In canto 23 of Dante’s Inferno, Virgil and Dante witness hypocrites meeting their punitive fates in the Eighth Circle of hell. A hypocrite is a person who publicly professes to possess virtues, principles, or moral or religious beliefs but does not actually practice them. Privately, a hypocrite’s actions are not consistent with or do not uphold these publicly stated beliefs.
According to Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of this Italian epic poem, these specific sinners
moved about with lagging steps, in circles,
weeping, with features tired and defeated.
And they were dressed in cloaks with cowls so low
they fell before their eyes, of that same cut
that’s used to make the clothes for Cluny’s monks.
Outside, these cloaks were gilded and they dazzled;
But inside they were all of lead, so heavy
that Frederick’s capes were straw compared to them.
A tiring mantle for eternity!
Dante sees members of the clergy who were held in high esteem during their lives now sentenced to atone for their hypocrisy after death. They are forced to wear robes like those of the monks of Cluny, a famous Benedictine monastery in Burgundy. The Cluny monastery was created in a reform movement that returned to older monastic traditions of peace, prayer, and charitable works. The “gilded” and dazzling cloaks reveal the later clergy’s accumulation of riches and power and movement away from more benevolent and humble practices.
While the exterior of the cloaks look ornate, they actually are heavy and burdensome with lead interior lining. In fact, they made Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s capes—he supposedly punished traitors by making them wear capes of lead and having them thrown into boiling cauldrons—seem as light as straw. So while the hypocritical clergymen can appear important and glamorous with gold-adorned cloaks (and thus worthy of being served), they are encumbered with bearing the enervating weight of lead forever or “for eternity.” They cannot sit down or rest but must continue to walk in circles.
Examples of religious hypocrites in the Eighth Circle include two Knights of Saint Mary (also known as “Jovial Friars”), Catalano and Loderingo. These men were supposed to bring peace to the city of Florence by intervening between feuding political factions; instead, they took advantage of their power for their own gain, which led to greater violence in Florence.