Sculptor Timothy Shmalz unveiled his latest creation, The Dante Gardens, at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College May 25. It’s an ode to Dante Aligheri’s 'The Divine Comedy'. Michael Swan

Sculptor, cardinal tout Dante’s power

  • June 3, 2023

If you ask Toronto’s retired archbishop Cardinal Thomas Collins or celebrated Canadian Catholic sculptor Timothy Schmalz to discuss the legacy of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), they will likely wax poetic about the famous Catholic Italian poet, writer and philosopher.

This was the case when The Catholic Register reached out to these two gentlemen.

Both men have a long and keen interest in Alighieri. Schmalz has been immersed in Alighieri’s work over the past two years — though his interest in Dante dates back years — as the St. Jacob’s, Ont., product poured his artistic facilities into rendering all 100 cantos (a subsection of a long or an epic narrative poem) of The Divine Comedy. Alighieri authored his vision of hell, purgatory and paradise over the final 13 years of his life. His magnum opus is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential works of literature.

“I wanted to pour my energy into something that warranted an extreme amount of time, patience and creativity,” said Schmalz. “Naturally, I went to Dante and The Divine Comedy. Ever since I became a sculptor at the age of 17, I loved Dante.”

 Famous artists from previous centuries have tackled The Divine Comedy, including Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)’s The Gates of Hell, but they never moved beyond Dante’s Inferno. It is only The Divine Comedy if you also depict the poems “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso,” said Schmalz.

On May 25, Schmalz unveiled his creation, The Dante Gardens, which includes 100 panel illustrations of the 100 cantos, and a statue of Dante holding one of the cantos, at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto.

Schmalz said he hopes his tribute to Alighieri will entice people to seek out The Divine Comedy, which he considers an essential read for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

“They would be richer human beings if they become acquainted with Dante’s Divine Comedy not only because you will develop a bridge that spans over 700 years, but you will also realize that the human problems of today are very similar to the human problems of centuries ago. You then are gifted with a sense of the universal human experience.”

Collins concurred that Alighieri’s poem speaks to people just as impactfully in 2023 as it did soon after its publication in 1321. It transcends the constraints of time.

“He is the greatest of all poets, based on the greatest of all theologians, Thomas Aquinas,” said Collins. “Dante lived from 1265 to 1321, and Aquinas died in 1274, so they sort of overlapped a little bit. When you read Dante, he puts the whole of life together. What he describes is just so astonishingly real. All the sins and strengths and weaknesses, and all the characters and personalities we have in our own age were present back then — they just wore different clothing.”

Alighieri depicts the journey of life for a character version of himself in The Divine Comedy. The character is a man around 35-years-old who has fallen away from the path of righteousness, which is following the will of God.

 “He wrote that midway through life, the character found himself in a dark forest,” said Collins, “and that is a kind of experience we can all find as the years go by.”

With the support of Virgil, the poet, who symbolizes human reason and wisdom, the character of Dante confronts the horrible sights of hell, experiences purgatory and learns how to attain the realm of paradise.

When he was growing up in Guelph, Ont., Collins first read the American poet John Ciardi’s celebrated English translation of The Divine Comedy. He decided to read the book, a paperback he purchased for just 75 cents, as a Lenten project.

During his long tenure as Archbishop of Toronto, Collins attended the University of St. Michael’s College lectures about Dante and toured exhibitions. In 2014, he delivered a lecture about the power and relevancy of the poet to University of Toronto students. One of the key messages of that speech was how the lessons of faith and reason taught in The Divine Comedy are highly applicable to how Catholics today should live.

Collins said he is convinced that works like The Divine Comedy deserve much more attention as a resource to teach people how to live a life of faith.

“I think we should not rob our people (of Dante’s work),” said Collins. “We are so shallow in our presentation of our Catholic faith. It is so rich and nourishing. In this crazy world of ours, we need as much richness as we can get. We need this depth and gift of our faith that we find in the work of Dante, Thomas Aquinas, all the great priests of Ávila.

“It just bothers me that young people especially are given a comic-book version of our faith. People get caught up in such trendy things, which are so shallow, so brittle, so plastic, so tacky and so out of touch of what is life-giving and divine. It’s like living on junk food when you have a great banquet before you and Dante is a part of that banquet.”

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