Fundamentals of Symbolism
From the Renaissance to Modern Times
Before examining the changes in symbolic expression evoked by Renaissance thought, some historical background is required. While the Catholic symbolism described at the close of the first part of this study remained largely intact within Western culture, the introduction of divergent cosmologies wrought some subtle and not so subtle changes.
There is little consensus among historians as to
when or how the so-called Renaissance came about, but most would agree that an
affirmation of the dignity of man was the result. While the Church had always
insisted that man was made "in the image and likeness of God" and
therefore worthy of the highest respect, his status as a creature was strictly
maintained. Man, to reach his proper end, the beatific vision, needed
Sanctifying Grace supplied through the sacraments of the Church. Renaissance
thought, at first subtly and then openly, challenged this view. Between 1437
and 1439 Nicholas of Cusa started the process when he wrote his De docta
ignorantia based on a private illumination he received while crossing the
Pico had no open desire to break with the Christian faith, but according to his concept of unlimited human potential, the advent of Christ, the Word Incarnate, did not inaugurate a new supernatural order embodied in the Church, but stimulated, a rebirth of natural man and human potential. In the words of Walter Ulmam, "Through [Baptism] there was a rebirth of natural man; through this restoration into his natural state, cosmological perspectives came to be opened up which were hitherto barely perceived ... Natural man was awakened from the slumber of the centuries: he was reactivated." 3
The Renaissance concept of the dignity of man did
not draw on a new secularization of culture as is generally taught, but rather
on a synthesis of ancient esoteric religious and philosophical ideas enumerated
by Pico in his Oration. These ideas, mostly of oriental origin, had
Key to the doctrine of Neo-Platonism, was Plotinus' idea that the universe was not created ex nihilo as the Church insisted, but that both the cosmos and man were emanations, or "overflowings" of the Divine substance. 5 Thus Ficino and his contemporaries conceptualized the entire universe or "Macrocosm" as a "Divine Animal" divinum animal, animated by a "Cosmic Mind" mens mundana connected to God, and a "Cosmic Soul" anima mundi, which though spiritual, is connected to matter. "An uninterrupted current of supernatural energy flows from above to below and reverts from below to above, thus forming a circuitus spiritualis." 6 Analogically, Man, the "Microcosm" has a "lower soul" anima secunda connected to the material world and a "higher soul" intellectus or mens that is connected to and even participates in the Divine Mind, intellectus divinus. 7 The illustration to the left depicts man the "microcosm" superimposed over the "macrocosm." In it we see both the cosmos and man as matter suffused with divinity centered on the generative principle. Man the "microcosm" is also the subject matter of the image to the right, "Vitruvian Man," drawn by Leonardo da Vinci c. 1510. In this image, man qua man rather than the unique person of Jesus Christ, true God - true man, is depicted as the embodiment of the perfect union of the spiritual heavens - the circle- and the material earth - the square-.
The Renaissance "Humanists" (Those who believed in divine human potential) also, as enunciated by Pico, based much of their theology on the eclectic writings of a supposed pre-Mosaic Egyptian sage named Hermes Trismegistus translated into Latin by Ficino in 1463. His monistic definition of God and the cosmos as: "Deus est sphaera infinita cuijus centrum est ubique nusquam circumferentiae"(God is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere) was fundamentally identical to that of the Neo-Platonists but he stressed man's innate divine nature even more. In the, Pimander, supposedly written by Trismegistus, it is stated, "He who knows himself goes toward himself...You are light and life, like God the Father of whom man is born." "If therefore you learn to know yourself as made of light and life... you will return to life." 8 As Elaine Pagels points out in her book The Gnostic Gospels, the doctrine of a secret knowledge of man's innate divinity is the central doctrine of the "Gnosticism" that began its battle against Christianity as far back as the second century AD. 9 Most people think of Gnosticism in terms of its Manechean, or dualist manifestation calling for the release of the soul trapped in matter, however, as A. J. Fustigiere, has explained, the Hermetic writings actually contained two distinct types of divine "gnosis," namely pessimist gnosis, and optimist gnosis. For the pessimist (or dualist) Gnostic, the material world, heavily impregnated with the fatal influence of the stars is in itself evil; it must be escaped from by an ascetic way of life which avoids as much as possible all contact with matter, until the lightened soul rises up through the spheres of the planets, casting off their evil influences as it ascends, to its true home in the immaterial divine world. For the optimist Gnostic, however, matter is impregnated with the divine life, the earth lives, moves, with divine life, the stars are living divine animals, the sun burns with divine power, there is no part of nature which is not good for all are parts of God. 10 ( see: Appendix_three Gnosis)
Unlike Gallileo some two hundred years later, the great Polish churchman and mathematician, Nicholas Copernicus, credited with the discovery of the helio-centric nature of the Cosmos relied more on Neo-Platonism and the Hermetica for his position than on scientific observation of the actual Solar System. In his De Rrevolutionibus Orbium Coelestum, written in 1453, he has the following to say, "In the middle of all sits the Sun enthroned. In this most beautiful temple, could we place this luminary in any better position from which he can illuminate the whole at once? He is rightly called the Lamp, the Mind,, the Ruler of the Universe: Hermes Trismegistus names him the Visible God, Sophecles Electra calls him the All-Seeing. So the Sun sits upon a royal throne, ruling his children, the planets which circle around him."11
It must be remembered that for the Neo-Platonists, the planets and stars, as well as the sun were "divine living animals." (Ficino and his followers practiced sympathetic magic and chanted Orphic hymns to obtain the beneficial influences of these "star demons.") 12
with Hermeticism and Neoplatonism the third major influence on the times, cited
by Pico, is the Jewish theosophical Kabbalah, or Cabala in its latinate form.
Pico received his indoctrination from a Spanish Jew living in
Given the essentially monistic nature of Renaissance thought as seen above, it is symbolically represented as an Eastern "Mandala" rather than as a dyadic relationship between God and creation and/or Christ and His Church seen in the Byzantine and medieval iconography covered in the first part of this treatise. While the Church maintained her doctrine of Original sin and the necessity of Redemption, the humanists, in general, rejected it. Following Nicholas of Cusa's doctrine of Coincidentia oppositorum 16 and the kabbalist's tikkun to produce apokatastasis or resolution of all negations ultimately in the unity of God, the iconography changed, or reverted to, images of balance between the opposing cosmic forces.
for example, denied
In light of the above observations as to Renaissance thought, it is interesting to look at some of the greatest art produced during this period for Humanist patrons. They will be studied not so much for their superb quality as works of genius, but to discern the iconography and symbolism to be found within them.
According to oft quoted authority, Irwin Panofsky, in his Studies in Iconology, Humanist Themes in Art of the Renaissance, art works may be analyzed from three separate points of view. The first is the formalistic, that is, how the lines, shapes, and colors are arranged in an orderly and harmonies fashion to be enjoyed sensibly by the viewer. Second is the subject matter, that is whom or what does the picture represent, and third is the meaning, or "iconography in its deepest sense." Panofsky goes on to say that this "meaning" is apprehended by ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, period class, a religious or philosophical persuasion - unconsciously qualified by one personality and condensed into one work. Panofsky also points out that the artist himself most often does not fully comprehend the depth of his message. 17 Following are interpretations of three famous paintings that can be examined from all three perspectives, keeping in mind, however, the words of another Renaissance scholar, Edgar Wind, writing in his seminal book, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. "They were designed for initiates; hence they require an initiation." 18
1492, at the death of Lorenzo de Medici, patron of both the arts and the
Platonic Academy, an inventory was made of his belongings and among them was a
circular painting, tondo, depicting the adoration of the Christ Child
hanging in the main entrance hall of his palace. This painting begun in 1455 by
the Dominican monk Giovanni da Fiesole (Fra Angelico), the year of his death,
was finished by Carmelite brother, Filppo Lippi. The painting now hangs in the
National Gallery of Art in
As a Humanist icon, it is first of all presented in a circular or mandala format representative of the enclosed cosmos. Above, on the roof, a peacock, symbol of eternal life and the immortal soul since the time of the catacombs stands stage right. A pair of mating pheasants, creatures of the wild, are shown stage left. This follows the standard iconographical formula and represents the spiritual (m) and carnal (f) aspects of the cosmos as under stood in the Neo Platonic cosmology.
