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From the Winter, 1989 issue of Touchstone


Dante’s Puzzle by Steven Faulkner

Dante’s Puzzle

The Riddle of Papal Power

by Steven Faulkner

The issue of papal authority has long been a particularly knotty controversy among the Christian churches. Indeed, it has troubled the Church since at least the late second century when Pope Victor saw fit to excommunicate the churches of Asia Minor over the question of the dating of Easter. At that time the old Asian bishop Polycrates, claiming apostolic precedent, boldly opposed him. In the intervening centuries the question of papal authority has never quite gone away. It is a key issue dividing Christian East from Christian West, and Protestant from Catholic. For some a powerful papacy is the very bastion of orthodoxy; others believe it to be a semi-heretical usurpation or a positively heretical tyranny. And now, as Pope John Paul II seeks dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestants, this ancient question still confronts us. In certain ways, the time seems favorable for the advancement of understanding. But can we approach the issue with open minds and open hearts to reason together peaceably?

Nowadays, when the question does arise, it is too often posed in a historic vacuum. On a popular level, Christians dispute the issue with much ardor but little understanding of past events which led to present convictions. Thus we are commonly reduced to sniping at each other from well-entrenched positions across a chasm of deep bias. For my part, I find myself somewhere between trenches, in no-man’s-land, with allies on different sides, but taking fire from all sides, too. Yet, I do not even pretend to have a definitive solution. (That belongs to the Body of Christ and the wisdom of its divine Head.) I merely contend that we must not give up on serious dialogue and the search for more fruitful grounds of discussion. And so I raise this article as something of a white flag and call for a parley.

For my small contribution, I would put before you an allegory, an intriguing riddle from long ago, from the pen of the great Dante Alighieri. I believe Dante intended his allegory to raise this issue in the minds of his contemporaries and to strike a blow at a basic misunderstanding, which had led to terrible consequences in the thirteenth century Church. In our own day, perhaps Dante’s puzzle can intrigue us and defuse or circumvent our standard defenses long enough for us to view the problem afresh and think it over anew.

Dante Alighieri, of course, was one of the greatest poets and minds of all time. He was a man belonging to more than the medieval world which produced him and his own native Florence. And I see him as a man of deep faith and deeply devoted to the Church—though he detested the avarice which had infected it and was not even shy about inveighing against the greed of particular popes. Any reader of the The Divine Comedy can see that Dante readily attacked the impiety of certain popes. In the nineteenth canto of the Inferno, Dante’s pilgrim discovers a special hole in hell reserved especially for simoniacal popes. Nicholas III is there, awaiting his successors Boniface VIII and Clement V.

But it is one thing to denounce overt corruption in particular men, quite another to undermine the claimed powers of the papal office itself. Heretic hunting was a common sport and an Italian writer of the early fourteenth century needed to choose his words carefully. The papal party had strong allies in the Italian cities, and one such political faction had driven Dante from his beloved Florence. (I should note in this regard that Dante was not a naive child in the imperial/papal political struggles of his day: he was clearly a partisan convinced that the emperor and not the pope should wield ultimate political power.)

Now Dante gave his views on the papacy quite explicitly in the Monarchia, his work on world government, which is seldom read nowadays. Most modern readers confine themselves to the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Inferno. But we find Dante’s views revealed, or I should say concealed in a more intriguing way in a more popular work, the second part, The Purgatorio. For here the author invites the reader to solve a riddle, a riddle which he says is key to the understanding of an allegorical pageant in which it is set. Admittedly, this puzzle is not easy; no doubt it has stymied many Dante readers over the centuries. But may I suggest that Dante uses the riddle to veil his view on papal authority in such a way that he both attracted attention and avoided retribution. And the key to all lies in the riddle of a mysterious number or numbers, or letters, as you interpret it. What an intriguing way to spur thought on the papal office!

The Procession & the Puzzle

The allegory begins as Dante’s pilgrim finds himself in ancient Eden, walking along a beautiful stream. Suddenly “a burst of incandescence cuts the air.” The radiance increases and a gentle melody drifts through the brightening air. Seven golden candlesticks approach. Beneath their flowing bands of light, twenty-four elders clothed in white approach, chanting a song, followed by four winged creatures reminiscent of Ezekiel’s vision. These creatures surround a triumphal chariot drawn by a great griffin whose wings soar out of sight. Three ladies, one red, one green, and one white, dance near the chariot’s right wheel while four ladies robed in purple dance to the left. Behind the chariot walk seven men.

