Like any Florentine of the late thirteenth century, Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) lived in a world permeated by the Bible, “The Book” that underwrote all spheres of life. Yet access to scripture was by no means limited to those literate few who could read St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate; rather, it was available to everyone and everywhere off the page. In the church’s worship, the laity heard the Bible read aloud, preached, prayed, and chanted. It was dramatized in ritual, pageant, and drama (sacra rappresentazione); made medieval visible in iconographic programs in frescoes, sculpture, and glass; and “translated” (as in St. Francis’s poetry or in the lauds of the Virgin Mary) into biblically inflected song. One only has to take in the spectacular mosaic dome of Florence’s baptistery—the place where every Florentine became at once a Christian and a citizen of the commune—to understand how fully the canonical story of creation, redemption, and judgment was on glorious display to everyone. Therefore, as important as the actual biblical text may have been for clergy, monastics, and the exceptional layperson, the scriptures were far more readily heard or seen than they were actually read. The biblical story was always already known, and by people who, whatever their learning or piety, were to some extent its living concordances.

Dante’s Biblical Learning.

Yet unlike those who got their Bible by osmosis, Dante knew the scriptures intimately as text and in ways that suggest years of reading and study. We know how this may have come about. In the Convivio Dante writes that after the death of Beatrice he sought consolation for his loss over a period of “perhaps some thirty months” by “frequenting the schools of the religious and the disputations of the philosophers” (2.12.7). The “schools” (scuole) referred to here are most certainly the studia generale of the Mendicant orders, the Franciscans at the church of Santa Croce and the Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella. Both houses were important places of learning in their respective communities, drawing teachers as well as clerical students from all over Europe. Both were also renowned for preachers who drew sizable crowds to piazzas constructed in front of these magnificent, mid-thirteenth-century churches precisely to accommodate such multitudes. It is tempting to think who Dante may have heard preach. It may have been the Dominican Remigio de’ Girolami (d. 1319) on the Song of Songs or the Franciscans Pietro di Giovanni Olivi (d. 1298) and Ubertino da Casale (d. after 1325), who made use of Revelation to lambaste the church of the day, much as the poet himself does in the Commedia.

What might it have meant for Dante to “frequent” the schools of the religious? In his research on education in medieval Florence, Charles Till Davis (1984, pp. 137–165) has argued that at least when it came to scriptural and theological study (as opposed to science and philosophy), the monastic studia opened their doors to “seculars,” that is, not only to ordinary (or regular) clergy, but also to laypeople looking for more spiritual nurture than could be found in a tiny parish (such as San Martino del Vescovo, reputedly the Alighieri family church). Some satisfied their need by affiliation with a lay confraternity (groups of men and women devoted variously to good works, penance, or praise); others joined the third order of the Mendicants as “tertiaries,” who lived married lives in the world but in close association with the life of a monastic community. It is conceivable that someone with Dante’s spiritual inclination might have moved in these circles; participation in the scuole, however, is the one route we know he actually chose.

The Arts of Biblical Interpretation.

For all the differences between the theological orientation and “style” of Franciscans and Dominicans, scripture stood at the center of their spiritual life and academic curriculum. Monastic lectio divina nourished their worship, offering a practice of scriptural reading, meditation, and prayer that was intended to deepen knowledge of the Bible in order to enter into communion with God. But in addition to this essentially devotional activity there was also academic study: lectio, the reading of the Bible with commentary (and such aids as the Glossa ordinaria); disputatio, the discussion of theological questions arising out of problematic texts; and praedicatio, the preaching of scripture. The artes praedicandi (arts of preaching) stressed the importance of targeting a particular audience and reaching out to it at an appropriate level of discourse—a skill that Dante clearly mastered in the Commedia, with its dazzling array of rhetorical strategies to engage all kinds of reader.

As a layman, of course, there would be no occasion for Dante to mount the pulpit in church, and yet it is also true that throughout his poem he shines forth as a passionate vernacular preacher. We see this in his formal addresses to the reader, for instance, when he reaches out from the framework of the narrative in order to inspire, cajole, or make sure that attention is being paid (Par. 10.22–27). He can also assume the role of the Hebrew prophet, raising up a jeremiad to his countrymen (“Ahi serva Italia,” Purg. 6.76–151) or sounding the trumpet of judgment against the papacy of his day, as if he were the Old Testament Joel proclaiming the Day of Reckoning (Inf. 19.5, Joel 2:1).

