Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Archive for the ‘Iconography’ Category

Neoplatonism and Christian Iconography

leave a comment »


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