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Martianus Capella, The Apotheosis of Philologia

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Sandro Botticelli, Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman, 1483–1486.

BOOK II of Martianus Capella’s On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury (De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii) continues the mythical introduction to the work (the previous post discusses Book I).  Before she can marry Mercury, Philologia (love of study) must ascend to heaven.  In preparation for this she is greeted and praised by a succession of goddesses and other divinities, including Phronesis (her mother), the Seven Muses, Philosophy, the Graces, the Virtues, Immortality, and Astrae. The speeches of the Muses, especially noteworthy, are presented below.

Modern writers criticize Martianus for what they call his ‘turgid prose’ and elaborate descriptions.  But this is seeing him through the lens of narrow rationalism.  May we instead adopt a post-rationalist worldview, and accept that he is either (1) using art intentionally to convey a fuller message, or (2) that he just might be inspired, whether by some divine power, the collective unconscious, or both?  May we in the 21st century regain an appreciation for the prophetic sense?

In Book III Martianus himself addresses his critics:

[221] Once again in this little book the Muse prepares her ornaments and wants to tell fabricated stories at first, remembering that utility cannot clothe the naked truth; she regards it as a weakness of the poet to make straightforward and undisguised statements, and she brings a light touch to literary style and adds beauty to a page that is already heavily colored. (Stahl et al, p. 64).

Criticisms notwithstanding, the purpose of the myth in the first two books seems as explicitly religious as it is momentous: Martianus is suggesting that Philologia — this quality of love of study, of scholarship, of yearning to understand the meanings of things — is something divine.  And it seems likely he considers this a means of gradual ascent of the mind (nous) in a manner consistent with Platonism and Neoplatonism.

Small wonder, then, that this work exerted such a profound influence on education and consciousness in the West for 1000 years after he wrote, from the fall of  the Roman Empire to the Renaissance.  His message should be heard again today.  The purpose of Liberal Arts education is neither utilitarian, nor merely to make a ‘good and productive citizen.’  It is part of the far more significant process of divinization, of ‘assimilation to God insofar as possible.’

Two details concerning the following should be noted.  First, the Seven Muses are not the same as the Seven Liberal Arts, which are treated in the remaining seven books.  Second, Martianus deviates somewhat from how other writers interpret each Muse.  The English translation of Stahl et al. has been lightly edited.

[117] BEFORE the door, sweet music with manifold charms was raised, the chorus of assembled Muses singing in well-trained harmony to honor the marriage ceremony. Flutes, lyres, the grand swell of the water organ blended in tuneful song and with a melodious ending as they became silent for an appropriate interval of unaccompanied singing by the Muses. Then the entire chorus with melodious voices and sweet harmony outstripped the beauty of all the instrumental music, and the following words were poured forth in notes of sacred song:

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[118] Then, while the others kept quiet a moment, URANIA (Muse of astronomy) began:

“With trust in the divine will and without disputing,
Behold the assemblies of the stars,
And the sacred vaults of the heavens;
You formerly studied what cause whirled the interdependent spheres,
Now as their leader you shall assign causes to their sweeping motions.
You shall perceive what is the fabric that connects their circuits,
What bond encompasses them,
And what huge spheres are enclosed within a curving orbit;
You will see what drives on and what delays courses of the planets,
Which rays of the sun inflame the moon or diminish its light,
What substance kindles the stars in heaven,
And how great are the bodies which heaven spins around,
What is the providence of the gods, and what its mode of operation.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[119] Then sang CALLIOPE (Muse of epic poetry):

“Always a friend to the favoring Muses,
For you Magnesian rivers and the fountain of Pegasus have poured your drink,
For you the Aonid peak [Mount Helicon], green with garlands, puts forth its leaves, while Cirrha prepares violets;
You know how to chant prophecies to the sweet Muses,
And to play the lyre of Pindar,
And at your word the strings and the sacred plectrum,
Know how to pour forth the Thracian song.
Light of our lives, praise always our sacred songs,
And approve the music that we play.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks uou to rise to the lofty stars.”

