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Joseph P. Strelka, Dante und die Templergnosis.

Joseph R Strelka, Dante und die Templergnosis. Tubingen: Francke, 2012. Edition Patmos, 16.

Although he builds his argument on the shoulders of such giants in Dante commentary as Robert L. John (1946) and Arthur Schult (1979), Professor Strelka makes us take a new look at Dante's achievement from a viewpoint not discussed every day. What, first of all, is gnosis? To follow Elaine Pagels: gnosis is "Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God" (The Gnostic Gospels, New York: Random House, 1979, 119). Webster's Eleventh has: "esoteric knowledge of spiritual truth held by the ancient Gnostics to be essential to salvation." Why consider gnosis from the viewpoint of the Knights Templars? Because, of all the Crusading orders of the High and Late Middle Ages contemporaneous with Dante or nearly so, the Templars led in three respects: they were the wealthiest, being leaders in European banking; the most persecuted, both by the Inquisition and by military factions; and they responded so deeply to gnostic religious-philosophical insights that titles like the King of Jerusalem and names like Bernard of Clairvaux are inseparable from their movement.

As Professor Strelka shows in great detail, Templar gnosis is spiritual knowledge, in a circle of the specially initiated. The roots of Templar gnosis go back to the Nag Hammadi codices and further yet; and in modern times Templar gnosis is akin to the Judaic mysticism of a thinker like Gershom Scholem (154). In their floruit, Templargnostic insights go back to the mystery religions and syncretistic thinking characteristic of the earliest beginnings of Christianity and of spiritual movements competing with it. Nor are religions the only movements growing up side by side with gnostic thought; Plato and Neoplatonism, especially insights advanced in the Timaeus, are powerful preludes to Dante's own vision of a heaven in which Union with the One and yet separation of the temporal from the eternal makes possible Dante's vision of God.

Ernst Robert Curtius (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. Willard Trask, New York: Harper, 1953, 365-72) helpfully refers to "the personnel of the Commedia." Dante is always careful to distinguish between figures who are close to him personally (e.g. Cacciaguida, Charles Martel) and those who represent overriding public and necessarily impersonal concerns. Into the latter category comes such a memorable presence as Farinata degli Uberti. Farinata is a Ghibelline, of the party opposed to Dante's (who was a White Guelph), but this consignee to Inferno X deeply shares Dante's concerns in behalf of Florence, the city the two share and painfully love. Justinian (Par. VI) and the speaking eagle of Dante's aspirations to Monarchy (Par. XIX) come under the same rubric; as does, across the great desired divide between Church and State, St. Thomas Aquinas (Par. X-XIII). Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who intones his prayer to the Blessed Virgin at the end, fulfills something of a unique role, in that he represents reality both inside and outside Dante's poetic and Templer-gnostic conception (Strelka, 237-43).

Strelka attends to the fine detail; numerical and color mysticism, for example, are important to his commentary. Templar gnosis is at work throughout the Commedia where bold independence in creativity and belief take a hold on poet and reader. The world as reinvented by Dante is not lost on us as we contemplate the souls undergoing cleansing, not in, as taught by the church, but unmistakably on Purgatory. In closing comes the gentlest, yet most characteristically literary touch: Bernard's reminding Dante that his dream is coming to an end (Par. XXXII, 139-41). Indeed the Commedia is the gnostic vision of one who is lost in the dark wood of error, yet, with the assistance, both of pagan poets (Virgil, Statius) and of a mortal lady, finds his way to the Celestial Rose. Already at the close of La Vita Nuova (XLII), Dante expresses his hope: "io spero di dire di lei quello che mai non fue detto d'alcuna."

Strelka writes: "Dante war eingeweihter Templer und seine Gottliche Komodie ist das glanzendste iiberlebende Zeugnis der Templergnosis" (Dante was an initiated Templar, and his Divine Comedy is the most splendid surviving witness to Templer gnosis [x]). Such a claim may arouse reservations until we examine Professor Strelka's study in detail. In close observation and description it accompanies the reader canto by canto, often line by line. Indeed, it is not dependent on interpretation in a conventional sense (as, say, from an entrenched sectarian point of view), but indeed on careful analysis, never letting go the Ariadne's thread of gnostic knowledge and insight, always keeping in view the threefold experience of encounter, apprehension, and love. This is well shown in Purgatorio XX, 91-93: "Veggio il novo Pilato si crudele, / che cio noi sazia, ma sanza decreto / portar nel Tempio le cupide vele." On the passage, the only one in the Commedia that directly refers to the Templars, Sayers comments: "The rich and powerful order of the Knights Templars was suppressed in 1312 by Pope Clement V at Philip [the Fair]J's instigation. The pretext was an accusation of heresy, which may or may not have been founded in fact" (see Dante, Purgatory, tr. Dorothy L. Sayers, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1955, Commentary, 232). Yet it is no accident that Dante's epic escaped the inquiring eyes of the Inquisition. Those on whom the date of the suppression of the Knights Templars is not lost--1312, very much within Dante's lifetime--will appreciate the significance of the fact that the ms. of Inferno had been in circulation since 1314, and that the earliest commentary on the Commedia, by Dante's son Jacopo, dates from 1322.

Strelka's study concludes with a short chapter on the further, modern, continuation of the effects of Templar gnosis; here, there is a great deal of stress on the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry and its ramifications. I missed at least a reference to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1684), as well as to Elaine Pagels's seminal book on the gnostic Gospels, not to mention Thomas Merton's best-selling autobiographical memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which to Merton's own admission is deeply indebted to Purgatorio. There is no bibliography, but the book under review is carefully annotated throughout, and there is a helpful index of names.

EMERY E. GEORGE

The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
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Author:George, Emery E.
Publication:Italica
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
Words:1040
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