Central to the theme of the picture is the seated Madonna and Christ Child, known to have been painted by Fra Angelico receiving the homage of virtually all mankind as well as the beasts. In the image, however, the Baby Jesus is not looking at the figure kneeling before him in adoration, but downward onto a small round object on his left thigh. This object, obviously painted in afterwards, either by Fra Filippo or some other hand, has an eye and menacing teeth. From an orthodox Catholic perspective it is symbolically out of place. Following the Neo-platonist theory explained above regarding the coincidentia oppositorum and the Kabbalistic notion that "God", the Ayn Sof, is the source of both good and evil, it makes perfect sense. It thus may be presumed that this little circular figure represents the incarnation of the sitra ahra or left hand "evil - restrictive" aspect of the divinity united in Christ, the archetype of all humanity. If this is, in fact, the case, a Humanist "initiate" would immediately recognize the message; both the macrocosm and the microcosm are ultimately formed by a harmonious fusion of all opposites.
Another examples of Renaissance art wherein the meaning and symbolic structure may be of more interest than the splendid technique is the well known drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci titled The Virgin and Child with St. Ann. Executed in 1498-9 as a cartoon (preparatory sketch) for a larger commissioned work. It is one of the most enigmatic pictures in art history and has been the object of multitudinous critiques, commentaries and evaluations. In his 1939 biography of Leonardo, Kenneth Clark took the then prevailing formalist view, and described this picture as, "the contrast of interlocking rhythms enclosed within a single shape." While stating that the overall desired shape sought by Leonardo is the pyramid, Lord Clark wondered out loud why the two female heads at the top are in equilibrium rather than the aesthetically more correct ascending order. On the whole, however, Clark brushes off any inconsistencies within his own preconceived notion of what the picture is about and equates the picture to a masterpiece by Bach were one may always find: " ...new facilities of movement and harmony, growing more and more intricate, yet subordinate to the whole." 20 In the 1967 edition of this same book, Lord Clark modified his aesthetic critique of Leonardo's work by saying that he had tried too hard to separate Leonardo the artist from Leonardo the man, in regard to this picture. He then added what he called a profound and beautiful interpretation by Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, Leonardo spent the first years of his life with his natural mother, the peasant Caterina. Leonardo's father, Ser Piero, however, after his marriage a year later to another woman, which turned out to be fruitless, eventually brought his love child to be reared by his lawful wife. Thus, according to Freud, Leonardo had two mothers, both of whom he loved, and hence the equilibrium of the two female heads at the top of this composition. Leonardo has, again according to Freud, unconsciously produced two mysteriously smiling faces of approximately the same age emerging from what strangely appears to be one body. 21
Without questioning the integrity of Lord Clark or Sigmund Freud, for that matter, I invite the reader to carefully study this picture for its visual content and then consider once again its title. In this picture there are at the top the two smiling female heads as witnessed by Dr. Freud, and they do, in fact, appear to emerge from a single mass or body. There are also two semi naked children who not only appear to be of the same age, but who bear a striking resemblance to each other. They could almost be identical twins except that the one on the left has shorter hair, a broad forehead and a more intense expression. In contrast, the child fully to stage left with his massive curls, leaning languidly on his elbow, has a more passive sentimental posture and look. Between the two children, closer to the child at stage left, a hand with index finger extended points heavenward. This hand visually links the female head toward stage left (St. Anne?), to the child at stage left.(John the Baptist?) Now think of the title, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. According to Christian tradition, St. Anne was historically the mother of the Virgin Mary and should therefore be rendered at least fifteen years her senior. One may, of course, accept Freud's theory but it does not explain the children. If Freud is right and there are unconscious sublimations contained in this picture, who does the child at stage left represent and why is he there? According to the title one assumes he is John the Baptist. Why, however, would the ascetic John the Baptist be represented, even as a child, as a baleful languid twin of the Christ Child? Leonardo was well acquainted with the biblical traditions and certainly had the technical ability to portray what so ever he wished to portray.
If the pictorial content does not appear to coincide with the official title given the picture by the painter himself, what then is this picture all about? Regarding the two heads emerging from the one body, look again at these faces. The face on the left, (stage right) theoretically Mary, is all sweetness and light. The one, toward stage left, theoretically Mary's mother, not only appears the same age but, in fact, is physically a mirror image of Mary. She has, however, a dark and sinister mien. She smiles but it is not the gentle smile of motherly goodness; it is a quizzical, almost threatening smile.
This single bodied but double natured woman, appears as both good and evil, the mother of life but also the destroyer, like the Hindu goddess Kali, who gives birth to all, but also drinks the blood of her victims from their own skulls. Does she not represent here Mother Nature, the macrocosm, in which all opposites exist?
And the children? Instead of Jesus and John, could they not just as well be identified with Castor and Pollux, the twins born of Zeus and Leda the fruit of unnatural lust in the pagan myth (equally well known to Leonardo) or, perhaps, the Gemini, the twins of astrological lore who represent the fundamental duality of the cosmos?
The one to stage right, with his composure and Apollonian reason appears to be blessing the unruly left hand, or Dionesiac twin side of his very own nature. As neither Leonardo nor his contemporaries have left us written explanations, the answer is, of course, a matter of speculation. However, given an understanding of Renaissance theology explained above, and the basic right-left, up-down form of symbolic expression we have previously examined, it would appear that the woman toward stage left with her "facia nigra" as representative of the dark "occult" forces, is pointing upward to tell the initiated viewer that both the light and dark, or good and evil forces of nature, the macrocosm, come from God and that through the coincidentia oppositorum or the resolution of opposites, man, the microcosm, will return thence - (apokatastasis)-.
