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English knight is the hero of this legend. He undertakes to visit purgatory, and for this purpose enters a cavern in an island of lake Dungal, which had formerly been opened to St. Patrick. Hence the legend is called the Purgatory of St. Patrick. The terrible threats of the demons who strive to prevent him from entering do not intimidate him; he continues to advance, and sees the condemned suffering the most horrible punishments. Some of them are crucified, or devoured by serpents; others, quite naked, are exposed to the cold winds of winter. Among those thus tortured he recognizes many of his friends and companions. At last, he comes to a narrow bridge thrown over the abyss; as he approaches, it grows wider, and he is enabled to pass. He then enters the garden of Eden, peopled by those who are not sufficiently pure to enter the kingdom of God, and lastly he sees the glory of the Lord in all its effulgence. Then he returns to the world, where he lives a better life than he had previously done.
Ages. St. of the land After having
The vision of St. Tundale, and that of the Northumbrian, Drithelm, are very similar to that of St. Patrick, and we shall therefore not attempt to analyze them. The legend of St. Brendan deserves, however, to be noticed. It is one of the most curious of all the legends of the Middle Brendan had left the island of Erin in search promised to those who should lead a holy life. seen the island called the Paradise of Birds, - the abode of those half-fallen angels who neither took part with Satan nor resisted his audacious undertaking, he discovers hell, whose volcanic summit rises above the ocean. He here sees Judas, who betrayed the Lord, and to whom in his infinite mercy Christ has granted one day of respite from his sufferings. At last, he discovers the terrestrial paradise that he was looking for, and then returns to his country. Dante was unquestionably acquainted with this legend, for among all the poetic effusions of the Middle Ages not one was better known. It was popular as late as the sixteenth century, for at the time of Luther many rich men were
the ballad of La Cuera de San Patricio published at Madrid. There is on this subject a learned essay in English by Mr. Wright.
* See the Vision of St. Tundale, published by Mr. Turnbull, Edinburgh, 1843; and that of Drithelm, in Bede, Hist. Eccles., Lib. V., c. 13.
ruined by the immense sums of money they expended in order to discover the unknown country of St. Brendan. This apocryphal land also figures in a diplomatic negotiation between Spain and Portugal; and in 1721, we find a ship sailing from Spain in the direction of the Canary Islands, in search of this fabulous island.*
There are but few religious legends to be found in the annals of Spain. The romantic and chivalric ballads so popular in that country excluded all other poetry. The Cid had too much to do on earth to be able to visit the mysteries of another world; and it is worthy of remark, that, instead of transporting him to heaven, as other poets have done with their heroes, Sepulveda, in one of his ballads, represents St. Peter visiting him thirty days before his death, in order to prepare him for his end.
In the cursory view we have taken of the different legends of European nations on the subject of another world, we have now reached the country of Dante, and, as might be supposed, we find traditions which must have exercised a still greater influence on his poem. He was acquainted with the poetic legends of other nations from the books which he read, or from the narratives of travellers who had visited the different countries of Europe. He found those of his native land at every step. During the Middle Ages, Italy may be said to have been itself a legend. If he opened a book which was in every one's hand, the Fioretti di San Francesco, he must have seen some of those touching stories which were related of the holy man; he must have become acquainted with that charming legend of three thieves who came one day to the monastery of Monte Casale. The porter had refused to open the gate to them; St. Francis ordered him to go and look after them, and when he should have found them to ask their pardon, and to offer them bread and wine, at the same time recommending them to reform and to lead in future a more holy life. The porter obeyed, and the thieves were so much touched, that they began to reflect on the sinful life they had hitherto led, and went immediately to ask pardon of St. Francis. He received them, and shortly after they took
M. Labitte supposes that this legend may have indirectly inspired Columbus, and that in the unknown land of St. Brendan, whilst Dante sought for his invisible world, Columbus looked for the New World.
orders. Two of them soon died, and their souls went to heaven; the third survived, and, after doing penance for fifteen years, he one night had a vision. He fancied that he was transported to the top of a high mountain, to the brink of a precipice which filled his soul with terror. The angel who led the way threw him into the abyss, and, following him, ordered him to rise and to come with him. They traversed a long valley, filled with sharp-pointed stones, at the end of which a troop of horrible demons seized upon him, and threw him into a blazing furnace. When he had got out of the furnace, he came to a narrow and slippery bridge, under which was rolling a torrent full of scorpions and serpents. In the middle of the bridge, the angel rose in the air and alighted on a mountain. The good thief, on finding himself thus alone, was filled with terror, and, not knowing what to do, he recommended himself to God; he presently began to feel wings growing on his shoulders, and, without waiting for them to have attained their full growth, he sought to fly. Twice he fell, but at the third attempt he succeeded in rejoining his companion. At this moment, St. Francis, who had died a short time previous, appeared to him, and introduced him into a magnificent palace situated on the mountain, where, having shown him all the treasures it contained, he ordered him to return for seven days to earth. The good thief then awoke; seven days after this vision, he died.*
When Dante visited the convent of Benedictine monks at Florence, he must have found in their library the celebrated vision of Alberic, who, having passed through purgatory, finds himself before the dread tribunal where the human race is finally judged. A sinner was awaiting his sentence; his crimes were inscribed in a book by the angel of vengeance. But in the latter days of his life, the sinner had shed one tear of repentance; it had been gathered up by the angel of mercy, who lets it fall on the book, and it effaces all trace of what was written there.†
But it was not only in the legendary and poetic traditions of his country that Dante found those doubts and elevated
* Fioretti di San Francesco, cap. 25.
