Thursday, May 05, 2016

Purple Rain

On Saturday 16th October 1646, purple rain fell upon the city of Brussels. It flowed through the city's rivers and canals to the astonishment of its citizens, many of whom imagined it to be blood or wine and a God-given judgement upon Brussels. At a nearby monastery monks collected a sample in a barrel. [1]

The scientist Godfroy Wendelin (1580-1667) visited Brussels in order to investigate the event. Wendelin was recognised internationally as an astronomer and in his lifetime he corresponded with leading European scientists, including Mersenne, Gassendi and Huygens.

Wendelin's treatise 'On the Cause of Purple Rain in Brussels' (De Causa Pluvia Purpurea Bruxellensis) contained findings which tried to explain the phenomenon of purple rain in terms of natural causes such as chemistry rather than theological, and as such his book is important in the history of science. In addition, the treatise contained discussions of other astronomical issues, including a defence of the theories of Copernicus. A crater on the moon is named after Wendelin.

Wendelin's treatise of scientific journalism, listed as once in Sir Thomas Browne's library, is testimony to both how the Norwich-based scientist kept well-informed upon contemporary scientific discoveries throughout Europe, and how he was fascinated by anything of an unusual nature. Browne's edition of Wendelin's 'On the cause of purple rain in Brussels' [2] was in all probability swiftly purchased upon its first publication in 1647 by the Norwich early scientist. It became available translated from Latin to English, several years later, in 1655.

Browne himself has a place in the history of British meteorology. In 1667 he wrote upon a dark thick mist which affected East Anglia and Holland for several days. His miscellaneous writings also include an account of a violent thunderstorm in Norfolk which produced fire-balls. Browne's own major work of scientific journalism Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) was translated into several European languages and reprinted no less than five times with amendments in its author's life-time. 

Several centuries after the event of purple rain falling upon Brussels, the American singer/songwriter Prince (1958- April 21st 2016) had a big hit in 1984 with a song entitled 'Purple Rain'. Whether Prince ever heard of the meteorological event of 17th century Brussels, its not known and sadly, with his premature death, may now never be known; it is however, a curious coincidence of  recorded event and  lyric imagery !


[1] Renaissance Meteorology : Pomponazzi to Descartes
Craig Martin 2112 Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore

[2] 1711 Sales auction catalogue edited J.S. .Finch pub. Brill Leiden 1986
Entry - De Causia Pluviae purpurea Bruxellinis  - Brux. 1647
page 26. no. 140

See Also

Sir Thomas Browne: Miscellaneous writings

Account of a thunderstorm               Upon the dark, thick, mist

Friday, March 18, 2016

Thomas Rawlins

Among the many unsung treasures in Norwich's three dozen medieval churches there are an extraordinary variety of well-executed and beautiful funerary monuments. These include the seventeenth century monument to Christopher Layer at Saint John the Baptist. Maddermarket, and those to Sir John Suckling and Robert Suckling at Saint Andrew's. A number of splendid eighteenth century funerary monuments, in particular those by the sculptor Thomas Rawlins (1727-1789) can also be seen in Norwich's medieval churches.

Thomas Rawlins died on March 18th 1789, 227 years ago today. Although from a humble background as the son of a weaver, he was trained by a London sculptor, speculated to have been Sir Henry Cheere. In 1753  Rawlins advertised himself as a carver and mason of monuments and chimney pieces, both ancient and modern. He worked as a monument mason at a yard on Duke Street in Norwich and had a relatively long career, active from circa 1743-81. Rawlins specialised in coloured marble and was a leading member of 18th century 'Norwich school' of stonemasons.

Ranking high as a sculptor in the view of  the art historian Nicholas Pevsner, Rawlins, like other English funerary masons, followed artistic trends which originated from the work-yards of London stonemasons and sculptors. Following in the foot-steps of London trends, a stylistic change in Rawlins sculpture can be seen, from a late Baroque Rococo to Neoclassical in style. This significant stylistic change is well-illustrated by two funerary monuments at St Andrew's church; the first to John Custance (circa 1756) is intricately decorated, with sweeping and detailed flourishes, in complete contrast, the monument for Richard Dennison (circa 1767) is uncluttered and opts for linear simplicity in geometric forms, including oval and circular arches.