Perhaps the most interesting symbolic
portrayal of the Renaissance ideal of coincidentia oppositorum, is
Giorgione's Tempesta or storm. Little is known of the provenance or
early history of this picture other than that it was painted some time after
1504. First documented in 1530 as a landscape with a tempest, a gypsy and a
soldier, it is probably the most discussed and analyzed paintings of the
Renaissance. A nineteenth century inventory lists it as an allegory of Mercury
(Hermes ) and
a simple iconographical point of view, this painting is truly archetypal and
follows the standard: left-right; above-below analysis to perfection. The male
with an enlarged codpiece and the staff (baton de commandemant) stands
stage right surmounted by a stone edifice (man the builder). The female with
her head covered by a veil (symbol of mystery) is seated stage left beneath the
leafy trees (woman, nature, nurturer). It should be noted that the veil, or
mystery, which covers the woman's head comes up from below. She and her power
are of the earth. Above is the natural element of lightning associated with
celestial power and therefore masculine. Below is the natural feminine
principle of water. Central to the painting are two truncated columns. These
columns or pillars, as we have seen since Solomon's
The Council of Trent (1545 - 1563), while
generally remembered for its stance against the Protestant Reformation,
officially renounced the Humanist ideology as well, and subsequently placed
many of the writings of its proponents including Pico, Reuchlin and Erasmus on
the Index of forbidden books. The writings of
The visual arts that
proceeded from the Council of Trent are known to those art historians enamored
of the Classical norm, as Baroque, a derogatory term derived from the
Portuguese word for an imperfect pearl. However, following the Thomistic
doctrine that nature is not destroyed, but transformed by grace, they evoke a
hierarchical vision of engraced souls leading upward and opening into the
transcendental realm of the Beatific Vision. The image at the left is of the
"Humanists," however, having lost official recognition by the
Catholic authorities continued to flourish in Protestant lands as secret
brotherhoods such as the Rosicrucians who first appeared to the public through
such publications as the Fama and the Confessio in
the Protestant countries, the symbolism of the Rosicrucians was openly similar
to that of the Humanist initiates of the Renaissance seen above as in the Tempesta
of Giorgione; a fusion of the natural male (active) and female principles
(passive) in polarity. In the anonymous German,
John Dee, necromancer, court astrologer and
magician of Queen Elizabeth I of
again are seen the two columns associated with the (male) sun and (female) moon
standing stage left and right respectively. Between the columns is what can
only be described as the "Orphic" egg. According to the Orphic
tradition (Rhapsodies), at the beginning of time the cosmic egg was
formed in which Eros - Phanes, the god of love and light, mated with his
daughter Nux, night - darkness, to bring forth Uranos the sky and
Gaia the earth. This cosmogony is represented in
It is, in fact, under the broad umbrella of Freemasonry where all of the above "Humanist" values can be found to this day. While the ostensible goals of Freemasonry are philanthropy and human development, the true goal is philosophic and ultimately religious. The index of any of the best known Masonic encyclopedias, i.e., Mackey, Pike, Waite, list the same spiritual influences (Neo-Platonism, Orphism, Kabbalah, Hermeticism, etc.) upon which the Craft is based, curiously similar to those pronounced by Pico della Mirandola in 1469. 29 See: Freemasonry also www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/venzifr.html It is also within Freemasonry where the twin pillars are most widely exhibited and explained. Albert Pike, Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite, in his Morals and Dogma of Freemasonry, identifies them as follows:
"You enter[ed] the Lodge between two columns... The pillar or column on the right, or in the south, was named, as the Hebrew word is rendered in our translation of the Bible, JACHIN: and that on the left BOAZ. Our translators say that the first word means, "He shall establish;" and the second, "In it is strength."...The former word also means he will establish, or plant in an erect position- from the (Hebrew) verb Kun, he stood erect. It probably meant active and vivifying Energy and Force; and Boaz, Stability, Permanence, in the passive sense." 30
In explaining "The Royal Secret" of these pillars, Pike goes on to posit the inner duality or bi-sexuality of the Godhead itself. Man, according to Pike exists as both Male and Female as symbolic of the intrinsic divine duality: " [God]...the Ineffable Name, and dividing it, it becomes bi-sexual ...and discloses its meaning ...The highest of which the Columns Jachin and Boaz are the symbol. 'In the image of Deity,' we are told, 'God created the Man; Male and Female.'"31
Pike not only posits the existence of the dual existence of male and female within the Godhead, but the existence of good and evil as well: "The Evil is the shadow of the Good and inseparable from it. The Divine Wisdom limits by equipoise the Omnipotence of the Divine Will or Power, and the result is Beauty or Harmony. The arch rests not on a single column, but springs from one on either side." 32
This concept of harmony is at the core of the image shown to the left. Included in a variety of Masonic texts and periodicals, it is, in fact, an "icon" of the Masonic faith and represents, "The religions of the world." Among these religions one finds, for example, Mithraism in the lower left corner, Judaism at the center with the seven branched Menorah beneath a sacrificial lamb, a Muslim imam, Persian fire worshipers, and the Egyptian cult of Hathor, among others. (The Crucifix is conspicuous by its absence.). The most important element of all, however, is the object of worship of these devotees. Riding the clouds at the top are a woman (stage right) crowned with six stars and a tiny crescent moon on her head and a serpent at her feet. There is a young man to her left, blessing with his left hand. The Zodiac arches above them in an enclosing circle. (One might think that the woman is perhaps the Virgin Mary as she often appears crowned with twelve stars while treading the serpent in Catholic art. Catholics, however, do not worship Mary_as a divinity. This image simply represents the dual natured "Complete God" worshipped by Masons as described above by Albert Pike.
[For the Freemason, the "Complete God," is comprised of both good and evil personified principles, however, the traditional roles are reversed. The "good" God is the natural (f) emancipator who offers freedom, and the "evil" one is the transcendental (m)God of restriction, as seen by the following quote by Pike. " The pavement, alternately black and white, symbolize the Good and Evil Principles of the Egyptian and Persian creed. It is the battle between the forces of light and shadow; Day and Night; Freedom and Despotism; Religious Liberty and the Arbitrary Dogmas of a Church that thinks for its votaries, and whose Pontiff claims to be in fallible, and the decretals of its Councils to constitute a gospel." 34 – ("Lucifer Quote" ) ]
Thus, the feminine figure seen above represents
the Gnostic divinization of the feminine principle (Isis,
many of the Neoplatonists, the very vision of God was the contemplation of
divine beauty in a state of erotic trance. This mystical vision was complete
when, although still in this life, one received the Kabbalistic "mors
osculi" or "kiss of death" from the Venus Celeste source
of all beauty and wisdom 35 Whereas the Venus Celeste or Celestial
Venus and the Venus Vulgare or Earthly Venus were theoretically distinct
in the writings of Marcilio Ficino, for Bocaccio in his Questo Amoroso Fuoco
the two are clearly linked.
Perhaps the greatest exposition of this line of thought, however, emerged in the writings of Giordano Bruno who was condemned and burnt for heresy in 1600. Antedating Freud by some 300 years, Bruno set forth the doctrine in his De Vinculis in Genere that, " [erotic] love rules the world, the strongest chain is that of Venus. Eros is lord of the world: he pushes directs and appeases every one. All other bonds are reduced to that one, as we see in the animal kingdom where no female and no male tolerate rivals, even forgetting to eat and drink, even at the risk of life itself." 35 He maintained, however, that this drive could and ought to be contained and willfully directed. For Bruno the Eroici Furori, the Heroic Fury of the poets and artists was the distillation of erotic furor and an assault on heaven. Through Eros man could, indeed, become god. 38
The watershed work embodying the Erotic nature of the Neoplatonic, Hermetic, Kabbalistic Renaissance thinkers was Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera or Springtime painted in 1477. Not only does the painting portray a bucolic scene from the pagan past with nostalgia, it contains within its very core an imaginative portrayal of the erotic nature of Renaissance thought. "Primavera" was most probably painted for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a Neoplatonic enthusiast and cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. There is little doubt that it reflects an allegorical expression as well as artistic achievement. According to Renaissance scholar, Edgar Wind, the key to this painting lies in the words of Pico della Mirandola, that "the unity of Venus unfolds in the trinity of the graces" and that this simile pervades the totality of universal pagan myth. 37 In Primavera, following Plotinus and Pico, there are nine figures which form an Ennead, that is to say an emanation in multiples of three. Central to the painting, although somewhat to our right, is the goddess [Venus, Isis] herself. On our right hand (stage left), [female or nature side] is the triad of Zephyr or West wind, Chloris the innocent earth nymph, and Flora, the resplendent herald of Spring. On our left hand (stage right) [male or God side] is, from the center outward, the group depicting the three graces Pulchritude or beauty, Castitas Chastity and Voluptas pleasure, and to the farthest left and separate from them, Mercury the divine mystagogue 39 with his caduceus (entwined serpent staff) dispelling the clouds from the upper left hand corner. At the top center is blind Cupid or Eros firing his love dart at the figure of Chastity.
The first triad, then is that of Zephyr, Chloris, and Flora, pictured here on the right. In this scene, which follows the Fasti of Ovid, Zephyr the soft breeze of spring [incipient erotic desire] caresses the fleeing innocent nymph Chloris who, spewing flowers on her breath, is thus turned through a metamorphoses into Flora. Flora as harbinger of spring is the culmination of natural beauty and is depicted as fully formed erotic woman. As such she is the source and also the fruition of earthly desire, Venus Vulgare. Flora stands self consciously erect in the knowledge that she is the highest manifestation of nature. She occupies the dominant position stage left to the eternal feminine manifestation Venus Celeste, Isis, Ishtar, Astarte, the great goddess, at the center.
