Fundamentals of Symbolism
From the Renaissance to Modern Times
Hamilton Reed Armstrong
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. 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 sea between Greece and Italy. In this work he claimed, among other things, that just as Jesus Christ is the expression of all humanity, just as He signifies nothing but its simple idea and essence, so does man, too, viewed in his essence, include within himself all things. 1 This blurring of distinction between the Divine Logos and human nature was carried further by Pico della Mirandola in his famous Oratio de hominis dignitate published in 1469. Russel Kirk in his introduction to the translation of this work by Robert Caponigri, in fact posits that, "The Dignity of Man," delivered by Pico at Rome, was, " his glove dashed down before authority, and lives on as the most succinct expression of the mind of the Renaissance." Pico, with these words, "We have given you, Oh Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor any endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may with premeditation, select these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision...at the moment of his creation, God bestowed seeds pregnant with all possibilities ...Whichever of these a man shall cultivate, the same will mature and bear him fruit. If sensual, he will become brutish; if rational he will reveal himself a heavenly being; ...and if, dissatisfied with the lot of all creatures, he should recollect himself into the center of his own unity, he will there, become one spirit with God," 2 openly defied the authority of the Roman Catholic Church with its hierarchical and sacramental theology. That man could achieve oneness with God through his own efforts made the mediation of the Church superfluous. If man's nature was not fallen as the Church taught, the redemption of Christ was unfounded and the sacramental union with Him unnecessary.
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 inundated Italy since the time of Marco Polo, but flowed in with greater impact after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Foremost among these were Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and the Orphic Mysteries combined with the Neo-platonism of, Plotinus, Proclus and Iamblichus. Pico had studied many of these ideas at the Platonic Academy of Florence under the influence of the "Philosophus Platonicus, Theologus et Medicus," Marcilio Ficino.4
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 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 drawn by Leonardo da Vinci c. 1510, in which 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 think of Gnosticism in terms of its Manechean, or dualist manifestation calling for the release of the soul trapped in matter, however, as Abbé.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." 12
Along 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 Italy named Flavius Mitraidedes (Raymond Moncada) in 1486. Other famous Renaissance adepts include Johanes Reuchlin, Cornelius Agrippa Von Neteshiem, and Giordano Bruno. 13 The Fundamental tenets of Kabbalah, according to the leading authority, Gershom Scholem, are as follows: "Over and above disagreements on specific details that tend to reflect different stages in the Kaballah's historical development, there exists a basic consensus among kaballists on man's essential nature...At opposite poles, both man and God encompass within their being the entire cosmos. However, whereas God contains all by virtue of being its Creator and Initiator in whom everything is rooted and all potency is hidden, man's role is to complete this process by being the agent through whom all the powers of creation are fully activated and made manifest. What exists seminally in God unfolds and develops in man...Because he alone has been granted the gift of free will, it lies in his power to either advance or disrupt through his actions the unity of what takes place in the upper and lower worlds... his principal mission is to bring about tikkun or restoration of this world and to connect the lower with the upper." 14 The concept of tikkun, or restoration, involves the problem of evil, and again according to Scholem, "the root of evil resides within the Ein-Sof (hidden God) itself." Evil, therefore, for the kaballist is simply the sitra ahra or "emation of the left" and at the end of time, through the process of man's work of tikkun even the devil, "Samael will become Sa'el, one of the 72 holy Names of God". ... "In Greek this is called apokatasis (sic)"..."To use the neoplatonic formula, the creation involves the departure of all from the one and its return to the one." 15
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 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 fusion of opposites, the iconography changed, or reverted to, images of balance between the opposing cosmic forces.
Erasmus, for example, denied St. Jerome's Latin translation of the Greek, εϕ ϖ πάντες ήμαρτον (eph ho pantes hmarton) as "in quo omnes pecaverunt" (in whom all have sinned) in regard St. Paul's treatise on original sin (Romans: 5, 12 ). He preferred, "since him all have sinned." Promoting perfection rather than redemption, he eschewed the Crucifix as a symbol on the cover sheet of. his treatise on piety and used the ancient Caduceus, symbol of healing and wholeness, instead.
