Dante’s Use of St. Bernard’s Contemplative Process in The Divine Comedy

The Christian life is the soul’s continuing attempt to restore its lost likeness to God. According to St. Bernard of Clairvaux1, the last guide to Dante Alighieri in his journey through The Divine Comedy, this is a process that can only be completed perfectly by the vision of God. Bernard stands as a symbol at the end of the Comedy, the figure who believed in the doctrine and theology of contemplation that is the structure of the poem. Bernard declared that both knowledge and love were necessary components in a union with God, and one must go through a process of contemplation to get there. Bernard’s contemplative process progresses in that one progresses from first loving himself for his own sake to, for his own sake, loving God; then one comes to love God for God’s sake, and in the final stage, he comes to love himself only for God’s sake. Evidence of Bernard’s process is most apparent in his description of the beginning of his journey in Canto I, his contact with Piero Della Vigna in Canto XIII of Inferno, his entry into Purgatorio proper in Canto IX, his experience with the prideful in Canto X through Canto XIII of Purgatorio, his encounter with Cunizza de Romano in Canto IX of Paradiso, and finally, in Dante’s final realization and fulfillment, his perception of God in Canto XXX of Paradiso. Dante uses Bernard’s contemplative process within his journey through The Divine Comedy in order to demonstrate how Christians must restore their likeness to God, to show us the difference between hellish pride and heavenly pride, and to explain that the only way to God is through both the intellect and love.

Dante held that God must be seen intellectually before he could be perfectly loved, and to do this, one must be willing to understand Him. Bernard believed that without knowledge, the soul would have nothing to love (Kay 190). This is because, when seeing the vision of God, both are brought together by the act of grace (190). With this grace, the soul is united with God, its original likeness, for He is the Creator. After the fall of Adam and Eve, man only holds the potential for goodness, therefore losing one’s likeness to God. The soul searches for God because God created it, and creations always reach back to their creator. However, in order to reach this understanding of God, one must be willing to go on one’s own journey to gain the knowledge necessary to find Him. Throughout each Canto of Dante’s journey, he comes to understand the Divine through his guides and the souls he meets along the way. In the end, according to Bernard and Dante, it is this knowledge of God that allows the soul to know God when it feels Him.

In the beginning of The Divine Comedy, Dante loves himself for his own sake, the lowest step of the contemplative process. It is because of Dante’s perverse love that Beatrice2 intervened, insisting that he go on his Divine journey. It was also because of his earthly love for Beatrice that he was willing to go on the quest. It was not until later that Dante developed the will to find God on his own, a component of Bernard’s contemplative process. Nasti explains, “Those who, as a result of Divine grace, are completely aflame with charity, can enjoy the attention of the lover, and become, according to Bernard, worthy of His greatness” (217). In order to be one with God, we must not only be willing to seek him out, but also to practice charity, to do good in the world, in order to be worthy of receiving Him. In the first Canto of Inferno, Dante described himself: “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray” (Inf. I 1-3).  Dante had lost his will to follow God on the true path. Also, Dante opens the Comedy using the pronoun our to refer to all of us that have strayed as he had. Dante relates himself to all of us, for like the world, he had fallen in love with earthly goods instead of focusing his love towards God.

In his journey through Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim discovers what it is to have hellish pride, and begins to realize that he, too, holds those characteristics. Dante meets Piero Della Vigna4 in Canto XIII, where Nessus5  leads Dante and Virgil6 to a forest:

            Nessus had not yet reached the other bank

            when we began to make our way across

            a wood on which no path had left its mark.

            No green leaves in that forest, only black;

            no branches straight and smooth, but knotted, gnarled;

            no fruits were there, but briers bearing poison. (1-6)
 The description of the forest as being black, knotted, gnarled and bare is extremely similar to the shadowed, savage, dense and difficult forest that Dante originally found himself when he strayed off his path in the beginning of the Comedy: “Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was, that savage forest, dense and difficult” (Inf. I 4-6). In the Canto XIII forest, they made their way across a wood on which no path had left its mark, therefore representing a wrong path (as there is no right path in the Inferno), as the one that Dante had originally lost himself. Here we begin to see the similarities between this particular Canto and Dante’s journey. Then, Dante meets Piero Della Vigna, who, like Dante, was a literarily skilled intellectual and served at a high political level (Yearley 325). He was falsely charged in his life and was imprisoned (like Dante, exiled from his community), but responded by committing suicide (325). Piero’s life is a shadow of Dante’s life, and Dante begins to see that he was travelling down a similar path until Beatrice intervened. Piero views his own story as a tragedy, swearing his innocence and begging Dante to clear his name on earth when Dante returns (Inf. XIII 73-78). Dante responds by saying to Virgil, “Do you continue; ask of him whatever you believe I should request; I cannot, so much pity takes my heart” (Inf. XIII 82-84). Dante pities Piero because they are so similar, because he knows the pains that Piero has gone through by being exiled and cast away. Yearley explains, “The depiction of Peiro’s case highlights how the most critical part of the description of Piero’s suicide is his pridefulness” (327). By seeing Piero, a man that resembles Dante suffering in the Inferno, Dante begins to realize that if he remains on the strayed path, prideful and loving himself for his own sake, that he will suffer the same fate.

