La Divina Commedia Gregoriana 

(Jacques Janssen, Stan Hollaardt, Augustinus Hollaardt)


We know that Dante’s poem is set in the year 1300, because he assigns a date to it ‘one thousand two hundred and sixty six years’ after Christ’s descent into hell. He marks that moment by referring – in the beginning and the end of the part Hell- to two Gregorian chants which are sung in the Holy Week: Media Vita and Vexilla Regis. Sometimes we get the periods by means of the chants from the breviary. The hymn Te lucis ante terminum, which still resounds in monasteries nowadays during complin (just before going to bed), is sung in Purgatory at nightfall.


Although Hell is also dominated by the idea of salvation, there are no hymns. There is an everlasting yelling and wailing caused by pain and sadness. Purgatory is pre-eminently a place for Gregorian plainsong, but its meaning fades. Paradise transcends the Commedia and aims too high, even for Gregorian chant. Only in sounds and repetitions, it may be a match for it.


We have tried to create a Gregorian cycle that follows Dante’s example. It is hard to do this in Hell, apart from the beginning. At the outset Dante’s words seem to derive straight from the penitential psalm Media Vita. Then we have been trying to look for Gregorian themes, which comment on Dante’s journey. There are the gates of Hell (A porta inferi), darkness, the weeping, the gnashing of teeth (Circumdederunt), the Last Judgment (Dies Irae), the Fall of Man (in sudore), the Fall of the Angels (Dum praeliaretur), Christ’s death (Tenebrae factae), the ultimate sense of sinfulness and abandonment (Aestimatus sum), Christ’s descent into Hell and as a continuation of this redemption from Hell Libera me and Aurora Lucis.The story of Hell is also a comedy; it is, according to Dante, a history of salvation. His great mentor Virgil, whom he greatly admired, could not reach beyond a tragedy (‘la tua tragedia), but Dante may speak of ‘la mia commedia’. His story offers redemption.Purgatory is a journey along sins and sinners, but nowhere is atonement for sins; the perspective is cleansing (washing them away). Here we can actually follow Dante in his footsteps. We meet the newly arrived souls heading for paradise: In paradisum, the souls of the negligent who sing Miserere (Exsultabunt), the kings who begin singing Te lucis. Then we pass through the gates of Heaven and come across the proud people who humbly pray the Pater Noster.  At the beginning of the seven terraces, the seven carnal sins are atoned for. On every terrace, a cleansing takes place in a threefold structure. First a virtue is mentioned, then a vice, and finally there is the beatitude. As the beatitude unfolds, an angel removes one of the Letters P from Dante’s forehead. We have ‘translated’ into Gregorian chant one virtue (St Stephen’s meekness: Tu principatum), one vice (Saul’s pride: Montes Gelboe) and a number of beatitudes (Beati mundo corde). Every time that a soul is redeemed and moves into higher spheres, the mountain starts trembling, other souls start singing a Gloria that has the elegance of a Te Deum. It would be getting too far off the subject to recount all the events (there are 28 of them, seven times a penitential song, a virtue, a vice and the beatitude. We conclude the journey along the terraces with two penitential hymns: the Agnus Dei of the wrathful and the Summae Deus of the sensualists, who will be cleansed by the fire. Then we arrive in Eden. There Beatrice appears in a chariot. Amongst others, four winged animals accompany her: they are In medio et in circuitu of God’s throne. In a loud voice Veni sponsa resounds. When Dante feels sincere remorse after a sermon by his beloved, he is cleansed in the river Lethe. In the meantime, we hear Asperges me. The cleansing is finished, we may start celebrating high mass: Alleluia!


High mass in Heaven is a continuous song of praise without a clear structure. Humankind has no perception of this world, words are lacking here. Only the Virgin Mary gives us hope: Ave Maria. Hosannas and eulogies resound: Hosanna sanctus, Te laudamus, Laus patri. Dante speaks about Hope, Faith and Love: Sperent in te. We meet St Francis and St Dominic: Seraphicus pater. Accompanied by angels (cum angelis) we travel to the eternal city: Urbs Jeruzalem, In civitate Domini. However, we cannot do without the Virgin Mary. St Bernard prays that Dante may behold God. This prayer, Dante’s literal text translated into Latin and set to Gregorian plainsong (O Virgo mater and Quae caritas) ends the comedy. Dante beholds God, for us the light fades for the time being.