The two words typology and figuralism, when used as technical terms in Scriptural analysis, are synonymous. Typology (from the Greek, typos) seems to have become the preferred term for art historians; figuralism, for students of literature. This approach interprets events in Old Testament history as prefigurations ("types" or "figures") which find their fulfillment in New Testament events. To the modern observer, this way of understanding the Old Testament frequently seems an inauthentic distortion of the meaning of Hebrew scripture, but it is essential to keep in mind that this was for the Christian Middle Ages the accepted way to read the Bible. If we are to understand medieval literature, drama, art, liturgy, monasticism, any aspect of life that assumed familiarity with Christianity (and few aspects did not in the Middle Ages), it is essential to understand this view of the Bible and the attitude it implies toward revelation, history, and the phenomenal world.
According to this view, Old Testament history has both a literal and a spiritual sense. Jesus Himself seems to have used the Old Testament typologically. For example, when the Pharisees and Sadducees ask Jesus for a sign, He responds that they shall be given only "the sign of Jonah" (Mt. 16.4 and Lk. 11. 29). Jonah spent three days in the fish's belly as a foreshadowing of Jesus who will spend three days in the tomb before His resurrection. There are several other specific examples in the New Testament, many of which we shall examine shortly.
These early hints were elaborated upon by the early church and given sanction by the earliest "Fathers of the Church," the intellectual giants who helped define Christianity in its earliest centuries. By the High Middle Ages, a complex systematizing often called fourfold allegory or allegory of the theologians, had developed. However diversely it might have been elaborated, the central characteristic remained, as Erich Auerbach put it, that a figure "is something real and historical which announces something else which is real and historical. The relation between two events is revealed by an accord or similarity" (29). The defining aspect of the figure is that both events are equally "real." Indeed, only Old Testament history, to use the concept of figuralism properly, can have a figural significance. A book such as the lyrical Song of Songs might be interpreted allegorically, but, since it is not truly historical, it cannot be figural. (As a matter of fact, however, the terms were frequently applied loosely to all books of Scripture.) To cite Auerbach's words once again, "Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons, the first of which signifies not only itself, but also the second, while the second encompasses or fulfills the first" (53).
The roots of figuralism can be found in certain attitudes about God that Christians inherited from Jewish tradition and from Hebrew Scripture, and so our discussion will start there. God--the Creator of history--controls history. He is a personal and loving God with a providential concern for all humanity, but especially for His chosen people. On various occasions, therefore, He enters the stream of time that He has created in order to influence directly the affairs of His people. In person-to-person relationships, He makes agreements with his people--covenants--in which both He and they agree to certain patterns of behavior. (In general, the terms would be, "follow My law, and I will bless and protect you.")
The most famous of these covenants, made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, reveal a progressively more detailed definition of the chosen people. Adam and Noah are, in a sense, pre-Jewish, the specific election of Jews as God's people coming with the great covenant of faith made with Abraham. With Moses, the definition narrows to Jews who keep the law that unites them ethically and religiously. The covenant with David says that his dynasty would rule forever, and that the anointed one, the Messiah, would come from his family.
Of all of God's interventions, by far the most important and the most dramatic is the Exodus, which may safely be called the defining event in Jewish history. Commemorated annually in the celebration of Passover, the story is a familiar one, but its details are so important to this discussion that a brief summary of the events seems in order. According to the book of Genesis, the sons of Israel had sought refuge in grain-rich Egypt during a famine, at a time when one of the sons, Joseph, had become adviser to Pharaoh. In the book of Exodus, however, the Jews, who had grown numerous over subsequent generations, were used as slave labor in the public works projects of a new and hostile dynasty. God called upon Moses to lead His people out of slavery back to the Promised Land once given to Abraham, the land from which the Jews had previously emigrated. Since Pharaoh refuses the repeated requests to "let My people go," God sends a series of plagues to bend the Egyptians to His will. After the first nine fail, God sends the tenth and harshest of all, the curse of the first born. All first- born males in the kingdom, from Pharaoh's own son to the offspring of livestock are struck dead, except for the children of the Jews, who are instructed ritually to slaughter and consume in each household a perfect and spotless lamb and to smear its blood on their doorposts as a sign to God that these houses be by-passed, "passed over" in the general slaughter.
