FROM THOTH TO BOTTICELLI
(Hermeticism and Talismanic Art)
Beauty is a gateway to the Divine
By Christopher Morford
You find yourself in an orange grove; all around you nature is in bloom. Spring is upon the land. A westerly wind blows through the grove and shows itself as Zephyrus. He is chasing a maiden, a nymph named Chloris. It seems she wants to cry out but she has no voice as a vine and foliage issue from her lips. In time he will marry her and transform her into the deity Flora, the goddess of Spring. Her future self stands before her, scattering flowers on the forest floor. Above you, cupid strains his bow and fixes an arrow upon one of the three graces dancing below. To their left, Mercury lifts his caduceus to dispel the clouds and better receive the messages from the Gods above.
As miraculous as these visions are, another stands alone and commands your attention. She poses gently in the center within an arch of branches and foliage. She tilts her head slightly. She is asking you a question, she expects your judgment of her beauty. Like the Trojan boy Paris before, you must affirm what the Gods and mortals (And the lady herself) already know; that the pinnacle of immortal beauty could only belong to Venus, the Goddess of love. She has entranced and beguiled you. You are no longer in the world you once knew, you are in the garden of the gods. Stare a bit longer and the spell will be complete. Make no mistake, this is not a painting, it is a rendering of magic, a talisman imbued with immense power by a master of the Hermetic tradition. This is not a rendering of a goddess, it is a gateway through which her enchantments enter the physical world.
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi 1445-1510) painted this scene “Primavera” (Spring) in the late 1400’s. Because it was created for a patron to be hung in their private residence, little was known about it. It remains one of Botticelli’s most mysterious paintings. That the artist was a master there is no dispute. There is doubt however concerning the extent of his knowledge concerning mythology, philosophy, esoteric symbolism and astrology. Many believe his education and upbringing would not have exposed him to such a level of understanding and that an unseen hand was guiding the underlying motifs of his most famous masterpieces.
Many details have come to light through the ages, thanks in large part to the efforts of Aby Warburg (1866-1929), scion of the Warburg banking dynasty. As a young man, Aby wanted little to do with the family business. He made a deal with his brothers; they could have his share of the family business, all they had to do was allow him to buy any and all of the books he could ever want. It sounded like a good deal for the brothers, but several hundred thousand rare editions and millions of dollars later, they likely regretted the agreement. Eventually the Warburg Institute was set up to house the massive library and his collection is now available to the public in London.
Aby spent his life uncovering and following the esoteric and occult threads that weaved their way through the masterpieces of the art world. The Florentine artists especially captivated him and Botticelli was a favorite. A theory put forth by Warburg and E.H. Grombrich is that Primavera was painted for a young member of the powerful House of Medici named Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici. An inventory of Lorenzo’s palace was discovered and the painting was listed among his other possessions.
The Medici family gained immense power and wealth through their banking institutions. From their ranks came no less than four Popes. They financed St. Peter’s Basilica and were patrons to such visionaries as DaVinci, Michelangelo and Galileo. In fact, they housed and protected Galileo as the charges of heresy were leveled against him by the church for his Heliocentric model of the solar system.
Lorenzo was of the Popolani branch of the Medici family, less powerful and often at odds with other members of the family. However, when his Father died, Lorenzo was handed over to his older cousin, also named Lorenzo (Il Magnifico), the presumed ruler of Florence. For a tutor, the young Lorenzo was paired with Marsilio Ficino. Ficino was a Catholic priest. It seems, however, that this was for appearances only as he was also surely an astrologer, a neoplatonist and hermeticist. In fact he revived neoplatonism when he set about translating the Corpus Hermeticum, the collected teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, Thrice Greatest Hermes, known in the Egyptian tradition as Thoth, the scribe of the Gods.
Cosimo De Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent’s Grandfather) had sent agents throughout Europe to seek out the most ancient and secret teachings of the past from the forgotten libraries of the old monasteries. In 1460 a monk returned with a Greek codex purported to be the collected wisdom of Hermes/Thoth, the Ibis-Headed scribe of the gods, the protector of wisdom whose teachings, it was said, formed the foundation upon which the philosophy of the likes of Plato and the verses of the Torah were founded. Marsilio Ficino had been busy translating the works of Plato when the codex arrived. Cosimo immediately instructed Ficino to drop everything and begin work on the Hermetica.