[120] Thus sang POLYMNIA (Muse of rhythm and poetic meter):

“You have been exalted and, though recently of mortal blood,
Are now endowed with godhead;
At last you reap the rewards of your efforts:
The shining sky, the abodes of the gods, and the companionship of Jove.
You are used to combining and dispersing a variety of sounds,
According to the rules of rhythm,
To assessing then which syllable, marked with the macron,
Is pronounced with circumflexion,
Which with the mark of brevity the micron curves;
To assessing melodies and tones and tunes and all such knowledge,
And all that can, when the mind is urged to it,
Gain the heights of heaven.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[121] Thus sang MELPOMEME (Muse of sacred theater):

“You are accustomed to sing tragic songs for the theater,
Or wear the boot of comedy and echo the songs,
Which under your care we offered when sweet music aided us;
Now to you, maiden, our champion and our expositor,
Made immortal by the theme of your song, to you I sing.
For I am happy to adorn your bridal chamber,
And may my garlands be acceptable in your service.
May you ever seem worthy of an Olympian wedding,
Ever fairer than the other gods.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupitet asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[122] Thus sang CLIO (Muse of history and rhetoric):

“You sound forth in the guise of the rhetorician,
And set free by your passion the man accused.
You link together contrary sentiments,
Building up sophisms by heaping together arguments,
Now binding something together by the rule of grammar,
Clever at using your gift of fine speech,
To play with words that by their double meaning destroy the ordinary sense;
Now gaze upon the starry threshold of the sky,
And enjoy the holy whiteness of heaven,
For it is precious to see that in its true light.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[123] Next spoke ERATO (Muse of lyric and love poetry):

“O famous maiden, to whom the palace of the Thunderer is open,
Source of the arts, rightly is the world subject to you,
Since it was from the beginning apprehended by your rational principles.
Why the sacred lightning flashes,
Whence the echoing thunder sounds,
What drives the moisture through the opening of the sky when the storm clouds gather,
What is brought back by the clearness of spring when the rain clouds march away,
Why the circle of the year spins round to end all the hurrying centuries
—we avow that secrets unknown to others are known to you alone.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[124] Then sang TERPSICHORE (Muse of dance and chorus):

“I am delighted, dear maiden, that through this honor you gain a sight of the stars!
Your industry and the genius of your nature have won this for you.
That wakeful concentration of yours bestowed this honor on your lucubrations.
Having toiled day and night on the sacred writings,
And knowing the future and being ready to learn,
You have understood what the Stoics offer in their sacrifices when the flame puffs from the kindling.
For without misgivings, with unhesitating utterance,
You anticipate what the smoke tells on the flaming altars of the Sabaeans,
What message is brought by air thick with the ash of incense,
Or what the sure signs foretell by prophetic voices.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[125] Then EUTERPE (Muse of flute music) began:

“O maiden, our guide to skillful prophecy,
Who could ascend to heaven and bring down to pure souls,
The sacred teachings by which they were able to know themselves,
And by which they discerned
And saw with a clear light the decrees of fate and the countenances of the spirits,
And who allotted stars to be the minds of Plato and Pythagoras,
And who has ordered ephemeral creatures,
To behold the decree of heaven with all obscurity removed:
Rightly ascend to the senate of the Thunderer,
You who alone are fit to be married to Mercury.

Ascend into the temples of heaven, maiden, deserving of such a marriage;
your father-in-law Jupiter asks you to rise to the lofty stars.”

[126] Then THALIA (Muse of comedy and pastoral poetry) spoke:

“O blessed maiden, who take up the marriage bond,
Amid such a singing of the stars,
And with such approval from the universe,
Become a daughter-in-law of the Thunderer.
Of which god are you to become the wife?
He alone on wandering wing, alert for sudden storms,
Flies out beyond the stars of the universe,
And when he has crossed the straits on high, returns to Tartarus.
He alone is able to wield his famous staff before the chariot and white horses of the high father;
He alone gladly restores the fortunes of Osiris as he falls,
Whom the father of the gods knows to be weighed down by the life-giving seed he has discovered;
To Mercury his stepmother gladly gave her milky breast;
His powerful caduceus counteracts dread poison;
And when he speaks, all venom is dissolved.
He is learned among the gods; but this girl is still more learned.
Now, now the arts are blessed, which you two so sanctify,
That they allow men to rise to heaven and open to them the stars,
And allow holy prayers to fly up to the clear sky.
Through you the mind’s intelligence, alert and noble, fills the uttermost depth,
Through you proven eloquence brings everlasting glory.
You bless all subjects, and you bless us, the Muses.”