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
In 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 Washington, DC. It is a curious fact of history that these two artists were of opposing temperaments and moral behavior. Fra Angelico was known in his own lifetime as a man of holy and devout life and was later raised to the altars of the Catholic Church as "Blessed" and proclaimed a patron of Catholic artists. Filippo Lippi, on the other hand, is recorded as having led a most dissolute life. According to the biographer Vassari, in his Lives of the Artists, Fra Filippo, "was so lustful that he would give anything to enjoy a woman he wanted"...and that "his amorous or rather animal desires drove him one night to escape through a window to pursue his own pleasures for days on end." 19 This contrast embodied in the two painters is actually reflected symbolically in the picture itself.
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 Isis. This labeling may or may not come from an earlier tradition. As the original intention of the artist is unknown, many of the great art historians of our age have attempted to unravel what Kenneth Clark called, its "Magical" power. It is my belief that Italian Historian Lionello Venturi perhaps came the closest: "The subject is nature; man, woman and child are only elements - not the most important - of nature."
From 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 Temple, have been used to represent the male (active) and the female (passive - receptive)) principles, both transcendental and immanent. In this case the forces are apparently immanent. Even though the larger or male principle is dominant, the two are fused together in concordia discors. Just as Christ Crucified, true God and true man was presented as the pontifex, or bridge builder between heaven and earth in the painting by Perrugino analyzed in the first section of this treatise, so these two pillars form the bridge which unites all the natural elements; right & left, as well as, above & below. The meaning of the painting is simple. It is the fusion of opposites via the generative principle of the male and female within nature that creates harmony and wholeness in the monistic totality of the macrocosm. This painting by Giorgione may well be labeled a quintessential icon of Renaissance Humanist thought, in which there was no need for the Cross of Salvation.
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 St. Thomas were established as the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church (During the sessions of the Council, the Summa Theologiae was placed on the altar of the Cathedral beside the Bible as a definitive text). Both the sacramental nature and hierarchical structure of the Church were reemphasized as well. The theology of the Council, in contrast to both the Reformers and the Humanists, reaffirmed the necessity of incorporation into Christ's Mystical Bodya, as summarized in the following passage from Blessed John of Avila. "It is not enough to be born of blood if you wish to be children of God and go to heaven. He who is born of blood is flesh and blood, and he who is born of the will ordered by reason is a man; (he who lives according to the flesh does not deserve the name of man). [but] To possess heaven it is not enough to be merely a man. 'Quod enim natus est ex carne, caro est - Nemo ascendit in caelum, nisi qui descendit de caelo, filius hominis. To be a child of God you must abide in Christ so that you may ascend IN HIM. If you are nothing more than a man you will inherit from your father but not from God. Not thus are born those who go to heaven. - Ex Deo nati sunt - They must be born again of God. It has been announced. The true son of God is he who is born of water and the Holy Ghost. St. Paul says: He who has not the Spirit of God is not of God. He will not be saved. Hard words indeed!" 22 The Traditional Catholic ecclesiological structure was also reaffirmed and later summarized by canonized Saint and Doctor of the Church, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine S.J.: " Our sentence is that there is only one true Church ... and that the only one true Church is the community of men united by the profession of the true Christian faith and the communion of the same sacraments, under the governance of the legitimate shepherds and above all, of the sole Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff...Indeed the Church as visible and palpable community is as real as the community of the Roman people, the Kingdom of France, or the Republic of Venice...". 23
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 Gesu Church in Rome, built shortly after the close of the Council that illustrates typical Tridentine iconology. This style of painting, along with the forms illustrated in the first part of this treatise, became the official orthodox manner of visually depicting the Truth of the Catholic faith and was spread throughout Catholic Europe, Latin America, and the Asian lands proselytized by Catholic Missionaries.