This transition of artistic styles from that of late baroque to Neo-classical, occurs sociologically, from the rule of the ancien regime to the various movements which advocated and even installed Democratic rule; its a radical transition which can even be expressed in terms akin to keyboard instruments with the dominance of music written for the harpsichord giving way to the new voice of the pianoforte during approximately 1730-1770 .

In addition to specialising in coloured marbles, Rawlins seems to have had a predilection, held in common with his patrons, for putti, some of which are colossal in dimension, at least three times the size of any normal-sized baby. Rawlin's monuments for Hambleton Custance at St. Andrew's (left) and for Timothy Balderstone at St. George's (right) are both over 5 metres height in total. 

Later monuments by Rawlins, such as the one for Robert Rushbrook (1705-81) in the church of Saint John the Baptist at Maddermarket, (detail top of post) are considered to display a great awareness of neo-classical motifs. However, its his monument for Sir Thomas Churchman at St. Giles which is considered to be exemplary of his finest work. The monument features a sarcophagus, upon which are carved in bas-relief, allegorical figures representing Vanity, Time and Judgement, with a structurally incomplete Egyptian pyramid in background.

Rawlins also practised as an architect. His designs, like those of his contemporary Thomas Ivory, the architect of the Octagon Chapel (1756) of Norwich, were Neo-Palladian in style. In 1768 he published his, Familiar Architecture: or Original Designs of Houses for Gentlemen and Tradesmen; Parsonages; Summer Retreats; Banqueting-Rooms; and Churches. subsequently reprinted in 1789 and 1795. Remarkably, Rawlin's book remains in print today.

Rawlins' reinforcement with ironwork of the south aisle of the church os Saint John the Baptist at Maddermarket, in 1772, became the subject of satirical verse, in what was the first English provincial newspaper, the Norwich Mercury.

Curiously, a stone inlay in the floor of the aforementioned church describes him simply as an architect; however, Rawlin's legacy can be seen in various Norwich churches today, in particular at Saint Andrew's, where no less than three of his funerary monuments can be viewed.

This post is developed from an earlier Wikipedia contribution.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mozart: The three last Symphonies

No-one really knows the full motivation or reason why Mozart composed what were to be his last three symphonies, or whether he heard any of them performed. What is certain is that in his last three symphonies, Mozart expanded the canvas of the relatively new genre of the symphony in both duration and emotional scope, establishing the composer's right to express personal feelings, thus paving the way for the Romantic symphony of the nineteenth century.

There’s a tendency which has developed over the centuries, to mythologise Mozart as a near Christ-like figure. His being misunderstood by society, the poverty of his last years, and early death at an age close to Christ's, along with music sounding as if from another-world, heavenly or trance-like, which is heard occasionally in his music, are factors also contributing towards a ‘deification’; Mozart however, was an all-too-human figure, he possessed what would  today be considered a coarse, and even scatological sense of humour; he enjoyed playing billiards, skittles, dancing and drinking, and at one time or another he kept as pets, a canary, a starling and a dog, along with a horse for recreational riding. It is now considered likely that Mozart's unique experience of travelling and touring extensively throughout Europe as a child and teenager, enduring the rigours and inconveniences of travel, along with exposure to various viruses and illnesses so prevalent throughout 18th century Europe, may have contributed to his early death.

Mozart’s surviving correspondence reveals an engaging personality. There is however, a huge difference in his view of life in the ten year period spanning the years from 1778 to 1788. In a letter to his cousin dated 1778 when aged 21 he humorously signs off  a letter to his cousin thus-

Adieu little coz. I am, I was, I should be, I have been, I had been, oh, if I only were, oh, that I were, would God I were; I could be, I shall be, if I were to be, oh, that I might be, I would have been, oh, that I had been, would God I had been - what? A dried cod ! Adieu ma chere Cousine, whither away ? I am your faithful cousin,
Wolfgang Amade Mozart
Mannheim, 28th February, 1778

In stark contrast, ten years later, aged 31, in one of a series of desperate begging letters to fellow Mason, Michael Puchberg, Mozart wrote-