Bibliography

Cristante, Lucio; Lenaz, Luciano. Martiani Capellae: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Vol. 1, Libri I – II. Bibliotheca Weidmanniana, 15.1. Hildesheim: Weidmann, 2011.

Stahl, William Harris; Johnson, Richard; Burge, E. L. The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Columbia University Press, 1977.

Willis, James (ed.). Martianus Capella: De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii libri IX. Leipzig: Teubner, 1983. (Critical edition of Latin text.)

1st draft, 1 Apr 2020

The Archetypal Meaning of Hercules at the Crossroads

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Annibale Carracci, The Choice of Hercules, 1596

THE ATHENIAN philosopher and rhetorician, Prodicus, a contemporary of Socrates, wrote an essay commonly known as Hercules at the Crossroads, which he often delivered orally to appreciative crowds. A moral allegory of deep psychological significance, it describes a young Hercules at a crossroads confronted by two women who personify Vice and Virtue.  Each appeals to him to take a different route: Lady Vice claims the easy path will lead to pleasure and happiness; Lady Virtue reminds him that the road to true and lasting satisfaction is the harder and more toilsome route.

Our best source of the story is Xenophon’s dialogue Memorabilia (2.1.21–34), wherein Socrates is presented as relating Prodicus’ story to a young protege named Aristippus (evidently not the eponymous founder of the Cyrenaic philosophical sect).

Thanks to Xenophon, the story was well known and often alluded to throughout antiquity and beyond.  Cicero, in On Moral Duties (1.32.118; 3.5.25), a work addressed to his son, mentions Prodicus’ tale in the context of choosing ones career.  Others, too, have understood the tale as referring choosing one’s long term course in life.  However we have good reason to believe the story has a deeper psychological and more existential meaning.

One clue to the deeper meaning is the strong appeal of the story throughout the centuries to the artistic imagination.  As Erwin Panovsky (1930) in a seminal work on art history describes, Prodicus story elicited scores of paintings and drawings beginning in the Renaissance.

Another clue to a deeper meaning is to see how this same theme is expressed in many variations throughout antiquity.  The earliest and best known example in the Greek tradition is Hesiod’s Works and Days 1.287−294.

Wickedness (κακότητα; kakotes) can be had in abundance easily: smooth is the road and very nigh she dwells. But in front of virtue (ἀρετῆς; arete) the gods immortal have put sweat: long and steep is the path to her and rough at first; but when you reach the top, then at length the road is easy, hard though it was.
Source: Hesiod, Works and Days 1.287−294 (tr. Evelyn-White)

This passage serves as a virtual epitome of book 1 of Works and Days, which also contains the Pandora and Ages of Man myths, both allegories of the moral fall.

In Greek mythology, a similar trope is found in the Judgment of Paris, where Paris must choose which goddess is more beautiful: Athena, Hera or Aphrodite — allegorically symbolizing Wisdom, domestic virtue, and sensory pleasure, respectively.  His choice of Aphrodite over Athena and Hera led to the Trojan War.  If we understand the Trojan War as allegorically symbolizing the principle of psychomachia, or conflict between virtuous and unvirtuous elements of the human psyche, then the Judgment of Paris may be understood as symbolizing a depth-psychological dynamic that precipitates a fundamental form of  inner conflict.

Plato cites the above passage of Hesiod in two of his works (Republic 2.364d  and Laws 4.718e−719a). Moreover, in two underworld myths presented in his dialogues (Republic 10.614c−d and Gorgias 524a−527a), he describes a parting of two paths — one associated virtue and leading to the Isles of the Blest, and one associated with vice and leading to punishment in Tartarus. If we understand the underworld as symbolizing depth-psychological processes, it suggests that Plato is saying that orienting our mind wrongly leads to internal self-inflicted punishments, the ultimate aim of which is to educated and reform us (Gorgias 525b−c).

The same trope of a parting of the ways in an underworld journey is found in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid (Smith, 2000).  Further, an epigram attributed (probably incorrectly, but perhaps written within a century of Virgil’s death) describes what is commonly called the Pythagorean Y (so-named because of the resemblance of ‘Y’ to a forking path):

This letter of Pythagoras, that bears
This fork’d distinction, to conceit prefers
The form man’s life bears. Virtue’s hard way takes
Upon the right hand path, which entry makes
(To sensual eyes) with difficult affair ;
But when ye once have climb’d the highest stair,
The beauty and the sweetness it contains,
Give rest and comfort, far past all your pains.’
The broadway in a bravery paints ye forth,
(In th’ entry) softness, and much shade of worth;
But when ye reach the top, the taken ones
It headlong hurls down, torn at sharpest stones.
He then, whom virtues love, shall victor crown
Of hardest fortunes, praise wins and renown:
But he that sloth and fruitless luxury
Pursues, and doth with foolish wariness fly
Opposed pains (that all best acts befall).
Lives poor and vile, and dies despised of all.
(tr. George Chapman)

Like Hercules at the Crossroads, the Pythagorean Y inspired many Renaissance works of art.

