Writings, Ramblings & Assorted Essays
An Image of Man
Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto XIV, Lines 103-116

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What makes a man? According to nursery rhymes the ingredients include snips and snails and puppy dog tails; according to modern times the ingredients are dollars and bills, gold and silver. According to Dante, the image of every man is revealed in the fourteenth canto of the Inferno with the allegory of the "old man" beneath Mount Ida from whom the three mythological rivers spring, and who is made of gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay. But is this a man, this concoction of various elements? And is this everyman? Dante's answer would be 'yes,' followed by an injunction to 'look deeper.'

Taking Dante's command to heart, the immediate parallelism of this "old man" is to King Nebuchadnezzar's dream in the second book of Daniel. Here, the man is similarly fashioned, with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, a waist of bronze, and legs of iron. However, both the feet in the Biblical passage are of iron mixed with clay, while in Dante one foot is iron and the other is of clay. Daniel explains the various metals as the succession of empires after the "golden age" of Nebuchadnezzar. In the dream, a stone "cut out by no human hand (Daniel 2:34)" smites the base, cracking every layer of the statue. The image crumbles, blown away by the wind, and the stone becomes a mountain. Dante's man is likewise fissured, but no reason is given for the disfigurement. Here the golden head remains intact, and no mountain takes the place of the statue in the Inferno, but "from the splay/of that great rift run tears (Canto XIV, ln. 112-113)" which form three of the four mythological rivers: Acheron, Styx, and Phlegethon.

The similarity between the two images is striking, and one must assume that Dante expected his Medieval audience to draw such an obvious connection. It remains to the reader to probe the deeper meanings. Biblical scholars have long held that Nebuchadnezzar's dream was not merely a prophecy about the King's own reign and the empires after him, but a foreshadowing of the Reign of God, as symbolized by the victorious mountain. In Dante's Divine Comedy, Christ has already come through Hell (Canto IV, ln. 52-63) and liberated the righteous - the stone has already cracked the statue and become a mountain. The Reign of God proclaimed by the Gospels and symbolized by the mountain has come to pass. In Dante's geography, the "great old man stands under the mountain's mass (Canto XIV, ln. 159)." This mountain may be either Calvary or Purgatory, both "ladders" to the Heavenly Kingdom.

Daniel explains that the feet of the King's statue that are made of iron mixed with clay represents an ill-made empire that shall be a "divided kingdom" with "some of the firmness of iron…in it," that is "partly strong and partly brittle," "mix[ed] with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together (Daniel 2:41-43)." By separating the two substances so that one leg is iron and the other clay, Dante shows a more completely "divided kingdom." Some scholars have argued that this may represent or prefigure our own modern separation of church and state. Secular critics have made the case that the "right foot…baked of the earthen clay,/…the foot upon which he chiefly stands (Canto XIV, ln. 110-111)" is the Church herself, "weakened and corrupted by temporal concerns and political power struggles (Musa, 77)." This may certainly have been one of Dante's multilayered meanings, but is not necessarily the only allegory.

The old man is mentioned as Virgil and Dante enter the Burning Sands after the Wood of the Suicides in Hell. These two rings are reserved for those violent against the Self (suicides), God (blasphemers), Nature (Sodomites) and Art (usurers). The iron foot is described in Daniel as that metal that "breaks to pieces and shatters all things…it crushes (Daniel 2:40)." Iron is the element associated with weaponry and war - a violent element appropriate to the circle of the violent. Clay, often used as a symbol for man's human frailty, may be one answer to the riddle of the right foot. The people in Hell fell because they relied on their own flawed humanity rather than the divine providence or intellect, which the unshattered golden head may symbolize.

We must remember that the old man is not actually in Hell, although he is mentioned there. He is buried beneath a mountain, but resides on earth. The statue, referred to as an "old man" and not merely as an image or structure, may also be an allegory for every man. His head, the intellect or the soul, is golden, protected and guided by God. The chest and the arms are of silver, perhaps symbolizing the disparity between our intent and our actions: the one is never fully realized by the other. The torso and the hips are of bronze, a sort of pseudo-gold if polished, a moldy green if left unattended. This may show man's carnal tendencies and debasement through original sin. One leg is of iron, proving man's violent nature, and the other of clay, indicating man's weakened humanity. This cracked statue is weeping bloody tears; perhaps Christ's redemptive blood or the wounds of original and perpetuated sin.

