Dante's Purgatorio

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Dante's Purgatorio is the second cantica of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. It tells the story of how Virgil leads Dante through Purgatory and eventually to the Garden of Eden, where he is reunited with his earthly love Beatrice.

Purgatory follows the medieval Catholic doctrine which required souls to be cleansed from the minor sins they committed during their lives by spending a proportional amount of time atoning for them in a like manner. Note that Purgatory and Hell are structured differently: whereas Hell punishes sinners according to the sins they have committed (e.g. theft), Purgatory cleanses them of the vices that led them to commit those sins (e.g. greed). Purgatory is depicted as an incredibly high mountain on an island in the world's southern hemisphere (note that Dante describes a spherical Earth almost 200 years before Christopher Columbus' voyage).


The lowest part of the mountain is Antepurgatory, where men who repented late in life or were excommunicated must wait before they enter Purgatory. After Antepurgatory comes St Peter’s gate, which is the door to Purgatory; all souls who pass through this door will eventually enter Heaven. As he passes through the gate, Dante is marked on his forehead with seven letter Ps which must be wiped away before he can continue into Paradise. Unlike in Hell, Dante is more than a spectator - he takes a participatory role and is cleansed of his own sins.

The seven cornices

The mountain of Purgatory is encircled by seven ledges, known as cornices, one for each of the seven cardinal vices:

Vice Punishment
Pride Crushed under heavy rocks
Envy Eyes sewn shut
Anger Thick, choking smoke
Sloth Constant running
Greed Lying face down
Gluttony Starvation while surrounded by delicious fruit
Lust Fire

These are located above the Sphere of the Air, i.e. outside the boundaries of Earth proper. As they travel through Purgatory, Virgil and Dante meet many historical figures, as well as Dante's contemporaries. There are many references to Florence and other cities in Italy, and Dante uses the various levels of Purgatory to malign his political foes and corrupt Church leaders. Classical figures are mainly absent, as their lack of Christian faith prevents them from entering.

Each of the punishments meted out in Purgatory exhibits a degree of contrapasso (i.e. it is related in some way to the sinner's particular transgression), although some (e.g. envy, sloth) make the connection in a more literal way than others (e.g. anger, lust).

Differences from the Inferno

Since Purgatory and Hell are both places of punishment, they might be expected to be similar. However, they are depicted very differently. Some of the main differences are:

  • Cooperation: The souls in Hell speak as individuals and mainly endure their punishment alone, reflecting their selfish, sinful nature. In Purgatory, souls sing hymns and psalms together and share each other's suffering, making it more bearable.
  • Hope: Although many of the punishments in Purgatory are as horrific as those in Hell, they are born cheerfully and patiently, as those who suffer them know that a heavenly reward awaits them.
  • Time: Souls in Hell are there for all eternity, whereas those in Purgatory all know that they will eventually enter Heaven. The passage of time is constantly referred to throughout the Purgatorio through the movement of the sun, which, unlike in Hell, is visible there. Time also has a direct effect on the souls in Purgatory, as they can only ascend the mountain by day.
  • Participation: In Hell, Dante is only an observer. In Purgatory, he purges his own sins as he ascends the mountain, thus becoming an active participant.
  • Angels: Whereas Hell is guarded by hideous monsters, each cornice of Purgatory is watched over by a radiant angel.

The Earthly Paradise

At the top of the mountain is the Garden of Eden, also known as the Earthly Paradise. Here Dante meets Beatrice, the woman whom he loved when she was alive on Earth and who interceded to allow him to make his journey. She is revealed amid an elaborate and highly symbolic pageant representing the Church, and she first rebukes Dante for not being faithful to her memory (exactly what he has done is not revealed), and then guides him across Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, and prepares him to ascend to Heaven.

Virgil is unable to progress beyond the Earthly Paradise because he was not a Christian, so Beatrice alone becomes Dante's guide as told in the Paradiso. Despite Dante's great respect for Virgil, there is no emotional farewell - Virgil simply leaves while Beatrice is talking and Dante does not notice until later.[1]


  1. The Divine Comedy, By Dante Alighieri, Translated by Charles Singleton, Bollingen Series 80, Vol 2: Purgatorio. Copyright 1973 by Princeton University Press.

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