The "Humanists," however, having lost official recognition by the Catholic authorities continued to flourish as secret brotherhoods such as the Rosicrucians who first appeared to the public through such publications as the Fama and the Confessio in Germany in 1614-1615. 24 According to Frances Yates, in her authoritative book, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, at the root of the Rosicrucian movement was the Neo-Platonic idea that, while contemplating the "Book of Nature" we contemplate God Himself, as "The Spirit of God is at the center of Nature; it is the ground of nature and of the knowledge of all things" and that its purpose was to "Return [through the study of Nature's Book] to the Paradise that Adam had lost." 25Again according to Frances Yates, the movement flourished in the Northern, Protestant countries as "The Hebraic, Old Testament piety of the Puritans and Calvanists was conducive to amalgamation with Cabala (sic. Latinized spelling) the Jewish form of Mysticism." and along with its Neo-Platonic Roots, Rosicrucianism was strongly influenced by the Kabbalah. 26 Having been denounced by the Council of Trent, these Kabbalistic societies were not openly acceptable in Catholic realms and could be brought to trial before the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Symbolically, the Rosicrucian belief that, "The Spirit of God is at the center of Nature" is presented as a classic mandala wherein "God is placed at the center from which heaven and earth are emanations. (See the image above right from "The Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians".) As these societies could not openly operate in Catholic realms, they kept secret their identity by including this symbol in their graphic arts which, though not understood by inquisitorial judges, would be instantly identifiable to adepts. The image to the left from "The Hermetic Museum" depicts this subterfuge.
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, Temple of Pansophia seen to the left, the male and female temple columns (J & B) as well as upper and lower realities ( Superior & Inferior) are shematically displayed. The Sun (masculine) rests on the top of Jachin and an upward pointing triangle on the base also suggests the male heavenly principle. The Moon (feminine) rests on top of Boaz and a downward pointing triangle suggests the female earthly principle. From both the Sun and Moon descend the words Pater and Mater to converge on a circle containing both an upward and downward pointing triangle to form the fusion of opposites, or coincidentia oppositorum.
John Dee, necromancer, court astrologer and magician of Queen Elizabeth I of England rendered the emblem seen to the left below as the Monas Hieroglyphica in 1564. According to Frances Yates, "It summed up a combination of Cabalist, alchemical, and mathematical disciplines through which the adept believed that he could achieve both a profound insight into nature and a vision of a divine world beyond nature." 27
Symbolically, here 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 Dee's egg via the conjunction of the conventional sun and moon symbols (upper center) over an equilateral cross to convey, once again, a harmonious fusion of opposites within an enclosed cosmos. The same egg shape is seen in Freemason and magician Éliphas Lévi's emblem from his 1861 Histoire de la Magie seen to the right. The egg is formed by the Ouroboros, or serpent eating its own tail. 28Within the enclosed cosmos is seen the coincidentia oppositorum of light and dark, male and female, good and evil, heaven and hell formed by the two interlacing triangles to form the Kabbalistic Magen David.
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 as were pronounced by Pico della Mirandola in 1469. 29It 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 treading a serpent, and 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 (12) 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")
Along with the Gnostic divinization of the feminine principle came lust or voluptas as personified by the pagan goddess Venus. Venus, however, was seen as not only the manifestation of carnal desire, Venus Vulgare, but also that of divine beauty, Venus Celeste, the form divine. To the right is Boticelli's Birth of Venus painted between 1480 -1485, the first full size female nude goddess depicted anywhere in Europe since antiquity. This return to pagan eroticism, as we shall see, will lead to a different set of symbolic presentations of cosmic reality while maintaining the fundamental, above - below, right - left, polarities.
For 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 oscli" 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. Union with the Celestial Venus or Beauty itself must be achieved through "Eros" and participation in the divine creative act by simulacrum ie., in the act of copulation. 36 Pico Della Mirandola, while admitting that all Eros or lust is not noble, held that even carnal knowledge, if carried out in the right frame of mind serves to achieve ecstatic union with the Venus Celeste. 37
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. 40The 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 esoteic. 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.
