Where did Dante’s Empyrean come from?

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Perhaps the most artistically and textually advanced passage in Dante’s Commedia is the description of the Empyrean, a place which doesn’t exist materially, beyond space and time. The Dante Encyclopedia defines it as follows:

The tenth and highest heaven, encompassing all creation (< Greek empyrios, fiery). Unlike the other nine heavens, or moving celestial spheres, the Empyrean is immaterial, the ninth heaven or Primum Mobile being the maggior corpo, the “greatest body”. The Empyrean is pure (intellectual) light, love, and joy; the divine mind itself; and the abode of God, angels, and the blessed.’

Immaterial and uncreated, the Empyrean doesn’t exist in time and space. It is immobile, it lacks nothing, and is the place where the medieval metaphysics of light finds expression: God as self-radiant; Creation as the reflection of divine light; light bridging matter and spirit, the common substantial form of everything; the human intellect as active and radiant. The Empyrean is the Divine Mind, the ground of being (not being a sphere like the other heavens, it is the splendor of God’s mind); it does not determine identity, but instead it is the reality within which the determination of identify occurs. The most luminous heaven, it suffers nothing to be outside itself, except God’s ‘uninflected verb ‘to be’. Critically relevant to humanity, it is the ‘place’ where the ‘transhumanizing’ (Dante’s word is transumanare) or the ‘inGoding’ (indiare) of the human individual is accomplished. In the Commedia, the pilgrim’s arrival in the Empyrean amounts to an existential explosion, a luminous supernova which dissolves being, feeling and text. It is the end of the journey, the end of the poem.

How did the Empyrean develop into the concept that Dante inherited and transformed in his poem? The Dante scholar Christian Moevs writes:

The doctrine of the Empyrean gained currency only in the twelfth century, when the widely diffused Glossa ordinaria explain the first verse of Genesis (In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram) by saying, “Not the visible firmament, but the Empyrean, that is, the fiery or intellectual heaven, which is so called not because of its burning but because of its splendor, since it was immediately filled with angels.” Echoed by Peter Lombard in the Sentences (2.2.4), the Glossa ordinaria’s definition of the Empyrean was absorbed into Scholastic philosophy, albeit as a more or less malleable concept based, as Aquinas remarks in the Summa theologiae (1a.61.4), on theological tradition rather than on scriptural authority.

With the sudden infusion of Greco-Arabic learning into Christian thought at the end of the twelfth century (Ptolemy’s Almagest was translated from Greek in Sicily in 1160, and from Arabic by Gherardo da Cremona in 1175; the Liber de motus celorum of Alpetragius [al-Bitruji], which defended the original Aristotelian system, was translated by Michael Scot in 1217), the seven heavens (air, ether, olympus, spacium igneum, firmament, acqueous [crystalline] heaven, and Empyrean or heaven of angels) common in pre-Scholastic cosmologies were replaced by the ten known to Dante: the nine mobile heavens of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system, plus the Empyrean.

For all its magnitude and splendor, the Empyrean has humble beginnings: it emerges as a gloss on Genesis. I have been looking at glossed Bibles recently (see my article on the British Library medieval manuscripts blog and the one on this website), and my eyes fell on the ‘birth-certificate’ gloss on the Empyrean. Glossed Bibles developed during the 12th century as a convenient way to set the text of the Bible and a commentary on the same page in the manuscript. It evolved from a few explanations to a running commentary, almost eclipsing the text of the Scripture. The Empyrean belongs to the early phase of glossing, when the theologian Anselm of Laon (1050-1117) and his collaborators compiled a set of explanations on the text of different books of the Bible drawn from the works of the Church fathers, but also including their own exegesis. Most glosses were linked to their respective sources, so for example, there were comments from St Augustine, St Jerome or Bede. Their names were added alongside their glosses, and therefore a system similar to modern footnotes was developed. The gloss about the Empyrean, however, was not linked to a name, which suggests that it was Anselm’s (or one of his biblical scholar colleagues’ from Laon cathedral) own reflection. The gloss explains the first verse from the book of Genesis:

In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram (In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth). The gloss goes on to explain the passage:

Celum non visibile firmamentum sed empiraeum id est igneum vel intellectuale quod non ab ardore sed a splendore dicitur quod statim repletum est angelis. 

Not the visible firmament, but the Empyrean, that is, the fiery or intellectual heaven, which is so called not because of its burning but because of its splendor, since it was immediately filled with angels.

The gloss also gives a justification for the word ‘Empyrean’ in the form of a compiled quotation from the Old Testament book of Job (38:7):

Unde in Iob:  « Ubi eras cum me laudarent astra matutina, etc.

Whence in Job: ‘Where were you when the morning stars praised me together, etc

The key to this passage follows immediately:

Et nota tria hic commemorari elementa. Nomine celi aerem intelligimus. Nomine terrae ipsam et ignem qui in ea latet.

And note that three elements are here remembered: by the word ‘heaven’ we mean the air; by the word ‘earth’ [we mean] the earth itself and the fire which is hidden within it.

‘Empyrean comes from the Greek word empyrios, meaning fiery, as mentioned above. As the ‘fire’ that the gloss mentions is not referenced in the quote from the book of Job, it is unlikely that the Laon theologians coined the word ‘Empyrean’. It appears, however, the Latin word ’empiraeum’ was first used (and perhaps coined) by the Neoplatonist writer Martianus Capella (360-428), to refer to a luminous “Empyrean realm of pure understanding” beyond the borders of the sensible world. It also appears that the word ’empiraeum’ lay dormant from the 5th to the 12th centuries until the Laon gloss established it as a canonical interpretative key to the first sentence from Genesis.

In a manuscript from the Abbey of St Victor in Paris (now Paris, BNF, Latin 14399), the gloss is aligned with the beautiful initial ‘I’ of the words ‘In principio’ of the Genesis verse.

Paris, BNF, Latin 14399, f. 5v

Heavily abbreviated otherwise, the gloss contains the word ’empireum’ in unabbreviated form (highlighting is mine):

Paris, BNF, Latin 14399, f. 5v (in focus)

2 thoughts on “Where did Dante’s Empyrean come from?

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  1. Hi! Thank you for this explanation of the development of the idea of the Empyrean. I’d like to cite this in a paper I am writing; is there any chance you can email me and give me a full citation for how to cite this article, including author and date?


  2. Hi! Thanks for this excellent article on the development of the Empyrean. I would like to cite this in a paper I am writing; is there any way you could give me the details for a proper citation, including author name and date? Thank you kindly. ~Phillip


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