Dante’s Relationship to Scripture, and to the Church

Uzzah is struck dead from his Hubris, in 2 Samuel 6:6-7. 

While Dante is sometimes thought to be attacking both the Church and Christendom itself in the Divine Comedy, it could be helpful to clarify and separate Dante’s very positive relationship to the Scripture and to the Spiritual Life, from his negative and at times aggressively hostile one towards the contemporary Church and the Institution of the Papacy in the 13th and 14th century.

Dante himself was therefore sometimes accused by the Church of having assumed the role of Uzzah from the Old Biblical stories, who touched the Holy Ark whilst in transportation from Abinadab to Jerusalem with a cart and oxen, and who was struck dead at the spot in 2 Samuel 6:6-7: “And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.”

In the Epistle XI to the Italian Cardinals Dante addresses this issue directly, first quoting the accusations from the Church that: “Who is this who, not fearing the immediate torment of Uzzah, stands up to the Ark if even perilous?”

Dante first responds with a repositioning of himself: “Surely I am in the pastures of Jesus Christ the least of the sheep; surely I abuse no shepherd’s authority, for with me are no riches. Not therefore by merit of riches, but ‘by the grace of God am I what I am'” (“Per Grazia di Dio sono ciò che sono”).

He then makes the distinction between interfering with the Faith directly vs. with the governance of the Shepherd: “Nor does the presumption of Uzzah, which some thought to hold against me, with the emaciation of his guilt infect me as one who recklessly broke in; for he to the Ark, I look after the recalcitrant oxen who draw it to places out of the way”, thereby comparing the Church with the Oxen, and indirectly repeating that he wants to help the “Ark” in the symbolic sense.

Dante further underlines his humility and interpretation of the story of Uzzah on the second marble carving on the First Terrace, Purgatory 10:55-57:

Carved in the spread of marble there, I saw
the cart and oxen with the holy Ark:
a warning not to exceed one’s competence.

Thus combining several elements at once, his understanding of the Hubris and Pride of Uzzah, the importance of Humility in the growth of Virtue and of the Spiritual Life, and contrasting the damage of Hubris to the gradual wealth of Intellectual Humility.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *