From Virile Woman to Womanchrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature

By Barbara Newman | Go to book overview

4.On the Threshold of the Dead: Purgatory, Hell, and Religious Women

Tanto giù cadde, che tutti argomenti alla salute sua eran già corti, fuor che mostrarli le perdute genti, Per questo visitai l'uscio de' morti, e a colui che l'ha qua su condotto li preghi miei, piangendo, furon porti.1

-- Purgatorio 30.136-41

In the middle of the way from the savage wood to the face of God, at the summit of purgatory, on the threshold of heaven, Beatrice reminds Dante of another threshold long since crossed. Like Persephone, like Isis, like Inanna, she once "visited the threshold of the dead." A blessed spirit, she has walked among the lost. Descending from the throne of joy, she has offered up prayers with tears. By this means alone is Dante saved, as indeed he already knows. Virgil had given him courage to embark on his journey with the news that "three such blessed ladies / care for you in the court of heaven."2 Now, having completed his tour of purgatory by doing penance for his own sins, Dante is freed by Beatrice and another lady, Matelda, who baptizes him in the rivers of paradise.

In this uniquely moving scene we encounter more than Dante's personal history, reverberating with echoes of fine amour and ancient myth. His gracious, enigmatic Matelda has been identified by several scholars with echthild of Hackeborn, a mystical nun of Helfta (d. 1298) whose visions link her closely with purgatory and the earthly paradise.3 But whether or not the poet intended that reading, his Matelda shares with Beatrice a role that appears time and again in medieval texts: the holy woman as medium and mediatrix, the psychopomp whose compassion takes her through the portals of hell and heaven that she may lead souls out of purgatory. If those redeemed spirits could speak to us now, how many would cry with Dante: "Oh pietosa colei che mi soccorse! O compassionate she that succored me!"4

-108-

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