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The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies

www.hortulus.net
Vol. 1, No. 1 January 2005
ISSN #1552-9584

Table of Contents
Letter from the Editor 1

Thanne Have I Gete of Yow Maistrie”: Power and the Subversive Body in Chaucer’s
Wife of Bath 2
Author: Laura Alexander
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales have long fascinated scholars who
explore representations of gender, marriage, and power within this canonical work. This article argues that
the Wife represents more than a transversal of power in marriage from men to women based on sexual
prowess, but rather the Prologue and the Tale can be read as a proposal for a redefinition of marriage and
the power distribution within it.

The Music of Dante’s Purgatorio 13


Author: Mimi Stillman
Dante's Inferno guides the reader along with Dante the pilgrim and Virgil through hell, purgatory, and
heaven through parodies of and numerous analogies to music and musical instruments. This article
analyses how the various psalms, hymns and songs in Dante's masterpiece offer a musical sub-structure that
reflects and reinforces Dante's moral message.

Seeing the World with the Eyes of God: The Vision Implied by the Medieval Icon 22
Author: Clemena Antonova
Icons have the ability to convey a sense of the divine to even the most agnostic of observers. This article
sheds light on the transcendental nature of icons by arguing that the spatial construction of iconic images
allows the viewer to experience a form of divine vision that transcends the human constraints of time and
space. Thus the experience of viewing an icon becomes a transcendental experience in itself.
Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies Vol. 1, No. 1, 2005

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the premiere issue of Hortulus, the new online journal of medieval studies written and
published by graduate students. What you are about to explore is a lush garden of interesting and
entertaining flora carefully tilled and cultivated by our staff. We have striven to embody the
diversity and passion of graduate students from around the globe and are pleased to present an
exciting assortment of academic and informative pieces.

This issue’s scholarly articles range from literature to painting and music. Laura Alexander
investigates the Wife of Bath’s interpretation of female autonomy in “Thanne Have I Gete of Yow
Maistrie”; Mimi Stillman explores music’s moral and historical performance in Dante’s Purgatorio;
and Clemena Antonova juxtaposes representations of iconic art with theories of divine eternity in
“Seeing the World with the Eyes of God.”

We hope you will also visit Hortus Amoenus, a section that seeks to entertain and instruct by
featuring articles on various and sundry aspects of medievalism. This issue’s contributions will help
you improve your Latin, test your knowledge of medieval gardens and herbs, educate you in the art
of weaponry, and enhance your appreciation of music.

With this publication we intend to open up the world of graduate medieval studies by utilizing the
capabilities of the Internet to provide a forum for communication and the exchange of ideas. The
flexibility of the Web can help us profit from the knowledge of our comrades-in-books; new
influences, like fertile soil, allow the seeds of research and study to blossom. To this end, we
encourage you to continue the discussion by posting responses to the articles (“Respond” buttons
are available next to each piece), by submitting articles in any discipline yourselves (see the
Submissions page), and by joining our staff.

Working on this journal has been a terrific experience, but we could not have done it without the
help of our many supporters. We are indebted (figuratively speaking) to the Rutgers Graduate
Student Association for providing funding. Many thanks to Rick Emmerson of the Medieval
Academy of America and Chris Cevasco of Paradox for their gracious assistance with advertising.
Recognition is also due to the professors and journalists (too numerous to be listed here) upon
whom we have called for advice. And of course I would like to thank the staff and contributors for
their hard work in turning this idea into reality.

Thank you for taking the time to share Hortulus with us, and happy reading!

Hayley Weiner
Editor in Chief

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“Thanne Have I Gete of Yow Maistrie”: Power and the Subversive Body in
Chaucer’s Wife of Bath
by Laura Alexander

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale expose the often misunderstood relationship between
gender, marriage, and power that drives the contentious interplay between the Wife’s authority
and experience.1 Critics have characterized her as a reflection of phallocentric values, arguing
that she derives her authority exclusively from her extensive sexual and marital experience. And,
because the Wife functions in a structured society where the body serves as a primary vehicle for
power, readers have suggested that she remains inscribed by the sexual identity she projects.2
Gillian Rudd, among others, argues that “the Wife aligns herself with experience, and thus with
the body rather than the intellect; the sexual, not the spiritual,”3 and this view frames the
ongoing debate about the nature of experience in the Prologue and Tale as either carnal or
scholarly knowledge, not both.
The argument over “auctoritee” [authority] and “experience” has traditionally left the Wife’s
complex character confined to a world where feminine desire opposes “masculine” reason, a
limitation forced by binaries that pit men against women and authority against experience.
Recent scholars have disputed this claim, “rehabilitating” the Wife by arguing that, although she
participates in a system that engages sexuality as a means of achieving power, she nevertheless
disrupts structural positions that leave women physically abused and socially undervalued.4 Her
violation of the traditional power structure achieves a gender reversal in the Prologue that
permits her to subvert patriarchy and hold stereotypically “masculine” roles even as she uses this
system to gain power. At first, she discloses that her knowledge of masculine desire allows her to
dominate her husbands, revealing that oppression forces women to market themselves as sexual
objects in order to gain autonomy. Her experiences in a patriarchal society allow her to reverse
the hierarchy by “buying” her last husband, Jankyn, as she was once “bought” as a young bride;
but, as I will argue, it also allows her to extend herself, to free herself from an inherently
misogynistic system that uses her even when she “reverses” its pattern.
The Wife’s willingness to barter the body suggests only one side of her character, however, and
discloses only part of her “experience”; the Tale reveals another side of the Wife that offers
another “experience,” one that exposes her intelligence, rhetorical skill, and reason. In the
opening lines of the Prologue, the Wife appeals to her marital and sexual experience for
authority, but through the hag in her Tale, she derives her authority not only from the body but
also from moral virtue and intellectual knowledge. She presents herself as an educated woman in
the hag, whose philosophical discourse on gentillesse (nobility) displays her scholarship as she
predicates her sermon upon themes from the theologians, poets, and philosophers who influenced
Chaucer.5 The Wife’s range of experiences, both carnal and intellectual, informs our view of her
character, which defies structures that juxtapose the body against the mind. She exposes the
weaknesses of a binary world that forces an inequitable power distribution between the sexes. In

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addition, she contrasts this world with a utopian one in her Tale that not only permits her to
ameliorate the tensions between men and women but also invites a radical alternative to
patriarchy: gender equality.6 Thus, the Wife of Bath’s character requires a reading that
accommodates her complex use of the body along with the learned mind to establish authority
and create identity. I will approach the Wife as both an idealistic and realistic character who
recognizes the body as an “instrument” necessary for power, but also as one who seeks a
different world, a world less contentious and less strict in its assignment of the gender roles that
produce enmity between men and women. If the Wife of Bath offers us anything, it is an early
feminist portrait, one that presents characteristics of reason, learning, and open sexuality as rights
given to women and to men that should be celebrated rather than silenced. And, while she does
not fulfill twenty-first-century feminist goals set by today’s standard, since she obtains at least
part of her authority from her body, she does approach earlier feminist goals, set by pioneers
such as Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, and Hélène Cixous, of an artistic being who
exercises creativity to promote equality.7
I
Typical Aristotelian paradigms shape structural positions for men and women that conform to
rigid lines: women typically project darkness and matter, men reason and light. But Chaucer
confuses these oppressive categories to reverse power relationships between men and women.8
He poses a humorous but conflicting portrait of female sexuality in the Prologue and the Tale by
offering an imaginative version of the Wife through her hag, who masters the rapist-knight
morally and intellectually through a rhetorical appeal to virtue. The morality the hag espouses in
the Tale appears at odds with the lusty Wife’s concern with managing her husbands, but it is a
disparity that redirects attention to a reductive system, one that the Wife redefines in her Tale by
proposing a mutual exchange between the hag and the knight, defined not economically but
emotionally.
The Wife submits herself as a sexual commodity early in the Prologue: “In wyfhode I wol use
myn instrument”9 [In marriage I would use my instrument]. But since she desires to “have the
power durynge al [her] lyfe / Upon his [her husband’s] propre body” (158–159) [have the power
throughout [her] life / Upon his own body], it is his body that she objectifies, so that “whan that
hym list com forth” [when he desires to come forth], it is to “paye his dette” (153) [pay his debt]
to her sexually. The power she wields participates in the exchange system by which she “wolde
selle [her] bele chose” (447) [would sell [her] nice thing], a euphemism for her sexual organs,
but this power involves more than an obvious prostitution of the self. The Wife derives this
power through her “maistrie” [mastery], i.e. manipulation, of a marital system that, as she claims,
serves as the primary vehicle for controlling her husbands, as she “brought it so about by . . .
wit” (426). Her wisdom, which she coins as “deceite, wepying, [and] spynning,” [deceit,
weeping, [and] spinning] and which “God hath yive / To wommen kyndely, whil that they may
lyve” (401–402) [God has given / To women kindly, while they may live] suggests that she lives
in a world that could prove fatal to her by the end of her narrative. Sexual knowledge permits the
Wife to control, manipulate, and lie, but primarily, in the end, to exist. The Wife’s defense of her

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“deceite” rests on her survival, and she undertakes another “deceite” not only to save herself but
also to master her husband Jankyn.
When the Wife meets Jankyn, twenty years her junior, she has already entered what Jacques
Lacan defines as the phallus-driven symbolic order as the signified “other,” a term used in this
patriarchal economy as an inferior counterpart to men, or “female.” Carolyn Dinshaw suggests
that the Wife’s mimesis serves to “reform” this overarching patriarchal discourse; but the Wife
not only “reforms” and “reveals” patriarchy, as Dinshaw claims, she also disrupts it by speaking
against the silence women are typically forced to maintain, as it is men, not women, who are
associated with speech.10 While the Wife does, in fact, reaffirm the symbolic order’s structural
patterns in her Prologue, she reverses the positions to thwart established gender roles, signifying
Jankyn as the “other,” which she mimics from her early marriages—a reversal she will repeat in
her Tale before introducing a different alternative in marriage, one that shuns objectification
through the hag and the knight’s mutual surrender.
Reality, unlike the fantasy the Wife contrives in her Tale, will not allow such kindly capitulation,
and experience teaches the Wife that marriage remains a sexual market tied to an economic one
that permits her to “buy” Jankyn in marriage. Anticipating widowhood, the Wife regards Jankyn
with the same eyes that once regarded her as a sexual commodity. But instead of a rich, older
husband buying a young and beautiful wife, it is the Wife, an older woman who looks for a
younger, poorer, and most attractive man, and who delights in marrying him despite his lower
socioeconomic status:
I seye that in the feeldes walked we,
Til trewely we hadde swich daliance,
This clerk and I, that of my purveiance
I spak to hym and seyde hym how that he,
If I were wydewe, sholde wedde me.
For certeinly, I sey for no bobance,
Yet was I nevere withouten purvience
Of mariage, n’of othere thynges eek. (564–571)

