Dante’s «Commedia» and the Liturgical Imagination

by Matthew Treherne (Author)
©2020 Monographs XXIV, 298 Pages
Series: Leeds Studies on Dante, Volume 5


Medieval liturgical practice both expressed and helped shape habits of thought and imagination in ways which were deep and far-reaching, encompassing embodied, lived experience and the most sophisticated theological thought. This book argues that Dante, in common with his contemporaries, saw the liturgical rituals of the Church as a mode of religious practice which manifested what he considered to be the central truths regarding the relationship between God, human beings, and the world. It also shows how Dante’s Commedia engages with medieval understandings of the sacraments, an idea which has been largely neglected in studies of Dante. Seen in this way, the poet’s engagement with liturgy is central to the daring and highly original poetic project of the Commedia, shaping its treatment of time, its engagement with theology, and its portrayal of the soul’s awakening to the condition of creation itself.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Editions, Abbreviations, and Translations
  • Introduction Dante, Liturgy, Theology
  • Chapter 1 Liturgy, Time, and the Music of Incarnation in the Commedia
  • Chapter 2 Ekphrasis and Eucharist: The Poetics of Seeing God’s Art in Purgatorio X
  • Chapter 3 Contingency, Creation, and the Eucharist in the Commedia
  • Chapter 4 Liturgical Personhood in the Commedia: Creation, Penitence, and Praise
  • Chapter 5 Liturgy, Sacraments, and the Theology of the Commedia
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

←viii | ix→


Medieval liturgical practice both expressed and helped shape habits of thought and imagination in ways which were deep and far-reaching. The challenges for modern scholars of recreating medieval liturgical practice are, of course, considerable, and understanding its reception harder still; but evidence from commentaries, Missals, architecture, music, visual art, and other sources can help us at least to sketch some of the ways in which medieval Christians would have encountered and participated in liturgy. Descriptions of the cathedral Mass, such as that which Dante and his Florentine contemporaries could have known at Santa Reparata, convey some of the social, sensory, affective, and intellectual richness of liturgical experience.1 It opens with the Introit ceremony, as the faithful witness the opening procession with bishop, deacons, acolytes and choir, vestments, a thurible, candles; and loud, joyful song. The choir then moves into praise of the Trinity as the bishop kisses the altar, the mood grows penitential as a Kyrie Eleison is sung. Divine lectio takes place, with each reading from Scripture framed by kisses and genuflections on the part of the reader. The readings are set alongside each other, with the relationship between them drawn out by their juxtaposition: a reading from the Epistles, from the Old Testament, with all present standing for the reading of the Gospel.2 Before communion, the kiss of peace: in some practices, the kiss began with the celebrant kissing first the altar, the book, the deacon, before rippling out to the faithful. At the Eucharist, the celebrant’s ordinary ←ix | x→gestures take centre stage; like a housekeeper, he clears crumbs, wipes clean stray drops of wine, lays cloths, washes hands, mixes water into wine, whispering prayers which are inaudible to all but himself, placing the focus firmly on his physical actions. In contrast with the quiet, ‘remarkable mundanity in the movements of the priest’, the ringing of bells mark the moment of consecration; the host is elevated, the priest’s arms extended ‘in the manner of the cross, to represent the extension of the body and hands of Christ on the cross’. For those who tasted the sacrament, the flavour was fascinating. One Umbrian laywoman, Angela of Foligno (1248–1309), attempted to describe to her confessor the sensation she experienced: the host had ‘the savour of meat, but with a completely different taste […] it went down with ease and sweetness […] it softened quickly’. The visual drama of the elevation of the host is now experienced as intimately as any act of eating: Angela wished to hold the bread in her mouth for longer than she should; she even checks carefully between her teeth to be sure that no crumb of the host remains caught there.3 The whole service is punctuated by hymns sung largely in unison by the congregation; Psalms are sung by the choir, antiphonally.

