Hierarchy has a basis in the New Testament. In a passage perfectly suited to Dante’s fusion of Christian teaching and pagan cosmology, St. Paul writes in reference to our resurrected bodies: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41). Aquinas cites this very passage to support the view that among the blessed, who see the essence of God, “one sees more perfectly than another” (ST 1, Q. 12, art. 6). Jesus too signals the presence of heavenly degrees when he tells the disciples: “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).To follow the Paradiso we must know a little about Dante’s scheme of the visible universe. For Dante, the world is not an infinite expanse but an ordered whole in the shape of a sphere—what the ancient Greeks called a kosmos or adornment. Dante follows the Ptolemaic astronomy of his day. For Ptolemy, the Earth sits motionless at the center of a rotating celestial sphere that makes a complete turn on its axis every twenty-four hours. The Moon, Sun, and planets move in their respective orbits in the opposite direction at much lesser speeds. The Moon is the lowest sphere because it is closest to Earth. Beyond it are Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, in orbits of increasing circumference. Next there is the sphere of the Fixed Stars, and finally the outer shell of the visible universe. This is the so-called Crystalline, the first bodily sphere to be touched and moved by God’s love. Beyond it is the Empyrean or true Heaven. This is the home of spirits, the non-extended “place” of God, the angels, and all the blessed. It is the ultimate point to which Dante ascends and the heaven that most receives God’s light.
Article by Peter Kalkavage