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Un ange ouvre la porte du Purgatoire au Dante et à Virgile

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CAT 92. Etienne Achille Réveil after John Flaxman. Un ange ouvre la porte du Purgatoire au Dante et à Virgile. Plate 13 (from canto 9) in Purgatoire du Dante. Paris: Audot, 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Flaxman shows characteristic restraint as he depicts the Gate of Purgatory from the end of canto 9. He makes no attempt to distinguish the contrasting colors and textures of three steps that Dante, to the left of Virgil, must ascend. Nor does he show the restrained but gracious face of the angel who blocks the way, only to open the gate to those who find the way. Given that the gate is already open at the left, Flaxman has pictured the moment immediately after the silver and gold keys have done their office, allowing the angel, seen from behind in one of Flaxman’s few vertical compositions in this series, to gracefully fill the portal with a slight lean to the left while peering into spaces purer than Dante yet had seen. Flaxman, in showing the angelic gatekeeper from behind, underscores the admonition the angel had given to Dante before the gate had opened: “Enter, but this warning hear: / He forth again departs who looks behind” (9.124-25). How apt must this admonition have seemed to Melville, trying to put his own earlier literary disappointments behind him, as he approached his own purgatorial pilgrimage in Clarel with Dante and Virgil alongside him, in Flaxman’s drawings as well as in the poet’s words, as he wrote.