Reading Dante

Dante

Dante. Detail from fresco by Domenico di Michelino, Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
Dore
Beatrice and Virgil, Inferno, Canto 2. Illus. by Gustave Doré, 1861.

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321)

Dante was the great medieval Italian poet, best known for his Divine Comedy, which consists of three books. One really has to read it in its entirety. Many people read only the Inferno, but the Purgatorio is perhaps the most edifying, and the Paradiso may surprise you.

Read Dante, who had known its best and worst.
He was bereaved and he was comforted—
No one denies it, comforted—but first
Down to the frozen centre, up the vast
Mountain of pain from world to world he passed.
                                        —C. S. Lewis

Here is arguably the supreme example of ‘the poetry of statement’, though in the guise of an autobiographical search. His work is like a spiritual bridge. Because it is Italian it has never been in mainstream teaching in English culture. This is a really big gap which can only be closed by the reading (and re-reading) of the whole work.


‘Love that discourses in my mind’

Being poetry of the greatest kind it is both profound and clear. It fuses insights from ancient classical sources, revelation from the Hebrew-Christian scriptures, and the formal ordering of medieval theology. It is a vision neglected in our culture to the impoverishment of individuals and society. And no less is it the most beautiful and profound story of Dante’s love of Beatrice.

Curiosity got the better of me many years ago when I repeatedly found references to Dante in diverse contexts. So when I saw an old copy in the window of a second-hand bookshop in Kingsland I bought it. Though it was in the translation by Cary done between 1797 and 1806; it captivated me.

People have been put off by its length, apparent complexity, the Catholicism, or supposed outdatedness. It has appeared in numerous twentieth-century English translations, and there’s a fair body of literary criticism, much of it illuminating. It has also inspired illustrations by artists such as Botticelli, Blake, and Dali. Around the 1980’s a Chinese artist and academic, Li Shaowen, completed a set of 33 or 34 amazing paintings illustrating the 34 cantos of the Inferno (see one in ACADEMY & CHRIST).

The Doré engraving shown here illustrates Beatrice, out of her love for Dante, coming from heaven to find Virgil in Limbo, to persuade him to lead Dante on his spiritual journey:

But thou—go thou! Lift up thy voice of gold;
Try every needful means to find and reach
And free him, that my heart may rest consoled.
Beatrice I am, who thy good speed beseech;
Love that first moved me from the blissful place
Whither I’d fain return, now moves my speech.
        —Inferno, 2. 67–72 (trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers)

  • In 1993, and again in 1994, I ran a course of reading and discussion of the Divine Comedy. In the readings we used the translation by Dorothy L. Sayers (Penguin Classics), which also has excellent notes. In 2015-16 this is being repeated.
 
GAPS ARTS COURSE AND LECTURES

READING DANTE’S COMMEDIA

Mondays, 7.30 – 9.00 pm, 2 March – 19 October 2015

Dr John Lewis

Commedia

THE 750TH ANNIVERSARY OF DANTE ALIGHIERI

GAPS ARTS is marking this anniversary of Dante’s birth by offering a course of reading through the Divine Comedy in its three parts: Hell in the first half of 2015; Purgatory in the second half; and Paradise in the first half of 2016.

Dante, putting himself in the story, tells of the journey through the three regions, from being lost in a dark forest in his life, to a vision of eternal truth. His guide, first, is Virgil, until in the higher experience he must be guided by Beatrice. For it is a poem about his love for her, and of his coming to understand how all real love has its true source and end in God.

Previous knowledge of the poem is not necessary for your appreciation of it. Notes for guidance through each session have been specially prepared, and there will be time for discussion.

Additionally, in June (Dante was born under Gemini) the anniversary will be marked by two lectures (June 14 and 21) on Dante. Separate notices follow.

For the course the readings will be in Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation published by Penguin Classics (N.B. not Penguin’s Mark Musa translation). Some copies are available, or you may have or wish to acquire your own.

NEW ENROLMENTS for the second term (Purgatory) should be made by 22 June, (the first session) subject to availability. To enrol please phone (09) 828 5579, or email jahlewis [at] clear [dot] net [dot] nz . The course is free. Places may be limited.