A vivid instance of this prophetic persona is found in hell’s circle of simony, where clergy are punished for the sin of buying and selling of church offices. Dante the pilgrim approaches the inverted form of one of the damned who is visible only from foot to thigh and half plunged into a round hole in the infernal rock that the poet compares to a font in the Florentine baptistery. Bending down to speak, Dante is likened to a friar brought in to hear the last confession of a convicted assassin who, according to Florentine practice, would meet his death by being buried alive upside down. The “assassin” in question here is a late thirteenth-century pope, Nicholas III, notorious for his trafficking in spiritual things and, in particular, for nepotism. In the course of a blistering 28 lines (Inf. 19.89–117), the pilgrim articulates what we know to be Dante’s own outrage at clerical decadence. His words, however, are no mere rant; they are a carefully wrought homily ad hominem that is made up of biblical references that come from throughout the scriptural canon, from the prophet Hosea, to 2 Maccabees, to the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles, and Revelation. At the outset of this diatribe Dante wonders, perhaps disingenuously, if he is too rash, perhaps even mad (“troppo folle,” v. 88), in his denunciation; yet essentially what he has done is bring scripture’s “parole vere” (“true words,” v. 123) to bear on a notorious problem besetting the church. Like a well-trained polemicist he uses biblically informed questions to undermine his adversary. “Pray now tell me how much treasure did our Lord require of Saint Peter before he put the keys into his keeping? Surely he asked nothing save: ‘Follow me’ ” (vv. 90–93). In this encounter, the layman Dante uses scripture to catch the conscience (or, at least, establish the culpability) of the contemporary papacy.

More frequently in the Commedia it is a heavenly spokesperson who preaches the Word on the poet’s behalf: Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Peter Damian, Benedict, and, alone of all her sex, Beatrice. In the third canticle, Dante’s beloved—his personal addition to the company of heaven—soars past St. Paul’s injunction for women to keep silent in the churches (1 Cor 14:34) to become the Paradiso’s major theologian and scold of abusive clerics. In Paradiso 29 (vv. 85–126) she denounces those (males) whom the church ordains and licenses to preach the gospel but who instead have abandoned their charge. No wonder the flock is scattering. Beatrice bemoans those who neglect the Word of God either by perverting its meaning or by drowning it in a barrage of empty, crowd-pleasing rhetorical display. Instead of feeding the flock with the meat of biblical nourishment, they deliver “fables” (v. 104), “wind” (v. 107), “trash” (v. 110), “jests and buffoonery” (v. 115), “folly” (v. 121)—stories about St. Anthony’s pig or pointless speculations about the eclipse that darkened the earth at Christ’s death. With a withering sarcasm that conveys the poet’s own outrage at the pulpit show-offs of the day, she finally rests her case on the Great Commission, Christ’s command to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creatures” (Mark 16:15). Rather than quote the text aright, however, she deliberately misquotes it in order to suggest all the damage that has been done by the “moderni pastori” (Par. 21.131), that is, by the “successful” clergy of the day: “Christ did not say to his first company: / ‘Go preach idle stories to the world’; / but he gave them the true foundation” (29.109–111).

Dante’s Bible.

Given his command of scripture, one would expect that rather than relying on the large, multivolume texts found in the libraries of monasteries and churches, Dante might have had his own Bible. If so, then it was probably the exemplar Parisiensis or “Paris Bible,” developed in early thirteenth-century Paris to meet the needs of students in the classroom and Mendicant preachers on a mission. (Its portability would also be of advantage to an exiled poet on the move throughout central and northern Italy.) This compact, one-volume edition was small in size, and, well before the age of printing, written on thin parchment. It often included the prefaces of St. Jerome as well as an array of research tools that made these texts of great practical use to scholars and preachers: lists of biblical names, concordances, short passages for use against heretics. The great proliferation of Paris Bibles suggests a growing number of individual rather than communal readers—an educated elite who gravitated to universities and Mendicant studia, filled administrative positions in church and state alike, and actively used their Bibles in what André Vauchez has called “the diffusion of the evangelical word” among the laity (1993, p. 100).

