Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 12 -Renaissance Artists

The third category, people who explored the potential for Aristotle’s truth without giving defiant allegiance, includes people like Durer who studied Ancient Greeks with the desire to apply their theories in practical means. His desire to explore mystical symbolism was quite overt, as already mentioned in reference to Melancholia. His representation of Biblical scenes has had profound influence on how the symbolism is interpreted (I touch upon this in Did the Whitehorseman Have a Bow, Bow, or Bow?) Durer is also an often unrecognised pioneer of contemporary iconography, with achievements including the designing of the Times New Roman font which he based upon the mathematical principles of balance and beauty as prescribed by Elucid.

Da Vinci was also driven by a desire to process and conceptualise ancient wisdom, as evidenced in the many sketchbooks he left behind. Further, in his final years, Da Vinci spent hours conversing with the King of France sharing his life time of insights. Michaelangelo also appears to have explored occult wisdom; a small indication of this comes from an entry in one of Da Vinci’s sketchbooks that records a clash the two artists had over how one should interpret Dante’s poetry. In his artworks, Michaelangelo is also reported to have subtly challenged the Church’s refusal to accept scientific knowledge by hiding images of the human brain in some of his works on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, such as Separation of Light from Darkness and The Creation of Adam. Another artist known to be familiar with ancient philosophy, is Raphael, who immortalised the atmosphere of the Renaissance era’s preoccupation with with Ancient Greek in his painting the School of Athens which was commissioned by the Vatican.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11

Source: Wikipedia

In addition to deliberately incorporating “hidden” messages into paintings, some artists simply appropriated ancient themes. For example, in Tintoretto’s Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne, we see the depiction of of Ariadne blessing a marriage between Venus and Bacchus.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne, 1576-7

Source: Wikipedia

From a contemporary viewpoint, we may believe that Tintoretto was trying to portray an authentic rendition of the ancient stories (note: the Roman’s appropriated Greek stories left, right, and centre – the number of authentic Roman stories is minute once copies of Greek stories that had the character’s names changed to Roman deities have been accounted for). However, when it is understood that Renaissance artists were sometimes simply drawing upon ancient stories for inspiration, not imitation, the significance of storylines alters.

I suspect, Tintoretto did not always give a hoot about the theological significance of ancient symbols. Rather, he was a contemporary man of his era who worked with colloquial interpretations of symbols. In Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne, it can be speculated that the average Venetian knew that Bacchus was the God of wine (Dionysus in Greek) and Venus was the Goddess of beauty (Aphrodite in Greek; Plato tells us there are two Aphrodites but that’s besides the point at the moment; see Psychoanalysis and Castration for tongue in cheek interpretation of Venus’ birth). However, the average Venetian did not necessarily understand that Bacchus/Dionysus and Venus/Aphrodite were personifications of spiritual concepts (see The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts). Rather, Tintoretto, and his contemporaries, potentially had a very shallow understanding of these deities. As such, in an almost mocking fashion, the Gods and Goddesses were appropriated to suit their own culture; Venus symbolised the beautiful Venetian waters and Bacchus symbolised the Venetian culture of festivity – the their annual masquerade carnivals included a lot of drinking! In other words, the painting is a cartuniture, albeit executed with refined artistic skill to create the illusion of perspective and reality.

Tintoretto’s approach to artistic subjects matters, exemplifies human qualities of humour, irony, and repurposing symbols. To appreciate art, one needs more than a serious stiff upper lip.

Psychoanalysts might view paintings like Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne as being representative of so-called universal symbolism that reoccur across time and cultures. Conversely, an occultist might view the representations of deities as being some sort of “proof” of their enduring significance. However, such mindsets do not capture the creative impulse of appropriation, irony, and playfulness. Two quotes from Picasso aptly wrap up the situation. Firstly, Picasso said “Art lies then tries to convince you its telling the truth”, and “Bad artists imitate, the great artists steal”. Thanks Banksy! 

Source: Quote Master

As a final point for consideration on the topic of artists not always creating images with a complete seriousness, Raphael is championed with having painted the face of Heraclitus (centre, foreground figure writing on a piece of paper) to be a likeness to Michaelangelo in The School of Athens. Artists of refined skill and intellectual temperaments can be very witty and sometimes insert secretive elements into their compositions just because they can.


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