Fine Art Gallery
Japanese Artist and Sculptor
London Artist and Sculptor: Japanese Woodcut Print Galleries

London Artist and Sculptor: Japanese Woodcut Print Galleries

Fine Art Gallery Website: La Commedia

La Commedia is a series of sixty black and white woodcut prints based on Dante’s Divine Comedy by a London artist and sculptor Tsugumi Ota. They were produced between September 1992 and October 1994, and the La Commedia exhibition including sculptures was first shown at Collins Gallery, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow in 1996; and thereafter toured to Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum and Manor House Gallery (a part of Bradford City Galleries). These striking images came about after a long research into European and Eastern religions and mythology along with the artist’s personal journey, which still continues.

Tsugumi Ota on La Commedia

I remember having a dream many years ago of walking into a valley with numerous uncovered tombs with a tall man as a guide. The winding path spiralled down into a chasm where a strange ritual was taking place. I was amazed by the number of tombs: “so many that I wondered how death could have undone so great a number”. (The Divine Comedy: Hell trans. Mark Musa)

There is a point in one’s life (not just an artist’s life) when one wants to do something out of sheer necessity. Dante had Virgil as his guide, and I had Dante as mine. Armed with two English translations (one with a parallel text) I set out on my personal quest.

The greatest literary work such as La Commedia can be read on many different levels, so my personal Dante may not appeal to someone who is keen on the political history of Italy or medieval theology. The scale, in addition to the remote and obscure details, can be too hard to relate to. However, I believe La Commedia still has not lost its power to move us.

Essentially our human nature hasn’t changed a bit since Dante’s days, although we are supposed to know things like heaven and hell do not exist. They do still exist: in our minds. For instance, we never seem to be free from all those emotions within us. Omar Khayyam wrote in his Rubaiyat:

I sent my Soul through the invisible, Some Letter of that After-life to spell:And by and by my Soul returned to me, And answered “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell”

                                                           (trans. E. Fitzgerald)

Our seemingly convenient modern technological life takes us further and further away from our true selves. How often do we find ourselves lost in the Dark Wood? La Commedia is a vast landscape of our psyche to be explored.

Dante wrote La Commedia in his native Florentine vernacular: my commedia is, I hope, in the same visual vernacular vein. I’ve dropped the word ‘divine’ anyhow, as it was originally called just “La Commedia”.

                                                         Tsugumi Ota, February 1996

Woodcut-la Commedia 1. The Dark Wood La Commedia1. The Dark Wood
from Inferno, Canto I

Midway through our life (“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”) I awoke to find myself lost in the middle of the Dark Wood: recalls Dante in the famous opening canto of The Divine Comedy. His old fear is there to prevent him from finding a way out.He doesn’t yet know that this is the call to the Journey, which is supposed to have taken place over Easter in 1300.The opening line is seen above the image of Dante in the Dark Wood.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 3. Virgil the Guide La Commedia 3. Virgil the Guide
from Inferno, Canto 1
Back in the Dark Wood, the spirit of the great Roman poet Virgil appears to Dante. The author of The Aeneid has been brought back from Limbo through the tearful pleading of Beatrice, the true love of Dante’s who died young. She, in Heaven, has found out about the pitiful state Dante is in. Virgil is to be Dante’s guide for the first part of the journey: Hell.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 4. The Gate to Hell La Commedia 4. The Gate to Hell
from Inferno, Canto III

The only way to Dante’s salvation transpires to be through the descent into Hell. Terrified, Dante cowers. Virgil smiles at him reassuringly, placing his hand on Dante’s. Led by Virgil, Dante enters the gate of Hell, which carries the famous inscription “Abandon hope, all ye enter!”

