Tutte le stelle già de l’altro polo
vedea la notte, e ’l nostro tanto basso,
che non surgëa fuor del marin suolo


At night I now could see the other pole
and all its stars; the star of ours had fallen
and never rose above the plain of the ocean
Dante, Divina Commedia, Inferno, 26.127-9

Hervé Le Goff: […] It is widely believed that Purgatory has always existed, but this is not the case at all. It took shape in the second half of the 12th century. Previously, thinking about the afterlife, men imagined only two antagonistic places, Hell and Heaven. Gradually, an intermediate reality began to emerge, the function of which was to allow the purification of souls before entering Paradise. […] From the very beginning, Christianity had imagined the possibility that souls could free themselves from the sins remaining after death. […] The great novelty introduced by Purgatory is the definition of a unique, precise and recognizable place. But the existence of a third place endowed with a status of uniqueness implies various consequences.

“the birth of Purgatory modifies the jurisdiction exercised over the dead, favoring the practice of indulgences”

Fabio Gambaro: Can you give some examples?

HLG: The birth of Purgatory modifies the jurisdiction exercised over the dead, favoring the practice of indulgences. According to traditional doctrine, living men responded to the church court, but once they died they were judged only by the court of God. With Purgatory, a sort of common court is created in which both God and the church intervene. The souls who pass through it, in fact, continue to depend on God, but they also benefit from the action of the church which distributes indulgences. Purgatory, therefore, reinforced the power of the ecclesiastical structure, which thus, in addition to the living, is also partly responsible for the dead. A situation that the Protestant Reformation later strongly condemned. For the men of the Middle Ages, however, the existence of Purgatory increased the hopes of salvation, since not everything was definitively established at the moment of death. Even for the usurers, who until then were irremediably condemned to Hell, a less gloomy afterlife is beginning to emerge. Of course, living with this hope radically changes the perspective of daily life.

“the birth of Purgatory is inscribed in that slow process that is usually defined as the descent of values ​​from heaven to earth”

FG: How is the advent of Purgatory explained?

HLG: The passage from an afterlife characterized by two antagonistic places, Hell and Paradise, to an afterlife divided into three kingdoms must be paralleled with the retreat of Manichaeism which took place in medieval society between the mid-twelfth and mid-thirteenth centuries. The medieval world becomes more nuanced. The ancient opposition between rich and poor, powerful and weak, begins to change with the emergence of an intermediate band. In the social hierarchy, between lords and subjects, the category of the bourgeoisie emerges. On the cultural level, other elements that play in favor of the birth of Purgatory are the growing interest in geographical representations as well as the new translations of Euclid, from which the notion of intermediary is derived. More generally, then, the birth of Purgatory is inscribed in that slow process that is usually defined as the descent of values ​​from heaven to earth. From this complex evolution of society the belief in Purgatory was born, a belief that then spread thanks to the preaching of Franciscans and Dominicans.

“the first representations of the intermediate kingdom appear at the end of the 13th century, such as that of the Breviary of King Philip the Fair”

FG: How is the third place represented at the beginning?

HLG: In reality, there was a lot of resistance to the belief in Purgatory, and art from this point of view was quite conservative. The first representations of the intermediate kingdom appear at the end of the 13th century, such as that of the Breviary of King Philip the Fair. For the artists of the time it was certainly difficult to represent a kingdom due to its temporary nature, halfway between Heaven and Hell. The first images propose a space similar to Hell, in which some angels come to save the souls of the righteous from the punishment of the flames, who are often represented in prayer with their hands joined and their eyes turned to heaven. It will be necessary to wait until the fifteenth century to have real representations of Purgatory, in which the decisive influence of Dante is evident, who, by inserting the third place at the center of the most important literary work of the Middle Ages, founded a new iconography and a new imagery. Not surprisingly, the earliest illustrations of Purgatory as an autonomous and geographically defined place are those linked to the Divine Comedy.

“Dante has completely transformed the geography of the afterlife. For him, Purgatory is no longer a place underground, close to and similar to Hell”

FG: Was imagining Purgatory as a mountain a novelty?

HLF: Of course. Dante has completely transformed the geography of the afterlife. For him, Purgatory is no longer a place underground, close to and similar to Hell. Instead, it is a mountain that rises in the middle of the sea, made of concentric circles that souls travel from the bottom to the top. To access Paradise they must completely climb the slopes of Purgatory, with an upward path which is the exact opposite to that of Hell. Dante translates into images the revolutionary element introduced by Purgatory, namely the dimension of hope. A hope that changes everything on the level of the collective imagination. […]

FG: What are your favorite episodes of Purgatory?

HLG: I really like the eleventh canto, that of the circle of the proud, where Omberto Aldobrandeschi talks about the vanity of worldly glory. These are particularly moving and effective verses. But I would also like to recall the beginning of the seventh canto, where, through the words of Virgil, Dante underlines the symbolic meaning of the ascension of the mountain. A journey towards bliss.

Fabio Gambaro, The invention of the Purgatory, with an interview to Hervé Le Goff, La Repubblica, September 27, 2005.