Blessing and the Face of Being

A beatitude promises a blessing, but is the blessing for us now, or for after we have died? And if the latter, then we may reasonably ask what of us remains after we have gone? Quite bluntly: what survives after the dissolution of the physical body? There is a multiplicity of possible answers. We could think of what the individual in question has made or achieved—a monument, perhaps, or an enduring foundation and ongoing project that bears the deceased person’s name. There will be the DNA that survives in one’s progeny, and the memories that are held, possibly recorded, by relatives and friends. There are, in other words, physical traces of who we were, such as photographs, things we made, the things we accumulated and valued, as well as a whole array of mental images and memories held by others. But do these do justice to who and what we are as human beings?

The classic Christian view transcends the binary opposition between mind, or consciousness, and matter; it sees the human being as an embodied thinking and feeling subject. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) in his taxonomy of what makes a human being human, spoke of how our sense of being in the world was mediated through the five senses.[1] Characteristically, Aquinas arranged these senses in a hierarchy and accorded the sense of touch as the highest. The sense of touch operates through the sensors just below the skin of the physical body.  Even the smallest babies reach out to touch, and through the senses of sight and touch infants begin to differentiate between themselves and others and between themselves and the physical objects of the world around them. So, from an early stage in our human development we gain a sense of the “otherness” of other people and realize that physical objects exist independently of us.

The classic Christian view transcends the binary opposition between mind, or consciousness, and matter; it sees the human being as an embodied thinking and feeling subject.

The Hebrew Psalmist mused over the question of who we are and asked how the Creator God ranks us in the cosmos. This human creature, he says, is just a little lower than the gods, and is crowned, as Robert Alter translates the Hebrew phrase, “with glory and grandeur.”[2] The regal imagery deployed in Psalm 8 speaks of a God-given and therefore inalienable dignity and value. This resonates with the hymn of creation (Genesis 1:27) in which human beings are described as being made in the image of God.  The word translated here as image denotes a shifting shadow cast on the ground, suggesting that the outline of this “human form divine,” is the physical human body.

The contemporary artist whose work focuses on the physical human body, and famously uses casts of his own body, is the sculptor Antony Gormley (born 1950). The expressive quality of these body-shaped sculptures, such as those entitled Critical Mass, is shown in the different postures: some bodies are crouching, some kneeling, and others standing. In this ensemble, Gormley goes even beyond Auguste Rodin’s brilliant achievement in showing a moving human figure,[3] and never more so than in his evocative sculpture Rise (1983/4). Here the slight gesture of the raised head suggests an awakening to face a new day. Perhaps the figure is responding, even now, to a promised resurrection, to the stirring of that Spirit who raised Christ from the dead and who gives life to our mortal bodies (Romans 8:11). The play between the physical and the mental, the inside and the outside, the inner life and our external appearance, is further explored in his series of nine prints, Body and Soul (1990)[4].

Today, Gormley’s sculpture certainly resonates with the question of what it is to be a saint, a Spirit-filled person, and it fascinates pilgrims and tourists alike. “Whose body is this?” they wonder.

We all know that the material substance of the body is the means whereby a person exists in the physical world. Indeed, we make our presence felt in and through the body. This presence is more than a question of location, of where we are. It also determines to a significant extent who and how we are as we occupy specific spaces here and there. The work that shows this in a startling way is his sculpture Transport (2010), now exhibited in the Eastern Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. This body-shaped piece, 210cm x 63cm x 43cm, was fabricated from 210 medieval nails saved from the repair of the roof of south transept of the cathedral. The sculpture is suspended by a single translucent cord and floats over the site of the first tomb-shrine of Thomas Becket who was murdered in the Cathedral on December 29, 1170.

Antony Gormley, Transport (2011). Canterbury Cathedral: photograph by Stephen White, London.

