Dante’s Prophesy of the Fall of the Roman Catholic Church. Part II

Exegesis of Canto XXXII of the Purgatorio

The procession turns to the East. The Tree of Adam appears. At first it is stripped of leaves, but it bursts into flower when the pole of the Griffin Chariot is tied to it. Dante falls into a supernatural sleep, during which the Griffin disappears. Beatrice steps down from the Chariot; she gives Dante his mission. Then the Chariot is attacked by an Eagle, a Fox and a Dragon, after which it grows feathers, is occupied by a whore, and is dragged off into the forest by a giant.

Upon this side and that my eyes were blocked

    By walls of indifference; thus her holy smile
    Drew them to itself with its same old net

Until my sight was forced to turn away
    Towards those goddesses standing on my left

    Who warned me: “You are staring too intently.”

I found my sight affected by the condition

    Of eyes just recently dazzled by the sun;

    What I saw had momentarily blinded me.

But when my vision returned to lesser sights—
    Lesser, that is, in comparison with the greater

    Splendor which had forced me to withdraw—

I saw that the glorious army had wheeled to the right;
    They’d turned themselves toward the east again

    To face the sun, and the seven holy flames. [4-18]

            Focus is important, but it should not lead to exclusivity; one-pointedness of attention can become an obsession. To go blind through staring too insistently at the “holy smile” is to be enamoured of the intensity of the Divine without allowing that intensity to illuminate the other aspects of one’s life, as if God were jealous of his Divinity rather than generously giving of it. Thus returning to “lesser sights” is actually coming into a vision that is more whole, and richer. Here Dante must adjust his spiritual vision to the increased spiritual light of his environment. To stare too fixedly at something is to attempt to possess what you see, and therefore to risk being petrified by it. In spiritual vision, however, we are called upon not to possess what we see, but to become it.  The theological virtues are gifts to be received, not goods to be possessed.

            The procession, in turning east, is now returning to its source in the celestial realm, preparing the way for Dante’s ascent into Paradise. This return leaves a space, a vacuum, in which the vision of what is about to befall the church, and earthly life as a whole, can be seen. In Christian doctrine the “latter days” are always at the door.  The motionless features of the Griffin [line 27] express a serenity which indicates that the home to which he is about to return is on a higher level of being, beyond even the Earthly Paradise. The essence of the Terrestrial Paradise leads on to Paradise as such.

As, underneath its shields, to save itself,
    A squadron of troops will wheel to follow its banner

    Before the whole body of men can change direction,

So the soldiers of the heavenly kingdom

    Who marched in the van completely passed us by
    Before the chariot-pole had made its turn. [19-24]

            For the procession to have come from the East, and for it now to turn back in the direction it came from, means that its linear and even cyclical movement has now come to an end; the next phase will be direct vertical motion, ascension. This vertical motion is represented by the pole-shaft of the Chariot, now upright like the flagstaff of an army. The East is the Source, the Origin; the upright chariot-pole once again echoes the polar, Hyperborean symbolism of the Earthly Paradise as a whole. Turning to the right—that is, clockwise—the chariot-pole points first to the West, then to the North, then to the East; here the polar symbolism appears again, as if teaching us that an orientation toward timeless Eternity (the polar North) is the very thing that will allow progress in the Spirit (sunrise in the East). Here we can discern the second great enantiodromia of the Divine Comedy. As the descent into the Inferno (clockwise) becomes, below Cocytus and without changing direction, the ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory (ultimately counter-clockwise)—while the Mountain itself is transferred from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern—so the direction of motion here changes for a moment from counter-clockwise to clockwise, before becoming pure ascent. Counter-clockwise is the direction of laborious spiritual aspiration; clockwise is the direction of the descent of Divine Grace, like that which carried Christ into Hell on His mission of punishment and liberation. Such a descent is necessary if Purgatory is to give way to Paradise—the Celestial Paradise—where the travelers no longer walk, but fly. 

