1. The Excommunicated
In Canto III, Dante and Virgil encounter those souls who were excommunicated. The reason, however, these souls are in purgatory and not hell is because they repented at the very end of their life. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the repentant excommunicants are actually not in purgatory proper - they are in ante-purgatory or that which comes before purgatory. Virgil and the Pilgrim Dante meet a soul named Manfred. The soul explains that the souls of excommunicants who repent late in life must wait in ante-purgatory thirty times as long as they waited to repent on earth. The wait can, however, be shorted by intercessory prayer. Manfred explains his situation in a very beautiful section of verses:
Horrible was the nature of my sins, but boundless mercy stretches out its arms to any man who comes in search of it,
The church’s curse is not the final word for Everlasting Love may still return, if hope reveals the slightest hint of green.
True, he who dies scorning the Holy Church, although he turns repentant at life’s end, must stay outside, a wanderer on this bank,
for thirty time as long as he has lived in his presumptuousness-although good prayers may shorten the duration of his term.
The reason waiting in ante-purgatory is a punishment is because the souls cannot begin their purgation, and it is their purgation that makes them fit to enter into the beatific bliss of heaven. It is possible that Dante has the souls wait “thirty times as long” as they lived in their presumptuous state due to “a provision in Canon Law that calls for a thirty-day period of grace before the ban of excommunication goes into effect.”1
2. The Indolent
After climbing through an arduous gap in the mountain, Dante the Pilgrim is told that Mount Purgatory actually becomes easier to climb the higher you go.2 As they continue their ascent, Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil meet the “indolent souls” who constitute the second class of the “Late Repentants” in ante-purgatory. The indolent souls are lazy. Though they were not excommunicated as the first class of Late Repentants, the indolent souls simply waited until their end of their life to repent. They are punished by having to wait outside purgatory proper for as many years as they waited to repent on earth. An indolent soul named Belacqua explains:
Before I start, the heavens must revolve as many times as while I was alive, for I put off repenting till the end.
Prayers could, of course, make my time shorter here: prayers form a heart that lives in grace—the rest are worthless, for they go unheard in Heaven!”
Note that Dante again includes the benefit of intercessory prayer when speaking of the punishment of these souls. With the indolent, the concept of praying for the poor souls in purgatory is explained in further detail and includes that those prayers must come from an individual on earth who is in a state of grace.3
3. The Unshriven: Violent Deaths
As Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil continue on their ascent, they discover a group of souls chanting Miserere. The souls are the third and final class of the Late Repentants. They are those “who died a violent death but managed to repent in the final moments.”4
We are all souls who met a violent death, and we were sinners to our final hour; but then the light of Heaven lit our minds,
and penitent and pardoning, we left that life at peace with God, Who left our hearts with longing for the holy sight of Him.”
Here they encounter the soul named Buonconte of Montefeltro. Buonconte’s story is notable: “At this death there ensured a struggled between the powers of good and evil for his soul; since he had uttered the name of Mary with his dying breath and shed a tear of true repentance, the heavenly faction prevailed and bore his soul off to Paradise. But a demon took possession of his corpse and played havoc with it: he conjured up a storm and sent the mortal remains plummeting down the raging and swollen river channels.”5 He states:
I made my way, my throat on open wound, fleeing on foot, and bloodying the plain.
There I went blind. I could no longer speak, but as I died, I murmured Mary’s name, and there I fell and left my empty flesh.
The unshriven or unabsolved begin the theme of each group in purgatory having its own prayer. The unshriven sing the Miserere, which is King David’s famous Psalm 50 asking for forgiveness.6 The unshriven souls request that Dante and others pray for them.7 Continuing the theme of intercessory prayer, Dante asks Virgil about the “power of prayer to affect the will of Heaven.”8 Virgil states, “high justice would in no way be debased / if ardent love should cancel instantly / the debt these penitents must satisfy.”9 In contrast, however, Virgil submits there are “those whose sins could not be urged by prayer / because their prayers had no access to God.”10
The Gate of Purgatory
While still in ante-purgatory, Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim continue to the Valley of the Princes where the “Negligent Rulers” dwell.11 The rulers are singing the Salve Regina. Though not late repentants, the rulers continue a theme of negligence seen in the excommunicants, the indolent, and the unshriven. After a few other encounters, Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil arrive at the Gate of Purgatory. Three steps lead up to the gate. The first is a marble step “polished to the glaze of a looking glass.”12 The second is a black step, “rough and crumbling, fire-corroded stone.”13 And the third and final step - upon which the Gate of Purgatory sat - was “red as the blood that spurts out from a vein.”14 According to Musa, “the three steps are generally taken t0 represent the three stages of repentance: the first step, which is white and mirror-like, stands for self-examination; the second, black, rough step stands for sorrow for sin, or contrition; the third, flaming-red step signifies satisfaction of the sinner’s debt, or penance.”15 On the threshold of the Gate of Purgatory sits an angel clothed in an ash gray robe holding a sword. When Dante approaches, the angel traces seven “P’s” on his forehead. In Latin, the word for sin is peccatum, which foreshadows the seven capital vices that will be purged in purgatory. The angel even warns Dante to be sure to “wash away” the wounds on his journey. The angel then takes keys given to him by St. Peter - one gold and one silver - and opens the Gate of Purgatory. As the gate opens, Dante can hear Te Deum Laudamus being sung.
See Canto IV, line 88-90. ↩︎
See Purgatory, 48, n. 133-35. ↩︎
Purgatory, 49. ↩︎
Purgatory, Canto V, 49. ↩︎
Canto VI, 25-37. ↩︎
Purgatory, 57. ↩︎
Canto VI, 37-19. ↩︎
Canto VI, 41-2. ↩︎
Canto VII. ↩︎
Canto IX, 94-5. ↩︎
Id. 98. ↩︎
Id. 102. ↩︎
Purgatory, 105. ↩︎