Thursday, May 03, 2007

Dante's puttana sciolta

Ecclesia: Pura or Puttana?
Münster Church in Freiberg, Germany
(Image from Wikipedia)

Imagery presenting the Church as a whore appears in Dante's Divine Comedy, or so I learned yesterday through my scholarly stumblings as I got my feet entangled in the internet.

Dr. Edoardo Crisafulli has published an article that draws our attention to Dante's use of this imagery (and to how English and American translators handled it). His interesting article, "Dante's 'Shameless Whore': Sexual Imagery in Anglo-American Translations of the Comedy," can be found in TTR: traduction, terminologie, rédaction, Volume 14, numéro 1, 1er semestre 2001.

The central passage in Dante occurs in Purgatorio, XXXII. 148-150 and reads as follows:
Sicura, quasi rocca in alto monte,
seder sovresso una puttana sciolta
m'apparve con le ciglia intorno pronte.
Crisafulli translates this as:

Secure as a fortress on a high mountain,
before me sat a shameless whore
with eyes glancing in all directions.
He then comments:

In the verses above, Dante describes a procession in Earthly Paradise in which there is a chariot representing the Church. He alludes again to the prophetical language of John the Evangelist: the "puttana sciolta" (shameless or loose whore) on the Church's chariot is the meretrix magna of the Apocalypse (17, 1-5), who sits on the beast and fornicates with the kings. The second part of this canto, therefore, is connected to Inferno XIX.
Crisafulli had already called attention to this passage from Inferno XIX, verses 106-108, which he quotes and translates:

Di voi pastor s'accorse il Vangelista,
quando colei che siede sopra l'acque
puttaneggiar coi regi a lui fu vista.

It was shepherds like you the Evangelist had noticed
when he saw her, who sits upon the waters,
a-whoring with the kings.
Crisafulli notes that "According to Saint John the Evangelist, the whore stands for a dissolute Imperial Rome," but he emphasizes that "In Dante she represents a corrupt Church." In Dante's view, according to Crisafulli, the Church's corruption stems from "the belief that spiritual and temporal power should be vested in the same person." Dante, by contrast, "put forward the doctrine that Pope and Emperor should be independent of each other and exercise their authorities in distinct spheres: spiritual and temporal."

Crisafulli observes that "Like his contemporaries, Dante uses the metaphor of marriage to describe the sacred union between the Church and its spiritual office," and he adds that Dante's metaphor goes back to Christian writers of the first century, who saw the Church as the bride of her husband Christ, and he cites 2 Corinthians 11:2 and Ephesians 5:21-32 as sources.

Oddly, Crisafulli seems not to know that these two texts, 2 Corinthians and Ephesians, are attributed by the Church to Paul, for he then adds that "St. Paul, too, uses the image of the Church as Christ's bride in the new Testament."

But he helpfully notes that "mystic marriage with Christ" recurs as a theme in medieval texts, with Christ appearing as a bridegroom and the Church as the bride.

Yet, this bridal metaphor conjures up images of adultery and prostitution:

Clergymen who sell or obtain an ecclesiastical office by fraudulent means, Dante argues, prostitute a gift of God for money. The Roman Catholic Church -- the bride of Christ -- has become a "whore" because she has betrayed her spouse for thirst of wealth and power (temporal dominions).
Well, I don't want to go through the entire article, quoting passages, for this blog entry is already quite full of Crisafulli, and the point has been made anyway. Whoever it might have been who supposedly first uttered those pregnant words, "The Church is a whore, but she's my mother," the image itself was widespread and well known in the Middle Ages, as attested by Dante's use of the imagery in his Divine Comedy.

But until Martin Luther, despite this common image of the Church as whore, Western Christendom remained unsplit. I can imagine Luther picking up on this imagery and crying out like a prophet, "The Church is a whore!"

To which, Erasmus might reply, "The Church is a whore, but she is my mother!" Upon further reflection, he might repeat for emphasis, "Yes, the Church is a whore," and then add for Luther, "but that whore is the bride of Christ and your mother, too, and you have no right to abandon her."

But this dialogue is merely in my imagination...



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