The Allegory of Good and Bad Government

  • The Allegory of Good and Bad Government

The Allegory of Good and Bad Government is a series of three fresco panels painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti between February 1338 and May 1339. The paintings are located in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico—specifically in the Sala dei Nove (“Salon of Nine”), the council hall of the Republic of Siena’s nine executive magistrates,[2] elected officials who performed executive functions (and judicial ones in secular matters). The paintings have been construed as being “designed to remind the Nine [magistrates] of just how much was at stake as they made their decisions”

The “Allegory of Good and Bad Government” is a series of fresco paintings executed by Ambrogio Lorenzetti which are located in the Salon of Nine (or Council Room) in the Town Hall (Palazzo Pubblico) of the city of Siena. This famous cycle of pre-Renaissance painting is made up of six different scenes: Allegory of Good Government; Allegory of Bad Government; Effects of Bad Government in the City; Effects of Good Government in the City; Effects of Bad Government in the Country; and Effects of Good Government in the Country. Commissioned by the Council of Nine (the city council) and designed as a sort of political warning, aimed at members of the Council (drawn from Siena’s ruling families), to reduce corruption and misrule, these mural paintings offer a pictorial contrast between the peace and prosperity of honest rule, versus the decay and ruin caused by tyranny.

One one wall of the Salon of Nine, Lorenzetti portrays the benefits of good government – a ‘good city’ – probably based on Siena’s real architecture (same cathedral, same bell tower) – which features dancers as well as busy traders, while outside the city peasants and travellers go about their business in peace and safety. On the other wall, the ‘bad city’ has a decaying, cramped appearance, while street crime is clearly visible. Outside the city, the ‘bad countryside is marked by burning farms, disease and widespread drought. Ironically, in 1348 both Ambrogio Lorenzetti and his artist-brother Pietro Lorenzetti would die in Siena from the Black Death. See more here

Allegory of the Bad Government 

Below the tyrant the captive figure of Justice lies bound, while the figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division, and War flank him, and above him float the figures of Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory.


Effects of Bad Government in the Country: Dryness

Effects of Bad Government in the City


Allegory of the Good Government

In The Allegory of Good Government, the composition is built up from three horizontal bands. In the foreground the figures of contemporary Siena are represented. The citizens act as symbolic representations of the various civic officers and magistrates. They are linked by two woven cords or concords which Concord gathers from under the scales of Justice. Behind them, on a stage, there are allegoric figures in two groups, representing the Good Government. The two groups are connected by the procession of the councilors. The upper band indicates the heavenly sphere with the floating bodiless ghosts of the virtues. Wisdom sits above the head of the personification of the Commune of Siena. He sits upon a throne and holds an orb and scepter, symbolizing temporal power. He is dressed in the colors of the Balzana, the black-and-white Sienese coat of arms. Around his head are the four letters “C S C V”, which stand for “Commune Saenorum Civitatis Virginis”, which explains his identity as the embodiment of the Siena Council. That character is guided by Faith, Hope, and Charity. He confers with the proper Virtues necessary for a proper and just ruler.

The virtues of Good Government are represented by six crowned, stately female figures: Peace, Fortitude, and Prudence on the left, Magnanimity, Temperance, and Justice on the right. On the far left of the fresco the figure of Justice is repeated as she is balancing the scales held by Wisdom. The figures are naturalistic, and supposedly the female figures represented the ideal of female beauty in Siena. At the feet of the ruler are two playing children.

Effects of Good Government in the City

Effects of Good Government in the Country: ‘Greeness”

look also The Allegory of Good and Bad Government

  • The Graces and Political Order in the Renaissance Imaginary

At first view nothing could be more removed from the world of politics than the Graces,
delicate embodiments of youthful beauty and feminine charm, as represented most famously in Botticelli’s Primavera.

As is well known, the motif of the Graces has a long history in classical art and literature, but Botticelli’s main source was the treatise On Benefactions of the Roman philosopher Seneca, a popular author in the Renaissance, for whom the entwined women embody the basic idea of the voluntary circulation of “benefits” through acts of generosity unmotivated by any certainty of recompense and in accordance with the Roman aristocracy’s disdain for commerce.
Though Seneca does not use the term, in this context the motif becomes an allegory, or as André Chastel suggested, an “ideogram,” eligible for insertion as a kind of ready-made (an emblema in its original sense) into a composition. In this paper I argue, first, for the importance of a mention of the Graces in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (1133a2), a widely read and commented text in later Quattrocento Florence; the relevant passage is in Book V, known simply – e.g., by Poliziano, who lectured on it — as the Book of Justice. Aristotle locates a civic cult of the Graces at the heart of a commercial community dependent on exchange facilitated through the use of money, to which he devotes an important discussion.

