In the Divine Comedy, at the entrance to Purgatory, Dante encounters three steps made from stone of different colours and textures. These have attracted attention since the earliest commentaries on the poem, and are often seen as alluding to interior states, especially associated with penance. This paper understands the steps and their interpretation to reflect the wider expressive potential of corporeal contact with the surface of the ground. Exploring how they were depicted in illuminated manuscripts, it draws comparisons with ecclesiastical pavement decoration and the treatment of the ground in rites of passage, as well as with the ground trodden by Christ, saints, and personifications of the virtues, as depicted in Italian art of the period. It also relates the steps to other passages in the Divine Comedy that reference church interiors and to the terrain walked by Dante elsewhere in the poem.
Lucy Donkin is a Senior Lecturer in History and History of Art at the University of Bristol. Her research explores medieval perceptions of place, especially the definition, decoration and depiction of holy ground, and the symbolic movement of soil. Her book Standing on Holy Ground in the Middle Ages will be published by Cornell University Press later this year.