I am obliged to tell you frankly that I cannot possibly pay back so soon the sum you lent me......My circumstances are such that I must absolutely get money... I am sorry enough to be in this situation, but that is the very reason why I want a fairly substantial sum for a fairly lengthy period, as I can then prevent its recurrence......I have done more work in ten days than in two months at any other lodgings, and were I not visited so frequently by black thoughts (which I must forcibly banish) .......  27th June, 1788

Mozart’s last three symphonies were written in a seven week period of white-heat creativity during the summer of 1788, after he and his family moved out of central Vienna to the suburb of Alsergrund. They've been described by musicologist Ralph Hill thus -

The first is, we may say, lyrical, the second dramatic, the third ceremonial. But they vary not only in character: they do so also in mood. The first has a kind of autumnal but not melancholy mellowness; the second is tragic and idyllic by turns, and somehow the latter atmosphere poignantly intensifies the former; the third utters festive sounds but at the same time gives evidence of an intense concentration of thought, the kind of foresight and hindsight that distinguishes a great mathematician or chess player.

Symphony no. 39 in E flat major (K.543) was added to Mozart’s personal catalogue, on June 26th 1788. Its solemn adagio opening movement has been likened to music accompanying a Masonic ceremony. According to Ralph Hill, ‘one secret of Mozart’s greatness... is his ability to accommodate a great many emotional or dramatic contrasts within a single tempo.’

The finale of the 39th symphony is rhythmically vigorous and startling in its sudden changes of key.

Mozart’s 40th symphony in g minor  (K. 550) was completed according to the composer’s personal catalogue on July 25th 1788. Its opening movement is probably the most well-known of all Mozart’s symphonies, partly from a kitsch pop arrangement made by Waldo de los Rios in 1971. But in fact, an uneasy calm pervades the  g minor symphony. An attentive hearing reveals there's scarcely a happy moment in any of its four movements. An under-current of quiet desperation, resignation, anxiety and even despair pervades it, making it fitting mood music for our own age.

Often named the Great g minor symphony in order to distinguish it from an earlier g minor symphony composed some fifteen years earlier in 1773 (K. 183) when Mozart was just 17 years old, the so-called, "little g minor" symphony, uniquely scored for four horns, is also full of tension and syncopated rhythms. It was influenced by the proto-Romantic German literary and music movement of Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) in which individual subjectivity and extremes of emotion are given free expression.

Mozart's 40th symphony in g minor, in contrast to his more conventional and cheerful music, packs a powerful emotional punch. Its minuet contains barely suppressed anger against the pomposity of the upper-classes to whom he was obliged to serve for much of his life. Here, the aristocracy appear full of self-importance as they approach the dance-floor when the invitation to the dance is announced.

Mozart’s 41st symphony (K 551) bears the nickname of The Jupiter, and is the most jovial and light-hearted of all three symphonies. An air of comic opera pervades its opening movement, while its technically brilliant final movement is described by Ralph Hill thus-

‘the ear catches everything going, so lucid and well-aired is the score, and it all flows by in a stream of beautiful music that will satisfy even those who have no notion of the incredible skill that went into its making...the attentive listener will come combining in canon with themselves or fitting against their own inversions, entries overlapping closely in fourfold imitation..Mozart’s perfect sense of proportion and timing knows exactly when to cease showing off those dizzy contrapuntal feats, and not the least wonderful proportions of this movement are those where the music suddenly smooths itself out into a plain statement, as if nothing out of the way had happened at all.’

The Jupiter's gorgeous andante is a quintessential example of Mozartean serenity.

Discussion of key signatures in Mozart’s music, along with his artistic relationship to keys, has been a perennial debate amongst musicologists. According to Wolfgang Hildesheimer for example -

If we hear Mozart’s keys as conscious choices, not as the spontaneous expression of the composer’s momentary frame of mind, we by no means imply that we are not also experiencing the minor keys as “gloomy”, or “tragic,” or sometimes even “despairing.” Our feeling is not limited to the minor itself, but overflows and spreads, often intensified, into a major key within the minor, especially E-flat major within G minor.

Yet Hildesheimer also concedes, 'Mozart's musical thinking eludes us. He puzzles us most in those places where the music is serious, even when the material would not seem to warrant it.'