Significantly, Botticelli’s Graces dance next to Mercury, god of commerce as well as culture]; together they project a calm and measured rationality contrasting sharply
with the domain of the instinctual and violent wind god Zephyr and his victim Chloris, later transmuted into Flora. Venus stands, accordingly, at the approximate middle of a binary opposition that structures the painting and dramatizes her dual identity both as a civilizational deity and goddess of erotic passion. Not only or not even a work about love and marriage or a poesia responding to contemporary literary trends, Botticelli’s painting is concerned with profound issues grounded in classical philosophical discourse, albeit of a different kind from the Neo-Platonism emphasized in an alternate tradition of scholarship, which this discussion does not invalidate.
A similar opposition to that presided over by Venus exists within the representation of the assault by Zephyr, god of the generative west wind, on the nymph Chloris. A passage in Ovid’s calendar poem, the Fasti (5:183-378), has been long identified as a key source for this motif. Following her rape the Greek nymph Chloris becomes the Roman goddess Flora in a narrative that contrasts, in terms of genre, with the allegory of the Graces, and more importantly turns an act of animal violence into marriage, symbolizing household formation and inspiring a Roman cult of a goddess of spring. Botticelli’s Flora is clearly informed by Ovid’s account of her somewhat scandalous festival and associations; nevertheless, the tale of Flora is a civilizational process, and as such relates to the larger composition as a kind of mise en abyme,] in that both embody the binary opposition of nature and culture. This is not absolute, however, at least for Aristotle who famously regarded the polis as both the highest form (telos) of human social organization and as “natural” (Politics 1253a). He also insists on the importance of the household as necessary component of a city, while emphasizing the contrast of types of authority exercised within each.
The Primavera, then, is in an important sense a political painting, though in terms of political theory rather than immediate resonance, as Horst Bredekamp has argued.No account of political imagery in the period – or indeed in early modern Europe — can omit Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s foundational frescoes in the city hall of Siena. The government of Siena at the time, “the Nine,” commissioned Lorenzetti’s allegory of Justice and images of the City at Peace and the City under Tyranny as a frankly political statement, reinforcing and justifying their rule in the city and its hinterland, but also drawing on important traditions of political and social thought that connect them to Botticelli’s exceptional painting.

In view of the difference between the two works in terms of period, cultural milieu, and location, it would be difficult to claim a direct line of influence between them; on the basis of an important motif found in both images, however, I will argue that a remarkable coincidence, if not echo, exists.
None of the innumerable scholars who have worked on the Primavera have, as far as I know, fully appreciated the appearance of the Graces, or at least of their shrine, in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. This was a text of enormous importance in Florentine culture, including vernacular culture, at the time of the creation of the painting (c.1484);notably it was the work from which art and architectural patrons took the idea of “magnificence” (NE 4.2) that, as is often argued, helped give legitimacy to their expenditures.In the Book of Justice (theliterally central fifth book) Aristotle makes a distinction of types of justice that gave much food for thought to medieval commentators: distributive justice concerns the allocation of goods in society, while commutative or corrective justice addresses transactions between social actors.The latter include practices of exchange – including the use of money – considered fundamental for the maintenance of community, a term that embraces a range of
social formations, culminating in the polis, for Aristotle the most perfect form of community (NE 1099b30). It is at this point that Aristotle mentions the presence of a temple of the Graces, evidently at the heart of a polis, perhaps in the vicinity of the market; the implication is that someone walking in the city would inevitably stumble into it (it is “in the way” — ἐμποδὼν).
There is no single master text behind the Primavera; the painting draws on a number of
sources – all classical – woven together to form a unique and inextricable pictorial “text.”
An important inter-text is the lyric poetry of Horace, which was of considerable interest inBotticelli’s milieu; in 1482 Cristoforo Landino, a key figure in the circle around Lorenzo de’ Medici, published an edition of the poet’s works with a verse preface by Poliziano in imitation of Horace .

One of the most famous celebrations of spring in western literature, the fourth poem of the first book of Horace’s Odes evokes a springtime festivity of Venus in the company of the Graces. Opening with a cursory mention of natural processes, Horace then jumps to human economic activity prompted by the changing season; he specifically mentions seafaring and agriculture. In a swerve to mythology, Venus appears as leader of a dance in which the Graces and Nymphs together step forcefully on the ground, literally shaking the earth with their feet and beating time in rhythm, as perhaps we see in the Primavera. In a remarkable association, to which I will return, of the material basis of society and the delights of culture, Horace goes on to conjoin mythology and the theme of labor in a passage on the visit of Vulcan, god of fire and husband of Venus to the subterranean furnaces of the Cyclopes.
This evocation by Horace of a springtime procession of Venus and the Graces is doubtless echoed in the Primavera, not least as regards their clothing. In other poems ( Odes 1.30; 4.7), Horace describes the Graces as “daring” to dance naked, or at least with unfastened garments, in this respect following an ancient tradition exemplified in a famous antique statue of the nude Graces that was certainly known in Botticelli’s milieu, and indeed was echoed in a (lost) painting in the room next to where the Primavera was originally displayed. But in Odes 1.4, Horace represents the Graces as decentes, i.e., presumably as clothed. As Charles Dempsey has demonstrated, Botticelli’s representation of the Graces in their diaphanous dress sustains the connection to Seneca’s De Beneficiis, part of a body of ethical writings especially
prized among humanists.
Though Seneca surely knew the Nicomachean Ethics, his reference to the Graces brings the readers to a different social world than that implicit in the Ethics. As an emblem of liberality, Seneca’s Graces evoke a social world grounded in amicitia, as an ideal of genteel interaction, rather than the commercial practices and values eschewed, at least in theory, by ancient Roman elites, as noted above. Though at first sight Botticelli’s refined Graces seem emphatically removed from the bustle of the urban street, the Aristotelian resonance may connect them with just such a milieu, or rather it expands or perhaps blurs their significance, leaving open the nature of the civic values they embody.
In a brief account of the Graces, Leon Battista Alberti recommends them in his Della Pittura(3.2) of 1536 as a motif for suitably cultured painters; evidently Botticelli took Alberti’s advice. Concealing his undoubted dependence on Seneca, Alberti cites instead the ancient poet Hesiod, the ancient rival of Homer as the founder of Greek literature. On the model of Pheidias learning from Homer how to represent the King of the Gods (DP 3.3), Alberti advises visual artists to take inspiration from literature. There could be few more prestigious texts than Hesiod’s Theogony, which presents the foundation of the universe of Greek myth, and in which Hesiod celebrates the place of the Graces, to whom (followed by Seneca and Alberti) he assigns individual names, in the context of the emergence of the Greek pantheon and the organization of the known world, or at least human consciousness of it.

