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Hebraic and Islamic Sources of Dante

02May6:00 pm6:00 pmHebraic and Islamic Sources of Dante6:00 pm - 6:00 pm(GMT+00:00) Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16 Street, New York, NY 10011Italian Jewish Studies SeminarItalian Jewish Studies Seminar

Event Details

Visiting lecturer: Sandra Debenedetti Stow

Hebraic and Islamic Sources of Dante Alighieri. Professor Sandra Debenedetti Stow, Bar Ilan University, will discuss the relation between idea and representation central to Dante’s notion of heresy in The Divine Comedy. Illustrating its Jewish, Sufi and Neo-platonic roots, Professor Stow sheds new light on the intricate multicultural landscape that preceded the consolidation of Modern Europe and its religious and philosophical foundations. Centro Primo Levi with New York University – Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò and the Italian Cultural Institute.

The Metaphor of the Stone Idol and its Philosophical and Literary Itinerary From the East to the West:  From Maimonide’s Guide for the Perplexed to Dante, Through Ibn Arabi’s Turjuman al Ashwaq, The Thousand and One Nights, and the Tristan of Thomas


The paper deals with the transmission and adaptation of cultural and religious concepts from the East to the West, and focuses on the Jewish, Sufi and Neo-platonic roots of the perception of the relation between idea and image, a perception responsible for Dante’s choice of Medusa as the allegorical representation of heresy in Inferno, IX, and for his identification of heresy with Epicureanism in Inferno, X.

Traveling westward, the philosophical debate concerning the relation idea-image reaches its peak in European Neo-platonic thought around the 12th century, and constitutes the background against which many writers built their fascinating literary images in courtly literary texts of the Anglo-Norman area.

Through a comparative examination of the use of the metaphor of the Stone Idol, the purpose of the paper is to show how the same problematic is still alive and central in Dante’s text, written up to two hundred years later and belonging to a different geographical area and cultural milieau.

The research of the common roots that tie together on the one hand Alain de Lille’s and Maimonide’s concept of form, and on the other the Islamic perception of the falsity of polytheistic idolatry, as expressed in the story of Abdallah Ibn Fadil in The Thousand and One Nights, and Ibn ‘Arabi’s poetical perception that congealing the object of desire in a static effigy which denies the potentiality of further manifestations is a form of heresy, provides us with a useful tool for understanding the deep philosophical and religious message that the metaphor of the Stone Idol carries in Dante’s text.

In the episode of the Hall of the Statues in the Tristan of Thomas the metaphor of the Stone Idol bespeaks of the mystical roots underlying the ideal of French courtly love, the same metaphysical search for a bliss unattainable in full that in the Italian Stilnuovo takes the shape of a quest for intellectual perfection.

Dante’s mystical search rises well above the intellectual cognitive effort propounded by his friends of the Stilnuovocircle. Believing he had been chosen to help bring about a complete renewal of society, in the Commedia he embraces Beatrice, his object of desire, as a symbol of the highest level of knowledge, the one detached from the stage of sensible experience, represented by the poet Virgil. Beatrice is now a sign of the Active Intellect that, activating sole imagination, has succeeded in overcoming the individual conscience, conferring prophetic powers to the individual as a gift of Divine Grace. As a representation of Christ she is also the mediator of the mystical union with God, within the orthodoxy of faith.

From this new perspective, the metaphor of the Stone Idol finds its central expression in the shape of the mythological Medusa, the paralyzing allegory of heresy, against whose mesmerizing and deadly potential human intellect has to learn to shut his eyes and faithfully rely on the help of the true “living stone”, Christ.

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