Constructing a Scriptural Self in Prose.

Although we do not know the extent of Dante’s contact with the Mendicants during the “perhaps some thirty months” he spent in their schools, there is no mistaking the skills he somehow acquired in lectio, disputatio, and praedicatio. Nor is there any way to miss his rhetorical brilliance in drawing on scripture for a wide variety of purposes. One of these was to use the Bible to construct his authority to articulate the “true foundation” of his convictions, which were both religious and political. Take the Monarchia, for instance. After relying on classical warrants in his first two books, he is especially rich in his use of medieval exegesis in the third, where we watch him advocate for the divine mandate of world government by maneuvering the “sacred page” to advance an argument and bolster a claim. His target audience for this treatise would have been dead set against his cause. They were members of the papal curia and its affiliates who held that earthly government was wholly subordinate to ecclesiastical power, a mere moon compared to the church’s sun. Against this line of thought he maintained that there was a specifically divine warrant for universal empire. Rome had a providential mandate, both in the past and for the future. Therefore, in God’s plan for humankind there were in fact two suns, not one: an empire to bring about earthly beatitude and a church to guide the way to the world to come. At least when it came to life in this world, the pope had to share power with the emperor.

How to argue for these unorthodox convictions, which led to the Monarchia’s public burning in 1329 not long after Dante’s death, not to mention its placement on the church’s “Index of Prohibited Books” until well into the nineteenth century? In the first place, Dante writes the Monarchia in Latin, the language of the church and of the scriptures, in order to show his primarily clerical audience that he was a learned, worthy opponent. Second, at the very beginning of book three he takes a biblical role model for himself—Daniel—who, like Dante, was an exile without worldly position or power, yet was certain both of his own rectitude and of God’s mercy on his behalf. Rather than having been thrown into the lions’ den by a pagan ruler, however, Dante has been persecuted by his “Christian” enemies in Florence and the Vatican. It is they who bar him from returning to the “fair sheep fold where I slept as a lamb” (“del bello ovile ov’io dormi agnello,” Par. 25.5), to recall the poignant address to the reader that opens Paradiso 25. But although they have barred his return—after almost 20 years of wandering, Dante died in exile—they can do nothing to weaken his faith in God’s deliverance. Because of this identification with Daniel, he opens Monarchia 3 by quoting the faithful Israelite’s words to a malevolent king as if they were his own: “He hath shut up the mouths of the lions, and they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before him justice hath been found in me” (Mon. 3.1; Dan 6:22).

And yet for all this, Daniel is not Dante’s only scriptural role model here. In the lines that follow this biblical quote, he shores up his embattled identity by aligning himself with other “kinsmen” from the New and Old Testaments: “ ‘Putting on the breast-plate of faith,’ as Paul exhorts us, afire with that burning coal which one of the seraphim took from the heavenly altar to touch Isaiah’s lips, I shall enter the present arena.” Therefore, let the papal reader of this treatise beware: those who would contend with the author should know that he is well armed with scripture and ready to fight, regardless of the odds. Thanks to this freely appropriated canonical frame of reference, he has what John Alford has called a “scriptural self,” which makes him who he is and authorizes him to speak as he does. In the Monarchia’s last book the Bible is nothing less than Paul’s “whole armor of God”: his breastplate, sword, helmet, and shield; his protection against “the rulers of this world of darkness” (Eph 6:12).

We find this same scriptural self-construction in Dante’s epistles, most tellingly in the one delivered in 1314 to the Italian cardinals. With considerable passion and eloquence, he urges the church hierarchy to return the church to its ancient, apostolic seat in Rome and therefore deliver it from its “Babylonian Captivity” in Avignon. In paragraph five he declares that despite his boldness of address to these “princes of the church,” he is no biblical Uzzah, a man destroyed by God for profaning the Ark of the Lord (2 Sam 6:6–7). Although a mere layman, qualified only by his baptism and his sense of “call” at a time of crisis, he is like Paul (“By the grace of God, therefore, I am what I am”; 1 Cor 15:10). He is also like the Psalmist (“from the mouths of babes and sucklings has been heard the truth well pleasing to God”; Ps 8:2). Finally, he is like Jesus himself, who, when confronted by moneychangers in the Temple, railed against those who polluted it with their mercantile “traffic” (“and the zeal of His house has eaten me up”). He fully justifies Stanley Benfell’s (2011) characterization of him as “The Biblical Dante.”

