by Joanna Murdoch, M.A.R. ’15, religion and literature
As a student of religion and literature, I’m alert to words. I care for narrative. Hooked on books, etc. A large part of my excitement over the ISM’s 2014 study trip to Italy had to do with the group’s plan to “follow in the footsteps of Dante”—the patron saint, you could say, of our highly esteemed religion and literature professor, Peter Hawkins, and thus a kind of grand-saint to me and to those in our group with literary inclinations.
And it was delightful to pay homage to “il Poeta” in a journey reversing his timeline. First we visited his spare, simple tomb in Ravenna, just around the corner from a street sign proclaiming the area a restful and respectful “Zona del Silenzio.” After several days in the steep-walled city of Siena, where Dante stayed during part of his exile from his native Florence, we roamed the Tuscan hillsides by bus until we reached the great poet’s birthplace. Once in Florence, we shut ourselves in the dark-sparkling mosaic interior of the octagonal baptistery where the infant Dante had been received into the body of Christ (and the city-state of Florence) dusky decades before his expulsion and exile. I did not linger long in front of the grand and empty cenotaph dedicated to Dante in the Florentine Basilica of Santa Croce, but I did spend some minutes squinting up at his stone likeness glowering against the sharp blue sky outside the church, feeling keenly how impossible it is (and yet, impossible not to try) to capture a soul in time, in space, in stone.
After two semesters’ worth of coursework flirting with apophatic theology—all that cannot be said about God, plus investigations into the quality of that sacred silence—I was on the alert for Italian solutions to the problem of capturing, or even witnessing to, spiritually charged reality within the finite reach of human expression. Dante’s Commedia is a magnificent and theologically expressive achievement in this vein, beautifully balanced between two great silences, as Prof. Denys Turner would have it: the frozen waste at the pit of hell and the quiet smile suffusing the Godhead.
But apart from Dante’s straddling of the ineffable and the expressible, the Italian renderings of spiritual matters that struck me most were the carvings, statuary, and mosaics in each city we explored—Ravenna, Siena, Florence, Orvieto, and Rome. The legions of angelic orders and saintly processions shimmering in mosaics in Ravenna, Siena, and Florence . . . hundreds of sculpted heads lining the upper edge of the nave in the Sienese Duomo . . . august statuary peering down from sun-bleached façades . . . everywhere I felt surrounded and towered over by rank on rank of truth-seekers from salvation history—including such pre-Christian patriarchs as Plato and Aristotle, who survey Siena from their perch atop the city’s spangled Duomo. Never before have I felt so palpably the size and number and spiritual heft of all who have come before.
Gazing at the mosaic program inside Ravenna’s San Vitale complex, we were invited to compare the depiction of “ordinary” humans to images of Christ and the angels. One of our excellent guides pointed out the surprisingly realistic grounding of Christ’s foot, which rests solidly on a clear blue globe thanks to the mosaicists’ use of shadow and shaping. Similarly, the angels had slightly more detailed faces and better-shaded, more flowing folds in their robes. By contrast, the human beings depicted in the mosaics appeared somewhat flat, stylized, and static. Whatever the original artists’ intent may have been, the meaning I took for my personal pilgrimage was clear—spiritual reality is vital, massively more dimensional than we can currently measure, and yet inseparably linked to “the journey of our life,” at whose midway-point Dante’s epic story begins.
It is so easy to think of literature, or even “story,” as something much less palpable than sculpture, far less visible than a painting, nowhere near as audible as music—definition through opposition and negation, in other words. But visiting the major sites of Dante’s life, many of which play a significant role in the Commedia, and developing a sense of the horrific divisions and infighting that characterized the fourteenth century, I gained a new appreciation for the actual, physical, historical realities undergirding literature like the Divine Comedy. Dante’s tercets are not just lovely, safely distant words printed on a canonical page, floating through the ages atop a foamy wave of translations. No; this work was written on the backs and heels and hearts of real people like Dante, who lived, loved, went into exile, and took risks to speak against injustice and corruption. And all this against the backdrop of the Black Death! Not to mention general mortality rates, fires, poverty, and the ravages of time and Tiber . . . how amazing it is that such literature survives at all!
As visual and spatial memories from the ISM Study Trip continue (regrettably) to fade, a solid nub of literature ripe for exploration and study remains—for which I am deeply grateful. So, too, I am grateful beyond words for Dante and for other writers who have tried to capture some glimmer of the vast spiritual architecture they see tilting toward silence; a stillness characterized not by failure, not by fear, not by the quiet loneliness of exile, but by unutterable, unending satisfaction.