Persuaded by this final show of force, Pharaoh commands Moses to lead the people forth at once. By the time they reach the Red Sea, however, Pharaoh has changed his mind, and he and his army overtake the band of refugees. The people, guilty of doubt for the first of many times, question why Moses has led them into the wilderness to die. At God's instruction Moses stretches his rod, the sea parts, the Jews cross, Moses stretches the rod forth once again, and the seas rush back and drown the pursuing army. The moment has remained for Jews to this day the most dramatic example both of God's power and of His protection of His beloved chosen people.
The Exodus experience does not end here, however. Moses leads his people to Mt. Sinai, where, in a face-to-face meeting with God, he is given the law, the ten commandments. Just as God is holy, His chosen people must be holy, and the law serves to guide them. It insists upon justice and ethical purity in dealings with others and upon absolute monotheism in dealings with God. Because the people, still afflicted with a slave-mentality, are not ready to assume such responsibilities, they are forced to wander forty years in the wilderness, steeling themselves to the challenge of recapturing the Promised Land and testifying by their compliance to the law to God's abiding presence with His people.
During the wilderness experience, God continues His sustaining love. He provides manna for food and water that flows miraculously from a rock, while a new generation, hardened by the desert experience, grows up eventually to defeat the Canaanites. Details of the wandering may be found in the book Christians call "Numbers," a book whose content is better described by its title in the Jewish Bible, "In the Wilderness." The book of Deuteronomy (Greek for "second law") follows Numbers and consists of three speeches on the law delivered to the people by Moses shortly before his death.
At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses dies, Joshua succeeds him as leader, and in the book of Joshua the people complete their journey. Joshua leads them across the River Jordan, which parts as miraculously at the end of their journey as the Red Sea had at the beginning. Once in the Promised Land, the Jews celebrate a Passover, and go on to defeat the Canaanites and establish control of their ancestral homeland.
This Exodus experience was read "typologically" even in Old Testament times, although the concept was not so rigidly and narrowly applied as a philosophy of history as it would be in the Christian dispensation. This experience of national bondage and liberation became, for example, the model, the "type," of the Babylonian captivity of the sixth century B.C. During other frequent lapses into national apostasy, Judges and Prophets pointed back to the law, calling upon Jews to rededicate themselves to a wilderness experience. National calamities are attributed to neglect for the law, while national conversion presages a return of God's favor, for God steadfastly abides by the covenant and stands ever ready to love His people if asked to do so.
Moreover, not only is the Exodus pattern repeated on a national level in subsequent history, it also implies a personal commitment from each individual Jew. Deuteronomy, in particular, puns upon the word "derek," "the way," as both the literal way and the law. The followers of Moses, on their way to the Promised Land, are literally on God's way; each individual Jew, by following the law, commits himself to the wilderness experience by following the "way of life" that Yahweh expects of His people. By following the way, each Jew establishes his identity with the chosen people, redeemed along with the rest of the nation from the slavery of a meaningless life and delivered into a purposive history.
Before returning to figuralism in the New Testament, we should discuss one additional Old Testament idea, that of the Messiah. Literally, the work means the anointed one, and it is translated into Greek as Christos, Christ. The word refers to the ancient Jewish custom of pouring oil onto a person to signify special consecration to God. Moses' brother Aaron was ordained a priest by the pouring of oil, prophets were later metaphorically anointed, and they in turn anointed kings in imitation of the prophet Samuel's anointing of Saul and David.
The reign of David and of his son, Solomon, proved the high water mark of the Jewish kingdom. David's combination of political shrewdness and apparently sincere piety united the 12 tribes into a single kingdom. In order to make his capital city, Jerusalem, a religious as well as political center, he had the ark of the covenant, the chest which contained the stone tablets on which God had written the law handed down to Moses, brought to the city. In return for building a house for God to dwell in (actually Solomon was to build the temple), God, through the prophet Nathan, promised to establish forever David's house, David's dynasty (II Kings 7. 5-17).
