Following Aquinas, Dante Alighieri (1285-1325) is another example of a learned man educated under the influence of Aristotelian ideas. Specifically, he supported Aristotle’s concepts of some men being superior and therefore having divine right to rule:
I am referring to actions, which are regulated by political judgment, and to products, which are shaped by practical skill; all of these are subordinate to thinking as the best activity for which the Primal Goodness brought mankind into existence. This sheds light on that statement in the Politics that “men of vigorous intellect naturally rule over others”.Dante Alighieri, Monarchy, Book 1, part 3, lines 10-15
Dante’s education history is not well documented. However, it may be presumed he studied at least one scholastic or scholastic-like institution attached to a monastery. He was politically minded and so to hold a political office he had to join a Guild, so he became a pharmacist and joined the pharmacy Guild. Like many men, Dante was also involved with physical battles due to conflict with other powers.
Florence, Dante’s home town, experienced many conflicts relating to politics, religion, and territory. As destiny would have it, Dante finished up on the losing side. Consequently, when he was in his fifties, he was banished and separated from his family. Dante was angry, very angry, especially towards the Church.
Being an intellectual, Dante took pen to paper to express his views through the art of satirical poetry. Dante’s work, like the Divine Comedy, reveals he was well versed in Ancient Greek philosophy. The epic piece contains a myriad of references to characters such as Apollo, Aphrodite, and Hellen of Troy which demonstrate an understanding of the ancient theology behind their namesakes.
Above all, The Divine Comedy, was just that, a comedy. Dante did not use highly sophisticated language to express his views, rather, he wrote in a crude vernacular of Latin, the language of commoners. His aim was to mock the Church’s stance on a number of issues, hence, his books were banned. The fact that the Church later (long after Dante’s death) retracted their objections and embraced him as a golden boy of Christianity is a curious thing.
I am not an expert on Dante, but looking over his work I found one particular verse in The Divine Comedy that struck me as being profound. The line reads: “O virgin mother, daughter of thy Son”.
“O virgin mother, daughter of thy Son, humble beyond all creatures and more exalted; predestined turning point of God's intention; Thy merit so ennobled human nature that its divine Creator did not scorn to make Himself the creature of His creature. The Love that was rekindled in Thy womb sends for the warmth of the eternal peace within whose ray this flower has come to bloom. Here to us, thou art the noon and scope of Love revealed; and among mortal men, the living fountain of eternal hope.”
The line is a confusing mixture of symbolic language; “mother” and “daughter” are both described in relation to the “Son”. How could the biblical Mary be both Jesus’ mother and daughter? While pondering this question, I remembered Justin Martyr and his explanation the Jewish custom of using a family structure to represent groups of people (see: Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr). Could this really be? If Leah and Rachel were symbolic of synagogue and church … ? Was Mary … a symbol of the Christian church? Not a church in the modern sense of a physical building but a church in the ancient sense of it being a reference to the soul of a congregation or group of people. I needed more evidence to be sure.
Model of Jewish symbolism using family structure: Father = Godhead, Mother = Church or Synagogue, Daughter = congregation or groups of people, And Son = human beings or individuals.
As I have stated many times throughout my blogs, I do not believe in universal symbolism, however, a reoccurring pattern that I have identified across some theologies (namely, Jewish, Ancient Greek, Christian, and Islam) is that Spiritual realms are commonly referred to as masculine (father), and Soul realms are commonly referred to as feminine (mother). This pattern is tied into gendered languages and does not equate to literal men and women - just as a chair, table, key, dog, cat, boat, etc., are not literally male or female in many languages (e.g., Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Arabic) they can be personified in expressive speech as though they are. Thus, Spirit and Soul aspects in theologies are not literally male or female. Therefore, the Virgin Mary, when viewed as a personification of Soul is not literally a woman, rather, her characteristics are human attributes that anyone can have. When the Mother of God is understood to be Soul, then it can further be understood why so many Christian theologians (such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Jerome, and Augustine) referred to Mary as the new Eve. Likewise, Jesus is the new (or last) Adam. Finding Jewish sources that confirm the allegorical nature of Adam and Eve as personifications of Spirit and Soul is relatively easy. Hence, seeing as Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism, it’s not surprising to see the pattern continued. (Islam also shares this symbolism.)
