Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Archive for the ‘Allegorical interpretation’ Category

Contemplative Christianity in the 13th and 14th Centuries: Latin West

leave a comment »

(click image to view in high resolution)

HERE we extend the previous timeline forward to the 13th and 14th centuries.
Legend: Olive = Benedictine; Light green: Cistercian; Purple: Dominican; Orange = Carthusian; Dark blue = Augustinian; Light blue = Other.

Recommended Reading

Egan, Harvey D. An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. Liturgical Press, 1991.

McGinn, Bernard. The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism (1200−1350). (Vol. 3 of B. McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism.) New York: Crossroad, 1998.

Hugh of St. Victor: Noah’s Ark as an Allegory for Contemplation

leave a comment »

Art: (c) Conrad Rudolph

the ark is the secret place of our own heart

IN THE early High Middle Ages, before Scholasticism arose to dominate Christian theology, the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris was a leading intellectual center. Some work performed there built on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius (translated into Latin two centuries earlier) to develop what we might call a science of contemplation, laying important groundwork for later Christian mysticism. Allegorical interpretation of Scripture supported this. Hugh of St. Victor’s (c. 1096–1141) exegesis of the story of Noah’s Ark is an example.

Philo (Questions and Answers on Genesis 1.89−2.78) and St. Ambrose (De Noe et Arca; PL 14.361−416) had, much earlier, allegorically interpreted the story of Noah and the Ark. In the light of these writings, the story emerges as a far more subtle and relevant myth than people ordinarily suppose. It’s very important to attend to specific details — such as the ark was three stories high, had a window and door, and that Noah first sent out a raven.

According to art historian Conrad Rudolph, Hugh lectured on the topic using a large, 10-foot square painting summarizing the symbolism. The figure shown above is Rudolph’s reconstruction.

Now the figure of this spiritual building which I am going to present to you is Noah’s ark. This your eye shall see outwardly, so that your soul may be fashioned to its likeness inwardly. You will see there certain colours, shapes, and figures which will be pleasant to behold. But you must understand that these are put there, that from them you may learn wisdom, instruction, and virtue, to adorn your soul. …

The third [ark] is that which wisdom builds daily in our hearts through continual meditation on the law of God. …

[W]hoever makes it his endeavour to cut himself off from the enjoyment of this world and cultivate the virtues, must with the assistance of God’s grace erect within himself a building of virtues three hundred cubits long in faith of Holy Trinity, fifty cubits wide in charity, and thirty cubits high in the hope that is in Christ, a building long in good works and wide in love and lofty in desire, so that his heart may be where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. …

If, then, we have begun to live persistently in our own heart through the practice of meditation, we have already in a manner ceased to belong to time; and, having become dead as it were to the world, we are living inwardly with God. We shall then easily make light of anything that fortune brings upon us outwardly, if our heart is there fixed where we are not subject to change, where we neither seek to have again things past, nor look for those to come, where we neither desire the pleasant things of this life, nor fear things contrary. Let us therefore have right thoughts, let us have pure and profitable thoughts, for of such material we shall build our ark. These are the timbers that float when they are put into the water and burn when placed in the fire; for the tide of fleshly pleasures does not weigh down such thoughts, but the flame of charity enkindles them. …

As we have said before, the ark of the flood is the secret place of our own heart, in which we must hide from the tumult of this world. But because the feebleness of our condition itself prevents our staying long in the silence of inward contemplation, we have a way out by the door and window. The door denotes the way out through action, the window the way out through thought. The door is below, the window above, because actions pertain to the body and thoughts to the soul. That is why the birds went out through the window and the beasts and men through the door. …

But the fact that the door is situated in the side denotes that we must never leave the secret chamber of our heart through our own deliberate choice, but only as necessity may happen to demand. …

But the fact that the door is situated in the side denotes that we must never leave the secret chamber of our heart through our own deliberate choice, but only as necessity may happen to demand.  …

Now we go out by action in four ways. For some actions are carnal those, that is to say, which are concerned with physical need; others are spiritual, and are concerned with the instruction of the mind. Good men and bad go forth for both. Those who are enslaved to the outward fulfilling of their lusts are like the unclean animals that went forth from the ark. Those, however, who discharge them from necessity are animals indeed, but clean. …

Eve ‘saw that the tree was pleasant to the eyes, and was good for food, and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat’. Those who in this way issue forth through thought are like the raven which did not return. For when they find outside what gives them evil pleasure, they never want to come back again to the ark of conscience. …

The other three kinds of contemplation, however, are symbolized by the going forth of the dove who, when she was sent out and found no rest for her foot, returned at evening carrying in her mouth an olive branch in leaf. She went out empty, but she did not return so. For she found outside that which she did not have within, although the thing that she brought in she did not love outside. The olive branch in leaf denotes a good state of soul.

