Wednesday, May 30, 2012


 Men that look upon my outside, perusing only my condition, and fortunes, do err in my altitude; for I am above Atlas his shoulders.

Another illustration from a book once in the vast library of Sir Thomas Browne Opticorum libri sex philosophis juxta ac mathematicis utiles or 'Six Books of Optics, useful for philosophers and mathematicians alike' by François Aiguilon (1567-1617) a Belgian mathematician, physicist and architect . 

Aiguilon's book Optica (1613) was notable for containing the principles of stereographic and orthographic projections, as depicted above. He gave the stereographic projection its current name in his 1613 work.  One of the most important uses of stereoscopic projection was in  the representation of celestial charts which were increasingly necessary for  accurate navigation, exploration and trade-routes, especially for the empire-building of sea-faring nations such as the Dutch and British nations during the 17th century.

Aguilon commissioned the famous Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) to illustrate his book. Throughout Aigulion's treatise on optics, Rubens depicts three cherubs who act as guides and tutelary figures to reveal the nature of optical phenomena to the enquirer into Nature's properties. 

Just as the study of botany aided the physician in the field of medicine, enhancing his appreciation of the senses through scent and beauty as well as his understanding of nature's organic properties, so too the study of optics held both a scientific and a mystical dimension for the Natural philosopher. The study of optics with its emphasis upon Light and Dark, the visible and  invisible worlds and the deceptive nature of appearances has much in common with the spiritual symbolism of Gnosticism and Hermetic philosophy; however symbolism involving Light and Darkness, one of the most richly-developed forms of spiritual imagery can be found in the sacred texts of all world religions, including Christianity. One of the most famous of all optical-spiritual imagery often cited as Gnostic in origin, occurs in the words of Saint Paul -

For now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror;  then we shall see face to face. - 1 Cor. 13 v. 12

The King James translation of the Bible in 1611 exerted a profound influence upon Sir Thomas Browne's Christian faith and his literary style. But perhaps nowhere in all English literature can there be found a more emphatic allegiance to Hermetic philosophy alongside a succinct definition of its tenets utilizing optical imagery than in Browne's Religio Medici (1643).

The severe Schools shall never laugh me out of the Philosophy of Hermes, that this visible world is but a picture of the invisible, wherein as in a portrait, things are not truly, but in equivocal shapes; and as they counterfeit some more real substance in that invisible fabric. [1]

Sir Thomas Browne's remarkable statement encapsulates the mind-set of the Hermetic philosopher, that beyond the world of appearances there lay a hidden, eternal world of archetypes and Platonic concepts, while allusion to optics and highly original optical imagery can be found throughout his writings.  The Garden of Cyrus (1658) even opens in imitation of the account in Genesis of the creation of the Sun and Moon with God's first command, 'Let there be Light.'

When the diffused light contracted into Orbs, and shooting rays, of those Luminaries.

In addition to being crowded with optical imagery The Garden of Cyrus also includes a cursory description of the workings of the camera obscura while in his advisory and moralistic essay Christian Morals Browne employs medical-optical imagery to stress how the visible and invisible, as regards the human perspective of the moral worth of an individual, can be deceptive in appearance in contrast to the perspective held by God.

Other notable books on optics in Sir Thomas Browne's library include the 11th century Islamic scientist Alhazen's Opticae Thesaurus (Basle 1572) one of the most important writings on optics and highly influential throughout the Renaissance. Another notable work on optics by  'the supreme representative of Hermeticism in 17th century Europe' and by all evidence, one of Browne's favourite author's, Athanasius Kircher and his Ars Magna Lucis and Umbrae (Rome 1646) The Great Art of Light and Shadow. [2]


In Greek mythology Atlas was a Titan who was believed to hold up the sky, his name meaning 'he who carries'. Atlas offered to fetch the golden apples of the Hesperides, one of the tasks of  Hercules if the hero took over his own role of holding up the sky. When Atlas returned with the golden apples he suggested to Hercules that he should also deliver them as Hercules was doing so well in holding up the sky. Hercules pretended to agree and asked Atlas if he would take the weight of the skies for just one moment while he re-adjusted the weight on his shoulders, thus deceiving Atlas into resuming his lonely duty. 

Hermetic philosophy delighted in all manner of analogy and correspondence. It cannot have escaped the attention of esoterically-inclined thinkers that by substitution of the heavy weight of the celestial sphere resting upon Atlas's shoulders to the burden of the Cross upon Christ's shoulders that the myth of Atlas anticipates the cosmic self-sacrificing redeeming act of Christ. Through such analogy early Renaissance humanist and Neoplatonist thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) endeavoured to reconcile the truths of pagan mythology to Christianity.  


Header quote Religio Medici Part 2 Section 11. Quoted by C.A. Patrides in his 1977 Penguin edition of Browne's major works. The title of his highly perceptive introduction to Sir Thomas Browne is 'Above Atlas his shoulders'. Full quotation is reproduced on the back page of the Penguin edition and thus often the very first sampling of Browne's prose many readers encounter.

See Also  Inner Optics

[1] Religio Medici Part 1 section 12
[2]  1711 Sales Catalogue - Aguilon page 28 no. 12 - Alhazen page 28 no. 13
Kircher page 8 no. 88  
[3]   Wiki-Link  Farnese Atlas
[4] The Macrocosm sphere of the Philosopher's Stone is supported by two Atlas-like giants standing upon a base pediment in Andreas Libavius's Alchemia

* Encyclopaedia of World Mythology - Cotterell and Storm pub. Lorenz 2006

* Alchemy and Mysticism ed. and Intro by Alexander Roob  pub. Taschen 2006   
So far Taschen's valuable source book of over 560 pages of visual imagery has now provided materials for this blog for posts on -
Dragon - Nigredo  - Putrification - Diana and Actaeon - Physica Subterranea.

I cannot recommend this book enough for its wealth of visual imagery and inexpensiveness.


teegee said...

A most interesting post. The Hadrianic and Antonine periods (see that Farnese Atlas, e.g., as well as many coins and the Aion mosaic in Munich Glyptothek, are interested in the zodicacal band). Good, well preserved representations are careful to show the zodiacal band, as Browne's illustration (Penguin edition) at the head of your post does, as distinct from an equator (which, of course, had not been established then--at least, not in antiquity; I'll check for the 17th century.


Thanks for your comment Teegee. Thought you would be interested in the Farnese sculpture !