Judith-Beheading-Holofernes
Judith Beheading Holofernes (1610-1620), by Cornelius Galle der Ältere - Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Paris).
"The Proud" by Gustave Dore.
“The Proud” by Gustave Dore.

Listers, pride is the first sin to be purged in Dante’s literary work the Purgatorio. The purgation of pride represents the first ledge of purgatory. There are seven ledges - one for each of the seven deadly vices. Dante orders them according to their proximity to charity; thus, the ledge of pride is at the bottom of Mount Purgatory while lust is the uppermost ledge. On the ledge of pride, “the wall of the cliff that rises to one side of the ledge is adorned with carvings in white marble, all of them offering examples of the virtue of humility. The first example is the scene of the Annunciation. The second carving represents David, who has put aside his kingly splendor to dance in humility before the Lord. The third shows the Emperor Trajan halting his mighty array of warriors on horseback to listen to a poor widow’s plea for justice. As the Pilgrim stands marveling at these august humilities, Virgil directs his attention to a group of souls that is moving toward them. These are the Proud, who, beating their breasts, make their way around the ledge under the crushing weight of tremendous slabs of stone that they carry on their backs.”1

The massive stones force the prideful souls to face the ground as they make their way around the ledge. As they are hunched over, they contemplate examples of pride carved into the ground. As they purge the sin of pride and the weight of the stone lessens, their necks are able to lift enough to see the examples of humility carved into the walls. Regarding the carvings in the floor, Dante explains, “As they leave the souls of the Proud, Virgil calls the Pilgrim’s attention to a series of carvings in the bed of rock beneath their feet. These are the examples of the vice of Pride, of the haughty who have been brought low. Depicted in the carvings are Satan, the giant Briareus, Nimrod, Niobe, Saul, Arachne, Rehoboam, the slaying of Eriphyle by her son Alcmeon, Sennacherib’s murder by his sons, the slaughter of Cyrus by Tomyris, the destruction of Holofernes and the rout of the Assyrians, and finally the fall of Troy.”2

 

The Reliefs of Pride Carved into the Floor

“The reliefs cut into the floor present thirteen examples of the sin of Pride and the disastrous consequences that it entails. The first twelve tercets (in Italian) begin respectively with the letters UUUU. 0000. MMMM. forming an acrostic, which is resumed in the three lines of the thirteenth tercet: uom (the Italian word for “man”). Dante’s obvious message here is that Pride is a sin so common and so basic as to be practically synonymous with man. The thirteen examples, beginning with Lucifer’s fall, cover a wide range of material taken (almost) alternately from a biblical and a classical source. The final climactic example, the fall of Troy, represents the destruction of not merely a powerful individual but a powerful state, a civilization.”3

 

1. Satan

Dante describes the relief depicting the fall of Satan: “I saw, on one side, him who was supposed / to be the noblest creature of creation, / plunge swift as lightning from the height of Heaven.”4

 

2. Briareus the Giant

“Briareus, also called Aegaeon, in Greek mythology, one of three 100-armed, 50-headed Hecatoncheires (from the Greek words for “hundred” and “hands”), the sons of the deities Uranus (Heaven) and Gaea (Earth). Homer (Iliad, Book I, line 396) says the gods called him Briareus; mortals called him Aegaeon (lines 403–404). In Homer and Hesiod, Briareus and his brothers successfully aided Zeus, the king of the gods, against the attack by the Titans. The Hellenistic poet Callimachus (Hymn to Delos) made Briareus an opponent of Zeus and one of the assailants of Olympus, who, after his defeat, was buried under Mount Etna. Still another tradition made him a giant of the sea, an enemy of Poseidon (the god of the sea), and the inventor of warships.”5 Dante pulls from the second of the three traditions, which places Briareus against Zeus or Jupiter. Out of pride, he challenged Jupiter and was slain by a lightning bolt.6

 

3. Nimrod

"Nimrod & His Horn," Gustave Dore. Inferno.
“Nimrod & His Horn,” Gustave Dore. Inferno.

“Nimrod… [the] king of Shinar, was, according to the Book of Genesis and Books of Chronicles, the son of Cush, the great-grandson of Noah. The Bible states that he was “a mighty hunter before the Lord [and] …. began to be mighty in the earth.” Extra-biblical traditions associating him with the Tower of Babel led to his reputation as a king who was rebellious against God… Nimrod is considered the leader of those who built the Tower of Babel in the land of Shinar, the Bible states this in (Gen 10:10) The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.”7 “In the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (written 1308–21), Nimrod is a figure in the Inferno. Nimrod is portrayed as a giant (which was common in the Medieval period) and is found with the other giants Ephialtes, Antaeus, Briareus, Tityos, Typhon and the other unnamed giants chained up on the outskirts of Hell’s Circle of Treachery. His only line is “Raphèl maí amèche zabí almi”, an unintelligible statement which serves to accuse himself.”8

 

4. Niobe

An example from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Niobe is “the daughter of Tantalus and Dione, and the wife of Amphion, King of Thebes. Proud of her sevens sons and seven daughters, Niobe boasted her superiority over Latona, who had but two, Apollo and Diana. Apollo then killed the seven sons with his bow. Diana killed the seven daughters, and Niobe was turned to stone, though tears continued to fall from her marble cheeks. Dante’s version of the story comes from Ovid.9

 

5. Saul

Another biblical example of pride, Saul, “son of Kish of the tribe of Benjamin and first king of Israel. He was deposed by [the prophet] Samuel for having disobeyed God’s command by sparing a life and allowing booty to be taken. Defeated by the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, Saul killed himself with his own sword to avoid capture.10

 

6. Arachne

Another example of pride from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Arachne is “the daughter of Idmon of Colophon, who challenged Minerva to a weaving contest. She produced a beautiful cloth on which the love-adventures of the gods were woven, and Minerva, unable to find fault with it, ripped it to shreds. Arachne hanged herself, but Minerva loosened the rope, turning it into a web and Arachne herself into a spider.” (Ovid, Metam. VI, 1-145; Musa, cmt. 43, p. 134.))

