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Dante, Our Lady, and the Stars

Posted by Theology of Home on
Dante, Our Lady, and the Stars

"Mary as the Star of the Sea is alluded to, is called upon, serving as a sort of echo chamber, even as a kind of all-encompassing womb; and this is accomplished through Dante’s frequent referencing of the stars, of seas and of the bearing both these have on any nautical traveler.”

By Carrie Gress & Noelle Mering

This is an excerpt from Theology of Home III: At the Sea. I dug into Dante and his stars and I didn't want to stop. I could have spent months researching just this topic. The looming book deadline kept me focused, but I was amazed at the role Our Lady and the stars played in the Divine Comedy. -Carrie

A rich and beautiful picture of our Lady’s ardent efforts is on display in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In his epic voyage from hell, via purgatory, and finally into heaven, Dante is guided into a dark wood because of his mortal sin and is transformed into a godly man who beheld the brightness of holiness captured in the heavens and the stars. But the stars, which shine brightly and prominently throughout the trilogy, may have more meaning than merely luminous celestial bodies.

One scholar, Sheila J. Nayar, writes, “I propose that Mary as the Star of the Sea is alluded to, is called upon—is continuously present throughout the poem—serving as a sort of echo chamber, even as a kind of all-encompassing womb; and this is accomplished through Dante’s frequent referencing of the stars, of seas, and of the bearing both these have on any nautical traveler.”

Mary is the protective and gentle mother who initiated Dante’s journey and dispatched his guides, first Beatrice who then enlists Virgil, to help him find his way home, even without his asking. Philosopher Ralph McInerny said, “The Blessed Virgin Mary is the key to Dante.”

St. Bernard of Clairvaux captures some of the fervor felt by theologian and folk alike when it came to Our Lady, Star of the Sea, offering contemporary readers a shorthand as to why Dante and his contemporaries would have immediately understood that the stars where symbols of Mary. “She is therefore that glorious star . . . whose ray illumines the entire earth, whose splendor shines out conspicuously in heaven and reaches even unto hell. . . . She, I say, is that resplendent and radiant star, placed as a necessary beacon above life’s great and spacious sea.” 

In the poem, our Lady’s first introduction begins in the Inferno—though not directly by name, because her name (like Jesus’s) is too holy to be spoken there. “There is a gentle lady in heaven who weeps at this distress” (Inferno, 2.94–95). The same description could be used with Our Lady at La Salette, weeping for her children who have fallen into sin.

One could downplay the connection to Our Lady and the Comedy, but ample evidence of Dante’s deep affection for the stars and what they symbolize is on display as he ends every book with the word stars:

He first and I behind, we climbed so high
That through a small round opening I saw
Some of the turning beauties of the sky.
And we came out to see, once more, the stars. (Inferno 34.136–139)

 

From its most holy waters I returned
And remade as a new young plant appears
Renewed in every newly springing frond,
Pure, and in time for mounting to the stars. (Purgatorio 33. 142–145)

 

Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy.
Already were all my will and my desires
turned – as a wheel in equal balance – by
The Love that moves the sun and the other stars. (Paradiso 33.142–145)

More than dazzling props in his poem, Dante subtly reveals how Our Lady accompanies him on this journey, lighting his way, guiding him, tending to him like a good mother.

Upon his arrival in paradise, the poet’s language becomes more allegorical to accommodate that which is ineffable, but Dante clearly speaks of Our Lady as a star and as the Queen of Heaven:

The sound of that sweet flower’s name,
the one I pray to night and day,
drew all my soul into the vision of that flame of flames;
and when both of my eyes revealed to me
how rich and glorious was that living star
that reigns in Heaven, as it had reigned on Earth,
down from Heaven’s height there came
a flaming torch shaped in a ring, as if it were a crown,
that spun around the glory of her light. (Paradiso 23.88–96)

Far from being merely a travel guide for the curious (especially about hell), Dante’s poem is a map for safely navigating us to our true home, with the stars illuminating the way.

Similitude

An important and vital role in Dante’s salvation is played by the beautiful and virtuous Beatrice. Before there was any Divine Comedy, she was Dante’s muse to whom he devoted his heart; it was her beauty and goodness that sent him on his quest. His interest started with mere carnal passion, and then, tragically, she died, which sent Dante to the depths of despair and a dissolute life. His contact with women who lacked virtue escalated his devotion to Beatrice. As Ralph McInerny says, “His love for Beatrice finally emerges in his great poem as the means of his salvation.”

In The Divine Comedy, Dante writes her in as his guide after Virgil, the symbol of reason, leads him through hell and most of purgatory. Beatrice takes over as his guide as a symbol of love, which is required for true salvation beyond mere reason. She is so radiant that, at times, it is difficult for Dante to look at her. She and all of paradise are dazzling beyond comprehension.

Beatrice serves Dante both as a physical guide through heaven but also as a kind of mediator that helps him see beauty and goodness at a previously unknown level. She leads him, by way of her similarity to the Queen of Heaven, to a deep and true devotion to our Lady. His love for Beatrice, and her goodness, is the springboard to deeper and fuller love. And Mary’s love and goodness always point to her Son, the one who can finally bring peace to Dante’s heart.

The similitude between Beatrice and our Lady is not insignificant. As the late Norbertine priest Fr. Cadoc Leighton explained, “Closeness, in the spiritual realm, . . . is similitude.” He continues, “The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity has become one like us, so that we can become like Him. In [Mary’s] life we see the process of our redemption revealed, because we see her similitude to her Son. We cannot actually contemplate Mary without contemplating Jesus at the same time.”

Fr. Leighton emphasizes that similitude is a vital element in Christianity because it offers us a model to follow, a way to be educated, and a path to salvation. Mary’s similitude to Jesus, he adds, “is the revelation of what the process of salvation is, up close.”

But what if someone has never encountered Mary as a mother? We can see how vital the Beatrices of the world are, that she and women like her can offer a human model of feminine virtue and beauty. They can help elevate those who are searching for something or someone to help bring rest to their hearts, even if they may not know it. We are called to be like Beatrice, to guide others to God through our similitude to him and his mother.

Click here to purchase a signed copy of Theology of Home III: At the Sea.

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