After visiting the nine lower celestial spheres, Dante and Beatrice ascend to the Empyrean, the home of God, the holy angels, and the spirits of deceased believers. It is a realm of light.
Before Dante can see the marvelous sights that the Empyrean offers, his visual powers must be enhanced. This is partly effected when the Love that imparts peace to the Empyrean welcomes Dante by surrounding him with light. For a while, he cannot see anything, but the end result of this experience is improved vision.
Though Dante is now able to view the Empyrean, his vision is not perfect. He sees a river of light with a host of flowers on both its banks. Living sparks emerge from the river of light and come to rest on the flowers. Then they return to the river. Some sparks are always emerging from the river of light, while others are returning.
What Dante sees is a sort of preface that foreshadows the true nature of the Empyrean. To see things as they really are, he has to bend down and expose his eyelids to the river of light. When he does so, he enjoys a further enhancement of his visual powers.
Dante then sees that the river of light is changing its shape, so that it becomes round. Moreover, the sparks and flowers become angels and the blessed souls of believers, respectively.
Since God is the ultimate source of light, the Empyrean enjoys ample illumination. A ray of light emanates from God and develops into an immense circle of light larger than the sun.
With his improved vision, Dante sees a huge rose-shaped structure provided with plenty of seats. The seats are located on the petals of the Rose. If I understand the text correctly, the center of the Rose is its lowest point, and the petals rise upward on all sides. The seats are arranged in circular rows, and each circle of seats forms a complete ring.
The spirit of each believer is assigned a specific seat according to his rank. The spirits with the highest rank sit in the top row. The spirits with the lowest rank sit in the bottom row, etc. [I am not going to explain how the spirit receives their ranks, since I have already done so in a previous article.]
Dante sees the seat that Emperor Henry VII will soon occupy. Since the action of The Divine Comedy is supposed to take place in the year 1300, Henry VII has not even become German king as of yet. The dates of his reign are 1308 to1313.
Though The Divine Comedy is set before the reign of Henry VII, Dante is writing this section after Henry’s death. Therefore, he is able to give a brief description of Henry’s somewhat unsuccessful expedition to Italy, which ends in the monarch’s death.
Dante also sees angels descending from above and settling on various part of the Rose. After imparting spiritual blessings to the souls seated in the Rose, they fly aloft once more. [This undoubtedly corresponds to what Dante saw before the final enhancement of his visual powers, namely, sparks emerging from the river of light, settling on the flowers, and returning to the river of light.]
Dante always likes to gaze at the lovely eyes of Beatrice. After taking in the sights that the Empyrean has to offer, he turns to the beautiful lady who has been his guide. To his surprise, she is no longer there. Instead, he sees St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who directs Dante’s attention to one of the seats in the third row of the Celestial Rose. There Dante sees Beatrice and expresses his gratitude for all that she has done for him.
St. Bernard has come to bring Dante’s journey to a satisfactory conclusion. He urges Dante to inspect the upper circles of the Rose.
In the most prominent place of the highest circle, Dante sees Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. Like modern Roman Catholics, Dante regards her as the Queen of Heaven. Around her, angels are playing and singing.
The Celestial Rose is divided into two sections, so that each row is composed of two semicircles. Old Testament believers are seated in one section, which is completely filled. All of the empty seats are in the other section, where the New Testament believers are sitting. All these seats will be filled before the end of time.
In the top row, Mary sits at one of the two dividing lines between the sections, and John the Baptist sits in the top row of the other dividing line. Below these two figures, a special spirit occupies the seat in the dividing line in each row. In the second row just below Mary sits the spirit of Eve. Rachel occupies the dividing line in the third row. Sarah, Rebekah, Judith, and Ruth sit on the dividing line in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh circle, respectively. Below them, all the seats on the dividing line are occupied by pious Hebrew women.
On the other side below John the Baptist, the seats on the dividing line are occupied by such figures as Francis, Benedict, and Augustine.
Strangely, those who have died as infants sit in the lowest rows. This puzzles both Dante and me. St. Bernard explains it to the satisfaction of Dante, but I am still scratching my head. [When the disciples were arguing who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus “took a child, and set him in the midst of them.” (Mark 9: 36) Moreover, the Bethlehem babies whom Herod killed are usually considered martyrs. (Matthew 2: 16) Why then would believing infants occupy the lowest ranks?]
At St. Bernard’s command, Dante looks once more at the mother of Jesus. By doing so, his eyes become strong enough to view Christ. He sees the angel Gabriel greeting her with the same words, translated into Latin, which he has previously spoken to her when he announced the impending birth of Jesus.
Saint Bernard then points out various figures that were sitting in the top row. Adam is sitting to the left of Mary, and Moses is next to him. Immediately to the right of Mary is the apostle Peter, followed by the apostle John. Anna is sitting to the right of John the Baptist. Since her seat is almost directly opposite that of Mary, she can easily see her daughter. Lucia is sitting to the left of John the Baptist.
Saint Bernard then asks Mary to strengthen Dante’s vision. After receiving the needed strength, Dante is able to see the Triune God.
Dante has trouble remembering and expressing what he has seen. He still feels the sweetness of the vision, but its visual details have escaped him. He asks God to help him write at least a portion of his vision for the edification of the world below.
Dante points out that what he has seen is pure goodness. When the eyes see Him, they do not want to look at anything else.
At first, Dante sees One Being. As his eyes grow stronger, he sees three circles in this single Essence. Each has a different color. The second circle seems to be reflected by the first, just as one rainbow is sometimes reflected by another in nature. The third circle seems to proceed from the other two.
Dante fixes his attention on the second circle. He eventually sees a human image imprinted on it.
With this blessed vision, The Divine Comedy comes to an end.
“Paradiso” from “The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri; Italian text with English translation by Allen Mandelbaum; Notes by Anthony Oldcorn, Daniel Feldman, and Giuseppe di Scipio