[I say that in the fields we walked,


till truly we had such conversation,
this clerk and I, that by my foresight
I spoke to him and said
if I were widowed, he should wed me.
For certainly, I say without boasting,
that I was never without provision
of marriage, nor without other things also.]
Jankyn revolts against the Wife by acting out against her transgression of structural patterns,
which places him in an objectified, traditionally feminine position. He invokes misogynist

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writers, including Theophrastus and Jerome, in his “book of wikked wyves” (685) [book of
wicked wives] to condemn her rebellion against patriarchy through abusive language.
Speech serves as a way for both characters to construct identity and establish authority; it allows
the Wife to reject the silence her husband desires from her and prompts Jankyn to reclaim this
“stolen” privilege. By breaking silence, the Wife achieves the authority Jankyn recognizes and
condemns as wicked because it divests him of power, reversing patriarchal patterns. But it also
fulfills the prediction Luce Irigaray makes in This Sex Which is Not One that if the “aim were
simply to reverse the order of things . . . history would repeat itself in the long run, would revert
to sameness: to phallocratism. It would leave room neither for women’s sexuality, nor for
women’s imaginary, nor for women’s language to take (their) place.”11
Even if the Wife performs a masculine role with “auctoritee” and is in danger of “repeating” the
same phallocratic structure, she nevertheless performs this role ultimately to challenge its
limitation and to satirize its ridiculous formulation, which anticipates the imaginative power she
wields through the hag. Though she employs the phallocentric hierarchy in place to achieve her
own ends, even at the beginning of her Tale, she moves away from this hierarchy by imagining a
different kind of husband, one who learns to listen rather than abuse his intelligent wife. Her
story serves as another speech act that allows her to challenge dominant social patterns that
punish insurgent wives through violent words and deeds.
The Wife’s creativity, then, counteracts patriarchal oppression, which is manifested through the
violence enacted against women and which remains as the only power Jankyn exercises over her.
Chaucer reinforces this abuse by placing brutal acts against women closely together: Jankyn’s
mistreatment of the Wife occurs at the end of her Prologue, and the knight’s rape of an innocent
maiden opens her Tale. She counters Jankyn’s reliance on male-authored texts by offering a
different version of history in her Prologue: “If wommen hadd writen stories, . . . / They wold
han writen of men moore wikkedness” (693, 695) [If women had written stories, . . . / They
would have written of men more wickedness]. But in her “storie” [story] the Wife never delivers
on her promise to write “of men moore wikkedness.” She presents a completely different vision
by presenting a desired state of equitable marital bliss in her Tale, one that counteracts both the
violent interplay between Jankyn and the Wife and the Wife’s pragmatic view towards marital
and sexual experience in her Prologue. She reorders speech in her Tale to promote this equality
and transform the masculine aggression at the beginning of her Tale into “feminine” patience, as
the rapist-knight willingly listens to the hag—a characteristic absent in Jankyn’s violent
character.
II
In the Prologue, the Wife delivers two seemingly firm conclusions: that she draws solely on the
body as a primary source for experience, and that she participates in a system of objectification
by devaluing her husband, who responds in violent verbal and physical forms. In Irigaray’s
assessment, she promotes “phallocratic” values, leaving Lacan’s phallus-driven signification
firmly in place as she role-plays masculine authority. If Chaucer left the Wife without a Tale, we

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could leave the Wife with her phallocratic hierarchy. This hierarchy destabilizes, however, with
the introduction of the hag, whose “masculine” rationale reveals the intellectual workings of a
highly skilled rhetorician. Whereas the Wife presents sexualized representations or
misrepresentations of theological texts, her hag presents a “masculine” discourse that invokes
“Senec and othere clerkes” (1184) [Seneca and other clerks] to emphasize a clear sermonic
theme: “gentillesse cometh fro God allone” (1162) [nobility comes from God alone]. Unlike the
beautiful Dorigen in the Franklin’s Tale or the silent, long-suffering Griselda in the Clerk’s Tale,
whose natural beauty mimics her Job-like constancy, the hag’s initial physical ugliness belies her
moral virtue. But if any character in the Wife’s Tale has a divine or rational “light,” it is the hag
who instructs the “dark” rapist-knight about morality and ethical conduct.
Chaucer invests the hag and, by extension, the Wife who “creates” her, not only with carnal
knowledge but also with classical scholarship and reason. He imbues her character with
traditionally masculine attributes and gives her the knight’s role in the medieval romance.
Usually, it is the knight who saves the passive maiden from a distressing situation, but not only
does the knight in the Tale fail to uphold chivalric ideals, he actively opposes them, causing
rather than preventing a maiden’s distress by raping her; this is his only assertive act in the Tale.
Once caught, the Queen strips the knight of power, and he must rely on the hag to save him from
the “iren” [iron] of the axe, which will fall lest he discover what women most desire:
“sovereynetee” (1038) [sovereignty].
Chaucer blurs gender lines between active masculinity and passive feminine “otherness” with an
obvious satiric glance on the romance genre in the Tale that, at first, parallels the reversals he
foreshadows in the Prologue. But the reversals are not complete since the hag does not enact
violence to affirm her “masculine” power. Rather, she assumes a dominant role as the knight’s
only saving agent, and unlike the knight, who remains driven by sexual need, she presents a
more fully developed character than the medieval romance typically allows, which emerges in
her rhetorical ability. She cites Dante, Seneca, Boethius, and Juvenal to affirm “poverte” (1183)
[poverty] as a superior state aligned with “gentil dedes” (1115) [noble deeds], effectively
winning the knight’s admiration by securing power through her willingness to share knowledge,
which saves him: “I am youre owne love and eek your wyf; / I am she which that saved hath
your lyf” (1091–1092) [I am your own love and also your wife; / I am she who has saved your
life].
The hag acknowledges her occupation of the traditional “gentil man” [gentleman] or knight’s
role in a romance, placing her husband in the traditionally feminine or passive role which he
affirms by granting her “sovereynetee” when she asks him to choose his pleasure. She achieves
sovereignty not only through her knowledge of his desire, however, but also through her
“maistrie” of classical authors, which she employs to reinforce Christian ethics and to persuade
the knight to fulfill his obligation: marriage to her, which she effectively accomplishes. He
acknowledges her superiority by placing himself under her “wise governance” (1231) [wise
governing], granting her power to “chese” (1237) [choose] as “certes” [certainly] he “holde it
best” (1238) [holds it best]. The hag agrees to obey her husband and thereby relinquishes her

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power—power the Wife relishes in her “maistrie” of sexual desire. It would seem that the Wife
effects a total reversal of power in the Tale.
And yet, the hag humbly affirms that she remains under the knight’s “wille” (1042) [will],
capitulating to him as “ . . . she obeyed hym in every thyng / That myghte doon hym plesance of
likyng” (1255–1256) [she obeyed him in everything / That might do him pleasure]. Though she
gives up her authority, the hag still has the power to transform herself into a beautiful maiden
literally and to transform the rapist knight morally. In contrast to any other female in the tales of
the Marriage Group, the hag in the Wife of Bath’s Tale not only possesses a supernatural power
that May in the Merchant’s Tale, Griselda in the Clerk’s Tale, and Dorigen in the Franklin’s
Tale, for example, lack, but more importantly, she possesses an obvious superior ability to argue
and reason, winning the knight’s respect. Ultimately, she is his teacher, changing him from a
rapist to an honorable knight governed by humility, virtue, and reason. This instructive role
signifies another way in which she holds “masculine” power, as men, not women, moralize on
spiritual and philosophical truths taken from classical texts and sacred works. Though she
ostensibly concedes her power to him, it is with the understanding that he has been altered from a
rapist, who by definition takes away a woman’s choice, to a humble husband, able to let a
woman choose her fate. She only yields her power when it appears safe for her to do so.
Even so, one never forgets that the Wife tells the Tale and that sexual experience shapes the
dynamic between husbands and wives. Only the promise of the hag’s metamorphosis into a
beautiful, desirable woman prompts the knight to wed her; though, he listens to her wisdom
respectfully. Because the hag, like the Wife, understands masculine desire, she returns to the
body, which Chaucer fashions as the basis for power between the sexes, even when this power
begins to equalize between them before the end of the Tale. Power relies on sexual dominance,
and the hag, despite her intellectual exercises and her appeal to the authority of ethics, religion,
and philosophy, must also possess a sexual perspicuity that appeals to the baser nature of her
husband. Even in her “utopia” the Wife cannot imagine a world not somehow driven by
“essential” difference, or a world not predicated on sexual power. She approaches a new
definition of marriage that includes mutual respect and sexual equality but falls short of
delivering the hag from the gender stereotype that a woman must have beauty and seductive
powers to win a husband.
The Wife, through her hag, conceives a world beyond patriarchal limitation by allowing her
imaginative character to deploy rational logic through a sermonic rhetorical strategy. She returns,
however, to the self/other paradigm that constitutes a binary system because this system has
fashioned her. The phallocentric values that drive this system configure the material body as the
central agent necessary to preserve patriarchy, which the Wife outlines early in the Prologue and
returns to at the end of her Tale. Like the Wife, the hag exercises autonomy only through an
exclusionary sexual system that inscribes feminine desire because it routes it in a decidedly
reductive system of exchange: marriage. The hag triumphs in achieving a transference of power
from her husband, who allows her to “gete . . . maistrie” (1236) [obtain . . . mastery] by putting
him under her “wise governance,” but her perpetuation of a patriarchal cycle, her desire to wed