In many ways Thomas was an unlikely character to have become a saint, but traces of a Spirit-filled life and death soon attracted increasing numbers of devotees to Canterbury. Today, Gormley’s sculpture certainly resonates with the question of what it is to be a saint, a Spirit-filled person, and it fascinates pilgrims and tourists alike. “Whose body is this?” they wonder.  Good art has the capacity to raise important questions such as who we are, and Transport certainly does that. For me the definite bodily outline of the sculpture reminds us that the body is not something we have; it is something that we are. “I am a body,” Nietzsche declared, and Paul tells us that it is through the body that we express our service to God and neighbor (1 Corinthians 6:20 and Romans 12:1).

For those “called to be saints,” living between the time of Christ’s bodily incarnation and the hoped-for resurrection of the body, the body is the site in which the Christian is called to live out the Beatitudes.

As light and air move gently through this floating sculpture we may be reminded that the embodied person in-breathes the very breath of God, giving us the power of movement, thought, and feeling. Put simply, then, the body is the site of consciousness and is not merely a physical shell that we temporarily inhabit. Moreover, for those “called to be saints,” living between the time of Christ’s bodily incarnation and the hoped-for resurrection of the body, the body is the site in which the Christian is called to live out the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3–11).[5]

As well as recalling us to the essential bodily dimension of our life, the sculptor evokes the more nuanced question of presence. This is powerfully the case in Gormley’s Another Place (1997), a series of cast-iron figures, now placed at intervals along the shoreline on Crosby Beach in Merseyside, England, and which appear and disappear with the rise and fall of the tide. Each of these solid iron sculptures, exposed to the elements, looks out to sea and faces the horizon, the dawning of a new world.

Antony Gormley, Another Place (1997).

If we reflect on Gormley’s body-forms, we may find ourselves asking what it means to be present, that is, present to ourselves as embodied spatial beings in time, as well as being truly present to another. The work of the Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) provides another poignant statement about presence. In the 1950s Giacometti became well-known for his elongated figures. Each of these attenuated bodies has a distinctive and prominent face, and it is the face that is freighted with meaning here.[6]

Perhaps what the Christian sees in the present is the glance of the Other, the gracious and transforming countenance of God, in the face of Jesus Christ, in and through the Spirit.

Following the work of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, much has been written about how the face is the index of our living honestly and responsible with ourselves, with others, and before God.[7] For Levinas the face was always the face of the other, and this understanding is certainly rooted in the Hebrew poetry of the Psalms. Here, the word variously translated “face” or “countenance” literally means presence. In Psalm 27, for instance, the reader is drawn into a dialogue between the worshiper and God. The speaker is invited to seek God’s face and responds by saying “your face Lord, do I seek.” The reciprocal gaze that is implied here brings us close to a description of a saint as one whose face, in looking toward the Lord, is radiant[8] and is charged with a greater weight of being. It was the Orthodox theologian Bishop Kallistos Ware who once said that if you wanted to know what a saint looked like you simply had to look at their face.[9]

This brings us back full circle to the Beatitudes, and invites us to reflect more deeply on the sixth beatitude. Blessed, indeed, are the pure in heart, who seek after God, because they will see God. Some may say that this blessing is a future, eschatological reality. It is certainly that. But since the Resurrection of Christ, eschatological realities are reflexive and impinge on the present, on who and what and where we are now. As St. Paul says, now we may see in a glass darkly, but then we will see face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). Perhaps what the Christian sees in the present is the glance of the Other, the gracious and transforming countenance of God, in the face of Jesus Christ, in and through the Spirit.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, written around 1307/8, it is the glance of the beloved Beatrice that enables the poet to ascend heavenward. The poet is then drawn to the summit by the radiant light of God’s countenance. As he ascends, he encounters the company of the blessed ones, the saints in glory, appearing as a cloud of faces (Canto 30.41, 31.49). It is the picturing of this vision that may recall for us that other, final beatitude: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13).


Christopher Irvine was formerly Canon Librarian and Director of Education at Canterbury Cathedral. He is a member of the Society of the Resurrection and currently cares for two rural parishes in East Sussex (UK). He is a Teaching Fellow of St. Augustine’s College of Theology, and he also teaches for Sarum College and the Mirfield Liturgical Institute (College of the Resurrection). He has recently contributed an essay on monastic architecture in Oneness, the Dynamics of Monasticism, and is the author of  The Art of God, and more recently, The Cross and Creation in Christian Liturgy and Art (2013).