Biblical Commedia.

How are we to measure the poet’s reliance on scripture? Scholars have different ways to quantify Dante’s debt to the Bible. By one count (Manetti, 1984, p. 122), the poet’s complete works contain 575 citations from the Bible as compared to 395 from Aristotle and 192 from Virgil. Ongoing “sleuthing” of biblical presence continues to bring to light new evidence of biblical intertextuality and the wide variety of forms it takes. A recently published catalog, Dante and the Vulgate Bible (Lund-Mead and Iannucci, 2012), demonstrates over the course of more than seven hundred pages the astonishing degree to which the Commedia is saturated, even “marinated,” in scripture. Direct citation would seem to be relatively straightforward, and yet quoting a verse, a phrase, or even a word also entails the recollection of a more extensive biblical context. Thus, the Monarchia’s quote from Daniel 6:22, for instance, brings with it an entire narrative with many links or associations for the poet to make use of.

With any citation, moreover, there is also a wealth of scriptural commentary to contend with. In a glossed Bible, centuries of what patristic and medieval exegetes had to offer would surround the sacred text—in the margins of the page, at its top and bottom, and between the lines. Dante may not always have made use of this commentary or counted on a reader being aware of it; nonetheless, one can say in general that to read the Bible in the Middle Ages was not to encounter the “sacred page” on its own. There was always a cloud of witnesses weighing in.

Far more plentiful than direct citation in the Commedia, as Christopher Kleinhenz (1997) has shown, are other more subtle degrees of biblical reference: allusion, paraphrase, echo, or what we might think of as an even more subtle textual reminiscence or “atmosphere.” Here the overt gives way to the covert, as Dante’s deep assimilation of the Latin scriptures into his own vernacular results in a poem that becomes almost an echo chamber of the Bible. This does not mean that the poet merely reiterates what he finds, as if he were only the scribe of God rather than the “creative writer” he is. For all his reverence for scripture as the “the plenteous rain of the Holy Spirit which is poured over the old and over the new parchments” (Par. 24.91–93), he is never merely God’s scribe. Nor does he scruple to accommodate the scripture to his artistic and polemical needs—to make use of it—so that his echo of the Bible involves as much rewriting as repetition. He gives a strikingly new account of the Spirit’s “parchments.”

Bible at the Threshold.

We can see how Dante carries out his intimate relationship with scripture from the moment we begin the Commedia. Take the first line. The Inferno opens by telling time, as the poet signals from the start that he is “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (In the middle of the journey of our life). When annotating this line, commentators typically do the math for us: the poet was born in 1265 and therefore is 35 at the time of his journey in 1300. Later we will learn that he descends into hell on Good Friday, “one thousand and two hundred sixty-six years” (Inf. 21.113–114) after Christ preceded him on the shattered roadway of the Inferno. But none of this information is strictly necessary to establish the “when” of the pilgrim’s coming to himself. That is, it is unnecessary if one remembers the span of “our life” as it is given in the Psalms: “the days of our years are seventy years” (Ps 89 [90]:10). Halfway through our “three score and ten,” precisely nel mezzo del cammin, he is 35.

