Monday, October 19, 2015

Sir Thomas Browne and the Kabbalah

Today on the birth and death anniversary of the English seventeenth century literary figure, Sir Thomas Browne, its rewarding to look at aspects of the hermetic philosopher's little explored relationship to the kabbalah.

Its only recently that the many prejudices and misapprehensions which once surrounded the vital role and influence which esoteric ideas such as astrology, alchemy and the kabbalah wielded in intellectual history have finally eroded. It’s only now possible to acknowledge Sir Thomas Browne’s interest in the kabbalah as an integral component of his status as one of 17th century Europe's most learned scholars of comparative religion; his Discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) reveals him to be none other than one of England’s leading literary exponents of the kind of hermetic philosophy which John Dee (1527-1608) and his eldest son Arthur Dee (1579-1651)  both vigorously pursued.

One of the most valued of all hermetic traditions amongst adepts such as the Dee's, was the mystical Jewish teachings known as the kabbalah, in which number and letter assume magical significance. It was believed necessary to acquire knowledge of the Hebrew language by devout scholars such as Browne, primarily in order to read the word of God as revealed to his prophets in the original written form, namely Hebrew.

A familiarity with the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue (an indispensable document in the study of Browne) swiftly reveals  the names of leading Hebrew scholars, along with Latin and Greek, Hebrew and even Ethiopian dictionaries as once shelved in his library.  Rather unsurprisingly there are also some jolly thumping big books on the kabbalah listed as once in Browne's library [1]. The two humanist scholars who first promoted esoteric topics as worthy of enquiry in the Renaissance, Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and his successor, Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) are both represented, as is, 'the supreme representative of Hermeticism in Post-Reformation Europe', Athanasius Kircher (1602-80).

While Ficino attempted to reconcile the wisdom of Hermeticism and Plato with the teachings of the Church, his successor, Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) focussed on promoting study of the Kabbalah. Pico della Mirandola was the first to seek in the Kabbalah proof of the Christian mysteries. Besides Greek and Latin he knew Hebrew, Chaldean and Arabic;  his Hebrew teachers introduced him to the kabbalah. One of the most startling of Mirandola’s  proposals was that no science gives surer conviction of the divinity of Christ than "magia" (i.e. the knowledge of the secrets of the heavenly bodies) than esoteric Jewish teaching.  Mirandola was an influential figure in the history of Western esotericism and would be taken seriously a century later in England when declaring, 'Angels only understand Hebrew' by would-be Angel conjurers. John and Arthur Dee.

However, the pre-eminent book which influenced the development of Christian kabbalah and which is listed in Browne's library, was by Francesco Giorgi (1467-1540). His book De Harmonia Mundi (1525) is a complex synthesis of Christianity, the kabbalah and the angelic hierarchies.

The seminal British scholar of esoteric philosophy, Francis Yates (1899-1981) wrote of  Giorgi -

'Giorgi's Cabalism, though primarily inspired by Pico della Mirandola, was enriched by the new waves of Hebrew studies which Venice with its renowned Jewish community was an important centre. Cabalistic writings flooded into Venice following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Giorgi grafts Cabalist influence onto the traditions of his order. He develops that correlation between Hebrew and Christian angelic systems, already present in Pico, to a high degree of intensity. For Giorgi, with his Franciscan optimism, the angels are close indeed, and Cabala has brought them closer. He accepts the connections between angelic hierarchies and planetary spheres, and rises up happily through the stars to the angels, hearing all the way those harmonies on each level of the creation imparted by the Creator to his universe, founded on number and numerical laws of proportion The secret of Giorgi's universe was number, for it was built, so he believed, by its Architect as a perfectly proportioned Temple, in accordance with unalterable laws of cosmic geometry'.....In Giorgi's Christian Cabala, the angelic hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius are connected with the Sephiroth of the Cabala... The planets are linked to the angelic hierarchies and the Sephiroth'.[2]

It was while in London, engaged in a diplomatic errand that the Franciscan monk Giorgi met the Elizabethan magus John Dee. There is thus a quite distinct traceable link between the Renaissance founders of the Neoplatonic, Neopythagorean and Cabalist traditions, namely Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola via the Franciscan monk Giorgio and his advocacy of the Cabala to John Dee via his son Arthur Dee to Sir Thomas Browne. This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that that both John Dee and Browne each possessed a copy of Giorgio’s highly-influential work De Harmonia Mundi. Unless that is Arthur Dee bequeathed his father's copy of De Harmonia Mundi  to Browne [2] but that would be no less of a strong link!

