The poetic veil: fables, philosophy and the shaping of the Renaissance

Dana Jalobeanu

(Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, Penguin Books, 1967)

Image result for wind pagan mysteries in the renaissanceImagine a course which combines, in an imaginative manner, philosophy, art history, literature and a lot of discussions about how to see and understand famous painting. Imagine looking at beautiful paintings — by Boticelli, Raphael and Pierro della Francesca – and learning how to look and what to search for in them.

Take, for example, Boticelli’s Primavera, one of the most celebrated paintings of all time. How shall we look at it? What is the relation between the various groups of figures represented in the painting? There are two “triads” represented on canvas: on the left, the three graces engaged in a seraphic dance. On the right hand side, another dynamic group of three figures: Zephyr, the nymph Chloris, and Flora, the goddess of the spring. In the center, still, quiet (and fully dressed) Venus, more like a “goddess of moderation,” than like the figure we all know (from other Renaissance’s paintings). Above all, Cupid, caught in flight, points his arrow to the dance of the graces. How are we to “read” this strikingly dynamic painting? What do we need to decipher the complex and eclectic mixture of symbols?


Edgar Wind’s Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance is one of the first books that offered promising answers to such questions… and much more. Written almost as a series of lectures (the book was, in fact, the result of a series of lectures which never took place, due to unforeseen circumstances), Pagan Mysteries… was published in 1958 and became somewhat of a bestseller. It had many successive reprints until late 1970s, including a cheap Penguin edition. It shaped the ways in which at least two generations looked at the Renaissance’s paintings.

And yet, Pagan Mysteries is nowadays an almost forgotten book; to all except some specialists in the fields of art history and intellectual history. Such are the powers of fashion in the world of ideas. And it is a pity, because Wind’s Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance was not written as a work for the specialist. It is intellectual history at its best: clear, articulated, cleverly written, constructed almost like a good novel, from chapters growing harmoniously from each other and combining persuasive argumentation and sharp questioning. The massive amount of erudition which allowed Edgar Wind to navigate from history of (ancient and Renaissance) philosophy to art history, from iconology to literature and back, is safely placed in the footnotes,  and can be treated as “further reading” once the reader is really hooked on the story.

Because the book has a story, and a spectacular one, none the less; it is the story of the formation and evolution of the cultural code which has shaped Renaissance art and has dramatically influenced the language of the Renaissance’s artist.

A bit of intellectual history

By formation and style, Wind belongs to a famous generation of philosophers and art historians; a generation with shared beliefs in the pre-eminence of the theory over practices (and the social context of a particular period). A generation keen to identify conceptual structures and conceptual framework beyond the messiness of historical events – in part, perhaps, in an attempt to rationalize and make order in their own troubled times. Born in 1900, Wind got a PhD in 1922 from the University of Hamburg. He was first and foremost a philosopher; he wrote on theoretical physics and the Kantian antinomies; on the moral philosophy underlying British portraiture in the eighteenth century, but also on iconography and iconology in the Renaissance. He worked with Aby Warburg, helped smuggling Warburg Library from Nazi Germany and became the first Deputy Director of the Warburg Institute, in London. He was also the first Chair of the History of Art at Oxford.

Iconology and fables

In many ways, Pagan mysteries reads almost like an application of Panowski’s iconology to the language of the Renaissance’s artist. Central to this “Renaissance language,” according to Wind, are the “mysteries”, i.e., a generic name designating items transmitted through stories, myths and fables from the ancients to the moderns. Wind reads what he calls the “Renaissance language” as a “philosophical adaptation” of this “language of mysteries” allegedly inherited from ancient authors but strongly adapted to fit the purposes of the humanist.

