Corpus Hermeticum The new Church of Florence Cosimo de Medici changed the world and specifically Mankind’s vision of himself. From a slave, subjected to the will of a faraway God, the Renaissance redefined a human being to a divine spark waiting to be ignited through knowledge and exploration of the universe.
by Philip Coppens
Florence was the home of the Renaissance and the man behind the Renaissance was Cosimo de Medici. Much has been written about this banker and how he financed a cultural revolution that should be seen as one of the most pivotal moments in Western European civilisation of the 2nd millennium AD.
But what is less known is that Cosimo de Medici and his father had financed Pope John XXIII, one of the controversial “anti-Popes” of the 15th century. Baldassare Cossa, (ca. 1370 – November 22, 1419), was pope during the Western Schism (1410–1415) and is now officially regarded by the Catholic Church as an antipope – hence why another John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli, became the “real” John XXIII in 1958.
Baldassare Cardinal Cossa was born in Procida or Ischia and one of the seven cardinals who, in May 1408, deserted Pope Gregory XII. With those belonging to the obedience of Antipope Benedict XIII (Pedro de Luna), he convened the Council of Pisa, of which Cossa became the leader. They elected Pope Alexander V in 1409 and Cossa succeeded him a year later.
In an effort to squash the rebellion, John XXIII was charged with piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest, with the more serious charges being suppressed and the others no doubt trumped up. Still, the fact that there were 23 popes named John during the first 1400 years of the Church and then none for over 500 years underlines this man’s controversial figure. Tomb of John 23, Baptistry, Florence With the aid of the Emperor Sigismund, Pope John XXIII convened the Council of Constance in 1415. During the third session, the rival Pope Gregory XII authorized the council and soon both popes abdicated in favour of Pope Martin V. Cossa, as he was known as again, was briefly imprisoned in Germany, before being freed by Martin V in 1418.
After stepping down as Pope, Cossa remained close friends with Cosimo. In return for his true friendship, the Pope gave Cosimo a precious relic: John the Baptist’s right index finger. Whether or not this was the same as the one previously in the possession of the Knights Templar is unknown, but it is clear that this talisman would inspire the most important man of Florence, a town dedicated to John the Baptist, to great heights.
When John XXIII died, Cosimo paid for an impressive tomb inside Florence’s Baptistry, dedicated to John the Baptist. Above the Baptistry’s entrance remains the only surviving sculpture of Leonardo da Vinci. It seems that the possession of this talisman, with which John had allegedly identified Jesus Christ, was the imperative that the Medicis had needed to bring about a philosophical revolution that would change the world. The Catholic Church stated that all knowledge Mankind was in need of, was already in its possession. Therefore, recapitulation of knowledge, not a search for, was the only philosophical goal. The Church’s vision of Man, Earth and the Universe were largely based on Aristotle, whose theories were mostly incorrect.
The desire to become acquainted with information outside the boundaries of currently available knowledge was the main propelling force of “the Renaissance”: Man re-evaluated his position in the Creation. This changed image of Mankind would eventually lead to the era of science.
Philosophers have described the Renaissance as the spiritual awakening from the “sleep of the soul”, which suddenly perceived a vision of a personal and social transformation. Interestingly, this awakening did not stem from a sudden desire to explore the world and our existence, but through the re-familiarisation with ancient – but forgotten – knowledge, knowledge that was integrated into other cultures, but that was absent from western Christianity. In the early decades of the 15th century, many travellers were crossing Europe in search of ancient manuscripts that predated Christianity. The most famous of these was the papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, who not only greatly travelled and left intriguing portraits of the countries and people he encountered, but he also rediscovered many texts of various Roman and Greek authors.
Cosimo himself tried various experiments that had to shed light on the origins of our existence. In the presence of Pius II (Piccolomini), Cosimo shut a giraffe in a pen with lions, bloodhounds and fighting bulls, to see which species was the most savage. Few have observed this seems to have been an early experiment in the “evolution theory” and the “survival of the strongest”, centuries before Darwin would tackle such subjects again. They learned that the lions and dogs dozed, the bulls quietly chewed their cuds, and the giraffe huddled against the fence, shaking in fear. They discovered there was no bloodshed – as had been expected – and no savagery.
