By Diana Glenn
Flinders University Languages Group Online Review, Vol.1:1 (2002)
Abstract: This analysis of the enigmatic figure of Matelda, guardian of the Terrestrial Paradise in Dante’s Purgatorio, considers both the unresolved question of Matelda’s historical identity, in particular whether Dante is alluding to the historical personage, Countess Matilda of Tuscany (1046-1115), and the numerous critical glosses that have emerged over the years, whereby Matelda has been interpreted as a symbolic figure, for example, as the biblical typology of the active/contemplative life, as the representation of human wisdom, or in a variety of other symbolic guises.
Whilst alluding to recognisable idyllic poetic images, such as the donna angelicata of the vernacular tradition, Dante’s conceptualisation of Matelda is nevertheless aligned to the pilgrim-poet’s own development in via of a redemptive poetics in which the writer articulates an urgent message of reform, at both the secular and ecclesiastical levels. The linking of Matelda with the notion of the loss of the prelapsarian state of humankind’s innocence and her supervision of the penitential cleansing rites performed on Dante-protagonist, in anticipation of his ascent to Paradise in the company of Beatrice, represent crucial moments in Dante’s mapping out of prudential history for his readers and his call for a recovery of Christian values.