It was in 2009 while in Amsterdam that the Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 - March 6th 2016) announced - "I have just discovered that the last three Mozart symphonies are an instrumental oratorio." Harnoncourt reasoned that because the 39th Symphony is the only one with a slow introduction, the 40th opens gently, while the 41st symphony is the only one with a full-blown finale, and that because thematic connections can be detected across all three symphonies, Mozart’s last three symphonies are in fact an inter-related triptych. Although Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s proposal that all three symphonies are a related and inter-connected triptych is without precedent, there's nonetheless also a possibility that Mozart may have taken as a model for his triptych, an example from the symphonies of the so-called 'Father of the symphony’, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).

It was Haydn's good fortune to be invited in 1761 as Vice-Kappelmeister and placed in charge of most of the Esterházy musical establishment at Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt, and later on at Esterháza, a grand new palace built in the Hungarian marshes. At the very beginning of his residency at Esterhaza Joseph Haydn wrote three symphonies, numbered as 6, 7 and 8, which soon acquired the nicknames of 'Le Matin’, ‘Le Midi’ and 'Le Soir’ because they were considered to depict the progression of a day.

There's a possibility that these three early Haydn symphonies were known to Mozart. We will never know for certain whether or not this is true: but given the fact that the two composers, who became close friends, had a mutual respect, influenced each other and studied each other's compositions carefully, its just possible that these three early Haydn symphonies may have known of, or at least heard of through Haydn himself recollecting the beginning of his long service to the Esterhazy court to Mozart.

One can only speculate as to what was the inspiration for Mozart's much larger in scope, emotionally contrasted, and enigmatic symphonic triptych of 1788.

Favourite Books

Mozart : His character, his work  Alfred Einstein 1946
The Grove Mozart : Stanley Sadie 1980
Mozart : Wolfgang Hildesheimer  1977
Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ed. Hans Mersmann 1972

Also consulted-

The Symphony Ralph Hill Pelican London 1949

Favourite Recordings

Jeffrey Tate - ENO
Carlo Maria Giulini - New Philharmonic Orchestra 1965
John Eliot Gardiner -  English Baroque Soloists

See also - Mozart in Paris

Symphonies of Joseph Haydn

In Memorium Francis Michael Faulkner (1936-1996)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Rodulfo's Mandala of Loving-Kindness

Peter Rodulfo is a prolific and visionary British artist. A casual familiarity with his prodigious output soon reveals a wide variety of subject-matter and thematic concerns, often expressed through a flexibility of  style and techniques. 

The diversity of Rodulfo’s artistic output includes portraiture, not only of people, but also of real and imagined creatures, along with fantasy and recollected landscapes; these are juxtaposed, sometimes within a metaphysical frame-work, using a multi-layered perspective. His art also frequently involves humour in setting and imagery; these diverse and wide-ranging artistic themes and concerns merge and unify in Rodulfo's art, often within a single canvas. 

Rodulfo’s art may with some justification be defined as Neo-Mannerist, for like Renaissance Mannerism, his art often involves movement, a manipulation of space through elongated axes prolonging space, a vibrant and emotional immediacy of colour, and a metaphysical or spiritual intensity, which in Rodulfo’s case, has its roots in a secular New Age or counter-culture world-view. 

In contrast to his often crowded and hectic, multi-layered in perspective art, there are also calmer and reflective art-works by Rodulfo. In his Mandala of Loving-Kindness (2012-2015) a simple message is effectively expressed, none other than loving-kindness towards each other, the animal kingdom and organic life on earth in general. Just as Mannerist art was a product of Renaissance humanism, and therefore inclined towards emphasis of the relationship between humanity and nature - so too Neo-Mannerist art such as Rodulfo's, expresses the same message.

A Mandala (Sanskrit for a circle) is usually an art-work originating from Eastern religions of geometric form which invites contemplation. The most common mandala in Western art is the tetramorph which consists of four symbols to represent the four Gospel Evangelists. The Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung is credited with re-introducing the form of the mandala to the Western world. He discusse how mandalas encourage and assist awareness, adaptation and integration of the individual's place in the world. Rodulfo's quadriptych Mandala of Loving-Kindness perfectly fits this description. 

