Neoplatonic Aesthetic Tradition in the Arts

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A search for relationships that unite art forms may go in many different directions. There may be historical inquiries which seek the relationship between art forms that are joined by historical period. Stylistic studies may lead to relationships that overlap and go beyond historical periods. One may also go to philosophy for ideas which have been important historically and trace an idea, its effect, and its relationship to various art forms. An example of this latter type of inquiry may be found in a study of Neoplatonism and its relationship to the arts.

An inspection of the writings of Plato and a Neoplatonist such as Plotinus does not yield a fully developed aesthetic policy. In the Dialogues, Plato deals to some extent with art and its implications. Traditionally, his view of art has been taken to be of a rather pessimistic nature. He acknowledged the power of art to affect people but decided the artist was a persona non grata in the ideal State. Plato encourages citizens to foster virtue in themselves rather than to be removed a step from reality by contemplating its imitation. An artist is described as imitating objects which are an imitation of reality. Art is therefore several steps removed from the realm of Absolutes (unseen reality). An artist retains connections with the material world and objects rather than developing disembodied ideas, and Plato never quite forgives this attachment to the material world.

One of the first adaptations of Platonic heritage in regard to art was by Plotinus. Plotinus uses many of the same terms as did Plato in his discussions. They share a common aesthetic vocabulary which includes such terms as sense object/idea, visible/invisible, hierarchy, symbolism, and others. In the writings of Plotinus, however, there occur some changes which have significance for later developments in art. It is with Plotinus that a justification of art appears. For Plotinus, visible beauty points to the invisible beauty that is the Ideal World of Absolutes. He is not precise as to how this "pointing" occurs, but it can be inferred that this is done by analogy of similar rational structures. There is a concept of idea as ascent to the One by means of beauty. Plotinus has art and nature as visible manifestations of the One, and he considers reason-principles as a source of art rather than as something opposed to art. Art then is not a copy of a material entity, as Plato seems to have considered it, but rather a reflection of an immaterial Ideal World with capabilities of leading people into higher realms than the materialism with which Plato matched it.

Plotinus places the arts into different categories depending upon their source and the senses one uses to discern them. He refers to the imitative arts of painting, sculpture, dancing, and pantomimic gesturing as being earth-based because they follow natural models; they copy forms and movements and reproduce seen symmetries. Music he places in a different category—an Intellectual Kosmos in which he also places geometry and philosophy. Patterns discerned in music are only a starting point as Plotinus explains:

This natural tendency must be made the starting-point to such a man; he must be drawn by the tone, rhythm and design in things of sense: he must learn to distinguish the material forms from the Authentic-Existent which is the source of all these correspondences and of the entire reasoned scheme in the work of art: he must be led to the Beauty that manifests itself through these forms; he must be shown that what ravished him was no other than the Harmony of the Intellectual world and the All-Beauty, the Absolute Beauty; and the truths of philosophy must be implanted in him to lead him to faith in that which, unknowing it, he possesses within himself.

(Enneads I.3.1)

Art then is a means for a journey inward, to mind, soul, being, essence—whatever word one may choose to express the core of humanity. This core is a part, yet not truly a part, of All Being, Oversoul—that which is ultimate. The beauty which becomes a part of an object was first present in the soul of an artist, and art is viewed by Plotinus as being an imitation of the immaterial ideal world in the soul of an artist rather than as simply a copy of a material entity.

Plotinus places the vision of the soul above that of the senses, but senses and their perceptions are where people begin their vision of soul. People use senses to perceive art and then use mind to understand and discover a basic underlying principle or Intellectual-Principle. Revelation then becomes a possibility. This possibility of revelation within art gives it new esteem. This is an important change for it provides art with a profound metaphysical function and justification. Plato in the Republic refused to admit the artist. Plotinus, using the writings of Plato as a base, has now justified the artist and artistic creations.

In the Enneads of Plotinus, creation is an act of perfecting nature rather than echoing it. There is new recognition granted both the act of creating and the object created. Beauty in art comes by this transference of idea to object and not simply because of the materials themselves. Beauty, which is an idea, becomes possible when idea overcomes resistance of material. There is a move from a materialistic state which involves primarily physical senses to an intelligible state in which communication takes place through intellect. There are thereby various stages or progressions in a kind of hierarchy as idea overcomes matter.

Plotinus places high value on the use of symbol. There is desired an art which leads to underlying principles of a cosmic nature. An art which simply means what it represents visually and goes no further does not lead to such principles.

An aesthetic policy which is implied in the Enneads (V.3.17) is "Cut away everything." "Cut away everything" comes through as a method of perception as well as a means of construction. Because there is a vision to be seen, a vision to be perceived, this vision must not be clouded. Visions of self-knowledge, Beauty, Good, and the All are not to be covered by irrelevant material. Simplicity, balance, and order, as these are fused with the light of the Good within the soul, can be understood as marks of art which Plotinus conceived to be desired. While imperfection is not to be accented, there is a place for it in this Neoplatonic universe. It is necessary for dramatic quality and variety.