The lovely lady who’d helped me cross the Lethe

    With myself and Statius following the wheel
    That turned right about the inner, smaller arc

Slowly passed through the vacant, towering forest….[28-31]

            This turn is like a conversion within the soul that has both an outer and an inner movement. The outer movement, represented by the left-hand wheel that turns through the greater arc, is the whole of the psyche  conforming itself to the Spirit;  the inner movement of the right-hand wheel is the human spirit itself becoming more vertical, and hence more receptive to Grace. The arc of the left-hand wheel reminds us of the Great Bear, and that of the right-hand wheel, of the Little Bear. These constellations turn counter-clockwise; the motion pictured here, however, is clockwise, as if the two Bears were being viewed from above. This is a movement outside nature—not opposed to nature, but entirely in response to a spiritual influence coming from beyond the natural domain.

I heard them all together murmuring, “Adam!”
    As they circled around a tree that had been stripped
    Of all its leaves and flowers on every bough.

The higher it grew the wider spread its branches

    Till it reached so high that even the Indians

    In their own mighty forests would’ve been amazed. [37-42]

            Adam contains within himself the potentialities of the human race as such, which is why the characters in this Canto breathe his name with awe. This is precisely why the fall of Adam was so tragic—and yet, according to St. Augustine, it was also a felix culpa, a “fortunate fault”, in that it made Redemption, by God Himself through Christ, possible. In traditional iconography, the buried skull of Adam appears beneath Christ’s cross in Calvary. Had there been no Fall, Adam would have remained in the Earthly Paradise as Sovereign over God’s creation [cf. René Guénon, Le Roi de Monde, as well as the symbolic novel Perelandra by C.S. Lewis]. But the Fall changed everything; consequently Adam, who for a period of time had to suffer in Hades, is now in the Celestial Paradise, higher than the earthly one.

“Blesséd are you, O Griffin, who refuses

    To pluck from this one tree the forbidden fruit
    Sweet to the taste, but on the stomach bitter.”

This is how, around that mighty tree

    All shouted—and the beast that had two natures:

    “Thus is the seed of all righteous men preserved.”

Then, turning to the shaft which he had dragged,

    He drew it to the foot of that widowed tree
    And tied it side by side to a waiting branch.

Just as our own trees, when the great light falls
    Downward, mingled with that second light

    That shines out from behind the celestial Fishes

Begin to swell, and then re-clothe themselves,

    Each in its own color, before the sun
    Yokes its horses in another constellation:

Likewise with a color less than rose

    But more than violet the present tree reflowered
    Whose boughs had been so desolate before. [43-60]

            The fruit here is the world of generation and corruption, but the seed of the righteous is beyond corruption; it is the immortal soul. To attempt to eat the fruit of the Spirit outside the will of God is to swallow perdition; to refrain from eating it until it is given by God Himself is to feast on immortality.

            The tree first appears “stripped of leaves and flowers”; it is a Winter tree. Next the assembly praises the Griffin, symbol of Christ, for not eating the ripe fruit as Adam did, so now we are in Autumn. Finally, when the pole of the Chariot, symbol of Christ’s Church, is tied to a branch of the tree, it bursts into flower, as in Spring. Once again, the motion is counter to that of the natural world. Christ is resurrected in the Spring, and yet St. Paul calls Him “the first fruit of those who sleep”, indicating that the Resurrection happens beyond the cycles of natural duration. The liturgical year of the Eastern Orthodox Church has twelve major feasts—but Pascha (Easter) is not one of them, because it is outside of time. The twelve feasts are like the spokes of a wheel, but Pascha is the hub. Christ (the Griffin) did not eat of the fruit because He is called on to embody the fruit, to become it—a motion that happens in Eternity and is only then manifested, progressively, in time [cf. Luke 2:52: “And He grew in wisdom and age and grace before God and men.”]. The fruit He became, as is suggested some verses later, was the apple, but of course it was also the grape —“I am the Vine and you are the branches” [John 15:5]; “this [the wine of the Last Supper] is My Blood” [Mark 14:24 et. al.], etc.—which may be why the color of the rejuvenated tree is a purplish red. When Christ resisted Satan’s temptation in the desert that He turn the stones to bread to relieve His hunger, He redressed Adam’s sinful eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

            The Chariot, a common symbol of the human body or psycho-physical entity [cf. Canto XXXIII] is now revealed as the Church, the mystical body of Christ on earth. It is an aspect of the doctrine of the Incarnation that the Church is deeply called upon to embody Christ; a visible Church and a visible sacramental order are necessarily a part of that doctrine. Since Christ incarnated on earth, the mystical body of Christ must also appear in earthly flesh. But since it is indeed a body inhabiting this world, that it should become corrupted in space and time, as all mortal bodies must, is also inevitable. But no matter how degenerate the earthly church may become, the Eternal Church, the Church Triumphant, remains inviolable. The Church carries within it the grace of Christ, whatever its outer corruption; Wisdom is still hidden within it. Therefore when the Chariot is tied to the tree, the tree blossoms.

