Mary as Mediatrix in Dante’s Divine Comedy
Although not yet infallibly defined, the doctrine that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Mediatrix of all graces enjoys a long pedigree in the history of the Church. In the fourth century St. Ephrem wrote that “After the Mediator thou art the mediatrix of the whole world.”1 From the other Fathers, through medieval theologians such as St. Bernard, and into the modern era, Mary’s prerogatives have been examined and extolled. In our own time, various encyclicals by 19th and 20th-century Popes have affirmed the long-standing tradition that Mary is not only “the Mediatrix of all graces by her co-operation in the Incarnation,”2 but also that she is the “Mediatrix of all graces by her intercession in Heaven”3; many theologians assert that “according to God’s positive ordinance . . . no grace accrues to me66n without the intercession of Mary.”4 In trying to understand and celebrate Our Lady, the Catholic artists of the ages have been inspired to celebrate her in paint, stone, and stained glass, in the rich stream of musical forms, and in literary works. It is not surprising that Dante, the “most eloquent singer of the Christian idea,”5 features the Blessed Mother in his Divine Comedy; but what is sometimes overlooked in focusing on the larger action of the poem is how Marian it is, that in his epic of conversion, Dante forcefully affirms the doctrine of Mary as Mediatrix.
The Start of the Action
Although the opening lines of the poem famously feature the Pilgrim—Dante himself—waking up in “a dark wood,”6 in the next canto Virgil reveals that the action actually starts in Heaven. While answering the Pilgrim’s question about why he has come to help him, Virgil says that “A gracious lady sits in Heaven grieving /…/ and her compassion breaks Heaven’s stern decree.”7 Even before Dante realizes that he is in mortal trouble, while he is still spiritually asleep in the dark wood of sin and error, the Blessed Mother intercedes for him and starts the sequence of events that will lead to his conversion. Later, in the pit of the fraudulent soothsayers, Virgil comments that while the Pilgrim was struggling in the dark wood “the moon…already was at full / and you should well remember that at times / when you were lost…she helped you.”8 This added detail is an echo of the famous verses in Canticle of Canticles that are applied to the Blessed Mother in the liturgy: “Who is she that cometh forth…fair as the moon.”9 In seeing the damned and being moved to amend his own life, the Pilgrim also discovers that the only ones who cannot be helped by the Blessed Mother are those who have put themselves beyond all hope, obstinately rejecting her and her Son.
The Holy Souls in Purgatory are, of course, in a much different situation, for their salvation is sure and “at worst / [their purgation] cannot last beyond the Final Day.”10 Here love, light, hope and music—all of which are denied in Inferno—are present. The second song in the whole poem is the Salve Regina; these exiles beg the “mother of mercy” to end their banishment by turning to them and showing to them the “fruit of her womb.” Dante imagines the main part of Purgatory as a huge seven-terraced mountain, with each level corresponding to the seven capital sins, from pride to lust. Each of these rounds has various depictions of both the vice being purged and the opposing virtue. In each case, the first example of the virtue is drawn from the life of the Blessed Mother. While most of the examples are taken from the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, the exempla for the gluttonous particularly speaks to her intercession: “Mary was more intent / on gracing the wedding feast with plenitude / than on her own mouth, which now pleads for you!”11
In this way Dante clearly teaches that the Blessed Mother has a lasting concern for not only the Church Militant but also the Church Suffering. The clearest reference to Mary as Mediatrix, however, is related in one of the lower levels of Purgatory, a place of additional waiting for those who died excommunicated, achieved salvation at the moment of death, or the like. Among these is Buonconte da Montefeltro who, while dying on the battlefield, with his last breath “murmur[s] Mary’s name.”12 Buonconte relates that as “God’s angel [takes him] up”13 an exasperated demon cries out: “You may be getting his immortal part— / and won it for a measly tear, at that.”14 Such is the powerful intercession of the Blessed Mother that there is hope even in the last moments of one’s earthly life for those who implore her help.