In particular, Hesiod associates the Graces closely with the Muses, whom they join in dancing and festivity. Beyond the beauty of their dancing, Hesiod emphasizes the Muses’ loveliness of voice (Th. 65) and without clearly distinguishing them from the Graces, he describes them as singing the “laws and usages of all the gods,” which embrace, needless to say, both the natural and social order. Indeed the Muses have an especially important role in Hesiod’s cosmogonic narrative, which is also a narrative of political development, that of the polis out of the household, that would find an echo in later philosophical discussions. At the time of the creation of the Primavera, Hesiod’s poetry was accessible in Latin translation: Poliziano, the poet and philologist usually regarded as Botticelli’s major humanist adviser, gave public lectures on Hesiod’s other major poem, the Works and Days, as well as Vergil’s Georgics, which
was explicitly inspired by it. In 1483, following his lectures, Poliziano published his verse
introduction, the Rusticus (Countryman), to Hesiod and Vergil’s poetry of country life and labor. At very least, then, the Primavera belongs in a skein of inter-texts that goes back to Hesiod and the dawn of classical civilization. And though like other motifs in the painting, the Graces elude any single or unambiguous interpretation, they embody an implicitly Hesiodic naturalization of the social and, in the original sense, political order that resonates with Aristotelian thinking about the relationship of the political community and its biological basis.
It is an open question whether we should regard such a subtle and complex response to the classical legacy as reflecting a concern with legitimation, or a kind of critique of prevailing political circumstance, as Bredekamp has suggested.[29] I now turn to an image of undoubted political significance, the frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Sala della Pace in Siena .

As in the case of the Primavera, the literature on the frescoes is vast; in this essay I will
concentrate on the celebrated motif of nine dancing maidens , a number that
immediately connects them to the ruling council.

However, their frequent identification with the nine Muses (a tenth figure, dressed in black, beats time with a tambourine, drawing attention to the rhythmic quality of the dance) raises questions about the knowledge in Lorenzetti’s pre-humanist milieu about the relevant ancient sources. Especially in view of the fluid boundaries between the Muses and Graces in antiquity as well as later, in the following pages I will suggest that Lorenzetti’s dancing women are more fruitfully identified with the Graces, not as Venus’s charming companions, but as the embodiments of a foundational aspect of civil society.
The group of dancing women in Siena has occasioned considerable debate, extending even, as we saw, to their identification. On the wall behind the seated councilors is the celebrated allegory of the Ben Comun (Common Good), which includes references to Aristotle’s discussion of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics, and specifically to the concepts of distributive and corrective justice distinguished there. A key question in the scholarship on the frescoes is the relationship of the frankly allegorical image on the end wall of the room, in front of which the councilors took their seats, and the adjoining walls, that carry – especially in the context of fourteenth century visual culture – markedly “realistic” or mimetic images of the effects of Good Government. However, a sharp contrast between radically different types of image is not sustainable. The distinctive activity, attire, and artistic treatment of the dancers suggest that they constitute a kind of insert, typical of the period, in the fresco as a whole or, in
other words, an image within an image of different character (an image that itself may be considered a representation, if Jack Greenstein is right, of the vision of personified Peace).
The dancers’ prominence in the image is assured by their location roughly at the center of the ideal city at peace and by their large scale relative to other figures .

Attired in festive dress, they perform a round dance in which they seem to be taking turns to form with outstretched arms a kind of portal or gate, under which the other dancers, moving in line, have to duck. The dance, then, is surely an allusion to the city gate that, in the fresco,interrupts the sweep of the high wall separating urban space from the countryside beyond. As in any medieval city the wall serves a symbolic function, as a prominent emblem of the city itself (significantly the distinctive tower and dome of the cathedral are relatively marginal, if not painted later then the rest of the fresco). By passing beneath a human gate the dancers refer to and even represent the city, at first sight a space of human artifice, in which, most notably, builders are busy at construction, and which Lorenzetti contrasts with the countryside beyond the city gate.
As we saw, however, Aristotle claims (Politics 1252b30-1253a1) that the city exists “by nature” – moreover that humans are political animals (1253a1-18), i.e., they belong by nature in the city. Significantly, then, Lorenzetti’s dancers perform in proximity to a wedding procession conveying the bride, presumably, to the bridegroom’s house. If, as is likely, the dance celebrates the wedding, it can be understood both as a typical event and as a symbol of the well-governed and peaceful city as a whole, while also echoing a key Aristotelian theme, the relationship of household and city or, in simpler terms, biology and politics.