I never heard, because it’s never sung on earth
    The hymn which afterwards that people sang,

    Nor could I follow its melody to the end.

If I could describe just how those merciless eyes
    Fell asleep listening to the tale of Syrinx
    Eyes that by long wakefulness lost so much

As if I were a painter working from a model
    Then I could portray how I was lulled to sleep;

    Let whoever can paint lost consciousness try his hand.

So I pass on to the moment when I awoke

    To say how a radiance rent the veil of sleep
    And a voice addressed me, “What are you doing?

        Wake up!”

As to behold the Apple Tree in blossom
    Which makes the angels greedy for its fruit,
    And keeps perpetual wedding-feasts in Heaven,

Peter and John and James were overwhelmed

    At first, till they recovered at the word
    By which much deeper sleep has been dispelled
To see their conclave poorer by the loss
    Not of Elias only, but also Moses,
    And the clothing of their Master greatly changed;

So I awoke to see that merciful one

    Standing above me, who had been my guide
    Before, when I had walked beside the river…. [61-84]

Dante is put to sleep by the celestial hymn because a higher dimension than he can comprehend now approaches; it makes him sleep—but on the other hand, because it exudes an unearthly radiance, it also wakes him up. Dante’s sleep is compared to the apostles’ witnessing of Christ’s Transfiguration, and during his trance-like sleep the Griffin disappears. This is likened to Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration who disappear after Christ again assumes his everyday human form; the Griffin, who is Christ, has ascended to Paradise. At this point Beatrice takes the place of Christ, in that she is revealed as the medium through whom Dante—as a pneumatic, an esoteric—can relate to Christ. As Holy Wisdom, she has become the human face which Christ can turn towards Dante, and also the embodiment of the Inner or Spiritual Church, the Church of John. After awakening, however, Dante still needs the guidance of Matilda because he is not yet entirely at one with the radiance of Paradise; his faculties are still being trained and purified so as to be able to apprehend it.

            The Christ of the Transfiguration is compared by Dante to an apple tree. Allen Mandelbaum (translator of the Divine Comedy into English), in his note to line 60, quotes Ruskin as comparing the reddish-purple leaves or blossoms of the revived tree to apple blossoms. But apple blossoms can also be white, like the garments of the Transfigured Christ; and this is probably what Dante is suggesting here. The “heraldic” colors of Christ, we should remember, are primarily red and white (sacrifice and innocence), particularly in the Western Church.

             “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”, an American hymn based on an anonymous English poem, begins with the following stanza:

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green.
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

            It is likely that this hymn was inspired by the third verse of the second chapter of the Song of Solomon, which also suggests the image of Beatrice sitting beneath the tree in lines 87ff:

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,

So is my beloved among the young men.

With great delight I sat in his shadow,

    And his fruit was sweet to my taste.

            According to the Jewish midrash, the apple tree is a symbol of the Messiah. All this recalls the practice in the Eastern Orthodox Church of blessing fruit on the Feast of the Transfiguration.1

Then I asked, in bewilderment, “Where is Beatrice?”
    And she [Matilda] said: “See her sitting underneath
    The newly-sprouted foliage, at the root of the tree;

See as well her encircling company.
    The rest are gone; they rose behind the Griffin,

    Took to the sky with a deeper, sweeter song.”

I don’t know if she said any more than that….[85-91]

Alone she sat upon the simple earth,
    Left behind as guardian of the Chariot
    Which I had seen the two-formed beast secure.

The encircling nymphs around her made a cloister

    Each one holding in her hand a lamp
    That wind could not snuff out, neither North nor South.

“For a little while you’ll dwell here as a forester,
    But with me you’ll be a city-man forever
    A citizen of Rome, where Christ is Roman!

And so, for the good of the world that lives so badly
    Fix your eyes on the Chariot, and what you see
    Write down truly when you’ve returned to earth.”