Stage right (God or Spirit side) to the great goddess are her emanations, the three Graces, who dance in a spiritual sublimation of erotic desire. In the center of these is Castitas or Chastity, neatly coifed shy and melancholy. To her left is the sensuous Voluptas or pleasure. To her right is the decorous figure of haughty Pulchretudo or Beauty. They, in fact, form a trinity of purpose. All three have their hands tightly united above and below in what Horace called the "segnesque nodum solvere Gratiae" or knot of the Graces. 40 The final and most important triad in this Ennead, however, is made up of the prime movers of the whole scene Eros (male) above, Venus (the eternal feminine) below, and Mecurius (the divine fusion of opposites) reaching upward at stage right. Once human passion has been awakened as depicted in the scene of Zephyr, Chloris and Flora the stage is set for the erotic fulfillment of man through the desire embodied in Pulchretudo, Castitas and Voluptas. From his position above, blind (desire devoid of rational judgement) Eros fires his dart at Castitas. Castitas’ diaphanous garment falls from her left shoulder as desire enters her heart. She looks longingly at Mercurius while Voluptas looks knowingly at her. The spark of divine rapture, of ecstasy, has been enkindled. The "heroic Fury" of the poet to convert desire to fruition is achieved by Mercurius. It is he, who with his Caduceus (entwined male and female serpents) reaches beyond the golden apples of earthly desire. It is he, Mercurius Duplex, the concordia discors or fusion of opposites [spirit and matter] who draws back the clouds of mystery (upper corner, stage right) to reveal the divine form. It is the Mors Osculi or Kiss of death that awaits.
Following are two paintings, Giovanni Bellini’s Feast of the Gods painted in 1514, and Nicholas Pousin’s Kingdom of Flora painted in 1631. While painted a hundred years apart and depicting different pagan myths share a consistent iconography. Ostensibly Bellini’s painting simply shows a bucolic scene in which gods and goddesses as well as nymphs and satyrs indulge themselves without inhibition. Iconographically, however, the picture is laid out in the universal right (m) – left (f), above – below presentation and contains what Panofsky called meaning, or "iconography in its deepest sense." It should be remembered that this concept of "meaning" as used by Panofsky, as explained above, refers to a distilled presentation of cultural, religious, or philosophical values that define a an age yet may not be fully understood, if at all, by the artist. The scene is a shaded earthly glade while in the background (perhaps painted by Titian), Mount Parnassus ascends to the heavens. Stage right, Mars the quintessential violent male god of war, surrounded by a debauched male entourage looks longingly at a bare-breasted Venus with her female attendants who is being awakened by a male rustic. Between the two ‘celestial’ figures, sits a “rustic” or peasant couple with the man’s hand groping the woman’s crotch. This painting is not meant to be pornographic, but esoteric. It follows the Emerald Table of Hermes Trismegistus, "The below is as the above, and the above is as below." The awakening of lust below awakens desire between the gods above, and vice-versa. The Venus Vulgare and the Venus Celeste are one and the same and, as in Boticelli’s Primavera, the beatific vision is but rarefied lust.
In the center, above is Apollo, the sun god and below is Flora dispensing her magic upon Narcissus and Echo, who “skrie” the future from the waters of the urn. Iconographically, again in its deepest unconscious sense, this painting speaks of the death of the male principle, (Patriarchal authority) here seen as Ajax, (stage right) and the triumph of the feminine or earthly principle of erotic fulfillment symbolized by Flora and the androgynous group (stage left). These are the first stirrings of the "Romantic" full divinization of "The Eternal Feminine" which will be found especially in the writings of Wolgang Frederich Von Goethe.
In his 1782 treatise Die Natur, Goethe wrote "Nature! We are surrounded and enveloped by her – unable to step outside her, unable to get into her more deeply. Un-asked and unwarned, she takes us up into the circle of her dance and carries us along till we are wearied and fall from her arms…Men are all in her and she in all…Even the most unnatural is Nature , even the crudest pedantry still has at touch of her genius…Life is her fairest invention, death but her artifice whereby to have much life… All is there in her always. She knows not past nor future. Present is her eternity. And she is good and I praise her in all her works." 41
This theme of " Divine Nature" caught on among the intellectuals and was picked up in the early nineteenth century by such artists as William Blake, David Friederich, and Philip Otto Rung, among others. Rung expressed his experience of the immanent divinity of Nature as "…the feeling of the whole universe with us; this united chord which in its vibration touches every string of our heart;…here is the highest that we divine- God"42
the right of the page is Runge’s 1809 painting titled: "The Times of Day,
Morning" designed as a sacred picture for a chapel dedicated to the new
religion of nature. At the center of the painting is the figure of Nature
herself in the guise of
Thus, rather than the heavenly kingdom promised by Our Lord, Jesus Christ, to which all are called, European man turned his attention to either finding or rebuilding “Paradise lost.” The world now came to be viewed not “sub specie aeternitatis,” according to a philosophy of “being” and man’s eternal end, but “sub specie temporalis,” according to a philosophy of “becoming” and human fulfillment within the temporal order. This new ideology of the various rationalists might best be represented by Alexander Pope’s celebrated couplet: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.”
The belief in this promised “New Age,” or return to “paradise” had been growing in the minds of the poets and philosophers since the Renaissance. It flowered in the late seventeenth century with John Locke’s philosophical speculations in his Two Treatises on Government, while the poet John Dryden would write, “I am as free as Nature first made man…/ When wild in the woods the noble savage ran.” and came into full bloom in the late eighteenth century with the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, esp. the Social Contract and Discourse on Inequality.
In the late eighteenth century also, the writings of both the British and French explorers of the South Pacific, James Cook and Louis Bougainville respectively, promoted the myth of Eden, an exiting earthly paradise of a guiltless indolent life based on abundant fruit hanging from trees and carefree sexual promiscuity, shook the European intellectual classes to the core. With the trail of the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty in 1792 the image of a luxuriant promiscuous lifestyle, free from the directives of Church and State, trickled down, via the sensationalist press, to the masses. What was not generally told, or ignored in the writings of the times, is that this “Idyllic Eden” was established and run by an aristocracy of local natives of a different genetic caste who ruled by random assassination, intimidation and ritual sacrifice of innocent adults as well as the destruction of virtually all new born children. While the overlords lived in a highly stratified society and were monogamous, ate fish and game, the populace where forced to keep strictly to their mainly “breadfruit diet” to keep them docile in face of their powerless condition. Bougainville himself, while extolling the lack of inhibitions of the lower class, hinted at the existence of dark forces lying under the surface of the seeming paradise. When his sailors were given girls, it was not a voluntary act of the girl in question. It was a public ceremony. “The hut was immediately filled with a crowd of men and women who made a circle around the guest and the victim of hospitality. The ground was spread with leaves and flowers and the musicians sang a hymnal song to the tune of their flutes. Here Venus is the goddess of hospitality, and her worship does not admit to any mysteries. Every tribute to her is a feast for the nation.”
Fascinated by this lure of an earthy paradise,
the brilliant but eccentric French painter Paul Gauguin visited
While the frank eroticism of the reclining female figure is indeed alluring, the black dog, a near universal diabolical symbol, lurks malevolently in the background
The title of this painting, “Words of the Devil” suffices to uncover the hidden mystery underlying the delights of this seeming paradise
This last painting of the same period is titled ‘The spirit of death watches.” Somehow Gauguin knew, from his Christian upbringing that there was something very unsettling going on in “paradise.”
Be that as it may, the image of God as eternal transcendental “Father” has all but disappeared from modern iconology and has been replaced by the “Eternal Feminine” of immanent earthly pleasure and fulfillment
“Alchemical” depiction of the “male
principle” being overthrown, from the
The great Romantic Sculptor, Antonio Canova, carved the “Three Graces” as a feminine Trinity of lesbian erotica in 1815
the image of the chaste and holy Virgin Mary, Mother of the Redeemer,
that reigned supreme throughout Christendom has been replaced by “Marianne,” the Mother of the Revolution.
“The Revolution” as explained by James H. Bilington, in his seminal classic on
the subject, Fire in the Minds of Men is not so much a rebellion against
an established order,” … but a Copernican circular return to an original
position. Interpreted politically, the revolution is, in its most violent form,
the forceful implementation of a return to that idyllic antiauthoritarian
In the words of “Bolshevik” Prince, Peter Kropotkin (1842-1941) The Revolution is nothing less than., “The ongoing struggle for the rational, progressive liberation from all restrictive authority.” 43a.
