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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.

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

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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)


Aris, Marc-Aeilko (ed.). Contemplatio: Philosophische Studien zum Traktat Benjamin Maior des Richard von St. Victor; semi-critical edition. Frankfurt am Main, 1996.

Chase, Steven. Angelic Wisdom: The Cherubim and the Grace of Contemplation in Richard of St. Victor. Notre Dame University Press, 1995.

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

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


St. Bonaventure: Contemplation of Creation’s Sevenfold Splendor

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FROM these visible things, therefore, one rises to consider the power, wisdom and goodness of God as existing, living, intelligent, purely spiritual, incorruptible and unchangeable.  This reflection can be extended according to the sevenfold properties of creatures — which is a sevenfold testimony to the divine power, wisdom and goodness — if we consider the origin, magnitude, multitude, beauty, fulness, activity and order of all things.

1. The origin of things, according to their creation, distinction and embellishment, as the work of the six days, proclaims the divine power that produces all things from nothing, the divine wisdom that clearly distinguishes all things, and the divine goodness that lavishly adorns all things.

2. The magnitude of things, in the mass of their length, width and depth; in their great power extending in length, width and depth as appears in the diffusion of light; in the efficiency of their operations which are internal, continuous and diffused as appears in the operation of fire — all this clearly manifests the immensity of the power, wisdom and goodness of the triune God, who by his power, presence and essence exists uncircumscribed in all things.

3. The multitude of things in their generic, specific and individual diversity in substance, form or figure, and efficiency — beyond all human calculation clearly suggests and shows the immensity of the three previously mentioned attributes in God.

4. The beauty of things, in the variety of light, shape and color in simple, mixed and even organic bodies such as heavenly bodies, and minerals (like stones and metals), and plants and animals clearly proclaims the three previously mentioned attributes.

5. The fulness of things by which matter is full of forms because of seminal principles, form is full of power because of its active potency, power is full of effects because of its efficiency, clearly declares the same attributes.

6. The activity, multiple inasmuch as it is natural, artificial and moral, by its manifold variety shows the immensity of that power, art and goodness which is “the cause of being, the basis of understanding and the order of living”

7. The order in duration, position and influence, that is, before and after, higher and lower, nobler and less noble, in the book of creation clearly indicates the primacy, sublimity and dignity of the First Principle and thus the infinity of his power. The order of the divine law, precepts and judgments in the book of Scripture shows the immensity of his wisdom. And the order of the divine sacraments, benefits and recompense in the body of the Church shows the immensity of his goodness. In this way order itself leads us most clearly into the first and highest, the most powerful, the wisest and the best.

Whoever, therefore, is not enlightened by such splendor of created things is blind;
whoever is not awakened by such outcries is deaf;
whoever does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb;
whoever does not discover the First Principle from such clear signs is a fool.

Therefore, open your eyes,
alert the ears of your spirit,
open your lips
and apply your heart

so that in all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor your God lest the whole world rise against you. For because of this the whole world will fight against the foolish.  On the contrary, it will be a matter of glory for the wise, who can say with the Prophet: You have gladdened me, Lord, by your deeds and in the works of your hands I will rejoice. How great are your works, Lord! You have made all things in wisdom; the earth is filled with your creatures.

Source: Cousins, Ewert H. (tr.). Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God. Paulist Press, 1978; pp. 64−68.

Latin: S. Bonaventurae, Itinerarium mentis in Deum 1.1. In: S. Bonaventurae opera omnia, Vol. V, Fathers of the Collegii S. Bonaventura (eds.), Florence: Quaracchi, pp. 295-316.



Nothing Further Can Be Found in Man: St. Athanasius on Interpretation of the Psalms

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ONE of the finest Patristic works on Psalms is the letter of St. Athanasius of Alexandria to his friend, Marcellinus, Ad Marcellinum.  Ostensibly relaying what he learned from an “old man” — perhaps a saintly desert ascetic — St. Athanasius exhorts us not only to read the Psalms, but to read them “intelligently.”  He also affirms the benefits of singing the Psalms, by which means a uniting and harmonization all one’s faculties and powers occurs.

The letter is not long, and all who are drawn to Psalms and wish to profit from them are encouraged to read it in its entirety (links in Bibliography).  Some passages of special interest are supplied below.

(Note: square brackets indicate sections as enumerated in the Migne edition; translation is by Anonymous 1953/1998).