Thus Beatrice spoke …. [94-106]

            Beatrice now steps down from the Chariot; this represents the spirit of Wisdom deserting the visible Church just before its final corruption, though she still remains the guardian of it from the outside. She grieves beneath the Tree just as Mary did beneath the Cross, sitting on the “simple ground”, surrounded by the seven nymphs bearing lamps, who as we have seen represent the Four Cardinal and the Three Theological Virtues. These lamps cannot be extinguished by either the North Wind or the South. The South Wind represents being overcome by outer  manifestation and worldliness so that the Virtues are smothered; the North Wind symbolizes  being overwhelmed by false or excessive ideas of Transcendence that obliterate all particularity, leaving no room, no human soul, in which the Virtues could live. Beatrice, as guardian of the Chariot, symbolizes the Church of John, the inner understanding of the Christian mysteries; she does not, however, represent some sect of esoteric Christians distinct from the Church as such. Beatrice makes it clear that she is talking about the Roman Catholic Church and no other—remembering, of course, that Byzantium is the Second Rome according to the Eastern Orthodox, just as Moscow is the Third.


1Interestingly enough, the apple tree is also central to the Gaelic Otherworld, Tir Nan Óg, the Land of the Ever-Young—which is pictured, precisely, as an Earthly Paradise.

As a “forester”, a rustic, Dante will dwell in the Earthly Paradise; but as a city man he will be a “citizen of Heaven” as the early Christians called themselves. The rude rustic has, in a sense, a complete possession of his soul, but that soul needs to be refined and transformed, and so raised to another level. The Heavenly City is ultimately Jerusalem, which is also the city of the communion of the saints. Rome is the sensorial manifestation of Jerusalem, which is heavenly and thus in essence beyond the senses. The lesser “forest” mysteries are Adamic, but the greater, “urban” mysteries are Christic; according to them, Rome is the earthly Jerusalem; Jerusalem is the heavenly Rome.

With so swift a motion there never fell

    Lightning from a heavy cloud, when rain
    Cascades down from the highest point of the sky,

As then I saw the bird of Jove descend
    Down through the tree, tearing away the bark,
    Scattering the new foliage and the blossoms,

Till he struck that Chariot with all his might.
    Like a ship in a violent storm it pitched and reeled,
    Tossed by waves, now port-side and now starboard.

Then I saw, as it leaped into the body
    Of that triumphal vehicle, a Fox,

    Who looked like he’d never eaten wholesome food.
But denouncing him for all his ugly sins,

    My Lady quickly put that Fox to flight—
    At least as fast as fleshless bones could run.

Then by the same path it had used before
    The Eagle dove again into that Ark
    Leaving it feathered with an Eagle’s plumes;

And like the moan that rises from a mournful heart

    A voice came down from Heaven; I heard it say:
    “My little ship, what evil freight you carry!”

Then it seemed to me the earth split open
    Between the Chariot’s wheels; a Dragon rose
    Who drove his tail straight up through the wagon’s floor.

And just as a wasp at last withdraws its sting

    He drew back to himself his vicious tail—

    Ripping out part of the floor—then slithered away.

The part that was left behind re-clothed itself—

    Just as grass will cover a fertile field— 

    Not with grass but feathers, offered perhaps

With sound and kind intent—and then more feathers

    covered both wheels, and the pole as well

    In less time than lips must part to pass a sigh. [109-141]

            The Eagle here is not, as some critics have suggested, primarily the imperial eagle, symbol of the Holy Roman Empire, but rather the Eagle of the Spiritual Intellect, emblem of John the Evangelist. The Chariot is wracked and twisted by the Eagle because, when the Spirit descends upon a corrupt Church, that Church will experience it as Wrath.

            The Fox is the spirit of deceit, which tries to occupy the center of the Church—the Papacy, that is—but Beatrice goes to war with it, just as the Virgin Mary crushed the Serpent’s head under her heel [Genesis 3:15]. But why does the Fox occupy the Chariot immediately after the descent of the Eagle? The Fox here is a false response to the Spiritual Intellect, one that degrades gnosis to the level of intellectual cunning, which is the mere skeleton of true Intellection.