The other shoe dropped when I learned in bygone eras, daughters were referred to as “virgins” because, you know, according to patriarchal values, a female’s sexual activity is more important than anything else. Therefore, Virgin Mary = Daughter Mother. It is a play on symbology = Mother and daughter are one, i.e., the soul of a church that sheaths its members.
When Dante wrote The Divine Comedy he was an outcast and rebel of the Church. Could it be that through the creative mocking of satirical poetry Dante was revealing a symbolic secret? If so, it may explain why the Church, in a corrupted state that wanted to maintain power over the masses deemed his work heretical. Who should one believe? A man who rose the ranks of politics and was educated in theology, and was subsequently outcast and angry? Or an institution that claimed poor people could enter heaven if they paid the Church enough money?
(The Catholic Church of Dante’s era practiced indulgences – if a Christian sinned (murder, rape, thief, etc.) they could give money to the Church which would supposedly reduce time in purgatory. The practice of indulgences was one of the fundamental issues that caused rifts in the Church and led to the Reformation a few centuries after Dante’s lifetime.)
It has taken many hours of reflection and further research for me to make the final assessment. My conclusion, to put it bluntly, the Virgin Mother belongs in the same realm of possibility as Santa Clause, the tooth fairy, and Mary Poppins.
There is outstanding scientific evidence that stipulates a woman’s ova cannot produce a child without a man’s sperm. Conversely, there is outstanding evidence from multiple sources that both the words “virgin” and “mother” have purely symbolic meanings that have been used in religious text before, during, and after the formation of Christianity.
It’s plausible that two thousand years ago, without knowledge of DNA, X and Y chromosomes, and other practical elements of reproduction, some people believed it was possible for a woman to fall pregnant without intercourse. To justify that belief today is not so easy.
This is my opinion. It is up to each and every individual to decide for themselves if they believe the the Virgin Mother is real or if her appearance has been made to be as grand as the Emperor’s new clothes.
When considering the Virgin Mary’s symbolic status, it’s also prudent to consider Jewish traditions. Judaism honours the “mother” both symbolically and literally as carrying the bloodline of their religion. If a woman is a Jew, then all her children will be considered Jews (in an ethnical sense), regardless of personal beliefs and/or their father’s religious status. Conversely, if a Jewish father marries a non-Jewish woman, then none of their children will be considered to be of the Jewish race, although they could still be Jewish by way of religious practice.
Understanding the Jewish perspective of succession being a matriarchal continuum passed down from mother to daughter explains why the symbolism for their spiritual hierarchy was father-mother-daughter-son. Further, the personification of Biblical characters as being symbolic representations of concepts and/or groups people is evidential in the Bible itself. (Isaac Newton’s commentaries on this topic are particularly noteworthy, see Reading the Symbols of the Apocalypse According to Isaac Newton.)
The first Christians were Jews. Therefore, they it’s reasonable to assume they honoured the spiritual lineage of father, mother, daughter, and son = God (father), Virgin Mary (mother-daughter), and Jesus (son). How then did this symbolism get buried beneath other ideas?
Early Christian sects argued between with each other over many things. One such conflict was whether or not gentiles had to convert to Judaism before they could become Christians. Those who supported the mandatory requirement emphasised Jewish beliefs and values in the Jesus narrative, while those who believed anyone could be a Christian did not. Thus, over time the significance of Jewish symbolism used by Early Christians subsided. Of note, Greco-Roman influences overlayed the Jewish (see Did Romans Kill Jesus Twice?: The Beardless Versus the Bearded Jesus).
Speculatively, there have always been leaders within the Christian Church who have known and understood the symbolism of the Virgin Mary through a Jewish lens. Dante appears to have been one of those few.