It should not really be necessary to even begin defining what loving-kindness is. Far from being either an abstract or esoteric concept, loving-kindness is the very foundation which will ensure humanity's survival and well-being, or alternatively, its scarcity result in humanity’s extinction. Yet, we live in an age where the challenge as to how humanity can live in peace and harmony, sharing the world’s quite finite resources, vital for sustaining human life, and without resorting to war, threatens human existence. Understanding, and more importantly, practising loving-kindness is an imperative. Its worthwhile therefore reminding ourselves of the wide-ranging meanings of the much abused word, namely, Love.

The Ancient Greeks had four distinct words for love: agápe, éros, philía, and storgē which roughly approximate as affection, friendship, eros, and charity. In both Christianity and Buddhism there are no less than four differing qualities to love,  Buddha himself stating,

As Brahma is the source of Love, to dwell with him you must practice the Brahmaviharas - love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.” 

God's Lovingkindness is frequently alluded to in the Book of Psalms, while in the esoteric discipline of the Judaic Kabbalah, one of the ten attributes of God, known as the Sephiroth is named Chesed, the Hebrew word for Loving-Kindness. A celebrated expression in Christianity on love occurs in Saint Paul’s words-

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

However, we live in an era where spirituality is under-valued and even denigrated, and in which materialism and economics dominates and colours the lives of many living under Government’s who wilfully encourage economic competition above common humanity - thus promoting rivalry and inevitably rudeness, hostility, intolerance and inconsideration toward others, (all of which are the antithesis of loving-kindness).

Nevertheless its worthwhile reminding ourselves of how loving-kindness can be lived - as a conscious awareness of consideration towards everyone encountered in daily life as an equal, and worthy of respect and courtesy, nor exempt from random or spontaneous acts of love and kindness. 

It should be noted that Rodulfo’s quadriptych imitates the template of most quaternities - as a 3+1 composition consisting of 3 completely unconscious archetypal images created without conscious reference, or influence of astrology and its symbolism - Rodulfo having no particular interest in astrology whatsoever; it was only when the artist's attention was drawn to the fact that three of his paintings displayed possible astrological and elemental symbolism, and only then, three years later, that he consciously painted the fourth and final quarter of his mandala, entitled Befriending a Bull (2015) purely in order to complete his first quadriptych.

Because the artistic imagination often roams and delves into the depths of the collective unconscious, where archetypal symbolism slumbers, its possible to attribute symbolism associated with the four elements (Earth, Air, Water and Fire) as well as quite distinct attributes of the so-called ‘Fixed Cross’ of astrology, (Leo, Aquarius, Scorpio and Taurus) to  the imagery of Rodulfo’s quadriptych. 

Rodulfo’s Mandala of Loving-Kindness can be grouped into two related pairs. The first pair of bull and lion, can easily be equated to the zodiac signs of Leo and Taurus. Less obvious, Girl with Watering-can, may be interpreted as alluding to the water-bearing zodiac sign of Aquarius, while the ‘lost civilization’ fantasy involving a dragon-fly zooming towards the viewer, can be connected to a predatory insect not dissimilar, the scorpion. There's also a neat juxtaposition of the existential flux between solitude and loving relationship between this pair of paintings. Finally, its worth noting that the design of Rodulfo's quadriptych mirrors the same template of the funerary sculpture of the Layer monument (c. 1600) as an alchemical mandala, having the symbolism of the elements Fire and Water (Leo and Scorpio) above those of  Earth and Air (Taurus and Aquarius) below. 

Leaving aside esoteric concepts, it is worthwhile contemplating the merits of each segment of Rodulfo’s Mandala of Loving-Kindness individually as intended, as paintings.

   Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us

In what is the warmest in emotional feeling of all four paintings collectively, a young girl is carried upon the shoulders of a lion who possesses an appearance perhaps similar to the lion Aslam in C.S. Lewis's Narnia.  

The lion's matted and shaggy fur, along with a radiant sun are skilfully delineated. Both lion and girl embrace and gaze towards the viewer in a loving manner. The gentleness of the lion is here emphasised by a butterfly resting upon his knee.