By witnessing all of the pain and anguish in Inferno, Dante advances towards God and to the second stage of Bernard’s contemplation process, beginning to love God for Dante’s own sake in order to make sure that he does not end up in the Inferno in his next life. It is only with this advancement in knowledge from those he learned from in the Inferno that Dante is able to advance to Purgatory7. Dante encounters the stairs he must take in order to enter through the door to Purgatory proper. The first step he must take in order to enter the gate of Purgatory represents the ascent to a higher moral state: “There we approached, and the first step was white marble, so polished and so clear that I was mirrored there as I appear in life” (Purg. IX 94-96). It is when he sees himself mirrored as he appears in life that he gains self-knowledge, leading to the second step, recognizing his sins: “The second step, made out of crumbling rock, rough-textured, scorched, with cracks that ran across its length and width, was darker than deep purple” (97-99). By recognizing his sins, represented by the rough, scorched cracks that run across the step, he loses his hellish pride in himself. The last step that Dante takes is described: “The third, resting above more massively, appeared to me to be of porphyry, as flaming red as blood that spurts from veins” (100-102).  The colors of the three steps – white, darker than deep purple (black), and red – mirror the history of salvation, beginning at the Incarnation to the fall of man, and then to redemption (Treherne 190). It moves from innocence to sin and back again, showing how we lost our likeness to God after the Original Sin, and now we must be willing to climb back to our Creator to become more like Him. It is on the last step that Dante reveals, “Upon my forehead, [angel doorkeeper of Purgatory8] traced seven P’s9 with his sword’s point and said: ‘When you have entered within, take care to wash away these wounds’” (Purg. IX 112-114). The P’s are carved into his forehead, his flesh, physically representing the wounds of sin that will be washed away in death, mirroring Christ’s crucifixion. The P’s are the bodily representation of Dante’s elimination of selfishness and progression to the third step in the contemplative process as he climbs closer to The Earthly Paradise10 and, therefore, closer to God (Nohrnberg 14). Dante willingly shows his desire to eliminate the sin he carries in Purgatory, the first steps in his willingness to seek God for God’s sake.

Now that Dante has begun the third stage of Bernard’s contemplative process, he enters the first terrace of the prideful, the place in which he regretfully believes he will begin his journey in the afterlife. In Canto X, the prideful are described as being punished by bearing the weight of heavy stones, a sentence for being bowed down by the weight of their arrogance and perverse love of earthly beauties. After learning from these souls, Dante realizes that being wordly renown is “nothing other than a breath of wind that blows now here, now there, and changes name when it has changed its course” (Purg. XI 100-102). He now understands that being famous is not important, it is nothing, for after we have passed on, another name will become more renown. However, Dante acknowledges that he has lived many years with this conceit, and knows he will have to pay for that time in Purgatory after his death. It is again in the thirteenth Canto where Dante reveals that he fears punishment for his prideful ways: “I fear much more the punishment below; my soul is anxious, in suspense; already I feel the heavy weights of the first terrace” (Purg. XIII 136-138). Previously, it was in the thirteenth Canto of Inferno in talking to Piero Della Vigna where Dante first realized that his un-repented pride was his biggest sin, and it is now in the thirteenth Canto of Purgatorio that he completely acknowledges it. However, on each terrace of Purgatory, there is a positive example of the virtue which corrects the sin, always taken from an episode of the life of Mary (to whom Bernard devotes himself). On the terrace of pride, this positive example is the Annunciation11. Treherne illustrates, “In the light of the Incarnation, summed up by the Annunciation carving, the carvings suggest birth, death (in the humility of the Crucifixion, prefigured by David’s dance), and the resurrection” (190). This image suggests the humility in Christ-like submission, ultimately suggesting that this submission can lead to rebirth (190). Dante is adopting humility as he witnesses the prideful, and the image gives him hope that he can be reborn on earth. As Dante climbs Purgatorio, increasing his intellect and erasing more of his sins, his anticipation and willingness to see the Divine grows.

