Corpus Hermeticum Ficino: The high priest of the Renaissance Marsilio Ficino was one of the most famous and influential people of the Italian Renaissance… yet today, he is hardly a footnote in history.
by Philip Coppens
Marsilio Ficino was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance, an astrologer and the first translator of Plato’s complete extant works into Latin. His Florentine Academy, an attempt to revive Plato’s school, had enormous influence on the direction and tenor of the Italian Renaissance and the development of European philosophy. Still, despite all of this, he is, when compared to the likes of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and the de Medici family, a footnote in the history books. History does not accurately reflect the man’s importance in his own time. Ficino was the candle that was lit by Cosimo de Medici, the powerful banker and merchant of Florence. During the sessions at Florence of the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-1445 (which attempted to heal the schism of the Latin and Greek Churches), Cosimo de Medici made acquaintance with the Neoplatonic philosopher George Gemistos Plethon. De Medici convinced Plethon to leave some of his students behind and so John Argyropoulos began lecturing on Greek language and literature in Florence; Ficino became his pupil. Cosimo next decided to refound Plato’s Academy (originally set up by Plato in a suburb of Athens) and his choice to head it fell on Ficino. The academy had texts from Plato and Neoplatonists such as Porphyry, Iamblichus and Plotinus. None of these texts existed in a Latin version – and translating them into Latin meant they exposed the West to this lost source of knowledge. But as interesting as these documents were, what was lacking was the availability of a clear, central doctrine. That arrived when a Greek copy of the Corpus Hermeticum arrived in Florence; Ficino was told to stop all other translation work and focus solely on the translation of the Corpus, which was said to contain the central theology of the ancient Egyptians. One of the greatest revelations ever was upon the Western world… and Ficino was the man who accomplished it. But Ficino’s mission was much more than “merely” a translator; he was also an interpreter and following suggestions by Plethon, he tried to synthesize Christianity and Platonism, thus creating a “new religion” which would become the foundation of the Renaissance. As such, the new wind of the Renaissance that swept the 15th century was Ficino’s child. He would also become the chief tutor to the de Medici family’s children, especially Lorenzo.
In his synthesis of the two religions, Ficino wrote a treatise on the immortality of the soul (Theologia Platonica de immortalitate animae). In De Vita libri tres (Three books on life), published in 1489, he talked about the world’s ensoulment and its integration with the human soul. It may seem unremarkable, but we need to underline that Ficino was a priest…
It is clear that Ficino’s chosen path would lead him into trouble. In 1489, he was accused of magic before Pope Innocent VIII and needed strong defence to preserve him from the condemnation of heresy. Still, today, there is a bust of Marsilio Ficino, made by Andrea Ferrucci, in Florence’s Cathedral, showing the irony of fate.
Part of the problem was that Ficino’s new religion relied on amulets and talismans for magical purposes, a practice that had existed in ancient Egypt and which was part of the Hermetic tradition. Ficino reintroduced this science and specifically adapted it so that it would work in paintings – even though he himself did not paint.
Jean Seznec has noted that a key document in using paintings as talismans in the Renaissance was the Picatrix, a book that was part of the Hermetic tradition, which focused particularly on talismans, and which it compared to the alchemical elixir. Through the proper design and construction of a talisman and proper performance of the rituals associated with it, the magician could control the energy emanating from heavenly spheres.
