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The Holy Smile

Here's a little thought I'm recording here so I can find it in the future.  It's the conclusion to an article by my own Peter Hawkins, "All Smiles", published in the excellent book Dante's Commedia: Theology as Poetry, edited by Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne.

It's about Dante's use of smiles.  In his day, theologians debated whether or not Jesus might have ever laughed during his time on Earth.  That might seem silly, but there isn't one account in Scripture of Jesus smiling or laughing.  There is an account of Jesus weeping, and this has (unfortunately) led many to the belief that seriousness and sorrow are more firmly rooted in the example of Jesus' life.  Dante disagrees, thank God.

"As this review of riso and sorriso should suggest, the smile is not only Dante's signature gesture but perhaps his most original and indeed useful contribution to medieval theology - an indeed to the Christian tradition itself, which has long found it easier to recall that "Jesus wept" than to imagine that he might have laughed as well.  Despire the degree to which Dante is associated with the infernal, it is his creation of a "smile of the universe," radiant throughout Purgatory and Paradise, that shows his spin on the ancient religion he inherited.  To be told that God the Trinity smiles upon himself; to see Gregory smiling at his former error; to catch the delight in Mary's eye, which spreads like lightning throughout the heavenly rose; to consider that the resurrection of the body might mean the raising up of one's own distinctive smile; or to imagine seeing God face-to-face as an encounter with holiness that does not require eyes averted and lips closed right but rather entails the spontaneity of a smile returning a smile - to entertain any of these possibilities requires a "new life" for the Christian imagination, one that did not take place in Dante's fourteenth century and is now (sadly) long overdue.

"[...] It is the gesture that moves us from Inferno to Paradiso, from the human to the divine, and from time to eternity." (p. 53-4).


  1. Do we know the artist or the story of the smiling angel in the west entrance to Reims Cathedral?


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