In many ways, it was a game. Wind shows how so many Renaissance humanists and philosophers loved to play with the “hidden meanings” of the language, and to attribute to it all sort of secrets hidden in the ancient writings. It was part of the style; Wind calls it “elliptic vulgarization;” a mark of many of the Renaissance philosophers, from Marsilio Ficino to Pico della Mirandola:

To Pico it would have seemed both frivolous and illogical to discuss mysteries in plain language. He knew the mysteries require an initiation: Hinc appelata mysteria: nec mysteria quae non oculta (Helptapus, proemium). But secrecy was not only part of their definition; it contributed also to the respect they inspired. The fact that these sublime revelations were not easily accessible seemed to heighten their authority. And yet, if their authority was to be felt, it was not sufficient to keep the mysteries hidden; they must also be known to exist. Hence Pico contrived, when he wrote about mysteries, a style of elliptical vulgarization which enabled him to hint at the secrets that he professed to withhold: si secretiorum aliquid mysteriorum fas est vel sub aenigmate in publicum poferre. The proper manner for an official mystagogue, he suggested, was to speak in riddles, in words that are “published and not published,” editos esse et non editos. (11)

The language of fables and mysteries was not merely about solving riddles, however. It had a powerful pedagogic and heuristic value. Using a powerful image borrowed from Egidio da Viterbo (who, in turns, was describing the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite), Wind describes it in terms of a “ray covered by poetic veils.” This, he claims, is the mode of expression at work behind most of the masterpieces of the Renaissance art.

[…] in great Renaissance works of art […] the splendor shines out through the disguise, and gives to the veil itself a peculiar beauty. […] It has been observed that in a great work of art the depth always comes to the surface, and that it is only because of their irresistible oratory that great works survive the capriciousness of time […] Our interest in Renaissance mysteries might indeed be slight, were it not for the splendor of their expression in Renaissance art. But the fact that seemingly remote ideas shine forth through a surface of unmistakable radiance is perhaps a sufficient reason for pursuing them into their hidden depth. For when ideas are so forcefully expressed in art, it is unlikely that their importance will be confined to art alone. (14)

What are all these ideas? Wind dives deep into the history of philosophy to unveil some of them. And the basic answer is: they originate in a form of Neoplatonism. However, we are talking about an eclectic, heavily adapted and often idiosyncratic form of Neoplatonism. A Neoplatonism filtered, first, through the agendas of the Renaissance philosophers, and then turned “popular” and accessible to the Renaissance artist. Not much philosophy was taken on board in this process of accretion and coagulation of images and ideas. Instead, the Renaissance preferred the “persuasive allegory.”

If allegory were only what is reputed to be – and artifice by which a set of ideas are attached, one by one, to a set of images – it would be difficult to account for its nefarious use. Since there is little demand for repeating the simple, and no advantage in doubling the complicated, an image designed to duplicate a thought should be either superfluous or distracting. But persuasive allegory does not duplicate. If a thought is intricate and difficult to follow, it needs to be fastened to a transparent image from which it may derive a borrowed simplicity. On the other hand, if an idea is plain there is an advantage in tracing it through a rich design which may help to disguise its bareness. Allegory is therefore a sophistic device, and it was used with cunning by Plato. It releases a counter play of imagination and thought by which each becomes an irritant to the other, and both may grow through the irksome contact. (26-7)

This is how Wind explains the migration of concepts, images and ideas outside of their original context and their accommodation on the fertile soil of Renaissance’s imagination. This is how some of the ancient figures and emblems – the three graces, Pan and Proteus, Prometheus, Diana, Acteon, Venus and Mars etc. – became preferred vehicles for all sorts of persuasive allegorizing; in Ficino’s theory of love, in Pico della Mirandola’s mystical theology, as well as in the other branches of Renaissance’s “sciences,” such astrology and natural magic.

According to Wind, the logic which guided the imagistic language of Renaissance (what Ioan Petru Culianu has called “the Renaissance’s sciences of the imaginary”) was the Neoplatonic dynamic of emanation-conversion-resuscitation expressed (or unveiled, or “explicated”) with the help of emblematic triads. This allows a variety of associations; thus, the emblem of the Three Graces can be used as a correspondent to the dynamic of virtues and pleasures, but can also be interpreted as an ‘unfoldment’ (explicatio) of the “hidden” aspects of the goddess Venus in accord to the limited powers of the human understanding.

Image result for Botticelli primaveraIn Botticelli’s La Primavera triads are everywhere: corresponding to the “dance” of the graces, the triad on the right hand side of the painting corresponds to the dramatic union of Zephyr and Chloris and the transformation of Chloris into Flora (the source here is a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Zephyr rapes Chloris who is transformed, as a result, in Flora)

In the guise of an Ovidian fable, the progression Zephyr-Chloris-Flora spells out the familiar dialectic of love: Pulchritudo arises from a Discordia concors between Castitas and Amor; the fleeing nymph and the amorous Zephyr unite in the beauty of Flora. (117)

But the two more “obvious” triads are doubled by another, less apparent one, present, nevertheless, in the background: it is a triad of Venus-Cupid and Mercury.  Or Venus-Zephyr and Mercury – in the extreme right, center and extreme left of the painting. According to Wind, we can “read” the painting as an allegory of the radical transformation of the human soul (according to the same Neoplatonic dynamic of emanation-conversion and resurrection):

Zephyr and Mercury represent two phases of one periodically recurring process. What descends to the earth as the breath of passion returns to heaven in the spirit of contemplation. Between these extremes unfold the triadic movements characteristic of the Theologia Platonica. Not only do the groups “driven” by Zephyr and “guided” by Mercury exhibit mutations of a triadic pattern, but the entire picture seems to spell out the three phases of the Neoplatonic dialectic: emanation-conversio-remeatio: that is, “procession” in the descent from Zephyr to Flora, “conversion” in the dance of the Graces, and “renascent” in the figure of Mercury. (Or, to put it in terms of Proclus’s “three causes”, by which Pico preferred to describe the cycle: causa efficiens, causa exemplaris, and causa finalis). Since an orientation towards the Beyond, from which all things flow and to which they all return, is the primary tenet of this philosophy, the composition and mood of the painting are pervaded by a sense of that invisible world towards which Mercury turns and from which Zephyr enters. (125-6)

Is Botticelli’s La Primavera a lesson in philosophy? Only to the extent to which art reflects the language, symbols and preoccupation of its own time (or, at least, the language and preoccupation of artists and their patrons). But these reflections are precious; and deciphering them is not merely the job of the historian. It is also the job of each of us, if we want to understand and enjoy Botticelli’s paintings… or the intricate and apparently convoluted prose of the Renaissance’s humanists, for that matter. Because in the same way in which Botticelli captures on his canvas some of the language of emblems and fables so characteristic of his times, the writings of Ficino and Pico are witnessing the philosophers’ use, codification and attempts to understand the same language. Much of the Renaissance’s philosophy is heavily marked by this “logic” of manipulating images; by rules of “explication” and “complication” governing Renaissance’s hieroglyphs as well as mythologies. This is what makes it opaque for the present-day reader. And this is why a book like Pagan mysteries of the Renaissance is so enlightening, even more than half a century later… or, perhaps, even more today?

Lessons for the historian?

Wind’s book ends on a very philosophical, self-reflexive note, with a discussion on the role of the commonplace and the exceptional in history. Wind claims that one can get to the commonplace by `reducing` the exceptional (but not vice-versa) in the same way one can get to the Euclidean space by reducing the curvature to 0:

[…] it seems to be a lesson of history that the commonplace may be understood as a reduction of the exceptional, but that the exceptional cannot be understood by amplifying the commonplace. Both logically and causally the exceptional is crucial, because it introduces (however strange it may sound) the more comprehensive category. That this relation is irreversible should be an axiom in any study of art. In the present case it is offered as an apology for a book devoted to a manifest eccentricity. (238)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s