This is the source of subsequent Messianic imagery. David's offspring do continue to be anointed kings in the south, in Judah, for over four centuries, until 587 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and deported the Jews to Babylon. In 538, Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonians and shortly thereafter encouraged the Jews to return home and rebuild their temple, but as a Persian province, not as an independent kingdom; the dynasty had come to an end.
During and after the exile, many Jews, major prophets among them, hoped for God to fulfill his promise to David to send a new Messiah from the family of David. The new anointed one would usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. Some hoped that he would be a political and military leader who would inspire the people to overthrow foreign domination by force of arms. According to another view, he would lead by gentle example and establish the Jews as a pattern to all nations of what people might become through devotion to Yahweh.
This brings us back at last to the New Testament. According to the gospels, Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, the Christ, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies foretelling a future Messianic age. He was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and both Matthew (l. 1-17) and Luke (3.23-38) are at pains to trace his genealogy to David and to Abraham. According to Luke, the first act of Jesus's public ministry was to read in the synagogue at Nazareth a Messianic passage from Isaiah, after which "he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, `Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'" (Lk. 4. 16-21). Finally, in both Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul, one of the major doctrines is that Jesus is the Christ, the awaited Messiah. This fulfillment of earlier revelation in the person of Jesus led to a search for other such fulfillments, and examples were not hard to come by.
Paul's epistles provide the richest source for early typology. Genesis tells of Abraham's two sons, Ishmael, son of the slave Hagar, and the younger Isaac, son of Sarah's old age. Paul interprets the story typologically:
Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mt. Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar. . .corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. . . Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. (Gal. 4. 24-28)
For Paul, Ishmael is a type of the Jews, cast out of God's favor for Isaac, a type of the Christians, the chosen people of the New Covenant.
Other examples of typology may be found in the Epistles. Paul calls Adam specifically a typeof Christ (Rom. 5. 12-14); as sin and death entered the world through the actions of one person, Adam, they are conquered through the actions of another, Jesus. The first letter of Peter claims that Noah's ark is the type of the church: as the ark bore God's righteous remnant safely on the waters of destruction, Christians enter the ark of the church through Baptism and float above spiritual destruction (I Peter. 3. 20-22). Finally, in a well-known passage from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of Baptism and the rock from which water came during the years of exile is Christ Himself.
Over the subsequent centuries, many more figural parallels were "discovered" in God's Book, and the frequently haphazard and strained readings needed to be tamed. The later Middle Ages' fourfold allegory attempted this. The best known exposition of this doctrine is found in a letter written by Dante to his patron, Can Grande Della Scala, in which he explains that his Comedy can be read as Scripture was. (Despite some question of the letter's authenticity, most scholars believe that Dante wrote it; if he did not, its statements about Scriptural exegesis would surely have met with his approval.) In his analysis, Dante was simply repeating the formulation of St. Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th century Dominican (see Summa Theologiae, 1.10), and Thomas was systematizing the common way Christians had understood Scripture since the first century.
The central difference between the "allegory of the poets" and the "allegory of the theologians" (the terms are Dante's) is that no spiritual significance in Scripture in any way compromises its literal sense, the historicity of the Old Testament. That Jonah turned out, "in the fullness of time," to be a type of Christ, in no way makes his literal experience any the less real. He existed, was called by God, was swallowed and cast forth by the fish, and preached to the city of Nineveh, and his experience in addition foreshadows another later event.
When Plato explains the nature of the philosophical life with the cave analogy, he is using what Dante called the allegory of the poets. Plato never believes, nor does he ask his audience to believe, that anyone was ever literally bound in a cave, mistaking reflections for reality. The story exists solely for the spiritual meaning; it is, as Dante puts it, a "bella menzogna," a beautiful lie, that is literally untrue, but a beautiful way of signifying spiritual truth. On the other hand, whatever additional meaning may be found in the Exodus story, no medieval theologian ever doubted nor did he ask his audience to doubt, that Moses really did lead the chosen people, at God's command, from bondage in Egypt into the wilderness. God has literally intruded upon history to guide His people, and, if the act turns out to mean more than that, it also never means less.