Source: Hugh of St. Victor, De arca Noe morali. In: Hugh of St. Victor: Selected Spiritual Writings, Translated by a religious of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin,  Harper, 1962.  [ebook].

Latin: Hugh of Saint-Victor. Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, vol. 176. Paris, 1854. Cols. 618−680.

Art:  Rudolph, Conrad. The Mystic Ark: Hugh of Saint Victor, Art, and Thought in the Twelfth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Richard of St. Victor, The Ark of the Covenant as an Allegory for Contemplation

leave a comment »

IN THE 12th century the Abbey of St. Victor outside Paris was a major teaching center. One dominant interest there was to develop a science of contemplation, drawing on such sources as St. Augustine, the Benedictine monastic tradition, and Pseudo-Dionysius. Allegorical interpretation of Scripture reached an advanced level. Richard of St. Victor (1110?−1173), for example, wrote a treatise on contemplation in the form of an exegesis of the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 25. This is variously called Benjamin Major, The Mystical Ark, and The Grace of Contemplation. His writings profoundly affected subsequent Christian mysticism, including Bonaventure, the Rhineland mystics, and Spanish mysticism.

At the end of The Mystical Ark, Richard supplied a helpful recapitulation of the entire work, including a summary of Ark symbolism:

By the tabernacle of the covenant we understand the state of perfection.
Where perfection of the soul is, there also is the habitation of God.
The more the mind approaches perfection, the more closely it is joined in a covenant with God.
However, the tabernacle itself ought to have an atrium around about it.
By atrium we understand discipline of the body; by tabernacle we understand discipline of the mind. …
No person knows what belongs to the inner person except the spirit of humanity that is in him.
The habitus of the inner person is divided into a rational and an intellectual habitus.
The rational habitus is understood by the exterior tabernacle, but the intellectual habitus is understood by the interior
We call the rational sense that by which we discern the things of ourself;
In this place we call the intellectual sense that by which we are raised up to the speculation of divine things. …
A person enters into the first tabernacle when he returns to himself.
A person enters into the second tabernacle when he goes beyond himself.
When going beyond himself surely a person is elevated to God.
A person remains in the first tabernacle by consideration of himself; in the second, by contemplation of God. …
In the atrium of the tabernacle was the altar of burnt offering.
In the first tabernacle were the candelabrum, the table, and the altar of incense.
In the interior tabernacle was the Ark of the Covenant.
The exterior altar is affliction of the body; the interior altar is contrition of the mind.
The candelabrum is the grace of discretion; the table is the teaching of sacred reading.
By the Ark of the Covenant we understand the grace of contemplation.
On the exterior altar the bodies of animals were burned up; by affliction of the body carnal longings are annihilated.
On the interior altar aromatic smoke was offered to the Lord; by contrition of heart the flame of celestial longings is
A candelabrum is a holder for lights; discretion is the lamp of the inner person.
On the table bread is placed; by it those who are hungry may be refreshed.
However sacred reading certainly is the refreshment of the soul.
An ark is a secret place for gold and silver; the grace of contemplation lays hold of the treasury of celestial wisdom.
Good working pertains to the exterior altar.
Zealous meditation pertains to the candelabrum.
Sacred reading pertains to the table.
Devoted prayer pertains to the interior altar.

Source: Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979.

Latin: Richard of Saint-Victor, Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, vol. 196, cols. 191−202, ed. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1855.

De Ulyxis Erroribus

leave a comment »

Burney MS 114 f 132r (detail), British Library

ONE of the most popular and insightful psychological commentaries on Homer’s Odyssey is the essay, On the Wanderings of Ulysses, published by the English Neoplatonist, Thomas Taylor, in 1823.  In an earlier 1792 version of the essay, published as an extended footnote to his translation of Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs, Taylor mentioned having made use of a “small treatise in Greek” by “an anonymous author.”  His full remark is as follows:

I only premise, that I shall make use of a small treatise in Greek, on the wanderings of Ulysses, by an anonymous author, where he appears to have penetrated the sense of the allegory; and freely reject his interpretation, when foreign from the leading character of Ulysses, above mentioned, according to Numenius and Porphyry. (Taylor, 1792, n. 294f.).

The “above mentioned” material refers to Porphyry’s explanation of Numenius’ interpretation of Odysseus:

Indeed as it appears to me it was not without foundation that Numenius thought the person of Ulysses in the Odyssey represented to us a man who passes in a regular manner over the dark and stormy sea of generation; and thus arrives at that region, where tempests and seas are unknown, and finds a nation Who ne’er knew salt, or heard the billows roar. (Ibid., p. 294).