This drama, deeply familiar to medieval Christians in the Latin West but with varying degrees and forms of participation on the part of those present, is also a prompt for, and a site for, theological reflection. It is a prompt in the sense that the liturgy itself was heavily commented on and interpreted, and that the nature of liturgical worship, and in particular the status and functions of the sacraments, provoked debate. It was a forum for reflection in that it provides a frame for sermons, for the meaningful juxtaposition of passages of Scripture in ways which suggested and provided interpretation. At the level of the texture and shape of experience, it engaged human life and time in ways that set the condition of humanity in relation to the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.

Of the many forms of religious discourse and practice present in late medieval Italy, few would have been as widely experienced as liturgy. Liturgy engaged all senses. The rhythms of the day were marked by bells sounding ←x | xi→the cycle of services. As commentaries make clear, the visual experience was marked in numerous ways, with vestments, ornaments, and candles an integral part of the visual experience. Taste, sound, and smell were involved in the Eucharist itself. Pathways to the liturgy’s Latin were opened by the confraternal companies which had sprung up with great rapidity across Italy in the second half of the thirteenth century, performing vernacular laude and facilitating the participation of laypeople in liturgical devotion. It is possible to recreate, from their surviving statutes, the involvement of the confraternities in liturgical practice – the centrality of singing to their shared life, their contributions of candles to liturgy, and their required participation in a set number of services. Liturgy framed the sacraments, going to the heart of personal identity – from baptism to offices for the dead – and communal identity, through particular feast days and services for the dedication of churches. Liturgy was experienced in diverse ways, even by those present at the same event: the detailed liturgical commentaries available to priests provided an interpretive key for them, which would not have been available to all members of their congregation; antiphonal performances of Psalms meant that the same text was voiced by many individuals; different individuals read Scripture; levels of understanding of Latin would vary too. In these respects, medieval liturgy was inherently multi-voiced, shaping communal practice and experience, with a range of points of access.

For modern readers of Dante’s Commedia, the poem’s numerous references to prayer and worship situate it firmly in the context of Christian life in the late Middle Ages; yet, at the same time, they appear to require little interpretive effort. In this respect, Dante’s descriptions of and references to prayer and worship appear much less challenging than, say, his engagement with questions of doctrine or with the classical tradition. When we read Beatrice’s explanation of the doctrine of the Incarnation in Paradiso VII, or her account of the metaphysics of creation in Paradiso XXIX, we immediately sense the difficulty of the ideas at play, their otherness in relation to our modern habits of thought, and the requirement, therefore, to engage with them on their own terms. When Dante cites a classical author in a way which is unfamiliar or surprising to us, such as in the cantos of the Earthly Paradise, when the description of the appearance of Beatrice is ←xi | xii→punctuated by echoes of Virgil’s works, we feel the force of the interpretive demands the text is placing on us: the need to return to Dante’s sources, to consider the filters through which they might have reached him, to examine the rich intertextual relations his poem evokes. But in the case of liturgy, those demands seem less urgent. Liturgy is part of the distinctively medieval colouring of the poem, of course; yet when he describes the ranks of the blessed in Paradise singing hymns of praise to God, or the souls of Purgatory singing a penitential Psalm, we are perhaps tempted to assume that what the poet is doing requires no great analysis on our part. Indeed, the use of liturgy might appear solely decorative, a short-hand means of signalling particular figures’ piety, or lack thereof. Certainly Dante’s sheer intellectual energy – immediately apparent in the Commedia’s direct engagement with political, theological, literary, metaphysical, and social questions – is less readily obvious in his use of liturgy. For modern readers, there is a temptation to see in liturgy constraint and adherence to the formulaic – scarcely qualities we are apt to admire in the daringly inventive, consistently surprising, and frequently polemical Commedia. Accordingly, then, and with a few notable exceptions, the weight of scholarly attention has fallen largely away from Dante’s engagement with the forms of worship practised by the medieval Church, and onto matters more obviously intellectual, more ‘literary’, and more apparently urgent to the poet and his contemporaries.