During the Renaissance Marsilio Ficino, a humanist associated with the Medici Academy, studied Plato; he did translations and commentaries on the Platonic heritage he accumulated. His work brought to the attention of the artists of the time many of the concepts which were a part of Neoplatonism. A concern for Beauty, symbol, and formal rationalism were some of the influences Neoplatonism had on art objects of the Renaissance. Painting, sculpture, architecture, and music all felt effects of this philosophical approach to art. Interest in balance between art object and ideas involved with that object took many forms.

An example of the influence of Neoplatonic philosophy in the visual arts is found in Titian's Sacred and Profane Love.



Titian's Sacred and Profane Love.
From the Borghese Museum, Rome. (Courtesy, Alinari/Scala.)


In Ficino's Commentary on the Symposium of Plato, chapter seven deals with two kinds of Love and with the double nature of Venus. One Venus is "Heavenly" whereas the other is "Earthly." The two Venus concepts are likened to two powers of the soul: the power to contemplate Beauty and the power to propagate it. Both are described as honorable and praiseworthy.

The two women portrayed in Sacred and Profane Love resemble each other, but one is clothed in elegant dress (matter) while the other is essentially unadorned and is portrayed as Celestial Love or the Heavenly Venus with her uplifted arm and flame. In the background on the right where the Celestial Venus is portrayed, there is a church and pastoral scene; the sky is essentially open, and there is a sense of space—a place to go somewhere beyond Earth.

The Celestial Venus is holding a flame upward. Such a flame is not an attribute to Venus in the iconographical schemes of mythological heritage. But the Heavenly Venus as portrayed in Ficino's statement is associated with divine light. Ficino speaks of her translating "sparks of that divine glory into earthly matter." On the left side of the picture where the Earthly Venus is seated there is a foreboding sense of darkness in the background with a hint that a storm is coming. The fountain on which the two women are sitting shows a series of relief figures characterized by violence, an unbridled horse, an attempted rape, and motifs of earthly passion. These are symbols of chaotic love—that chaos from which every order must begin. The Cupid figure between the two Venuses appears to be stirring that which is between them to harmonize that which separates them. The scenes in the relief are chaotic, the Earthly Venus harmonious, while the Celestial Venus is transcendent. Each is a step in the hierarchy of Neoplatonic progression from chaos to divinity. Cupid, symbolizing the Love force, binds all divisions together, blends them so that the ultimate step toward transcendence may be reached.

The traditional title, Sacred and Profane Love, was not applied until many years after the picture was painted. The title is in some ways unfortunate because it implies a dichotomy between the sacred and profane. It is probable that such a dichotomy was not the basic idea of the picture but rather, in keeping with the synthesis of Neoplatonic belief, there is a depiction of a scale of values within what is essentially the same experience. Both Venuses are members of the same experience known as Love; the ultimate goal for both is the godhead, the transcendent, the flame-like illumination within Being.

Symbolism has also been found to be present in Renaissance music. One example is the mass Sub tuum presidium confugimus by Jacobus Obrecht. According to the studies made by M. van Crevel, editor of the later sections of the Obrecht Opera omnia, there exists in this mass an outer structure related to number theory. There is also an inner structure of an esoteric nature that is not perceptible through the senses. This inner structure is also of a mathematical character.

Numerical proportions were not initially introduced to music during the Renaissance. Pythagorean musical concepts were based on proportions, and numerical proportions of an esoteric nature had occurred in medieval music with the presence of talea, the recurring rhythmic pattern of iso-rhythmic motets. But the numerical symbolism within the Obrecht Sub tuum mass seems to have a special relationship to Neoplatonism. Van Crevel was able to discover mathematical systems within the Obrecht mass because he devised a new system of transcription which scores the work with tactus sets indicated. By tactus signs the choirmaster of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries divided the time continuum into equal intervals or units by marking their successive beginnings. During this period of history, the tactus was of a relatively fixed duration as was normally represented by the semibrevis. Interestingly, this fixed duration was about sixty to seventy beats to the minute, about the speed of a normal heartbeat. Just as this rhythm pervaded human beings, so too it served as a regulating device for music.

Obrecht's mass Sub tuum presidium confugimus has a cantus firmus structure which occurs in almost exact repetition throughout the five mass movements and is then a mass cycle. Other structural materials besides the cantus firmus include the texts of the ordinary and seven Marian chants which are liturgical in nature but not a part of the ordinary. The number of voices in this mass setting is three at the beginning ("Kyrie") and increases by one with each mass movement until the final "Agnus dei" consists of a setting for seven voices. The ordinary is never sung by more than three voices while anywhere from one to four of the remaining voices are settings of Marian chants.