Browne’s respect for the Kabbalah can be discerned in his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica where one encounters the somewhat indignant exclamation - 

Astrologers, which pretend to be of Cabala with the Stars (such I mean as abuse that worthy Enquiry) have not been wanting in their deceptions; [4] 

Browne’s understanding of the kabbalah included an awareness that in the Hebrew alphabet each letter also denotes a number, of either fortunate or unlucky disposition thus-  

Cabalistical heads, who from that expression in Esay (Isaiah 34:4) do make a book of heaven, and read therein the great concernments of earth, do literally play on this, and from its semicircular figure, resembling the Hebrew letter כ Caph, whereby is signified the uncomfortable number of twenty, at which years Joseph was sold, which Jacob lived under Laban, and at which men were to go to war: do note a propriety in its signification; as thereby declaring the dismal Time of the Deluge. [5]  

There’s also evidence in Pseudodoxia Epidemica that Browne was familiar with one of the earliest and most influential of all kabbalistic texts, the legendary Book of Splendour. Also known as the Zohar (Hebrew: זֹהַר, lit. "Splendor" or "Radiance")  the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought it consists of commentary on aspects of the Torah (the five books of Moses) mythical cosmogony and mystical psychology. The Zohar also contains a discussion of the nature of God, the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of souls, redemption, the relationship of Ego to Darkness and "true self" to "The Light of God", and the relationship between the "universal energy" and man. [6]

Browne tantalizingly alludes to Moses de León (c. 1250 – 1305) known in Hebrew as Moshe ben Shem-Tov (משה בן שם-טוב די-ליאון),  the Spanish rabbi and Kabbalist considered to be the author of the Zohar in this remark-

' M. Leo the Jew has excellently discoursed in his Genealogy of Love: defining beauty a formal grace, which delights and moves them to love which comprehend it. This grace say they, discoverable outwardly, is the resplendent and Ray of some interior and invisible beauty, and proceeds from the forms of compositions amiable.' [7] 

Although its recorded that as early as 1934 Joseph Blau wrote upon Browne’s interest in the Kabbalah, amazingly,  only in 1989 was it recognised that the leading scholar of Hebrew and the Kabbalah in 17th century Germany, Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-89) has an interesting relationship to Browne.[8] The German scholar Von Rosenroth devoted many hours of his somewhat short life, completing what must have been a true labour of love, translating in total over 200,000 words of Browne’s colossal encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica into German, completing his task in 1680 for publication in Frankfurt and Leipzig. Whether Browne was informed of this translation, late in his life isn't known, but it seems unlikely he wouldn't hear of it.

Browne’s esoteric inclinations are given full vent in his phantasmagorical discourse and supreme work of hermetic philosophy in English literature, The Garden of Cyrus (1658) in which the Kabbalah is alluded to several times.

The opening paragraph of chapter 3 of The Garden of Cyrus sees Browne move swiftly on from examples of the Quincunx pattern in gardening and art, to those in nature. In a paragraph of humorous and cosmic prose, he alludes to a French contemporary, the Hebrew scholar, astrologer and librarian to Cardinal Richelieu, Jaques Gafferel (1601-81). Browne was particularly interested in Gaffarel’s best-selling book, which had been translated into English as Unheard of Curiosities in 1650 in which the French kabbalist proposes an alternative to the Babylonian-Greek circle of animals or Zodiac.

