Upside-down Popes

Upside-down Popes March 31, 2005

John Scott offers this rich interpretation of Inferno 19, where Dante comes across a collection of popes and other churchmen stuck upside-down in the rocks of Hell, their feet “licked” with fire:

“Instead of turning their desires heavenward, these corrupt churchmen had sold the things of the Holy Spirit (just as Simon Magus had attempted to buy them from St Peter: Acts 8.9-20): so, their heads are now pointing down toward Satan, imprisoned at the earth?s center. Their feet are licked with flames, in an infernal parody of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended in the shape of tongues ?as though of fire?E( linguae tamquam ignis ) on the heads of the apostles (Acts 2.3-4). Everything here is turned upside-down: feet, instead of the noblest limb, the head; the infernal rock that imprisons them, instead of the Rock of faith on which Christ founded his church. Indeed, the whole scene reflects the fact that the lives and actions of these wretched churchmen had inverted God?s moral order, which requires that the things of the Spirit be valued above all else. The sinner selected, Nicholas Orsini, had been pope during Dante?s boyhood, reigning from 1277 to 1280 . . . . with supreme irony, he who had been St. Peter?s successor is now damned as a follower of the wrong Simon ?ESimon Magus (Acts 8.9) ?Efrom whom the sin of simony took its name . . . . Simon the fisherman?s future role was emblazoned in the name ?Peter?E(Petrus) that Christ imposed on him . . . The Rock of Faith is thus indirectly evoked as a perpetual indictment of the first pope?s corrupt successors, who are now encased upside-down in the infernal rock of the realm of Fraud . . . . We may also be reminded of a vital element in Christian tradition, according to which St. Peter was granted his wish to be crucified upside-down. This act of supreme humility ?ESt. Peter?s belief that he was unworthy to be crucified in the same position as Christ, the Founder of the Church ?Eis parodied in the punishment of the evil popes who are now crucified in the bowels of the earth, from which had come the gold and silver they had adored.”

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