Imagery and Allegory in Dante: A Virgilian Perspective

Dante's portrayal of Hell in the Inferno is an undisputed masterpiece of visual and allegorical imagery, enriched not only by extensive use of figurative language, but by concrete physical descriptions as well. Perhaps the most interesting display of Dante's skill in combining these sensory and metaphorical elements occurs in Canto XIV: here, as the two figures cross over a river encased in stone, Virgil recounts to the Pilgrim, in stunning detail, the story of the statue, buried in Mount Ida on the island of Crete, whose falling tears form the waters for the three rivers of the Underworld. In the course of the guide's narration, the reader, who is first confronted and captivated by powerful geographical images, gradually becomes aware of the underlying allegorical interpretation, and realizes that the scenes portrayed here tell the story of the Fall of Man and his subsequent misery on earth. The speaker, though, is neither Dante nor the Pilgrim, but Virgil, and the effect on the reader of this shift in perspective is indeed the most fascinating aspect of the passage: not only is Dante using Virgil, in Bloomian terms, to authenticate his own creation, but the emotions which Virgil himself conveys to the reader heighten the feeling of suspense, amazement, and appreciation of the work as a whole.

There are two distinct portions of the story Virgil recounts to the Pilgrim in this passage; yet a third image comes from the landscape surrounding the two as they talk. In all three sections, the pictures painted by the poets are geographically and topologically defined, with concrete depictions of the surroundings and a well-focused center. The river, for instance, which the figures use as a pathway through the deserted landscape, is at first seen through its environment, and its origins are specified. Dante then draws a comparison to a similar river in Italy; this concrete image, though not helpful for the modern reader, would have been significant to Dante's contemporaries. Finally, then, Dante describes the river itself, with its encasement of stone, and reveals its function for the travelers as a bridge or a path which they will follow:

 Without exchanging words we reached a place
where a narrow stream came gushing from the woods
(its reddish water still runs fear through me!);
Like the one that issues from the Bulicame,
whose waters are shared by prostitutes downstream,
it wore its way across the desert sand.
This river's bed and banks were made of stone,
so were the tops on both its sides; and then
I understood this was our way across. (ll. 76-84)

At first, this picture is much like any other that occurs in Dante's work: a strange and foreign landscape is depicted in words that make it partially comprehensible to the human reader, but the portrayal retains its haunting and disturbing imagery. Upon reading farther, however, the focus of the picture here sharpens, and we see, as Virgil states, how the stream winds its way along, "extinguishing the flames above its path" (l. 90). The color of the river, then, corresponds to its effect on the surroundings: in driving away these flames, the river seems to sublimate them and take on their characteristic redness.

A striking remark, though, is revealed at the end of Virgil's narration: this river is composed, in fact, not of water, but of the tears which fall from the statue in Mt. Ida on Crete. With this revelation, Virgil's portrayal of the scene makes an emotional appeal to the reader by allegorical means. The color of these tears is red, recalling an image of blood: possibly this is the very blood that pours out of the statue's heart, either in pity or in pain for the sins that have destroyed the race of man; alternatively, the red river is an allegory for the suffering of Christ for mankind's sins. Also, as Virgil explains, the single stream seen here is destined to separate and become the three famous rivers of Hell -- one of many tripartite appearances, perversions of the Holy Trinity, that are mentioned throughout the Divine Comedy. As such, Dante's characterization of the stream as "gushing" out of the forest gains credibility, for the force required to power three distinct rivers must necessarily be tremendous, even to the limits of human comprehension.

The imagery in Dante's scene painting here is unquestionably moving; it dwindles, however, in comparison to the strength of the descriptions laid out by Virgil. In the scenes the guide sets before the Pilgrim, the master poet creates not only a still-life in words, but tells the story that accompanies the image. The first picture Virgil paints, namely of Crete and Mount Ida, is concrete and defined, far beyond the scope of Dante's vision. Names are given, and the island is placed "in the middle of the sea." The scenery Virgil creates there is superlative: what was once a lush paradise of greenery and warmth is now a cold and abandoned desert. In both cases, however, the presentation is methodical, touching, and vivid, complete with personification, allegory, and simile:

 "In the middle of the sea there lies a wasteland,"
he immediately began, "that is known as Crete,
under whose king the world knew innocence.
There is a mountain there that was called Ida;
then happy in its verdure and its streams,
now deserted like an old, discarded thing ..." ( ll. 94-99)

Truly, there was never a more enchanting allegory for the Garden of Eden. Why exactly Dante has chosen Crete as the symbol for paradise lost is unclear, but the focus of the picture here is as sharp as can be. The world of mankind "knew innocence" before the Fall, when Eden was still a fruitful pasture; now, however, the island is a wasteland, deserted by God and man alike: a metaphor here perhaps for Palestine or for other ancient deserts which figure in Christian mythology. Even the name "Ida" could be seen as an allusion to "Eden," though in the original Italian the similarity may not be as great as in the English.

The next section of Virgil's narration presents anew the impressive allegorical imagination of Dante and, by extension, of his guide. The inclusion, however, of the story of Rhea and the young Jupiter seems at first puzzling: why indeed should Dante bring pagan lore into what is obviously a Christian allegory? Upon closer examination, though, the story of Rhea exhibits a remarkable number of similarities to the actions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: both women try to hide from the father-figure in an attempt to conceal what would surely anger him. In Rhea's case, the object hidden is her son Jupiter, who would otherwise be eaten by the father Saturn; Eve, on the other hand, tries to deny her own sin and carnal knowledge, newly-acquired through the eating of the apple. The difference, however, in this perversion of the 'true' event, is that Rhea succeeds in her seclusion of Jupiter, whereas Eve, as illustrated by the allegory, is destined forever to fall short.