According to the schematized allegory of the theologians, there were, in addition to the literal
sense of an Old Testament passage, three separate spiritual senses: the allegorical, the moral, and
the anagogical. The allegorical corresponds to what we have been calling the figural or
typological: Old Testament events are "fulfilled" by New Testament events. The moral sense,
also called the tropological, suggests that the Old Testament stories have ethical implications for
the individual believer. The anagogical sense relates the historical events to future experiences,
particularly those at the end of time or in eternity. The classic summary of fourfold exegesis is the
following Latin doggerel verse, a widely known mnemonic device in medieval schools:
Lettera gesta docet,
quid credas allegoria,
moralia quid agas,
quo tendas, anagogia.
The literal teaches history,
the allegorical, what you should believe,
the moral, what you should do,
the anagogical, where you are going.
All four senses are not always present or discernible in all passages from Scripture nor in all figural art or literature, but any or all of them may be present, and we must always be alert to the possibility of their presence. In order to help explain the distinctions among the spiritual senses of Scripture, both Thomas and Dante use the example of the Exodus. In our allegorical, that is typological, sense, the Exodus of the Jews under Moses is the "type" of a future historical event, the redemption of humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In this view, Christians have replaced Jews as the chosen people, enslaved in the Egypt of sin and death. Jesus Himself sums up the whole Exodus experience. Crucified at Jerusalem at the time of Passover, He is the new passover lamb whose blood is shed to sign those who should be spared God's punishment. He is the new Moses leading His people, fulfilling in Himself the law and prophets (Mt. 5.17). He is the new Joshua ("Jesus" is simply the Hellenized form of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning "Deliverer"), leading the chosen people into the Promised Land of eternal life and out of the bondage of death. He is Himself the Jews, led out into the wilderness and asked to keep the law and do God's will. Of all typological relationships, this relationship of Exodus to Jesus's life was always the most important and the one most testified to in the gospels. (More on this shortly).
As we have already seen, Jews saw the Exodus as a particularly definitive moment that kept recurring in a history of successive imprisonments and liberations. Christians simply built upon that understanding, finding in the Redemption of Jesus the greatest of all such repetitions and in fact the fulfillment of the Exodus, which becomes by retrospect a foreshadowing of this greater, particularly defining moment. As we have also noted, the individual Jew also saw the Exodus as a call to personal commitment, to follow the "way" of the law and so identify himself with the people chosen for the way of the wilderness. Prof. A.C. Charity sums the point up nicely: the indicative of the narrative account implies an imperative for believers(39-48, et passim). If God was a certain kind of God, His people should be a certain kind of people. His holiness commands theirs. His generosity to a captive people implies their obligation to defend the poor and the weak. His absolute fidelity to his people beckons them to fidelity to Him. Christians built upon this understanding, too, in the second of the spiritual senses of Scripture, the moral.
For the Christians, too, historical events in Scripture implied a moral imperative. In this moral sense, the Exodus signifies the conversion of the individual Christian, his personal liberation from bondage in the Egypt of sinfulness into the Promised Land of grace and reconciliation with God and with other people. Christians are called forth into the Wilderness out of "the fleshpots of Egypt," asked to follow the new "way," Jesus Himself. "I am the way and the truth and the life," as He put it, and His frequent command to His hearers was to "come, follow me." From the earliest days of the Church, Lent was a reminder of this meaning of Exodus, 40 days of self-denial before Easter, the Christian Passover, as each Christian personally commemorated the years of the wilderness.
Finally, the fourth sense of Scripture is the anagogical, the meaning of the passage in terms of eternal life. This is the hardest of the senses to define. In Dante's example, the anagogical meaning of Exodus is "the departure of the holy soul from the slavery of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory." In this case, the example is perhaps more helpful for understanding Dante's poem than for understanding the fourfold approach to Scripture. The basic insight, however, is that figuralism is an ongoing process. If events from one moment in the past can have foreshadowed later events, also in the past for us, could they not also foreshadow future events, events even at the end of time or in eternity and therefore beyond time. To use Erich Auerbach's terminology, historical events in a typological context have both a horizontal relationship to other events in the continuum of time and also a vertical relationship to eternity, from which the events derive their ultimate meaning. (In a sense, Dante's elaborate catalogue of sinners in the afterlife is built upon this conception: the souls' behavior in life is the type of what their state will be after death.)