Though he did not, Taylor could easily have added the name of Plotinus to that of Porphyry and Numenius. In his treatise On Beauty (Enneads 1.6.8), Plotinus, Porphyry’s teacher, supplies what is the quintessential Platonic understanding of the moral-psychological meaning of the Odyssey.  There he writes, in words echoing Diotima’s famous ‘ascent of Love’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, that one should not love physical or bodily beauty, but rather follow Homer’s advice in the Iliad 2.140 and 9.27:

Let us flee to our dear homeland” (Φεύγωμεν δή φίλην ές πατρίδα) and imitate the example of Odysseus who fled far away from Circe and Calypso. … Our homeland is the place we come from, and the Father is there” (Πατρίς δή ήμΐν, δθενπερ ήλθομεν, καί πατήρ έκεΐ). (tr. Berthelot).

For Plotinus, then, the Odyssey is an allegory for the soul’s journey away from material concerns — and the numerous trials and tribulations associated therewith — to our native land of contemplation, serenity, peace and clarity.  Though Porphyry, Numenius and Taylor also find a metaphysical meaning in the Odyssey, they all also appear to agree with Plotinus on the psychological interpretation.

Taylor began the later, 1823 version of his essay as follows:

In my History of the Restoration of the Platonic Theology [see Vo. II. of my Proclus on Euclid,] and in a note accompanying my translation of the treatise of Porphyry, on the Cave of the Nymphs, in that work, I attempted, from the hints afforded by Porphyry, and the work of an anonymous Greek writer, De Ulyxis Erroribus, to unfold the latent meaning of the wanderings of Ulysses, as narrated by Homer. But as, from my continued application to the philosophy of Plato for upwards of forty years, I now know much more of that philosophy than I then did, a period of thirty-five years having elapsed from that to the present time, I shall again attempt to explain those wanderings, rejecting some things, and retaining others which I had adopted before. (Taylor, 1823,  p. 241).

Here he again refers to an anonymous Greek source, but now supplies the Latinized title, De Ulyxis Erroribus.  It does not appear that this work’s author has previously been identified, or the work itself located. However it now seems likely that Taylor’s source was an eponymous essay authored by the Byzantine cleric, Manuel Gabalas (Matthew of Ephesus; c.1271−c.1359), or possibly his colleague, Nicephorus Gregoras (1295−1360).

The essay exists in two handwritten manuscripts of Gabalas.  One is part of the Codex Vindobonensis Theologici Graeci (Vindob. Theol. Gr.) 174 f. 116v−126r in Vienna. The second is part of the Burney MS 114, now held by the British Library.

Moreover, it has been printed five times:

  • A Greek version edited by Vincentius Opsopoeus and published in 1531;
  • A Latin translation by Conrad Gessner published in 1542;
  • Greek text with a new Latin translation by Johannes Columbus in 1678;
  • A reprint of the Columbus edition in 1745; and
  • A Greek edition by A. Westermann (1843; with corrections suggested by Hercher, 1853).

Recent translations have been made in French by Pralon (2004) and Van Kasteel (2012), and in Spanish by Juan-López (2019).

The Greek and Latin versions shows sufficient correspondences with portions of Taylor’s essay to make its identification as his source probable.

The British Library lists the editions of Opsopoeus, Gessner, and Columbus (1678 and 1745) in its catalogue, and, potentially, any or all of them could have been available for Taylor to consult. Kristeller (1987, p. 128) suggested that Gessner’s 1542 translation of Proclus’ defense of Homer in his Commentary on Plato’s Republic, published in the same volume as the anonymous Odyssey essay, along with Porphyry’s Cave of the Nymphs, “seems to have been known to Thomas Taylor.”  If Taylor did indeed consult Gessner’s translation of Proclus (and/or Porphyry), he would therefore have seen the Odyssey essay. However, that was a Latin-only version, whereas in 1792 Taylor referred specifically to a “small treatise in Greek” (italics added).

Possibly Taylor also found the 1531 Greek edition of Opsopoeus in the British Library.  In any case, it does seem likely he consulted one of the Latin/Greek editions of Johannes Columbus.  Not only would these have been the most recent (and potentially the most widely disseminated) editions, but only they have the same words as Taylor’s title: De Ulyxis Erroribus.

We might wonder if Taylor saw the Burney manuscript version, as he was acquainted with the London classicist and collector, Charles Burney.  Had that been so, however, Taylor would have been able to connect the essay with Gabalas and Gregoras.