Philo of Alexandria (fl. ca. 20 AD), the Jewish Middle Platonist philosopher (and, as it happens, the virtual father of Christian allegorical interpretation of the Bible), expanded on Prodicus’ theme in a discussion of the ‘two wives of the soul’ (On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 1.5.21−34).  Philo’s treatment is quite interesting in its own right, in part because of his remarkable list of over 150 negative adjectives to describe a votary of Pleasure (who plays the role of Vice in Prodicus’ tale).  Readers of Philo will immediately recognize the connection of the story with his allegorical interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth.

Centuries later, St. Ambrose of Milan (fl. 390 AD), in Cain and Abel 4.13−5.15, paraphrased Philo’s discussion and connected it with the ‘strange woman’ (Uebersax, 2009) in the Book of Proverbs (Prv 2:16−19; 5:3−8; 5:15−19; 5:20; 6:24−26; 7:5−27; 9:13−18; 20:16; 22:14; 23:27−35; 27:13, 15), a personification of pleasure and/or folly, and opponent of the virtuous ‘wife of thy youth.’ (Prv 5:15−19).

The theme of two paths associated with a choice or judgment concerning virtue vs. wickedness occurs throughout the Old and New Testament.  Perhaps best known is Psalm 1 (traditionally called The Two Paths).

When we find the same theme like this so prominently expressed across many times and traditions, it implies some universal, archetypal psychological dynamic of fundamental significance. That, I believe, is the case here. This is not a simple, prosaic morality tale such that “one must choose good and not evil.” Rather it confronts us with the existential fact — readily verifiable by introspection and close attention to thoughts — that we are always, every moment at our lives, faced with the two paths:  we can direct the immediate energies of our mind towards seeking physical pleasure, or to virtue, spirituality and higher cognitive activity.  When we choose the latter, all is well. Our mind is a harmony.  This is the path of life. But the moment we stop actively choosing virtue, our mind lapses into its immature state dominated by the pleasure principle; we are no longer true to our genuine nature, and a cascading sequence of negative mental events ensues.

This is not unlike the Freudian distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, which, according to him, it is the principal task of the ego to broker.  However in this case, the reality principle is replaced by what we might call the virtue principle:  that our psyche is, in its core, fundamentally aligned with virtue.  In a sense this is still a reality principle — but, here the reality is that our nature seeks virtue.

To choose the path of virtue, wisdom and righteousness on an ongoing basis is not easy. It is, rather, as Plato calls it, the contest of contests (Gorgias 526e) and requires a degree of resolve and effort we may perhaps rightly call Herculean.

Bibliography

Colson, F. H.; Whitaker, G. H. (trs.). Philo: On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain. In: Philo, Volume 2. Loeb Classical Library L227. Harvard University Press, 1929.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G. (tr.). Hesiod: Works and Days. In: Hesiod, Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Loeb Classical Library L057. Harvard University Press, 1943.

Marchant, E. C. Xenophon: Memorabilia and Oeconomicus. Harvard University Press, 1923. http://data.perseus.org/texts/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0032.tlg002.perseus-eng1

Miller, Walter (tr.). Cicero: De Officiis. Loeb Classical Library L030. Harvard University Press, 1913. https://archive.org/details/deofficiiswithen00ciceuoft

Panofsky, Erwin. Hercules am Scheidewege und andere antike Bildstoffi in der neueren Kunst, Studien der Bibliothek Warburg 18, Leipzig, 1930.

Rochette, Bruno. Héraclès à la croissé des chemins: un topos dans la literature grécolatine. Études Classiques 66, 1998, 105−113.

Savage, John J. (tr.). Saint Ambrose: Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain And Abel. Fathers of the Church 42. Catholic University of America, 1961.

