Separation of Church and State in Dante’s Purgatorio


The Divine Comedy by Dante was written to be a guide for religious instruction. It explained religious teachings of the time in a story that was also entertaining, even though it was filled with moral lessons. Dante also used this work to express his comment on current events. Dante uses several allegorical figures in Purgatorio to express his comments on the need for the church to focus more on spiritual matters instead of concerning itself with the affairs of politics. Dante felt that there was a need for separation between church and state in order for the church to fulfill its true purpose of showing people the way to spiritual enlightenment.


In Canto XXXIII of Purgatorio, the Pilgrim witnesses two very different pageants. The first pageant is an allegorical reference to what the church was meant to be according to God’s word. There is a long procession led by seven candlesticks, followed by the elders of the Old Testament. After the elders, there is a griffin, which represents Christ; the griffin is pulling a chariot surrounded by seven women who represent the seven virtues. The chariot is obviously representative of the church, and trailing behind the chariot are the men of the New Testament. This pageant is very beautiful to the Pilgrim and he realizes that it is how God intended the church to be: following the biblical teachings, surrounded by virtue following the light to salvation and leading the men who came after Christ.


After witnessing the first pageant, Dante, the Pilgrim falls asleep and is awakened later only to find the chariot. Next he witnesses another pageant, very different from the first. There, next to the chariot is a tree that represents the Holy Roman Empire. Then the chariot suffers several mishaps that basically lead to its complete desecration. An eagle flies from the tree and sheds its feathers, representing the wealth that has been obtained by the church. A dragon’s tale comes from the earth and bursts through the floor of the chariot, alluding to one or more of the schisms that the church had suffered. At the end of the pageant a whore is sitting in its seat looking lustfully at the Pilgrim. The whore represents the corrupt papacy whose favors could easily be bought. Finally, a giant comes from the forest and begins to beat the whore and proceeds to drag the chariot along with the whore into the forest. This is one of the best examples of allegory in the entire Divine Comedy. The giant represents Phillip III of France and the whore represents Pope Boniface VIII who moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France because of the influence of Phillip III. This pageant demonstrates the history of the church and what has actually become of it because of the influences of political affairs.


Long before Dante’s time it was believed that the truly spiritual and blessed spent their life in contemplation and from devotion came true reward. Dante felt that the leaders of the church could not be truly concerned with the spiritual growth of themselves or the people they were supposed to instruct if they were caught up in politics. To illustrate this belief Dante mentions the biblical story of Rachel and Leah in Canto XXVII of Purgatorio. Leah and Rachel were sisters who were both married to Jacob. Rachel was the favorite wife because of her beauty, but because of Leah’s inner strength and devotion to God, the Lord blessed her with children, (one of whom was the ancestor of King David). Rachel however was barren and became jealous of her sister. Her jealousy caused her to steal and lie; only when she prayed to God and asked for a son was she able to conceive a child. By using this allegory, Dante puts forth the idea that for the church to truly fulfill its purpose, it should be concerned with spiritual matters not the temporal power of political affairs.


Throughout the Divine Comedy Dante uses a variety of stories to teach moral lessons. In addition to these moral lessons, he uses allegory to make a social commentary on the Catholic Church’s involvement in politics. One of his biggest criticisms