In 1614, discoveries were made that led some to believe the Hermetica were modern (For the time) fakes. Interest in the Hermetica waned among the public, though the teachings were preserved by the Freemasons and Rosicrucians. In 1945, a cache of Hermetic texts were discovered in a cave near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Better copies of the texts Cosimo had been given were found and thus proved that the texts were likely from the first to third century A.D., and they were likely a means of preserving a far more ancient oral tradition.
Regarding the other works collected by the Medici family, they eventually needed a home of their own. Over 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 extremely rare books can be found in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, an awe-inspiring institution designed by none other than Michelangelo around 1523.
It is generally agreed that the Medici family and those under their patronage were deeply immersed in esotericism and occultism. Despite their power and wealth, they still needed to avoid disturbing the Holy See and crossing the line into heresy.
Still, they wished to awaken the old gods and goddesses and bring the ancient mysteries back to life. One way to do this was to create images of the gods, and not just to create them, but to endow them with the most life-like attributes and stay true to their mythology. In addition to realism, they should be created at the most auspicious time, using the most suitable materials charged with the energies of the gods themselves through magical ritual.
“To Filipino, it was an established fact that the attributes and appearances of the gods revealed their real essence. It was as important to establish the authentic image of a god or a planet as to find its ‘true name’. In both was hidden, for those who could read the esoteric language of ancient wisdom, the secret of their being”. – Botticelli’s Mythologies, E.H. Grombrich.
The discovery and translation of the Hermeticum profoundly influenced the Medici’s and their inner circle, and by extension, those for whom they were patrons, namely, some of the most famous names in art history.
“The Hermeticum influenced great names like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Raphael, who began painting pictures of the ancient pagan gods. Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’ for example, was painted at a precise astrological moment as a ‘talisman of occult radiance’, capable of magically transporting the viewer to an altered state of spiritual awareness.” – Introduction to the Corpus Hermeticum.
One particular concept that would have landed the Medici family in hot water was the concept of the Goddess of many faces. It was said that the Egyptian goddess Isis was the mother of all goddesses, that all of the others were simply inferior aspects of the original Queen of Heaven, including the Mother of Jesus, Mary. This is perhaps the secret hidden within the Primavera scene. This idea is reinforced by a story that was very popular with the Neoplatonists of the time, “The Metamorphoses of Apuleius” also called “The Golden Ass” by St. Augustine.
“The protagonist of the novel is called Lucius. At the end of the novel, he is revealed to be from Madaurus, the hometown of Apuleius himself. The plot revolves around the protagonist’s curiosity (curiositas) and insatiable desire to see and practice magic. While trying to perform a spell to transform into a bird, he is accidentally transformed into an ass. This leads to a long journey, literal and metaphorical, filled with inset. He finally finds salvation through the intervention of the goddess Isis, whose cult he joins.” – The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, Wikipedia entry.
From the Golden Ass:
Isis rises from the sea and proclaims: “I am the mother of nature, the mistress of the elements, whose divinity is worshipped by all the world in many forms and various rites. The Phrygians, who are the first of men, call me the Mother of gods of Pessinus, the earth-born Athenians call me the Cecrupian Minerva, the sea-girt Cyprians, the Paphian Venus.”
Isis is Venus, is Minerva, is Mary (La Mer…Queen of the Sea).
Let’s take another look at Venus in the center of “Primavera”.
Notice the familiar head-tilt often present in images of Mary. Note also the archway behind the figure of Venus. It is meant to mimic the Mandorla, or all-encompassing halo surrounding the virgin, also known as the Vessica Pisces.
The placement of the hands of Venus are also reminiscent of another painting by Botticelli, “The Annunciation”, where the angel Gabriel informs Mary that she has been chosen to carry the seed of the lord.
