Cleansing the Temple: Dante, Defender of the Church
Bernardo Lecture Series, No. 20
Dante as protector and purifier of the Church.
Readers of the Commedia are familiar with Dante's severe judgment of contemporary popes. The attacks are explicable as part of Dante's strategy of defending the Church itself, which the poet saw as imperiled by papal avarice and political ambition. From the reference to the biblical punishment of Uzzah for touching the Ark of the Covenant in Epistola XI, urging Italian cardinals at the 1314 conclave to elect a Pope favorable to Rome, we know that Dante anticipated accusations of meddling in Church affairs. And meddle he did: the representations in the poem of the Church, in guises both historical and typological (Ark of the Covenant, Temple, Bride of Christ, etc. ) comprise an ambitious program by which Dante identifies with the role of protector and purifier of the Church, modeled chiefly on scriptural episodes of Christ cleansing the Temple, long used within the Church itself in order to spur anti-simoniacal reform. A series of passages in the second half of Paradiso (Cantos 15-16, 18, 22, 27) elaborate Dante's investment in this role, one that is repeatedly linked to the poet's condition as an exile.
Ronald L. Martinez is Professor of Italian Studies at Brown University. He is the coauthor (with Robert M. Durling) of Time and the Crystal: Studies in Dante's Rime Petrose.