The Inferno is the most famous section of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, commonly referred to as Dante. It is a 14th Century epic poem that describes Dante’s descent into hell; the great poet, Virgil, acts as his guide. Through the poem, Dante experiences the nine circles, or levels of hell. One of the characters that Dante meets in hell is based upon a historical character: Pope Boniface VIII. Pope Boniface VIII was the ruler of the Roman Catholic Church and was pope from 1294-1303. Dante particularly disliked him because he hated Boniface’s corrupt ways. Dante recognized that Boniface was not the holy leader that the pope was meant to be. Dante condemns the character because Boniface engaged in simony.
The character is static in nature. He is not meant to be dynamic, as he represents the corruption of the church as a force. He also is the historical character of Pope Boniface VIII and Dante did not believe that Boniface was a good man. The character is a minor character. However, he obviously represents a major problem of culture at the time and one that would continue past the life of Dante. It must be noted that the Roman Catholic Church was the most important institution of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Since the experience for Dante was the confrontation of his own sins and the rejection of sin, it would have been required for him, as both a character and as the writer, to question and to metaphorically confront the Roman Catholic Church and its leaders in writing. These were the men and this was the institution that was meant to lead him through the pitfalls of sin and therefore, in his view, save him from hell. However, he did not believe they were capable to do so. This is why Boniface is in hell. Meanwhile, Virgil, a poet from a pagan time in history, is his guide through hell. Boniface, as a character, represents the inability of the Roman Catholic Church to lead men away from hell. If the character were not static, it would not serve its purpose in the epic (Enright 18)
One particularly interesting incident occurs in Canto XII. In this incident, Virgil and Dante have entered the Seventh Circle of Hell. In this section, they are walking through a ravine that is full of broken rocks and boulders. The setting is particularly noteworthy. The setting is the First Ring of the Seventh Circle. The area’s destruction of the rocks was caused by an earthquake. As Dante wrote in the beginning of the section: “Either by earthquake or by failing stay, / For from the mountain’s top, from which it moved, / Unto the plain the cliff is shattered so, / Some path ‘twould give to him who was above; /Even such was the descent of that ravine.” Virgil particularly noticed the shattered rocks and commented on them. As Virgil explained to Dante, “The other time / I here descended to the nether Hell, / This precipice had not yet fallen down.” In order to understand this line, one must remember that Virgil was a poet who lived and wrote in the 1st Century Before Christ (B.C.). According to the Bible, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, a tremendous earthquake shook the land. Apparently, Dante is indicated that this earthquake also occurred in hell and caused the devastation of this ravine and the destruction of the rocks. This is why it the scenery did not look like this the first time Virgil descended into hell. Jesus Christ had not been crucified yet and therefore, the earthquake had not occurred (Spark Notes).
This also indicates that hell, as a setting, can change. Hell is not a static place, but rather a dynamic one. The setting of hell can respond to events. Furthermore, hell responds to historical events and time is noted in hell. There is a linear structure to the timeline in hell. This one section in which they crawl through the rocks, avoiding the arrows of the Centaur, actually tells the reader a great deal about Dante’s philosophy about the construct of hell as a place and a concept.
There are countless symbols within the allegorical framework of Dante’s work. A symbol is not as overarching as a motif or a theme. Because of this, there is room for a vast number of symbols. However, since the discussion in this paper has already focused on Boniface at one section, the choice of baptismal font has been chosen for a discussion of symbol.
In the work, those who commit simony are upside down in what is essentially a symbolic baptismal font (Turner 8). Simony is the selling of a church office. Rather than appointing a person who has earned that office with his spirituality and life of service, the popes often appointed individuals from rich Italian noble families for a fee. This was how the papal coffers were filled during Dante’s time. Furthermore, pardons were also sold. Sins were forgiven for a price. Dante, of course, found the practice reprehensible.
He condemned those who did it in his work. While the heads of these sinners were in the symbol of a baptismal font, their legs stuck out. “The feet of a transgressor, and the legs / Up to the calf, the rest within remained. / In all of them the soles were both on fire” (Dante Canto XIX). Baptism was the traditional Christian way by which all sins could be removed and the soul could be reborn in Christ and in God’s love. In this way, Dante is mocking them with the symbol of Christian mercy. He is indicating that they used the Church for their own needs while on earth. In their deaths, God will not offer them mercy. While the symbols of the Church, such as forgiveness, were misused by these individuals in life, they will also be misused on them in death. Baptism, which is meant to be an uplifting and peaceful experience, has been transformed into a horrific and hellish experience for the men. Instead of experience a quick bathing of refreshing water, they are drowning in the water. However, they are also burning in the fires of hell at the same time. Dante uses a symbol of the Church in a fantastic way to indicate that other symbols of the church have been misused on earth. It is a brilliant literary and political move on his part.
- Enright, N. (2004). Dante and the Scandals of a Beloved Church. Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, 7(4), 17-36.
- SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Inferno.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2002. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
- Turner, A. K. (1993). The history of hell. Harcourt Brace.