The rhythmic dance hints at the cosmic dimension of civic order and the creatures–dragonflies and caterpillars– embroidered on the dancers’ dresses evoke generative nature, as does the “implied eroticism” of the dancers and their costumes.( a similar point can be made about the embroidered dress of Flora in the Primavera).
By introducing the theme of the celebration, through art, of political and social order,
Lorenzetti’s dancers transfigure the imagery, evoking the ancient idea that the world is
incomplete unless there is someone to celebrate it, a role assigned from the beginning of European literature to the Muses, with memorable invocations in Hesiod and Homer.
Hesiod was unknown in Trecento Italy, but as Marco Santucci has demonstrated there are striking correspondences and possibly connections between Lorenzetti’s fresco and Homer’s famous ekphrasis of Achilles’ shield (Iliad 18. 478-607), which launched the theme of contrasted cities, one at war and the other at peace and enjoying good order.Few Trecento Italians understood Greek, though it was a native language in part of Campania, and a translation of the Iliad was underway at the time of the creation of the painting. But whether or not he was aware of the Iliad passage, Lorenzetti’s image of dancers not only glorifies Siena as an idealized urban community but also reflexively celebrates that glorification of the city through art (in this case, the “mechanical art” theatrica. In this way the artist proclaimed himself the visual bard of his city; moreover, both the dancers and the artist produce the “delight” hailed in an inscription in the Sala della Pace as a consequence of the rule of the Nine. In an Aristotelian conceptual world, such delight constitutes both the objective and justification of city life.
The identification of the dancers as the Muses depends in large part on numerical
correspondence – nine of each – though a more pressing contemporary resonance of the number nine involved the government of Siena, “The Nine,” that commissioned Lorenzetti’s frescos. Rather than the Muses, however, I propose that the Graces are better candidates for the role of dancers in the City at Peace. Their number was hardly an issue, especially in the light of Lorenzetti’s likely limited knowledge of the visual tradition of triple Graces or indeed of such authors as Hesiod (Seneca’s ethical writings were known, albeit mainly through a medieval encapsulation). In any case, the number of the Graces was not fixed in ancient sources, nor was there clear differentiation among gaggles of divine girls, such as the Horae (Seasons), the innumerable Nymphs, or even the Muses. Of these groups, however, only the Aristotelian Graces appear in an urban context, indeed at the heart of a commercial city, but without specification of their number, and the Graces “lend their grace and beauty to everything that delights and elevates gods and men,” especially the arts. Even if Lorenzetti knew of the tradition of three sisters, however, his nine dancers may be specifically Sienese Graces,  celebrating the prosperity resulting from the wise rule of the Nine, and through carefully orchestrated movements dancing a city – this city — into being.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fame in fifteenth-century Florence was assured by the admiring praise in Ghiberti’s Commentaries (after 1448) of his innovativeness, especially in narrative painting (Book 2, chapters 11 and 12).[Botticelli’s self-conscious interest in narrative forms surely draws on Ghiberti’s achievement, as does his expansive, in some ways “Gothicizing” approach to antiquity, as notably exemplified in the Graces of the Primavera. Whether or not Botticelli studied Lorenzetti’s paintings, the Primavera embodies one of the most important elements of continuity between the medieval intellectual world and that of fifteenth-century Florence, the intense engagement with the ethical and political thought of Aristotle. What changed, most notably, was the view of Aristotle as writer, as Renaissance translators sought to present a philosopher of eloquence and grace as well as logic.This may well also have been a
subsidiary motivation for Botticelli!

  • The Rule of the Nine in Siena

Between 1285 and 1355,  the turbulent Sienese enjoyed a period of unaccustomed peace.Even by the standards of communal Italy, the medieval city-state of Siena enjoyed an unenviable reputation for the instability of its government. Proverbially seen as ungovernable, Siena was a faction-ridden city, whose ruling regimes rose and fell at increasingly frequent intervals. To this general picture of instability, however, one exception has always been recognized.

This was the regime of the ‘Nine Governors and Defenders of the Commune and People of Siena’ who ruled from 1285, when they first seized power, until the descent of the Emperor-Elect, Charles IV, of Luxemburg into Italy in 1355. Almost three generations of Sienese citizens, therefore, enjoyed the benefits of the stable, prosperous and peaceful rule brought to their city by the Nine. To create such a sixty-year period of stable rule was, within the context of Sienese politics, a remarkable achievement.

The allegory of Good and Bad government is a series of three fresco panels, located in Siena’s Palazzo pubblico, more specifically in the Sala dei Nove (Salon of Nine), which was the council hall of the Republic of Siena’s nine executive magistrates.
The fresco was painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti between February 1338 and May 1339, it had the purpose to “Remind the nine magistrates of just how much was at stake as they made their decision”.
The Council of Nine commissioned the work, and the subject matter had to be civic, and not religious (unlike most art at the time).
Siena at the time was one of the most powerful and important Italian city-state of the 14th century, with many international interactions. Now, I would like to focus my attention and my analysis only on The Allegory of Good government.
In the Allegory of Good government, there are allegoric figures divided into two groups on a stage, representing the good government: these two groups are linked by a procession of councilors. There are also represented on the scene the citizens, they are a symbolic representation of the magistrates and of the various civic officers. The figure of the Justice is balancing the scale held by Wisdom. Wisdom is sitting above the head of the personification of the Commune of Siena: he is sitting on a throne holding a scepter and orb (these are symbols of the temporal power) and dressed in the colors of Balzara, the black and white Sienese coat of arms. This character is guided by Faith, Hope and Charity, all virtues that make him a good, just and proper ruler. Above the scene, the bodiless ghosts of the virtues float.
The virtues of the Good Government are represented by six crowns: Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance, Magnanimity, Justice.
This fresco has a deep meaning behind its graceful figures, it expresses the idea that the peace is not only a business of the government (that needs to be a good one) but also of the people, the citizens, that have to “act in accordance with the temporal and astral force that governs” them.
In the painting, the ruler has some people at his feet, and there is a rope, a binding rope: the people are keeping the king on leash, and this is a metaphor of the contract between the people and the ruler, a contract that has to be respected by both, in order to provide peace and prosperity for everyone.
The people are not just ruled by the king, are not subdued to him, they have the power to take back the power that they gave to him if he is not able or willing to respect the contract.
In the painting it is also suggested that the base of a good government is the hard work of the people: in fact, he shows the citizens completing different labors each month, in accordance to the seasons; and he underlined the importance of following activities to foster peace and not disrupt it.
It is also important to perform the right task at the right time, in accordance with nature to ensure peace, to guarantee an equilibrium and to preserve and defend the harmony, to have justice.
When there is no harmony or accordance, the city fall in a state of corruption and chaos, which can only lead to wars (this situation is represented in The Bad government scene).
There is the requirement for a just and good government, a government that can guarantee prosperity to the city and peace to its people. As it is said in the fresco “This holy virtue (The Justice), where she rules, induces to unity the many souls (the citizens), and they, gathered together for such a purpose, make the Common Good their Lord”.

