The influence of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church plays a direct and indirect role in the plot, structure, and poem as a whole of Dante's Inferno with Jesus being an indirect force and the depths of Hell being physical manifestations of sin. The Catholic Church strongly influenced Dante Alighieri Divine Comedy where people faced the penalties of a lifetime of sin, as defined by the Church. Also, Jesus is portrayed by several key characters such as Beatrice; through indirect forces such as the crucifix symbol and his absence. Lucifer, who is tortured as a result of Jesus, sits in the center of the last layer of Hell. Although once banned by the Catholic Church, The Inferno derives many of its key elements, themes, characters, and motifs on the Church's teachings, and most importantly, its leader, Jesus Christ.
The conflict between Dante and the Catholic Church merely began after the Divine Comedy was published. The Vatican looks at Hell as a place of retribution for those who have sinned; the residence of those who turned their back on "God's ways". After The Inferno was written, Hell was not a concrete idea that the Church interpreted it to be. Dante changed the perspective of what Hell stood for: not as a place of torture, but as a symbol of the "disintegration of society" and proof that a sinner can fall deeper and deeper into sin (4). Catholics that read The Inferno were confused on whether or not to refer to this new work for an illustration of what awaits sinners. The fact that a simple poem could change what has been written as Holy Scripture caused the conflict between Dante and the Church to rise to unreasonable heights.
"The question: how does God see the earthly world?- and its answer: with all the particularities ordered with a view to the eternal goal are the foundations of this profoundly passionate poem." (Bloom 47)
Harold Bloom's statement proves that Dante's purpose of his poem was to reinstate that God wanted what is best for his people. Dante wanted the Divine Comedy to open the eyes of all readers of the result of sin, not to change the religious perspectives of Catholics around the world. The Inferno was not intended to send the message that the Catholic Church's teachings and principles were wrong, although this controversy sparked after its publishing. The Divine Comedy was written in vernacular so that all Italians, rich or poor, could understand that faltering to the temptations of sin is going to result in a lifetime of torture and pain. Dante did not change the definition of sin in his poem; each level of Hell corresponded to a different sin listed by the Catholic Church. The only viable disagreement between Dante and the Vatican is the degree of punishment to which each level of sin should be since there is no clear definition in scripture.
When The Divine Comedy was written, the Church was a "universal power ordained by God" (Bloom 18). God's will was interpreted by the Catholic Church and not questioned by a single Christian. Dante's Inferno was one of the first works to question the untouchable teachings of the Catholic Church. As a Catholic, Dante wrote his poem to accompany these morals and teachings.
The poem itself demonstrated the possibilities of the "imitation of the divinely created and controlled universe" that one man could conjure (Cervigni). Another interpretation of the poem is that Dante was facing his own personal conflict with God; his journey showed him the wrong ways of his own sinful nature. With that being said, Dante obviously wanted to become a better Christian and did not mean to defy the Church. Unfortunately, the disharmony between Catholics and the Inferno led to the book being banned by the Vatican until the 1800s.
There were parts of The Inferno where sinners were people from the Church, such as those who committed simony, the abuse of power in the Church.
One of the primary allegories of The Inferno involves the "mystery of the Incarnation" (1). Jesus Christ's influence in Hell is felt directly and indirectly according to Dante. Beatrice is intended to represent the wisdom of Christianity, the teachings of Jesus Christ. Dante is given the opportunity to travel through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven as the result of the love of Beatrice, who approached Virgil with the request to show Dante the right path in life. If not for Beatrice, Dante may have not experienced his midlife epiphany that revealed the wrong of his sinfulness. The love, concern, and complete devotion that Beatrice has for Dante can be seen as the unconditional love that God has for every individual. Beatrice carries the way of God and instills it in Dante, just as Jesus did for so many during his lifetime.