The new, earthly, feminine image is, in fact, the
central icon of all revolutionary art aimed at the overthrow of the patriarchy
of God and the hierarchical order. The
most famous of these is the 1830 painting by Delacroix of “
Diego Rivera’s 1928 mural., to the left, La Tierra Liberada, El Paraiso Reconquistado, ( The liberated Land, Paradise Re-conquered ) in Chapingo, Mexico, is a further example of a "Revolutionary Icon" dedicated to Nature as Great Goddess. Her naked figure fills the heavens as recipient of the "spirit." Just beneath her is a "Mandala" symbol with its "bindu" at the center (as formed by a windmill) connecting the earthly and heavenly realms. With her right hand she offers a life form to the woman below to stage right, while Promethius, stage left, offers the stolen fire to the man. The "divine child," of the new emancipated humanity, touches wires together setting off sparks that will set progress in motion. Once again, this is the complete antithesis of the traditional Christian iconography shown in part one of this treatise.. The mural to the right by Jose Orozco, Omnesciencia painted at the same period is another example of the deposition and replacement of Christ with the "Feminine Principle" at the heart of Mexican Revolutionary art.
The image of the seductive
“Marianne,” astride the word wearing her Phrygian cap, holding a rose
(symbol of earthly perfection) remains the symbol of World Revolution, as seen
in this cover drawing of the 1997 book. To
the Other Shore: The Russuian Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to
Again, as explained in, Fire in the Minds of Men, “ a new earthly religion based on the myth of Prometheus stealing the fire from the gods for the use of man, began to form [in the 18th century] when “…some European aristocrats transferred their lighted candles from the Christian altars to Masonic lodges. The flame of the occult alchemists which had promised to turn dross into gold reappeared at the center of new ‘circles’ seeking to recreate a golden age.” 45. [ emphasis added]
The diagrams below are visual presentations of the traditional Catholic world view (on the left) where order stems from God the transcendental Father downward in the form of a pyramid with a hierarchical set of relationships of mutual reciprocity, i.e. all members of society, both spiritual and temporal, have interlocking rights and responsibilities in regard to all those above and below in the hierarchy.
The Masonic pyramid (on the right), on the contrary, represents the evolutionary ascent of man from (Mother Earth) below through a revolutionary dialectical conflict of thesis and antithesis, light and dark, left and right, male and female, capital and labor, good and evil to produce the apotheosis or deification of man -"Man is a God in the Making", Manly P.Hall, 33° The Lost Keys of Free Masonry-. At the top of the Masonic pyramid are two “divine” men holding the Masonic symbol depicting the square and the compass intertwined as emblem of ultimate resolution and fusion of opposites heaven ( m ) and earth ( f ) united as “The complete “God.,” the ultimate coincidentia opositorum. - "In one instance we have the interlaced triangles, one black, the other white, the white triangle has its point up; the black triangle points down... The interlaced black and white triangles represent the forces of darkness and light, error and truth, ignorance and wisdom and good and evil; when properly placed they represent balance and harmony." Wes Cook 32° Vigniettes in Masonry from the Royal Arch Masonry Magazine (emphasis added)
based on Caroll Quigley1955 Lecture,
Image from Oct. 8, 1956 issue of Life Magazine
In 1882, German philosopher, Friederich Nietzsche, prophetically proclaimed to modern man the sate of affairs in his book, The Joyful Science where he has a theoretically “mad” character proclaim, “Whither is God?... We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers…God is dead. And we have killed him.” Having proclaimed the death of God. Nietzsche’s character continues, “What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed to great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
The paradigm shift from the Judeo-Christian acknowledgment and worship of the transcendent patriarchal God to the immanent feminine, “Divine Mother Nature,” is reflected as well in the two following "icons." To the left of the page is "The High Priestess" from A.E. Waite’s 1910 The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, and to the right, Christy Swid’s Belthane, from the1986 cover of Pathways a "New Age" health journal. They are two versions of the same theme, the emergent power of the "feminine principle." In Waite’s Tarot card, the traditional columns, Jachin and Boaz have been reversed, and in Swid’s rendition they have not only been reversed but changed into trees to emphasize the polarity within nature itself.
The permanence of these perennial symbols, “Jachin” and “Boaz,”as well as their reversal, is significant. In order to produce the immanent perfection of Man and Mother Nature, a dialectical process must be followed according to the Gnostic – Hermetic- Masonic model as described above. At present it may be expressed in such theses and antitheses, as “Individualism” vs. “Collectivism,” or represented by so called “Right” and “Left” political parties, or the global “Green” movement vs. the “Military Industrial Complex,” or, again, “back to nature” vs. “Scientific progress,” etc. always leading toward a utopian synthesis beyond “male” and “female,” (androgyny) “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil” where all contradictions are resolved and “divine man” and ‘divine nature achieve total harmony. This model entered the main stream of Western philosophy with the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) who was an adept of these occult traditions. (See below, Appendix 8 – Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition) Marxism was, and to an extent remains, an attempt to implement the Hegelian dialectic in the political economic order.
To the left of the page is a schematic diagram of the Kabalistic, Hegelian, Marxist dialectic and its pursuit of ultimate harmony and synthesis through the process of Tikum Olam (The restoration of the original harmony before the supposed separation of “good” and “evil.” To the right is a “Masonic” icon depicting the two opposing forces, active male “stage right” represented by the rhinoceros with horn pointing up and the passive feminine, “stage left” by the anteater with nose pointing down. The male forces are also represented by the Greek warrior and man in armor and the feminine by the female encased mummy. The central figures are locked in struggle until enlightenment and true creativity are achieved as shown by the figure of the harmonious Buddha and the works of art on either side. All proceed from the mind of “Mother Nature.”
An interesting variant is seen in Vincent Desiderio’s 2002 triptych titled "Pantocrator" from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art collection. The naked woman in the shower represents the active (sentient) feminine principle as dominant at stage right and the Florentine Baptistry where Brunelleschi is said to have discovered analytic "perspective" is placed as the passive (intellectual) male principle at stage left. At the center of this obvious reversal of the traditional order is the "Panocrator" (Lord of all) the Byzantine title for Christ, save in this case it is a "flying saucer." This painting represents a bizarre “mystery of faith” where presumably "alien" masters (demons?) of a higher intelligence will guide humanity to Utopian fulfillment of the “New Age” heedless of the Transcendent Creator and His Divine Son, Jesus Christ, unique mediator between Heaven and earth.
At the present time, in fact, “New Age” icons abound. Many are represented as classic oriental Mandalas. The1991 painting at the left by Bev Doolittle was offered in the Smithsonian Magazine as the "Spirit of the Earth" and places the Bindu, or point of contact with the divine, on the Native American rider at the center. The picture at the right is taken from a 1993 advertisement in the Washington Times. It was a call for essays regarding the subject of democracy, a noble topic, which is unfortunately represented, however, as a classic oriental T’ai-Chi image of equal black and white yin-yang hemispheres representing humanity as the antinomian fusion of opposites within a monistic cosmic order.
(For a thorough explanation of the
“New Age” movement, see
Regretfully mandala imagery has crept into the iconography of the Roman Catholic Church. The image at the left is the logo of the Jubilee Year in Rome marking 2000 years of Christianity. At the center of the mandala is the "divine" bindu a nebulous light surrounded by five (Kabalistic number for man) doves – representing the diverse spiritualities of man? They are joined together by what Carl Jung referred to as a "solar" "cross of equilibrium."44 The words within the circle say Christus, Heri, Hodie, Semper (Christ, yesterday, today, always). But, what Christ? Which Christianity?
By the time of the Second Vatican Council, two divergent ideologies regarding the "image of God" in man came into conflict. They have yet to be resolved. The first ideology is the traditional view, as put forward in the Creeds (Christ is the unique Son of God) and reaffirmed at the Council of Trent. It is most simply explained by St. Thomas Aquinas. "The image of a thing may be found in something in two ways. In one way, it is found in something of the same specific nature; as the image of the king is found in his son. In another way, it is found in something of a different nature, as the king’s image on a coin. In the first sense the Son is Image of the Father; in the second sense, man is called the image of God." ST, 1, 35, R3. The true "image of God" in man is achieved only by Baptism into Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, whereby we become sons "by adoption."