  • The readings are presented by John Lewis, whose doctorate was in Medieval theology and architecture, and who ran a course of study of the Divine Comedy in 1993, and again in 1994. Barbara Reynolds (Professor Emeritus of Italian, Cambridge), who completed the Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of Paradiso, has commended the Course.

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Dante 750 anniversary

THE 750TH ANNIVERSARY OF DANTE ALIGHIERI

SESSION 1 – COMMEMORATING HIS BIRTH IN 1265

Sunday, 14 June, 2015, 7.00 pm

VIRGIL IN THE DIVINE COMEDY

Warren Prestidge

The relationship between Dante and Virgil is the most complex and sustained in the whole Comedy. Indeed, it is Virgil who drags Dante out of his mid-life crisis! What is going on? Why does Dante use a pagan, Virgil, as his guide, not only through Hell, but most of the way through Purgatory: in fact, more than half way to Christian salvation? And why, after all that, does he still abandon Virgil to Hell? Generations before the Renaissance, Dante had already dramatized magnificently the relationship between Christian faith and humanism. How successful was he in resolving the issues?

  • Warren Prestidge has an M.A. in English (with a smattering of Latin) and a B.D. Hons in Theology. Like Dante, he has a love of both the Bible and ‘pagan’ literature, as well as classical music and the arts in general. He has taught English at both university and secondary school, and has served as a Christian pastor and lecturer for 35 years.

THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD INTERPRETATIONS: 19TH & 20TH CENTURY READINGS OF DANTE’S COMMEDIA

Carolyn Kelly

This presentation traverses some key moments in cultural reinterpretations of Dante during the last 200 years, the period in which traditional doctrines of hell and salvation have undergone considerable revision. This interplay of theology and literature begins with Romantic poetry and illustration, continues through 19thand 20th century fantasy fiction, and concludes with recent films exploring the Inferno.

  • Carolyn Kelly, BD (Otago), PhD (Aberdeen), has been lecturer in Theology, University of Auckland. She has long had an interest in the intersections of the arts and imagination and Christian spirituality. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church; and is Chaplain at Maclaurin Chapel at the University.

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Dante 750 anniversary

THE 750TH ANNIVERSARY OF DANTE ALIGHIERI

SESSION 2 – COMMEMORATING HIS BIRTH IN 1265

Sunday, 21 June, 2015, 7.00 pm

FROM HELL TO THE HEAVENLY CITY: DANTE’S POLITICAL THEOLOGY

Ryan Brown-Haysom

Dante’s works are consistently preoccupied with ‘political’ problems: not just how authority should be apportioned and power exercised within states, but also with larger questions of how human societies should be ordered to serve the temporal needs of human beings and to fit them for their eternal salvation. Despite widespread recognition of Dante’s interest in politics, however, the question of his political views and their relation to the age in which he lived continues to generate controversy among scholars.

This talk will outline briefly the political context in which Dante lived, and introduces his most significant works of political theory. It will delineate the major points of disagreement among scholars of these works, and finally suggest a personal interpretation of Dante’s attitude to Empire, Church, and the common good.

  • Ryan Brown-Haysom is a graduate student of History at the University of Auckland, and Theology through the University of Otago.

DEPICTIONS OF THE DIVINE COMEDY IN ART

John Lewis

The power of Dante’s poetry is very much in its extraordinary ability to evoke visual images in the imagination. One may feel that the personal inner experience is more compelling and valid than that mediated through pictorial works. Yet the imagination may work by both means. The story of the Commedia will be followed in the art of Botticelli, Giovanni di Paolo, Blake, Dore, Dali, Nattini, Li Shaowen, and others.

  • John Lewis, M.Arch (Auckland), PhD (Otago), ANZIA, practised as an architect for 30 years. Concurrent interest in art, literature, and theology has focussed on the medieval period of Europe.

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THE FINAL FRONTIER:
AN INTRODUCTION TO
DANTE’S PARADISO

Warren Prestidge  •  Sunday, 7.00 pm, 21 February, 2016

2015 was the 750th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s birth. GAPS ARTS marked this by lectures and a reading course of Hell and Purgatory through the year. In the first half of 2016 we will complete the study of the Divine Comedy by reading the Paradise. (Details are in a separate notice—see CALENDAR). Warren Prestidge will give a lecture which will set the scene and will be of wide interest—not just for people who intend to participate in the reading course.