The cross and crucifixion is a reoccurring symbol in The Inferno. Dante can be seen as Jesus at the time before he was crucified, pondering the fate that awaited him. In Canto XIII, the woods of suicide, people are trapped inside of trees. The trees are fruitless, which represents the fruit of God's love. Those who mocked the word of God were depicted as fruitless, silent trees. The heretics could only be heard when a leaf was picked and they bled, just like how Jesus' message was felt after he bled to death on the cross. The wood on the trees also play a part with the cross, since the cross was made of wood.
Another symbol of the crucifixion of Jesus was the character Caiaphas, who sat in the middle of the Heretics stretch across on the ground floor. Caiaphas sat in the center of this circle crucified on a wooden cross. In his lifetime, it is presumed that Caiaphas and a group of his followers helped to condemn Jesus to his death. Caiaphas' punishment was what he had persecuted: the Crucifixion. Dante placed Caiaphas in this circle of Hell to do him justice.
Virgil was an indirect influence in the representation of Christ in The Inferno. Virgil is considered a pagan in the First Circle of Hell because he was born before the time of Christ. Although he did not know of the crucifixion, his role can be felt when...
"Virgil's proclamation echoes Pilate's (John 19:5)... Virgil points up the deception of Pilate's words which proclaimed Christ's humanity but failed to represent adequately his divinity" (3)
Virgil reminds Dante of passage John 19:5 where Pontius Pilate announces "Here is the Man", which reminds his listeners that Jesus is just a man by not crediting him as anything more than a human.
"And the rocks were also rent... the two "ruins" seen so far were caused by the temper that shook the whole earth when Christ gave up the ghost of the Cross" (Bloom 65)
A direct result of Jesus' death on the cross was an earthquake in Hell. Although not specifically explained, the aftermath of the earthquake is mentioned in several cantos. It is said that:
"...the quake shook the earth and rent the rocks, according to the Gospel" (Bloom 65)
According to Dante, a tremor shook causing rocks to fall and changed Hell after Christ died on the Cross. This symbolically shows that the Son of God changed more than just Earth, but also Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. The First Circle of Hell was closed after Christ died because people started believing in what he stood for. There is no precise account in The Inferno of what exactly occurred in Hell during the Crucifixion, but it can be assumed that Hell was rocked figuratively and literally.
The most important connection between The Inferno and its relation to Jesus is Dante's account of Lucifer. Lucifer is described many times in the poem, where Christ's name is not mentioned once. The fact that Lucifer sits in the Ninth Circle being tortured for all of eternity shows that Christ has defeated evil for the time being. The disgusting description of Lucifer in The Inferno portrays the ugliness of sin and the negative imagery of evil. The fact that Lucifer does not say anything depicts that sin has no meaning; it is an empty action that defies the good intentions of God. Although Lucifer does not speak, but it is clear that he represents all evil in the world and is opposed to everything that Jesus represents. In The Inferno, Lucifer is addressed by three names as a parody of the Trinity (3).
The Inferno is an important work that is directly and indirectly influenced by the Catholic Church and the life of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church strongly influenced Dante Alighieri Divine Comedy where people faced the penalties of a lifetime of sin, as defined by the Church. Also, Jesus is portrayed by several key characters such as Beatrice; through indirect forces such as the crucifix symbol and his absence. Lucifer, who is tortured as a result of Jesus, sits in the center of the last layer of Hell. Although once banned by the Catholic Church, The Inferno derives many of its key elements, themes, characters, and motifs on the Church's teachings, and most importantly, its leader, Jesus Christ.
- "Cervigni: Lucifer: "The Denial of the Word". Brown University. Web. 10 Dec 2009
- Bloom, Harold. Dante. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Print
- Gaffke, Carol T. Poetry Criticism Excerpts from Criticism of the Most Significant and Widely
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- Lecture 10: "The Uses of Decorum". Home-ITTutorials-Confluence. Web. 10 December 2009.
- "Digital Dante: Students' Work: Classical Horror in Dante's Inferno, Cantos XXIII and XXV. Digital Dante Project-ILT. Web. 10 December 2009.
- Dante's Divine Comedy. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Print