Read also: La Primavera – Botticelli: The Eternal Spring and a message for our times

  • The Blind Leading the Blind  an allegory for  our times:

The painting depicts a procession of six blind, disfigured men. They pass along a path bordered by a river on one side and a village with a church on the other. The leader of the group has fallen on his back into a ditch and, because they are all linked by their staffs, seems about to drag his companions down with him. A cowherd stands in the background.
Bruegel based the work on the Biblical parable of the blind leading the blind from Matthew 15:14,[a] in which Christ refers to the Pharisees. According to art critic Margaret Sullivan, Bruegel’s audience was likely as familiar with classical literature as with the Bible. Erasmus had published his Adagia two years before Bruegel’s painting, and it contained the quotation “Caecus caeco dux” (“the blind leader of the blind”) by Roman poet Horace. Bruegel expands the two blind men in the parable to six; they are well dressed, rather than wearing the peasant clothing that typifies his late work. The first blind man’s face is not visible; the second twists his head as he falls, perhaps to avoid landing face-first. The shinguard-clad third man, on his toes with knees bent and face to the sky, shares a staff with the second, by which he is being pulled down. The others have yet to stumble, but the same fate seems implied. Read more here

St. Catherine of Siena and the City of the Soul

  • In the words of St. Catherine of Siena, the city is the image of the soul, the surrounding walls being the frontier between the outward and the inward life. The gates are the faculties or senses connecting the life of the soul with the outer world. The intelligence, according to the saint, questions each one who approaches the gates whether he be friend or foe, thus watching over the security of the city. Living springs of water rise within it; gardens lie protected by its walls, and at the center, where beats the heart, stands the Holy Sanctuary. Because of its meaningful design, the city of Siena itself corresponds to this simile: it is indeed an image of the soul. Like the soul, the city can be filled with light: when, in the early morning, before the song of the swallows is drowned by the noise of the working day, one sees, as one climbs up from one of the terraced gardens, the first shafts of golden light strike the city standing high aloft; or again, at sunset, as one looks down on the town from San Domenico, when the light of the sinking sun steeps the houses and towers in glowing red, and the Cathedral, as if built of pearl and jasper, seems suspended in the air, illumined by the red sky. Then indeed can one see Siena as was in the mind of her founders: a holy city. Read more here


  • Art of Islam, Language and Meaning

Despite the vast amount of documentation and descriptive studies already carried out by Western scholars, Islamic art has remained until now a singularly neglected field as far as the study in depth of its inner meaning is concerned. Since the taste of Western historians of art has been molded by several centuries of humanistic art from the Renaissance on, and even before that by a sacred art based primarily on the icon and secondarily on sculpture, Western scholars have naturally found the great schools of Indian and Far Eastern art of more interest than the Islamic, even when they have turned their eyes beyond the confines of Western civilization. During the past century works of profundity gradually began to appear on the arts of India and the Far East, revealing their symbolism and the metaphysical principles underlying them. This activity may be said to have culminated in the writings of A. K. Coomaraswamy, who unfolded before the English speaking world the unbelievable depth of the traditional art of India and also to a large extent that of mediaeval Europe. Meanwhile, despite certain works of inspiration which appeared here and there, Islamic art continued to be a closed book as far as its symbolic meaning was concerned. Its major art forms such as calligraphy were considered as “decoration” or “minor arts” and people looked in vain in this tradition for art forms which were central elsewhere. In addition, those who became interested in Islamic art for its so-called “abstract” nature often did so for the wrong reasons. They thought that Islamic art is abstract in the same sense as modern Western art, whereas the two stand at opposite poles.

The result of the one form of abstraction is the glass skyscrapers which scar most modern cities, and the fruit of the other is the Shāh Mosque and the Taj Mahal. The one seeks to evade the ugliness of naturalistic and condensed forms of nineteenth-century European art by appeal to a mathematical abstraction of a purely human and rationalistic order. The other sees in the archetypes residing in the spiritual empyrean the concrete realities of which the so-called realities of this world are nothing but shadows and abstractions. It therefore seeks to overcome this shadow by returning to the direct reflections of the truly concrete world in this world of illusion and abstraction which the forgetful nature of man takes for concrete reality. The process of so-called “abstraction” in Islamic art is, therefore, not at all a purely human and rationalistic process as in modern abstract art, but the fruit of intellection in its original sense, or vision of the spiritual world, and an ennobling of matter by recourse to the principles which descend from the higher levels of cosmic and ultimately Metacosmic Reality.