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia 1.78.3.

[2] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2007), 23.

[3] See Rodin’s sculpture The Walking Man (c. 1900).

[4] See Antony Gormley (Phaidon: New York, 2000), 128.

[5] The Beatitudes are set in the Lectionary as the Gospel passage for the celebration of the Eucharist on the Feast of All Saints.

[6] See, for example, https://www.fondation-maeght.com/en/collection/selected-pieces/7/alberto-giacometti (accessed 11/8/18).

[7] See, for example, David F. Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1999).

[8] See Psalm 34:5.

[9] We may also reflect on the icon convention of depicting the full face of the saint. See Constantine Cavarnos, Guide to Byzantine Iconography, vol. 1 (Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies: Boston, 1993), 28.

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Irvine, Christopher (2018) “Blessing and the Face of Being,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 2, Article 2. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

View this article as a PDF

Climbing the Mountain of the Beatitudes

When Dante’s writings are considered as a whole, the Christian Scriptures turn out to be the source of more reference and allusion than any other work. By one count, the poet has a total of 575 citations from the Bible compared to his reliance on the near-contenders Aristotle (395) and Virgil (192).[1] Calculations of this sort, however, cannot begin to suggest the extraordinary degree to which Dante absorbed the world of Scripture and made it his own. This is most notable in the Commedia, where the Old and New Testaments, either in Latin or in vernacular translation, so permeate his language as almost to become one with it. Sometimes he quotes the Bible openly or draws attention to its relevance; more often, he allows its presence to go unannounced, relying on the reader to catch the biblical reference and make something of it.[2]

Rather than being a penitentiary . . . purgatory is variously shown to be a hospital for the healing of brokenness, a school for the learning of truth, an incubator where worms grow up to be butterflies, a conservatory where soloists become a chorus and speakers develop a use for “we” and “our” in addition to “I” and “mine.”

Given Dante’s strong dependence on classical sources in the Inferno, along with the rejection of God exemplified among those who have “lost the good of the intellect” (INF 3.18), it should come as no surprise that hell is the least overtly biblical realm of the Commedia’s afterlife. Nor is it difficult to see why in Paradiso biblical allusion is more common than citation, given that the blessed are so completely “in-Godded” (Paradiso 4.28) as to pass beyond the mediation of the Scriptures and enter into the reality they point toward.[3]  Where the Bible plays its most explicit role is in the middle space of the Purgatorio, with its thirty direct citations and roughly forty allusions. In this realm of time and transformation, the penitent souls (unlike either the damned or the blessed) have not yet reached their eternal destination. They remain in via, needing guidance and instruction, prayer and praise, a balance of penitential pain and restorative, renewing worship. They are all about change. Scripture informs the entire process of their becoming born-again.

The presence of the Beatitudes on each of the seven terraces of the Purgatorio provides a perfect example of how Scripture makes a contribution to the poet’s hundred-canto script. But before looking at the way they function in the process of purgation, it is important to have in mind Dante’s larger project in the second canticle—his startling transformation of what the medieval church imagined as a terrible (if temporary) underground hell located somewhere within the earth by turning it into a soaring mountain bathed in sun- or starlight, full of music and art, liturgy and pageant. According to the Commedia, the mountain formed an island at the antipodes of the inhabited earth, which had Jerusalem at its center. It was crowned by the Garden of Eden, whose whereabouts was much contested in the Middle Ages but was here “resolved” by poetic fiat.

Dante not only gives the middle kingdom a vivid geographical specificity but relates it both to hell, its mirror image, and to heaven, its sequel. He divides his mountain into three discrete sections, the first of which is an ante-purgatory waiting room. At the base of the mountain he gathers souls not yet ready to begin the hard climb: those who repented only in the last desperate moment of their lives; those who, through sloth, barely repented at all; and those who were so preoccupied with worldly governance that they neglected to prepare themselves for the life to come.