Giovanni di Paolo
Giovanni di Paolo, Illustration c.1445. Paradiso Canto 28

These days outer space is often seen as the Final Frontier. Well, having already taken us to Hell and back, and guided us up Mt Purgatory, in the Paradiso Dante fronts that final challenge: space. Yet here even space travel is merely an allegory for the real final frontier: humanity's journey towards God and the Vision of God.

The Paradiso is the crowning glory of the most ambitious literary work ever attempted. What is most amazing is how far it succeeds. How to do justice to the most ambitious and successful poem in the world, the most challenging, the most rewarding? I'm not even going to try. But perhaps I can help you explore it for yourself. As you do, you will encounter humanity at its finest. You may even discover, or rediscover, God. And, if Dante succeeds as he intends, your life will be changed for the better. —W. P.

Warren Prestidge has an M.A. in English and a B.D. Hons in Theology. Like Dante, he has a love of both the Bible and ‘pagan’ literature, as well as classical music and the arts in general. He has taught English at both university and secondary school, and has been a Christian pastor and lecturer for 35 years.

READING DANTE’S PARADISE

Mondays, 7.30 – 9.00 pm, 29 February – 20 June 2016

San Giovanni Baptistry
Florence. San Giovanni Baptistry, mosaic octagonal ceiling, c.1225-1300.

THE 750TH ANNIVERSARY OF DANTE ALIGHIERI

GAPS ARTS marked the anniversary of Dante’s birth by a course of reading through the Divine Comedy in its three parts: Hell and Purgatory in 2015; and now Paradise in the first half of 2016.

Dante, putting himself in the story, tells of the journey through the three regions, from being lost in a dark forest in his life, to a vision of eternal truth. His guide, first, is Virgil, until in the higher experience he must be guided by Beatrice. For, as well as treating many universal themes, it is a poem about his love for her, and of his coming to understand how all real love has its true source and end in God.

Previous knowledge of the poem, or even participation in the 2015 course, is not necessary for your appreciation of Paradiso. Notes for guidance through each session have been specially prepared, and there will be time for discussion.

For the course the readings will be in the Dorothy L. Sayers / Barbara Reynolds translation published by Penguin Classics (N.B. not Penguin’s Mark Musa trans.). Some copies are available, or you may have or wish to acquire your own.

Indications of interest for this last term (Paradise) are invited by 29 February (the first session). To enrol please phone (09) 828 5579, or email jahlewis [at] clear [dot] net [dot] nz . The course is free. Places may be limited.

  • The readings are presented by John Lewis, whose doctorate was in Medieval theology and architecture, and who ran a course of study of the Divine Comedy in 1993, and again in 1994. Barbara Reynolds (Professor Emeritus of Italian, Cambridge), who completed the Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of Paradiso, has commended the Course.

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THE CHURCH OF
SAN CLEMENTE IN ROME
AND ITS APSE MOSAIC

Dr Mervyn Duffy  •  Sunday, 20 March, 2016, 7.00 pm

This lecture discusses the apse mosaic in its context of the Church of San Clemente. Even after some 800 years this architecture and work of great art still rewards our appreciation and sharpens our understanding.

The Church Of San Clemente

The Basilica of San Clemente is on the site of one of the earliest Christian meeting places in Rome. The church, built in the first quarter of the twelfth century, has its apsidal semi-dome covered in a rich mosaic, the art and meaning of which will be the focus of Dr Duffy’s lecture.

Around the apse on the lower border is the text in Latin which translates:
WE HAVE LIKENED CHRIST’S CHURCH TO THIS VINE . . . THE CROSS CAUSES IT TO BLOOM

  • Dr Mervyn Duffy is Dean of Studies and Theology Lecturer at The Good Shepherd College, Ponsonby, Auckland. He first studied and taught Mathematics and Computing, then gained his Doctorate in Systematic Theology in Rome where his interest in Christian art and architecture was stimulated. He is interested in how Christian faith is both expressed by and shaped by its art and architecture.