Who is Matilda?
When Dante reaches the top of Purgatory he encounters a lady who guides him through the mysteries he encounters. She is on the opposite side of a stream which he has found.
And there appeared to me …
A lady all alone, who went along
Singing and culling floweret after floweret …
Erect upon the other bank she smiled …
“Speak, if thou wouldst hear more; for I came ready
To all thy questionings, as far as needful.”
(Says this beautiful lady beginning in Canto 28 of Purgatorio.)
She explains that Dante has reached the earthly paradise and the wind and water have different sources than they do down below on earth. She explains the properties of the rivers Lethe and Eunoe and says,
Those who in ancient times have feigned in song
The Age of Gold and its felicity,
Dreamed of this place perhaps upon Parnassus.
This causes the Poets, Statius and Virgil, to smile. Matilda goes on singing and explaining. She calls Dante’s attention to the procession that will bring Beatrice. After Dante’s interactions with that lovely lady, it is Matilda who drags Dante through the waters of Lethe and Eunoe.
The internet provides a lot of commentary on who Matilda might be or who she was drawn from, and evidently there is a society dedicated to talking about this but … a friend of mine asked if I had read New Advent’s article on Saint Mechtilde. So I did. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10105b.htm
Saint Mechtilde (1240-1298) was born in modern day Germany. She joined a cloister at the age of seven by her own decided will and was an excellent student. She was the sponsor of Saint Gertrude the Great, who also entered the convent at the age of five, when Mechtilde was about twenty. Mechtilde was a beautiful singer in charge of the choir in her monastery, and New Advent says that when Jesus appeared to her he called her “his nightingale”. People came from all over to ask for her advice in spiritual matters. Ultimately, some of the other nuns wrote down what she told them and, after she had a vision of Christ approving this, she cooperated in finishing the book.
New Advent goes on to say, that Boccaccio (a Florentine writer who promoted Dante in lectures given in 1373) claimed that this book of Mechtilde’s revelations was brought to Florence, and presumably other places in Italy, within a few years of her death (so in the early 1300’s when Dante was writing the Divine Comedy) and that it was titled, “La Laude di Donna Matelda”. New Advent goes on to explicitly identify Saint Mechtilde with the lovely singer in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Among other things Matilda/Mechtilde uses an image of a mountain with seven terraces.
Also Saint Mechtilde is listed as a patron saint of blindness like Saint Lucy.
She is known nowadays for a prayer for the Souls in Purgatory which is supposed to release many souls. Her protege, Saint Gertrude the Great, is better known for such a prayer, but it is easy to find Saint Mechtilde’s prayer online. I note that Saint Mechtilde’s prayer is in the form of commentary on the Our Father. I checked the prayer of the souls in Canto 11 of Purgatorio but there’s no specific resemblance.
I found a blog with this quote from Saint Mechtilde which is very like Canto 33 in Paradiso.
‘In one extraordinary vision, she [Saint Mechtilde] perceived that “the smallest details of creation are reflected in the Holy Trinity by means of the humanity of Christ because it is from the same earth that produced them that Christ drew his humanity.”‘ https://files.ecatholic.com/2512/documents/2020/11/Daily%20Saints%20-%2019%20November%20-%20St.%20Machtilde%20of%20Helfta.pdf?t=1605878435000