To repeat, although in all probability not consciously alluding to any particular symbolism, the artist nonetheless has linked two symbols linked in esoteric and mundane symbolism, namely the solar and the leonine, both of which are frequently associated with the Kingly or Royal in their symbolism too. 

Of deeper doubt is its Topography, and local designation, yet being the primitive garden, and without much controversy seated in the East.

Of all four paintings in Rodulfo's quadriptych, his aquatic-scape and portrait of a loving couple frolicking in water is the perhaps the most sensual and identifiably closest to erotic love. 

A garlanded man and adoring woman gaze deep into each other's eyes, oblivious to all around them, while a finely-detailed dragon-fly zooms towards the viewer. With its intriguing pylon structures this painting may be considered an example of fantasy landscape, but in fact its a product of Rodulfo's recollection of his extensive travels, himself stating of it as, "not really fantasy lands, just interpretations of my experiences in the world."

A considerable depth of landscape is conveyed with skilled draughtsmanship, while a primary concern to the viewer is the dragon-fly with its finely worked, gauze-like wings zipping towards the eye. A large lizard who is looking on adds to the tension and ambiguity of this Eden-like vision.

 Some confined their delights unto single plants

In what is the most reflective and austere in mood of all four paintings, a young woman holding a watering-can concentrates upon watering plants. Of particular note is her  pose, worth comparing to the central figure in Rodulfo's As the Elephant Laughed, which features another example of the artist's ability to successfully portray the human figure in a studied pose. 

A calmness and stillness is conveyed, reminding the viewer that some acts of kindness, along with most artistic creativity and individual growth are of a solitary nature, including tending for the organic and vegetable kingdom. As ever, careful detail includes a trowel in the foreground along with a finely-worked, large nautilus-like shell. Fittingly for its appended esoteric symbolism, a low eye-level accommodates a large skyscape. Depth of field is also conveyed through a shed and mountain-range in the far distance. 


But not to look so high as Heaven or the single Quincunx 
of the Hyades upon the head of  Taurus.

It was not until 2015, three years after the completion of the first three paintings in the quadriptych, that the artist's attention was drawn to the fact that certain elemental and astrological symbolism could be designated to each of his respective paintings. He then completed the fourth and final painting of his mandala, with no other artistic motive than to complete a quadriptych of related canvases. 

However, as the psychologist C.G. Jung noted, many quaternities involve a  3 + 1 structure, one being of a singular, distinct nature to the others, in this case, a conscious creative art-work to compliment three others. 

Like his painting of Lion and young Girl an animal and human are depicted in a relationship of loving-kindness. The bull stands proud and protective with large bovine eyes gazing directly to the viewer.  Set in what appears to be a lush water-meadow, Rodulfo's Befriending a Bull highlights the artist's ability to depict not only the human and animal form but also intimate inter-action and mutual respect. 

Loving-kindness in its entirety involves not only kindness towards others but also all of the animal kingdom which inhabits and shares the world with humanity. Sadly however, like the planet itself, mankind has exploited the animal kingdom, yet here in Rodulfo's canvas, the direct gaze of a dignified bull questions the viewer as to whether he deserves exploitation. 


A big thanks to Dawn Wilson  for her Photoshop skills and patience.

* The captions accompanying each painting originate from Sir Thomas Browne's literary mandala of 1658, Urn-Burial (top left painting) and The Garden of Cyrus (final three).

See also

Monday, October 19, 2015

Sir Thomas Browne and the Kabbalah

Today on the birth and death anniversary of the seventeenth century English literary figure, Sir Thomas Browne, its rewarding to look at aspects of the Christian hermetic philosopher and Janus-like sage of Norwich’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. So 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; while 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 the Elizabethan 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 assisting the study of Browne) swiftly reveals names of leading Hebrew scholars of Browne's day, along with Latin and Greek, Hebrew and even Ethiopian dictionaries are listed as among the vast range of contents once 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 leading humanist scholars who first promoted esoteric topics 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). (Incidentally, I've often wondered why no-one has made much of the coincidence that Browne shares his birthday with Marsilio Ficino. Coincidence itself being a topic of interest to the Norwich doctor).

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 literary work of hermetic philosophy in English literature, The Garden of Cyrus (1658),  including his interest in the Cabala.

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.