That Exodus typology has always been a part of the Christian tradition is attested to by the gospel writers themselves, who saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the Passover. Matthew, for example, stresses Jesus' similarity to the Jewish nation. In order to escape the slaughter of the Innocents, the newborn Jesus is taken to Egypt: "This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, `Out of Egypt have I called my son" (Mt. 2.15). The prophecy (from Hosea 11.1) refers to Israel, personified as frequently in the Old Testament as the son of God, but for Matthew, the experience of Israel is fulfilled in Jesus. After King Herod's death, Jesus, as Israel had done earlier, leaves Egypt to return home.
Jesus begins his ministry at the River Jordan, where John the Baptist, "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord," baptizes Him. A voice from Heaven then proclaims, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased," traditional Old Testament ways of God's referring to his beloved son, Israel (Mt.3). Jesus then crosses the river and wanders into the wilderness for a typologically apt 40 days and 40 nights, during which He is tempted as the Jews had been. He answers the devil's three temptations, however, with three quotations from Deuteronomy; he keeps steadfastly to the law, to the way, and becomes in Himself for Christians the way. His later claim that He comes not to abolish, but to fulfill the law and the prophets (5.17) is endorsed by the presence of Moses and Elijah, flanking Him at the Transfiguration (17.3).
John's gospel is even more elaborate in claiming that Jesus fulfills the Exodus. Jesus Himself says, "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (Jn. 3.14-15). In the book of Numbers (21.9), the Jews were being harassed by poisonous snakes. At God's command, Moses fashioned a serpent of bronze and set it up on a pole, and anyone who was bitten and looked upon the brazen serpent would live. Jesus makes of that serpent a type of Himself, raised up on the cross so that his followers in the wilderness of this world can be cured of the affliction of the serpent from the Garden of Eden, that is, cured of the results of original sin.
Indeed, as soon as Jesus enters into this Gospel, John the Baptist announces, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn. 1.29), and throughout the gospel, Jesus is the paschal lamb, the sacrificial victim of the new covenant through whose blood the new Christian passover becomes possible. John the Baptist is explicit: this lamb will take away sins, freeing people from a bondage more subtle than that of Egypt. When Jesus later proclaims that faith in Him will set his followers free and they object that they "are descendants of Abraham and have never been in bondage to anyone" (8.33), He explains that they are slaves of sin and that He will free them from this bondage.
Finally, at the end of John's gospel, Roman soldiers break the legs of the other two men crucified with Jesus, in order to hasten their death before sundown and the beginning of Passover. (In the other three gospels, Passover had begun on Thursday, but for John, not until Saturday.) Seeing Jesus already dead, however, a soldier instead pierces Jesus' side with a lance, and the narrator tells us, "these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, `Not a bond of him shall be broken'"(Jn. 19.36). The quotation, from Exodus 12.46, describes the method of preparing the paschal lamb for sacrifice. (In the book of Revelation, also attributed to John, Jesus is venerated as a sacrificed lamb.)
In the early church and throughout the Middle Ages, Biblical typology was expanded and systematized to a degree that would appear to us far-fetched, mechanical, sterile. If Christ is the second Adam, then the tree in the garden is the type of the cross. There was even the folk belief that the wood of the cross came literally from a tree that grew from a seed of the tree of good and evil.
Eve, the woman through whom all people fell, became the type of the Virgin Mary, the woman through whom life and salvation entered the world. Eve was considered guilty of over-reaching pride in slipping out of the proper hierarchical relation to her husband. Mary, the great example of humility, accepted the angel Gabriel's annunciation that she will bear a child of the Holy Spirit with the words: "I am the handmaid of the Lord: let it be to me according to your word" (Lk. 1.38). The fact that our first mother's name in Latin is Eva, and that Gabriel greeted Mary in the usual Latin fashion with Ave, "hail," and that his greeting therefore spells Eve's name in reverse, was seen not as accidental, but as purposive, and as a sign of God's wondrous ordering of history.