Using the stars quite differently from the Babylonian-Greek circle of animals or Zodiac, Gaffarel describes how the letters of the Hebrew alphabet can be traced in the stars of the night-sky. Browne includes Gaffarel along with esoteric concepts of the 'music of the spheres' and the cosmic harmony of Pan's pipes as worthy of credulity thus-

Could we satisfy ourselves in the position of the lights above, or discover the wisdom of that order so invariably maintained in the fixed Stars of heaven; Could we have any light, why the stellary part of the first mass, separated into this order, that the Girdle of Orion should ever maintain its line, and the two Stars in Charles's Wain never leave pointing at the Pole-Star, we might abate the Pythagorical Music of the Spheres, the sevenfold Pipe of Pan; and the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starry Book of Heaven.

In his wide-ranging discourse of analogies and correspondences connecting the number five and quincunx pattern in art, nature and 'mystically considered’ Browne lets rip in rapid, near breathless enquiry, making note upon gardening, generation, germination, grafting, heredity, birth-marks, physiognomy, astrology, chess and skittles, archery and knuckle-stones, Egyptian hieroglyphs, architecture, optics, the camera obscura, acoustics and the healing power of music, among other topics of interest to the worthy 17th century Norwich physician.  

Given its free-ranging imaginative associations its almost predictable that the alphabet mysticism of the Kabbalah is included in this unique and idiosyncratic literary work. Browne speculates upon the properties of the letter He, the 5th letter in the Hebrew alphabet. His kabbalist enquiry includes one of the earliest recorded usages of the word ‘archetype’ in English.

The same number in the Hebrew mysteries and Cabalistical accounts was the character of Generation; declared by the letter He, the fifth in their Alphabet; According to that Cabalisticall Dogma: If Abram had not had this Letter added unto his Name he had remained fruitlesse, and without the power of generation: Not only because hereby the number of his Name attained two hundred forty eight, the number of the affirmative precepts, but because as increated natures there is a male and female, so in divine and intelligent productions, the mother of Life and Fountain of souls in Cabalistically Technology is called Binah; whose Seal and Character was He. So that being sterile before, he received the power of generation from that measure and mansion in the Archetype; and was made conformable unto Binah. [9] -

Its also in the 'mystically considered' chapter 5 of The Garden of Cyrus that Browne speculates upon the healing power of music upon the mind, using kabbalistic analogy thus-

Why the Cabalistical Doctors, who conceive the whole Sephiroth, or divine emanations to have guided the ten-stringed Harp of David, whereby he pacified the evil spirit of Saul, in strict numeration do begin with the Perihypate Meson, or si fa ut, and so place the Tiphereth answering C sol fa ut, upon the fifth string: [10]

Curiously the Sephirotic Tree of the kabbalah and the Quincunx pattern as illustrated in the frontispiece of The Garden of Cyrus have both been viewed as examples of 'stepped-down versions' of Indra's Net. In Hindu mythology the god Indra has a net which has a multifaceted jewel fixed at each knot, each jewel in turn reflects all the other jewels suspended in the net. The image of Indra's net is sometimes used to describe the interconnected relationship of the entire universe, not unlike either the Sephiroth tree of the kabbalah or Browne's intention in citing numerous examples of the Quincunx pattern in art, nature and mystically.

Browne however was not a solitary figure in his interest in the kabbalah in 17th century England. The Cambridge Platonists, in particular its leading members, Henry More (1614-87) the author of Conjectura Cabbalistica (1653), and Ralph Cudworth (1617-88) also had a keen interest in the mystical Jewish tradition of the kabbalah.

Well I hope today, on the anniversary of Sir Thomas Browne's birth and death (how Ouroboros-like is that) that this little essay convinces my reader of Browne's very real interest and understanding of the kabbalah. It is, however , because of his having interests in early modern science in tandem with topics such as the kabbalah, that Browne's place in European intellectual history remains ambiguous and paradoxical today ! 


[1] The 1711 Action Sales Catalogue was finally published in 1986 thanks to scholarship of the Yale University, American academic and Dean Emeritus of Yale University,  J.S. Finch (to whom I enjoyed a correspondence with until his death).