Yet, if we imagine liturgy as an unthinking, formulaic ritual we fail to take into account its complex and central place in medieval life and thought, and we ignore the possibility that the Commedia itself might be engaging with that rich body of religious practice in ways which are far from passive and unthinking. If we needed any further proof that Dante’s use of liturgy and liturgical references should not be taken for granted or dismissed as unthinking, we should recall that the descriptions of liturgy in the Commedia would have been surprising to a late medieval audience, perhaps nowhere more so than in the pilgrim’s journey through Purgatory, which is marked by liturgical performance. Among the many surprises of the opening cantos of Purgatorio – the geographical siting of Purgatory in the southern hemisphere; the presence of Cato, a pagan suicide, as guardian of Mount Purgatory; and the very notion of an Ante-Purgatory – we might ←xii | xiii→also count the fact that the penitent souls arriving in Purgatory, the first souls the pilgrim and Virgil encounter, are singing a Psalm (Purg. II, 46–48). For earlier accounts of the afterlife had not described the souls in Purgatory singing liturgically; and, indeed, Aquinas had gone so far as to deny explicitly the notion that they prayed at all: they need our prayers on earth, but they do not pray themselves (‘non sunt in statu orandi, sed magis ut oretur pro eis’ (ST IIa 2ae 83 art. 11 resp. 3)). The use of liturgy in Dante’s poem, then, is clearly not some mere passive reflection of the habits and rituals of Dante’s day.

This book argues that Dante, in common with his contemporaries, saw the liturgical rituals of the Church as a mode of religious practice which embodied and manifested what they considered to be the central truths regarding the relationship between God, human beings, and the world; and that the poet drew on, and developed, that understanding of the rituals of the Church in ways which are central to the daring and highly original theological and poetic project of the Commedia. Understanding that connection between ritual performance and the theological thought embodied in the poetry of the Commedia requires us to engage with a number of principles which – to anticipate my argument – might be summarized in the following ways.

First, medieval liturgy can best be understood not as ‘containing’ theological ideas, nor as ‘expressing’ doctrine (although it is capable of doing both), but as being a way of ordering language and action, time and space, in a manner which responds to what were taken to be fundamental truths about the relationships between God, human beings, and the created world. Across diverse modes of medieval theological enquiry, ranging from allegorical liturgical commentaries to Scholastic treatises, ritual performance is understood as a way of shaping language and action which embodied humanity’s condition as created by God, as fallen, and as redeemed through grace and the Incarnation.

Second, and consequently, liturgy is presented in medieval thought as a negotiation between the conditions of human beings in time and space, and the eternal truths with which they wished to engage. A striking aspect of this is the way in which liturgy was presented as organizing time: as emphatically temporal, indeed, and yet also reshaping and breaking the linear ←xiii | xiv→passage of time within the multiple repeated cycles of the liturgy, which drew together the whole of providential history, the life of an individual human person, and the passage of a single day. Because of this, liturgical performance was – in its very nature as performance – important to religious life, not only because it claimed to ‘represent’ divine truth, but also because it embodied and reflected upon the conditions within which those truths were encountered.

Third, the negotiation between the time-bound and the eternal in liturgy also makes liturgical ritual an emphatically embodied mode of discourse and performance. This embodiment is perhaps most fully evident in the sacraments, which are in many respects at the heart of the liturgy, conferring (in Augustine’s frequently repeated formulation) invisible grace by visible means.4 Indeed, the sheer difficulty of an encounter between God and an embodied human person receives particular attention in medieval analysis of the Eucharist, the summum sacramentum, in which the bodily senses are both thoroughly engaged (in tasting, smelling, and seeing the bread and wine of the Eucharist), yet also thoroughly confounded (this bread and wine which is tasted, smelt, and seen is in fact the body and blood of Christ). The question of the metaphysical relationship between material and temporal experience, on the one hand, and spiritual and eternal truth, on the other, is central to medieval reflection on the Eucharist, and also underlies medieval understandings of liturgy more broadly.

