St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas were not canonized until after Dante’s death. Nevertheless, I decided to give them their customary title in this article.
In Paradise of The Divine Comedy, Beatrice was guiding Dante through the heavens. They had already visited the spheres of the moon, the planet Mercury, and the planet Venus. In Canto X, they ascended to the fourth celestial sphere, the sphere of the sun. Here the spirits of the Dominican scholar St. Thomas Aquinas and eleven companions positioned themselves in a circle around Dante and Beatrice. They became a sort of crown or garland of living lights.
St. Thomas introduced himself and his companions. Then he delivered a eulogy on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order of mendicant monks. On earth, the Dominicans and the Franciscans were rivals, but they associated in love and in harmony in heaven.
In Canto XII, Dante and Beatrice enjoyed visual evidence of this harmonious love. Led by the Franciscan St. Bonaventure, a second crown of living lights positioned themselves outside the wreath formed by St. Thomas and his associates. The two circles revolved around Dante and Beatrice, moving in unison and singing in perfect harmony. Neither the muses nor the seductive sirens ever sang as beautifully as these two circles of living lights.
To emphasize the compatibility of these two living crowns, Dante compared them to two rainbows that sometimes appear simultaneously in the sky, one outside the other. He further emphasized the peace that prevailed by mentioning God’s covenant with Noah, for which the rainbow served as a sign that God would never again destroy the earth with a flood.
The Dominican St. Thomas had eulogized St. Francis. Now St. Bonaventure returned the compliment by eulogizing St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican order of mendicant monks. He pointed out that St. Francis and St. Dominic were two champions who fought together in the army of Christ, so both should enjoy equal praise.
St. Bonaventure was born in the city of Calaroga in the kingdom of Old Castile. [Remember that thirteenth century Spain was divided between Christians and Moslems and that several Christian kingdoms existed in Spain at that time.]
St. Bonaventure described St. Dominic as a loving vassal of the Christian faith and a holy athlete who was kind to his friends and cruel to his enemies. Even before he was born, his mind functioned effectively. He imparted to his mother a prophetic vision. [According to Anthony Oldcorn and his associates relate, this refers to a dream of Giovanna, the mother of St. Dominic. She dreamed that her child would be a black and white dog with a torch in its mouth. The color of the dog foreshadowed the black and white habit of the Dominicans, and the torch prefigured the zeal of St. Dominic, with which he kindled a spiritual fire in the world.]
After his birth, St. Dominic espoused the Christian faith by baptism. At that time, his godmother had a prophetic dream in which she beheld the marvelous fruit that St. Dominic and his heirs would produce. [According to Anthony Oldcorn and his associates, the godmother dreamed that she saw St. Dominic with a bright star on his forehead. This prefigured the spiritual light that St. Dominic and his Dominican heirs would shed upon the world.]
The Christian fervor of St. Dominic was already apparent when he was still a little child. When he grew up, he became a learned leader in the Church.
In the course of his labors, he had to go to Rome to see the pope. He did not ask for a rich benefice or monetary concessions. Instead, he wanted permission to wage war against an erring world. [Specifically, he wanted to permission to preach against the dualistic Albigenses of southern France. Innocent III, the pope whom he visited, granted his request. St. Dominic used intellectual tools rather than physical force to combat this dualistic heresy. However, not long after St. Dominic began to preach, Innocent III inaugurated a bloody crusade against the Albigenses. Moreover, after the death of St. Dominic, the inquisition was established, and Dominicans played a leading role in its proceedings. St. Bonaventure ignored these unpleasant historical facts in his eulogy of St. Dominic.]
After completing his eulogy, St. Bonaventure again emphasized that St. Francis and St. Dominic worked together for the good of Christianity. He compared them to the two wheels of a chariot.
St. Bonaventure then turned his attention to the current spiritual condition of the Franciscan Order. While it was still possible to find Franciscans who faithfully followed the principles of their founder, they were few in number. Some fled from the rigorous rule that St. Francis prescribed, while others enforced it more rigorously than St. Francis would have done.
St. Bonaventure then introduced himself and his companions. [In the following paragraphs, I shall give additional information about each spirit, partly from memory, partly from information supplied by the notes of Anthony Oldcorn and his associates, and partly from Internet sources.]
St. Bonaventure became the head of the Franciscans in 1257. Included in his writings is an important life of St. Francis. He died in 1274, the same year as St. Thomas Aquinas.
The first two spirits introduced by St. Bonaventure were Illuminato da Rieti and Augustine of Assisi. Shortly after St. Francis embraced poverty, Illuminato and Augustine took off their shoes and followed him.
Hugh of St. Victor was a monk of the Augustinian monastery of St. Victor in Paris. He was both a mystic and an influential theologian. His active life occurred during the first half of the twelfth century.
St. Bonaventure then introduced two spirits named Peter. Peter Comestor was a voracious reader. According to Oxford Reference, his best known work is Historia Scholastica, a historical work that begins with the Creation and terminates with the Ascension. He lived during the twelfth century.
The other Peter in St. Bonaventure’s group was Peter of Spain. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he was especially adept in the field of medicine. While still a relatively young man, he was professor of medicine at the University of Siena. Later he became the physician of Pope Gregory X. In 1276, he became Pope John XXI, but he died the following year.
The next few spirits introduced by St. Bonaventure are well-known in history: Nathan the prophet, John Chrysostom, and Anselm.
Nathan the prophet lived during the reign of David and Solomon. His faithful application of God’s word brought King David to repentance when he became guilty of adultery and murder. Later, when David chose Solomon as his successor and Adonijah attempted to supplant him, Nathan faithfully supported Solomon.
John Chrysostom became patriarch of Constantinople at the end of the fourth century. He had the courage to rebuke the frivolity of Empress Eudoxia and suffered exile. Among his writings is a beautiful poem in which he compared the end of earthly life to the tempest that the disciples experienced on the Sea of Galilee. The closing lines of this poem went something like this: “Thou, when the storms of death roar, sweeping by, whisper, O Truth of Truth: ‘Peace, it is I.'”
Anselm of Canterbury is best known for his ontological argument for the existence of God, his treatise explaining why God became man, and his conflict with William Rufus, king of England.
The next spirit was Aelius Donatus, a teacher of the church father Jerome and the author of an influential work on grammar. He lived during the fourth century A.D.
Also prominent in history are the last two figures introduced by St. Bonaventure: Rhabanus Maurus and Joachim of Flores.
Rhabanus Maurus lived in the eighth and ninth centuries A.D. According to the University of Notre Dame, he was called Praeceptor Germanias (the Teacher of Germany). He became abbot of the important monastery of Fulda. He later became Archbishop of Mainz.
Joachim of Flora died before St. Bonaventure was born. Nevertheless, because his somewhat wild ideas influenced the spiritual wing of the Franciscans, St. Bonaventure found it necessary to oppose the teachings of Joachim. Characteristically, Dante placed these two erstwhile opponents next to each other in the outer wreath of spirits. This further emphasized the peace that prevailed in heaven.
Dante spent a lot of time on the sun. He did not ascend to the sphere of Mars until canto XIV.
“Paradiso” from “The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri”; with English translation by Allan Mandelbaum; Notes by Anthony Oldcorn, Daniel Feldman, and Giuseppe di Scipio
Oxford Reference: Peter Comestor
The Catholic Encyclopedia: John XXI (XX)
University of Notre Dame: Alcuin and Rhabanus Maurus