Dante Vs. the Simoniacal Popes (II)

I’m currently working through Dante’s Purgatorio, but a few weeks ago, while still in the Inferno, I forgot to write this up, so here it is, a followup to “Dante Vs. the Simoniacal Popes.”

In Canto XIX we meet various popes being punished for eternity in Hell for promoting the heresy of simony. Their punishment consists of being placed head down in what amounts to baptismal fonts, with only their legs up to their thighs being visible. Their soles are on fire, and their every joint writhes in agony.

I wouldn’t have caught this myself – my professors argued that this vivid punishment is a stark reversal of both baptism and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These popes have shockingly betrayed the sacraments of their own professed Faith. Accordingly, true to the contrapasso (“counter-penalty”) theme of punishment in Hell, their baptism is inverted and the symbol of the Holy Spirit, whose power they tried to buy, now torments them forever by burning the soles of their feet.

The translator of this version, Allen Mandelbaum, has a different take on the punishment: he likens it to that often meted out on hired killers, who were buried headfirst in a hole and suffocated. Given what the Medievals thought about simony and its spiritual consequences for both the simonist and his victims, a connection between simonists and hired killers isn’t too far off the mark.

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