Ficino wrote extensively about these techniques, whereby planetary powers were to be invoked by the principles of Hermetic analogy. Chiefly accused of being his follower and the man who incorporated this knowledge in his paintings was Sandro Botticelli. His application of this methodology is most visible in “the Minerva and the Centaur”, “The Birth of Venus” and “the Primavera”. They were all commissioned for Lorenzo de Medici. All three paintings deal with occult themes and represent the magical practice of drawing down planetary influences into images, as outlined by Ficino. It is known that for the Primavera, Botticelli directly consulted Ficino. Frances Yates commented: “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 (i.e. Hermes), the Primavera features the three graces, about which Ficino had this to say: “There are three universal and singular colours 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 colour of the Sun, and no stranger to Jove and Venus either. But we dedicate the sapphire colour especially to Jove, to whom the sapphire itself is said to be consecrated. This is why lapis lazuli was given its colour (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.” It is clear that there is more to Botticelli’s painting than just what is immediately visible to the eye and contains levels of detail that far exceed any popular interpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings as done by the likes of Dan Brown. Speaking of… Javier Sierra in “The Secret Supper” has speculated about a relationship between Ficino and Leonardo Da Vinci. Sierra has cleverly suggested this was a secret relationship, for indeed there is no evidence to suggest that Leonardo was on close or friendly terms with Ficino. All the evidence suggests that the two were not friends, with Leonardo hardly making a dent in Florence and never admitted to the Platonic Academy, eventually seeking his employment elsewhere, and Ficino being one of the town’s most respected and known people – how the following centuries have repainted history! Still, it is clear that Leonardo was a child of his time and aware of the Hermetica and influenced by its tradition and the “trend” – the Renaissance – that swept through Florence and soon elsewhere; as the trend rippled through Italy and France, Leonardo rode the wave, whereas many members of the Platonic Academy largely remained in Florence. For them, Florence was the place to be… Some evidence of Da Vinci’s exposure to the Hermetica can be seen in the seating arrangement of the disciples in “The Last Supper”: they are grouped in four groups of three, talking only among themselves, corresponding to the four elements in the Zodiac, with Christ in the middle, representing the Sun. As to why a chalice may be missing: a possible explanation may be found in chapter four of the Corpus Hermeticum.
Ficino’s influence was much wider than “just” Botticelli and Leonardo Da Vinci. Studies have shown that the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer took his inspiration from Ficino. The figure in the Melancholia of Dürer symbolises the “children of Saturn”, who meditate on the secrets of wisdom. Michelangelo too may have been influenced by Ficino’s ideas, definitely having been exposed to them during his presence at the court of the Medicis. In short, name any Renaissance painter and you will see the guiding hand of Ficino behind the painter, either directly or indirectly. He painted through others… Ficino was a walking library, full of knowledge of the ancient world, more so than most men ever to come after him. He also subscribed to the notion that there was hope for world renovation (best remembered in the word Renaissance – rebirth – itself), which would occur through art, science and technology. This “new hope” was his new religion, the infusion of Platonic-Hermetic thought within Christianity, which was creating a manifesto for a new Christian Church. He declared that religion’s basis had to be philosophy (which was largely absent from Christianity) and believed that Plato should be read in the churches. Such integration would, by default, not go smoothly. For one, Ficino considered the human soul to be both immortal and divine, made in the image of God, which was a contradiction of the Bible that claimed that the soul was not naturally immortal and could only become so through Christianity. In his introduction to the translation, he stated that the Logos, the Word, was the basis of a peaceful philosophy, in which experiencing the divine nature of the soul was the ultimate goal for Man. It is clear that the marriage of these pagan divinities with Christ was not a straightforward task. Another problem was that Plato was a pagan and the Hermeticum was believed to contain first-hand knowledge of the Egyptian – pagan – religion. Christianity had stated that all – all – of this heretical knowledge had been made redundant with the birth of Christ… so there was no need to consider, let alone introduce, let alone allow, it to be read in churches.
But there was hope. Many of the Hermetic writings closely resemble portions of the Gospel of John, one of the few if not only Christian texts cherished by the medieval Cathars. Later, Martin Luther actually believed that the author of the Corpus had merely copied the writings of John the Evangelist. A very old Egyptian text says: “In the beginning was Thoth; and Thoth was in Atum; and Thoth was Atum in the unfathomable reaches of primordial space.” The Prologue of John’s Gospel, beginning with “The Word was with God and The Word was God”, closely resembles the actions of Thoth – and Thoth was the Egyptian name of Hermes, the god of Wisdom. Ficino himself did not fail to see the similarities between the Corpus Hermeticum and John’s Gospel and even stressed these in his introduction to his translation. It is clear that Ficino was playing a dangerous game. What inspired him to live so dangerously? The answer seems to be that either Pleton and his school knew that Christianity was not as “original” as the Western Church thought it was, or Ficino worked it out on his own. But the end conclusion is simple: Ficino realised that Christianity was a variation – an interpretation – of a group of followers of the Corpus Hermeticum, specifically the cult of Serapis. His “new religion” was nothing more than restoring Christianity to its roots.
The cult of Serapis was specifically, as many Egyptologists have pointed out, the cult of the dead Osiris, which was also known as the Arkite worship of Osiris. Osiris, almost everyone now seems to know, shares many characteristics with Jesus, both ascending to reside as King of the Otherworld from the World of the Dead.