This legend was written by the monks of Monte Casale, and published for the first time by Mr. Cancellieri, at Rome, in 1818. It reminds one of the beautiful passage of Sterne, where the recording angel washes out the oath of Uncle Toby with a tear.
speculations respecting the particulars of another life, which agitated the Middle Ages. In one of the sermons of Gregory the Seventh, which Dante was doubtless acquainted with, there is a remarkable passage concerning the sufferings which await the sinner in another world. When, in the little town of Arezzo, Gregory, then only cardinal, preached this sermon, he was not preoccupied with any poetic thought; his aim was only to convince his auditory that neither prince nor baron could, with impunity, touch the possessions of the church. In order to attain his object, he recounted the following fiction in his sermon. A holy man who had descended into hell had there seen a ladder standing in the midst of the flames and fire of everlasting justice. All the men who belonged to the family of a certain German baron, who had usurped the domains of the church of Metz, were condemned to come on this ladder after their death. The latest comer placed himself on the uppermost step of the ladder, and those who had preceded him descended a step, so that one after the other they were plunged into the horrible abyss.
In the chronicle of Malaspina, Dante no doubt read the adventure of the Marquis Hugues of Brandenburg, who, having followed the Emperor Otto the Third to Italy, got lost, by the visitation of God, in a forest, in the neighbourhood of Florence, and there discovered a forge, in which several men seemed to be at work. But he soon saw that the workmen were quite black, and that, instead of iron, they were beating human beings on the anvil. He was told that these were condemned souls, and that his would be treated in the same manner, if he did not repent. On hearing this, the Marquis recommended himself to the Holy Virgin, and after his return to Germany, he sold all his property in order to found seven new monasteries.*
The Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, however, was the classical book of Italian legendary literature; but it would detain us too long to analyze all the legends in it, and others which were in circulation in Italy. Those that we have mentioned suffice to show the spirit of the religious poetry of that country. They are full of that energy so natural to Italian poetry of all ages, but at the same time a spirit of mildness pervades them, which is not to be found in the
* Ricordano Malaspina, Istoria, c. 48.
legends of Germany or of France. The higher degree of civilization of Italy, and the vast authority which the Catholic faith had in that land, naturally imparted more of the mild and humble spirit of the gospel to its poetry. The visions of paradise are more numerous than in the more barbarous countries of the North, and it may safely be said that such legends as that of Alberic could have been found in no other country than Italy.
We have now seen how much the works of the ancients and those of the Middle Ages contributed towards the formation of the Divina Commedia. But there remains yet another source from which Dante may have drawn much of his inspiration. During those ages when the Roman Catholic faith prevailed universally, the mysteries of a future state were not only celebrated by poets and men of letters; they were sculptured by the great artists of the time. The cathedrals which then rose up, as if by magic, in all parts of Europe, were filled with images of another world. It is impossible that Dante should have entered any of the churches of Pisa or Rome without being powerfully impressed by all that surrounded him. On the doors of the church of Santa Maria di Orvieto, he must have seen the bas-reliefs sculptured by Nicholas of Pisa, aided by some German workmen, in which the artist had represented the last judgment, the joys of paradise, and the tortures of hell. It was very common thus to represent on the exterior of great religious monuments the visions of a future state; it seemed as if the artist wished the passer-by to be struck by the spectacle of the sufferings which awaited him if he erred from the right path in this world, and thus to induce him to enter the church, there to prostrate himself before the altar, and humbly to acknowledge his frailty. If he actually entered, another spectacle immediately caught his eye; consolation seemed to surround him on all sides. On the stained glass of the windows, he discovered the holy virgins who had suffered martyrdom; and above the organ he saw the rose, which generally represented the nine choruses of angels surrounding the throne of God.*
It was, no doubt, in visiting some church that Dante conceived the idea of representing heaven in the form of a rose, on the leaves of which were seated the blessed.
"In forma dunque di candida rosa
Mi si mostrava la milizia santa,
Che nel suo sangue Cristo fece sposa."
Paradiso, Canto XXXI.