The Broken-Open Circle or Chiasmus

The chiasmus is itself a sort of broken-open circle in its abba movement circling round to the term from which it began. Carefully considered, “chiasmus is a figure which mimes circularity.” One of Dante’s most striking employments of the chiasmus—at the opening of Canto XIV— explicitly thematizes this circular movement:

Dal centro al cerchio, e si dal cerchio al centra ....

(From center to circle, and so from circle to center ... .)

A few lines into the canto, a numerical version of the same chiasmic structure of reversal or inversion in order to return upon itself to its beginning follows:

Quell’uno e due e tre che sempre vive

e regna sempre in tre e in due e ’n uno ....

  • (XIV.28-29)
  • 1

Rachel Jacoff, “ ‘Shadowy Prefaces’: An Introduction to Paradiso,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dante, ed. Rachel Jacoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 208-25. Citation, 214.

(That one and two and three that always lives

and reigns always as three and two and one ... .)

In this canto, with its climactic celebration in anticipation of the return of the blessed to their resurrected bodies, the chiasmus describes a circling back to its starting point. However, at the same time, it is also a crossstructure: the vertical axis is cut or crossed by a horizontal axis. Such a crossing is suggested even by the shape of the initial letter chi—X—in the word “chiasmus” in Greek. Among Christian writers, furthermore, the chiasmus receives a particular sanction from the figure of Christ, whose name, Xpioro«;, also begins with this letter. By his Cross (also a X shape rotated 90 degrees), moreover, Christ restores the world to its pristine perfection.

The verse quoted above from Paradiso XIV.76 (“Oh vero sfavillar del Santo Spiro”) nearly concludes the Heaven of the Sun and segues to the introduction to the Heaven of Mars, the heaven of martyrs, where Dante meets Cacciaguida and other holy warriors who sacrificed themselves for their faith in Christ. The Cross of Christ is on display there as the central emblem of the heaven—a luminous Greek cross (delineating four equal quadrants), in which the soul-lights gloriously scintillate, highlighting those who died as martyrs in the East in the Holy Land. This canto’s technique, along with its theme of martyrdom, is thus placed under the selfreflecting sign of the chiasmus, in which the circularity of self-reflection opens up infinitely, with its arms spreading outward to what is outside and other with no limit, no outer bound.

The divine self-reflexivity inscribed in the cross-chiasmus is constantly harped on as the very condition of divine engendering and creativity. The Cross was understood as having a power of regenerating humanity by healing it from Original Sin. The wood of the Cross was traditionally deemed a splinter from the Tree of Life in Eden, which symbolizes Paradise itself (and finally the kingdom of the redeemed), as the “tree” that “lives from its summit” (“1’albero che vive de la cima,” XVIII.29). Dante stages this Tree’s reflowering in Purgatorio XXXII.59-60, where creation is renewed through it. Like the topography of Dante’s Paradise, the temporality of redemption is circular.


Marjorie Reeves and Beatrice Hirsch-Reich, “Joachim’s Figurae and Dante’s Symbolism,” The Figurae of Joachim of Fiore (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 317-23, interpret this figure in an apocalyptic key.

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