An Excerpt from “Liturgical Song and Practice in Dante’s Commedia” by Helena Phillips-Robins

This month, celebrate the legacy of Dante Alighieri on the 700th anniversary of his death! Keep an eye on our blog for content featuring our Dante studies books, and take a peek in our William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante and Medieval Italian Literature catalog to learn more. Finally, through September 30th, enjoy 50% off a curated list of titles about the renowned poet and his work. Visit our sale page to see which books are discounted.


In Liturgical Song and Practice in Dante’s “Commedia,” Helena Phillips-Robins explores for the first time the ways in which the relationship between humanity and divinity is shaped through the performance of liturgy in the Commedia. The study draws on largely untapped thirteenth-century sources to reconstruct how the songs and prayers performed in the Commedia were experienced and used in late medieval Tuscany. Phillips-Robins shows how in the Commedia Dante refashions religious practices that shaped daily life in the Middle Ages and how Dante presents such practices as transforming and sustaining relationships between humans and the divine. 

From the Introduction

This study explores the manifold ways in which the relationship between humanity and divinity is shaped through the performance of liturgy in the Commedia. The act of engaging in liturgical song, and in other forms of liturgical prayer, serves to transform and sustain relationships between humans, and between humans and the source and ground of their being, that ultimate reality which Dante calls God. I focus on liturgy as it relates to those human beings who have yet to reach beatitude: the penitent souls in Purgatorio, Dante, and the readers of the poem.

Liturgy is the public worship of the Church. In this study, liturgy is defined as the public – that is, shared, communal – worship of the Church in any or all of its three states, Militant on earth, Suffering in purgatory, and Triumphant in heaven. I focus on liturgical singing, as the majority of the liturgical performances Dante depicts involve song, but I also pay close attention to other interrelated modes of verbal and non-verbal prayer.

In Paradiso 10 Dante describes the daily offering of liturgy as a love song:

Indi, come orologio che ne chiami
ne l’ora che la sposa di Dio surge
a mattinar lo sposo perché l’ami,
che l’una parte e l’altra tira e urge,
tin tin sonando con sì dolce nota,
che ’l ben disposto spirto d’amor turge;
così vid’ ïo la gloriosa rota
muoversi e render voce a voce in tempra
e in dolcezza ch’esser non pò nota
se non colà dove gioir s’insempra.
(Par. 10. 139-48)

[And now, like clocks that call us at the hour / in which the Bride of God will leave her bed / to win the Bridegroom’s love with morning song, / where, working, one part drives, the other draws – / its ‘ting-ting’ sounding with so sweet a note / that now the spirit, well and ready, swells – / so in its glory I beheld that wheel / go moving round and answer, voice to voice, / tuned to a sweetness that cannot be known, / except up there where joy in-evers all.]

The sposa di Dio, who could be both the Church and the individual soul, rises for the first service of the day. Matins, and by extension the whole of the liturgy, is presented as an outpouring of song that both expresses love and desire for union with Christ and that asks for and expects a response. The Bride sings to the Bridegroom, “perché l’ami”; she seeks an answering outpouring of love.

That liturgy enables the unfolding of a two-way relationship, involving the activity of people and of God, is borne out by the associations of one of Dante’s key words, “surge.” The imagery and lexicon of this passage are indebted to the Song of Songs; among other resonances, Dante’s “surge” echoes the Canticle’s “Surge, propera, amica mea, columba mea, formosa mea, et veni” [Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come] (2. 10). The Bridegroom calls the Bride to rise up – “surge!” – and come to him, and then, three verses later, he calls her again: “Surge, amica mea, speciosa mea, et veni” [Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come] (2. 13). In the following chapters the Bride declares that she will rise up to go and seek the one whom she loves – “Surgam, et circuibo civitatem: per vicos et plateas quaeram quem diligit anima mea” (3. 2) – and then relates how she rose up to open herself to her beloved – “Surrexi ut aperirem dilecto meo; manus meae stillaverunt myrrham, et digiti mei pleni myrrha probatissima” (5. 5).The verb surgere expresses the desire of both Bride and Bridegroom, used first by Christ to call to his Bride and then by the Bride to declare her search for, and longed-after union with him. In Paradiso 10, the Italian third-person present tense “surge,” describing the Bride who rises to meet her Bridegroom, recalls the Latin imperative, “surge!”, with which the Bridegroom calls his Bride in the Song of Songs. In the Paradiso passage, Christ’s calling of the Bride and the Bride’s response to Christ are overlaid one on the other, suggesting that the rising of the Bride to greet God is itself a response to the call and desire of God. The liturgy–love-song–mattinar is an expression and enactment of love for God, and a seeking after God’s love, and a response to God’s love. Liturgy, as it is presented here, is about as far from empty ritualism as it is possible to imagine. Liturgy is depicted as, ideally, an encounter with God, an encounter in and through which humans can enter into closer union with him. It is such a significant encounter that, in Dante’s simile, the very summons to worship makes the spirit swell with love. In evoking liturgy as an encounter with God, Dante goes to the heart of what liturgy was, in the medieval West, understood to do.