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and bed the knight, who is her obvious moral, spiritual, and intellectual inferior, reinforces the
idea that women really want the sexual and social roles given to them, only they want to exert
the same economic and sexual power men typically hold. It also reinforces a “masculine” power
structure so that, even when the Wife and her hag achieve this “masculine” power, they continue
to function as victims of an oppressive system, “miming” it in different ways that emphasize the
ultimate dichotomy that separates the narratives: reality versus fantasy. The Wife cannot escape
the former, though she attempts to in the latter by attaching other characteristics to the hag that
allow her to effect change in the knight and win his esteem for her wisdom.
To return to Irigaray’s “proletization” of women “on the exchange market” and the problem of
“phallocratism,”12 we see a clear desire to reverse power roles in the Prologue that nevertheless
unravels in complex ways in the Tale, despite the triumph of sexual over intellectual power or
moral virtue. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar suggest that the Wife reorders the masculine
hierarchy through language, investing it in a way that completely redefines discourse,
specifically women’s creativity in language, which is typically characterized as mad.13 I would
extend Gilbert and Gubar’s analysis by arguing that the Wife’s creativity not only “redefines
language,” it redefines the entire relationship between men and women in her Tale just by
introducing equality. Unlike the Prologue, the Tale affords a space where hierarchies begin to
disappear between men and women, and language inspires concession rather than contention.
The knight, who allows his wife to “cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance, / And
moost honour to yow and me also” (1232–1233) [choose yourself which may be most pleasant, /
And does most honor to you and me also], submits to his wife. Though the hag replies “Thanne
have I gete of yow maistrie” (1236) [than have I gotten of you mastery], they are “no lenger
wrothe” (1239) [no longer angry] or no longer in a power struggle, which defines the Wife’s
relationship with Jankyn. The fairy tale ending, “And thus they lyve unto hir lyves ende / In
parfit joye” (1257–1258) [And thus they lived unto her life’s end / In perfect joy], might suggest
that their bliss results from any number of possibilities in the Tale, including the hag’s
concession to the knight, his metamorphosis, her ability to bewitch him, or their sexual bliss. But
the Wife leaves these paths inconclusive, possibly to reemphasize the fairy tale finish of the
romance —the fantasy that invites the reader to choose an ending before reintroducing reality.
The Wife could have offered a Tale that corresponds to her gender performance in the Prologue,
one where a “knowing,” i.e. older, sexually experienced woman dominates her husband, who
might have appeared as an obedient slave, possibly of a lower social status—a husband more like
Jankyn. The Wife does not reverse gender roles at the end of her Tale, although the early role
reversals between the hag and the knight might have indicated this type of ending, especially
given the Wife’s Prologue and quarrelsome relationship with Jankyn.
Instead, the Wife problematizes their roles, alternately giving the knight and the hag power
throughout the Tale and suggesting that a transformation had occurred in the rapist-knight’s
treatment of women. He looks to a woman for wisdom and honors his agreement to marry her—
all of which imply a change in the knight since the beginning of the Tale, which may or may not
have resulted from the hag’s supernatural influences. Certainly Chaucer intends for his audience

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to perceive this change as a consequence of some spiritual power, given the hag’s reliance on
Christian doctrine, her ability to alter her appearance, and her conversion of the rapist knight,
whether by her sermon or her bewitching powers.
This otherworldly power, which the hag ostensibly concedes to her husband, remains
problematic because it is so inconclusive. She professedly relinquishes power but seems hardly
without it if she can so transform her body and the knight, who is made humble by a “lower-
class” wife. Like the Wife, she may fabricate an illusion of “parfit joye” (1246) [perfect joy] with
her husband. But even if the hag holds power and in that way seems to dominate her husband,
her coercion, supernatural or otherwise, opposes the self-effacing humility she espouses in her
Christian sermon:
And certes, sire, thogh noon auctoritee
Were in no book, ye gentils of honour
Seyn that men sholde an oold wight doon favour,
And clepe hym fader, for youre gentillesse. (1208–1211)

[And certainly, sir, though none of this authority


came out of a book, your honorable nobles
say that men should do an old creature favor,
and call him father, for your nobleness.]
Her speech, reflective of the Wife’s appeal to “auctoritee” in the opening lines of her Prologue,
suggests that the hag understands the patriarchal mind-set held by the knight, who remains
unwilling to sleep with his acknowledged savior, intellectual superior, and physically repulsive
wife until she presents him with a better option: a more attractive bedfellow.14 But she turns this
speech into one that espouses a democratic conception of nobleness, one that rejects existing
social paradigms and introduces a Christian alternative that gives husbands and wives more
liberty through their reciprocal renunciations of power. The hag appears as a spiritual guide to
the knight, one who introduces what marriage could offer men and women: sexual, spiritual, and
emotional “joye,” rather than the “wrothe” engendered by the power struggles that the Wife
understands all too well.
Indeed, their relationship appears more equitable than any marriage in The Canterbury Tales,
one that loosely conforms to a Pauline proscription for marital relations. Paul decrees in
Ephesians 5:22–33 that “wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (verse 24), which
the hag agrees to do, as “she obeyed hym [her husband] in every thyng” (1255) [she obeyed him
in everything]. As an addendum to this prescription, Paul insists that a husband “must love his
wife as he loves himself” (verse 33), “just as Christ loved the church” (verse 25), which the
knight at least approaches, else his wife would not “thus . . . lyve unto hir lyves ende / In parfit
joye” (1257–1258) [thus . . . live unto her life’s end / In perfect joy]. All the avenues that
potentially produce the hag and the knight’s “parfit joye”—mutual submission of the wife and
the husband, sexual bliss, and the hag’s powers—remain unanswered. But one result of this

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“parfit joye” is conclusive: that there is no animosity, no monetary exchange to mar the knight
and the hag’s marriage.
It is a joy that the Wife dispels by concluding her utopia with a “prayer” that “Jhesu Crist us
sende / Housbandes meeke, yonge, and fressh abedde” (1259–1260) [Jesus Christ send us /
Husbands meek, young, and fresh in bed]—reintroducing a world in which men are not as
changed as the knight, whether by magic or by their wives’ attributes, into amenable and loving
husbands. And though she returns the audience to a patriarchal worldview where she invokes
“verray pestilence” (1264) [very pestilence] on husbands who cannot be charmed, or, rather,
manipulated, she nevertheless allows her desire for sexual and marital equality to emerge as part
of a perspective that does not mimic oppressive relations; rather, it transgresses structural
boundaries, at least momentarily.15 She approaches a redefinition of marriage that offers men
and women a relationship free from antagonism, if not from binaries, and she proposes a
potential vision of a world without patriarchal limitation, where women speak intelligently and
win respect not only by their physical attributes, but also by their wisdom and learning.

Laura Alexander is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She
specializes in British literature of the eighteenth century with a focus on feminist theory, women
writers, philosophy, and aesthetics.
Notes
1. In the eighteenth century, for example, the Wife of Bath was at best regarded as a humorous character
who expressed Chaucer’s comedic qualities, and at worst as a vulgar character. John Dryden and William
Blake regarded her as one of Chaucer’s most inferior creations. Alexander Pope, in fact, adapts the Wife’s
Prologue for an imaginative translation, “The Wife of Bath Her Prologue,” in 1713 by augmenting
Chaucer’s lines to create a misogynist portrait of women that prefigures The Rape of the Lock and “Of the
Characters of Women” in his Moral Essays, 2. Whereas Chaucer’s version presents a more sympathetic
view of women as victims of a masculine-dominated society in lines 248–270, Pope portrays them as
victims of their own wiles and madness: “If poor (you say) she drains her Husband’s Purse; / If rich, she
keeps her Priest, or something worse; / If highly born, intolerably vain; / Vapours and Pride by turns
possess her Brain: / Now gayly Mad, now sow’rly Splenatick, / Freakish when well, and fretful when
she’s Sick. / If fair, then Chast she cannot long abide, / By pressing Youth attack’d on ev’ry side. / If foul,
her Wealth the lusty Lover lures, / Or else her Wit some Fool-Gallant procures, / Or else she Dances with
becoming Grace, / Or Shape excuses the Defects of Face. / There swims no Goose so gray, but, soon or
late, / She finds some honest Gander for her Mate” (l86–99). Pope’s caricature of the Wife has persisted
over time despite the evidence Chaucer offers in her Prologue and through the hag that counteracts
antifeminist themes. For the full poem with notes on eighteenth-century views of Chaucer, Pope’s
additions and adaptations of the Wife’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales, and an analysis of these
changes, see Geoffrey Tillotson’s introduction and Pope’s poem in the Twickenham edition of The Rape
of the Lock and Other Poems (London: Metheun; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), pp. 3–12 and
55–78.

2. W. F. Bolton, “The Wife of Bath: Narrator as Victim,” in Gender and Literary Voice, ed. Janet M.
Todd (New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1980), pp. 54–65, in fact, suggests that the Wife “is
digressive, self-centered, inconsistent, apparently incapable of a well-formed narrative or attractive
characters of her own creation.” While Bolton argues that Chaucer “depicted the traumata of woman’s

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status in sexist society . . . in Alis’ narrative failings,” p. 54, he nevertheless regards the Wife and her Tale
as part of a “ruined imagination,” p. 64, despite his concession that in the Wife of Bath’s Tale Chaucer
presents women as morally equivalent with men.

3. Gillian Rudd, The Complete Critical Guide to Geoffrey Chaucer (London and New York: Routledge,
2001), p. 120.

4. The Wife combines sexual knowledge with intellectual “maistrie” over her husbands, which, as
Norman Klassen suggests, reveals her to be a “self-conscious narrator.” The Wife projects self-
consciousness not only to expose how “knowledge and love” operate between the sexes, however, but
also to reveal that her “maistrie” proceeds as much from her intellectual capabilities as her body—a theme
she articulates more clearly though the hag in her Tale. See the
analysis in Norman Klassen, Chaucer on Love, Knowledge and Sight (Cambridge, Engl.: D. S. Brewer;
Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell & Brewer, 1995), pp. 202–205.

5. Chaucer reveals a number of his sources through his characters and relies heavily on them to create the
Wife of Bath, a character Arthur Lindley argues as “absent” because she is almost wholly formed from
other classical sources, including Seneca’s moral epistles and Ovid’s Art of Love. For further information
on Chaucer’s sources for the Wife and her hag, see Arthur Lindley,
“‘Vanysshed Was This Daunce, He Nyste Where’: Alisoun’s Absence in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and
Tale,” English Literary History 59 (1992), 1–21.

6. Despite feminists’ challenges to traditional readings of the Wife, negative views of her continue to
persist. Elaine Traherne, for example, argues from a sociolinguistic standpoint that the Wife has no
authority in either the Prologue or her Tale: “any pretense that Chaucer allows . . . is undermined
conclusively by Chaucer’s stereotypical and perceptibly inferior forms of women’s speech recorded and
employed by him.” See Elaine Traherne, “The Stereotype Confirmed? Chaucer’s Wife of Bath,” in
Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts, ed.
Elaine Traherne (Cambridge, Engl.: D. S. Brewer, 2002), pp. 93–115. Lee Patterson supports this reading;
he claims that “the Wife has no rhetorical strategy at all . . . she speaks, apparently, only that we may
know her.” See Lee Patterson, “‘For the Wyves Love of Bathe’: Feminine Rhetoric and Poetic Resolution
in the Roman de la Rose and the Canterbury Tales,” Speculum 58 (1983), 656–695, at p. 658.