Van Crevel noted that the cantus firmus of this mass is in a pattern which is repeated and is a phrase consisting of sixty-six tacti. The pattern is made up of alternating groups of rests and notes: 9 rests, 27 notes, 3 rests, and 27 notes. These mathematical proportions go back to the Timaeus, Section 35, a discussion of the creation of the soul. In this passage Plato sets up two sets of proportions: 1,2,4,8 and 1,3,9,27. When combined, these form seven different numbers (since 1 is repeated). Plato used these seven numbers in reference to the orbital motions of the seven spheres (Sun, Mercury, Venus, Moon, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter) as well as referring to them in regard to the proportions present in the harmony of the soul. Plato writes of filling up the double intervals (1,3,9,27); what happens then is the following: 1 + 2 (double of 1) + 3 + 6 (double of 3) + 9 + 18 (double of 9) + 27. The sum of these numbers is then 66. The Obrecht mass with its sets of 66 tacti utilizes Platonic proportions in what appears to be an attempt to influence the listener subliminally.

It seems probable also that the number of voices in each division of the mass has its own symbolic meaning. The "Kyrie" begins with three voices; it is in three sections, and can be understood as symbolizing Trinity or intellectual or spiritual order—harmonic product of the action of unity upon duality. The "Gloria," labeled "Et in terra pax," has four voices. Symbolic meaning of the number four, as found in Cirlot's A Dictionary of Symbols, is terrestrial order. The "Patrem" is a setting of portions of the Nicene Creed, and the symbolism of the number five (for five voices) is apparently centered upon the phrase "and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man." Five is frequently symbolic of a person (four limbs and a head), and it is Christ incarnate and made man that is emphasized in the symbolism rather than the Father omnipotent. Symbolism is further intensified by an additional meaning of the number five. This symbolism involves the concept of Hieros gamos or highest marriage—the union of the principle of heaven (three or Trinity) with that of Magna Mater with her dual earthly and heavenly character. It is this marriage or union which is described in the phrase "and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary." In addition, the Marian chant which is present in the upper voice contains the phrase "Sancta dei genitrix" and refers also to the holy state of begatting in reference to Mary. It is in the context of the Marian chant that the incarnate symbolism of the number five receives its reinforcement.

The "Sanctus" of the Sub tuum mass with its six voices and corresponding symbolism of "soul" seems to symbolize the text. Soul, both within Platonic and within Christian tradition, is the holy of holies and is that part of a person which is immortal. The seven voices of the "Agnus Dei" also seem to have symbolic significance. Seven as a symbol of pain fits into the image of the "Lamb of God" with its sacrificial connotations. Furthermore, the closing "grant us thy peace" is in accordance with a desire for "planetary and moral order," which is also a symbolic meaning of the number seven.

Marsilio Ficino described a hierarchy in which a human figure would move in its striving for God. He described this striving in terms of concentric circles: the outer circle is matter; one then moves to nature, soul, mind and finally—God. The God circle is the innermost circle so that the movement is emphasized as an inward journey. Obrecht's mass, Sub tuum presidium confugimus, with its symbolism moves in its own Neoplatonic cosmos and hierarchy:

Neoplatonism Obrecht Mass
  "Kyrie"—Trinity, which existed before matter
Matter "Et in terra"—Earth
Nature "Patrem"—development and emphasis on the phrase "and was made man"—that which is incarnate
Soul "Sanctus"—Soul
God "Agnus"—perfect order, synthesis

Striving through hierarchical stages is a characteristic of Ficino's Neoplatonism. This concept apparently had effect upon the compositional devices employed by painters and musicians on some occasions. Rudolf Wittkower in his book, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, tells of associations of Neoplatonism with Renaissance architecture. His discussion indicates that the number theory which was present in the Sub tuum mass was not limited in its application to music only but was also applied to architecture by the architect Francesco Giorgi. Palladio also conceived of a parallelism between musical and spatial proportions. Nesca Robb in her book, Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance, discusses not only visual arts but also deals with observations on the poetry of Michelangelo and its relation to Neoplatonism.

There is reason to take into account possible effects of the philosophy of Neoplatonism upon art form during the Renaissance. Such effects are often subtle and intended as noetic devices in their effect. Study of their importance upon form as well as content or idea can give new insights into the arts.



Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. 2nd ed. Trans. Jack Sage. 1962; rpt. New York: Philosophical Library, 1974.

Jacobus Obrecht Opera Omnia. Ed. M. van Crevel. Vol. I, No. 6. The Hague: Music-printing SRO, 1960.

Jayne, Sears Reynolds, ed. and trans. "Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium." University of Missouri Studies, XIX, No. 1 (1944), 5-255.

Panofsky, Erwin. Problems in Titian: Mostly Iconographic. New York: New York University Press, 1969.

Plato. The Dialogues of Plato. 2 vols. Ed. and trans. B. Jowett. 1892; rpt. New York: Random House, 1937.

Plotinus. Enneads. 2 vols. Trans. Stephen Mackenna. Boston: Charles T. Branford Co., 1916.

Robb, Nesca A. Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Octagon Books, 1968.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. New York: Random House, 1965.

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