The orientation of the man is not insignificant. Dante tells us, "Toward Damietta he keeps his shoulders holden,/And he looks on Rome as though on a looking-glass (Canto XIV, ln. 104-105)." Damietta was an important Egyptian seaport, and Rome is still the seat of Catholic culture. The two may be viewed as the dichotomy between the east and the west, or as the struggle between the pagan and the Christian worlds. It may also be a differentiation between the old Empire and the new, the ancient and the modern eras. Since Moses came from Egypt, and Christ is the fulfillment of the Mosaic law, the man may be looking ever towards Christ as through towards the new Promised Land ("out of Egypt I called my son [Hosea 11:1]"). The "looking-glass" or "mirror" image of Rome to the statue may represent Dante's vision of the Church (of variegated metals, correspondent to the Pauline man's role in the Church in first Corinthians [1 Cor. 12:12-28]), or as what fallen man ought to be and to reflect (the glory and splendor of the Church).

Through all of these Christian metaphors, one must not lose sight of the use of Greco-Roman mythological symbols. Three of the four rivers of Hades stem from this odd statue. Technically, the old man is located beneath Mount Ida on Crete, a "waste Country" where the many springs are "forsaken now, like some old, mouldering thing (Canto XIV, ln 94-95, 99)." Crete, once ruled by Minos who in Dante sends people to the various places in Hell (Canto V), is an image of our own wasteland lives, or difficult journey to the Father amidst sin and temptation. The reference to Rhea, the wife of Saturn (Canto XIV, ln. 100-102), covertly giving birth to Jupiter may be analogous to Revelation Twelve's account of Christ's birth.

The three rivers flowing from the old man are the Acheron, the Styx and the Phlegethon. Virgil's Aeneid explores the geography of these lakes more than Homer or any of the Greek poets ever did (Hamilton, 39). According to Virgil, the Acheron, or the river of woe, leads to Cocytus, the river or (in Dante) pool of lamentation (where Satan is fixed). Charon ferries the dead over the Acheron in both the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy. The Styx is the river by which the gods swear, the river of the unbreakable oath. Dante changes this stream to a marsh for the wrathful (Canto VII, ln. 106). Phlegethon is the river of fire, brought into the fourteenth canto of the Inferno by a rivulet of blood in the circle of the violent (Canto XIV, ln. 89-90). Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, is located at the top of Mount Purgatory.

The make-up of the old man also has root in classical mythology, namely Ovid's ages in the Metamorphoses: golden, silver, bronze and iron. The comparison here obviously leaves out the all-important clay. Dante may be extending his allegory of the "old man" as a symbol for "every man" by showing how in Ovid's reckoning the statue would have been cut short from his supportive leg. Similarly, should we follow the great classical minds who are in the first circle, Limbo (Canto IV), because they relied on their own intellect and believed in their own perfectibility, so the image of man according to their standards would have resembled Nebuchadnezzar's shattered statue, minus a clay leg. God, in His wisdom, gives us the grace of His providence and intellect (the unharmed golden head) and allows us the gift of our humanity (cracked by Adam but renewed by the blood of the Lamb) upon which we may rest.

Together, the classical and the Biblical explanations give us a fuller image of this old man described in the fourteenth canto of the Inferno. Man is flawed at his base, but still redeemable through Christ. Like the statue is an image of man, so man is an image of Christ. Although we may have lost His likeness through original sin, and thus become made of corrupted metals rather than pure gold, yet we retain the imago Dei.

What is a man? Is he purely gold or silver, bronze, iron or clay? He is all and none of these. He is made of clay and dust, and through grace may eventually become gold, but he is not self-perfectible. He is not purely one or another element except through God. Man is called to be humble before his God, to recognize that he is corrupted, that he is weak and flawed. He must turn his back from Egypt to Rome, from his old ways to the ways of Christ, and like Dante make the journey through the rivers of Hell in order to reach the fourth river atop Purgatory and from there to enter the Heavenly Kingdom.

The image of man is an image of conversion, utterly suitable to the allegory of conversion that is every man's Divine Comedy.

1. Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Trans. Dorothy Sayers. (England: Penguin Books, © 1949.)

2. God. Ignatius Bible. Imprimatur Bishop Peter W. Bartholome. (United States of America: Ignatius Press, © 1966.)

3. Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. (New York: Little, Brown & Company, © 1969.)

4. Musa, Mark. The Portable Dante. (New York: Penguin Books, © 1984.)


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Updated 13 June, 2000
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