The second ideology is the modernist view that "God is immanent in man and the cosmos." This erroneous view was denounced by St. Pius X in his encyclical letter Pascendi dominici gregis,: esp. The Modernist as Theologian #19. This latter ideology as has been described above is based on the Neo-Platonic, Kabalistic, Hermetic, Renaissance theology ,along with the19th century, especially French, Masonic occultism, 45 as well as by the German Romanticism, spearheaded by Goethe which can be found in the writings of some 19th and 20th century German “Christian” thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher who saw: "The essential difference between the Redeemer and the redeemed consists in the prototypal dominance of the God-consciousness in the Redeemer, into whose fellowship the believer may be admitted by a process substantially analogous to the formation of a human society around a charismatic leader, who unites them by his vision of their future state." 46 (emphasis added)
Much, if not most, of the late twentieth century iconography is based on the latter.
The picture to the left is the cover piece of the Fall 2003 publication of the CMMB (Catholic Medical Missions board). This particular issue dedicated to the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa. In and of itself, it is tender rendering of an African mother and child with two doves looking on. Two barely visible transparent arms come down from the doves (spirits) and gently embrace the mother. The child holds an eight-petaled sunflower on which he fixes his gaze. At the center of the flower, (enlarged image to the right) however there is a classic Hindu eight-spoked wheel of life mandala, complete with bindu point, thus rendering the painting a religious icon of the monistic (God is nature – nature is God) one world religion variety.
Another example of the inroads of “revolutionary” faith in “Catholic” art and architecture is Mark Rothko’s 1971 fourteen, almost pure black, “Stations of the Cross” inside the Chapel designed for the Basilian Fathers in Houston Texas (Picture on the right). According to the patroness of the project, Dominique De Menil, “the chapel represents the womb and the “Broken Obelisk” sculpted by Barnett Newman, represents virility.” (Picture on the left). The simple fact that the obelisk is “broken” – consciously or unconsciously – testifies to the emasculation (of God the Father) and the black images within testify to the “Culture of Death” and despair in a Godless universe. Mark Rothko committed suicide shortly after finishing this project.
The photograph below to the left is taken from a full page image on the back inside cover of the summer 2008 CUA (Catholic University of America) magazine. The title, “Capturing the Ineffable” is explained as, “depicting the mystical, the transcendent or the supernatural within the spiritual and religious traditions of the world.” The sculpture in the foreground by Edward Carlos, a CUA graduate with an MFA, represents, according to his own description, “Creation: Nativity,” a multifaceted walk-through sculpture/painting depicting Christ’s birth.” ( Rising up out of the primordial ooze? – no angels singing “Gloria”, no Wise Men adoring, not one single element to signify a heavenly or divine intervention in this momentous event) “And, in the background, a large vertical photo montage portrays an anima/mother-earth figure created by Carlo’s son Adam William Carlos.” (Emphasis added)
(In the specific case of this type of image being featured in a journal of The Catholic University of America, it occurred to this writer what a cataclysmic divide has arisen vis a vis the intellect and imagination, when an educational institution housing the most prestigious and soundly Catholic School of Philosophy in the United States, lacks the discernment to vet a clearly “New Age” artistic visual statement in a promotional publication. I should, however, like to take this opportunity to say that the works shown in this essay are not a critique of any individual, group, institution or institutions, but are meant to point out a trend in Western man’s pre-conscious imaginative understanding of reality as it is portrayed according to the prevailing neo- pagan “Zeit Geist.” As proposed earlier in this essay, one of the most influential art historians of this century, Irwin Panofsky, reminded us of the need to understand “art,” not only at its “formal” level of beauty, but at its deepest level of "meaning" by ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, period, class, religious or philosophical persuasion - unconsciously qualified by an individual personality and condensed into a given work. Panofsky also points out that the artist himself most often does not fully comprehend the depth of his message.)
( see note 17)
The image shown here to the right is taken from a
publication of The Secretariat for
The visual message of this
American Catholic pamphlet is, in fact, not dissimilar from the image shown to
the left painted by Dan Lomahaftewa titled Rainbow Myth. It was featured
on the Spring 1998 cover of Teaching Tolerance, a publication of the Southern
Poverty Law Center. This painting, based on the ancient petro glyphs of the
Hopi tribes of
While harmony with nature and the environment is a noble endeavor within the natural order, is this the Gospel of Salvation preached by Jesus Christ and fomented by the Holy Catholic Church for two thousand years?
Now, as ever, we must pray earnestly that the bishops united to the Holy Father be reminded that they "have a battle to fight over the faith that was handed down, once and for all, to the saints (St. Jude 1:3)
Once again, as in the dream of St. John Bosco, the perennial Catholic dyadic symbolism of grace and nature shows the way.
In his well known dream, the saint saw two pillars standing in the sea while the Bark of Peter was tossed violently in the troubled waters. The larger pillar was surmounted by the Holy Eucharist; God’s pouring out of Himself for our sanctification and salvation. The second smaller pillar held the Blessed Virgin Mary, the archetype of redeemed humanity, (the Church) and our loving mother raised up to meet Him. After terrifying battles and storms, the ship carrying the Roman Pontiff, along with other smaller ships representing other Christian churches and communities, moored at these pillars. A period of peace was then accorded the world. May I humbly suggest that, as the present Holy Father has reminded us, these two great Christian realities, the Eucharist and devotion to Mary, are the key to the future, both here and in the world to come.
Another cause, dear to His Holiness, John Paul II, is the reunification of Eastern and Western Churches; "the two lungs" of the one Universal Church. In this regard, the following modern "icon" commemorating the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius now celebrated on February 14 (Valentines Day) visually represents the reunion of two Churches. It is of symbolic interest. These two brothers are credited with the conversion of the southern Slavs, c. 863, to Byzantine Christianity and are recognized by the Roman Church as the patron saints of Christian unity as they had formal authorization for their missionary work from both the Roman Pontiff and the Patriarch of Constantinople. In the icon St. Cryil stands at stage right and is dressed in classic Western monastic garb. He has a white cross on his head and a blue cross at the bottom of his scapular covering his body. At the center of his scapular is the Patriarchal cross – a Latin cross with a horizontal bar above (head – reason) and diagonal bar forming an X (body – emotion and intuition) below. He holds another official "Patriarchal" cross, symbolic of heavenly and earthly authority. With his right hand he offers the Eastern blessing with his fingers arranged to form the Greek name of the Redeemer, Χριστός (Christos). St. Methodius, an ordained Byzantine priest and later Roman bishop, stands at stage left. He is dressed in the traditional robes of the Orthodox priesthood with multiple crosses. In his right hand is seen the chalice of salvation and his left hand is hidden to reflect the sense of mystery at the core of Eastern theology. By following the universal "right – left" symbolism discussed above, one may assume that Cryil represents the (m.) authority figure embodied in the Apostolic See of Rome and Methodius the receptive (f.) mystical element of Christianity. Wholeness in Christ contains both. The reunion of the Churches, Rome with its law and philosophy, and Byzantium with its mystic contemplation and liturgy could be based on this mutual recognition in sacramental submission to Christ. At the Second Council of Nicea in 787, the last council recognized by both Churches, the book containing the Gospel was enthroned and all decrees were proclaimed in both Latin and Greek. Could not the two come together once again, as in a nuptial, to share in the Body and Blood of the Savior and swear fidelity to each other in Him?
By way of final recapitulation, I should like to restate the basic premise of this essay dedicated to the understanding of universal symbols. Leaving aside the simple atheists who deny the existence of anything but matter, there are two fundamental belief systems adhered to by humanity. The first view is that there is but one unified cosmos comprising all spirit and matter. This view is summed up in the Neo-Platonic, Hermetic definition. "God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere." Although there are variations on the theme, religions that espouse this view generally hold that all, both what are considered "good" or "evil," comes out from the "One" by emanation and will eventually return to the "One." This system is symbolically represented by the circular mandala with a bindu point at the center and is comprised of such groups as Brahmanism and Hinduism in the East, and the various neo-platonic, gnostic , kabbalistic, and "new age" sects in the West. The focus of these religions is, most basically, to affirm and develop ones own "divine" potential as well as harmonize the divine imbalance of the cosmos.