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Woodcut-La Commedia 10. Sheilding from the Medusa La Commedia 10. Sheilding from the Medusa
from Inferno, Canto IX
At the gate of the infernal city of Dis, the Three Furies and the Medusa confront the poets and refuse their entry. Being a pagan, Virgil shields Dante’s eyes from the Medusa lest she should turn him into stone.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 11. The Angel helps open the Gate La Commedia 11. The Angel helps open the Gate
from Inferno, Canto IX
Virgil, who represents Reason, cannot have the gate of Dis opened. The angel - the help from the Divine Grace - arrives in time like a ray of light briefly penetrating the eternal darkness to make the gate opened.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 12. The Minotaur La Commedia 12. The Minotaur
from Inferno, Canto XII
Surprising number of characters in Hell are taken from classical mythology. It is partly to do with their archetypal roles. The Minotaur of Crete, the Animal-man, might be a symbol of the conflict between Nature and Man within us. In this upper part of Lower Hell violence is the cause of punishments. Violence is seen by Dante as the animal nature in man. Here the lone Minotaur gnaws himself in violent rage on the edge of the ravine. Dante and Virgil run past him without being noticed.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 17. Geryon carries Dante and Virgil La Commedia 17. Geryon carries Dante and Virgil
from Inferno, canto XVII
As Dante and Virgil approach the waterfall, its noise is deafening. Here the river of boiling blood cascades down the cliff. Another Animal-man monster carries the poet down a spiral descent into the next circle of Hell. Geryon has an honest man’s face with a scorpion’s tail. Virgil sits behind Dante to make sure he won’t be stung.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 19. Oneness with the Guide La Commedia 18. The Simonists
from Inferno, Canto XIX
Here in the holes in the rock the Simonists (corrupt religious leaders, named after Simon Magus) are burnt upside down: only their legs are visible. Pope Nicholas III awaits Boniface VIII. Virgil carries Dante on his back.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 19. Oneness with the Guide La Commedia 19. Oneness with the Guide
from Inferno, Canto XXIII
Chased by the Malebranche Devils, Virgil grabs Dante as a mother would her child. They slide down the rocky slope together to the next circle of Hell. Dante lets himself go to be at one with the Guide.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 20. Thieves' Metamorphosis La Commedia 20. Thieves' Metamorphosis
from Inferno, Canto XXIV - XXV
The fantastic transformation of the Thieves into snakes, and the snakes back into the Thieves fascinates Dante. The serpent is a traditional pre-Christian symbol of the mystery of death and rebirth: here it symbolises metamorphosis.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 21. Ulysees in the Flame La Commedia 21. Ulysees in the Flame
from Inferno, Canto XXVI
The Athenian warriors Ulysees (Odysseus) and Diomed burn together in the flame amongst the Deceivers. Dante grieves over the vast misuse of human talent. In Dante’s version, after Troy, Ulysees and his men managed to sail past the Pillars of Hercules to the Atlantic and almost reached the island of Mount Purgatory. However, they all perished in a shipwreck because of their lack of faith in God.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 22. Sowers of Schism La Commedia 22. Sowers of Schism
from Inferno, Canto XXVIII
A lot of mutilation takes place here to punish the Sowers of Schism. The sinners go round the circle, being torn to pieces. When they get back to where they started, their bodies are whole again. Among those present are Mahomet and Ali, mistaken by medieval Christians to be Christian heretics.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 31. Carried by Lucia La Commedia 31. Carried by Lucia
from Purgatorio, Canto IX
The poets spend their first night (of three spent in Purgatory) in the Valley of the Princes, as they cannot climb Mount Purgatory in the dark. Lucia (St. Lucy) carries Dante up the slope as he sleeps. Dante has a dream of being carried by an eagle: a dream of Ganymede.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 35. Second Terrace - The Envious La Commedia 35. Second Terrace - The Envious
from Purgatorio, CantoXIII
The eyes of the Envious have been stitched shut with iron thread as they used to do to the untrained falcons. They all stand against the bank like a beggar, supporting with each other in a pitiful manner. Wearing cloaks made of hair-cloth, they merge into the stony background. They are made to listen to voices telling them about kindness.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 36. Third Terrace - The Wrathful La Commedia 36. Third Terrace - The Wrathful
from Purgatorio, Canto XVI
In the blinding cloud of smoky darkness the angry voice of Marco Lombardo speaks to the poets about human degeneracy and corruption. He vents his feeling about the lack of good leadership both in the Church and in the State.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 37. Fourth Terrace - Virgil's Discource on Love La Commedia 37. Fourth Terrace - Virgil's Discource on Love
from Purgatorio, Canto XVII - XVIII
The night is about to fall as the poets arrive at the fourth terrace. Virgil gives Dante a discourse on the nature of love, which relates to the last (seventh) terrace of Purgatory. The Slothful run around in the background. Tired from climbing, Dante falls asleep to have a dream of the Siren.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 38. Fifth Terrace - Statius released La Commedia 38. Fifth Terrace - Statius released
from Purgatorio, Canto XXI
All of a sudden Mount Purgatory is shaken by what seems to be an earthquake, and Statius, the soul of a pagan poet, is released from his purgation of prodigality. Here on the fifth terrace all the souls lay face down on the ground for avarice and prodigality. Statius is the guide to Dante and Virgil from now on to the Earthly Paradise.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 39. Sixth Terrace - The Inverted Tree La Commedia 39. Sixth Terrace - The Inverted Tree
from Purgatorio, Canto XXIV
The upside-down tree on the sixth terrace is laden with fragrant fruit, which the emaciated Gluttons cannot reach to pick. It is in fact the offshoot of the famous Tree of the Garden of Eden.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 40. Seventh Terrace - Dante enters the Fire La Commedia 40. Seventh Terrace - Dante enters the Fire
from Purgatorio, Canto XXVII
On the terrace of the Lustful, the final one, Virgil coaxes frightened Dante to enter the flame: “Look, my son, only this wall separates Beatrice and you.” Dante follows Virgil into the fire. Although the heat feels tremendous, Dante is not burnt. Virgil keeps on talking to Dante about Beatrice’s beautiful eyes to give him assurance.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 41. The Dream of the Third Night La Commedia 41. The Dream of the Third Night
from Purgatorio, Canto XXVII
Dante, Virgil and Statius spend their last night on the steps just below the Earthly Paradise.Dante has a dream of Rachel and Leah. They are said to represent Beatrice and Matelda, a maiden who appears to Dante by the stream in the Earthly Paradise. However, Leah may also represent Dante’s wife as opposed to Rachel / Beatrice, his true love. Rachel with beautiful eyes looks into the mirror she is holding.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 44. Beatrice unveils for Dante La Commedia 44. Beatrice unveils for Dante
from purgatorio, Canto XXXI
The maiden Matelda leads Dante into the water of Lethe to be closer to Beatrice. Coaxed by the dancing maidens, Beatrice unveils for Dante at last in a splendour more akin to a pagan goddess: “ Turn, Beatrice, turn your sacred eyes,” they sang, “and look upon your faithful one who came so very far to look at you!” (trans: Mark Musa)