[2] The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age Frances Yates pub. RKP 1979

[3] De Harmonia Mundi  Venice 1525 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue page 2 no.33

[4] P.E. Bk 1 chapter 3

[5] P.E. Bk 1 chapter 4

[6] Wikipedia

[7] P.E. Book 6 chapter 11

[8] Alchemy of the Word: Cabala of the Renaissance Philip Beitchman pub. State University of New York Press, Albany 1989

[9] Genesis 27 verse 15 discusses the adding of H to Abram's name.
 Text here in chapter 5 includes a reference by Browne to - Archang. Dog. Cabal. Archangelus Burgonovus  (The apology of brother Archangulus of Burgonovo in defense of cabalistic doctrines against Rev. Peter Garzia’s attack on Mirandula from Hebrew wisdom, source of the Christian religion). Basel 1560, Bologna 1564. Also mentioned in Pistorius’s Artis cabalisticae scriptores Basel 1587

[10] 1 Samuel 17 verse 40

With thanks to Karmel Lee for her encouragement.

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Macclesfield Psalter: A Medieval Norwich Gem

Spike Bucklow's The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art (2014) is a scholarly, yet accessible analysis of medieval illuminated manuscripts. It includes a chapter on the recently discovered Macclesfield Psalter, a fascinating gem of medieval Norwich artistry.

The Macclesfield Psalter (Book of Psalms from the Old Testament) was produced around 1330. It contains 252 illustrated pages and is recognized as  an important discovery of a medieval manuscript in Britain. Amazingly, it was only discovered in 2004 after laying unidentified for centuries, when the library at Shirburn Castle was catalogued for sale. Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum tried to buy it, but the initial bid was won by the Getty Museum of Malibu, California, for £1.7 million. The American museum had to gain permission to export the Psalter.  A temporary export bar was placed on the Psalter until 2005. The Fitzwilliam Museum, assisted by an £860,000 contribution from the UK Government's National Heritage Memorial Fund raised the £1.7 million needed to keep the Psalter in the United Kingdom. The Macclesfield Psalter is now owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, however it is not currently on display as it's being restored.

The Macclesfield Psalter is noted for its vivid images, grotesques and humour. Its illustrations include amongst other curiosities, three-headed monsters with hairy noses, a dog in a bishop's costume, an ape doctor giving a false diagnosis to a bear patient, rabbits jousting and riding hounds, an armed knight confronting a giant snail and a giant skate terrorising a man. The newly-coined adjective 'pythonesque', alluding to the surreal animations of Terry Gilliam, is sometimes used to describe the Psalter's bizarre and occasionally obscene images; but in fact it is quite the reverse. Gilliam has recently confessed he copied from a book of medieval marginal illustrations as a source for animations for the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

There was concerned debate about which of the Psalter's pages would be appropriate for Queen Elizabeth II to view when she visited the Fitzwilliam in 2005.

The pages of the Macclesfield Psalter offer an intimate view of the medieval world and the beliefs, prejudices, follies and sentiments of its people. Doctors, priests, minstrels, mummers, farmers, dancers, tricksters and beggars mingle in the margins just as they would have done on the busy streets of medieval Norwich. The livelihoods of Norfolk’s farmers and Norwich’s weavers, seamstresses and dyers were closely connected to the Psalter through the flow of various materials, and as such it is testimony to the highly-developed crafts and skills which thrived in Norwich, a city of European stature in trade, commerce and artistic creativity during the Medieval era. If Norwich had not been a very wealthy city during the 14th century then materials such as gold and saffron would not have been obtainable in the illumination of the Psalter.

According to author Spike Bucklow, a senior research scientist at Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge, the Macclesfield Psalter was created by two equally gifted painters who worked and responded playfully to each other's ideas. Their patron was a member of a rich and powerful Norfolk family whose identity remains unknown. The painters’ workshop, Bucklow conjectures, was located in the parish of Saint George's at Tombland (from old Danish tomb empty and Land Space) in Norwich. The list of pigments found in the illuminations contained nothing that could not be obtained from in a Norwich workshop circa 1335. Indeed, the artist's studio in Tombland was located only a few minutes walk from the nearby church of Saint John Maddermarket, a quite specific allusion to the madder plant, once essential to the dyer's art.

Bucklow notes, 'the two anonymous artists who illuminated the Psalter purposefully left pigments off their palette to challenge and stretch themselves. They restricted their palette with supreme confidence knowing that lovers can see their beloved's beauty in even the most tarnished of mirrors.'

