Dante and Virgil are on the rim of the third pit, ditch, or trench of Circle VIII for those guilty of Simony. These sinners used their positions in the church for personal monetary gain. The Simonists are upside-down in round holes the size of baptismal fonts.
From each of these holes protrude the feet and legs of a spirit, with the rest of the body upside down in the hole. The soles of their feet are on fire, and Dante sees one shade who is apparently suffering more torment than others, moving and shaking violently; his feet are burning more fiercely than the others.
The soul mistakes Dante for Boniface and is surprised that he is there earlier than expected. Dante tells the soul that he is mistaken, and the soul tells his story. The soul wore "the Great Mantle" of the office of the pope. Below him, in cracks in the rock, are other popes who committed the same sin. When the next pope, Boniface, joins them, he, Nicholas III, will be pushed further down into the stone. The soul says that a new and worse soul will be sent in time to cover him in the hole. Dante reproaches the spirit vehemently. Virgil is pleased at Dante's behavior and carries him out of the chasm where he looks down into the next moat.
The two themes of religion and divine retribution collide in this chasm where the Simonists reside. Simonists, named after Simon the Magus, are souls who sold ecclesiastic favors and offices for their own personal wealth.
These sinners, the Simonists, are upside-down in holes resembling baptismal fonts, illustrating that their sin debased their office, and their feet are on fire, most likely lit by the oil of the last rites. Their time in the font is limited, however. When a new sinner comes, he takes the previous sinner's place, and the previous sinner is shoved down into the rock for eternity, much like the succession of Simonists in office.
These sinners are punished in a manner that is a curious reversal of baptismal practices of the time: Even the burning feet are from the oil used in baptism instead of the cool sweetness of the holy water.
Dante clearly finds these sinners despicable enough to pause in the narrative for a moment and rebuke them harshly. This act does not happen often in Inferno, and it is significant because it illustrates Dante's abhorrence of the corruption of the church that he held so dear. Dante also takes a moment out of the narrative to answer the charge of sacrilege from a number of years earlier when he saved a boy from drowning in a baptismal font by smashing it.
The sinner that Dante addresses is Pope Nicholas III, the chief sinner in the pit, demonstrated by the height of the flames on his feet. His family name meant "the bear cubs" in Italian, and he wore "the Great Mantle" of the papacy. He was a corrupt pope, according to Dante, and he awaits an even more corrupt pope, Boniface, who died in 1303. (Remember, the poem takes place in 1300, though Dante wrote it later.) After Boniface will come Boniface Clement V, an even more corrupt pope.
Throughout Inferno, Dante learns to rebuke and despise sin. In this canto, he feels absolutely no pity for this sinner, as he did with many sinners at the beginning of his journey, and in fact, damns him further. Virgil, as a spiritual guide and symbol for wisdom, is very pleased with Dante's actions. Dante grows more and more ready for the next legs of his journey — Purgatory and Paradise. He must purge himself of sin before he enters those places. Dante's sin is why he was turned away from the Mount of Joy in the opening canto; he must experience Hell and its dangers before he can experience the opposite.
Simonists persons involved in the buying or selling of sacred or spiritual things, as sacraments or benefices.
Simon Magus a magician from whom the word "simony" is derived; tried to buy the rights and power to administer the Holy Ghost.
San Giovianni church that Dante attended.
Jason of the Maccabees bought an office as High Priest of the Jews.
Charles of Anjou seventh son of Louis VIII of France.
Constantine Constantine I (Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus) c. 280-337 a.d.; emperor of Rome (306-337); converted to Christianity; called the Great.