 

7. Rehoboam

Another biblical example from Israel’s royal history, Rehoboam is the “son of Solomon, who succeeded his father as king of Israel. He refused to lighten the taxes imposed on his people and sent Adoram to collect them. Ten of the tribes revolted, Adoram was stoned to death, and Rehoboam fled to Jerusalem.”11

 

8. Alcmeon

“The son of Amphiaraus the Soothsayer and Eriphyle. Foreseeing that he would die during the expedition against Thebes, Amphiaraus concealed himself. But Polynices bribed Eriphyle with the golden necklace of Harmonia to reveal her husband’s hiding place, and Amphiaraus was constrained to go to war, where he met his fate. Before he went, however, he asked his son for revenge, and Alcmeon accordingly slew his mother for her betrayal.” Amphiaraus is mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.12

 

9. The Murder of Sennacherib

“King of Assyria from 705 to 681 B.C., Sennacherib arrogantly made war upon King Hezekiah of Judah and the Israelites. Although outnumbered, the Israelites, with the intervention of an angel of the Lord, annihilated the Assyrian host. Sennacherib escaped the debacle but was later murdered by his two sons while praying to his false gods.”13

 

10. The Slaughter of Cyrus by Tomyris

“Tomyris (or Thamyris), the queen of the Massagetae (a Scythian people), sought revenge for the treacherous murder of her son at the hands of Cyrus (560-529 B.C.), emperor of the Persians. She defeated his army and Cyrus was killed in battle. Not satisfied, however, she decapitated him and threw his head into a vessel of human blood, urging him to drink his fill!”14

 

11. The Destruction of Holofernes

“The general of the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians. He attacked Bethulia, a city of the Israelites, and proudly mocked their God. Judith, a beautiful widow, delivered the Israelites by going to Holofernes’ tent at night under the pretense of sleeping with him. Instead, with grim resolve, she cut off his head. The Assyrians, seeing the head of their general mounted on the wall in the morning, fled in terror.”15

 

12. The Rout of the Assyrians

The episode of Judith assassinating Holofernes, the general of the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, appears to serve as two separate examples. The first is the pride of Holofernes and the second is the pride of the Assyrians collectively.

 

13. The Fall of Troy

“In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Achaeans (Greeks) after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta… the end of the war came with one final plan. Odysseus devised a new ruse—a giant hollow wooden horse, an animal that was sacred to the Trojans. It was built by Epeius and guided by Athena, from the wood of a cornel tree grove sacred to Apollo, with the inscription: The Greeks dedicate this thank-offering to Athena for their return home. The hollow horse was filled with soldiers[149] led by Odysseus. The rest of the army burned the camp and sailed for Tenedos. When the Trojans discovered that the Greeks were gone, believing the war was over, they “joyfully dragged the horse inside the city”, while they debated what to do with it. Some thought they ought to hurl it down from the rocks, others thought they should burn it, while others said they ought to dedicate it to Athena. The Achaeans entered the city and killed the sleeping population. A great massacre followed which continued into the day.

Blood ran in torrents, drenched was all the earth, As Trojans and their alien helpers died. Here were men lying quelled by bitter death All up and down the city in their blood.

The Trojans, fueled with desperation, fought back fiercely, despite being disorganized and leaderless. With the fighting at its height, some donned fallen enemies’ attire and launched surprise counterattacks in the chaotic street fighting. Other defenders hurled down roof tiles and anything else heavy down on the rampaging attackers. The outlook was grim though, and eventually the remaining defenders were destroyed along with the whole city.”16


  1. Purgatory, trans. Musa, opening of Canto X. ↩︎

  2. Id., opening of Canto XII. ↩︎

  3. Musa, Canto XII, cmts. 25-63. ↩︎

  4. Canto XII; cf. Book X of Paradise Lost↩︎

  5. Greek Mythology Encyclopedia↩︎

  6. Musa, cmt. 28, p. 133. ↩︎

  7. Nimrod Wiki↩︎

  8. Id., cf. “The giant who Built the Tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar. (Gen. 10:10) (Cf. Inf. XXXI, 77-78; Par. XXVI, 126.” - Also, to view more of Gustave Dore’s work on the Divine Comedy, please visit The World of Dante↩︎

  9. Metam. VI, 182-312, Musa, cmt. 39, p. 134. ↩︎

  10. See, I. Sam. 15:3-11; 31:4-5; Musa, cmt. 40, p. 134. ↩︎

  11. I Kings 12:18; Musa, cmt. 46, p. 134. ↩︎

  12. See Inf. XX, 34; Musa, cmt. 50, 134. ↩︎

  13. Musa, cmt. 52; citing II Kings 19:36-37 and Isa. 37:37-38. ↩︎

  14. Musa, cmt. 55-6. ↩︎

  15. Musa, cmt. 59. ↩︎

  16. The Trojan War, Wikipedia. ↩︎