Agnolo Bronzino, "Allegorical Portrait of Dante"

Here von Balthasar describes what is new in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”

In addition to the preoccupation with individual personality and destiny, there appeared, for the first time in Christian theology, the theme of individual, personal and fateful love. Dionysius and Bonaventure had indeed found divine Eros in the cosmos, and in his Confessions Augustine had recognized and confessed personal Eros, but the first was not personal, and the second was not in the least degree theological. Likewise, the amorous adventures of the heroes of Artus made no claim to theological relevance. But this is the claim that Dante makes for Beatrice. The thoroughly earthly love of the Vita Nuova is carried as far as the heights of Heaven; indeed, it is extolled as the motive power for the whole journey through the hereafter. The love, which began on earth between two human beings, is not denied, is not bypassed in the journey to God; it is not, as was always, naturally enough, hitherto the case, sacrificed on the altar of the classical via negativa; no, it is carried right up to the throne of God, however transformed and purified. This is utterly unprecedented in the history of Christian theology. As Charles Williams rightly saw, it transcends the whole neo-Platonic scheme of via positiva, negativa, eminentiae. It is true that the figure of the beloved is enriched with symbolic content, but it would be ridiculous to maintain that she is only a symbol or allegory—of what? of faith? of theology? of the vision of God?. Only dusty academics could fall for something as abstruse as that. No, the figure of the beloved is a young Florentine girl of flesh and blood. Why should a Christian man not love a woman for all eternity and allow himself to be introduced by that woman to a full understanding of what ‘eternity’ means? And why should it be so extraordinary – ought one not rather to expect it – that such a love needs, for its total fulfillment, the whole of theology and Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell?

One can surround the real figure of Beatrice, as also Dante’s real life of love, with as many question marks as one wishes. Nevertheless, the principle is established for the first time, and never again so magnificently: for the sake of infinite love, it is not necessary for the Christian to renounce finite love. On the contrary, in a positive spirit, he can incorporate his finite love into that which is infinite – but at the cost of terrible sufferings, of course, as Dante shows us.

– Hans Urs von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord III: Studies in Theological Style: Lay Styles, “Dante,” 31-32

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