In one of the most striking and enigmatic passages of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia (Purgatorio 33.1–15), Beatrice speaks as her own the words of John 16:16. We are in the Earthly Paradise, and Beatrice speaks these words to seven women who represent respectively the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. They have just sung a psalm in lament at the corruption of the earthly Church, and we are told Beatrice responds to this, firstly, with a sorrow like Mary’s at the foot of the Cross, and secondly, with her utterance ‘a little while and you will see me no more...’.
These words are addressed also to Dante who, when Beatrice died, despaired, failing to recognize in death the possibility of eternal union with God. So as to grow in virtue, he now needs to recognize in Beatrice the truth offered by Christ to his disciples in John 16:16–24.
By speaking Christ’s words, Beatrice blurs easy distinctions between Christ and other human beings. Whose words are these? Christ’s? Beatrice’s? Both? And how does this relate to Dante, who as character is called to recognize in Beatrice’s words the truth of Christ, and who as author is the one speaking Christ’s words in and through Beatrice?
There is no easy distinction between the truth of Christ and that of particular human beings. Christians are called to virtue not just by following but by becoming Christ. His words are to become our words, our words are to become his words.
The Master of the Antiphonar of Padua’s illumination of Beatrice and the Virtues in a fourteenth-century manuscript of Dante’s Commedia offers a striking visual counterpart to this theological recognition. It illustrates the text of Purgatorio 33, articulating itself around the text, in visual dialogue not just with the text but also the surrounding commentary. In both image and text, the manuscript thus visually presents itself as a Bible might have. Inspired by Scripture, Dante’s literary art generates visual art that invites us to recognize in Dante’s poetry—and thereby in human art more broadly—a potential significance comparable to that of Scripture itself.
16 “A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me.” 17Some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I go to the Father’?” 18They said, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he means.” 19Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him; so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’? 20Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. 21When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. 22So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. 24Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.