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Woodcut-la Commedia 45. Dante's Rebirth La Commedia 45. Dante's Rebirth
from purgatorio, Canto XXXIII
Guided by Matelda, Dante crosses the stream of Eunoe, the spring of Life near its source, to be cleansed and ready to embark on the final part of his journey of discovery: “from those holiest waters I returned to her new born, a tree renewed, in bloom with newborn foliage, immaculate, eager to rise, now ready for the stars”. (trans: Mark Musa)

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Woodcut-la Commedia 46. Dante recounts (and I draw) la Commedia 46. Dante recounts (and I draw)
from Paradiso, Canto I
Paradiso opens with Dante back in the world of living, reminiscing his inconceivable and ineffable experiences in Paradise. However, he is totally ambiguous even about whether he has been physically there or not. He invokes Apollo for the poetic power to write down what he has seen. Behind him is the map of the medieval world Dante lived in and the figure on the left is the artist drawing a portrait of Dante. The Italian word ‘paradiso’ comes from ‘paradaeza’ in Persian, which means garden.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 48. The Sphere of the Moon La Commedia 48. The Sphere of the Moon
from Paradiso, Canto III
The Moon, the eternal celestial pearl, takes Dante and Beatrice in. Dante talks to two female spirits, one of whom is his friend’s sister: Piccarda Donati, and the Empress Constance. The images become increasingly abstract from here.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 5. The Cowards and the Doomed Souls La Commedia 5. The Cowards and the Doomed Souls
from Inferno, Canto III
At the entrance of Hell the boatman Charon herds the damned souls to board his boat to cross the River Acheron. Meanwhile countless souls of the Cowards, who didn’t respond to the important calls in life and never truly lived, aimlessly chase a banner: “so many that I wondered how death could have undone so great a number” (trans: Mark Musa). They are repeatedly stung by the wasps and hornets, which circle them.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 49. The Sphere of Mercury La Commedia 49. The Sphere of Mercury
from paradiso, Canto V
The brilliance of Beatrice’s beauty adds further splendour to the Sphere of Mercury. The smiling spirits move toward Dante and Beatrice like shoals of fish in water. They are luminous with joy.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 50. The Sphere of Venus La Commedia 50. The Sphere of Venus
from Paradiso, Canto Viii
Every time they move into a higher sphere, Beatrice becomes more and more radiant and beautiful. The lights (spirits) revolve and dance while Dante talks to Charles Martel, the first son of Charles V of Anjou, who once became an intimate friend of Dante in Florence.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 51. The Sphere of the Sun La Commedia 51. The Sphere of the Sun
from Paradiso, Canto X
In the Sphere of the Sun, Dante and Beatrice are surrounded by the spirits of learning and wisdom. Thomas Aquinas introduces other spirits to Dante and they all sing and dance with joy, circling Dante and Beatrice. The imagery of the young girls dancing used by Dante here is highly sensual.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 52. The Sphere of Mars La Commedia 52. The Sphere of Mars
from Paradiso, Canto XIV

Dante has a fleeting vision of Christ on the cross. These ready-made images are, in a way, subsidiary to Dante’s personal visions. He also talks to his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida, who died during the Second Crusade. Beatrice’s eyes reflecting the Divine Love fill Dante with rapturous joy, but he still cannot see the divine light directly.