The religion of Serapis was a wisdom cult, which means it must have had a body of literature. But what was that body of literature? Both the Serapis Cult and the Hermetic literature are dedicated to the Egyptian god Thoth, the Greek Hermes, from which the Hermetic literature takes its name. When Champollion translated the hieroglyphic script in the 19th century, he stated that the Corpus contained the ancient Egyptian doctrine. According to two prominent scholars, Bloomfield and Stricker, the Corpus Hermeticum was indeed the “bible” of the Egyptian mystery religion of Serapis. Interestingly, this is exactly what Ficino himself believed. But he also believed that with the Corpus Hermeticum, the Florentine Academy received the “true bible”, i.e. the sacred literature which had been used in the training of John the Baptist and Jesus; it was the bible of original Christianity, the Serapis cult. In short, the revolution that Ficino tried to achieve was to do away with centuries of corruption of Christianity and return the religion to its true roots. The problem was that this meant that he would have to do away with most of Christianity… When we explore the contents of this “original Christian bible”, we find that it specifically reflects the new belief system of the Renaissance, which called for a direct experience of the divine. The central mythical image of Hermeticism, described in the first treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum, “Poimandres, the Shepherd of Men”, is the ascent of the soul after death, and its passage through the spheres of the seven planets. When entering the Eighth Sphere (the Fixed Stars), it joins the company of the Blessed. An identical journey is described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, where the soul must traverse the several halls of the Otherworld and be weighed against a feather (an act performed by Thoth), before it can enter the Paradise of Osiris. Furthermore, Thoth and his Hellenised counterpart Hermes were the messengers of the gods, those who travelled between Heaven, the Kingdom of God, and Earth, the Realm of Man. In Christianity, this mediator role was Christ and Christ alone. After finishing his translation, Ficino exclaimed: “the Renaissance expresses, by a new song of joy from the soul descending from the Creator, the enthusiasm of the spirit receiving the light.”
There is more: Ficino correctly stated that the Christian cross, the symbol of Christianity par excellence, was originally the symbol of the pagan Egyptian god Serapis. But how to align Serapis and Hermes with Christ? Ficino stated that Hermes had foreseen the advent of Christ, which meant that he had an excuse to study Hermes, as he had been a pagan prophet of the coming of Christ. It is, however, highly doubtful that Ficino truly believed this; it was “just” a clever ploy to stop people meddling with his interest. But there is, of course, an interesting little joke in there: the Serapis cult, with Hermes, and Jesus were very closely related… and stating that Hermes was one of those who had foreseen the advent of Christ was a novel theory… but one that was more true than those Ficino said it to probably realised. The Florentine Academy actually possessed the rituals of the Serapis cult. The writings of the Roman author Apuleius were cherished reading for the Platonic Academy. Apuleius gave many detailed accounts of the Mysteries of Isis and Osiris. He wrote how, in the procession of the Initiates of Isis, they followed a chest or ark, magnificently ornamented, containing an image of the organs of generation (i.e. the phallus) of the dead Osiris. “These ceremonies represented the death of [Osiris], slain by his brother [Seth].” Ficino’s translations of Apuleius therefore gave the Academy detailed accounts of the rituals of the Serapis cult.
Ficino realised that Christianity was a slightly modified continuation of the cult of Serapis. Many historians have observed – and wondered – about the apparent duality of Ficino in being both a priest – in fact the chief priest of the Florentine Cathedral – and a Hermeticist. He seemed to link pagan Hermetic thinking to Christianity, which seem on the surface incompatible. In his time, Ficino’s opponents criticised: “Would you think this man is a priest of God as he wished to appear, and not rather the patron and high priest of Egyptian mysteries?” It therefore seems that even his opponents knew the truth about Ficino’s true allegiance… and what he truly believed. But when we accept that he saw the cult of Serapis as original Christianity, this apparent duality disappears… The link between the Corpus Hermeticum, John the Baptist and the Serapis Cult is able to answer one of the most nagging questions of the history of the “underground stream”, a question that Picknett and Prince’s book Templar Revelation posed when it showed that the people who worshipped John the Baptist were also Hermeticists. They, like many others who brought up questions and links between heresy and the Hermeticum were never able to explain why this would be the case. But now this question can be answered. As the Corpus Hermeticum and the Serapis cult were the same, and as there is evidence that John the Baptist was a priest of Serapis, it follows that those who held John in high esteem would do this because of his particular doctrine, which was the Hermeticum. This also explains why the rediscovery of the knowledge of the Corpus Hermeticum happened within a group of people, the Florentine Academy, who had been driven to understand the true origins of the Baptist’s message. It may also explain why Leonardo Da Vinci was fascinated with John the Baptist… and why Florence was specifically cherished as being the capital of the Renaissance, for John the Baptist was the city’s patron saint. Most historians have underestimated the true heresy of the Renaissance as its leader never openly attacked Jesus’ central position, which would seem to have been the logical scenario if it was a heresy. But surely men with the political and commercial knowledge and expertise such as the de Medici-family must have realised that if they tried to do just that, their public stance would immediately condemn them to prison… or worse. Public discrediting of Jesus never led to anything positive – witness the Cathar crusade.