This particular psalm is not the only biblical text at play in the poem’s opening line. Dante’s recollection of the events that took place for him “in the middle of the journey of our life” also echoes King Hezekiah’s song of thanksgiving as recorded by the prophet to commemorate the king’s rescue from mortal illness: “I said: ‘In the midst of my days I shall go to the gates of hell: I sought for the residue of my years’ ” (Isa 38:10). Here we find a good deal more than a commonplace allusion to our life expectancy given by Psalm 89 [90]: we have a scriptural subtext for the poet’s larger effort in the Commedia. In opening his own story of salvation from the powers of death, Dante appropriates for himself the parallel experience of Hezekiah, a man saved by God’s intervention from the “gates of hell” (v. 10) and “the pit” (v. 18). Also like Dante, the king looks back on his infernal experience and, from the perspective of deliverance, writes it down (Isa 38:9). Furthermore, St. Jerome, in his influential commentary on the passage, notes that whereas a good man dies at the end of his days, the sinner comes to the gates of hell in the midst of them. With this scripture and commentary in mind, we can see that Dante’s losing his way “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” is the poet’s confession of his past spiritual dereliction, a tacit admission from the very outset that he was not only lost in a dark and savage wood, but (to quote Jerome’s gloss on Isa 38:10) “in the shadow of errors that lead to hell” (cited in Battaglia Ricci, 1988, p. 318).

Commedia’s Biblical Matrix.

In the opening line of the Commedia, therefore, we can see in miniature the biblical matrix of Dante’s imagination, through implied connections between his text and God’s Word by way of allusion to the Psalter, to Isaiah, and to Jerome’s commentary on Hezekiah’s song. He assimilates scripture to such a degree that it becomes one with his own vernacular speech; as a result, the Bible is present as much between the lines of the Commedia as within them. At least, it is if the reader knows the Bible as well as Dante clearly did—almost as a mother tongue, a network of texts always there in memory. Occasionally he will toe readers to a source, as when he invokes Luke’s Emmaus road story (24:1–32) in Purgatorio 21. When Statius comes upon Virgil and Dante, we are told explicitly that it is “come ne scrive Luca” (as Luke writes, v. 6). Most often, biblical references need to be recognized without the poet’s help.

Take, for instance, the mysterious three beasts that the pilgrim encounters shortly after the poem’s beginning. The leopard, lion, and she-wolf are briefly described—they menace, terrify, and impede the pilgrim’s ascent toward the light—but they are never identified. Like other allegorical figures in the poem—the “veltro” (Hound, Inf. 1.102–111) or the “DXV” (“un cinquecento diece e cinque”; Purg. 33.43)—they seem like enigmas meant to be left as puzzles. For a biblical precedent for enigma there is the allegorical welter of Revelation with its giants, dragons, whores, and beasts, one of whom has “the number of a man”: “six hundred sixty six” (Rev 13:18). But unlike the many who have been associated with the 666, from Nero to the pope to various super powers, Dante’s three beasts have a more certain identification in scripture. In Jeremiah 5 God tells the prophet to go into the streets of Jerusalem and “find a man that executeth judgment, and seeketh faith, and I will be merciful unto [the city]” (v. 1). Because no such citizen can be found, disaster is forthcoming upon the people: “Wherefore a lion out of the wood hath slain them, a wolf in the evening hath spoiled them, a leopard watcheth for their cities” (v. 6).

Dante does not point us to this Old Testament passage by adding “as Jeremiah writes.” We cannot say for sure that he wants his three beasts to recall the prophet’s or that St. Peter’s triple invocation of his “place” (“luogo”) in Paradiso 27.22–23 necessarily echoes the three times the prophet cries out “the temple of the LORD” in Jeremiah 7:4. Nonetheless, following the path of the poet’s leopard, lion, and wolf back to their possible origin in Jeremiah 5 raises interesting parallels between the Bible and Dante’s poem. Jerusalem becomes Florence, the Jerusalemites who neither execute judgment nor keep the faith the pilgrim and his fellow citizens, and the prophet Jeremiah—despised for his predictions of doom and forced into an exile at the end of his days—a figure of the poet who, after his experience as pilgrim, writes the Commedia’s hundred-canto “judgment call.”

David as Model Biblical Poetic.