During the Middle Ages, the Latin liturgy was understood to be an indispensable means of bringing humans into relationship with God. The sights, smells, actions, gestures, words and music of the liturgy worked in manifold ways to enable worshippers to encounter their Creator.

Simply put, God became present to and met his people in the liturgy. The liturgy celebrated by the Church Militant on earth was also understood as providing a foretaste of the worship offered by the Church Triumphant in heaven. Liturgy, furthermore, gave people concepts for making sense of their existence in this world and the next. Liturgy, for example, gave worshippers ways of understanding the past, as well as ways of conceiving their own place in history. Liturgy offered a framework within which to understand and experience the passage of time, and set finite temporalities against the “backdrop of an assumed eternity.” Liturgy mediated understanding and experience of Scripture: it was primarily through liturgy that people encountered the Bible, and even scholars who studied the Bible as a written text would regularly hear its words – juxtaposed and combined with all the other elements of liturgy – in church services. On both a practical and a spiritual level, liturgy shaped the rhythms of daily life. The days, the weeks and the seasons, as well as the course of each person’s life, were measured out in and by the cycles of liturgy. The liturgy was an intimately familiar, deeply ingrained set of lived, shared practices through which participants might encounter God. Its significance can hardly be overstated.

And yet scholars have only recently begun to address Dante’s use of liturgy. In an article published in the mid 1980s Louis La Favia showed that in Ante-Purgatory the souls’ songs are sung at the same times of day as they would have been in the liturgical cycle on earth. In 1990 Erminia Ardissino surveyed the liturgical songs sung in Purgatorio, foregrounding the penitential character of the songs and the communal bonds the souls build through singing them. Ardissino’s monograph, Tempo liturgico e tempo storico nella ‘Commedia’ di Dante (published in 2009) examines the relationships between liturgy and politics, particularly with regard to the theme of justice. In 1993, Andrew McCracken demonstrated how a series of allusions to the office of Compline structures the episode of the Valley of the Princes (Purgatorio 7-8). With an essay published in 1995, John Barnes revealed that Dante draws extensively on the liturgy for the language, themes and structure of the Commedia. Barnes also provided an appendix listing many of the major liturgical references in the poem. Ronald Martinez, building on and moving beyond Barnes’s work, has brought to light the great range and richness of liturgical references, allusions and echoes in Dante’s oeuvre. Martinez shows how richly and variously the liturgy – particularly the language and texts of liturgy – informs Dante’s language, imagery and themes. Martinez has also demonstrated that in various cantos of Purgatorio (canto 2, cantos 23-24, and canto 29) Dante juxtaposes liturgical texts with vernacular lyric texts as a means of reflecting on lyric poetry and practices. It is clear from Martinez’s research that Dante knew the liturgy intimately and extensively. Martinez focuses on the liturgical echoes and allusions that pervade Dante’s language, but is less concerned with the actual liturgical performances depicted in the Commedia. Martinez tends to approach the liturgy as a vast and complex corpus of material on which Dante draws for the language and imagery of his poem. While this offers an important perspective, it does not, I would suggest, get to the heart of what liturgy is and does. Liturgy is a vast and diverse body of material, but that material exists in order to become lived experience, and, ideally, lived experience of encounter with God. If we treat liturgy primarily as a source and intertext for the lexicon and imagery of the Commedia, but pay less attention to the ways in which liturgy unfolds as lived, embodied practice, then we are missing the fundamental point of liturgy.

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