Furthermore, it should be noted that they had nothing against Jesus, who they after all considered to have been a Serapis priest. Their problem was with what had become of “his” Church and its dogma, which was not in line with Jesus’ or the Serapis’ teachings. Rather than a wisdom cult, Christianity was a dogmatic cult.
So rather than attack, they redefined. Though the figure of Christ maintained its central position, the image of Christ as “the Son of God who suffered on the cross for humanity” had been replaced by the figure of a mortal man who was “the essence of perfection and harmony”, who had achieved – to use Ficino’s wording – his “God Potential”. Ficino’s student Pico della Mirandola viewed man as a “magus”, equipped with a divine creative power, giving him control over his own destiny through science. He believed that nothing was more convincing of Christ’s divinity than magic. Priests of Serapis were magicians and Ficino claimed that Jesus was a magician, as such identifying the former “Son of God” with a priest of a pagan belief. Ficino tried to be like he believed Jesus had been: a magician. And that is why he gave to Botticelli and others magical information, which they worked into their paintings. In retrospect, the Academy had very little direct effect on the thinking of the general public, not even in Florence. And that is why Ficino “the man” has largely become a footnote in history. But it would be wrong to suggest they did not have any effect; the key word is “direct effect”; indirectly, the Academy brought about the Renaissance and the transformation of Europe, the discovery of America and the birth of science.
With the translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, they had the necessary material in hand to discover what society original Christianity wanted to establish. In 1492, Ficino wrote that an “Age of Gold” was upon Mankind. The first sign would be the revival of arts, which had been turned into a liberating technique to liberate Man’s “God Potential”, the divine spark that was in each of us. That project, as we now know, was a success.
On the surface, it might seem that their revolution was merely a purely artistic one. History, however, has only chosen to remember these attempts (perhaps because they were successful), but there were also political attempts to bring about social change. History has chosen to forget these. Ficino himself mentioned that the revolution of art was merely the first step. He wrote that the revolution of the communication technology (printing) was the key to the Apocalypse, which would lead to this “Age of Gold”, in which a rebirth of Christianity would occur. The Academy thus became the breeding ground of a conspiracy to try and overthrow the Catholic Church. It was a bold attempt to reform from within, covertly, rather than from the outside, openly and aggressively.
In these attempts, they required the assistance of bright young men, who were willing to take centre stage. A young priest steeped into occult knowledge, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, was such a man. Pico had arrived in Florence on the day when Ficino had completed the translations of Plato’s writings. With all the necessary ammunition to mount their attack therefore available in Latin, Ficino and other members of the Platonic Academy pushed Pico to formulate a compendium of nine hundred propositions – a manifesto. It was the battle plan with which the Medici-circle wanted to attack the outdated dogma of the Church. The propositions are clearly Hermetic in origin and were presented to – and seen by – the Pope as a challenge to Church and Christianity. Unsurprisingly, the attempt failed… quite miserably: Pope Innocent VIII did not indulge such pagan inspired thinking and placed Pico’s writings on the Papal Index, threatening Pico with expulsion.
The next step in any conspiracy was getting infiltrators into the “enemy camp”. Though Ficino and most members of the Academy were priests, none held high enough positions in the Church and were too visible on the radar to pull this off. Therefore, Lorenzo de Medici engineered the promotion of one of his sons to the position of Cardinal, thus clearing the first hurdle in a – successful – race to the Papal office. It opened up a potential, but one which in the end was never truly realised – and which Ficino never would live to see anyway. Ficino was the herald of a new age. More than a herald, he laid the foundation and made sure that his child would not want for anything. He had high aspirations for his offspring, which in the end, its foster parents could not accomplish. Still, the Renaissance was not a failure; it was a transformation and remains a paradigm shift for Western society. But the child became so famous, that no-one pays due reverence to its father.