In The Inferno, Dante Alighieri primarily uses allusions from three main sources, the Bible, the classics, and his own time. Although Dante uses references from the classics and his own time to offer specific examples of sins, sinners, and punishments, surprisingly Biblical allusions do not function in this way. Instead, the author uses them to set up an overarching theological framework of Fall, Redemption, or Damnation into which his individual classical or contemporary references fit.
Dante's reason for using Biblical allusions one way and classical and contemporary allusions another may be compared to the idea of building a house. Biblical allusions make up the frame of the house, something recognizable to the reader. The details of the house--the carpeting, furniture, wallpaper--are made up almost exclusively of classical and contemporary allusions. These details make sense because they fit into the framework--just as carpeting makes more sense on the floor than in a warehouse. The house's details are of course all the latest fashions, things which have the effect of drama and immediacy to his late medieval readers; hence Dante chooses contemporary and classical references. Just as the frame of a house supports itself and all inside it, so the themes which are developed by the Biblical references hold all of the allusions together.
In the explanation following, it will first be demonstrated that Dante's use of Biblical allusions sets up a theological framework consisting of the themes of Fall, Redemption, or Damnation (as a result of the rejection of Redemption). Next, examples will be offered as to how Dante's classical and contemporary allusions have meaning because they build on the groundwork of the themes established by his Biblical allusions.
Dante's Biblical allusions serve to set the stage for the overarching themes which are played out by the contemporary and classical allusions (as referred to above). In the first place, his allusions to Scripture strongly build the theme of Fall. The Rebellious Angels of Canto VIII, for example, are ". . . spirits purged from heaven for its glory . . ."1 an obvious reference to the Fall of the Angels who sided with Satan when he rebelled against God. Job 4:18 speaks of God charging his angels with folly,2 while II Peter 2:4 says: "For God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgement."3
More specifically, Dante describes Satan's fall
from heaven in Canto XXXIV: "On this side [of the earth] he plunged down from heaven's height . . ."4 This is in direct reference to the words of Isaiah the Prophet "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken nations . . . thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit."5 In The Inferno, we see Satan buried in ice in the center of the earth, thus cut down to the ground and brought
down to hell. The images of fallen angels and Satan in The Inferno serve to lay the groundwork for the theme of Fall.
Dante also lays a theological framework for the treatment of the theme of Redemption using Biblical allusions. For example, Dante several times mentions Christ and His function as redeemer because of His death on the cross. Most notably, Dante discusses His salvation act of the Harrowing of Hell no less than five times. The first reference to the Harrowing, in Canto IV, has Virgil explaining to Dante how some souls left hell with Christ after the crucifixion:
I was still new to this estate of tears
when a Mighty One descended here among us,
crowned with the sign of His victorious years.
He took from us the shade of our first parent, of Abel, his pure son, of ancient Noah,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . many more he chose for elevation
among the elect.6
Two things have particular importance to the theme of Redemption in Virgil's speech. First, Virgil speaks of Christ as crowned with His victorious years, a specific reference to His work of salvation on the cross. Second, Virgil's mention of the choosing of the saints to leave Limbo and go into heaven with Christ refers directly to these souls' personal redemption.
The allusion to the Harrowing of Hell, then, sets up the idea of redemption in Christ, an event that took place once in the crucifixion, and is also ongoing in the redemption of specific individuals. Dante carefully places Virgil's treatment of the Harrowing early in The Inferno, in order to offer a clear
explanation of why souls are in hell. Souls are damned in a continuing manner due to their rejection of Christ's redeeming act, just as those who accept Christ's work are consistently saved.
Dante frames the theme of Damnation with references to the Final Judgement. For instance, in Canto I Virgil outlines for Dante the journey he will take. In reference to hell, he says: "There you shall see the ancient spirits tried in endless pain, and hear their lamentation as each bemoans the second death of souls."7 This explicit reference to the second death lays down a guiding principle about the theme of Damnation throughout The Inferno, for in Revelation 20:13-15, the Apostle John writes ". . . and they were judged every man according to their works . . . This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."8 Not only does Dante speak of the shades in hell as damned, but through his allusion to the second death we see the ultimate regulations by which they are damned: their deeds reveal them to be unworthy of redemption, so after checking the book of life, and seeing that their names do not appear there, (indicating a lack of faith in Christ, which would have superseded their lack of good works) they are lost for eternity.
In Dante's allusions to classical literature and myth, and to his contemporaries, there are countless illustrations built on the structure of Christian themes established by the Biblical allusions. Only a couple need be cited here. In his treatment of
the Panderers in Canto XVIII, Dante has placed in hell Vendecio Caccianemico, a nobleman of Bologna. Dante points out through the use of dialogue that Vendecio dwells in hell because he procured his own sister for a man's sexual pleasure.9 Dante here refers to a specific sin, pandering, and to a specific individual who fell into sin and failed to be redeemed because he ultimately did not repent this sin. His deeds fell short, and his name obviously does not appear in the
book of life. We see clearly the themes of Fall and Damnation in an individual from Dante's time.
An example of a classical reference which serves a similar purpose in embodying the major themes laid out by Dante through Biblical allusions may be demonstrated in the person of Achilles in Canto V. Achilles serves to demonstrate that sin leads a man to do things which cause his ruin. In the case of Achilles, he fell because he deserted his people for the lust of a woman.10 Though he undoubtedly performed good deeds in his life, he must ultimately be damned forever because of the greatness of his sin and his lack of faith in God. Without repentance, which would have caused his redemption, his damnation to be swept in the winds of the second circle lasts forever.
In Dante's construction of themes in The Inferno, the author successfully uses Biblical allusions to set up the structure of Fall, Damnation and Redemption. These themes, which run throughout the work, are given specific incarnation through Dante's use of classical and contemporary references, and are held together by the overarching structure built by the Biblical allusions. In this way Dante effectively communicates a Christian theology of sin and repentance which has both cultural and immediate relevancy to the medieval reader.
1Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, trans. John Ciardi (New York: Mentor Books, 1982), 82.
2Job 4:18 KJV (King James Version)
3II Peter 2:4 KJV
4Dante, The Inferno, 287.
5Isaiah 14:12, 15. KJV
6Dante, The Inferno, 51.
8Revelation 20:13-15 KJV
9Dante, The Inferno, 159-160.