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Woodcut-la Commedia 53. The Sphere of Jupiter La Commedia 53. The Sphere of Jupiter
from Paradiso, Canto XVIII
In the Sphere of Jupiter, Dante sees the lights turn first into some letters of the verses of the Book of Wisdom, and then sees a letter ”M” made of stars turn into a giant eagle (a somewhat contrived image of the Divine Justice).

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Woodcut-La Commedia 6. The Great Poets in Limbo La Commedia 6. The Great Poets in Limbo
from Inferno, Canto IV
In the darkness of Hell only Limbo is lit up by the greatness of men including Virgil, who are here permanently simply because they were born before Christ and did not come in contact of his teaching. Dante meets some of his mentors: Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Though delighted in meeting the great pagan poets, Dante is distressed by their undeserved fate.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 7. The Lovers La Commedia 7. The Lovers
from Inferno, Canto V
The infernal storm sweeps and drives the Lovers into the eternal whirl of darkness. Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Dido and Paris are all here. Dante speaks to Francesca da Rimini, his famous contemporary, who fell in love with her husband’s brother Paolo Malatesta. They met their death together by the hand of her husband and are inseparable in Hell.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 9. Crossing the Styx La Commedia 9. Crossing the Styx
from Inferno. Canto VIII
The wrathful tear each other violently in the swamps of the Styx while Dante and Virgil get across the river aboard a boat steered by Phlegyas. The infernal city of Dis with a lighthouse, perhaps based on the one in Alexandria, in the distance is their destination. This is in the area of Lower Hell as opposed to Upper Hell, which the poets have been through.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 15. Capaneus Defiant La Commedia 15. Capaneus Defiant
from Inferno, Canto XIV

It is curious to see Capaneus a pagan, who blasphemed against Jupiter and was struck by the thunderbolt as the sole representative of the Blasphemers. Lying in the bed of burning sand, he is constantly hit by thunderbolts in the shower of fire. William Blake had much sympathy for Capaneous, whose defiance appealed to him.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 16. Three Florentines on the Burning Sand La Commedia 16. Three Florentines on the Burning Sand
from Inferno, Canto XVI
The three shades recognise Dante’s Florentine accent and beg for some news of the city while running around in a circle on the burning sand. They are the souls of distinguished Florentines.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 28. Casella La Commedia 28. Casella
from Purgatorio, Canto II
Dante shouts ”Casella mio!” when he sees the newly arrived soul from his hometown Florence. In life Dante’s friend Casella was a well-known singer who composed melodies for Dante’s verses and sang them. Dante tries in vain to embrace Casella three times only to find out the soul has no body. The mood is a light-hearted and human one as opposed to the dark and terrifying in Hell.

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Woodcut-La Commedia30. The Valley of the Princes La Commedia 30. The Valley of the Princes
from Purgatorio, Canto VII - VII
Virgil in Purgatory becomes more and more like Dante’s fellow traveller than a guide, as the former has never been to Purgatory. This signifies the limitation of Reason Virgil represents. Therefore, they have to acquire some temporary guides as they progress. Here the poet Sordello guides them to the Valley of the Princes, where all seemingly worthy religious actions are vacuous rituals. A serpent appears and two angels chase it away with broken swords (impotent nature of church rituals?) while the souls sing hymns. Night falls.

