A Pilgrim and his Journey: Illuminating Interpretations of Dante’s Commedia

A Pilgrim and his Journey: Illuminating Interpretations of Dante’s Commedia

Sokolowski, Linda C.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 3 (1986)


While there is no reason to believe that medieval interpretations of medieval works are more correct than our own, such interpretations can often assist and enhance our own understanding of medieval works because they have been developed by those who share, or at least are closer to, the author’s culture. Our most obvious source of more or less contemporary interpretations is the written commentary. But just as useful are medieval manuscript illuminations because these often serve functions other than the purely decorative. since an illuminator or his patron must select the scenes and episodes he will picture, and because his selection will emphasize the depicted episodes over others, illuminations often serve as guides for readers, focusing their attention on the particular aspects of a work and sometimes going so far as to suggest interpretations of the work or parts of it. In particular, fourteenth-century illuminations of Dante’s Commedia provide us with much insight into the medieval understanding of this work, not just because of the large number of illuminated manuscripts but primarily because of the high degree of consistency these manuscripts show in the subjects they depict. As Peter Brieger has noted, the canon of scenes to be illustrated was set by the mid-fourteenth century, with few deviations into and even after the fifteenth century. This relative uniformity of scene and subject among fourteenth-century illuminations suggests a relative unanimity of interpretation, giving us the ability to generalize in our conclusions about the way which a medieval audience read Dante’s poem.

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