Dante’s Most Detailed Presentation
In Paradise, the saints have the added consolation of seeing the Blessed Mother herself, body and soul, and so it is in his canticle that Dante gives his most detailed presentation of Mary as Mediatrix. Instead of immediately ascending to Paradise itself, Dante has the Pilgrim, guided by his beloved Beatrice, travel through the celestial spheres of the universe where various saints are met at each level. The Blest project themselves, so to speak, in a hierarchical order that both mirrors the Celestial Court beyond and allows the Pilgrim a period of development since the vision of Heaven can only be received in stages. Having moved through the Spheres of the Moon and the Sun and the other known planets, the Pilgrim reaches the Sphere of the Fixed Stars—everything in the universe past Saturn. Here the Pilgrim is granted a vision of the Church Triumphant: first Christ Himself brightly blazing and then, after He ascends, His Mother: “the Rose in which the Word of God / took on the flesh.”15 As the Pilgrim looks on the Blessed Mother, body and soul, he comments that “the sound of [Mary’s] name, the one / I pray to night and day, drew all my soul / into the vision of that flame of flames.”16 After she ascends to join her Son, the rest of the Church Triumphant stay and sing “‘Regina celi’ in tones so sweet, / the joy of it will never leave my mind.”17
Finally, the Pilgrim comes to the last stage of his journey: he goes beyond space and time, past the outer edge of the spherical universe, into the Empyrean, where he is granted a final vision of the angels, saints, the Blessed Mother, and the Trinity Itself all organized into a massive white rose. When the Pilgrim turns to Beatrice with questions about the Rose, he finds that St. Bernard has taken her place as guide. The symbolism is clear: the ultimate vision of Paradise requires not only theological knowledge but also to be steeped in mystical contemplation and profoundly devoted to the Blessed Mother. St. Bernard directs the Pilgrim’s gaze to “the Queen / who holds as subject this devoted realm,”18 but Dante is a wise and humble enough poet to “not dare / describe the least part of such beauty’s bliss.”19 The great Doctor then affirms the necessity of Mary’s intercession for the final vision:
But lest you fall backwards beating your own wings, believing to ascend on your own power,
we must offer a prayer requesting grace,
grace from the one who has power to help you.20
The author of the Memorare offers a glorious thirty-nine-line prayer that opens the final canto of the poem and causes it to come full circle. Mary is the
Virgin Mother, daughter of your son
most humble, most exalted…
…down on earth, for men,
the living spring of their eternal hope.
…Not only does your loving kindness rush
to those who ask for it, but often times
it flows spontaneously before the plea.21
The Pilgrim looks into the Blessed Mother’s eyes, which make clear “how precious true devotion is to her,”22 and in response she does as she always does: directs his gaze to the Trinity, “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”23
Celebrating the Glories of Mary
Now nearly 700 years after Dante’s death—and amid the centenary of the apparitions at Fatima—the faithful continue to celebrate the glories of Mary and beg her intercession. Adding to the insights of theology and the various apparitions of the Blessed Mother, the great artistic works of past and present provide a connatural knowledge of her, leading to the devotion that has always been a mark of the true Catholic. In these troubled times, the faithful need Our Lady more than ever. Sister Lucy of Fatima told Father Augustine Fuentes in 1957 that “the devil is about to wage a decisive battle against the Blessed Virgin…[and] that God is giving two last remedies to the world: the Holy Rosary and devotion to the Immaculate Heart.”24 Echoing the great saints and his fellow artists, in his glorious poem Dante affirms that “it will never be too late to have recourse to…Mary,”25 the Immaculata, Mediatrix of all graces.
1 Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974) 211.
2 Ott 212.
3 Ott 213.
4 Ott 213.
5 Pope Benedict XV, In praeclara summorum, §11.
6 Dante, The Divine Comedy, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003). Inferno I.2.
7 Inf. II.94, 96.
8 Inf. XX.127-129.
9 The Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims Version (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1989) Canticle of Canticles 6:9.
10 Purg. X.110-111.
11 Purg. XXII.142-144.
12 Purg. V.101.
13 Purg. V.104.
14 Purg. V.106-107.
15 Para. XXIII.73-74.
16 Para. XXIII.88-90.
17 Para. XXIII.128-129.
18 Para. XXXI.116-117.
19 Para. XXXI.137-138.
20 Para. XXXII.145-148.
21 Para. XXXIII.1-2,11-12, 16-18.
22 Para. XXXIII.42.
23 Para. XXXIII.145.
24 Mark Fellows, Sister Lucia Apostle of Mary’s Immaculate Heart (Buffalo, NY: Immaculate Heart Publications, 2007) 160-161.
25 Fellows 124.