Punishment of the Simonists

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Gustave Dore, Punishment of the Simonists, 1861
Out of the mouth of each one there protruded
The feet of a transgressor, and the legs
Up to the calf, the rest within remained.

In all of them the soles were both on fire;
Wherefore the joints so violently quivered,
They would have snapped asunder withes and bands.

Even as the flame of unctuous things is won't
To move upon the outer surface only,
So likewise was it there from heel to point.
- Inferno, Dante, Canto XXVIII

Dante uses this passage to introduce themes of religion and punishment for a group of sinners, the Simonists. The Simonists, many of whom were popes, were involved in buying and selling sacraments and religious favors for their own personal and financial gains. Here we find souls upside down in holes with fire shooting from their feet so hard that their “joints so violently quivered.” It turns out that buying or selling religious pardons or favors is not such a good idea in the long run of eternity. These sinners are punished in a manner almost opposite of a usual baptism. We can imagine the soles of their feet fueled by the oil used in last rites, rather than cool, pure holy water used for baptism

Religious corruption is despicable. For the institution that he holds in the highest esteem, Dante finds no pity for any religious ruler who uses his power to take advantage over the flock. In many respects Dante would not be happy with Kansas City’s Bishop Finn who failed to protect children from sexual predators. While this passage sets the stage of brutal punishment, the next passage introduces one who is apparently suffering more than others, Pope Nicholas III. Below Nicholas in the cracks of rock are the other corrupt popes who came before him and committed the same sin. Dante uses this caustic narrative to speak out against all corruption in the church.

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