An alternative tradition saw Eve as a type of the Church. In a passage repeated in every medieval marriage ceremony, Paul says:
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. (Eph. 5. 22-23)
The prophets Hosea and Ezekiel both spoke of Israel as the bride of Yahweh, using humanity's most familiar covenant of love as a symbol for the special one between God and his people. The Song of Songs was allegorically interpreted as referring to the love of Yahweh the Groom and Israel the Bride. Christians simply kept the relationship, with Jesus as Groom and the Church, the community of believers, as the Bride. If Adam is the type of Christ, therefore, it stands to reason that his spouse be the type of Christ's spouse.
Moreover, Eve was formed from a rib taken from the side of Adam. The Church is institutionalized as the custodian of the sacraments, the seven saving rites of the new covenant, that gain their efficacy from the death and resurrection of Jesus. One frequent way of asserting this doctrine iconographically was to show angels present at the crucifixion catching the blood and water flowing from the opened side of Jesus in a chalice, the cup used in the ritual of the Mass to contain the wine (always mixed with a little water to recall the crucifixion) that was believed to be changed into the blood of Jesus during the Mass. The church, therefore, as an institution, is in a sense born from the side of the second Adam, and so fulfills the "type" of the Church, Eve.
Similarly far-fetched correspondences abounded, and by the later Middle Ages had been systematized into tables that could serve artists who would want to maintain a complex yet orthodox typology in their programs. One of the most widely circulated of these, the so-called Biblia Pauperum or "Bible of the Poor," was a book of woodcuts, each page depicting in the center a scene from the New Testament, surrounded by Old Testament prefigurations in smaller representations. If such an approach to Scripture strikes us in the twentieth century as invalid, we must remember that only by understanding such correspondences can we hope to understand medieval Biblical references as they were meant to be understood.
For to call this book the Bible of the Poor is not to suggest that it was different in kind from the Bible of the wealthy or of the well-educated. The Biblia Pauperum simply made available in a single volume of relatively few pages a compendium, a digest, of the best intellectual attitudes of the age about that age's most important book. (In fact, the book seems to have been especially intended for and used by poor priests, for whom a complete manuscript of the Bible would have been prohibitively expensive.) In typology, the medieval believer found evidence of God's love, of His desire to reveal Himself and make comprehensible statements to guide His chosen people, and of His continuing and sustaining power as creator as He continues to impose order and meaning upon history. For his part, the believer is invited to turn the twin lights of faith and reason upon the texts of Scripture to try to probe the mysteries God has concealed therein.
To be sure, reason too often degenerated into ingenuity. Too often typology became based on folklore more than on the word of God. Too often traditional doctrines were imposed upon Scripture which was then in turn used as Scriptural justification for the doctrine. For example, one interpretation of the Song of Songs had it that the Groom was Christ and the Bride, the Virgin Mary. Thus when the Groom says to the Bride in chapter 2, "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away," one interpretation had it that this provided Scriptural justification for the doctrine of the Assumption, which held that Mary's body never corrupted, but was "assumed" into heaven after her death. The Groom, Christ, is in heaven, calling His Bride to arise and join Him. (This passage was read at Mass on August 15, the feast of the Assumption.)
Excesses of this sort struck early reformers as a distortion of the Word of God, and the offense helped fuel the Reformation. It would be historically insensitive, however, to dismiss typology out of hand as naive or unsophisticated. In the pre-Copernican world, nature was still something to wonder at and admire more than something to analyze objectively, a source of symbolic communication which led people to admire the Creator and through which the Creator spoke to them. The Bible, typologically interpreted, provided further grounds for hope and optimism--and wonder--at God who reveals His will so gladly to those who but take the trouble to seek it out.
There is one final important way in which figuralism worked in the Middle Ages. Each Christian is called upon by virtue of his baptism to be Christ- like. (During the ritual of Baptism, the candidate is anointed, "christened.") Those few who do so in certain exemplary ways were formally canonized as saints for having been conspicuously figurae Christi, figures of Christ. They were especially successful at applying the moral sense of Scripture to their lives. Just as surely as Old Testament events pointed ahead to the central events in Christ's life, later events in the Christian dispensation can point back. Saints' lives, therefore, often emphasized correspondences between the lives of Saints and events from Scripture (especially from the life of Jesus). In this way, God's will, as revealed in Scripture, was seen to continue operating even into the present age.