Smith, Richard Upsher. The Pythagorean letter and Virgil’s golden bough. Dionysius 18, 2000, pp. 7−24. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/revista/10126/A/2000

Uebersax, John S.  The strange woman of Proverbs. 2009. https://catholicgnosis.wordpress.com/2009/05/19/the-strange-woman-of-proverbs/

1st draft, 1 Mar 2020

The Seven Virtues and Fifty Sub-Virtues of Medieval Christianity

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Tree of Virtues” from Speculum Virginum, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.72, fol. 26r.

BEGINNING in the 11th century we find in Western medieval  manuscripts frequent portrayal of the canonical virtues and vices as tree diagrams.  These vary in details, but always include the four cardinal virtues of the Greco-Roman ethical tradition (Fortitude, Temperance,  Prudence and Justice) the three three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity) from the Bible.  Each virtue is shown as a branch of the tree, along with seven sub-virtues (except for Charity, which may have ten sub-virtues) as leaves.  Typically a parallel tree of the seven deadly vices and their sub-vices accompanies the Tree of Virtues.  Pride (Superbia) is considered the common root of all vices, and Humility (Humilitas) of all virtues.

One early version is contained in the work, De fructibus carnis et spiritus (On the Fruits of the Flesh and the Spirit), once attributed to Hugh of Saint-Victor (c. 1096–1141); some consider Conrad of Hirsau the author.

The seven Virtues and their sub-virtues are listed below.  In some cases I’ve merely guessed at a modern English translation (and in those cases have supplied the definition supplied in the text.  The selection of sub-virtues and their definition seems influenced by a variety of patristic and biblical sources.  Possibly writers consulted precursors of the Glossa Ordinaria (collections of glosses on the Bible by Church Fathers and later writers) in selecting definitions.

Prudentia (Prudence)

  • timor Domini (fear of God)
  • alacritas (promptness)
  • consilium (counsel)
  • memoria (memory)
  • intelligentia (intelligence)
  • providentia (foresight)
  • deliberatio (deliberation)

Justitia (Justice)

  • lex (law)
  • severitas (strictness)
  • aequitas (equity)
  • correctio (correction; Correctio est erroris innati vel consuetudine introducti freno rationis inhibitio.)
  • jurisjurandi observatio (honoring a pledge; Jurisjurandi observatio est quae, plebescito civibus promulgato, transgressionem ejus temerariam arcet praestito juramento de conservatione illius perpetua.)
  • judicium (judgment)
  • veritas (truth)

Fortitudo (Courage)

  • magnanimitas (magnanimity)
  • fiducia (fidelity)
  • tolerantia (tolerance)
  • requies (rest)
  • stabilitas (stability)
  • constantia (constancy)
  • perseverantia (perseverance)

Temperantia (Temperance)

  • discretio (discernment)
  • morigeratio (obedience; acquiescence)
  • taciturnitas (silence)
  • jejunium (fasting)
  • sobrietas (sobriety)
  • afflictio carnis (physical penance; mortification of flesh; Afflictio carnis est per quem lascivae mentis seminaria castigatione discreta comprimuntur.)
  • contemptus saeculi (contempt of the world)

Fides (Faith)

  • religio (pratice of religion)
  • munditia (decorum; Munditia est consummata integritas utriusque hominis intuitu divini vel amoris vel timoris.)
  • obedientia (obedience)
  • castitas (chastity)
  • reverentia (reverence)
  • continentia (continence)
  • affectus (good desire)

Spes (Hope)

  • contemplatio supernorum (heavenly contemplation; Contemplatio supernorum est per sublevatae mentis jubilum mors carnalium affectuum).
  • gaudium (joy)
  • modestia (modesty)
  • confessio (confession of faults)
  • patientia (patience)
  • compunctio (sorrow for faults)
  • longanimitas (longsuffering)

Caritas (Charity)

  • gratia (forgiveness)
  • pax (peace)
  • pietas (piety)
  • mansuetudo (mildness; leniency)
  • liberalitas (liberality)
  • misericordia (mercy)
  • indulgentia (indulgence)
  • compassio (compassion)
  • benignitas (benignity)
  • concordia (concord)

Bibliography

Goggin, Cheryl Gohdes. Copying manuscript illuminations: The Trees of Vices and Virtues. Visual Resources, 2004, 20:2-3, 179−198. https://doi.org/10.1080/0197376042000207552

Hugo de S. Victore. De fructibus carnis et spiritus. J. P. Migne. Patrologia Latina, Paris, 1854; cols. 997−1010 (rough diagrams of the Tree of Vices and Tree of Virtues appear at the end of the work).  Latin text is online: http://mlat.uzh.ch/?c=2&w=HuDeSVi.DeFrCaE

Katzenellenbogen, Adolf. Allegories of the Virtues and Vices in Medieval Art from Christian Times to the Thirteenth Century. Alan J. P. Crick (tr.). London: Warburg Institute, 1939.