The seven terraces, each devoted to one of the vizi capitali, constitute purgatory proper: pride, envy, wrath, acedia or sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust. The most grievous vices are dealt with first, on the bottom terraces—a reversal of the order of sins punished in the Inferno, which are ranged from least to most culpable. The terraces themselves lie just inside a massive gateway, with an angel guardian and elaborate entry rite that involves the inscription on the pilgrim’s forehead of seven Ps. Each is a sign of the residue of a peccatum that penance is meant to erase—the gradual cleansing of the penitents who present themselves as “marked men.” Once within the gate, repentance begins in earnest with painful self-confrontation and arduous acts of contrition. Yet as the poet counsels his readers on the first of the terraces, the whole point of the process is not pain but gain: “Don’t dwell upon the form of punishment,” he says, “consider what comes after that” (10.109–110).

The “that” on which we are not meant to dwell is a variety of penitential ordeals: the heavy burdens borne on the shoulders of the proud (cantos 10–12), the sewn-up eyes of the envious (13–14), the corridor of purifying fire through which the lustful make their way in (astonishingly, equal!) groups of what we would now call heterosexuals and homosexuals (26). To see each penance enacted, moreover, is to foresee its eventual termination. The proud will cast off their dead weights; the blinded envious will see; the lustful will step out of the purifying fire and into the Edenic Garden that blooms, verdant and welcoming, on the other side of the terrace’s “cammino acceso” (burning road, 26.28).

Rather than being a penitentiary, in other words, purgatory is variously shown to be a hospital for the healing of brokenness, a school for the learning of truth, an incubator where worms grow up to be butterflies, a conservatory where soloists become a chorus and speakers develop a use for “we” and “our” in addition to “I” and “mine.” Unlike the Inferno, where punishment is eternal, in Purgatory lives are renovated, rewritten for eternity. Vices are not so much expunged as cured. The virtues, therefore, constitute a recovered health.

The beatitude not only speaks to the past; it also heralds a new reality, a future in glory.

The Beatitudes come into play at the very end of the soul’s cure on each terrace once the transformed penitent is both ready to leave behind one vice in order to tackle another and, more importantly, ready to acquire yet another virtue as a result of that struggle.

When each successive stage of purgation is completed, the angel who guards the terminus on each of the terraces uses a wing to brush away one of the seven peccati inscribed on the penitent’s forehead. The proud will become humble, the envious generous, the wrathful gentle. As they move up the mountain they come closer to a knowledge of God’s kingdom as revealed by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:1–12 (see Luke’s version in Luke 6: 20–38): Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the peacemakers.

Jesus’s Sermon is in many ways at odds with the realities that what we daily observe firsthand, where the meek, for instance, typically inherit nothing. It bears out the truth of what Jesus tells Pilate in the Gospel of John: his kingdom “is not of this world” (18:36). What he points to, however, is another world order than our own, one perhaps experienced to some extent on earth (or in paradox) but known fully and perfectly only in heaven, where Mary, for instance, is at once “umile e alta,” humble and exalted (Par. 33.2).

Exiting from each terrace, souls receive a particular beatitude that is appropriate to their new level of understanding. The proud, who were rich in self-regard, learn the freedom that comes with being “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5: 3); the envious become capable of mercy and compassion. The verse of Scripture they hear in song, therefore, signals indirectly the capital vice that has been purged—painfully dislodged sometimes over centuries, but finally erased by the easy brush of angelic feathers. But the beatitude not only speaks to the past; it also heralds a new reality, a future in glory. Vice has been turned into the inclination toward virtue. Step by step along the ascending terraces the penitents anticipate the blessedness that awaits them perfectly in the City of God.

In all cases but one, the beatitudes are indicated by a single Latin word or catchphrase that recalls the entire saying in the Vulgate. In effect, the listener (or reader) supplies the whole verse, which is otherwise recalled only in part. The souls, therefore, complete what the angel pronounces: they are becoming the fulfilled promise of the beatitude. After the purgation of pride, for instance, Dante notes that “‘beati pauperes spiritu’ was sung so sweetly as no words could tell” (Purg. 12. 110–111). Only the initial phrase of the beatitude is given, but in keeping with the common liturgical practice of versicle and response, the proclamation, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” effectively elicits the remainder of the verse: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” All responses are left unvoiced on the mountain because each is embodied in the person of the penitent now entering into a new stage of beatitude. The angel sings the versicle, the renewed penitent is the response.