The writings of Titus Burckhardt have the great virtue of having brought to light for the first time in the modern West this and other fundamental principles of Islamic art and of having achieved at last for Islamic art what Coomaraswamy did for the art of India. Burckhardt has himself mentioned in his earlier works that Islamic art derives from the wedding of wisdom (ḥikmah) and craftsmanship (fann or ṣināʿah). Therefore to be able to explain this art in depth requires an intimate knowledge of both, which Burckhardt possessed to a startling degree. He is already known as one of the most masterly expositors of Sufism in the West, and his Introduction to Sufi Doctrine, as well as translations of Ibn ʿArabī and ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Jīlī, have become classics. He speaks from within the Sufi tradition of the profoundest aspects of wisdom with an authority which can only come from actual experience and realization of the world of the Spirit.

Moreover, Burckhardt was himself an artist in the original, and not the trivial and modern, sense of the word. He also spent a lifetime in intimate contact with traditional masters of the arts in North Africa and played a major role in saving the city of Fez and its living artistic traditions. He, therefore, combined within himself in a unique manner the qualifications necessary to present at last to the Western world the definitive work on Islamic art as far as the meaning and spiritual significance of this art are concerned. In the pages which follow, the reader will not be presented with an exhaustive documentation of every aspect of Islamic art, which in any case is impossible in a single volume. He will be exposed to the essence of this art and presented with keys with which he can open the door of the treasuries of Islamic art wherever they may be found. The author presents Islamic art as a direct derivative of the principles and form of the Islamic revelation and not as historical accretions accidentally amalgamated together, as so many other art historians would have us believe. Burckhardt begins with the Origin and, in the world of forms, with the Kaʿba and takes the reader through the major aspects of Islamic art, the relation of this art to liturgy, to the polarization between the nomads and sedentary peoples, to the great syntheses of Islamic art and architecture, and finally to the Islamic city, where all the different aspects of Islamic art are to be seen in their natural rapport with the rhythm of life dictated by the Divine Law and illuminated by the presence of the spiritual light contained within Sufism. In his earlier works, especially Sacred Art in East and West and Moorish Culture in Spain, Burckhardt had already written some of the profoundest pages on Islamic art. Read here The Essential Burckhardt

In the present work he brings together a lifetime of outward and inward experience to produce a peerless work, one in which Islamic art is at last revealed to be what it really is, namely the earthly crystallization of the spirit of the Islamic revelation as well as a reflection of the heavenly realities on earth, a reflection with the help of which the Muslim makes his journey through the terrestrial environment and beyond to the Divine Presence Itself, to the Reality which is the Origin and End of this art.

Read here Art of Islam, Language and Meaning

  • The Green Man offers us a new understanding of the relationship between the macrocosm – the universal world – and the microcosm in ourselves.

On the macrocosmic scale he symbolizes the point at which the creative power in eternity is made manifest in space and time. Hildegard of Bingen gave a special name to the manifestation of cosmic energies: viriditas, greenness. On the scale of the human individual, viriditas is the operation of the Divine Word penetrating the soul and the whole body. Her idea has a modern parallel in the conception, much discussed by physicists, of the Anthropic Principle, the theory that intelligence is built into the form of the universe and that the reality of the universe is tied to us and depends on us as observers. It is a theory that may help us to conceive the new scale on which to think of the Green Man.  Read more: NATURE, THEOPHANY AND THE REHABILITATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS

Look also:  THE GREEN FINGERPRINT: Exploring a critical signature in the quest for a renewed and balanced Self

  • Jesus – The Paradigm of a Pilgrim in God

Jesus, the physical embodiment of the divine Breath

For Ibn ʿArabī, Jesus is an exceptional being. As the Andalusian author relates, Jesus was his first master and was decisive in his entry into the way of Sufism. This personal relationship, similar to a first love, encouraged him to hope that he would be a witness to the day of Jesus’s coming, and perhaps this motivated him to live his final years in Damascus, the place of his descent.

Jesus follows a path from God, and returns to God, without ever having been away from God; his descent into this world is followed by his ascent to the second Heaven (the one of Mercury), waiting to descend again to the great mosque of Damascus, before making the final ascent to Paradise. His vertical movement combines with a horizontal movement – that is, he travels ceaselessly [his ceaseless travelling] across the world as a wanderer with no place to rest his head. This constant travel is a manifestation of the constant activity of God and reveals the nature of all reality. Every creature is a word that comes from God and is destined to return to Him. In addition, Jesus, by means of his preaching centred on asceticism and the reminder of death, and through his alchemical spiritual and health-giving activity, he helps human beings on their path of return to the Creator.Read more…

  • Ibn Arabi’s Logos Doctrine

One of the most important, perhaps the most important and central, of Ibn Arabi’s ideas was that of the Logos, a term having the double meaning as “eternal wisdom” and “word” [Affifi, Mystical Philosophy, p.91].  Originally, the term was coined by the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo.  Fluctuating between regarding the Logos as the first manifestation of the Godhead and a merely human or universal soul, Philo referred to it as the High Priest, the Intercessor or Paraclete, the Viceregent, the Glory of God, the Shadow of God, the Archetypal Idea, the principle of reveklation, the first-born Son of God, the first of the Angels, and so on [A. E. Affifi, The Mystical Philosophy of Muhyid Din-Ibnul Arabi, pp.91-2].  Here we  have a confusion of mythological-religious, theological, and cos-mological themes, many of which were taken up by Christianity.