Then with a thunder burst and the shouts of a hundred angels, the lady Beatrice appears within the chariot. She reprimands Dante for straying from his early quest for salvation. In her eyes, Dante sees the griffin reflected “who is two natures in one single being.” Overawed by all of this, Dante follows the mystical procession until the griffin attaches the chariot to a great, barren tree that is identified as Adam’s tree. The tree immediately bursts into leaf and bloom. Beatrice descends from the chariot, while the rest of the procession departs.

Then comes the final drama. An eagle, a fox, and a dragon attack the chariot. After the eagle swoops a second time, dropping some of its feathers on the chariot, the chariot grows a thick covering of the feathers. Seven heads sprout grotesquely from the chariot and an “ungirt whore” appears in the chariot “casting bold, sluttish glances all around.” Beside her stands a giant who kisses her often. But when she turns her “roving, lustful eyes” upon the pilgrim, the giant beats her, rips the chariot from the tree and lumbers away into the forest dragging the chariot. Beatrice grieves for the chariot’s fate, but makes a puzzling promise: a time will come “in which five hundred, ten, and five shall be God’s emissary, born to kill the giant and the usurping whore with whom he sins.”

Penetrating the Procession

Well, what are we to make of all of this? Dante scholars have widely agreed that the mystical procession is an allegory of Christ’s redemption of mankind: the griffin is Christ who pulls the chariot of the Church. He is preceded by seven lamps “which are the seven Spirits of God” (Rev. 4:5) that emit the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Following are the twenty-four elders representing the books of the Old Testament as counted by St. Jerome. The four creatures of Ezekiel that surround the chariot have long been understood to be the four Gospels. The seven men following are the authors of the New Testament, while the seven dancing girls are the three theological virtues and the four cardinal virtues. Beatrice seems to be Dante’s own salvation, a salvation once neglected but now seen reflecting Christ.

Adam’s tree appears to be mankind renewed by Christ’s Church. The eagle first seems to be old Rome swooping down in the early persecutions of the Church. The fox likely represents heresy. The dragon the Islamic incursions. The eagle’s second descent dropping feathers might be the so-called “Donation of Constantine,” a fraudulent document, in Dante’s day believed to be authentic, in which the Roman state purportedly granted to the Church riches and privileges. The feathers then spread to cover the Church like “thick weeds.” The seven heads with ten horns which then appear are associated with the beasts of Revelation, as is the harlot who appears in the chariot. In Revelation “the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman is seated” and are clearly identified with the city of Rome.

But the rest of the drama is more difficult to sort out. And here I have found the work of Professor Richard Kay from the University of Kansas especially helpful. By a detailed and convincing argument, he shows that Dante intended the harlot to be the church of Rome, specifically the clergy, grown corrupt since they arrogated a special status in the time of Constantine, while the giant has often been identified with King Phillip the Fair of France in whose reign the papal court moved to Avignon (1309–1377). Kay says it is more likely that the giant is an antichrist figure, guardian and tyrant of a dissolute Church. The giant usurps the griffin’s place as protector, disciplinarian, and lover of the Church, finally taking away the chariot, not so much geographically from the city of Rome, but salvifically from Adam’s tree. Thus the giant takes upon himself the role of the griffin. In Dante’s day the popes had, of course, claimed a similar authority as protectors and leaders of the Church, as vicars of Christ on earth. It seems likely, then,1 that the giant can be identified not as the papacy per se, but as the corrupted popes of that day, grown overweening and gargantuan in worldly pride and ambition.

Unraveling the Riddle

Now we come to the central riddle of the allegory. Beatrice predicts that a “five hundred, ten, and five shall be God’s emissary, born to kill the giant and the usurping whore with whom he sins.” Even the scholars have had rocky going with this riddle. To make matters worse, Dante makes it plain that if the reader cannot solve this very riddle, he does not understand the whole allegory. Beatrice makes bold to call those who don’t grasp the meaning of the riddle stoneheads with petrified intellects.