Dante remains in the third step of the contemplative process, the love of God for God’s sake, through the rest of his climb in Purgatorio and even through his ascent into Paradiso. As Dante climbs the mountain of Purgatory, he becomes lighter the higher he gets, with the more knowledge and anticipation towards the Divine. His connection between wisdom and love become stronger as he ascends (Nasti 212). Dante’s ability to understand the Divine becomes even greater as he reaches The Earthly Paradise and finally meets Beatrice. In first seeing Beatrice, he could not look directly at her: “Still, though my soul, now she was veiled, could not see her directly, by way of hidden force that she could move, I felt the mighty power of old love” (Purg. XXX 36-39). Dante could not look at Beatrice directly because he is still impure, proving this in saying that he felt the mighty power of old love, earthly love, not heavenly love. To see Beatrice clearly, Dante must gain more knowledge about Divine love, and transform his view of Beatrice as he must also do to see God more clearly. But in their reunion, Beatrice begins to scold Dante: “Look here! For I am Beatrice, I am!” (72) The two I ams resound with God’s self-declaration to Moses in the mount12 (Nohrnberg 15). Beatrice begins to correct the sinful Dante, but not without first giving her name, just as God did to Moses (17). Beatrice is a symbol God, as Dante must learn how to love both of them in an un-earthly way. She rebukes, “when from flesh to spirit, I had risen, and my goodness and my beauty had grown, I was less dear to him, less welcome: he turned his footsteps toward an untrue path” (127-130). When Beatrice passed on into heaven and closer to God, Dante, instead of following her beauty to the Divine, strayed from her, falling onto the untrue path: the perverse love of earthly beauty and pride. By abandoning Beatrice, Dante therefore abandoned God. Beatrice demonstrates this by imitating Him in repeating the booming I ams, for she not only speaks for herself, but on the behalf of God.

As Dante ascends through the spheres of Paradiso, his Divine knowledge continues to expand as he encounters the souls in each heavenly sphere, and especially, Venus. Tambling argues, “The fault of the ancients is that of naming and therefore reifying an emotional state by an allegorical name, and then to ascribe the aspect of subject’s self-division—its possession by mad love—to an allegorized star” (95). The problem with this argument, though, is that the women in Venus are not possessed by mad love in heaven, but pose as an example of people who  possessed mad love in their earthly lives, but then, before death, transformed their sexual love towards man into heavenly love towards God. Tambling goes on to say that “Paradiso necessarily subjects souls to the dominance of a planet, and thus names and inscribes the character of the souls as if they were controlled by something outside them, as though bringing back allegory itself” (95). Tambler fails to remember that in the real heaven, these souls are not separated by planets, but exist all together. The reason for their separation is only to assist Dante’s intellectual understanding of the Divine:

            But all those souls [in Paradiso] grace the Empyrean13;

            and each of them has gentle life—though some

            sense the Eternal Spirit more, some less. (Par. IV 33-35)

            Such signs are suited to your mind, since from

            the senses only can it apprehend

            what then becomes fit for the intellect. (IV 40-42)

Each soul in Paradiso is perfectly happy according to their capacity to receive and enjoy the beauty of God. All of the souls exist in the Empyrean, but are separated only so that Dante can comprehend the souls within his mortal mind. Each soul only exists on a planet for Dante’s benefit, not because they are subjects to the dominance of a planet. They are not subject to planets as all, for they do not truly exist there.