Not to be crude, but the outline of the Owl of Minerva also seems to have been located strategically within the figure of Venus. Readers here may be familiar with the same nocturnal bird of Gnosis laid over the U.S. Capitol building in D.C. and at the center of the logo for the Bohemian Club.
Above: Minerva/Athena, the Golden Helmeted Spear-Shaker.
(Note: Golden Helmet = Gildhelm (Germanic for Gilded Helmet). The name William evolved from Gildhelm. And so we have William Shakespeare. Minerva/Athena was the muse who appeared to Sir Francis Bacon in a vision, after which he founded the secret society, the “Knights of the Helmet”. Bacon is often reported to have been the unseen hand guiding the writings of Shakespeare, if not Shakespeare himself.)
The archway behind Venus resembles either the wings of the Owl, or Isis in her winged form, or both.
Composite interpretations of the Goddess were common in ancient Greece and Rome. Here is one such example: Isis-Aphrodite from the 2nd century AD.
Atop her head is a Calathos or Kalathos, the crown of Egyptian Greco-Roman divinities. It looks very similar to the tree to left of Venus in this scene from the “Roman de la Rose”. A medieval French poem written by Guillaume de Lorris in 1230. It is an esoteric romance which seems to show some early groundwork for Rosicrucianism. In this scene, Venus as an archer (She was mother to cupid after all) sends a fiery arrow to burn down a citadel and free the “Rose” trapped within.
That Botticelli’s art was created to coincide with the favorable astrological aspects of the subjects of the paintings in order to imbue or charge the work with their essence seems more than plausible once the strong esoteric beliefs of his patrons are called into account. In the case of Lorenzo de Pierfrancesco de Medici, he made no bones about his occult affinities, going so far as to have a memorial coin struck in his honor with the obverse featuring that eternal serpent and icon of the mysteries, the ouroboros.
Let’s visit another of Botticelli’s famed works, entitled “Venus and Mars”. We can see that Venus, the goddess of love, or her planet, has calmed and quelled the fierce and mighty war-god Mars. Venus the planet was likely in a favorable astrological position in regards to the position of Mars in the heavens. Satyrs relieve the slumbering warrior of his lance and helmet. This is another work commissioned by the Medici family. Perhaps a talisman for calming the tides of marital strife, it was presented as a wedding present.
Once again, if we search the writings of Ficino, we can see where the Astrologer/Hermeticist guided Botticelli’s hand.
“Mars is outstanding in strength among the planets because he makes men stronger, but Venus masters him…Venus, when in conjunction with Mars, in opposition to him, or watching from sextile or trine aspect, as we say, often checks his malignance. She seems to master and appease Mars, but Mars never masters Venus.” – Ficino, Commentary on the Symposium, Vth Speech.
It has been well-established that one of the preferred modes of transmission of esoteric and occult teachings by the mystery schools is through the various art-forms. Those rare individuals who display an intimate connection with the divine, the artistic geniuses of the highest order are often used as a means to disperse these various philosophies, intended perhaps to quietly ignite a desire in the individual to seek out the hidden things, to journey into the gnosis, to raise the consciousness of all humanity.
From the research I have seen I am convinced, for instance, that Francis Bacon and his circle of Rosicrucians were the true authors of the works of Shakespeare. Similarly, I do not believe that the Freemasons murdered Mozart for revealing secrets of the craft in “The Magic Flute”. I believe quite the opposite. That opera contains many streams of esoteric thought, not masonry alone. I believe the work was fully supported by his lodge and that Mozart had many willing brethren contributing to the symbolic themes presented within it, likewise with the works of Botticelli and Michelangelo and others.
Although Botticelli and other “Masters” of his time such as DaVinci and Michelangelo were obviously capable of creating transcendent scenes that had the power to leave the viewer spellbound, I believe there is something more to them than canvas and paint. There was certainly a magical ingredient, a carefully wrought method of esoteric ritual, planetary and godly essences captured and sealed within a frame. I think it is this underlying light, a subtle life-force that the viewer feels but cannot quite discern, the emanations of the true nature of the deities shining through the veil.
Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”.