Tucker, Shawn R. The Virtues and Vices in the Arts: A Sourcebook. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015.

Art: “Tree of Virtues” from Speculum Virginum, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.72, fol. 26r; early 13th century manuscript from the Cistercian abbey of Himmerode, Germany. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Virtues_Speculum_Virginum_W72_26r.jpg

 

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

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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.

Neoplatonism and Christian Iconography

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One picture is indeed worth a thousand words.  Once someone asked me for a simple definition of Neoplatonism, and I was surprised to find myself at an almost complete loss for words.  It’s not that the principles of Neoplatonism are too complicated, but more that they involve so different a way of looking at things  that simple definitions do not readily suggest themselves.  Christian Neoplatonism seems at least as difficult, and perhaps more so, to define in a few words as Neoplatonism.

Therefore I was quite pleased to discover this illustration, which appeared quite by accident in the course of other pursuits, and which expresses several basic premises of Christian Neoplatonism.

About this work I know nothing – not the artist, source, or even original medium.  The style is suggestive of late 19th century British or American Christian art.

The literal scene, in any case, is the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matt. 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36):

  1. Jesus appears as the main figure, flanked left and right by Moses and Elijah.
  2. Kneeling in the foreground are the apostles John (with folded hands), who kneels beside his brother James, and Peter kneeling by himself.
  3. Surrounding Jesus is an almond-shaped ‘aura’, known technically as a mandorla.  This artistic motif is analogous to a nimbus or halo, but surrounds the body of a divinity rather than the head.  An oval mandorla around Jesus is a staple of Transfiguration art.

Now for the Neoplatonic elements.  We hasten to remark that whether the artist knew something of Neoplatonism, or if instead these elements derive solely from unconscious inspiration, is not known.  A third possibility, imitation of other works, cannot be excluded, but the uniqueness of the iconography here tends to suggest originality.

The work can be parsed as a set of intersecting or overlapping circles:

  1. The largest circle, encompassing most of the area, could be interpreted as the material world.  This area itself is composed of concentric rings.  Notice, for example, the band containing radiating tongues of flame, suggesting the Sun.  Beyond that is the celestial, starry realm.  This much reminds us of ancient ‘concentric spheres’ models of the universe.
  2. Coming from above is a second circle (or set of circles).  This clearly seems to correspond to God, or God the Father.   Note, though, the similarity of elements between this circle and the larger one.  The similarity could be understood as God containing the archetypes of all that is present in the material world.  That is, everything in the material realm — the earth, Sun, stars, etc. — first exists as ideas in the mind of God, or what Neoplatonists called the noetic cosmos.
  3. Connecting the two circles of God and the material world is Jesus.  The viewer’s eye is drawn to the large and elaborate halo of Jesus as distinct from his body.  The halo again contains the details found in the God and earth circles; this would fit with the idea of Jesus, as the Word (Logos) of God, being in a sense an ‘image’ or ’emanation’ of God. (We use these words very loosely,  however; Christian theologians expressly deny that Jesus Christ is an emanation of God the Father; all we are really considering here is the idea of possible structural homologies between God, Jesus Christ, and the material world).
  4. The God circle includes a smaller circle, which (a) again, structurally recapitulates the elements of the other circles, and (b) contains a prominent hand.  The hand seems to be connecting God the Father and Jesus.  The placement of this circle and hand seems to suggest their mediating relationship between God and Jesus.  One feature of Neoplatonism (e.g. Proclus) and Christian Neoplatonism (e.g., Dionysius the Areopagite) is the frequent postulation of mediating levels or agents between other levels or agents.

Whether the hand is meant to suggest the Holy Spirit is not clear.  It’s placement just above Jesus’ head would be consistent with such an interpretation; however the artist must have intentionally chosen to place a hand, rather than a dove here,  and perhaps with greater artistic effect.

Written by John Uebersax

March 7, 2012 at 12:09 am