The angel sings the versicle, the renewed penitent is the response.

Dante offers the simple citation of a word or phrase of the Latin beatitude on both the first terrace (the poor in spirit, “‘beati pauperes spiritu’ was sung so sweetly”) and the final seventh (the pure in heart, “he sang, ‘beati mundo corde,’ with a voice more radiant than ours” 27.8). Otherwise, he varies his practice. Sometimes Vulgate quotation gradually dissolves into the vernacular, as on the terrace of sloth when “the angel moved his feathers and fanned us, declaring, ‘Qui lugent’ to be blessed, for they shall have their souls possessed of consolation” (19. 49­–51). Elsewhere Latin is dropped entirely, as on the terrace of gluttony, where the angel does not so much translate the Vulgate’s “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” as paraphrase it almost beyond recognition: “And then I heard, ‘Blessed are those whom grace/ illumines so, that in their breasts, the love of taste/ does not awake too much desire –/whose hungering is always in just measure’” (24. 151–54).

The biblical beatitudes are so lapidary in form, not to mention familiar to Christians, that one might think that Dante could have given a Latin incipit in the received language of the Church and simply left it at that. Instead, he chose to translate the Scripture into his poem’s vernacular speech, and bring it into his terza rima rhyme scheme. He decided not only to translate but to expand and interpret—all in order to bring the Word of God into his own words. Of course, what we “hear” on the terraces is biblical appropriation voiced by angels, who offer the kind of elaboration of sacred text routinely given by ordained preachers speaking Italian from the pulpit (which is no doubt how Dante learned the practice in the first place). Nonetheless, Alighieri is responsible for everything on the page: all the voices ultimately are his. It would be wrong to accuse him of presumption in acting as if he could improve upon scripture by reworking it as extensively as he does throughout the Commedia. And yet, to offer him the caveat of a beatitude, blessed is the poet whose love of his own genius does not kindle pride, and whose hunger for artistic brilliance goes only so far as is just.


Peter Hawkins’ work has long centered on Dante in essays, chapters, and books: Dante’s Testaments, Dante: A Brief History, The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth-Century Reflections, and Undiscovered Country: Imagining the World to Come. He has also published on American fiction (The Language of Grace, The Bible in the American Short Story), and with Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg edited volumes on biblical reception (Scrolls of Love: Ruth and the Song of Songs, From the Margins: Women of the Hebrew Bible and Their Afterlives).

Further Reading

Stanley Benfell, “Una nuova legge: The Beatitudes in the Purgatorio,” The Biblical Dante (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 107–142.

Patrick Boyde, Human Vices and Human Worth in Dante’s ‘Comedy,(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 108–111.

Marc Cogan, The Design in the Wax: The Structure of the ‘Divine Comedy’ and its Meaning (Notre Dame, IND: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), esp. 94–96 and 124–126.

Hawkins, Peter S. Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1999.

_______________.“Handling Sin: The Religion of the Mountain,” Sin in Medieval and Early Modern Culture: The Tradition of the Seven Deadly Sins, eds. Richard Newhauser and Susan J. Ridyard (Rochester, NY: Boydell and Brewer, 2012), 223–238.

Leonardi, Anna Chiavacci. “Le beatudini e la struttura poetica del Purgatorio,” Giornale Storico della Letteratura Italiana 161 (1984): 1–29

Notes

[1]           Aldo Manetti, “Dante e la Bibbia,” Bolltino della Civica Biblioteca (Bergamo: Studi di storia, arte e letteratura, 1984), 122.

[2]           See Peter S. Hawkins, “Old and New Parchments,” Dante’s Testaments. Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1999), 36–53.

[3]           Citations of the poem are based on Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of the Commedia (1980–82) available online at http://www.worldofdante.org.

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Hawkins, Peter (2018) “Climbing the Mountain of the Beatitudes,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 2, Article 1. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

View this article as a PDF