"Love's Fire": Angels in the Divine Comedy
Dominican Father Paul O’Sullivan describes angels as “pure spirits, the mighty Princes of Heaven who stand before God, gazing on His unveiled presence…[the] burning fires of love, filled to overflowing with the plenitude of happiness…[who] who are the perfect images of God, mirrors of His Divine perfections…each in his own special way.” While the superior angels, such as the highest hierarchy of the choirs of the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, especially “are said to assist before the throne of God,” it also true that the angels are sometimes sent by God for a particular purpose or mission outside of Heaven. The word angel itself is derived from the Hebrew word for messenger, and it is one of the consoling features of our faith that each human being has his own guardian angel, “a gift of divine providence.” As angels are pure spirits who only appear to man’s physical senses for extraordinary reasons, the images of Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel in Scripture, or the guardian angels in the lives of the saints, involve the angels “stooping to our limitations, bowing to our penchant for thinking in pictures... [taking on] the appearances of bodies for our comfort…that we might the more easily accept the angel, his message, his companionship.” It is only natural that the great artists should follow the angels’ own direction and attempt to convey some sense of these beings in physical form—one thinks of Fra Angelico’s depiction of the Annunciation or the stained glass windows of Chartres, for example. Among the poets, the greatest and most extensive treatment is, unsurprisingly, that of the Divine Comedy, in which Dante first shows angels as the helpmates of human souls in Inferno and Purgatorio before presenting the higher choirs in Paradiso.
The Angelic and the Demonic
Mirroring the angelic—and demonic—influences in our earthly life, Dante not only includes the fallen angels in his presentation of hell, but also includes an impressive episode of an angel who is sent by God to assist in the Pilgrim in his journey. Having passed the sins of the flesh in upper hell, the Pilgrim and his guide Virgil find the gates of the infernal fortress of Dis, barred against them. From the rampart “more than a thousand fiendish angels” scream at them as Dante Christianizes pagan myth and has “three hellish Furies stained with blood” call on Medusa to turn the Pilgrim into stone. The journey to God is unable to proceed; the Pilgrim and his guide are completely outmatched, and all that Virgil can do to help is to cover the Pilgrim’s eyes lest the paralyzing despair of Medusa destroy him. “A blast of sound, shot through with fear” announces the arrival of God’s messenger, and the explosion of the conflict between grace and demonic insolence causes “Hell [to] begin to tremble.” The demons and the damned scatter as the angel imitates the Lord, walking on the water of the nearby river Styx. Not one for depictions of putti as in later Renaissance art, Dante presents a warrior angel, a prince of Heaven who easily opens the Gate of Dis with a wand of office and scornfully upbraids the demons before going back to Heaven. As human beings alone are no match for the fallen angelic intellect, so are the demons no match for one vested in God’s power. Msgr. Glenn’s summary of St. Thomas’ Summa shows how this scene illustrates the angels as instruments: “When God has an angel apply its powers to a creature, the angel is sent to that creature. God is the sender and the first principle of the effect produced by the angel sent; God is also the ultimate goal or final cause of the work so produced. The angel is God’s minister or intelligent instrument; by its being sent, it renders ministry to God.”
Understandably, the good angels are much more involved in the operation of Purgatory, where, although the poor souls are much in need of help, their salvation is sure and their arrival home is only a matter of time. The central metaphor of the whole Divine Comedy is that of the exodus, so it is fitting that the souls arrive to the great mountain of Purgatory in a boat driven by a gloriously bright angel and are singing Psalm 113: “In exitu Israël de Aegypto.” Higher up, in a valley that makes up part of ante-Purgatory—a place of delay in which certain souls must wait before beginning the work of Purgatory proper—Dante presents a short allegorical scene that again illustrates the role of the angels in our lives. Every evening a serpent, “the very one, perhaps, / that offered Eve the bitter fruit to eat,” attempts to enter the valley and every evening two angels come “From Mary’s bosom…/ to guard [the souls] from the serpent in the vale.” It is not that the souls in Purgatory are in real danger; the point is both that the serpent never gives up trying and, more importantly, that the angels always come to help the souls. Mark Musa further compares this scene to St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s famous sermon on the three advents of Christ: these messengers of God are symbols of the daily coming of Christ into “the hearts of individuals in order to protect them from temptation and insure their salvation.” All through the seven-storied mountain of Purgatory, the holy angels are there as the representations of this or that aspect of God, from the Angel of Confession at the gate to Purgatory proper and the Angels of the Beatitudes at the end of each terrace, to the angels that make up the heavenly pageants in Earthly Paradise at the summit. These mighty angels give glory to God by helping human souls to someday join them in experiencing the Beatific Vision.
A Higher Vision
Although they are great friends to men as these instruments of God, Dante reserves the presentation of the greater mission of the angels for the Paradiso. After moving through the cosmos with Beatrice, his new guide, the Pilgrim is at the curved edge of the universe when he has his first vision of God: a small but intense point of light. Around the point of light “a ring of fire whirl[s]” at great speed, followed by eight others—the nine choirs of angels circling the Trinity. Beatrice’s explanation makes the vision and the meaning clear to the Pilgrim:
On that Point
depend all nature and all of the heavens.
Observe the circle nearest it, and know
the reason for its spinning at such speed
is that Love’s fire burns it into motion.
This first choir, the Seraphim, is more capable of loving and knowing God, is closest to Him, and therefore is more filled with His glory. The ultimate reality of the universe, even in the physical sense, is that it starts with God, who communicates Himself to the choir of the Seraphim, who in turn give all that they know and love to the next choir—although each of “these cannot perfectly receive all that is given”—and so on down through the cosmos. Also of note is the ceaseless activity; the angels in their choirs are “showers of light…/ like molten iron in fire spurting sparks.” It is the same in the Heavenly Court itself. Dante pictures the realm of the saints as a great white rose in bloom and the angels like bees that “spread the peace and ardor of the love” God, so many that “this screen of flying plenitude” would block out all light were they not diaphanous spirits. In this hive of activity, the angels “soaring see and sing / the glory of the One who stirs their love, / the goodness which made them great as they are.” The central purpose of the angels is therefore praise; with all of the force of their angelic wills, forever fixed, they mirror the One Who Is, the “Eternal Goodness that divides Itself / into these countless mirrors that reflect / Itself, remaining One, as It was always.”
Dante thus presents the nature and various functions of the angels in his poem of the next life, all the while affirming that the angels are part of the natural world, “creatures as natural as oaks, or sunsets, or birds, or men.” It is consoling that these our ontological older brothers are with us and for us, “friendly with that staunch friendship that endures, even heightens, throughout our weaknesses, our failures, our pettiness, our positive malice.” To be known and loved by such beings is itself a tremendous thought, all the more so that these mirrors of the Divine desire to help us poor men become as they are—adorers of God unveiled—guiding us to the Source of love Itself, “the love that moves the sun and all the other stars.”