7. Since Simone de Beauvoir’s declaration in The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 1952) that women are
autonomous beings created separately but treated unequally by men throughout time, modern French and
Anglo-American feminists have sought equality in, if not a complete rejection of, the dominant
patriarchal structures in place. Recent theoretical trends in feminist theory have largely rejected the
French feminist ideas proposed by Hélène Cixous in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” and Luce
Irigaray in her essay “This Sex Which is Not One,” based on their reliance, like de Beauvoir and even
earlier feminists, on an essential difference between men and women. These “second wave” feminists
argue for tolerance, equality, and a rejection of Sigmund Freud’s model of woman as medusa who
inspires hate contrived by fear of castration. Feminine writing, a literary mode Cixous proposes in her
essay, expresses woman’s many variations, which she argues must express themselves, since the
suppression of woman can only lead to a death of her many selves, and worse, perhaps, a life of perpetual
silence and loss of self, which she constructs similarly to Gayatri Spivak’s oppressed subaltern female.
See Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” in New French Feminisms: An Anthology, ed. Elaine
Marks and Isabel Courtivron (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press,1980), pp. 245–51, reprinted in
The Routledge Language and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. Lucy Burke, Tony Crowley, and Alan Girvin
(London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 161–66; and Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which is Not One,” trans. C.
Reeder, in Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane

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Price Herndl (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1977), pp. 363–69.

8. Barrie Ruth Straus has demonstrated that the Wife’s importance lies in her exposure of “who may
speak and who may not, and on what authority . . . [I]n the process, the Wife will show the problem of
women’s place in phallocentric discourse.” Straus regards the division between “auctoritee” and
“experience” as the framing binary that constricts women’s language in society. She summarizes the
corpus of literary criticism that denigrates the Wife as a body driven by fear of what the Wife does,
exposes, and achieves in her language, which she argues “threatens the loss of our professional tool . . .
the life of literary criticism. For this reason she has been condemned and labelled criminal and mad.” For
further information on patriarchy and women’s language in Chaucer, specifically the Wife of Bath’s
speech, see Barrie Ruth Straus, “The Subversive Discourse of the Wife of Bath: Phallocentric Discourse
and the Imprisonment of Criticism,” English Literary History 55 (1988), 527–554, at pp. 529 and 550.

9. Geoffrey Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, line 149, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D.
Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), pp. 105–122, at p. 107. All quotations of the Wife of
Bath’s Prologue and Tale are from this edition. Subsequent citations will be given in the text with line
number(s) in parentheses.

10. See Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp.
113–132.

11. Luce Irigaray, “This Sex” (see n. 7 above), pp. 363–69, at p. 369.

12. Ibid, p. 369.

13. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “Sexual Linguistics: Gender, Language, Sexuality,” New
Literary History 16 (1985), 515–543.

14. Brian Stone offers an interesting interpretation of how the women who appear in the Tale are “all
images of . . . the Wife of Bath.” For further analysis of the “democratic, ideas from Dante” that the hag
invokes in her sermon to the knight, see Brian Stone, Chaucer (London: Penguin, 1989), pp. 84–91, at p.
91.

15. Mary Carruthers suggests that the Wife achieves “a mutually nourished marital bond” in the Prologue
because she effectively becomes a “capitalist entrepreneur.” In Carruthers’ analysis of the material
benefits gained by the Wife, she points out that the wealth the Wife accumulates allows her economic
independence, which fosters a power reversal that transgresses traditional husband-wife relationships. See
Mary Carruthers, “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions,” PMLA 94 (1979), 209–222, at pp. 209–
10.

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The Music of Dante’s Purgatorio


by Mimi Stillman

Dante’s Commedia resonates with music and sound. Beginning in the Inferno, Dante creates an
atmosphere of striking cacophony. There is no real music in the Inferno, just parodies of
liturgical hymns and distorted analogies to musical instruments whose infernal dissonance
emphasizes the immorality of the region. In the third cantica, Paradiso, Dante journeys through
heaven accompanied by the music of the spheres, a mysterious cosmic as well as musical
phenomenon. The middle cantica of the Commedia, Purgatorio, is the central part of Dante the
pilgrim’s and Virgil’s journey from Inferno to Paradiso. It is the musical bridge between the
“anti-music” of Inferno and the celestial music of Paradiso. The music running throughout
Purgatorio reinforces the penitential nature of this cantica. Here there are two kinds of music:
psalms and hymns voiced by choirs of penitent souls, and troubadour song; both reflect Dante’s
moral message.
Despite the prevalence of music throughout the text, no comprehensive study of the music of
Dante’s Commedia exists that draws on recent scholarship on both the literary aspects of Dante
and on current work in trecento musicology. This is surprising because studying the music of the
Commedia is fruitful in a number of ways: as another level on which to probe the depths of
meaning of Dante’s masterwork; to reveal the philosophical and metaphysical underpinnings of
his musical thought in relation to Christian and Classical authorities; and as a valuable insight
into the music and performance practices of fourteenth-century Italy. The Commedia has a lot to
tell us about the growth of polyphony, a momentous development in the history of music.
Northern Italy in Dante’s time was a center for cross-cultural musical influences and for the birth
of a new style of more complex polyphonic music called the Ars Nova.
Before delving into Purgatorio itself, let us first examine the role of music in Dante’s life before
he wrote the Commedia. In his impressive study of Dante’s Commedia and Bach’s Mass in B
Minor, Michele Croese divides Dante’s musical education into two stages. The first corresponds
to the author’s early years, in which he gained experience making music and working with
musicians; the second treats a later stage in which he explored the theory and philosophy of
music.1 The first stage includes the practical musical training Dante received as part of his high-
born class. Music was a staple pastime for Dante and his circle of poets writing in the dolce stil
novo (sweet new style).2 In this elegant, leisurely world described by Dante in his Vita nuova
and by Boccaccio in the Decameron, aristocrats and intellectuals gathered to read poetry,
perform music, and dance. In his Trattatello in laude di Dante, Boccaccio records that the young
Dante played, sang, and composed skillfully:
Sommamente si dillettò in suoni e in canti nella sua giovanezza, e a ciascuno che a que’ tempi
era ottimo cantatore o sonatore fu amico e ebbe sua usanza; e assai cose da questo diletto tirato
compose, le quali di piacevole e mastrevole nota a questi cotali facea rivestire.3 [In his youth he
derived great pleasure from music and songs. He also cherished the friendship and company of

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all the best singers and musicians of his day. Drawn on by this delight, he composed many lyrics
which were then embellished by pleasant and masterful melodies.4 Dante’s philosophy of music
developed during a period of reading and studying that began after the death of Beatrice in June
1290. In his Convivio, Dante writes that in his search for consolation after Beatrice’s death he
found a new love in Lady Philosophy. To seek her out, he went to “the schools of the religious
orders and to the disputations held by the philosophers”5 at the convent schools, or studia, in
Florence.6 During this period of study Dante encountered the texts that would bring his musical
knowledge from the practical into the theoretical realm. The philosophers most influential in
Dante’s musical thought were Plato, Aristotle, and Boethius. By synthesizing elements of their
philosophy, Dante developed a comprehensive philosophy of music.
Dante makes reference in the Commedia to Plato’s Timaeus, the only Platonic dialogue widely
available in the Middle Ages. In Timaeus, Plato advances his concept of the World-Soul, which
is a unity divided into harmonic intervals.7 In his De institutione musica (Fundamentals of
music), Boethius explicitly agrees with Plato’s concept of the harmony of the universe, arguing
that “the soul of the universe was joined together according to musical concord.”8 Plato also
gives a detailed account of the divisions of the monochord, a one-stringed instrument used by the
Greeks to discover the mathematical ratios that produce the musical intervals of the overtone
series. This conception of music in terms of numbers and ratios is fundamental to the thought of
Pythagoras, and later Boethius. The close connection between music and mathematics was
retained in medieval thought, and both music and arithmetic were part of the quadrivium of the
artes mathematicae. Throughout the Middle Ages, writers of treatises on the musical scale based
their tuning systems on Pythagorean ratios, and as early as the thirteenth century, musical rhythm
was defined by highly mathematical modes that emphasized the perfection of the number three.9
The significance of the number three is obvious in the Commedia—terza rima, the three
cantiche—and the number is also important in Dante’s conception of music in the Commedia
through its reflection of Boethius’s division of music into three types.
The three Boethian categories of music are musica mundana (cosmic music, the harmony of
heaven and the planets), musica humana (pertaining to the union of body and soul), and musica
instrumentalis (music produced by the voice and instruments: what we call music today).10 This
tripartite division of music was standard in the musical thought of the Middle Ages, perpetuated
in the writings of music theorists throughout the period.11 Musicologist Nino Pirrotta identifies
each of the three categories of music in the Commedia: the troubadour song in Purgatorio is the
worldly musica instrumentalis; the shades sing psalms and hymns to “tune” their souls and thus
reach musica humana; and the celestial “armonia” of Paradiso ascends to musica mundana, the
music of the spheres.12 For his fundamental notions about the purpose of music in the
Commedia, Dante seems to have adopted Aristotle’s philosophy from Politics, which states that
music has the power to affect the morality of society. Dante combined this principle with the
thought of early Christian thinkers who incorporated classical ideas about music into a Christian
context. Like Augustine, Cassiodorus, and Isidore of Seville, Dante viewed music as a servant of
religion, capable of inspiring virtue and divine thoughts in the faithful. Thus, in the Commedia,