Most scholars agree that the numbers cited above should be written as the Roman numerals D, X, and V. Now in medieval times, these numbers could be punctuated in various ways, depending on how the numbers were read. Thus the DXV could be written D.XV, standing for the number five hundred fifteen. Then again, some scholars have seen the DXV as an anagram, juggling the letters to read DVX, “a leader”; others insist the order of the letters must not be changed but see the three letters as the initials of the words, Dominus Xtus Victor, “the Lord Christ Victor,” or Domini Xti Vicarius, “a Vicar of Christ the Lord.” There is, however, no solid, confirming evidence for juggling the letters or assuming words to fit the initials.

Once more, I am indebted to Professor Kay, for he has hit upon a solution which fits not only the letters DXV, but ties them in with a persistent theme which Dante carries throughout his works. Kay states that Dante’s readers would have had no difficulty interpreting that group of letters if it had been found in a scholastic treatise. “For in that context, the letter D, followed by a numeral, is easily recognized as a common abbreviation of the word distinctio.2. Thus “a DXV” would signify “a distinction fifteen.” With this meaning it would have been punctuated as D.XV. Of course, there were many “distinction fifteens,” for there were many scholastic treatises and they were often divided into distinctions. But, according to Kay, the citation Distinctio quidecim (D.XV) standing alone could refer “to one and only one place: the first part of Gratian’s Decretum,3 Gratian’s compilation of canon law. (c. 1140) When we look at the fifteenth distinction of Gratian’s work, we discover that Gratian is treating the origin and authority of the statutes or canons of the Church. Citing three patristic sources—Isidore of Seville, Pope Gregory the Great, and Pope Gelasius—Gratian states that “the Roman Church considers the books of the Old and New Testaments to be the highest authority; the four principal councils stand in the second rank, and after them Rome places the other legitimate councils of the Church.”4 Two of Gratian’s sources place the chief doctors of the Church as the lowest authority, but one source, Gelasius, adds a fifth authority: the “decretal letter that the most blessed popes sent from the city of Rome at divers time for the consolation of various fathers, are to be received with veneration.”5

If this is indeed the solution to the riddle, then it appears that Dante was cryptically telling us that the Church could not be reformed, brought back to its ministry of Life to Adam’s tree, until the overweening papal ambitions were destroyed by the enforcement of the canonical dictum. Then papal powers could find their legitimate place beneath the prior sources of authority in the Church, namely, the Scriptures, the councils, and to a lesser extent, the chief doctors of the Church. But can we be certain this is Dante’s solution?

Not only does Kay’s solution seem plausible, given the historical understanding of the letters as signifying distinction fifteen of Gratian’s Decretum, but there is corroborating evidence from Dante’s Monarchia which seems well-nigh conclusive. In that treatise, Dante makes the identical argument. He states that the papal decrees were valid only to the extent that they agreed with other and prior sources of canon law. The list he makes is precisely that of Gratian’s fifteenth distinction: first the Old and New Testaments, then the great councils “which should be revered, since no one doubts that Christ was present in them, for as he was about to ascend to heaven, he told his disciples, ‘Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world!’” Then come the writings of the doctors of the Church, “Augustine and the others, whom the Holy Spirit guided, as anyone would see who has seen their fruits,” and finally come the decretals “which are also to be revered because they have apostolic authority, but which should undoubtedly be subordinated to the basic Scriptures.” In this way, says Dante, we “must get down to the truth which flows from the sources of the Church’s authority.”6

How, then, does DXV kill the giant and the “usurping whore?” At this point, a little history is in order. Dante found himself in a period in history when the medieval papacy had reached the peak of its authority. A century before, Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) had claimed that the pope had “fullness of power,” plenitudo potestatis, to act as vicar of Christ on earth. A pope could declare a nation’s throne vacant, as Innocent did to bring England’s King John to heel, or declare an election for the German kingship null and void, because, although one candidate had the majority of the votes, Innocent’s candidate had the “saner” votes. The great canonist Hostiensis (d. 1271) described the extent of papal claims:

In short say that, provided he [the pope] does not contravene the faith, he is able to do and say whatever he pleases in all matters and through all means, even declining to do justice to whom he will, because no one dare say to him, Why do you do this? And he can take away every right (ius) and he can lawfully dispense beyond the law (supra ius) because he acts on earth in place of the very God. (Summa, X,1.32.3)

Thus the popes of the thirteenth century claimed legal (or even supralegal) jurisdiction over all human law, civil as well as ecclesiastical. According to the analogy of the time, the ruler of a state derived his authority from the pope as the moon receives its light from the sun.