Symbols are complex, therefore the Virgin Mary was not only a reference to a synthesis of mother-daughter being a reference to a group of people, it transcends to the notion of purity and youthfulness. Inferences which I imagine would have felt most fitting to the the founders of the establishing Christian church.
Painting of the Virgin Mother with Child; original dated to the 5th or 6th century, overpainted in the 13th century
In contemplation of the nuances of the Virgin Mary being the personification of a soul that sheaths Christianity, I am reminded of a time when my son was nearly ten. It was a day in February, an ordinary school day, but we got home in the afternoon he was not his usual cheerful self. Solemnly, he took himself to his bedroom and shut the door. When I went to check on him, I found him sitting on his bed, tears streaming down his face. My immediate thought was that something bad had happened at school, perhaps he’d been bullied. At first he refused to speak and just shock his head in response to my questioning that was along the lines “did you and so and so have a fight?” I then moved into a semi-lecturing mode of the need to express emotions. I told him that I could not help him if I did know what was wrong. I made stabs in the dark about how he might be feeling about his father and I breaking up three months early. He shook his head to all again. I took a deep breath and said “Is it something I have done? If so, please tell me so I can make right.” Amid bursts of sobbing, he let out what was disturbing him:
“I know Santa Claus is not real! Don’t lie to me, I know he’s not real!”
Of all the things my son could have told me, I was not expecting that. I queried if a conversation had come up in the school yard that day which prompted the topic, but my son, once calmer, said that was not the case. For whatever reason, that day, he was ready to confront me. As we talked, my son did an exceptionally good job of articulating exactly how he felt. He told me of the clues he’d picked up on, like conversations he’d over heard and poorly hidden presents he’d spotted under my bed that later appeared as Santa gifts. My son made it overwhelming clear that he was not sad because he knew Santa was not real, he distressed because he didn’t know if he could trust anything I said.
I was caught off guard. My elder daughter had breezed through finding out and accepting there was no Santa Clause. She had a different temperament. She was more dreamy, loved to play make believe. My son, on the other hand, was astute, inquisitive, like an mini-engineer who wanted to know how everything worked. I found myself fumbling as I tried to explain that “everybody” lies to their children about Santa but no harm is meant by it. It was supposed to be fun, a game of sorts, a pretend kind of magic. I told him the lie was done with love, not to hurt him with deception. My son said he did not think it was fun to be lied to. I was in a corner. How could I raise my son to be an honest man if I also taught him it was acceptable to sometimes lie?
I started paying extra close attention to my son and what I said to him from then on. Our relationship had been ruptured. I had to rebuild trust. I succeeded.
The following Christmas, we still went through the tradition of Santa but as my son unwrapped the gifts, he said “Thanks, mum! That’s just what I wanted!” Later the same Christmas Day, he did a better job of pretending Santa was real so as to keep the “magic” alive for his younger cousins. To my surprise, I felt a sense of unease. Without conscious effort, ever so subtly, it dawned on me that I’d indoctrinated my son into the cult of Santa Clause. I tried to convince myself that it was important for children to have the opportunity to have fun, use their imaginations, and believe there were magical beings in the world. To this day, I’m not sure if that’s fitting to contemporary times. I imagine in the past, when the tradition of Santa began (around the fourth century, Turkey), the experience of children waking on Christmas morning to find simple gifts of a handmade nature was quite different to the experience children now have of sacks filled with plastic toys and digital devices.
I was born and raised a Catholic. I was always told the Virgin Mary was a real person. Can I trust anything the Church says if she is not real?
Post edit 9/12/21: The following quote from Vatican News supports the notion that Catholicism has a long tradition of viewing the Virgin Mary as the symbolic “Mother of the Church”.
In 1964 […] Pope Paul VI “declared the Blessed Virgin Mary as ‘Mother of the Church, that is to say of all Christian people, the faithful as well as the pastors, who call her the most loving Mother’ …Devin Watkins, Vatican News (2018): http://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2018-03/pope-institutes-new-celebration-of-mary–mother-of-church.html