St. Francis of Assisi was especially considered, even in his own lifetime, as the greatest of contemporary figurae Christi. In addition to being a "type" of Christ, moreover, Francis is at various points in his legend a type of Moses, of Elijah, of Jacob, of Abraham, of John the Baptist, and of such earlier monastic saints as Martin of Tours and Benedict. In hagiography, as in Scriptural exegesis, typology was a way of emphasizing both the concrete historicity of the individual saint and the underlying relationship of his pattern of life to other historical events of which it is a figure.
Finally, we come to typology's significance for understanding Dante. Many of the details of this discussion will be considered in other chapters or in discussions of specific cantos, but at this point, suffice it to say that at various times all four of the senses of scriptural exegesis enter into Dante's Comedy. As has often been noted (since Charles Singleton coined the expression), "the fiction of the Divine Comedy, is that it is not fiction" (62). Dante insists throughout that he writes only what he really saw, and no amount of interpretive criticism can alter one's initial sense of wonder at Dante's attention to the details of sensual and emotional reality. Dante observed the external world of nature, the internal world of the human psyche, and the world of social interaction as no one before (or, I think, after) was able to do, and the "historical" reality of his journey remains inviolate, even though the journey clearly has extra-literal significance.
Erich Auerbach, the scholar most responsible for the application of biblical typology to the study of Dante, began with the question of why Dante rediscovered realism as a stylistic device in Western literature. (This was the central question of Auerbach's early book, Dante, Poet of the Secular World,, originally published in German in 1929. In trying to figure out why and how modern literary realism began with Dante, Auerbach, in his subsequent research and writing, found the origin in theological rather than secular sources.) Auerbach, and his successor Charles Singleton found Dante's source in the typological approach to Scripture, which presupposes the co-existence of a real and symbolic dimension in an historical narrative. As Singleton put it, in the Comedy Dante tried to "imitate God's way of writing" (15). Their approach has proved so fruitful, has made so many passages comprehensible and accessible to the modern reader, that it has become probably the dominant critical approach in contemporary Dante studies, especially in America.
Dante's choice of the Exodus to explain his use of allegory to Can Grande is no accident. His whole poem is an example of the moral or tropological sense of Exodus, the individual Christian's conversion, his turning back onto "the way" of grace in the wilderness of the Dark Wood. The souls of the saved remind us of the allegorical or typological sense of Exodus. They are redeemed by the new paschal lamb and have now crossed over the water (of Lethe and Eunoe) into the Promised Land of Paradise. As we shall see, ample textual justification may be found for such readings.
The whole of the Comedy, finally, exemplified the anagogical sense, the fulfillment of the event in eternal life, the freeing of the soul from bondage in the body. The state of the souls as Dante finds them in eternity is simply the eternal fulfillment of the lives they had led on earth. Their earthly lives were real--uncompromisingly so--but were also figures of what their future existence would be. As A.C. Charity puts it, the habitus, "the invisible axis of . . . selfhood around which all . . . actions and sayings revolved in life is now objectified, made visible, all of a character's actions and speeches revealing his relation to this controlling definition of self that he may have successfully concealed while alive" (102 ff.).
Those souls who followed the imperative implied in the Bible's indicative, who followed "the way" of the chosen people, who made themselves figures of Christ and made the personal Exodus of conversion will spend eternity in Paradise, the fulfillment of their lives' histories. Those who chose to remain in the wilderness, who elected to love and worship what did not deserve affection and veneration of the sort accorded, will also spend eternity with the fulfillment of their lives' histories.
Auerbach, Erich. Dante, Poet of the Secular World, trans. Ralph Manheim. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Auerbach, Erich. "Figura," in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Meridian, 1957. This essay, perhaps still the best consideration of figuralism by a literary historian, was originally published in German in 1944. Auerbach was one of the first to see the importance of this way of reading Biblical narrative to understanding Dante's Divine Comedy.
Charity, A.C. Events and Their Afterlife: The Dialectics of Christian Typology in the Bible and Dante Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966. I am particularly indebted to his analysis of the Jewish origins of typology upon which my own understanding is largely based.
Singleton, Charles S. Dante Studies I: Commedia, Elements of Structure. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1957.