To Marcellinus

All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), as it is written; but to those who really study it, the Psalter yields especial treasure. … Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest. [2]

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own … [however with] Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts. [11]

[T]he Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul … [12]

Just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives. [13]

The whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture [more particularly] of the spiritual life. [14]

It is possible for us …  to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions …  [15]

unifying effect which chanting the Psalms has upon the singer. For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought by harmony to one effect; and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil. [27]

When, therefore, the Psalms are chanted, it is not from any mere desire for sweet music but as the outward expression of the inward harmony obtaining in the soul, because such harmonious recitation is in itself the index of a peaceful and well-ordered heart. To praise God tunefully upon an instrument, such as well-tuned cymbals, cithara, or ten-stringed psaltery, is, as we know, an outward token that the members of the body and the thoughts of the heart are, like the instruments themselves, in proper order and control, all of them together living and moving by the Spirit’s cry and breath. … he who sings well puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone. [29]

For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in Man. [30]


English translations

Anonymous (tr.). Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms. In: Anonymous (tr.), Athanasius: On the Incarnation. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. (Appendix; pp. 97−119; ‘Letter’ orig. publ. 1953). [online version]

Elowsky, Joel C. (tr.), Athanasius: Letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms. New Haven, CT: ICCS Press, 2017.

Gregg, Robert C. (tr.). Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, Paulist Press, 1980. (pp. 101−129).

Greek and Latin text

Epistula ad Marcellinum de interpretatione Psalmorum. [Greek text, digital].

Migne, Jacques-Paul (ed.). Patrologia Graeca 27, 1857. (cols. 11−46). [Greek text with Latin translation.]

Secondary sources

Kolbet, Paul R. Athanasius, the Psalms, and the Reformation of the Self. The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 99, no. 1, 2006, pp. 85–101.

Edward Young’s Night Thoughts – A New Edition for Modern Readers

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fancy_dropcase_NIGHT THOUGHTS by Edward Young (1683—1765) might easily be the greatest English literary work of the last 300 years.  A masterpiece judged by any standard, it rivals the works of Shakespeare and Milton and exceeds those of Young’s better-known contemporary, Pope. It is testimony to the infidelity of the modern age the neglect into which this great work has fallen.

Its topics?  Ones of greatest moment and timeless concern: Life, Death, Eternity, heaven-sent Philosophy, and the true meaning of the Delphic maxim, Know Thyself.

Young published Night Thoughts in nine installments or Nights.  The present new edition, with an introduction and notes for modern readers, supplies the first four Nights — originally conceived by Young as a complete work, and which supply the work’s main lines of thought. For a limited time an advance copy of the new edition is available for free here.

The topic, the motives, and the poetic skill of Young are magnificent.  The work is inspired, and one of the great jewels of English literature, not to be missed.flower

The Purpose of Plato’s Arguments for the Immortality of the Human Soul

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ucase-T- angelsHROUGHOUT Plato’s dialogues, and especially in the Phaedo (which describes Socrates’ final conversations), the celestial philosopher presents many logical arguments and proofs for the immortality of the human soul. He also implies that we ought to be convinced that the soul is immortal. Yet, in truth, his arguments and proofs are not fully persuasive at the logical level. Sometimes the premises of his arguments are open to question, and other times the conclusion does not automatically follow from the premises.

This has puzzled many scholars, and some have gone to great lengths to reconcile Plato’s assertion of confidence with the seemingly flawed arguments. The logical gaps are plain enough that surely even Plato sees them. So what’s going on?

I think the answer partly lies in Plato’s unique teaching method, which we might sum up in two words: dialectic and anamnesisDialectic is the term Plato uses for his general method for approaching philosophical and moral problems. Through the conversations between Socrates and other characters in the dialogues, Plato likes to approach problems methodically and analytically, often using specific techniques like division, collection or aggregation, contradiction, and so on. His real aim, however, is not by such methods to come up with a specific logical answer. In fact, we find that Plato’s dialogues often end in a condition of what is called aporia, or perplexity, in which none of the various solutions proposed seem correct or fully satisfactory.

But that is precisely Plato’s purpose. For him the real aim of dialectic is not to deduce an answer, but to focus ones attention, intentions, and Intellect on a problem. In making that strenuous mental effort, one may find that a spontaneous insight into the problem being considered arises. One catches a fleeting but definitive glimpse of some important thing, say the beauty of Moral Virtue.

