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Contemplation, Charity and Creation ex nihilo in Dante's Commedia


  • The present article has its origins in a paper for the symposium “Dante and the Contemplative Tradition” sponsored by the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame in November 2007. I presented a second version in April 2008 at a research seminar of the Department of Italian at the University of Leeds, sponsored by the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies. I am extremely grateful for these opportunities to discuss my work. On both occasions, the papers were prepared in close conversation with Matthew Treherne and his work on “Contemplation and the Created World in the Commedia”. I am especially grateful to Matthew for his comments. I am also especially grateful to Janet Soskice, whose encouragement to think deeply about the question of creation ex nihilo in the Commedia opened up fruitful perspectives on Dante's work, from which the article in its present form issues. Most recently, I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity of presenting and discussing these ideas at the Centre of Theology and Philosophy of the University of Nottingham. I am moreover extremely grateful to Zygmunt Barański, Piero Boitani, Theodore Cachey, Peter Hawkins, Robin Kirkpatrick and Christian Moevs for their detailed advice on earlier versions of this article. I also wish to thank Scott Annett, Ann Astell, Jason Baxter, Eleonora Buonocore, David Burrell, Sarah Coakley, Carlo Cogliati, George Corbett, Andrew Davison, Marco Emerson-Hernandez, David Ford, Ben Fulford, Innocenzo Gargano, Filippo Gianferrari, Manuele Gragnolati, Douglas Hedley, Ronald Herzman, Jacob Holsinger Sherman, Claire Honess, Samuel Kimbriel, Elena Lombardi, John Marenbon, Giuseppe Mazzotta, Philip McCosker, Alison Milbank, John Milbank, Susannah Monta, Edward Morgan, Charles Nejedly, David O'Connor, Simon Oliver, Cyril O'Regan, George Pattison, Catherine Pickstock, Tamara Pollack, Elizabeth Powell, Russell Re Manning, Janet Martin Soskice, Jennifer Spencer Goodyer, Carole Straw, Jonathan Teubner, Alain Tschudin, Denys Turner, Ineke Van ‘t Spijker, Heather Webb, and Anna Williams for their comments on the ideas this article explores.


In this article I reflect on the importance of creation ex nihilo for our understanding of Dante's Commedia. I do so, in particular, by reflecting on the inextricable relationship existing in Dante's poem between creation ex nihilo, contemplation and charity. More specifically, I attempt to outline an understanding of how Dante's idea of the relationship between these three can be seen to underlie the very structure and narrative form of the Commedia. Through reflection on the relationship between contemplation, charity, and creation ex nihilo, I suggest, form and content might be seen, from a theological point of view, to be perfectly at one. Underlying these reflections are also some broader questions. What is the Commedia ultimately about? What is Dante's final end in writing his poem? What bearing does this have on our understanding of the form of Dante's text as a narrative poem? And what, in turn, are the broader theological implications of all this?