Separation of Church and State in Dante’s Purgator

ioThe 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

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

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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 is that with out separation between church
and state, the church will be unable to accomplish its Divine mission to
spread the word of God and instruct people in their paths of spiritual