Purgatory Canto XI
Canto XI continues the correction of the proud, and continues to show Dante’s interest in the visual arts. But instead of describing works of art carved for the edification of the saved souls, Dante meets repentant painters and describes other painters — not that painting is a sin, but like all things humans can do excellently painting can lead to pride.
The canto begins with a long (22 line) paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, sung by the souls, paraphrased to bring out the themes of reliance on God. Their chant ends with
Dear Lord, we do not make this final prayer
for ourselves here, for here there is no need,
but for the ones behind us yet to come. (Purg XI.22-24
These souls are saved – they need no prayers for that, though the prayers of the living can shorten their time there. But they, graciously, are praying for us, too.
I’m a specialist in early Medieval architecture and such, and had never considered the etymology of a remarkably common word in later Medieval art, “illumination” and its variants. Dante made me wonder about why we call manuscripts illuminated with a throwaway line.
“Oh!” diss’io lui, “non se’ tu Oderisi,
l’onor d’Agobbio e ‘lonor di quell’arte
ch‘alluminar chiamata è in Parisi?”
“Say!” I began, aren’t you Oderisi,
glory of Gubbio and glory of that art
which they in Paris call illumining?”
Dante thinks of alluminar as a French loan word? Interesting! So I checked up on the word in the OED and found that ILLUMINATE in meaning 8, “To decorate (an initial letter, word, or text, in a manuscript) with gold, silver, and brilliant colours, or with elaborate tracery and miniature designs, executed in colours; to adorn (a manuscript, inscription, text, etc.) with such decorative letters and miniatures,” comes with a parenthetical note: “(In this sense it has taken the place of ENLUMINE.” Noting that the earliest occurrences of “Illuminate” are 16th Century, I follow the trail to EN’LUMINE (accent on the first syllable, interesting), from Old French enluminer, which shows up as early as 1366 in Chaucer, A.B.C. (what’s that text?), “Kalendeeres enlumyned….” The great dictionary throws in a CF to a medieval Latin term I’d never heard, “lumina (lit. ‘lights’) the paintings in a MS.”
Fun morning digressions aside, Oderisi’s pride is so tamed that he responds by naming the successor who has outshone him – he is well on his way to being corrected, and expresses his correction in a monetary metaphor – “Here for such pride we pay the fee” (Purg XI.88). He goes on to name Giotto as another successor who has outshone his predecessor – in Giotto’s case, Cimabue – and then to relate the pattern to poets and politicians, all of whom could use correction for their pride.
The poem ends with another prediction of Dante’s exile, but again the tone is different when those come here in Purgatory. In Hell there was always some gloating on the part of the damned soul who had the news. Here it is more gentle, more corrective.
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