Marian Imagery in Dante’s Paradiso

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The following was a college essay written by Mary Biese. It has been edited and approved by Christopher Centrella. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Mary Biese, Notre Dame

The Blessed Virgin Mary becomes more prominent in Dante’s Divine Comedy as the epic hero travels closer to the Beatific Vision. After only a few mentions in the Inferno, Mary appears in almost every chapter of Purgatorio as the exemplar of virtue; in Paradiso, we finally meet the Queen of Heaven in all her splendor. The epic’s last four cantos (XXX-XXXIII) are heavily inundated with Marian imagery and theology. Strongly associated with roses and flowers, the Queen of Heaven most closely reflects God’s Light and beauty: St. Bernard tells Dante that hers is “the face that is most like / the face of Christ, for only through its brightness / can you prepare your vision to see Him” (Paradiso, XXXII, lines 85-87). Dante details how Mary exemplifies humility and leads souls to God. In the concluding portion of his Comedia, Dante successfully portrays Mary as Intercessor, Mother, Queen, and the greatest Reflection of God. Through the poet’s admission of his own deficiencies (when writing about heavenly things) and his references to the Blessed Mother, we as readers catch a wonderfully paradoxical glimpse into the glory of God Himself.

Unlike other light-filled characters in the Divine Comedy, the Blessed Virgin Mary is not one of Dante’s guides, but rather the silent throned woman who commissions his guides.[1] Her quiet, peaceful demeanor is potent, rooted in Scripture, and a sign of her humility.[2] In addition, Mary is much more powerful than even Dante can comprehend. She is the final step to God; she is the final intercessor, who St. Bernard says, “will grant us every grace” (XXXI, 101). Mary is on such a high level that Bernard commands Dante to pray to Mary[3] and even composes the entire prayer for him:

“In you compassion is, in you is pity,

in you is generosity, in you

is every goodness found in any creature.

This man… now pleads

with you, through grace, to grant him so much virtue

that he may lift his vision higher still.” (XXXIII, 25-26)

In other words, Mary is not Dante’s guide because her position is higher—it is that of a Queen. She orchestrates his entire journey through the Divine Comedy, start to finish, from the summoning of Virgil to the scenes of beholding in the center of the Heavenly Rose.

Bernard’s prayer above echoes the Purgatorio by listing Mary’s virtues and reiterating the importance of grace, in which Mary is “abounding”[4]; the angel Gabriel sings “Ave Maria, gratïa plena” (better known as the “Hail Mary”) before her throne in Canto XXXII.[5] Bernard, the great Marian devotee, takes Dante’s relationship with Mary a step further, naming the Florentine the “Son of grace” (XXXI, 111). Here, Dante the author reiterates the theological tradition that calls Mary the Mother of humanity (based on John 19:26-27[6]). Dante drives home this point of motherhood with three references to breastfeeding infants.[7]

Anyone who has prayed the Angelus or gone to Mass during the first couple weeks of Advent will be quite familiar with the Virgin’s Fiat, “let it be done,” her acceptance of God’s will delivered via Gabriel: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.”[8] How fitting, then, for Dante, describing God as pure and indescribably beautiful Light, to call Mary “the brightest handmaid of the sun” in Canto XXX.[9] Dante the author describes Mary as a reflection of God, His most faithful Reflection. As one of the saved, she is likened to a pool of water, in which a hill “graced” “with grass and flowers” (XXX, 109-114) is reflected.[10] This flower imagery is most strongly associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary in book XXXIII: “That love whose warmth allowed this flower to bloom / within the everlasting peace—was love / rekindled in your womb” (lines 7-9). Here images of love, light, reflection, and flowering are interwoven in the figure of Mary as the Mother of God, who is Love and Light Itself.

In the narrative, the flowers from the graced hill above are transformed into the glory of heaven’s courts (XXX, 94-96, XXXI, 25-26). This brings together the Marian flower imagery with the structure of heaven: Dante names Mary, “Queen of Roses.” When Dante finally approaches the summit of heaven at the start of Canto XXXII, he sees Mary at Heaven’s center, followed by holy women: The Virgin’s place is so high in heaven that those women closest to her are named before the holy men within the Canto. Just as “the eternal Rose… slopes and stretches and diffuses fragrance / of praise” (XXX, 124-126), so too Mary, Queen of Roses, spreads the fragrance of God’s holiness and praises Him eternally.