Although Jeremiah may in some sense be present between the lines and below the textual surface of Inferno 1, another biblical figure is more clearly “there”—not in person or by name but through the citation of a particular word that gives him away. At the mid-point of Inferno 1, fleeing from the beasts that prevent his ascent, the pilgrim suddenly finds someone who may come to his rescue. Desperate, he cries out, “Miserere di me” (Have pity on me, v. 65). Almost immediately the stranger identifies himself as Virgil, soon to be acclaimed by the ecstatic pilgrim as “my master and my author” (v. 85). As epic poet of the Aeneid, Virgil is, of course, the paragon of Romanitas as well as “nostra maggior musa” (our greatest muse; Par. 15.26). There is no way to miss his importance either as character or as text. But Virgil is not the only “master” and “author” for us to be mindful of here; there is also the Psalmist David. Conjured by the pilgrim’s first spoken words in the poem, Dante’s apparently spontaneous cri de coeur, is, in fact, a citation of Psalm 50 [51]:3, “Miserere mei Deus” (Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy. And according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity; vv. 3–4). Dante’s reprise of the psalm begins in Latin with “Miserere” before switching to the poem’s vernacular “di me,” thus suggesting the direction of his own linguistic project in creating a new sacred language.

The superscription to Psalm 50 [51], which forms its first two verses in the Vulgate, links it to the story told in 2 Samuel 11–12, where David’s adultery with Bathsheba and lethal dispatch of her husband Uriah in battle leads to the prophet Nathan’s stunning condemnation of his sins. David readily accepts his guilt—“I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Sam 12:13)—and, according to tradition, composes the psalm to articulate his confession of sin and hope in forgiveness. Consequently, David becomes in the Middle Ages both the archetypal penitent and the biblical poet par excellence—“sweet singer of Israel” according to scripture (2 Sam 23:1), and “sommo cantor del sommo duce” (supreme singer of the supreme lord, Par. 25.72) for the author of the Paradiso. David’s importance is felt throughout the Commedia but underscored specifically by the strategic triple recurrence of the word Miserere. Indeed, the psalm appears not only “under cover” in Inferno 1, but explicitly in Ante-purgatory as the penitents go “singing the Miserere verse by verse” (Purg 5.24), much as would living Christians in church. Finally, to complete the pattern, Ruth is identified among the Hebrew matriarchs in the heavenly rose as “great-grandmother of that singer who / grieving for his sin, cried: Miserere mei” (Par. 32.10–11). It is also tempting to find a last trace of the psalm in St. Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin, into whose mercy he consigns the pilgrim as the poem draws to a close: “In te misericordia, in te pietate” (33.19).

Close Encounters.

Thus far we have looked at biblical citation and allusion as Dante forges connections between his poem and God’s Word. We could consider as well how the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, with its account of Christ’s descent into hell, is recollected in the pilgrim’s journey through the Inferno and how St. Paul’s ascent to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:1–4) underwrites the Paradiso. We might observe how the successive charges to the pilgrim to transcribe his afterlife vision for the good of the living—authorizations of the Commedia given by Beatrice (Purg. 103–105 and 33.76–78), Cacciaguida (Par. 17.124–142), and saints James (Par. 25.40–44), John (Par. 25.124–26), and Peter (Par. 27.64–67)—puts us in mind of the biblical “call narrative,” in which prophets and visionaries from both Testaments are told to deliver the Word of the Lord by writing it down (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Habbakuk, and John, the assumed author of Revelation).

Exploring the deployment of scripture in the Purgatorio would take us throughout the canticle, from start to finish: from the penitents singing the entirety of Psalm 113[114–115], In exitu Israel de Aegypto, as they head to the shores of the Mountain (canto 2); to the drama of angels and serpent in Ante-Purgatory (canto 8); to the various visual representations of biblical story that punctuate the purgatorial climb; to the reformulation of sacred text all along the way (the Our Father, the Beatitudes); to the “updating” of Revelation that takes place in the historical phantasmagoria of Purgatorio 32.

None of these encounters with scripture, however, can compare with the allegorical Pageant of Revelation that unfolds in Purgatorio 29 and prepares the way for Beatrice in canto 30. Here in Eden the poet gives us an allegorical representation of the entire canon from the alpha of Genesis to the omega of Revelation. Twenty-four white-robed elders “embody” the Hebrew Bible; four “living creatures” the four Gospels; and the seven elders who follow in their train the remainder of the New Testament, with Revelation, “an old man, coming alone, asleep, with keen visage” (Ps 113:143–144), bringing up the rear. The procession reminds us that in the Middle Ages the Bible was as much an event as a collection of books. Analogies are easy to find: liturgical processions, pageantry devised for the newly proclaimed feast of Corpus Christi, the dramatic Ordo prophetarum, attributed to St. Augustine and customarily performed in the season of the Nativity, and the mosaic programs of churches in Rome and Ravenna. In his richness of detail, the poet’s procession recalls the wide range of liturgical and artistic expressions whereby the sacred text was embedded in word and image, sound and gesture.