Seen in this way, medieval liturgy can be understood less as an inert set of routine rituals, as a representation of stock beliefs, than as a practice which foregrounded and negotiated the particular embodied, spatio-temporal conditions under which truths were thought to be encountered and made manifest. This was not unique to liturgy within medieval religious culture: it was evident, as I shall suggest in this book, in Biblical exegetical practices, which by necessity continually engaged with the relationship between spiritual truth and the ways that truth was believed to have been revealed in time and space. More broadly, in the interplay in medieval theological discourse between apophaticism (the use of linguistic strategies of denial ←xiv | xv→to point towards truth about God, and the inadequacy of language to encapsulate that truth) and cataphaticism (the use of positive terminology to describe divine attributes, although not fully to encompass God’s being), theologians displayed a continued awareness of the conditions in which human beings might speak about God.5 Liturgy was a particular, performative embodiment of that broader medieval reflection on the conditions in which human beings attempted to relate to God.

By seeing liturgy as a rich and vibrant part of medieval religious life, as a mode of discourse and performance which itself encoded and embodied the nature of the encounter between divine truth and the human person, we can begin to see – at this stage in the very broadest of terms – that the liturgical ‘feel’ of much of the Commedia is far from casual, and relates to key theological dimensions of Dante’s poetic project. Yet – as we might expect from a syncretistic and daring poet such as Dante – the Commedia does not passively reflect medieval thought on liturgy. Dante’s descriptions of liturgy are often highly original, forming part of his novel re-imagining of the afterlife. Moreover, Dante’s use of liturgy is underpinned by his broader theology, and indeed enriches that thought.

The aim of this book, then, is to address the nature of the interplay between medieval liturgy and the theological dimensions of the poetry of the Commedia. By examining the ways in which Dante’s contemporaries took liturgical ritual seriously as a mode of religious performance, as shaping language and actions in accordance with the relationship between created beings existing in time and space and an eternal, infinite creator, and by asking afresh what Dante might have felt that liturgy does, we open up a largely neglected aspect of Dante’s work, and bring a new dimension to our understanding of the theology of Dante’s poetry.

In considering that interplay, a set of important questions arises. First is the nature of liturgy as performance, manifesting and elaborating the relationship of spatio-temporal action to the eternal. Chapter 1 thus considers ←xv | xvi→the ways in which the liturgical performance in the Commedia embodies that relationship between particular acts of speech and gesture in time and space, and the eternal truth. I argue that liturgy serves as a meeting point between the temporal and the eternal, precisely through its particular shaping of time, which Dante sets in contrast with a strictly linear notion of time. I then go on to consider a particular aspect of the liturgical performances which Dante describes: their performance as music. I shall argue that Dante presents music as a meeting point of time and eternity, of the sensible and the divine; and, in so doing, draws out ways in which music itself is Incarnational – in which the experience of liturgical music involves the listener, and indeed the performer, in the dynamics of Incarnation.

A second, related, question is that of embodiment. The embodied nature of liturgical performance – which is also suggested in its nature as music, and as temporal performance – is perhaps most clearly apparent in medieval liturgy in the central event of the Mass: the Eucharist, which involved a perplexing engagement of the bodily senses. With the exception of studies on the Ugolino episode (Inferno XXXII–XXXIII) and, to a lesser degree, of the figure of Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise (Purgatorio XXX–XXXIII), Dante scholarship has tended to minimize the importance of the Eucharist in the Commedia, for the reason that the sacraments are not ‘relevant’ to the afterlife. Such reasoning is not unsound; yet if we think less in terms of ‘relevance’, and more in terms of the affinities between Dante’s poem and medieval thinking on the Eucharist, the sacrament might be seen to play a subtler and richer part in the Commedia than has been previously acknowledged. Thus Chapter 2 takes the question of embodied religious experience as a starting point for reflection on the Eucharist, and examines an instance in the Commedia where the bodily senses are engaged and confounded, in an episode which also links the theological questions of Incarnation and creation: the pilgrim’s experience of the divinely created carvings on the wall of the Terrace of Pride, described in Purgatorio X. Strong Eucharistic overtones emerge in Dante’s description of these carvings; these overtones are at one with the importance of questions of embodied experience, creation, and Incarnation at this point in the Commedia.

