Dante’s Divine Comedy shows readers the redeeming power of beauty. This is conveyed through Beatrice, who serves as Dante’s guide through the heavens. As the woman who Dante loved in real life, her goodness and purity helped the poet glimpse the heavenly world. And so, in the Divine Comedy, a poem written in her memory, Beatrice serves as Dante’s guide to God and as a symbol of beauty.
As Dante ascends through the heavens, he sees the light of God reflected in the eyes of Beatrice. “Beatrice looks at God, Dante looks at Beatrice and sees in her, as in a clear mirror, the sign from God,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar. “The beloved does not imprison the poet within herself; on the contrary, she opens up for him the perception of all reality.” (1) Dante might be tempted to enclose himself in the eyes of Beatrice, but as a symbol of true beauty she does not let him. Instead she reminds him that the beauty in her eyes is only a reflection of God’s splendor. It is not in her eyes that paradise is found. Beatrice says:
I can recall just this about that moment:
as I was gazing at her there, I know
my heart was freed of every other longing,
for the Eternal joy was shining straight
into my Beatrice’s face, and back
came its reflection filling me with joy;
then, with a smile whose radiance dazzled me,
she said: “Now turn around and listen well,
not in my eyes alone is Paradise.” (2)
As Dante sees beauty in Beatrice’s eyes, he finds himself ascending higher into Heaven. “Then, to the eyes of beauty my eyes turned,” says Dante in Canto XXII of the Paradiso. And as often happens after staring into her eyes, Dante ascends further upward (3). Indeed, Beatrice gives Dante the strength to complete his journey. When the pilgrim is tired, she encourages him to go on. When he is unable to see the light of God directly, her eyes give him an indirect vision. Beatrice as a symbol of beauty encourages, directs, and points the pilgrim to God.
Only the Blessed Virgin Mary has eyes that are more beautiful. As the highest created masterpiece, the Virgin Mary is the most beautiful and her eyes reflect most clearly the eternal light of God. When Dante encounters Mary in Heaven, the reader sees the same pattern of vision as was with Beatrice. The Virgin Mary looks at God, and Dante looks at the Virgin Mary. After seeing the light of God reflected in the Virgin Mary’s eyes, his vision is then clear enough for the Beatific Vision. Ad Jesum per Mariam. Dante recalls:
Those eyes so loved and reverenced God,
now fixed on him who prayed, made clear to us
how precious true devotion is to her;
then she looked into the Eternal Light,
into whose being, we must believe, no eyes
of other creatures pierce with such insight.”
for now my vision as it grew more clear
was penetrating more and more the Ray
of that exalted Light of Truth Itself (4)
Dante conveys that holiness and beauty go hand-in-hand. As Dante gets closer to God, what he experiences is more beautiful. The Virgin Mary is closer to God than any created being and therefore she is the most beautiful. On the other hand, the further Dante wanders from God in the Inferno, the uglier things are.
For this reason, Satan dwells in the dark and cold pit of Hell and embodies brute ugliness. Without the light of truth to illumine him and his surroundings, Satan does not see Dante and Virgil as they pass by him. Narcissism is the fixation on one’s own self, and Satan is the biggest narcissist of all. As a result, he fixates only on himself and his own misery, thereby inverting the pattern of sight seen with Beatrice and the Virgin Mary. Dante looks at Satan, and Satan looks at the ground weeping. His vision is not focused upward toward God, but is instead focused downward to the immediate, superficial, and passing — to anything but what is beautiful.
Dante’s Divine Comedy conveys the objectivity and redeeming power of beauty. That is, he conveys that beauty is clearly more than a pleasure as judged by the senses and that it is more than a subjective taste. Instead, beauty is a transcendental, an attribute of being insofar as it reveals the splendor of the good and true that permeate reality. As Catholics, we believe that the beauty of the Word Incarnate is seen in the beauty of created things, and especially in the Church, the continuing of the incarnation.
For whatever it’s worth, I recommend Dante’s Divine Comedy to all who love beauty. It is clear that Dante believes in the power of beauty, and this is conveyed in no clearer way than Beatrice’s role in the poem.
Darrell Falconburg teaches great books seminars for a classical Catholic high school in Denver, Colorado. He received a master’s degree in philosophy from Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary and a bachelor’s degree in history from the College of Idaho.
1 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. 3: Studies in Theological Style: Lay Styles (California: Ignatius Press, 1986), 63-64.
2 Dante, Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Paradiso., trans. Mark Musa (repr. New York: Penguin Books, 1971), XVIII 13-21.
3 Ibid, XXII 154.
4 Ibid, XXXIII 40-42.