Lough Derg – the inspiration for Dante’s Inferno

By Katie Hutton

Last year marked the 700th anniversary of the death of the Italian poet Dante, an occasion celebrated throughout Italy with open-air readings, on-line conferences and the publication of books and papers. What isn’t perhaps widely known is that an inspiration for the first book of his Divine Comedy is a legend associated with the cave (since destroyed) known as St Patrick’s Purgatory, on Station Island, Lough Derg.

While there is no concrete historical evidence of St Patrick’s presence on the islands in the lough, tradition relates that frustrated with the doubts expressed by some of his converts, the saint asked heaven for a sign, and God showed him a pit, or cave, so deep it led to Purgatory. Here the doubters could witness the torments inflicted to purge souls of sin before they were admitted to Paradise. St Patrick’s Purgatory thus became a place of pilgrimage, where the pilgrim would be locked in for twenty-four hours after fasting and performing a series of penitential exercises.

The best known of a number of medieval accounts of St Patrick’s Purgatory was that of the twelfth-century English Benedictine monk, H (perhaps Henry) of Saltrey, who recorded the legend he had learned via Gilbert, Bishop of Louth, of the Knight Owain. The knight made a pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory in order to do penance for a violent and dissolute life, and in due course was locked in the cave.

Owain stumbled through the darkness until he saw a light. Following it, he came out in an underground land and witnessed souls undergoing terrible tortures in pits of flames. Only by invoking the name of Jesus did Owain escape torment himself, and was rewarded by being shown a glimpse of Paradise.

There seems little doubt that Dante’s account of being accompanied by Virgil into the circles of Hell is based on the Owain legend. Shakespeare too must have known something about Lough Derg: in Act I of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark invokes St Patrick when referring to his father’s ghost – the implication being that his father’s soul has been momentarily released from Purgatory in order to appear to his son.

Although St Patrick’s Purgatory at Lough Derg attracted pilgrims from all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages, the cave was briefly closed in 1497 on the orders of the Borgia pope Alexander VI, after a Dutch monk had complained to Rome that he had been locked in the cave as arranged but found only cold and damp when he was expecting visions, and furthermore, said he had been shaken down for money at every stage of his pilgrimage.

The cave was eventually destroyed on the orders of the Lord Justices in 1632, and the monks who lived on Station Island were driven away. Even though pilgrims were then barred from going to the island they would still go to the lakeside and perform penitential exercises and fast there, but keeping pilgrims away from the island proved unenforceable, and gradually they returned – and they have been going there ever since. The cave was reconstructed, but was finally destroyed in 1727.

An echo of St Patrick’s Purgatory however survives – in Dante’s Italy. The city of Orvieto is situated on a volcanic rock high above the road from Florence to Rome, making it almost impregnable. A magnificent fourteenth-century cathedral dominates the skyline. In 1527 during the Sack of Rome by the Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII took refuge in the town, and in order to secure a water supply in the event of a siege, commissioned the construction of the sixty-two metre deep Pozzo di San Patrizio, St Patrick’s Well.

The architect was Antonio da San Gallo, for many years in charge of the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome. Antonio’s well is a double-helix, constructed around a central well, enabling the donkeys or oxen carrying water up to avoid their companions coming down.

And thirty-seven kilometres from St Patrick’s Well at Orvieto, at Todi, in the convent church of the Poor Clares, there is a wall-painting by an unidentified artist, dated 1346, of souls in torment in Purgatory, much as the Knight Owain legend described – and above, St Patrick himself can be seen stoking the flames.

St. Patrick’s Well, Orvieto

There are more than three thousand holy wells in Ireland, many of them named for St Patrick, who used their water to baptise his converts. In Orvieto the well was built to protect the citizens of the town in the event of a siege, but access to life-giving water was the common need. Antonio da San Gallo’s feat of engineering might appear to have nothing to do with pilgrimage and everything to do with hydraulics, yet what other saint’s name could better evoke an excavation so deep that it would seem to go so far as Purgatory?

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