John A. Scott
(University of Western Australia)


As readers of Purgatorio are aware, when Dante and Virgil are on the fifth terrace they are astonished by the fact that the Mountain of Purgatory suddenly quakes more violently than the island of Delos was ever shaken by the sea. Dante the pilgrim is seized with mortal fright but is subsequently comforted by Virgil and a chorus exalting God with the words first heard at Christ's nativity, "Gloria in excelsis Deo" (Purg. 19.124-141). A soul appears, joins them, and Virgil asks him to slake Dante's thirst for an explanation. The anonymous soul explains that the quake is not due to natural causes, since this part of the mountain is immune to natural phenomena. Instead, the religio loci illustrates a spiritual truth: namely, that a soul has just completed its process of purification and -- renewed and redeemed -- it rises up to be united with God (Purg. 20.7-66).

The thrust of this paper is to show that the commentaries consulted do not appear to grasp the central point that three essential elements in this drama direct the reader's attention to Christ as the only vehicle for salvation. This assertion is based on an exhaustive check of all the commentaries to Purgatorio 20-21 found in the Dartmouth Dante database, and one or two others not yet included in that fine research tool. Two details in Dante's text are clearly connected with Christ and have been recognized by most modern commentators. The first is the chant Gloria in excelsis Deo, which -- the narrator reminds us -- was first sung by the angelic host and heard by the shepherds watching their flocks at the time of the Redeemer's birth (Luke 2.8-14). The shepherds -- like the pilgrim Dante -- had been terrified at the appearance of an angel, who had proceeded to comfort them with the news of great joy for all people: "to you is born this day the Savior, who is Christ the Lord." The second crucial detail is the parallel drawn between Christ's appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-14) and that of the unidentified Statius, who joins the two pilgrims with the same greeting, "Dio vi dea pace," as that given by the risen Christ to the disciples assembled in Jerusalem (Luke 24.34). Thus, the echoes in Dante's text of the second and penultimate chapters of Luke's Gospel clearly highlight the birth and resurrection of the Savior. What is usually missing is the third echo or pointer. This is to Christ's death on the cross whereby humanity was saved, a death that pleased both God and the Jews, and which caused the earth to quake and Heaven to open: "per lei tremo' la terra e 'l ciel s'aperse" (Par. 7.48).

The significance of the mountainquake is ignored by most commentators. Pe'zard, however, comes close to the mark in his note to Purg. 21.58-60, which states that the liberation of each soul free to rise up to heaven recalls for all the souls in Purgatory "la monte'e du Christ au ciel, lorsqu'a' sa mort la terre fut secoue'e d'un universel tremblement" {Dante, Oeuvres comple'tes: traduction et commentaires par Andre' Pe'zard, Paris: Gallimard, 1965, 1266} -- although it is possible to object that Christ's ascent to heaven is not primarily indicated by his death. Nothing of note regarding the mountainquake is to be found in the most recent commentary consulted {Dante Alighieri, Commedia, con il commento di Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi, Vol. 2, Milan: Mondadori, 1994}. In a chapter on meteorology, Boyde points to Psalm 113 [114].5-7 (as did, e.g., Scartazzini in 1900): "What aileth [you] ... ye mountains, that ye skipped like rams ... Tremble thou earth, at the presence of the Lord." Boyde points out that the allegorical meaning of this psalm is highly appropriate, for Statius has been delivered from sin to the freedom of eternal glory: "and the mountains skipped and the earth trembled ... as Virgil had divined with regard to the earthquake of the Crucifixion, because it had 'felt love'" {Patrick Boyde, Dante Philomythes and Philosopher, Cambridge University Press, 1981, 94-5}. The Vulgate's crucial seventh verse ("A facie Domini mota est terra, a facie Dei Jacob") does not, however, correspond to the admonition "Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord." A final random check of commentaries not included in the DDP revealed that Hermann Gmelin made the crucial observation: "the earthquake resembles the earthquake at Christ's death, when it proclaimed the redemption of humankind as it does here the redemption of a single soul" {Dante Alighieri, Die goettliche Komoedie, Kommentar von Hermann Gmelin, Part 2, Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1955, 328}. Similarly, Hollander stated: "This particular earthquake is the direct result of the Crucifixion, without which neither Statius nor anyone else might come to bliss" {Robert Hollander, Allegory in Dante's "Commedia", Princeton University Press, 1969, 67}.

The crucifixion has in fact been alluded to twice in Canto 21: first in Hugh Capet's diatribe, and now through the miraculous mountainquake. When we turn to Matthew 27.51-54, we read that at Christ's death: "the earth quaked, and the rocks were rent. The tombs were also opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many." So, Statius -- now a saint raised up -- had "fallen asleep" and had been exiled from God's court for some twelve hundred years until his liberation was made possible by Christ's supreme sacrifice. To return to the lines cited from Paradiso 7, the Redeemer's death caused both the earth to quake and heaven to open for humankind ("per lei tremo' la terra e 'l ciel s'aperse").

We may now perceive the triptych: Statius is truly a figura Christi, not merely because his appearance is compared to that of the resurrected Christ on the way to Emmaus, but also because his liberation from sin is accompanied by a triad of biblical allusions embodied in Dante's text. The chant of praise and thanksgiving reminds us of the birth of the Redeemer. The quake recalls the moment of his death. The comparison of Statius's soul to the apparition of the resurrected Christ completes the span of Christ's life on earth. As Hollander pointed out, citing all the textual clues, nearly thirty years ago: "the apparition of the saved Statius is the surest evidence Dante has yet been granted of the actual Salvation found in Christ" {Allegory, 69}. Dante the pilgrim is overwhelmed by his thirst for spiritual understanding (Purg. 21.1-4); never before had ignorance so travailed him (20.145-148). Only after Statius's explanation that the mountainquake signifies the liberation and thus the final redemption of a soul from sin does the pilgrim seize the pattern of events (chant-quake-apparition) and understand their full significance (birth-death-resurrection) as pointing to the One who is "the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14.6).