All of Mary’s being is directed towards God; her beauty comes from His grace and His face. As the best reflection of God’s beauty and holiness, Mary makes “glad the eyes of all the other saints” (XXXI, 135). Dante follows Bernard’s eyes,[11] which follow Mary’s, which in turn look to God: “The eyes… now fixed upon the supplicant, showed us / how welcome such devotions are to her; / then her eyes turned to the Eternal Light” (XXXIII, 40-43). There is power in her eyes as they constantly behold the Beatific Vision, the “Eternal Light.”[12] The Mother of God silently brings Dante to her Son—or, more fittingly, she brings her Son to Dante. As the vessel of the Incarnation, Mary is a mediator for Salvation: in the same way, she is a mediator between Dante (the representative of mankind) and God (of whom she is Mother).

Mary’s status as mediator and exemplar is such that she needs no dialogue. Her humility and submission to God’s will are the pillars of her holiness: just as she is “more humble and sublime than any creature” (XXXIII, 2), so too God’s Light is referred to as “sublime” (XXXIII, 54). Her humility is like God’s[13]; she thinks not of herself but of her children—in this case, Dante. When she brings Dante to God, the poet ends his epic with a reflection on Love and Light: “my / desire and will were moved already… by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (XXXIII, 142-145). These lines are strikingly similar to Mary’s Fiat, when she submits to God’s will and houses Love Incarnate within her. Through her submission, she grows closest to the “radiance of God, through which I saw / the noble triumph of the true realm” (XXX, 97-98).

Since Mary is a reflection of that incomprehensible Divine radiance, Dante the poet finds it difficult to describe her; he begs for “the power to speak of what I saw!” (XXX, 99). Dante implies that he is fit for this seemingly impossible task, as he warns his readers not to “attempt to sail the seas I sail: you may, / by losing sight of me, be left astray” (II, 4-6).[14] Naming Mary Intercessor, Mother, Queen, and the Reflection of God, Dante successfully paints the image, or near-image, of Light itself, of God Himself. His skillful weaving of supernatural and natural elements results in a paradoxical image of Mary as the holiest creature: while she is still a creature who can be likened to physical things, her proximity to God means that Dante cannot fully comprehend or describe her in her true otherworldly magnificence.

Beatrice reminds Dante of his insufficiencies shortly before her character disappears, saying that “the defect” in his view of heaven “lies in [him], whose sight is not yet that sublime” (XXX, 80-81). Even when his sight is purified in Canto XXXIII to the point that he can “more deeply [penetrate]” the sublime Light of God (lines 52-54), what Dante sees is still “greater / than speech can show: at such a sight, it fails— / and memory fails when faced with such excess” (XXXIII, 55-57). Dante the author paradoxically states that, though his memory is insufficient, his heart is still deeply imprinted with “the sweetness” of his vision (XXXIII, 58-63). Dante communicates this sweetness and beauty in the flowery, bright, humble but radiant vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the exemplar of virtue and the Reflection of God’s Light. Through this glorious Reflection, Dante the traveler, Dante the author, and we the readers are given clearer glimpses of God, Whom Dante names as “the Infinite Goodness,” “the Living Light,” and “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”[15]

[1] When Virgil approaches Dante in the Inferno (XX, 94-118), he tells Dante of “a gentle lady [in Heaven]” who pities Dante and sends Lucia to Beatrice, who in turn sends Virgil to save Dante. Mary has less than two lines in this passage, and zero in Paradiso, from which all other citations in this paper are drawn (both trans. Mandelbaum, 2004 edition).

[2] Though Mary has more lines in the Bible than in Dante’s epic, she still speaks very little, often silently meditating on and pondering the sacred in her heart (see Lk 2:19, NRSVCE).

[3] “you must beseech / grace from that one who has the power to help you” (see XXXII, 147-148)

[4] “O grace abounding, through which I presumed / to set my eyes on the Eternal Light / so long that I spent all my sight on it!” (XXXIII, 82-84)

[5] Lines 94-96. Ave Maria, gratia plena translates “Hail Mary, full of grace.” This prayer, the Hail Mary, is based on the Scriptural account of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel.

[6] “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” (NRSVCE)

[7] XXX, 82-85; XXXII, 76-77; XXXIII, 107-108

[8] Luke 1:38 (DRA)

[9] Line 7

[10] Here we see again the gratia plena of the Hail Mary.

[11] Bernard “turned his own eyes to her with such affection / that he made mine gaze still more ardently” (XXXI, 141-142).

[12] XXXIII, 82-84.

[13] sublime” (XXXIII, 54) See quote on Christ’s humility: Philippians 2:6-8.

[14] He further clarifies that even other holy Christians should still keep “their course within / [his] wake” (II, 14-15), reiterating the difficulty of the task.

[15] XXXIII, 81, 110, 145

3 Responses

  1. Thank you for drawing out the central role of Mary in the epic journey of Dante to the Eternal Light and Love.

  2. Beautiful essay on Our Lady’s role in the Divine Comedy! Thank you for posting this. I’ll have my high schoolers read it to help them bring into focus Mary’s role in this epic poem. God bless!

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