After passing through the gloomy regions of hell and climbing Mt. Purgatory, Dante visited the celestial spheres.
In Medieval thought, there were ten heavens. Each of the first seven heavens was occupied by a single heavenly body. The moon was in the heaven closest to the earth. In ascending order, subsequent heavens were occupied by Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The eighth heaven was occupied by the fixed stars. The ninth was the Primum Mobile. The tenth was the Empyrean, where God and all deceased believers lived.
Beatrice had guided Dante upward through the heavens. He was now in the sphere of the fixed stars. Here he had seen Christ and His mother Mary. In addition, Peter, James, and John had appeared to Dante and had examined him on the topics of faith, hope, and charity. Then Adam, whom God had created at the beginning of time, appeared to Dante and answered several of his questions.
At the beginning of Canto XXVII, Dante heard a celestial chorus praising the Holy Trinity. When the apostle Peter wished to speak, silence prevailed in heaven.
Peter was visibly affected by what he was about to say. The radiance that enveloped him assumed a reddish color, which Dante compared to the planet Mars. When James, John, Adam, and other spirits heard Peter’s message, they also changed color, so that they resembled the rosy fingers of dawn and the ruddy glow of sunset here on earth.
Peter spoke of the deplorable conditions that currently existed in the Church. In particular, the popes were more interested in the acquisition of gold than in saving souls. He discussed these and other evils at length, but concluded on a hopeful note.
After concluding his speech, Peter asked Dante to report his words when he returned to earth. Then, together with all the other assembled spirits, he rose upward toward the Empyrean. They looked like rising snowflakes.
Prompted by Beatrice, Dante looked down at the earth and noticed that considerable time had elapsed since he had arrived at the sphere of the fixed stars.
Then he looked at Beatrice. From her marvelous eyes, he received sufficient power to rise from the sphere of the fixed stars to the Primum Mobile.
The Primum Mobile was the swiftest of the celestial spheres. It enclosed all the other spheres and revolved at breakneck speed. It did not contain any planets or stars, but the divine Mind dwelt within it and filled it with love and power.
By this power, the Primum Mobile imparted movement to the eight spheres within it. By imparting movement, it also governed time, since time was measured by the movement of heavenly bodies.
Beatrice explained all these things to Dante. Then she discussed the deplorable conditions that currently existed in human society. However, she prophesied that an act of God would eventually bring about an improvement.
In the lower spheres, the spirits of blessed Christians had appeared to Dante. For example, Dante saw Justinian in the sphere of Mercury and Thomas Aquinas in the sphere of the sun.
Here in the Primum Mobile, the angelic orders appeared to Dante. They appeared as nine concentric circles revolving about a fixed point of light.
The point of light was exceedingly small. In comparison with this point of light, the smallest star visible from earth would seem to be as large as the moon. However, in spite of its diminutive size, it was exceedingly bright. This point of light represented God.
The circle closest to the point of light moved faster than the others. In fact, its speed was so great that it excelled the speed of the Primum Mobile. Its love for God inspired it to move quickly.
Each of the nine circles corresponded to one of the nine celestial spheres. However, the order was reversed. The spheres closest to the earth corresponded to circles that were farthest from the point of light. Thus the circle closest to the point of light corresponded to the Primum Mobile, which was farthest from the earth. Going outward, the next circle corresponded to the sphere of the fixed stars. The third circle corresponded to the sphere of Saturn. The fourth circle corresponded to the sphere of Jupiter. The fifth circle corresponded to the sphere of Mars. The sixth circle corresponded to the sphere of the sun. The seventh circle corresponded to the sphere of Venus. The eighth circle corresponded to the sphere of Mercury. The ninth circle, which was farthest from the point of light, corresponded to the sphere of the moon, which was closest to the earth.
There was a spiritual reason for this correspondence. Each of the nine concentric circles was an order of angels. The position of each circle indicated the rank that the order of angels enjoyed. The higher-ranking orders were closer to the point of light. Similarly, the celestial spheres were arranged according to the power that they received from above. The greater their power, the farther they were from the earth and the closer they were to the Empyrean.
As mentioned above, each of the nine circles was one of the nine orders of angels. Each order of angels served as a governing intelligence for its celestial sphere. The seraphim, which were closest to the point of light, governed the Primum Mobile. Going outward, the cherubim were the next circle. They governed the sphere of the fixed stars. The thrones, who governed the sphere of Saturn, were the third circle. Then came the dominions, who governed the sphere of Jupiter, followed by the virtues, who governed the sphere of Mars, and the powers, who governed the sphere of the Sun. The sphere of Venus was governed by the principalities, and the sphere of Mercury was governed by the archangels. Finally, the angels, the circle farthest from the point of light, governed the sphere of the moon.
In order to make this difficult material understandable to everyone, I have spelled it out far more thoroughly and methodically than Beatrice did when she explained it to Dante. In the process, I did not do justice to the spiritual dimension of Beatrice’s presentation. For example, I used the word “rank” to describe the relative position of the orders of angels. While this term is handy and easily understood, Beatrice actually ordered them according to the depth to which each order of angels immersed itself is the vision of God. Those that had a more profound vision of God possessed greater love and greater celestial bliss, and their circles enjoyed greater proximity to the point of light.
After her explanation, Beatrice pointed out that Dionysius the Areopagite had correctly described and named these orders of angels. Pope Gregory the Great did not agree with Dionysius and composed his own list of the orders of angels. He realized his mistake when he died and entered paradise.
Beatrice concluded her comments on the angelic orders by alluding to the source from which Dionysius the Areopagite had received his information. It was the apostle Paul, who had been caught up to heaven and beheld many wonderful things.
“Paradiso” of “The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri”; Italian text with English translation by Allen Mandelbaum; Notes by Anthony Oldcorn, Daniel Feldman, and Giuseppe Di Scipio