In addition to its presentation of traditional material, however, this allegorical “lineup” also holds some surprises. At one point the poet makes a shortcut in his description of the four “living creatures” that surround the Griffon’s chariot. He begins by acknowledging that in the main he is in accord with Ezekiel’s account of such figures (Ezek 1), yet when it comes to a particular detail he parts company with the Hebrew prophet and stands instead with the author of Revelation: “salvo ch’a la penne / Giovanni è meco e da lui si diparte” (except that, as to the wings, John is with me, and differs from him”; Rev 4:104–105). It might be predictable to choose a New Testament authority above one that comes from the Old. But what Dante actually writes here is anything but predictable. It is not an appropriately deferential “I am with John” but, rather, “John is with me.” His alleged eyewitness in Eden validates what we find in Revelation: final authority rests with him, coming as he does after the canonical writers and thus able to give what amounts to the last word. For this reason, perhaps, he goes out of his way to “improve upon” John. His white-robed elders are garlanded with lilies or roses, not with the familiar gold crowns of John’s seniors; they also process in stately measure rather than sitting stationary upon thrones (v. 4). Instead of the biblical “Sanctus” and “Dignus es, domine” (vv. 8, 11), both of which were incorporated into the liturgy, Dante’s elders sing original texts that show the poet’s distinctive amalgam of Latin and the vernacular (Purg. 29:85–87).

Dante as Biblical Author.

To borrow a line from the Apostle Paul, “What shall we then say to these things?” (Rom 8:31). Perhaps another text can help. Toward the end of the Paradiso, the pilgrim faces an examination that tests his knowledge of the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) that spans Paradiso 24–26. After the metaphorical profusion of our first view of the Church Triumphant in the preceding canto—a maternal garden of delight—the setting of the next cantos is utterly different and oddly academic, giving rise to doubtful stories about the exilic Dante “disputing” with theologians at the University of Paris. Here Beatrice plays the role of the pilgrim’s professorial advocate while his examiners are none other than Peter, James, and John—Jesus’s inner circle of disciples, all witnesses to his Transfiguration and all biblical authors representative of the three New Testament genres: gospel, epistle, and apocalypse. The exam offers an opportunity for the pilgrim to show how far he has come from the dark wood at the beginning of the journey; for the poet, it is a chance to demonstrate his skill as a theologus. Throughout, Dante gives evidence of his extraordinary mastery of scripture, but in one particular moment he reveals, as if in passing, his deep aspiration both for himself and his poem. He lets his readers see the extent to which he wants to be “the biblical Dante.”

In canto 25 James asks the pilgrim not only what Christian hope consists of but how he came to know it. His answer (vv. 67–78) draws on the cosmic model of divine influence first presented in Paradiso 2: a filtration of heavenly light, a shower of stars and mediated influence. But here the cosmos is a scriptural one, and the stars in question are scriptural authors and their books. Dante first learned to hope by reading the “divine song” (tëodia) of the Psalmist David, specifically Psalm 9:11, “Let them hope in you who know your name,” cited first in the vernacular (vv. 73–74), then in Latin (v. 98). After being inspired by this Old Testament text, he caught David’s inspiration as he recognized it in the New, namely in the epistle (“pistola,” v. 77) of James. Just as James caught the “overflow” of David in his work, so Dante places himself in their line, the heir to both witnesses, and apostle to his own time, place, and language. Joining their company, “full” (pieno) of what they have instilled in him, he is ready to carry on their work, “e in altrui vostra pioggia repluo” (so that I am full, and pour again your shower upon others; vv. 77–78). Again aligning himself with scriptural authors, as we saw in Purgatorio 29, he places himself at the end of a succession of testaments as if he were carrying the Bible’s future in his hands. Just as David had his tëodia and James his pistola, so now Dante has his Commedia, “the sacred poem to which heaven and earth have so set hand” (Par. 25.1–2).