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he presents a coherent and comprehensive philosophy of music that is inextricably linked to his
moral philosophy.13
An instance of music occurs in Purgatorio, in canto 2, that sets up the role and purpose of music
for the whole cantica. Dante’s encounter with his friend Casella the musician is one of the most
moving passages in Purgatorio. Little is known about Casella, except that he might have been
born in Pistoia and probably set Dante’s poems to music. When Dante the pilgrim recognizes
Casella in the crowd of spirits that has just debarked at the shore of Purgatory, he rushes to
embrace him, but three times his arms return to his chest as he perceives the incorporeality of the
shades in Purgatory. After this failed embrace, Dante asks his friend to regale him with one of
the love songs which used to calm him, explaining that after his journey through the Inferno his
soul is in need of solace. The song Casella sings, Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona14 (Love that
discourses to me in my mind), is the second canzone from Dante’s Convivio. The word used by
the author to describe Casella’s song, dolcezza (sweetness), is one of the terms he will use most
often to describe the lovely sounds of music in Purgatorio. Indeed, the music was so sweet and
beautiful that Dante, Virgil, and all the listening shades stood completely transfixed. Cato
reprimands the assembled company: “Che è ciò, spiriti lenti? / qual negligenza, quale stare è
questo? / Correte al monte a spogliarvi lo scoglio ch’esser non lascia a voi Dio manifesto” [What
have we here, you laggard spirits? / What negligence, what lingering is this? / Quick, to the
mountain to cast off the slough that will not let you see God show Himself!].15 Cato’s rebuke is
the subject of much scholarly debate, but it is likely that it signifies Dante’s turning (conversion)
from Lady Philosophy, his “amore” in the canzone, to the more spiritual goal of divine love.16
Cato makes it undeniably clear that the way to Heaven is not by idling around listening to a love
song, no matter how sweet. But another kind of music does indeed purify the soul and speed
one’s progress to Paradise—biblical songs of praise and penitence.
Dante uses music explicitly to underscore the contrast between Purgatory and Hell. In the
Inferno, the shades don’t just speak; they utter cries, moans, sobs, and shouts of pain and anguish
that are suited to the contrapassi in each circle. Dante employs a rich vocabulary of specific
vocal sound, like gridi, sospiri, pianti, alti guai (shouts, sighs, wails, high shrieks). Through its
reflection of the evil and irrationality of Hell, Dante’s infernal cacophony is consistent with his
discussion of the nature of good and evil.
The souls in Purgatory all know that they will eventually ascend to heaven; they have hope and
faith while their counterparts below are trapped in eternal agony. In Purgatory, spirits endure
their punishments with prayer and song rather than cries of pain, and their music is always sweet.
Dante describes the singing of the hymn Beati pauperes spiritu (Blessed are the poor in spirit) as
so sweet that he cannot describe it in words: “Ahi quanto son diverse quelle foci / da l’infernali!
Ché quivi per canti / s’entra, e là giù per lamenti feroci” [How different were these entryways
from those / of Hell! For here it is with song one enters / down there, it is with savage
lamentations] (12.112–114).
Music not only enriches the plot, it also encloses the action in a religious framework. The
protagonist’s journey through Purgatory takes place during three days, from dawn on Easter

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Sunday in the year 1300 to noon on the following Wednesday. Dante often chooses liturgical
music that corresponds to specific services of the Divine Office to mark time. Then he makes the
text of those songs reinforce the meaning of the action with his characteristically multivalent
symbolism.
In the Valley of the Rulers who repented late because of negligence, the kings sit singing Salve
Regina, a hymn to the Virgin Mary from the eleventh or twelfth century. This hymn was
typically sung after Vespers, the evening service, which fits with the timing of Dante and
Virgil’s arrival at the valley at sunset.17 The text is a prayer for pity for those in the lagrimarum
valle (Valley of Tears), which is also appropriate to its performance in the valley where the kings
atone (7.82–84). A little later, while Dante and Virgil are still in the valley, the spirits sing Te
lucis ante, from the hymn for Compline, Te lucis ante terminum (Before the end of light). The
text is a prayer to God for safety from wicked dreams and spiritual corruption while sleeping,
and thus foreshadows Dante’s dream that night, which is the first of three significant dreams in
Purgatorio. As with Casella’s song, Dante notes the sweetness of the singing, such that “I was
made to move beyond my mind” [che fece me a me uscir di mente] (8.15). When Dante passes
through the gate between ante-Purgatory and the first terrace, he hears the hymn of praise Te
Deum laudamus (We praise you O God) (9.139–141). This hymn was part of the liturgy at
Matins, the Night Office, on Sundays and feasts. As a hymn of Thanksgiving, its performance
here is in keeping with Dante’s crossing of this major threshold in the ascent to Purgatory.
Throughout Purgatorio, choirs of shades in each tier sing passages from psalms and hymns that
Dante chose for their capacity to help the souls expiate their specific sins. For example, the souls
who were killed by violence and saved from damnation by late repentance sing the Miserere
from Psalm 50 (5.22–24).18 This penitential prayer for God’s mercy is fitting because they must
have died without last rites.19 The prideful are bent under the weight of heavy stones; they are
literally brought low to repent for their lack of humility on earth. Dante reinforces the importance
of humility by having them sing Beati pauperes spiritu, the first Beatitude from the Sermon on
the Mount in Matthew 5.3 (12.109–111). Dante employs hymns, like this one, based on the
Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount to mark the transitions between terraces in Purgatory
and to reinforce the repentance for each sin. As Dante and Virgil climb past the second terrace,
where the envious are punished by having their eyes sewn shut, they hear behind them Beati
misericordes (Blessed are the merciful), from the fifth Beatitude. Far from being merciful, the
envious, like Sapia the Sienese, wished others ill. Similarly, the travelers hear Beati pacifici
(Blessed are the peacemakers), from the seventh Beatitude, as they leave the terrace where the
wrathful are blinded by heavy smoke. This smoke is a metaphor for the clouds of anger they had
once unleashed (17.67–69).
To return to the other kind of music in Purgatorio, that of the troubadours, it is important to note
that Casella’s song is the only explicit example of troubadour music in this cantica. The fact that
Dante assigned a poet and a troubadour to the terrace of the lustful in canto 26 suggests an
interesting attitude toward this type of music. Here we find Guido Guinizzelli, whom Dante
acknowledges as “il padre mio,” his poetic father and the originator of the dolce stil novo, and

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the troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Guido praises as the finest of vernacular poets. Dante’s
choice of words for Arnaut’s disappearance back into the fire is significant: “Poi s’ascose nel
foco che li affina” [Then, in the fire that refines, he hid] (26.148). Affinare means “to refine,” but
also “to tune”—a pun with deeper meaning because here it is the musician’s soul that needs
tuning.
Dante’s treatment of troubadours and their sins throughout the Commedia provides a general
lesson about the proper uses of art. Bertran de Born ends up in Hell not only for splitting Henry
II from his son, but for using politicized art—the sirventes—to do so. Arnaut is in Purgatory for
writing love poetry that was lustful and immoral, although not divisive to society. Looking ahead
(or up!) at Paradiso, the troubadour Folquet de Marseilles is in Heaven because in life he chose
God over earthly values by becoming a bishop. This may signal an evolution in Dante’s thought
from the De vulgari eloquentia, in which he discusses some of these poets on their poetic merits,
to the Commedia, in which he makes moral judgments about them.20
While scholars routinely point out the penitential purpose of the liturgical music in Purgatorio,
they tend not to question how the hymns and psalms were sung. Dante’s descriptions of the
singing itself, though lamentably brief, are detailed enough to allow for the conclusion that all
three styles of medieval psalmody (direct, antiphonal, and responsorial) are heard in
Purgatorio.21 In direct psalmody, all of the verses of the text were sung straight through with no
textual additions. The very first psalm heard in Purgatorio, In exitu Israel de Aegypto(When
Israel went out of Egypt), Psalm 113 is sung by 100 souls as they arrive by boat in Purgatory:
“cantavan tutti insieme ad una voce” [all of those spirits sang as if with one voice] (2.47). With
one voice literally means in unison. Dante quotes just the first line of the psalm and notes that
they sang the rest. This description of a unison performance of the psalm from beginning to end
is an example of direct psalmody. This moment in Purgatorio can be seen to evoke Dante’s
musical world in another way. By the thirteenth century, a genre of music became established in
Italy called the lauda—a devotional song performed by lay brotherhoods. The fraternities grew
out of the religious fervor encouraged by the mendicant orders, and by the time of Dante’s birth
these confraternities were being founded specifically to perform the repertoire, and were known
as laudesi. Perhaps Dante intended the souls in canto 2 as a hybrid ensemble rooted in the music
of his time—liturgical music sung by a lay laudesi.22 The other two styles of psalmody,
antiphonal and responsorial, were used more frequently than direct psalmody in Dante’s period.
In antiphonal psalmody, the verses of the psalm were sung alternately by two halves of the choir,
often interspersed with a short additional verse with a contrasting melody called an antiphon.23
In canto 5, Dante records that the Miserere was sung “a verso a verso” (5.24). There are two
schools of interpretation of this verse among English translators. One version takes the literal
route: “verse by verse.”24 The other alludes to some form of alternation of the verses.25 The first
interpretation, however, does not make sense in a musical context. Verses were almost always
sung consecutively, so Dante would have no need to point that out, and he was not prone to
redundancy. A verso might alternatively be read as a pun with avverso, meaning “against” or
“opposing.” This in turn might suggest that Miserere was performed with two choirs, singing

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alternating verses in accordance with antiphonal chant practice. Given the prevalence of
antiphonal liturgical singing in Dante’s time, it is highly likely that this style of psalmody is
depicted in Purgatorio canto 5. In the final canto of Purgatorio, the women singing Psalm 79 do
so “alternando / or tre or quattro dolce salmodia, / le donne incominciaro, e lagrimando”
[Weeping, the women then began—now three, / now four, alternately—to psalm gently, / “Deus
venerunt gentes . . .”] (33.1–3). These lines strongly suggest another example of antiphonal
psalmody.26
In responsorial psalmody, the text of the psalm was sung solo, usually by a celebrant, with
ensemble responses from the chorus or congregation after each verse.27 Dante’s description of Te
lucis ante is explicit enough to conclude that he was recording the use of responsorial psalmody.
In canto 8’s Valley of the Rulers, Dante describes a soul who begins singing alone with palms
together and eyes uplifted to the east, soon to be joined by the other spirits singing “per tutto
‘inno intero” [through all of that hymn] (8.17). The fact that the simpler style of direct psalmody
appears early in Purgatorio, with the more complex styles occurring later in the cantica,
reinforces the idea that Dante constructed a musical evolution parallel to the spiritual journey.
The protagonist’s arrival at the Earthly Paradise in canto 28 is a major turning point in the
narrative of his journey, and it also ushers in a new atmosphere in music and sound.
Foreshadowing the effulgence of song in Paradiso, the characters begin to sing whenever they
are not speaking. The virtuous Matilda, who guides Dante as he enters the Earthly Paradise, sings
with “dolce suono” [sweet/gentle sound] (28.40) as she picks flowers on the bank of the river
Lethe. Here, Dante’s music is filled with gladness and celebration, as in Psalm 93 “Delectasti”
[made me glad] (28.79). Matilda sings Psalm 32, Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata (Blessed is he
whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered) like “an enamored woman” (29.1–4). In
the most striking example, Dante choreographs the heavenly procession with music and dance.
Matilda exhorts Dante to listen and look; he hears “dolce suon” and sees bright light. Dante
makes this connection between aural and visual perception a major feature throughout Paradiso.
All the music in Purgatorio is monophonic, meaning it contains one melodic line with no
harmonization. Polyphonic music contains more than one line and has harmony. Dante saves
polyphony for Paradiso, in which he describes multi-voice textures in the music of the spheres,
to set heavenly music apart from all that precedes it in the Commedia. As Dante the pilgrim
approaches the summit of the Mount of Purgatory, Dante the poet hints at the indescribably
heavenly music that is to come. During his immersion in the river Lethe, in an evocation of the
rite of baptism, Dante hears “Asperges me” [Cleanse/purify me] sung. These words from Psalm
51 were sung in church during the symbolic cleansing of the congregation with holy water.
Dante writes that the music was sung “sì dolcemente” [so sweetly] that he cannot remember, nor
transcribe it.
This remark is of the utmost significance in light of the musical developments in Dante’s time.
By the mid-fourteenth century, a new kind of polyphonic music had been born in the courts and
city-states of northern Italy, the region in which Dante lived in exile. This style, collectively
called the Ars Nova, was comprised of musical genres such as the madrigal, the caccia, and the