Such practical experimentation was a clear sign that a desire to explore reality and the world had set in. The result of these practical experiments and the availability of lost manuscripts contributed to the explosion of new knowledge. Some have labelled this era the “First Information Age”. Pius II New knowledge, however, soon resulted in radically new thinking. Contrary to what most people might expect, it were most often – if not always – members of the clergy themselves who were the instigators of novel ideas, some which were in direct opposition to the dogma of the Church.
The best example was Nicolas de Cusa, a Catholic Cardinal of German birth, who directly opposed the God of the Church. Cusa defined Deity as “the Absolute Maximum and also the absolute minimum, who comprehends all that is or can be”. De Cusa believed in a heliocentric solar system and the existence of life on other planets, the opposite of the Catholic doctrine on Man and Earth’s unique and central position in God’s Creation. He wrote that “the divine Word is united to the intellect… and the intellect itself is the place where the Word is received… For the Word of God illumines the intellect just as the light of the sun illumines this world”. The roots of science, with its central position of intellect, rather than belief, were slowly growing.
Cardinal Nicholas de Cusa was, however, more than just a scientist: he was also a politician. Together with Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (then soon to be Pius II) and the Medici family, he would literally save western civilisation from “the Turkish danger” by intervening in the Council of Florence in 1439. Six hundred Greek Orthodox scholars had come to Florence to attend this Council. Cusa, Piccolomini and Cosimo were amongst many who were exposed to another side of Christianity that had been absent from the Western civilisation for a thousand years. Whereas most saw a threat, they saw a revelation and an opportunity. One such Orthodox scholar was George Gemistus Plethon, who was hostile to contemporary Christianity and preached against the Aristotelian-based doctrine of the Church. He dreamed of restoring pagan traditions, which excelled in vitality and dynamism; he believed in the unifying principle of one soul, one mind and one teaching and hoped that the whole world would become susceptible to the true religion.
His enthusiasm was shared by de Cusa and Cosimo de Medici, who were both aware of the precarious position of the Christian Church, specifically of its over-conservative dogmatic stance, with which they could not identify. Though they had been able to save the Catholic Church from annihilation, they realised the time for a long overdue change was immediate, otherwise the Church would not make it to the year 1500.
So the group of reformers had an open-minded approach to religion. They were willing to entertain the pagan notion that direct experience of the divine was possible, both in this realm and in “heaven”. This radically undermined the dogma of the Christian Church, which declared that such contact was only possible through the intervention of a priest and at the Second Coming of Christ. The new thinking completely revised Man’s position in the universe, upgrading him from a mere “also ran” to a being that was fully equipped to explore this reality, and God, directly, personally, completely. It was the difference between the status of slave and that of a free man. If anything, the gift of the Renaissance was the opportunity for Man to turn his self-image of slave into that of a free man. Cosimo de Medici This new thinking became incorporated into reality when Cosimo de Medici realised Pleton’s dream with the establishment of a “Platonic Academy”, to revive the “pagan” knowledge of the divine, as had been, amongst others, expressed by the Greek philosopher Plato in the 5th century BC.
The son of Cosimo’s physician, Marsilio Ficino, was nominated director of the new “Platonic Academy”. Ficino was in charge of the main focus of the Academy: the translations of ancient manuscripts. These texts had to provide the fuel for vivid philosophical and religious debates. These texts included the “Argonautica”, the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts, which was the main theme of the Order of the Golden Fleece. But also Homer’s “Hymns” and the doctrines of the Plotinus, Plutarch, Proclus, Iamblichus and many others were translated into Latin.
Some of these books were about Greek civilisation, but others spoke about Egypt – the Egypt that had been known to the Greeks. Iamblichus and Plutarch in Of Isis and Osiris and other authors spoke about the existence of Egyptian mystery cults, in which the initiates received divine knowledge. In the Mysteries, the culminating splendour was said to be the face-to-face meeting with one’s Higher Self, and the deities. This had been the goal of the alchemists of the Middle Ages; it was the dream of the Platonic Academy, who thus received a genuine “Holy Grail” when a monk sold Cosimo a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum. It were these translations that proved to the Academy that Mankind was a being with a divine spark, which the “rebirth” of this movement was meant to ignite.