This flash of insight Plato calls anamnesis. Etymologically, this means recollection or un-forgetting (an = not, amnesis = forgetting). Taken literally, it implies that the insight is not something seen for the first time, but is actually a remembering of a truth previously known.   That has implications, some perhaps controversial, concerning other aspects of Plato’s theories, which there is no need to consider here. It suffices to note that a hallmark formula for Plato is: perform dialectic to produce anamnesis.

With this principle in mind, Plato’s seemingly less-than-perfect arguments for the soul’s immortality make more sense. We wouldn’t expect him to prove by deductive logic that the soul is immortal. Rather, it is more characteristic of his modus operandi to use the outward form of a logical argument as an exercise of dialectic, the real aim being to have us see the true nature of the soul. And in doing this, we may see that the soul is divine and immortal.

Again, I present this only as a proposal or conjecture. The best or perhaps only way to verify it is to study Plato’s arguments, become engaged with them, and see if they may indeed elicit some experiential insight into the soul’s divine nature.

As noted, this view comports with Plato’s general didactic method (whereas an attempt to logically prove the soul’s immortality would not). Some corroboratory evidence comes from Plotinus, in Enneads 4.7. In this treatise, Plotinus reviews arguments for the immortality of the soul. In section 4.7.1 he says:

To know the nature of a thing we must observe it in its unalloyed state, since any addition obscures the reality. Clear, then look: or, rather, let a man first purify himself and then observe: he will not doubt his immortality when he sees himself thus entered into the pure, the Intellectual. For, what he sees is an Intellectual-Principle looking on nothing of sense, nothing of this mortality, but by its own eternity having intellection of the eternal: he will see all things in this Intellectual substance, himself having become an Intellectual Kosmos and all lightsome, illuminated by the truth streaming from The Good, which radiates truth upon all that stands within that realm of the divine. (Plotinus, Enneads 4.7.10; MacKenna translation)

This comes just after Plotinus has referred to some of Plato’s logical arguments for the soul’s immortality. Plotinus’ language is, as is often the case, a bit obscure, but it seems he is basically saying: “If you want to know without doubt that the soul is immortal, see it.” (cf. “Know Thyself”), which I take to generally support the claim I’m raising.

It also seems fitting to note a comment Cicero makes in Book 1 of the Tusculan Disputations. (The latter part of this Book is in many respects a commentary on Plato’s Phaedo.)

Even if Plato gave no reasons for his belief—see how much confidence I have in the man—he would break down my opposition by his authority alone; but he brings forward so many reasons as to make it perfectly obvious that he is not only fully persuaded himself, but desirous of convincing others. (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1.21; Peabody translation.)

In other words, even if his arguments are not fully convincing at the logical level, we sense the conviction of Plato in the skillful and earnest way that he presents the issue to us, and this itself is evidence that his beliefs in the soul’s immortality are correct.

I hope in future posts to list, categorize and summarize all of Plato’s arguments for the soul’s immortality, and perhaps to explore some of them in detail. It might be mentioned that the four main arguments in the Phaedo for the immortality of the soul are the cyclicity argument, the recollection argument, the affinity argument, and the Form of Life argument. A good summary of these can be found here. Other major proofs Plato presents include the self-moved mover argument of Phaedrus 245c–246a, and the vitiating principle argument of Republic 10.608e–10.611a.


A few hours after writing the above, the thought occurred — in connection with a different project — to consult Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology. There I was surprised to learn that its full title is actually The Platonic Theology: On the Immortality of the Soul (Theologia Platonica De immortalitate animorum). He says much of value in the proem, for example:

Whatever subject he [Plato] deals with, be it ethics, dialectic, mathematics or physics, he quickly brings it round, in a spirit of utmost piety, to the contemplation and worship of God. He considers man’s soul to be like a mirror in which the image of the divine countenance is readily reflected; and in his eager hunt for God, as he tracks down every footprint, he everywhere turns hither and thither to the form of the soul. For he knows that this is the most important meaning of those famous words of the oracle, “Know thyself,” namely “If you wish to be able to recognize God, you must first learn to know yourself.” So anyone who reads very carefully the works of Plato that I translated in their entirety into Latin some time ago will discover among many other matters two of utmost importance: the worship of God with piety and understanding, and the divinity of souls. On these depend our whole perception of the world, the way we lead our lives, and all our happiness. (Marsilio Ficino, The Platonic Theology, proem; Allen translation)

Ficino also says that “in the sphere of moral philosophy one must purify the soul until its eye becomes unclouded and it can see the divine light and worship God,” and that it is a mistake to “divorce the study of philosophy from sacred religion.” (Ibid.)


Written by John Uebersax

June 17, 2015 at 2:06 am