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ballata.28 It was known for its complex polyphony of up to four voices, while until the mid-
fourteenth century we only know of two-voice Italian polyphony. For a listener like Dante,
accustomed to two-voice polyphony, more voices would certainly have been difficult to write
down. This presents the tantalizing possibility that the new style of polyphony reached Dante’s
ears in embryonic form. If this is the case, it is possible that the music of the spheres in Paradiso
is grounded in the actual music of the early fourteenth century.
Music is more than an interesting feature of Purgatorio; it plays a central role. Dante positions a
musician and a troubadour at center stage in his narrative, uses liturgical songs to situate his
story within a framework of time, establishes the singing of these songs as the means to achieve
spiritual purification, and provides clues to the music of his own time. A reading of Purgatorio
attuned to these clues, especially in regard to the styles of psalmody and the birth of polyphony,
sheds light on the poet’s musical world. By weaving these various strands into a hierarchy of
musica instrumentalis, musica humana, and musica mundana, Dante places his philosophy of
music at the service of his moral thesis. With such a vivid description of sound and a nuanced
portrayal of vocal and instrumental performances, Dante commands his readers to listen
carefully to the music of Purgatorio.

Mimi Stillman, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Pennsylvania. Her
interests include early modern Europe, cultural and music history, and East-West contact.

Notes
1. Michele Croese, La Commedia come partitura bachiana: Osservazioni sul cielo del sole e sul Sanctus
della Messa in si minore (Pisa: ETS, 2001), pp. 40–41.

2. The dolce stil novo was an Italian style of lyric poetry that developed in Tuscany and Bologna in the
generation before Dante.

3. Quoted in La Musica nel Tempo di Dante, ed. Luigi Pestalozza (Verona: Unicopli, 1986), p. 130.

4. Giovanni Boccaccio, The Life of Dante (Trattatello in laude di Dante), trans. Vincenzo zin Bollettino
(New York: Garland, 1990), p. 32.

5. Dante Alighieri, Convivio 2.12, trans. Richard Lansing, p. 14.

6. See Charles T. Davis, “Education in Dante’s Florence,” Speculum 40 (1965), 415–35 for more
information on Dante’s time at the Florentine studia. Davis provides a very valuable account of the books
contained in their libraries that Dante may have read.

7. Plato, Timaeus 35, trans. Francis M. Cornford (New York: Liberal Arts, 1959), p. 25.

8. Boethius, Fundamentals of Music 1.1, trans. Calvin M. Bower, ed. Claude V. Palisca (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1989), p. 2. Boethius’s De institutione musica, written in the early sixth century, is
a compilation of Greek sources including Ptolemy’s Harmonics and a treatise by Nicomachus; see Donald

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Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, 5th ed. (New York: Norton, 1996), pp. 26–
7.

9. Willi Apel, “Mathematics and Music in the Middle-Ages,” in his Medieval Music: Collected Articles
and Reviews (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden GMBH, 1986), pp. 135–65.

10. Boethius’s categories and their wide acceptance show the remarkable centrality of music in medieval
thought. What we call music today was only the bottom third of the definitions of musica: “music is so
naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired. For this reason the power of
the intellect ought to be summoned, so that this art, innate through nature, may also be mastered,
comprehended through knowledge.” See Boethius, Fundamentals of Music 1.1.8, trans. Bower.

11. For more information on the role of the Boethian musical categories in medieval music theory, see
Grout and Palisca, A History of Western Music, 53–55; and Richard H. Hoppin, Medieval Music (New
York: Norton, 1978), pp. 20–2.

12. Nino Pirrotta, Music and Culture in Italy from the Middle Ages to the Baroque: A Collection of
Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 21.

13. The moral and religious meaning of music in the Commedia is particularly apparent in Inferno, canto
30, where Dante likens the counterfeiter Master Adam’s swollen body to a lute. Denise Heilbronn
explores the highly symbolic, Christological significance of this parallel in “Master Adam and the Fat-
Bellied Lute (Inf. XXX),” Dante Studies 101 (1983), 51–65.

14. Listen to Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona by Peire Cardenals. The musical selections referenced
were heard as part of my presentation of this paper at the Brown University Medieval Graduate Student
Conference, October 2, 2004.

15. Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio 2.120–23, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Bantam, 1984). All
Italian and English quotations of Dante’s Purgatorio are from this edition. Subsequent citations will be
given in the text with the canto and line number(s) in parentheses.

16. See John Freccero, “Casella’s Song: Purgatorio II.112,” in Dante: The Poetics of Conversion
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 186–94; Teodolinda Barolini, Dante’s Poets:
Textuality and Truth in the Commedia (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 31–40; and
Robert Hollander, “Purgatorio II: Cato’s Rebuke and Dante’s Scoglio,” Italica 52 (Autumn, 1975), 348–
63.

17. Salve Regina was one of the most important Marian antiphons, chants composed to celebrate the
growing cult of the Virgin in the period. Ave maria, Regina coeli, and Alma redemptoris mater are other
examples of these pieces that are characterized by their one-octave range and relative ornateness. See
Gabriela Ilnitchi, “Music in the Liturgy,” in The Liturgy of the Medieval Church, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan
and E. Ann Matter (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute, 2001), pp. 645–71.

18. [Psalm numbering follows the Vulgate numbering system—Eds.]

19. Allen Mandelbaum, notes to Purgatorio (New York: Bantam, 1982), p. 327.

20. Dante Alighieri, De vulgari eloquentia 2.2.9. Dante considers military skill, love, and righteousness to
be the noblest pursuits, and mentions whom he considers to be the most illustrious vernacular poets for

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each theme—Bertran de Born for war, Arnaut Daniel for love, and Gerhard de Borneilh for righteousness.
Also see Marianne Shapiro, De Vulgari Eloquentia: Dante’s Book of Exile (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 1990).

21. For more information on the three styles of medieval psalmody, see Hoppin, Medieval Music, pp. 80–
1.

22. Giulio Cattin, Music of the Middle Ages 1, trans. Steven Botterill (Cambridge, Engl.: Cambridge
University Press, 1984), pp. 145–52.

23. Sometimes the full choir would alternate with a half-choir, or the cantor would begin the antiphon and
be joined by the choir after the first words. Antiphonal psalmody may have originated in the Syrian
church. There are more antiphons than any other type of chant. Musically they range from older, simpler
versions to later examples with complex rhythm and florid melodies. See Grout and Palisca, A History of
Western Music, 44–8; and Hoppin, Medieval Music, 80–3.

24. Dante translators who interpret the performance of Miserere as “verse by verse” without specifying
alternation include Reverend John Wesley Thomas (1862); Charles Eliot Norton (1892); Henry Johnson
(1915); Jefferson Butler Fletcher (1931); Charles S. Singleton (1973); Kenneth Mackenzie (1979); Allen
Mandelbaum (1982); W. S. Merwin (2000); and Anthony Esolen (2003).

25. The translators who specify alternating verses include Henry Francis Cary (1916); John D. Sinclair
(1939); Carlyle-Wicksteed (1944); John Ciardi (1957); Mark Musa (1981); and C. H. Sisson (1993).

26. Deus venerunt gentes, Psalm 78, is sung by seven women who represent the Theological and Cardinal
Virtues after the episode of the giant and the whore. Mandelbaum interprets this psalm of lamentation for
the destruction of the temple as a metaphor for the fallen state of the Church. Mandelbaum, notes to
Purgatorio, 404.
27. This ancient style is a legacy of Jewish cantorial practices in the synagogue. See Hoppin, Medieval
Music, pp. 80–1.

28. For examples of Ars Nova compositions in modern notation, see Nino Pirrotta, The Music of
Fourteenth Century Italy (Amsterdam: American Institute of Musicology, 1954).

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Seeing the World with the Eyes of God:


The Vision Implied by the Medieval Icon1
by Clemena Antonova

In his book Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages Umberto Eco says that “they [the Medievals] saw
the world with the eyes of God.”2 I would like to suggest one way in which this statement is true:
iconic art contains “supplementary planes” which, by describing multiple surfaces of an object
simultaneously, allow the viewer to imitate divine vision. The principle of the pictorial
construction of the icon proposed by Pavel Florensky (1885–1937) can be connected to the
concept of simultaneity, which evolves from the theological doctrine of timeless eternity. In
other words, an analogy can be drawn between the spatial construction of iconic images and the
manner in which a timelessly eternal, simultaneously existing God would “see” the world and
objects in it. In the context of this interpretation I prefer to use the term “simultaneous planes”
henceforth in place of Florensky’s “supplementary planes.”
Florensky’s concept illuminates an artistic phenomenon and may be based on knowledge of the
“multiple planes” of Cubist art.3 This theory also reflects Florensky’s theological training; as a
priest and religious philosopher,4 he could very well be identifying himself with a line of
theological thought concerned with the problem of divine eternity and its implications.
The relationship between theology and iconography that is examined herein has been discussed
by both medieval authors and contemporary scholars. One of the most well-known debates is the
Iconoclast Controversy in Byzantium (726–787 and 814–843 A.D.), which was predicated on the
belief in the theological significance of the sacred image.5 The idea that there is a deep
connection between theological notions and images has prompted many modern scholars to
consider concepts such as “theology through the arts” and “theology through colour.”6 These
ideas seem to imply that theological notions can be suggested through artistic means. Yet to my
knowledge, no one has discussed the way in which the construction of pictorial space in the icon
can actually implicate—though not directly impart—theological beliefs. This article will attempt
to make a first step in this direction by reconstructing and developing some of the implications of
Florensky’s notion of “simultaneous planes,” which the author himself left in a fragmentary
form.
Florensky’s Simultaneous Planes
Florensky draws attention to the “simultaneous planes” of ancient Russian images in section 1 of
his essay on “Reverse Perspective.”7 He initially implies that the principle of the simultaneous
representation of different planes of the same image in the picture, regardless of whether the
corresponding planes in the represented objects could be seen from a single viewpoint or not, is
the fundamental feature of the organization of iconic space. Later on,8 Florensky reverts to the
traditional view, still widely regarded, that holds that iconic space reverses or inverses the laws
of linear perspective (hence the term “reverse”/“inverse perspective”).9 This view, however,