Doubtless most of Taylor’s essay reflects his own creative synthesis and insight gained by decades of close involvement with Greek texts and Platonist philosophy.  It would, nonetheless be interesting to see exactly what insights he gleaned from the Greek work, and what material he ignored.  We further have some obvious interest in approaching De Ulyxis Erroribus for its own sake — both for what it can tell us about the allegorical meaning of the Odyssey, and the light it may shed on the Byzantine commentary tradition on Homer.

Readers should be expressly cautioned that there are other works on the Odyssey associated with Matthew of Ephesus (Browning, 1992; Vianès, 2003), with which this work should not be confused.


Berthelot, Katell. Philo and the allegorical Interpretation of Homer in the Platonic tradition (with an emphasis on Porphyry’s De antro nympharum). Homer and the Bible in the Eyes of Ancient Interpreters (2012): 155-74.

Browning, Robert. A fourteenth-century prose version of the Odyssey. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 46, 1992, pp. 27–36.

Ford, Philip. Classical myth and its interpretation in sixteenth-century France. In: Sandy, Gerald N. (ed.). The Classical Heritage in France. Leiden: Brill, 2002. (pp. 331−349.)

Gabalas, Manuel (attr.). De Ulyssis erroribus. Burney MS 114, ff 132r-145v. Religious texts copied by Matthew, Metropolites of Ephesus, Volume III. British Museum. 2nd quarter of the 14th century.

Anonymous; Opsopoeus, Vincentius (ed.). Compendiosa explicatio in errores Ulyssis Odysseae Homericae, cum contemplatione morali elaborata. Printed with Xenophon: Symposium: eruditum, iucundum & elegans. Haguenau: Johann Setzer, 1531.

Anonymous; Gessner, Conrad (tr.). Moralis interpretatio errorum Ulyssis Homerici; Commentatio Porphyrii philosophi de nympharum antro in XIII. libro Odyssae Homericae, multiplici cognitione rerum variarum instructissima; Ex commentariis Procli Lycii, philosophi Platonici, in libros Platonis de repub. apologiae quaedam pro Homero & fabularum aliquot enarrationes. Zurich, 1542. (Latin translation only).

Anonymous; Columbus, Johannes (tr.). Incerti Scriptoris Graeci Fabulae Aliquot Homericae de Ulixis Erroribus Ethice Explicatae. Leiden, 1745; (orig. publ. J. G. Eberdt, 1678). (Greek and Latin translation.)

Hercher, R. Zu Nikephoros Gregoras De erroribus Ulixis. Philologus 8 (1853) 755−758.

Hunger H., Kresten O. & Hannick C. Katalog der griechischen Handscbriften der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek. Codices Theologici 101-200, III, 2. Vienna, 1984.

Juan-López, J. B. Allegorical interpretation of Odysseus’s wanderings and his impassive philosophy, De Ulixis Erroribus. Presentation, 2018.

Juan-López, J. B. De Ulixis Erroribus. Spanish translation, notes and commentary. In press (2019), eClassica (?), Lisbon.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Proclus as a reader of Plato and Plotinus, and his influence in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. Editions du CNRS, 1987.  Reprinted in: Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, vol. IV, Rome, 1996.

Plotinus. Armstrong, Arthur Hilary (tr.).  The Enneads, in 7 vols., (Loeb Classical Library), vol. 1, Cambridge, Mass., 1966 .

Pralon, Didier. Une allégorie anonyme de l’Odyssée: Sur les errances d’Ulysse. In: Brigitte Pérez-Jean, B. & Patricia Eichel-Lojkine, L’allégorie de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance, Paris: Champion, 2004; pp. 189−208.

Schleyer, R. On the Wanderings of Ulysses in the Odyssey (incomplete fragment). Unpublished paper. September, 2014.

Taylor, Thomas. History of the Restoration of the Platonic Theology. In: Philosophical and Mathematical Commentaries of Proclus on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements. Vol. II. London, 1792; note, pp. 294−307.

Taylor, Thomas. On the Wanderings of Ulysses. In Select Works of Porphyry. London, 1823; Appendix, pp. 241−272. (pdf version)

Van Kasteel, Hans (tr.). Matthieu d’Éphèse, Exégèse concise sur les errances d’Ulysse selon Homère, augmentée d’une explication éthique. In: H. Van Kasteel, Questions homériques. Physique et métaphysique chez Homère, Éditions Beya, Grez-Doiceau, 2012.

Vianès, Laurence. Les Errances d’Ulysse par Matthieu d’Éphèse, alias Manuel Gabalas (XIVe siècle). GAIA. Revue interdisciplinaire sur la Grèce ancienne 7.1 (2003): 461-480.

Westermann, A. Μυθόγραφοι: Scriptores poeticae historiae Graeci. Brauschweig, 1843; pp. 329-344 & Pref. xvii); corrections proposed by Hercher, 1853.