Ibn Arabi shows the definite influence of Philo in his doctrine  of the Logos; many of his descriptive terms are identical [Affifi, Mystical Philosophy, pp.91- 2].  But he also brings in Koranic, theological, Sufi, Neoplatonic, and other ideas as well [Ibid, p.66].  He refers to the Logos (kalimah) as the Reality of Realities (Haqiqatu’l  Haqa’iq – in contrast to this the Sufi Hallaj used the similiar term “Reality of Reality” (Haqiqatu’l Haqiqah) to refer to God Himself [p.68 n.2]), the Reality of Mohammed, the Spirit of  Mohammed, the First Intellect, the Most Mighty Spirit, the Most Exalted Pen (i.e. the Pen which God uses to inscribe the destiny of all things), the Throne (of God), the Perfect Man, the Real  Adam, the Origin of the Universe, the Real who is the Instrument  of Creation, the Pole (Qutb, on which all Creation revolves), the Intermediary (between God and Creation), the Sphere of Life, the  Servant of the All-embracing One, and so on [Affifi, Mystical Philosophy, p.66 note].

Here, as with Philo, there is a confusion or hesitation between the emanationist idea of the first manifestation of the Godhead, and the dualistic monotheistic idea of the first created being who, whilst still extremely sublime, is nevertheless separated from God by an undridgable abyss.  In other words there is a confusion between the hypostases; in some appelations “the Logos” refers to the supernal Divine, in other appelations to a mere emanation, and not even a very high one (the Viceregent, the Servant, etc), of that Divine.  This is the real weakness of any  theistic metaphysics; the absoluteness and transcendence of the  personal God acts as a distorting straight-jacket that most are  unwilling or unable to break.

As A. E. Affifi explains [p.77], Ibn Arabi’s Logos has three aspects (or can be considered from three points of view):

  1. the metaphysical aspect, as the Reality of Realities;
  2. the mystical aspect, as the Reality of Mohammed;
  3. the perfected human aspect, as the Perfect Man

Considering the first of these aspects, the Reality of  Realities (Haqiqatu’l Haqa’iq), Ibn Arabi says that this is the  the First Intellect, the imamnent Rational Principle in the  universe (a Stoic idea), the “Idea of Ideas” (or Archetype of Archetypes – the great Alexandrain Christian theologian Origen  likewise referred to the Logos as Idea Ideon [Affifi, Mystical Philosophy, p.68 n.2]).  It  comprehends all archetypes and existing things absolutely, is  neither a whole nor a part, neither does it increase or decrease.   It contains the archetypes or realities (haqa’iq) of things, but  is in itself homogonous.  It is the consciousness of God, the  content and substance of divine knowledge.  It is the first  manifestation or epiphany of God; God as the self-revealing Principle of the universe; God manifesting Himself as universal con-sciousness [A. E. Affifi, The Mystial Philosophy of Muhyid Din-Ibnul Arabi, p.68-70]

As for the second or mystical aspect, the Reality of Mohammed (al  Haqiqatu’l Mohammadiyyah), the Logos is not the actual physical or human Mohammed, but the Reality (haqiqa) behind Mohammed, the active principle of all divine and esoteric Revelation.  The Logos as the Reality of Mohammed has the characteristics of being the indwelling revealer of God, the transmitter of all divine knowledge, and the cosmological cause of all creation [pp.74-5].  He is the active principle of divine knowledge [Parrinder, Avatar and Incarnation, p.204]

This distinction between the human and the transcendent Mohammed was a popular one in Sufi and esoteric Ismaili thought, by which the Sufis were able to reconcile the historical exoteric religious vehicle of Islam with the esoteric inward experience of the Divine.  The same tendency occurred in the Mahayana Buddhist  doctrine of the Trikaya or Three Bodies of the Buddha, according  to which the historical Buddha was only the lowest member, the  Nirmanakaya or “emanation body” of the Buddha principle; above the Nirmanakaya was the Sambhogakaya or divine Celestial body; and above that in turn the Dharmakaya or Truth Body, which was of the nature of Absolute Reality.  In early Christianity too, especially Gnostic Christianity, this separation of the human from  the Divine principle of Revelation occurred.  Orthodox and fundamentalist Christian theologians called this understanding “docetism”, and considered it a serious heresy.  It reached its greatest development among the Christian Gnostics of the second and third centuries, with their distinction between the human  Jesus and the true transcendent Christ, who only put on Jesus like a garment or a disguise.

In Ibn Arabi’s teaching, each prophet is called a logos but not the Logos, which latter  term refers to the spiritual principle or Reality of Mohammed.  Ibn Arabi calls everything a Logos – a “word” of God – inasmuch as it participates in the universal principle of reason and Life, but prophets and saints are distinguished because they manifest the activities and perfections of the universal Logos Mohammed to a perfect degree.  The difference between the Spirit or Reality  of Mohammed and the rest of the prophets and saints is like that between the whole and its parts; he unites in himself what exists in them separately [Affifi, Mystical Philosophy, p.72]

Finally, regarding the third or individual aspect, the possibility of becoming the Logos exists potentially for all Muslims.  The difference between one who is asleep and one who is spiritually awakened, and the different levels attained by the latter, depend on the degree of preparedness.  Each Sufi seeks to became the Logos [Affifi, Mystical Philosophy, p.11].  Here there is a certain paralle with Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, where the emphasisi on the Trikaya at times shifts from the theological or “mystical” to the individual yogic (the Trikaya as the yogically transformed and perfected individual self).