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seems unsatisfactory because it implies that medieval iconographers had concerns which in fact
came into existence only during the Renaissance.10 Florensky’s initial definition of
“simultaneous planes,” therefore, is appealing because it draws attention away from claims of
optical illusionism and towards wider conceptual frameworks which were relevant at the time.
Images
According to Florensky, “the icon often shows parts and surfaces which cannot be seen
simultaneously.”11 This phenomenon is most noticeable in treatments of architecture. The lateral
sides of buildings in Byzantine and ancient Russian art are frequently represented frontally.
Thus, in figure 1, there are two staircases leading to two entrances of the building. We have to
read the image carefully to realize
that the staircases are on opposite
sides of the building. The banisters
on the right-hand side are actually
placed at an oblique angle, but the
entrance itself gives the false
impression of a frontal view.
The same principle holds true of
the depictions of other objects. For
example, a typical representation
of the Bible would show three or
four sides of the book on the same
picture plane. Of greater interest,
perhaps, is the treatment of more
complicated forms, such as the
human face. The inclusion of
profile views alongside frontal
ones on the same picture plane
produces a typical facial type
common to holy figures. The
almost triangular-shaped face of
Christ or the saints could be
Fig. 1. The House of Egron, King of Moab. derived from adding up the planes
Twelfth century.Vatican Octateuch, Biblioteca Apostolica in the upper part of the face, where
Vaticana, MS Vat.gr.746.12 the frontal plane features aspects of
profile views. The forehead
therefore becomes disproportionately wide. As Florensky points out, the treatment of the face in
which the forehead is seen alongside the temple and ears causes the planes of the face to appear
“as if [they are] spread out on the surface of the icon”13 (fig. 2). Not only are “additional
surfaces” of the object represented—i.e., ones that should not be there according to the laws of
normal vision at a single moment in time—but they are frequently, as Florensky notices,

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emphasized by means of colour. These


“additional” / “supplementary” /
“simultaneous” surfaces are often painted
in strikingly bright colours that capture the
attention.14

Florensky points out another curious


aspect of these iconic images: the
tendency of parallel lines “in reverse
perspective” to diverge.15 This technique
is important because it allows objects
and/or their parts to grow larger the further
away they are from the viewer. Of course,
this is the opposite effect of that which
occurs in linear perspective and natural
vision.
Once an iconic image is seen in this
light—as an amalgamation of several
aspects of an image on the same picture
plane—it is possible to question how the
reorganization of space affects time inside
the composition. That there is a temporal
Fig. 2. St. Nicolas (Nikola Ugodnik). dimension becomes clear when we
Fragment from a fresco consider that “reverse perspective” is
by Dionisii. Ferapontov Monastery, antinaturalistic because objects do not
1500 - 1502. appear like that to human vision at a single
moment in time. It is impossible to see
different planes of an object simultaneously; each plane must be experienced separately and
consecutively. In other words, this spatial construction depends on a mobile vision that takes
place in time. The image seems to convey simultaneity because it implies a vision to which all
aspects of objects can appear at the same time, or all at once. This vision would be comparable,
in principle, to that of a timelessly eternal God to whom all moments in time exist
simultaneously and who, therefore, should be able to “see” all points in space simultaneously as
well.
In or Outside of Time? The Doctrine of a Timeless and Simultaneously
Existing God
Florensky’s simultaneous planes thus pose the problem of determining what, exactly, is divine
vision. It is a question intimately connected to that of divine nature, which is itself no small

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subject. The problem I propose to address is a highly controversial matter in theology and the
philosophy of religion, namely God’s eternity.
How do we understand eternity: as lack of time and thus opposed to time, or as time everlasting
and so pertaining to time? The debate on this issue has been polarized around two major camps:
the “timeless” one, which holds that God exists completely outside time, and the “everlasting”
one, according to which divine eternity can be explained in temporal terms.16 The former
position can be regarded as traditional in that it held sway in western theology until
approximately the thirteenth century. It was first questioned in the West by Duns Scotus (ca.
1265–1308)17 and has attracted opponents throughout the centuries.18 Conversely, eastern
orthodoxy seems to have upheld the traditional view.
In spite of its initial popularity, there is a serious problem posed by the “timeless” view. A
seemingly insurmountable difficulty arises when we set out to describe phenomena that exist
beyond the human realm, because language is devised to conceptualize the phenomena of our
world. In particular, how can we speak of or understand timelessness when language is filled
with terms loaded with temporal meaning? One way of dealing with this problem is to try to
infuse words that connote time with additional nontemporal meanings. For example, in the
Timaeus, Plato describes the soul as “prior” and “older” than the body not in terms of precedence
in time but in terms of excellence. Aristotle uses a similar procedure with respect to “prior” and
“posterior” in several of his works.19 It remains arguable to what extent this approach works
satisfactorily in specific cases.
The problems of terminology and conceptualization become especially relevant with regard to
the notion of simultaneity, as all of the major proponents of the “everlasting” view claim.
Philosophy and theology have tended to define timelessness in terms of simultaneity, which
means that a being outside time experiences the past, the present, and the future simultaneously.
Parmenides (ca. 510–450 B.C.), who has been attributed with the discovery of the notion of
eternity, proposed this idea himself.20 His poem The Way of Truth no longer exists in the
original, but a version can be re-created by assembling quotations found in other authors.
Richard Sorabji offers the following translation: “Nor was it ever, nor will it be, it now is all
together, one, continuous.”21
Plato (ca. 427–348 B.C.) may or may not have been influenced by Parmenides, but he describes
eternity in somewhat similar terms: “These all [months, days, and years; past or future existence]
are parts of time, and was or will be are forms of time that have come to be. Such notions we
unthinkingly but incorrectly apply to everlasting being. For we say that it was and is and will be,
but according to the true account only is is appropriately said of it.”22 In other words, what we
call “simultaneity” has been described as “all together” in an eternal present, without past or
future.
Yet Parmenides’ and Plato’s philosophies have given rise to alternative views which differ from
a “timeless” interpretation. Parmenides’ poem has frequently been referred to in support of the
“everlasting” view.23 Plato’s well-known phrase that time is “the moving image of eternity”24
can also be understood to imply duration and everlastingness in time, which upholds the

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“everlasting” view. The problem, ultimately, is a result of the difficulty of escaping from the
temporal connotations of “simultaneity.” After all, “all together” is an “all together” in time as
well.
Plotinus (ca. 205–270 A.D.) was well aware of this problem and seems to have made a special
effort to insist on the importance of avoiding the idea of temporality in the understanding of
timelessness. According to Plotinus, the essence of time is not motion, as Aristotle taught. Its
essential characteristic is duration: “Would it, then, be sound to define Time as the Life of the
Soul in movement as it passes from one stage of act or experience to another? Yes; . . .”25
Eternity, on the other hand, is totally devoid of duration; it “does not depend upon any quantity
(such as installments of time) but subsists ‘before’26 quantity” (3.7.6) In short, time and eternity
are opposed: the former is extended (it has a beginning, a middle and an end) while the latter
cannot be extended (3.7.2). Time belongs to the realm of becoming, and eternity belongs to the
realm of being. Therefore, Plotinus says, “we must not muddle together Being and Non-Being,
time and eternity, not even everlasting time with the eternal” (1.5.7 lines 20–31). As eternity
lacks any kind of duration, it can be defined as “a Life changelessly motionless and ever holding
the Universal content in actual presence; not this now and now that other, but always all; . . . all
remains identical within itself, knowing nothing of change, for ever in a Now . . .” (3.7.3). And
further, again following from the lack of temporal duration, “there is no first or last in this
Principle [eternity], if existence is its most authentic possession and its very self.” “Existence” in
the passage is explained as being used “in the sense that its existence is Essence or Life” (3.7.6
lines 23–36). As Sorabji notices, “always” receives a similarly non-temporal connotation.27
It is Plotinus’s concept of an eternal “now” coexistent with all earthly “nows” that forms the core
of the traditional notion of eternity that, via Augustine (354–430 A.D.) and Boethius (ca. 480–
525 A.D.), left its stamp on the entire course of Christian thought. St. Augustine follows Plotinus
faithfully,28 and Boethius’ classical definition of eternity owes him a debt as well. In The
Consolation of Philosophy 5.6. Boethius defines eternity as that which
includes and possesses the whole fullness of illimitable life at once and is such that
nothing future is absent from it and nothing past has flowed away . . . and of this it is
necessary both that being in full possession of itself it be always present to itself and that
it have the infinity of mobile time present to it.29
According to Alan Padgett, with Boethius “we find a clear definition, an explicit distinction of
terms, and the use of doctrine to solve a perplexing theological problem.”30 This, however,
hardly seems to be the case, as the meaning of the passage has been the subject of many heated
debates in contemporary scholarship.31 The problem has largely focused on the interpretation of
“all at once” or, in other words, on the interpretation of simultaneity.
Boethius’ influence is evident in almost every major medieval writer who tackles the problem of
time and eternity, but like Parmenides and Plato, his teachings are interpreted in various ways.
Later medieval authors seem to have understood Boethius largely in terms of timelessness. In the
Proslogion, Anselm (1033–1109) states that:

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Or is it true that nothing of your eternity passes away, so that it is not now; and that
nothing of it is destined to be, as if it were not yet?
You were not, then, yesterday, nor will you be tomorrow; but yesterday and today and
tomorrow you are; or, rather, neither yesterday nor today nor tomorrow you are; but
simply, you are, outside all time. For yesterday and today and tomorrow have no
existence, except in time;32
Anselm’s belief that God’s eternity is “timeless” is based on God’s greatness—“For nothing
contains you, but you contain all”33 —and simplicity, for he is indivisible. Almost one hundred
fifty years after Anselm’s death, Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225–1274) explicitly states in the
Summa theologica his indebtedness to Boethius’ definition.34 Aquinas’ argument asserts that
God is simple,35 consequently he is changeless, from which it could be concluded that he is
timeless, since time is the measure of change. The idea that God is timeless means that he
coexists with all the modes of time—past, present, and future.
The argument over the temporal condition of God seems to have solidified over time. While
Parmenides and Plato can be and have been interpreted to mean both “everlastingness” and
“timelessness,” later authors like Anselm and Aquinas give less ground for such oscillation.
Although conceptual difficulties persist, it is much clearer that Anselm and Aquinas mean
“eternity” in a “timeless” sense.36
Divine Vision: Transcendence of Time and Space
How would a timelessly eternal and simultaneously existing God “see” the world? Although
medieval theology does not dwell specifically on this problem, it touches upon it within the
larger context of discussions of divine nature. Thus, to illustrate his position on divine
timelessness St. John of Damascus (ca. 675–ca. 749 A.D.) says: “[He sees distinctly] with His
divine, all-seeing, and immaterial eye all things at once, both present and past and future, before
they come to pass.”37 Several important ideas are conveyed by St. John’s statement. First, divine
vision is timeless, and by implication simultaneous. It perceives “all things at once,” without
distinction between past, present, and future. This is exactly how visual perception that takes
place out of time should be expected to function, if one follows the doctrine of divine
timelessness. Secondly, it appears that divine vision is not vision at all in the strict sense of the
word. Just as with “simultaneity” and related notions, the words we use for convenience’s sake
are taken out of their usual context, so their meaning becomes fundamentally different. John of
Damascus takes care to distinguish “God’s eye” from the common connotation of “eye” and thus
of “vision.” The divine “eye” is “all-seeing” but also “immaterial” and therefore fundamentally
unlike a human eye.
If divine vision is so different from human vision, how can we find common ground between
them? One possible answer to this question is provided by iconic art, understood in the sense
proposed here. The principle of “simultaneous planes” of the icon can be interpreted as a tool
that offers the viewer the possibility to experience, to some degree at least, “divine vision.” This

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experience, in a sense, lifts the viewer out of time and space, since a divine vision beyond time is
beyond space as well.
The linking of time and space may be a modern concept, but it does not preclude that the
theological doctrine of timelessness implies existence out of space as one of the characteristics of
God. The primary feature of existence outside of space, however, is the lack of a point of view.
A human viewer, grounded in space and time, would be required to move in order to see all the
various aspects of an object (or, alternately, movement of part of the object would be required).
To a timeless God who holds no particular point of view, all aspects of objects would appear “all
together,” “all at once,” i.e. simultaneously. It is in this sense that I propose that divine vision
perceives objects very much according to the principle of iconic simultaneous planes.
Conclusion
I have brought attention herein to the structural analogy that exists between the doctrine of divine
timelessness and the principle of the simultaneous representation of different planes of objects in
iconic art. I am not claiming that the theological doctrine of timeless eternity directly informed
iconographic artistic practice. It is unlikely that either icon painters or their audiences were
versed in a highly complicated theological concept that, as we can see, still baffles specialists.
Rather, my thesis is that the phenomenon of the simultaneous planes of the icon provides a visual
structural analogue to the concept of timeless eternity and simultaneity. Although there is no
question of direct influence, Martin Kemp’s concept of “structural intuition” can be applied to
show how these two principles complement each other. Kemp’s “structural intuition” defines
structures that “are both those of intuitive processes themselves and those of external features
whose structures are being intuited.”38 The principle of iconic simultaneous planes can suggest
ways of handling space and time which could prove an invaluable alternative to the methods
proposed by a doctrine which, as I discussed, theology and philosophy have failed to explain
satisfactorily.
Ultimately, this paper has tried to shed light on the common claim that the icon is, in some
manner, a “transcendental” form of art. According to the interpretation proposed here, this is so,
but not in the typical sense. Sacred images are not “transcendental” in the sense of “unrealistic.”
They are “transcendental” in the sense that they presuppose a divine vision that is timeless and
simultaneous and therefore transcends human vision, which is of course grounded in time and
space. According to this view, the icon “lifts” the viewer out of his human time and into a
timeless reality. In this way the viewer is able to imitate, to some degree at least, divine vision
and see the world with the “eyes” of God.

Clemena Antonova is a D. Phil. student in the History of Art at Oxford University. She is
working on aspects of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art and is especially interested in the
relationship between art and theology as well as in questions of aesthetics and the philosophy of
art.

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Notes
1. I thank Prof. R. Swinburne (Oxford University) for discussing the theological implications of the
following text with me. I am also grateful to Prof. S. Pattison (Cardiff University) for his useful
suggestions and comments.

2. Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, trans. Hugh Bredin (New Haven, Conn. and London:
Yale University Press, 1986), p. 118; originally published as “Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale,” in
Momenti e problemi di storia dell’estetica (Milan: Marzorati, 1959).

3. Arthur Miller, Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc (New York: Basic,
2001), p. 106. Florensky’s paper was prepared in 1919. Picasso had already produced Les Demoiselles
d’Avignon (1907).

4. While still relatively unknown in the West, in the Russian-speaking world Florensky is largely seen as
“the greatest religious thinker and seer” of the first half of the twentieth century. See Viktor Bychkov, The
Aesthetic Face of Being: Art in the Theology of Pavel Florensky (Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s
Seminary Press, 1993), p. 93.

5. The critical literature on the Iconoclast Controversy is voluminous. There is a useful outline in
Jas Elsner, “Image and Iconoclasm in Byzantium,” Art History 11, no. 4 (1988), 477–81. For an
important recent study see Charles Barber, Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in
Byzantine Iconoclasm (Princeton, N.J. and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002).

6. Among the important works in this field are Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian
Aesthetic (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980); Robin Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art
(London: Routledge, 2000); and Barber, Figure and Likeness.

7. This essay was read in 1921 and first published in 1967.

8. Particularly in sections 13–14.

9. Florensky borrowed the term from Oscar Wulff; see Oscar Wulff, “Die umgekehrten Perspektive und
die Niedersicht,” in Kunstwissenschaftliche Beiträge A. Schmarsow demodmet (Leipzig, 1907).

10. The discovery of linear, Renaissance perspective has been attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi. Martin
Kemp fixes the time of Brunelesschi’s construction somewhere before 1413. See Martin Kemp, The
Science of Art (New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 1990). The problems posed by the
term and concept of “reverse perspective” are addressed in Martin Kemp and Clemena Antonova,
“Reverse Perspective: Historical Fallacies and an Alternative View,” in The Visual Mind II, ed. Michele
Emmer (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, forthcoming), pp. 499–539.

11. Pavel Florensky, “Reverse Perspective” in Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art, ed. N.
Misler, trans. Wendy Salmond (London: Reaktion, 2002), p. 201.

12. This figure is from Lev Zhegin, Iazik zhivopisnogo proizvedenia: uslovnost drevnego iskusstva (The
language of the work of art: conventionality of ancient art) (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1970). Zhegin’s book, of
which there is still no English translation, provides what is probably the most useful visual analysis of
Florensky’s theoretical positions.

13. Florensky, “Reverse Perspective,” p. 201.

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14. Ibid., p. 203. The function of colour is an interesting and lengthy subject that is too large to be treated
here. I mention it in this paper because it is important as a means of emphasizing the construction of
space.

15. Ibid., pp. 201–2.

16. The most important proponents of the “timeless” view in contemporary scholarship are Eleonore
Stump and Norman Kretzmann, “Eternity,” Journal of Philosophy 78, no. 8 (1981), 429–58; Paul Helm,
Eternal God: God without Time (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988); and Brian Leftow, Time and Eternity
(Ithaca, N.Y. and London: Cornell University Press, 1991). Major proponents of the “eternal” view
include Nicholas Wolterstorff, “God Everlasting,” in God and the Good: Essays in Honour of Henry
Stob, ed. C. Orlebeke and L. Smedes (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975); Richard Swinburne, The
Coherence of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); and Stephen Davis, Logic and the Nature of God
(London: Macmillan, 1982).

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17. Alan Padgett, God, Eternity and the Nature of Time (Basingstoke, Hampshire, Engl.: Macmillan
Academic and Professional, 1991), p. 53. On thirteenth-century notions of eternity, see Richard Dale,
“Time and Eternity in the Thirteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas 49, no. 1 (1988), 27–45.
Dale does not discuss Duns Scotus, but concentrates on authors mostly from the previous generation who
tried to tackle the difficulty of relating the eternal and the temporal.

18. According to Padgett, it was Hegel who “set the stage for the modern discussion of divine eternity”;
Padgett, God, Eternity, p. 53.

19. See references to particular works by Aristotle in Richard Sorabji, Time, Creation, and the
Continuum: Theories in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press;
London: Duckworth, 1983), p. 114.

20. Ibid., p. 41.

21. Ibid., p. 99.

22. Plato, Timaeus 37E, trans. Benjamin Jowett, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton
and Huntington Cairns, Bollinger Series 71 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 1167.

23. Sorabji, Time, Creation, p. 103. Sorabji outlines eight interpretations of Parmenides, some of which
could be easily seen as supporting the “everlasting” view of eternity.

24. Plato, Timeaus 37D, trans. Jowett.

25. Plotinus, Enneads 3.7.11, in The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna, rev. B. S. Page , 4th rev. ed.
(New York: Pantheon; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 234. All subsequent quotations from
the Enneads are from this edition and will be cited in the text in parentheses.

26. The quotation marks are mine, as “before” should not be understood in its usual sense.

27. Sorabji, Time, Creation, p. 112. As Sorabji mentions, it is interesting that Origen employs “always” in
exactly the same fashion in First Principles 1.3.4.

28. Actually, according to Padgett on the problem of eternity, “there is little [in St. Augustine’s doctrine]
which cannot find a parallel in Plotinus”; Padgett, God, Eternity, p. 43.

29. Translation from Stump and Kretzmann, ”Eternity” (see n. 15 above), p. 430.

30. Padgett, God, Eternity, p. 46.

31. See especially the debate between Stump and Kretzmann versus Fitzgerald: Stump and Kretzmann,
“Eternity,” pp. 429–58; and Paul Fitzgerald, “Stump and Kretzmann on Time and Eternity,” Journal of
Philosophy 82, no. 5 (1985), 260–69.

32. Anselm, Proslogion chap. 19, in St. Anselm: Basic Writings, trans. S. N. Deane, 2nd ed. (La Salle, Ill.:
Open Court, 1962), p. 71. [The English in this translation has been modernized—Eds.]

33. Ibid.

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34. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica 1, q. 10.

35. Ibid., 1a, q. 9, a. 1.

36. Consider, for instance, Anthony Kenny’s inept remark: “But, on St. Thomas’s view, my typing of this
paper is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Again on this view, the great fire of Rome is
simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Therefore, while I type these very words, Nero fiddles
heartlessly on.” Anthony Kenny, The God of the Philosophers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 38–
39.

37.John of Damascus, “The Orthodox Faith,” in Writings, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., Fathers of the
Church 37 (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1958), p. 204.

38. Martin Kemp, Visualizations: The Nature Book of Art and Science (Oxford and New York: Oxford
University Press, 2001), p. 1.

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