Are these claims breathtaking in their audacity, or are they what might be expected of anyone who answers a call to spread the Word? Some readers see the poet only giving a fresh telling of the “old, old story” of the Bible as it was entrusted to the church and as it must be presented in every era, culture, and language—anew. For them, the poet did not finally proclaim any new revelation, but rather offered a daringly personal retelling of the old one. By contrast, others (like Harold Bloom [1989]) have emphasized Dante’s boldness and originality, even his heterodoxy. In this light, the Commedia is a third and newer testament meant to “fulfill” the other two by succeeding them. The Bible is of use, therefore, only when it is “with Dante” and can help him realize his enormous ambition as an artist.

Instead of needing to choose between these diametrical views, however, it may be enough to live with both the poet’s bid to be God’s faithful scribe and custodian of the canon and his desire to soar to the heights on his own. Much of the pleasure of reading his text lies precisely in savoring the tension inevitable in any attempt, whatever the motive, to enter so deeply into the mind of scripture as to rewrite it. Rather than presenting his readers with an either/or, Dante gives us the both/and of reverence and daring, of scriptural tradition and his extraordinarily individual talent.




  • Alford, John A. “The Scriptural Self.” In The Bible in the Middle Ages, edited by Bernard S. Levy, pp. 1–21. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992.
  • Alighieri, Dante. Dantis Alagherii Epistolae. 2d ed. Edited and translated by Paget Toynbee. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.
  • Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. 6 vols. Edited and translated by C. S. Singleton. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972–1975.
  • Alighieri, Dante. Il Convivio. Edited and translated by Richard H. Lansing. New York: Garland, 1990.
  • Alighieri, Dante. Monarchia. Edited and translated by Prue Shaw. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Battaglia Ricci, Lucia. “Scrittura sacra e ‘Sacrato Poema.’ ” In Dante e la Bibbia, edited by Giovanni Barblan, pp. 295–422. Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1988.
  • Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam Versionem. Edited by Boniface Fischer. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1983.
  • Davis, Charles Till. Dante’s Italy and Other Essays. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.
  • The Holy Bible. Douay/Rheims Version. Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books, 1971.
  • Iannucci, Amilcare, ed. Dante: Contemporary Perspectives. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
  • Kleinhenz, Christopher. “Dante and the Bible: Biblical Citation in the Divine Comedy.” In Dante: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Amilcare Iannucci, pp. 74–93. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
  • Lund-Mead, Carolynn, and Amilcare Iannucci. Dante and the Vulgate Bible. Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 2012.
  • Manetti, Aldo. “Dante e la Bibbia.” In Bollettino della Civica Biblioteca, pp. 100–128. Bergamo, Italy: Studi di storia, arte e letteratura, 1984.
  • Vauchez, André. The Laity in the Middle Ages: Religious Belief and Devotional Practices. Edited by D. E. Bornstein and translated by M. J. Schneider. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993.

Further Reading

  • Barblan, Giovanni, ed. Dante e la Bibbia. Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1988. Proceedings of an important conference with chapters by major scholars.
  • Benfell, V. Stanley. The Biblical Dante. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. A monograph study of Dante as fundamentally engaged by scripture.
  • Bloom, Harold. Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. Insightful, provocative, and controversial reading of Dante by an influential literary critic.
  • Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1994. Views Dante as aiming to replace scripture’s canon with his own poetic “third testament.”
  • Boitani, Piero. The Bible and Its Rewritings. Translated by Anita Weston. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. An important Dante scholar looks at various ways throughout literary history in which the Bible has inspired new works.
  • Boynton, Susan, and Diane T. Reilly, eds. The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages: Production, Reception, and Performance in Western Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
  • Hawkins, Peter S. Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Jacoff, Rachel. “Dante, Geremia e la problematic profetica.” In Dante e la Bibbis, edited by Giovanni Barblan, pp. 113–124. Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1988.
  • Swanson, R. N. Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215–c. 1515. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A comprehensive study of religious life in the later Middle Ages.
  • Thompson, Augustine, O. P. Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125–1325. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005. An excellent study of Christian belief and practice in the communes of central and northern Italy.

Peter S. Hawkins