The two artists of the Macclesfield Psalter embedded several layers of meaning into their riddle-like art, some of which remain enigmatic and unsolvable to this day.

Bucklow continues - 'The most obvious part of the Psalter's visual form is its strange collection of everyday and hybrid creatures. Appreciating the form simply involves recognising that the painters wanted the reader to be able to revel in a riot of possibilities, whether apparently normal or abnormal. The sheer exuberant variety of animal, vegetable, mineral and monstrous decoration suggests a limitless imagination.'

However, he rejects the ideas of certain 1960's orientated counter-culture historians who claim that the many bizarre images in the Psalter were the product of painters who had ingested grain infected by ergot, a hallucinogen similar in effect to LSD.

What is certain is that from their everyday dealings in Norwich, the patron and painters of the Psalter were guided by Dominican Friars who eagerly integrated the ancient Classical world view with Christianity. They knew that everything in the material realm was limited and constantly changed either in time or space.

Crucially, throughout The Riddle of the Image Spike Bucklow displays a rare understanding of the alchemical imagination. He explains, for example, the spiritual significance of colour to the medieval artist, in the use of mosaic gold as opposed to 'true gold' thus-

'It is also appropriate that the 'likeness of gold', mosaic gold, was an alchemical pigment attributed to Moses, a legendary Old Testament father of alchemy. As a fabricated alchemical hybrid (of tin, sulphur, quicksilver and sal ammoniac) mosaic gold is also appropriate for the marginal creatures which are of course, also fabricated hybrids.'

Bucklow's understanding of the alchemical imagination, his ability to illuminate the seemingly long lost mind-set of medieval artists, in conjunction with his scientific background along with his ability to discourse in an erudite yet accessible style, makes his The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art a fascinating read. Further chapters on the Wilton diptych, the Westminster Retable and the Thornham Parva Retable simply confirm the importance of his ground-breaking research and study.
                              *    *   *   *   *  *  *  *

Neptune's  Creatures of the Deep: Sir Thomas Browne and Jorge Borges, North Sea Magical Realism and  the Macclesfield Psalter. 

An  interest in the strange creatures which once existed in the medieval imagination was revived and catalogued in the 20th century by the influential Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). In his Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) Borges lists over 120 mythical creatures alluded to in classical antiquity, medieval folklore and world literature, finding it useful to consult the encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) written by the Norwich physician and Hermetically-inclined philosopher, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) when discussing hybrid creatures such as the Amphisbaena (a two-headed serpent), Basilisks, Mandrakes, and the utterly weird so-called vegetable lamb of Tartary.

And in fact Sir Thomas Browne was one of the Argentine writer's favourite authors. Borges alluded to Browne in almost every one of his books, from his earliest to his last publication in his long life.

There are, I believe, at present two local contemporary artists, both of whom possess rich and fertile imaginations, which in tandem with well-developed painting techniques, are equally adept at dredging bizarre creatures from the depths of their unconscious psyche as inventively as the two Medieval a illustrators of the Macclesfield Psalter, almost seven hundred years ago.

Currently located in coastal towns twenty miles east of Norwich, North Sea Magical Realist artists Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell are inspired by the moods, hues and hidden depths of the North Sea, the working life and social culture of their respective coastal town of residence (Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft) as well as marine life in general, amongst other varied sources of inspiration and influence they each have.

Both artists also in their own inimitable way, occasionally conjure imaginary creatures equally bizarre as those in the Macclesfield Psalter, or alluded to in Browne's encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica  or even collected by Jorge Borges ; as is evident in Mark Burrell's unsettling fish-man and the cuttle-fish character among the  crew of Peter Rodulfo's recent work, Waiting for the Captain.

'Waiting for the Captain' 120 x 100 cms. Peter Rodulfo (2015)

                       Mark Burrell's 'Fishman' (Unfinished)

Books consulted

* The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art by Spike Bucklow
    Reaktion Books London 2014

* Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the life and Revelations of Julian of Norwich.  Veronica Mary Rolf  pub. Orbis Books New York 2013
- includes a highly informative  chapter on Medieval Norwich.

* The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1957 revised and expanded 1968) pub. Penguin 1974