By Erik Schoonhoven
Paper give at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds (2008)
Introduction: Dante’s vision of afterlife, expressed in his masterpiece the Divine Comedy, starts in the real world: he finds himself lost in a wood, as a metaphor of his difficult position in earthly life being exiled from his patria, the city of Florence. In this wood chaos rules and Dante himself several times in the Comedy opposes to this image the peace and harmony of Paradise, the garden of Eden. The unstable political situation of Italy of his time, which Dante indicates as the ‘garden of the empire’ being abandoned by the emperor, like the world is without the good care of the supreme gardener, Jesus Christ.
In accordance with the medieval tradition the Paradise garden contains elements like trees, rivers, flowers, precious stones and pleasant odours. It represents the perfect state of the world before the first sin of Adam and Eve, having eaten from the forbidden tree. Dante presents the Paradise garden as the situation to which the world, and specifically Italy, should return under the guidance of the emperor as representative of God on earth. On a spiritual level the death of Crist, the second Adam, was needed to return humanity to this perfect state. According to popular belief in the middle ages the cross was made of the wood of the tree of Paradise: the first sin thus is cancelled with the same instrument.
Dante elaborates this political connotation of tree symbolism in several ways. In Hell 34 the tree of evil is present, while Purgatory, which contains the terrestrial Paradise (called by Dante the ‘selva antica’, the ancient wood) is the canticle where all the elements of the Paradise myth are present, including the trees of the garden of Eden.
One of the prominent paradisaical images in the Divine Comedy is that of the Valley of the Princes, the preoccupied rulers representing the Third Class of the Late-Repentant. They ignored their spiritual duties because they were too much preoccupied with worldly cares.