Quite obviously, Dante took a different position. Though a committed Catholic, careful to assert his respect for the institution of the papacy, he was convinced the pope had no business meddling in temporal affairs. In the Monarchia, Dante agreed that the supreme pontiff was indeed the vicar of Christ and successor of St. Peter; he did believe that the pope had a legitimate authority, but argued that the pope only represented Christ to the extent that Peter did, as “doorkeeper of the kingdom of heaven.”7 He says at one point that we owe the pope “what is due Peter but not all that is due Christ.”8 He had no jurisdiction over civil law. Further, Dante argued that papal decrees, the decretals, were only valid to the extent that they agreed with other and prior sources of canon law. This knowledge was to be the stone to kill the colossus of papal pretensions. Dante insisted the decretals take a subordinate place because there were those who claimed virtually unlimited power for the popes on the sole basis of those papal pronouncements—thus arguing that the pope has power because he says that he has power. In the wake of such extraordinary claims, Dante had seen a succession of popes immersed in power politics, simony, war, and intrigue. Lacking the virtues of the dancing maidens, a detestable giant had appeared, grown angry and all out of proportion. Here was the brutish consort of a sensual clergy. A stone was needed, and Dante appears to have hoped that a return to a proper understanding of canonical authority would be that stone.

Dante & Reform Today

Dante had precise views on the papacy. Few would accuse Dante Alighieri of being an ambivalent soul. He believed that the pope is a spiritual leader ordained to proclaim the Gospel and live an exemplary life, to freely sow the seeds of faith unhindered by material or temporal concerns, as Peter had done in the early days of the Church. He must not indulge in power politics or accumulate wealth. The chariot of the Church must be rid of the “feathers” of imperial wealth and power. The giant who had taken to himself powers Christ never intended for his bishop of Rome, must be slain by a proper subordination to the D.XV, the proper hierarchy of canonical authority, thus restoring the papacy to its legitimate place in the catholic order of the Church.

Dante hoped for reform. He wrote for reform. He wrote the Divine Comedy to awaken men from the spiritual darkness typified by the dark wood at the beginning of the Inferno. In the course of this great poetic work Dante spoke against every sort of human vice. It is not surprising that he spoke so vehemently against what he perceived as a corrupting of the papal office.

Unfortunately, it has taken a very long time to realize Dante’s reforms. Not until the last century has the papacy given up most of its claims to temporal lands and powers. But as the papacy has been largely reduced to a spiritual vocation, has this not proved to be an elevation to its true role?

Dante raised an important point about the canonical authority of the papacy, a point well worth discussing even today. Of course further questions remain unanswered: what is meant by and what are the limitations of the papal claims of universal jurisdiction over all Christians everywhere? How shall we understand the papal claims to speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals? These thorny questions still separate Christians. Nevertheless, all Christians may take heart, for so many obstructions of the past have been eroded by the winds of time. And in Pope John Paul II we see before us a pope who manifestly seeks the spiritual welfare of his flock and reaches out a hand to his “separated brethren” in other branches of the Church. Though unafraid to speak to political issues, he has in fact moved to pull his priests out of secular political offices. Perhaps this is a time ripe for pursuing a more beneficial and truly catholic definition of the pope’s role, a definition which places itself humbly under the light of Scriptural authority, maintaining itself in the balance and proportion of the early ecumenical councils of the Church, and keeping itself coincident with the writings of the early Fathers. This would not be the end of a powerful papacy but the further elevation and focusing of its moral authority and power to do good in this world. If this were done, I should think many Christians from whatever backgrounds would find such a leadership ecumenically heartening and attractive.


1. For more details see Richard Kay, “The Pope’s Wife: Allegory as Allegation in Inferno 19.106–111,” in Studies in Medieval Culture, XII.

2. Richard Kay, “Dante’s Razor and Gratian’s D.XV,” Dante Studies, XCVII, 1979, p. 71.

3. Ibid, p. 72.

4. Ibid, pp. 73–74.

5. Ibid, p. 74.

6. Dante Alighieri, trans. Herbert W. Schneider. Monarchia: On World Government, Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980. XXX.iii.v

7. Ibid, III.viii

8. Ibid, III.iii.ii

Steven Faulkner is the rector of Holy Trinity Congregation in Topeka, Kansas.

“Dante’s Puzzle” first appeared in the Winter 1989 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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