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Woodcutt-La Commedia 32. At the Gate of Purgatory La Commedia 32. At the Gate of Purgatory
from Purgatorio, Canto IX
At the gate of Purgatory Dante becomes a penitent. The angel who guards the gate traces seven Ps (stands for “peccatum”: sin) on Dante’s forehead with the tip of his sword, symbolising the Seven Deadly Sins. These letters will be erased one by one as he completes the circling of each terrace.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 33. Second Terrace - The Envious La Commedia 33.First Terrace - The Proud
from Purgatorio, Canto XI
On the first terrace the Proud carry heavy stones on their back, which make their progress very slow. There are scenes from the stories on humility along the white marble wall, which catch Dante’s eye. Bent double by the heavy weight, the penitents keep their eyes down to see the images of the Proud carved on the pavement. Dante feels one day he will return here.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 42. Reaching the Earthly Paradise La Commedia 42. Reaching the Earthly Paradise
from Purgatorio, Canto XXVII
Virgil says to Dante as he wakes up to the final ascent to the Earthly Paradise: “That precious fruit which all men eagerly go searching for on many different boughs will give, today, peace to your hungry soul!” (trans: Mark Musa) As they leave the steep and arduous climb behind, Virgil makes his final speech: "From here on let your pleasure be your guide. --- I crown and mitre you lord of yourself.” (trans: as above) To this artist, this is one of the most beautiful and moving moments in La Commedia.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 43. Beatrice admonishes Dante La Commedia 43. Beatrice admonishes Dante
from Purgatorio, Canto XXX
Dante wanders around the Earthly Paradise, taking in the fragrant air and marvelling at the beautiful trees and the lovely flowers. He comes to a stream where he can go no further. On the other bank his true love Beatrice on a chariot drawn by a griffin appears in a solemn procession. Dante turns to Virgil to tell him how overwhelming this re-encounter is: but Virgil has gone. Dante breaks down and cries like an abandoned child, while Beatrice on the other shore of the River Lethe sternly upbraids him for his straying from the path of Truth.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 47. The Departure with Beatrice La Commedia 47. The Departure with Beatrice
from Paradiso, Canto II
Back in the Earthly Paradise Beatrice is now Dante’s guide. Beatrice is Sophia: the embodiment of wisdom, but she is still a woman Dante loved and wrote Vita Nuova for; which makes La Commedia so personal and unique. He is empowered by his old love, and, now reunited, Beatrice’s smiling eyes make him feel stronger to carry on with his journey. Paradiso is the ultimate fulfilment of Dante’s love for Beatrice. It is very easy to be bogged down by the dogmatic content of Paradiso which seems to be so alien to us today, but we must not forget it is “love which moves the sun and other stars”: the last line of Paradiso. Dante turns his gaze on Beatrice and she on Heaven. Before he knows how, he finds himself surrounded by bright light.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 55. The Sphere of the Fixed Stars La Commedia 55. The Sphere of the Fixed Stars
from Paradiso, Canto XXII
Beatrice shows Dante the earth through the seven spheres, which they left behind only a little time ago. Dante is astonished by the huge distance he has travelled with Beatrice, and he also sees other constellations including the Gemini: his own sign of the Zodiac. The vision of the Triumph of Christ in this sphere gives Dante strength to look straight into Beatrice’s face. A tender image of the Virgin Mary overlaps with that of Beatrice.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 56. Primum Mobile - Finding the Centre La Commedia 56. Primum Mobile - Finding the Centre
from Paradiso, Canto XXVIII
Beatrice’s gaze takes Dante into the ninth sphere, Primum Mobile. Here he discovers that his seemingly outward journey away from the Earth is, in fact, in reverse: to his astonishment he is now near the very centre of the universe. The nine circling glowing spheres belong to the different orders of angels. As Beatrice points out, all the different spheres or the orders of angels are merely different levels of consciousness.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 57. Empyrean - Drinking from the River of Light La Commedia 57. Empyrean - Drinking from the River of Light
from Paradiso, Canto XXX
At last Dante arrives at the Empyrean, and Beatrice announces “ We have gone beyond from the greatest sphere to the heaven of pure light” (trans: Mark Musa). With his increasing strength of vision Dante bends over to see the River of Light flowing between the banks edged by bright flowers. Flashing light darts between the flowers.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 58. In the Celestial Rose La Commedia 58. In the Celestial Rose
from Paradiso, Canto XXXI
As Dante’s takes in the River of Light with his eyes, it turns into an enormous luminous white rose. The darting lights are, in fact, angels. The linear and masculine images of some of the previous cantos are replaced by a feminine womb-like image of the flower. In the Celestial Rose, Beatrice takes her seat near the Virgin Mary. St. Bernard, the main instigator of the cult of the Virgin takes over the role of the guide. St. Bernard praises the Virgin Mary for being the embodiment of Love.  Beatrice smiles at Dante one last time, as he addresses her in the familiar form - first time in the story - as the woman he loves.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 59. Seeing (Our) True Nature La Commedia 59. Seeing (Our) True Nature
from Paradiso, Canto XXXIII
Dante fixes his gaze on the Eternal Light. He cannot make out the vision however hard he tries. At last when his effort fails, like a flash, the true insight arrives. He sees nothing but our own true nature: God within. The vision is a personal one, yet it is universal.

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Woodcut-La Commedia 60. One La Commedia 60. One
from Paradiso, Canto XXXIII
La Commedia ends with an image of a revolving circle echoed in the rhythm of the last line: “L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” – “by the love that moves the sun and the other stars” (trans: Mark Musa). The journey is a full circle completed by returning to one’s own true self.

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