In the mystical hierarchy, the Qutb or Pole is the Spiritual Head of the hierarchy of Prophets and Saints, the intermediary stage between the Godhead and the phenomenal world, the eternal and the temporal [Affifi, Mystical Philosophy, p.74].  The Qutb is the “Pole” on which all Creation turns.  According to Sufism, the Pole is realised in the Perfect Man, the individual human expres-sion of the Logos.

As the Pole of Creation, the Qutb is comparable to the world-axis of Shamanism (which survives in Scandanavian mythology as the world-tree Ymir, and in Hindu and Buddhist cosmography as Mount Meru), the Tai Ch’i or “Great Pivot” or “Great Ridgpole” of Chinese (Neo-Taoist and Neo-Confucian) cosmology, that maintains the Cosmos.  Just as the Sun is the central pivot and source of life and energy for the solar system, so the Qutb is like a “Sun” in the centre of the planes of being.  But in saying this, one must be careful not to assume, as some theosophists and neo-theosophists actually do, that there is an actual physical central sun.  This is just a metaphor, like “pole” or “world mountain”.

The Divine Logos thus manifests as coutless Avatars, Perfect Masters, Divine Presences, and so on; whether in human form as an actual physical Avatar, or in subtle non-incarnate form as a Presence that moves subtly in the spiritual Heart (Qalb) of each individual being.  This is a process that is always continuing, for there is always the Divine Presence in the world, although in some periods it may be more accessable than others – thus the Ismailis speak of Cycles of Epiphany and Cycles of Occultation [Corbin, Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis, pp.80-81], and the Kabbalists of God revealing his Face and turning his Face away [Luzzatto, General Principles of the Kabbalah, p.47] – but even in the periods of concealing of the Light, there would still be avatars and masters for those who are sincere.  At no time are souls stumbling in the world of darkness ever left without guidance or grace. And it could even be said that every spiritual aspirant, through his or her sincere striving for and mystical devotion and surrender to the Divine, becomes a minor Qutb, helping to maintain the worlds through total surrender and selflessness; the sacrifice of the lower self on the altar of the higher self and the Divine above.

  • Metaphysical Order in Sufism

In Sufi metaphysics, numbers and geometry are indispensable tools that aid the reflection on the nature of divinity and illustrate the order of being. Within the bounds of the Euclidean tradition, geometrical principles, such as the point, the line, and the circle, were consistently used to reason about metaphysical realities. Read more here

  • The Virtues of the Prophet

In the religion of Islam the character of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is the model of human virtue. Orphan, exile, contemplative, successful businessman, long-time faithful husband to one wife, husband to several wives in his later years, statesman, judge, warrior, conqueror, lawgiver, peacemaker, spiritual teacher, Muhammad is the Complete Man, the exemplar of broad and balanced character whose sunnah (habitual and characteristic way of acting) is the ideal of human behavior for the traditional Muslim world. Dar-al-Islam is presently under ruthless attack from the forces of secular modernization, internal Islamicist criminality, and outside military force. The first two of these are attempting to trim Islam down to fit their own shrunken ideologies, the third to obliterate whatever of the Din may survive. Under such damaging blows, young Muslims need to remember not just the Holy Book, but the man whose character was the perfect mirror of that Book. Both modernizers and Islamicists want to narrow down, marginalize, and perhaps even do away with the example of the Prophet; he was too complete and genuine a human being to fit into their increasingly inhuman agendas. Human life requires heroism in any time, and the duties of self-development and self-mastery call for a greater degree of heroism than any other struggle, which is why the Prophet called the war against the sub-human aspects of one’s own soul “the greater jihad”. Alone of all creatures, human beings are not simply established as themselves by God, but are required by God to become themselves.

It is easy to throw one’s life away, either in the name of a cause or at the ever-present command of the vices and passions; much harder and requiring an even greater degree of courage is the struggle to grow and live, so as to become a true human being. We must be prepared to sacrifice life at any time if God commands it; we must also be prepared to nurture and develop life, both for our own salvation and in the name of future generations. This unity of heroic abandon with painstaking and compassionate care is the essence of the traditional Muslim character, which is nowhere more clearly visible than in the character of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, who said: “Even if you know that the world will end tomorrow, plant a tree.” See The Virtues of the Prophet: A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Greater Jihad, the War Against the Passions

Verses by the Egyptian writer Ibn al-Farid (1182-1235),

“If my soul were in my hands,
I would send it by messenger without delay.
Do not worry about me in love, do not doubt me.
My love is natural, it has no secrets.”


  • Jesus – The Paradigm of a Pilgrim in God

Jesus, the physical embodiment of the divine Breath

For Ibn ʿArabī, Jesus is an exceptional being. As the Andalusian author relates, Jesus was his first master and was decisive in his entry into the way of Sufism. This personal relationship, similar to a first love, encouraged him to hope that he would be a witness to the day of Jesus’s coming, and perhaps this motivated him to live his final years in Damascus, the place of his descent.

Jesus follows a path from God, and returns to God, without ever having been away from God; his descent into this world is followed by his ascent to the second Heaven (the one of Mercury), waiting to descend again to the great mosque of Damascus, before making the final ascent to Paradise. His vertical movement combines with a horizontal movement – that is, he travels ceaselessly [his ceaseless travelling] across the world as a wanderer with no place to rest his head. This constant travel is a manifestation of the constant activity of God and reveals the nature of all reality. Every creature is a word that comes from God and is destined to return to Him. In addition, Jesus, by means of his preaching centred on asceticism and the reminder of death, and through his alchemical spiritual and health-giving activity, he helps human beings on their path of return to the Creator.Read more…

  • Defend The Truth