Pousin's Kingdom of Flora, again, has the same classic right - left, above - below layout. Ostensibly the theme is taken from a tale in Ovid's Metamorphosis that recounts how various heroes and demigods were turned to flowers at their death. Once again, stage right is the figure of a male Herm, or erect column statue of Priapus, god of male fertility. Beneath him is Ajax, who falls on his own sword after being denied the armor of Achilles. Hyacinths were said to have grown from his blood that spilled on the ground. Stage left, the lovers Krokos and Smilax erotically recline. According to Ovid, they were accordingly turned into saffron. All the male figures at stage left are curiously androgynous.
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 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 or 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 intelligentsia and was picked up in the early nineteenth century by such artists as William Blake, David Friederich, and Philip Otto Runge, 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
To 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 Aurora, the emerging dawn. She is surrounded by adoring cherubs, flowers, and other natural elements and below her is, not the Christ Child, but the new emancipated child of Nature. This painting is diametrically opposed to the Byzantine Anastais icon reviewed at the end of part one. In that painting, representing the end of time, the Glorified Christ stood between the two rock escarpments converging over Him as he raised the just and cast bound Satan into Hell. In Runge's painting Aurora rises up, between the twin rocks folding back, as harbinger of the Novus Ordo Saeclorum, or "New Age."
The paradigm shift from the Judeo-Christian acknowledgment and worship of the transcendent patriarchal God to the immanent goddess, mother Nature, is reflected 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.
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 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 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" presumably filled with "alien" masters. This painting represents a mystery of faith where all takes place within an enclosed deified cosmos 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. The painting at the left 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 the antinomian fusion of opposites in an impersonal cosmic order.
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 a nebulous light surrounded by five doves -representing the diverse spiritualities of man? They are joined together by a "solar" cross of equilibrium.43 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 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 second is the modernist ( "God is immanent in man.")Pascendi,: The Modernist as Theologian #19, based on the Neo-Platonic, Kabbalistic, Hermetic, Renaissance theology described above. ****
Much, if not most, of the late twentieth century iconography is based on the latter.
The image shown to the left is taken from a 1992 publication of The Secretariat for Latin America of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It shows a man singing to the sun and a woman enthralled by a budding flower. There is a male worker, stage right, and a mother with child, stage left. Instead of the two usual columns, there are two rivers (with fish) presumably in reference to equal male and female living waters. The top and bottom of the image are clearly defined by thick stripes suggesting an enclosed reality dominated by the sun (father sky) and fertility (mother earth). The symbolic message would seem to be that the Christian vision for the perfection of humanity lies in a harmonious balance between all elements within the cosmic order. The only recognizable Catholic image relating to the transcendent order is a small cross atop a tiny church at the upper left corner. The title of the pamphlet to which this picture relates is, Faith Alive In The Americas - La Fe Vive En Las Americas." To what faith do these phrases refer? Do they refer to such traditional Christian topics as sacraments, sin, redemption, sanctifying grace and eternal life, or do they refer to divine immanence and the resolution of opposites?
The visual message of this American Catholic pamphlet is, in fact, not dissimilar from the image shown to the right 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 petroglyphs of the Hopi tribes of New Mexico, depicts the perennial quest for the fusion of opposites described throughout this essay. The artist has portrayed a classic pre-post Christian cosmos, between the celestial rainbow above and the infernal dragon below (emerging from the flames). Within this enclosed environment one sees a horned male (stage right) and a feather decked female (stage left). The male figure carries a shield with the male sun symbol and is flanked by spermatoid serpents. The female caries the feminine spiral symbol and is flanked by the same symbol of involution. The allusion is to an all sacred generative principle. Between the two, above, is the circular cosmic mandala, and below, their offspring, a harmonious union of man and beast.
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, 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) 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 the "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.
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 incorporated into His mystical body in particular (Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.) The symbolic representation of this incorporation maybe represented as the letters, IHS with the cross of Christ at the center.
In closing, I should like to present two archetypal icons that represent the two fundamental religious alternatives discussed in this treatise. The first 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 is a modern Kabbalistic 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.