Dante finds the example of good, heavenly pride in Paradiso when he meets Cunizza de Romano14 in Canto IX, the introduction of the final stage in the contemplative process, loving oneself for God’s sake. Cunizza, having had many husbands and lovers in her life on earth, comes at first as a surprise to many as she is found in Paradiso. However, she represents a woman who was able to not only ask for God’s forgiveness for her actions at the end of her earthly life, but was able to pardon herself as well. Yearley explains, “We see in [Cunizza] all the marks of good pride, of the integrity that comes from a well-understood and appreciated identity: she loves herself as well as others…she is self-understanding, and thus also to understanding of others” (332-333). Most people don’t understand this concept immediately as they come upon her example, for a feature of pride’s effect is to destroy the ability to pardon oneself (333). Also, Cunizza mixes her pardoning of herself with the pride of acknowledging who she was, and not completely giving up who she was, something that we had not previously seen in The Divine Comedy. The souls in the Inferno, such as Paolo and Francesca16, forgot or overlooked their past failures: “There is no greater sorrow than thinking back upon a happy time in misery” (Inf. V 121-123). Francesca still looks at her mistakes as a happy time that she does not regret, while also looking at her past as miserable. She does not accept her flaws as Cunizza did in her former affairs, and therefore could not have been admitted to either Purgatorio or Paradiso. The souls in Purgatorio, such as Oderisi of Gubbio17, believed that the punishment is necessary the sins they committed in their earthly lives: “For such pride, here one pays the penalty; and I’d not be here yet, had it not been that, while I still could sin, I turned to Him” (Purg. XI 88-90). If souls like Oderisi had been able to forgive themselves of their sins instead of only asking for God’s forgiveness they would not need to be punished for their sins in the afterlife, they would have already made it to Paradiso.

The ability to pardon oneself described in Paradiso demands two things: a realistic perspective on the character of one’s past actions and a full-blooded attatchment to a genuine, pleasure giving goal (Yearley 333). Cunizza represents both of these attributes that are needed in order to overcome the manifestations of pride. In opposition, Tambling argues that Cunizza is still possessed by the erotic love she had in her earthly life (98). If this were to be true, Cunizza would not be in the heavenly realm in Paradiso, but back in the fifth Canto of Inferno15. He defends his argument in stating when Cunizza says, “I was overcome by the light of this star” (IX 33). He states that the “I” that was overcome was her rationality, and that what overcame her was “everything of the erotic” (Tambling 98). He argues that the light is erotic, that the shining is excess produced by the sexual (98). However, throughout Paradiso, the light continues to become brighter as Dante gets closer to God. If the light is shining brighter near God, then how could this represent an erotic, sexual love? It could not, for this is the earthly type of love. The light throughout Paradiso represents Divine love.  It is true that Cunizza is not one we immediately expect to find in Paradiso, but she represents the heavenly pride in oneself: the ability to forgive ourselves as well as asking forgiveness from God.

After the example of heavenly pride is given by Cunizza, Dante finally reaches the last stage of the contemplative process in the last Canto of The Divine Comedy. Beatrice leads Dante to St. Bernard, for her part in leading Dante to the Empyrean has been completed. Bernard then prays to Mary, the mother of her own Creator and gateway to Christ, for the ability to let Dante perceive God (Par. XXX 1-39). Then, Dante is finally able to intellectually perceive Him after all he has learned along his journey: “within itself and colored like itself, to me seemed painted with our effigy” (30-31). Dante sees himself and all of us in God, therefore reaching the last stage of the process, loving ourselves for only God’s sake. As he realizes this, his soul becomes united with God: “But then my mind was struck by light that flashed and, with this light, received what it had asked” (140-141). In this moment, Dante understood the mystery of Christ, for he became one with his Creator, the goal of each creation. Both Dante’s intellect and his will (ability to love) are completed in this union, and Bernard’s contemplative process has finally been completed.