←xvi | xvii→

Indeed, the relationship between Eucharist, creation, Incarnation, and bodily experience which can be identified in Purgatorio X forms part of a pattern which is discernible throughout the Commedia. In Chapter 3, I consider the pattern of Eucharistic allusions across the whole of the poem, beginning with a particular focus on Purgatorio XXI–XXV, cantos which describe the pilgrim’s journey through the upper three terraces of Purgatory (those of avarice, gluttony, and lust). These cantos place particular emphasis upon the question of the relationship between the human person, the created world, and God, and are marked by numerous allusions to the Eucharist. The concentration of Eucharistic references in these cantos is not casual. By considering these cantos alongside the rich and varied medieval thought on the Eucharist, we find that Eucharistic theology provides a model for much of the theological reflection which underlies this section of the Commedia, and suggests a clear bridge between Dante’s conception of Purgatory and the theology of the Paradiso. In particular, the affinity between the Purgatorio and Eucharistic thought enriches Dante’s notions of the relationship between creator and creature; of corruptible and incorruptible being; of the paradoxical nature of Purgatorial suffering as pain and solace, pena and sollazzo; of the reversal of original sin; and of the notion of the created world as consisting of legible signs established by God. In identifying these striking affinities between Dante’s thought and medieval theology of the Eucharist, it is possible to understand the full resonances of Dante’s sacramental allusions, and to suggest the importance for Dante of a very substantial corpus of medieval thought which has been largely neglected by Dante scholarship, but it also becomes evident that the Eucharistic dimension forms a significant link between the details of Dante’s particular conception of Purgatory and the Commedia’s engagement with questions about the relationship between God and creation.

The meeting point of creator and creature, discussed in Chapters 2 and 3, is not only evident in Dante’s use of Eucharistic allusion and his text’s affinities with medieval sacramental theology, but also forms a key part of liturgy’s function as a mode of discourse. Rather than simply describing the relationship between creature and creator, medieval liturgy – in practice and in theory – responds to and embodies that relationship: as we shall see, it is presented in medieval thought as an offering which is consistent ←xvii | xviii→with and appropriate to the condition of fallen and redeemed humanity. Chapter 4 therefore considers the ways in which, in the Commedia, liturgical language functions in relation to the human person. Just as the Purgatorio involves the individual person in what I have described as an ‘awakening’ to the condition of createdness in terms which evoke and draw on Eucharistic theology, the liturgical ordering of human languages also engages a similar dynamic. Of particular importance is the transition from penitence to praise – a transition which is carefully prepared in the Purgatorio, and which reflects a broader ordering of language in the Commedia as a whole.


XXIV, 298
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
Dante medieval liturgy medieval theology Matthew Treherne Dante’s Commedia and the Liturgical Imagination
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XXIV, 298 pp.

Biographical notes

Matthew Treherne (Author)

Matthew Treherne is Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Leeds, where he co-founded the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies with Claire Honess. He is co-editor, with Vittorio Montemaggi, of Dante’s «Commedia»: Theology as Poetry (2010), and, with Claire Honess, of Reviewing Dante’s Theology (2 vols, 2013), and «Se mai continga…»: Exile, Politics and Theology in Dante (2013). He was Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded project «Dante and Late Medieval Florence: Theology in Poetry, Practice and Society» and runs the Leeds Dante Podcast. At Leeds, he has been Head of the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies and Director of the Leeds Humanities Research Institute.


Title: Dante’s «Commedia» and the Liturgical Imagination
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