The final, most captivating use of imagery by Virgil occurs in the description of the ancient statue that stands deep within Mount Ida. This scene is certainly one of the most detailed word paintings in the Inferno, and its allegorical interpretation, though often obscure and shielded in allusion, is explained in large part in the "Notes" provided in the Musa translation. Once again, the picture which forms in the reader's mind is precise, well-ordered, and moving: this reaction is due primarily to Virgil's exquisite use of concrete physical representation mixed with the emotional imagery of falling tears:

 In the mountain's core an ancient man stands tall;
he has his shoulder turned towards Damietta
and faces Rome as though it were his mirror.
His head is fashioned of the finest gold;
pure silver are his arms and hands and chest;
from there to where his legs spread, he is brass;
the rest of him is all of chosen iron,
except his right foot which is terra cotta;
he puts more weight on this foot than the other.
Every part of him, except the gold, is broken
by a fissure dripping tears down to his feet,
where they collect to erode the cavern's rock ... ( ll. 103-114)

It seems that Virgil forgets nothing in this passage: the placement of the man in the "core" of the mountain, his stance and demeanor ("his legs spread"), and even his slight leaning to the right form an unforgettable image in the mind of every reader. Significantly, however, this physical representation is not left to rest alone. Instead, Virgil includes the pain and misery of the statue, broken as he is by "a fissure dripping tears down to his feet," which evokes a moving and powerful image of the weeping sinner bemoaning his fate.

In addition to Musa's knowledgeable interpretation of the statue as a symbol for the Fall of Man, in which the progression from gold to silver to brass represents the degeneration of mankind's moral standards, I would suggest that the fissure here, which breaks the man apart and causes him such pain, is a representation of sin itself: indeed, the golden head of the statue (Man before the Fall) remains untouched by this fissure, and it is only the lower parts of his body which succumb to the chasm of sin.

The final imagery that appears in this passage is also the most powerful emotional appeal from Virgil to his companion. Here he tries to communicate to the Pilgrim a scene that is indescribable, almost unimaginable for mortal beings. In so doing he is forced resort to images beyond the range of human sensation: the river of tears that falls from the fissure in the statue continues its descent into hell, dividing into the three celebrated waters; they make their way down, the guide states, "until they fall to where all falling ends: they form Cocytus." (ll. 118-119). Portraying as it does an image beyond the capabilities of human imagination -- for Cocytus is the very pit of Hell -- the imagery of Virgil here is understandably no longer as solidly topological or geometric as it was in the more terrestrial scenes. Nonetheless, Virgil's attempted grasp at the intangible succeeds, and the Pilgrim, along with his readers, begins to comprehend the final destiny of the stone-encased river whose path the two poets follow.

Throughout the descriptions presented here, it is vitally important that identity of the speaker be kept in mind. The effect of the shift in perspective from the Pilgrim to Virgil marks not only the entry into a more instructive and symbolic world of meaning, but the creative hand of a master poet as well. Dante's intention in displaying these images through the eyes and mouth of Virgil relates clearly to the Bloomian concept of kenosis -- the renowned poet Virgil takes over part of Dante's task, and in so doing lends his support and authenticity to the claims made by Dante. Whether Dante relies on Virgil for poetical inspiration or for authentication of his own ideas, the effect is the same, and the influence of Virgil leaves an unmistakable imprint on Dante's visual and allegorical imagery.

In addition to the Bloomian distinctions of authentication, however, Virgil's identity as the spirit of a dead poet lends credence to the passage as a whole. As a soul bereft of worldly life, even if confined to the Underworld, Virgil is capable of understanding the surrounding events and scenes in a way that the Pilgrim, a living being, is not. In addition, Virgil has, as a poet, the capability to express and explain these occurrences through the vehicle of language, and, since he was himself once human, he can communicate his knowledge in a manner that other humans (Dante, the Pilgrim, and the reader as well) will understand. What is described by the Pilgrim, then, is confirmed by the comments of Virgil, and, in the process, the credibility and reliability of Dante's observations are greatly increased.

The narrative perspective of Virgil creates yet another reaction in the reader, however, as well as in the Pilgrim. In the passage just before his account of the island of Crete and the ancient statue there, Virgil points out the river which the Pilgrim has observed, and declares with great solemnity:

 Among the other marvels I have shown you,
from the time we made our entrance through the gate
whose threshold welcomes every evil soul,
your eyes have not discovered anything
as remarkable as this stream you see here
extinguishing the flames above its path. ( ll. 85-90)

These words of wonderment and awe come, significantly, from one who has "seen it all," in a certain sense, yet still finds this river one of the most moving sights in Hell -- quite a claim, to be sure. The consequences of Virgil's statement, then, both for the Pilgrim and for the interested reader, are twofold. An appetite awakens, as Dante cleverly states -- an urge to discover the fascinating details that lie behind the scenes. More importantly, though, the emotions that Virgil reveals alter the reader's own perception of events, increasing the awe, amazement, and pity which inevitably follow from such rich imagery and allegory. Virgil's speech whets the Pilgrim's appetite for knowledge and understanding, but his promise is not an empty one: his explanations satisfy the resulting desire for enlightenment, and reflect Dante's success in combining powerful allegorical language with beautifully vibrant visual imagery.

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1992 for Literature 10a at Pomona College.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Imagery and Allegory in Dante: A Virgilian Perspective." Website Article. 9 December 1992. <>.