The second view is that the one transcendent God created the cosmos from nothing, ex nihilo, and that God and the creation are separate realities. This view is summed up in the Catholic definition from Vatican I, that, "God is other than the world in being and essence, and above all else, that could possibly be considered to be, ineffably superior." This group is comprised of all orthodox Jews, Moslems and Christians. It finds its fulfillment in the Christian doctrine of the "Incarnation" wherein man is invited to live by faith and sacrament in Christ the unique mediator between the two realities. The focus of this religious view is to, love, honor, and serve God in general, (Jews, Muslims, and all Christians) and to be sacramentally incorporated into His mystical body in particular ( esp. Roman Catholic and, to a degree, Orthodox Christianity.) The symbolic representation of this incorporation may be represented as the letters, IHS with the cross of Christ at the center. This symbol, in fact, incorporates the "wholeness" desired by all humanity in that it represents the coming together of heaven and earth in the person of Jesus Christ..
In closing, I should like to present two archetypal icons that represent the two fundamental religious alternatives discussed in this treatise. The first icon is a traditional Catholic vision of nature elevated by grace portrayed in a 15th century Byzantine icon from the Peremyshl Museum in Ukraine. This symbolic picture conforms to the first part of this study. The second icon is a modern Kabalistic vision ( see the Hebrew letters in the four quadrants) presented at the Chicago International Art Exposition in 1989 which relates to the second. Both follow precisely the right-left, above below dialectic proposed at the beginning and developed throughout this study.
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Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition
Glenn Magee, (
“God is God only so far as he knows himself. his self-knowledge is, further, a self-consciousness in man and man’s knowledge of God, which proceeds to man’s self-knowledge in God.”
— Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences
1. Hegel as Hermetic Thinker
Hegel is not a philosopher. He is no lover or seeker of wisdom — he believes he has found it. Hegel writes in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, “To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title of ‘love of knowing’ and be actual knowledge — that is what I have set before me” (Miller, 3; PC, 3). By the end of the phenomenology, Hegel claims to have arrived at Absolute Knowledge, which he identifies with wisdom. Hegel’s claim to have attained wisdom is completely contrary to the original Greek conception of philosophy as the love of wisdom, that is, the ongoing pursuit rather than the final possession of wisdom. His claim is, however, fully consistent with the ambitions of the Hermetic tradition, a current of thought that derives its name from the so-called Hermetica (or Corpus Hermeticum), a collection of Greek and Latin treatises and dialogues written in the first or second centuries A.D. and probably containing ideas that are far older. The legendary author of these works is Hermes Trismegistus (“Thrice-Greatest Hermes”). “Hermeticism” denotes a broad tradition of thought that grew out of the “writings of Hermes” and was expanded and developed through the infusion of various other traditions. Thus, alchemy, Kabbalism, Lullism, and the mysticism of Eckhart and Cusa — to name just a few examples — became intertwined with the
Hermetic doctrines. (Indeed, Hermeticism is used by some authors simply to mean alchemy.) Hermeticism is also sometimes called theosophy, or esotericism; less precisely, it is often characterized as mysticism, or occultism. It is the thesis of this book that Hegel is a Hermetic thinker. I shall show that there are striking correspondences between Hegelian philosophy and Hermetic theosophy, and that these correspondences are not accidental. Hegel was actively
interested in Hermeticism, he was influenced by its exponents from boyhood on, and he allied himself with Hermetic movements and thinkers throughout his life. I do not argue merely that we can understand Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, just as we can understand him as a German or a Swabian or an idealist thinker. Instead, I argue that we must understand Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, if we are to truly understand him at all. Hegel’s life and works offer ample evidence for this thesis. There are references throughout Hegel’s published and unpublished writings to many of the leading figures and movements of the Hermetic tradition. These references are in large measure approving. This is particularly the case with Hegel’s treatment of Eckhart, Bruno, Paracelsus, and Boehme. Boehme is the most striking case. Hegel accords him considerable space in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy — more space, in fact, than he devotes to many significant mainstream thinkers in the philosophic tradition. There are, furthermore, numerous Hermetic elements in Hegel’s writings. These include, in broad strokes, a Masonic subtext of “initiation mysticism” in the Phenomenology of Spirit; a Boehmean subtext to the Phenomenology’s famous preface; a Kabbalistic-Boehmean-Lullian influence on the Logic;
alchemical-Paracelsian elements in the Philosophy of Nature; an influence of Kabbalistic and Joachimite millennialism on Hegel’s doctrine of Objective Spirit and theory of world history; alchemical and Rosicrucian images in the Philosophy of Right; an influence of the Hermetic tradition of pansophia on the system as a whole; an endorsement of the Hermetic belief in philosophia perennis; and the use of perennial Hermetic symbolic forms (such as the triangle, the circle, and the square) as structural, architectonic devices.
Hegel’s library included Hermetic writings by Agrippa, Boehme, Bruno, and Paracelsus. He read widely on Mesmerism, psychic phenomenal dowsing, precognition, and sorcery. He publicly associated himself with known occultists, like Franz von Baader. He structured his philosophy in a manner identical to the Hermetic use of ‘Correspondences!’ He relied on histories of thought that discussed Hermes Trismegistus, Pico della Mirandola, Robert Fludd, and Knorr von
alongside Plato, Galileo, Descartes, and
are four major periods in Hegel’s life during which he seems to have been
strongly under the influence of Hermeticism, or to have actively pursued an
interest in it. First, there is his boyhood in
Hegel scholars have not thought it necessary to consider the intellectual
milieu of his boyhood. Hegel is almost universally understood simply within the
context of the German philosophical tradition — as responding to Kant, Fichte,
and Schelling. Needless to say, the influence of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling
was important, but it was not the only influence on Hegel. Part of the reason
other sources of influence are missed or ignored is that few scholars are
familiar with the complexities of religious life in eighteenth-century
are familiar are almost always from disciplines other than philosophy, and almost always German. (The study of German Pietism is almost exclusively the province of German-speaking scholars.) The religious and intellectual life of Württemberg is, however, the obvious place to begin to understand Hegel’s own intellectual origins, characteristic ideas, and aims. Hegel has to be understood in terms of the theosophical Pietist tradition of Württemberg — he cannot be seen simply as a critic of Kant. Indeed Hegel, as I will argue, was always a critic of Kant and never a wholehearted admirer precisely because he was “imprinted” early on by the tradition of pansophia, which was very much alive in Württemberg, and by Oetinger’s ideal of the truth
Whole (see chapter 2). He could not accept Kant’s scepticism, nor could
Schelling, and for identical reasons. Yet they both recognized the power of
Kant’s thought and labored hard to move from his premises to their own
conclusions, to circumvent his scepticism at all costs, in the name of the
speculative ideal of their youth. From 1793 to 1801 Hegel worked as a private
tutor, first at Berne, then at
this time, Hegel appears to have become conversant with the works of Boehme, as well as Eckhart and Johannes Tauler. Also during this period Hegel became involved in Masonic circles.
Hegel’s Lecture on the Philosophy of History
Kabbalistic Philosophy and Gnostic theology are also occupied with the concepts of Philo. The first of these concepts is Being: abstract, unknown and nameless. The second is disclosure: the concrete which emanates from Being. The return to unity is also accepted to a certain extent, particularly with the Christian philosophers. This return, which is considered third, approaches Logos.  According to Philo, Wisdom is the teacher, High Priest, which leads the third back to the first, and thus to the vision (hóros) of God.
Kabbalah is called the secret wisdom of the Jews.
Much has been fabled concerning its origins, and much of it is enigmatic. It is
said to be embodied in two books: the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of
Formation) and the Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Splendor). The Sefer
Yetzirah is the same primary book which has been attributed to Rabbi
Akiba. A completed edition is soon to appear from Herr von Mayer in
There are ideas in the book which lead into Philo
to a certain extent, but they do so in a very enigmatic way, and are presented
more for the Phantasie. It is not as venerably ancient as is claimed
by those who revere it, for they suppose that Adam was given this heavenly book
as a consolation for his fall. It is an astronomical, magical, medicinal,
prophetic brew. An historical pursuit of its traces indicates that it was
Akiba was born soon after the destruction of
The second book, Sefer ha-Zohar, is said to have originated from a pupil of Rabbi Simeon b. Yochai. He was called the Great Light, the Spark of Moses. Both Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer ha-Zohar were translated into Latin in the 17th Century. 