  1. St. Bernard of Clairvaux was abbot of Clairvaux in Burgandy, a theologian who is associated with devotion to Mary and the ascent towards God through contemplation.
  2. Beatrice is a woman Dante was in love with who died at the early age of twenty-four, his poems after her death present her as a blessed soul in Paradise.
  3. Inferno is Hell, divided into two sections: the gate and the nine circles
  4. Pier delle Vigne is a lawyer, poet, and chief minister and secretary to the Emperor Frederick II, king of Sicily. After falling out of the emperor’s favor, he was blinded and put in prison. He committed suicide there by hitting his head against the wall.
  5. Nessus is a centaur who tried to rape Deianira, killed by her husband, Hercules. He left his shirt, soaked in his poisonous blood, to Deianira, who later gave it to Hercules as a gift, thus causing Hercules’ death, providing Nessus with his revenge.
  6. Virgil is a classical poet that Dante admired most and is famous for writing the Aeneid. Although he is a Pagan stuck in Limbo, Beatrice chose him to guide Dante through Inferno and Purgatory.
  7. Purgatory is the second realm in Dante’s afterlife where souls who did not perform acts of penance in their lives willfully perform their penances after death. It is divided into three sections: Antepurgatory, where souls wait to become admitted to Purgatory proper, the seven terraces of the punishments of Purgatory, and last, the Garden of Eden.
  8. The angel doorkeeper to Purgatory holds St. Peter’s keys to the door to Purgatory
  9. The Seven P’s represent the Seven Deadly Sins which are healed through the terraces of Purgatory. The letter P stands for “Peccatum,” meaning sin, and “Poena,” meaning the debt of punishment which remains after repentance and must be paid off in Purgatory.
  10. The Earthly Paradise is the Garden of Eden at the Summit of Purgatory.
  11. The Annunciation is the revelation to Mary by the angel Gabriel that she would give birth to the Son of God.
  12. Paradiso is the nine celestial spheres of Heaven.
  13. Moses in the mount is the moment when God tells Moses that he must lead the Jews from Egypt (Exodus 6:2)
  14. The Empyrean is the highest Heaven where God is immediately present.
  15. Cunizza da Romano left her husband and eloped with Sordello, a troubadour. She then had another affair and two more marriages, she turned to God in her old age, representing someone who turned her ability to love from sexual love to Godly love.
  16. Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta are punished together in hell for their adultery. Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother, Gianciotto, and had an affair with Paolo. Gianciotto caught them together one day in Francesca’s bedroom, and when Gianciotto lunged at Paolo with his sword, Francesca jumped between them and was killed instead. Gianciotto then killed Paolo, and they were buried in one grave.
  17. Oderisi of Gubbio was an artist who painted was brought to Rome in 1295 by Pope Boniface VIII to illuminate manuscripts in the papal library.
  18. Canto V of Inferno is the circle of lust, where famous lovers such as Semiramis (slept with and killed her lovers), Cleopatra (Queen of Egypt and lover to Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, committing suicide after not being able to win over Octavian), Helen (wife of king of Sparta and abducted by Paris, causing a ten-year war against Troy), and Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta are punished.

 Works Cited

Bemrose, Stephen. “God so Loves the Soul: Intellections of Immortality in Dante.” Medium Aevum 74.1 (2005): 86-108. Academic Search Premier. Saint Martin’s University O’Grady Library. 3 Apr. 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.come/ehost/>

Kay, Richard. “Dante in Ecstasy: Paradiso 33 and Bernard of Clairvaux.” Medieval Studies 66.1 (2004): 183-212. Academic Search Premier. Saint Martin’s University O’Grady Library. 3 Apr. 2009 < http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/>

Mazzeo, John. “Dante’s Sun Symbolism.” Italica 33.4 (1956): 243-251. JSTOR. Saint Martin’s University O’Grady Library. 12 Apr. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org>

Nasti, Paola. “Of this World and the Other: Caritas-Ecclesiology in Dante’s Paradiso.” Italianist 27.2 (2007): 206-232. Academic Search Premier. Saint Martin’s University O’Grady Library. 3 Apr. 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/>

Nohrnberg, James. “The Autobiographical Imperative and the Necessity of Dante: Purgatorio 30.” Modern Philology 101.1 (2003): 1-47. Academic Search Premier. Saint Martin’s University O’Grady Library. 3 Apr. 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/>

Shankland, Hugh. “Dante ‘Aliger.’” The Modern Language Review 70.4 (1975): 765-785. JSTOR. Saint Martin’s University O’Grady Library. 12 Apr. 2009 <www.jstor.org>

Stambler, Bernard. “The Confrontation of Beatrice and Dante: Purgatorio XXX.” Italica 42.1 (1965): 61-97. JSTOR. Saint Martin’s University O’Grady Library. 12 Apr. 2009 <www.jstor.org>

 Tambling, Jeremy. “The Violence of Venus: Eroticism in Paradiso.” Romanic Review 90.1 (1999): 93-114. Academic Search Premier. Saint Martin’s University O’Grady Library. 3 Apr. 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/>

Treherne, Matthew. “Ekphrasis and Eucharist: The Poetics of Seeing God’s Art in Purgatorio 10.” Italianist 26.2 (2006): 177-196. Academic Search Premier. Saint Martin’s University O’Grady Library. 3 Apr. 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/>

Yearley, Lee H. “Genre and the Attempt to Render Pride: Dante and Aquinas.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 72.2 (2004): 313-339. Academic Search Premier. Saint Martin’s University O’Grady Library 3 Apr. 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/>


About Katie Hargrave

A post-sport athlete, Weight Loss Coach, Holistic Health Coach, and Personal Trainer trying to become the healthiest version of herself and guide others in their journey.
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