            And why does the Chariot grow feathers after the second descent of the Eagle, causing the voice from Heaven to declare that “your freight is wickedness”—even though Dante allows that the Eagle might have offered the Chariot its feathers “with sound and kind intent”? This indicates that the Spiritual Intellect is to be reborn within the Church in the Latter Days, but in an incomplete and imbalanced fashion. The Church no longer possesses the moral strength, the sacramental grace, or the doctrinal stability to keep that Spiritual Intellect whole; consequently, under the influence of this unveiling, it wanders away into degeneration and corruption2

            The Chariot is now transformed [lines 142-147] into a grotesque object with seven heads and ten horns, like the Beast which appears in the 17th chapter of the Apocalypse. This is the Church finally acquiescing to the power of the Antichrist.3

            A Whore appears next, seated upon the grotesquely transformed Chariot, and attended by a Giant; the pair repeatedly embrace [lines 148-153]. The Giant is the tyrannical power of the World and also the World’s Prince; the Whore is the collective psychic substance drawn from the corruption of many souls, which is precisely the guise assumed by the earthly Church of the Latter Days. The Whore is obviously suggested by the Whore of Babylon of the Book of Revelations, and the Giant—who first attends her and then devastates her [cf. Apocalypse 17:16-18]—is another form of the Beast, that is, the Antichrist:

….and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns….and [the angel] said to me….the ten horns that


2The works of such modern Catholic metaphysical writers as Hans Urs von Balthasar, who in better times might have been a Doctor of the Church, as well as the apparent interest of the Papacy in certain non-Catholic and non-traditional esoteric writers like Rudolf Steiner and Valentine Tomberg, author of Meditations on the Tarot—both of whom have much to recommend them in other contexts—may be indications of this development. Metaphysics is the crown of the spiritual life, but to place one’s hope in a metaphysical Renaissance of the Latter Days partly in an attempt to compensate for, as well as to deny, the destruction of the moral, doctrinal and sacramental foundations of the Church, is to turn metaphysics itself over to the Devil.

3That the four heads on the corners of the Chariot each have one horn, and the three heads on the chariot-pole, two, is puzzling. The four heads represent the corrupt forms of the Cardinal Virtues; the three heads, inversions of the Theological Virtues. Consequently one would expect the three heads to manifest the Divine Unity, being reflections of the Persons of the Trinity, whereas the four heads, representing the more earthly virtues, ought to partake of the polarity upon which all manifestation is based. That this is not the case demonstrates just how complete an inversion of virtue the monstrous Chariot represents. Duality and ambiguity have invaded the image of the Transcendent, whereas the Unity that is proper only to the Transcendent now shows itself on the earthly plane, indicating that the pre-eminence of the Spirit has been usurped by the World. This inversion is precisely descriptive of the direction and intent of the Western Church since the Second Vatican Council.

you saw, they and the beast will hate the harlot, and they will make her desolate and naked, and they will burn her up with fire….[Apocalypse 17: 3;12]

            The corrupt Church believes that she is only building up her power by her aggiornamento with the World; too late she learns that the World is not her ally, but her dominator and destroyer. This prophecy of the fate of the Roman Catholic Church is being lived out, precisely as predicted, in our own time.

            The Whore is just about to gaze upon the soul of Dante—which, as a newly-innocent soul, is destined for Paradise—and thus engulf it in her own corruption. But at this very moment the conflict between the Whore and the Giant erupts, saving Dante from that fate; the Giant drags the Chariot occupied by the Whore away into the forest, and it is seen no more [lines 154-160]. This is the providential aspect of the corruption of the earthly Church, which causes it to have less and less power to engulf and destroy the true Remnant. Instead, it must flee from them into the wilderness.

            When the Whore turns for a moment and looks at Dante, it is as if she is attracted by his very innocence; however—like a pedophile, and like many serial killers—she cannot possess herself of this innocence without destroying it.

            Dante can witness the affliction of the worldly Church, which amounts to a second crucifixion of Christ, because he himself is now beyond affliction. In the words of St. Maximos the Confessor:

He whose practice of the virtues has succeeded in mortifying whatever is earthly in him [Colossians 3:5], and who by fulfilling the commandments has triumphed over the passions within him, will experience no more affliction, for he will have already left the world and come to be in Christ, the conqueror of the world of the passions and the source of all peace. He who has not severed his attachment to material things will always experience affliction, since his state of mind depends upon things that are naturally changeable, and so it alters as they do. But he who has come to be in Christ will be totally impervious such to material change. That is why the Lord says, “I have said these things to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will experience affliction; but have courage, for I have overcome the world” [John 16:33]. [Philokalia, Volume Two, Second Century on Theology, 95].