In the 15th Century a speculative Israelite, Rabbi Abraham Cohen Herrera, also wrote a book Puerto del Cielo (The Gate of Heaven) which is connected to Arab and Scholastic philosophy.  It is an enigmatic mixture, but the book does have foundations which are universal [allgemeine Grundlage]. The best within it travels along a conceptual path similar to Philo. There are certainly some genuinely interesting determinations of a fundamental nature [Grundbestimmungen] in these books, but they tend to lead to enigmatic fantasizing. In the early history of the Jews one finds nothing concerning the notion of God as Being of Light, or of an opposition between light and darkness (seen as a struggle between good and evil); one finds nothing in early Jewish history on good and evil angels, or of the rebellion of evil, its damnation and sojourn in hell; nor anything concerning the future world judgment over good and evil, and the corruption of the flesh. In these books of the Kabbalah the Jews first began to develop their thoughts about their reality and to unveil to themselves a spiritual, or at least spirit-world, whereas they had previously been absorbed in the mire and self-importance of their existence and in the preservation of their people and race.
Concerning the particulars of the Kabbalah, the following can be said here: the One is declared the principle of all things, for this is the primeval source of all numbers. Just as the totality of numbers is itself no number, in the same way God is the foundation of all things, Ain Sof (without limit). The emanations associated with Ain Sof proceed from this first cause through contraction of that original boundlessness; this is the hóros (boundary) of the first. In this first single cause everything is preserved eminenter, not formaliter but rather causaliter.
The second main point is Adam Kadmon, the first man, Keter, the first generated, highest crown, the Macrocosmos- Microcosmos, to which the emanated world is connected as the flux of light. Through further emanation the other spheres become the circles of the world, and this emanation is represented as a stream of light. Ten streams of light issue from the primal source, and these emanations, Sefirot, compose the pure world of Azilut (world of divine emanations), which is itself without variability; second, the world of Briah (world of creation), which is variable; third, the formed world of Yetzirah (the pure souls which are deposited in the material, the souls of the stars; the pure spirits are further differentiated as this enigmatic system proceeds); and fourth, the established world of Asiah (world of activation), which is the lowest vegetative and sentient world.
Fundamental notions similar to those of the Kabbalists constitute the determinations (Bestimmungen) of the Gnostic theology. Herr Prof. Neander has given us an erudite collection of the Gnostics, which he has explained in detail. Some of these forms accord with those discussed above.
One of the most outstanding Gnostics is Basilides. According to Basilides, the first is the unspeakable God, theós arretos, the Ain Sof of the Kabbalah, which as tó ón, o ón [Being] is nameless ('anonómastos), and immediate, as with Philo.
Second is noús (spirit, mind), the first born, Logos Sophía (Wisdom), the active dynamis (power) which differentiates more precisely into justice (dikaiosyne), and harmony (eiréne). These are followed by further developed principles which Basilides calls Archons, the heads of the spirit realms. A central issue in this schema is again the return, the soul's process of clarification, the economy of purification, oeconomía katharoeon, from the hyle (materia). The soul must return to Sophía and harmony. The primeval essence contains all perfection within itself, but only in potentia; the spirit (noús), which is the first born, is only the first manifestation of what is veiled, and created beings can only obtain true justice in harmony with it through connection to God.
The Gnostics, for example Markos, call the first the unthinkable, anennóetos, and even non-existence, anoúsios. It is that which proceeds into the determinate, monótes. They also call it the pure stillness, sigé (silence). From it proceed Ideas, angels and the aeons. These are the roots and seeds of the particular fulfillment: lógoi (words), rízai (roots), spérmata (seeds), plerómata (plenitudes), karpoí (fruit); and each aeon contains its own world within itself.
According to other Gnostics, for example Valentinus, the first principle is also called Aeon or the unfathomable, the primeval depth, the absolute abyss, bythos, in which everything is sublimated (aufgehoben) before the beginning (proárche) or before the Father (propátor). Aeon is the activator. The transition or unfolding of the One is diáthesis (arrangement), and this stage is also called the self-conceptualizing of the inconceivable (katálepsis toú akataléptou), which we have encountered in Stoic philosophy as katálepsis (grasping, conceiving). These concepts are the Aeons, the particular diáthesis, and the world of the Aeons is called the pléroma (plenitude). The second principle is called the hóros (boundary), the development of which is to be grasped in contraries, the two masculine and feminine principles. The one is the pléroma of the other, and the plerómata (plenitudes) emanate from their union, syzygía. The union is the foremost reality. Each opposite has its own integral complement, syzygos; the sum of these plerómata is the entire world of Aeons all together, the universal pléroma of the bythos (abyss, depth). The abyss is thus called Hermaphrodite, the masculine-feminine, arrenóthelys.
Ptolemaios attributes to the bythos two pairs (syzygous), two arrangements or dispositions (diátheseis) which are presumed through all existence: will and thought (thélema kaí énnoia). Colorful forms and ornamentation then enter into the picture. The essential determinate is the same: abyss and unveiling. The manifestation as a descent is also dóxa (splendor), Shekhinah of God, Sophía ouránios (heavenly wisdom), which refers to the vision of God (horasis toú theoú): dynámeis agénetoi (uncreated force), “the light about him flashes brilliantly” (ai péri autón oúsai lambrótaton phos apastráptousi), the Ideas, lógos, or pre-eminently the name of God (tó ónoma toú theoú), the name of the many-named God (polyónymos), the Demiurge, i.e., God's appearance. All of these forms pass into the enigmatic. In general, the fundamental terms of these different Gnostic theologies are the same, and at their core is an attempt to conceive and determine what is in and for itself. I have mentioned these particular forms in order to indicate their connection to the universal. Underlying this, however, is a deep need for concrete reason.
The Church repudiated Gnosticism because it remained in the universal, and grasped the Idea in the form of Imagination, which then opposed the actual self-consciousness of Christos in the flesh, Xpristós én sarkí. The Docetists say that Christos had merely an apparent body and an apparent life. The thought was a cryptic one. The Church stood firmly opposed to this in favor of a definite form of the personality, and it adhered to the principle of concrete reality.
3. Hegel is referring to the volume Liber Jezirah. Qui Abrahamo Patriarchae adscribitur, uno cum commentario Rabi Abraham Filii Dior super 32 Simitis Sapientiae a quibus liber Jezirah incipit. Translatus et Notis illustratus a Joanne Stephano Rittangelio. Amsterdami 1642. [For a more complete bibliography of Sefer Yetzirah, see Sefer Yetzirah Bibliography] - SJT
4. Regarding Herrera, Gershom Scholem writes the following in his encyclopaedic Kabbalah (1974): “Abraham Herrera, a pupil of Sarug who connected the teaching of his master with neoplatonic philosophy, wrote Puerto del Cielo, the only kabbalistic work originally written in Spanish, which came to the knowledge of many European scholars through its translations into Hebrew (1655) and partly into Latin (1684).” In another context Scholem mentions Herrera's rôle in the discussion of Spinoza and Kabbalah: “The question of whether, and to what degree, the Kabbalah leads to pantheistic conclusions has occupied many of its investigatior from the appearance in 1699 of J.G. Wachter's study Der Spinozismus im Judenthumb, attempting to show that the pantheistic system of Spinoza derived from kabbalistic sources, particularly from the writings of Abraham Herrera.”
In the context of Hegel's short entry on kabbalah, the following passage is worth quoting from Herrera's book Puerto del Cielo (included in a Latin translation in Christian Knorr von Rosenroth's Kabbala denudata: “Adam Kadmon proceeded from the Simple and the One, and to that extent he is Unity; but he also descended and fell into his own nature, and to that extent he is Two. And again he will return to the One, which he has in him, and to the Highest; and to that extent he is Three and Four” (Kabbala denudata I, Part 3, Porta coelorum, ch. 8, paragraph 3, p. 116). - SJT
Translation and notes by Scott J. Thompson, From Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate,