, whereas the light of the essence of God, lux, is eternal. If one imagines the light of the largest candle as the true source of light in the painting, the source of this light is still only seen in part. Perhaps the small candle is like mankind and the medium sized candle is like the beloved, a mediator, or a greater source of light.
Nexus 8: The Beatific Vision is, like any verbal representation, an inadequate symbol of the vision of God. Nevertheless, the drawing is another indication of the ineffability of both God and the beloved.
1. Eye, by Abigail Hancock (Acrylic on paper). Page 1.
2. Enhanced Vision, tiger photograph in Eyewitness Natural World. Page 1.
3. Nexus 1: Intertwined: Physical and Spiritual Vision, by John and Abigail Hancock
(Acrylic on wood). Page 10.
4. Nexus 2: The First Vision of Beatrice, by John Hancock (Acrylic on canvas). Page
5. Nexus 3: L’Occhio debole, by John Hancock (Watercolor on paper). Page 16.
6. Nexus 4: Il dilettoso monte, by John Hancock (Acrylic on canvas). Page 23.
7. Capella di Santa Lucia a Siracusa. Page 29.
8. Nexus 5: The Appearance of Beatrice, by John Hancock (Acrylic on canvas). Page
9. Nexus 6: The Feminine Trinity, by John Hancock (Acrylic on canvas). Page 38.
10. Nexus 7: Lux et lumen, by John Hancock (Watercolor on paper). Page 44.
11. Nexus 8: The Beatific Vision, by John Hancock (Ink on paper). Page 49.
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SEQ Nexus \* ARABIC
: Intertwined: Physical and Spiritual Vision
SEQ Nexus \* ARABIC
: The First Vision of Beatrice
by, Abigail Hancock, age 8
acrylic on paper
SEQ nexus \* ARABIC
: l’Occhio debole
SEQ nexus \* ARABIC
: Il dilettoso monte
Capella di Santa Lucia, Siracusa
SEQ nexus \* ARABIC
: The Appearance of Beatrice
SEQ nexus \* ARABIC
: The Feminine Trinity
SEQ nexus \* ARABIC
: Lux et Lumen
SEQ Nexus \* ARABIC
: The Beatific Vision