The Renaissance

Though Rome had fallen to the barbarians, the capital of the empire had already been transferred to Constantinople in 330 AD. While referred to by scholars as the Byzantine empire, its citizens and the rest of the world recognized them as Romans. This empire continued unchecked until the city was taken by the Turks in 1453. The Turks established, in its succession, one of the greatest bureaucracies the world has ever known, the Ottoman empire, that comprised most of the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans and even threatened the city of Vienna itself.

Christian refugees fleeing the attack on Constantinople brought a series of Hermetic works to Italy, sparking a cultural revolution, known as the Renaissance. These texts were translated by Italian philosopher, Marsilio Ficino, who became head of the Platonic Academy, situated at the Medici villa at Careggi, outside Florence. In his own words, Ficino wished to revive the ancient pagan mystery teachings of the "Chaldeans, Egyptians and Platonists."

Through the influence of Neoplatonism and Hermeticism, the recovery of ancient learning during the Renaissance was concerned mainly with astrology. Renaissance humanism did not help to diffuse interest in the "irrational". "On the contrary," noted Seznec, in ,The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art, "the first effect of humanism was to encourage astrology." The revival of classical themes that characterized the period, was not a purely detached curiosity in the aesthetics of Greek art forms, on the part of the Renaissance humanists, as has become common to consider. Rather, Renaissance philosophers and artists were interested in interpreting Greek mythology for its purported astrological symbolism, in the manner of the Neoplatonists, who interpreted astrological doctrines not only in Homer, but in all religious tradition, including foreign cults.

Moshe Idel, the leading scholar of the subject, has pointed out that, "Kabbalah was conceived by both Jewish and Christian Renaissance figures as an ancient theology, similar to and, according to the Jews, the source of such later philosophical developments as Platonism, Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism, and atomism." As key representative of the Italian Kabbalists of the Renaissance was Leone Ebreo, who, following medieval Jewish sources, saw Plato as dependent on the revelation of Moses, and even as a disciple of the ancient Kabbalists. Other Kabbalists, such as Isaac Abravanel and Rabbi Yohanan Alemanno believed Plato to have been a disciple of Jeremiah in Egypt. On the similarity of the teachings of the Greek philosophers and the Kabbalah, Rabbi Abraham Yagel commented:

This is obvious to anyone who has read what is written on the philosophy and principles of Democritus, and especially on Plato, the master of Aristotle, whose views are almost those of the Sages of Israel, and who on some issues almost seems to speak from the very mouth of the Kabbalists and in their language, without any blemish on his lips. And why shall we not hold these views, since they are ours, inherited from our ancestors by the Greeks, and down to this day great sages hold the views of Plato and great groups of students follow him, as is well known to anyone who has served the sage of the Academy and entered their studies, which are found in every land. (source)


The Picatrix

Jean Seznec, noted that, in their desire to depict the mythological themes of antiquity, European artists began to turn away from traditional sources, in favour of Arab works, which were more astronomically accurate. Often they looked to the Picatrix, which focused particularly on what it called "talismans", which it compared explicitly to the alchemical elixir. Through the proper design and construction of a talisman, and through proper performance of the rituals associated with it, the magician could control the energy emanating from heavenly spheres.

Ficino wrote extensively about the techniques through the use of amulets, talismans, unguents and elixirs, whereby planetary powers might be invoked by the principles of Hermetic analogy. Based on his knowledge of the works of Hermetic texts, Ficino, in Libri de Vita, first published in 1489, advocated a kind of astral magic involving the use of talismans. There were plenty of mediaeval and Arab authorities he might have used who give lists of talismanic images, and the possibility that he may have used the Picatrix is substantiated by the similarity of some of the images, which he describes.

It was not until the excavation of thousands of coins, reliefs, and statues in the sixteenth century, that European artists rediscovered classical representations of mythological figures, allowing them to recreate their traditional forms, and thus transform the Western artistic tradition. Nevertheless, under the influence of Ficino, these tended to be works of astral magic, of the manner described in the Picatrix.

Botticelli's three works, being some of the most recognized Renaissance paintings, the Minerva and the Centaur, The Birth of Venus, and the Primavera, commissioned for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici, all dealt with occult themes and represent the magical practice of drawing down planetary influences into images. For the Primavera, Botticelli consulted Ficino. Frances Yates commented: "I want only to suggest that in the context of the study of Ficino's magic the picture begins to be seen as a practical application of that magic, as a complex talisman, an image of the world arranged so as to transmit only healthful, rejuvenating, anti-Saturnian influences to the beholder." Along with Mercury, whose Greek name is Hermes, the Primavera features the three graces. And, according to Ficino:

There are three universal and singular colors of the world: green, gold, and sapphire, and they are dedicated to the three Graces of heaven. Green, of course, is for Venus and the Moon, moist, as it were, for the moist ones, and appropriate to things of birth, especially mothers. There is no question that gold is the color of the Sun, and no stranger to Jove and Venus either. But we dedicate the sapphire color especially to Jove, to whom the sapphire itself is said to be consecrated. This is why lapis lazuli was given its color (sapphire), because of its Jovial power against Saturn's black bile. It has a special place among doctors, and it is born with gold, distinct with gold marks, so it is a companion of gold just as Jupiter is the companion of the Sun.

The disciples seated at The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci, are grouped in four groups of three, talking only among themselves, corresponding to the four elements in the Zodiac, with Christ in the middle, as the Sun. Da Vinci, a supposed past Grand Master of the Priory of Zion, was often called "the magician of the Renaissance." Studies have shown that German Renaissance artist Albrecht Duerer took his inspiration from Ficino. The figure in the Melancholia of Dürer, symbolizes the "children of Saturn", who in obedience to her, meditate on the secrets of wisdom.

Michelangelo too may have been influenced by Hermeticism and Ficino's ideas, having been exposed to them through his presence at the court of the Medicis. He contributed to the planning of the Medici Chapel, which was added to the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, the site of the Tomb of Cosimo, patriarch of the Medicis.