At the foundation of Christian Kabbalah stands one man: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the original enfant terrible of the European Renaissance. At the tender age of 23, in 1486, Pico wrote and sent to the Pope 900 Theses of theology and philosophy which he proposed to debate with anyone that wished to do so. To these he attached an introductory Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has become a classical statement of the Renaissance worldview. It is regrettable that today he is mostly remembered for this statement of human dignity rather than his other groundbreaking work.
Unfortunately for Pico, church officials were not in a mood for a debate with the young and dashing count, and instead proceeded to analyse the 900 Theses against the Catholic dogma. They found 13 propositions suspicious of heresy, and out of these, one in particular: “There is no science that assures us of the divinity of Christ than magic and the Cabala”. Pico agreed to retract the condemned theses, but later he published an Apology which pretty much re-affirmed all his ideas. This, of course, set the Pope on fire, and Pico had to flee to France to avoid imprisonment. After many other adventures, Pico settled back in Florence, where he died at only 31 years of age, apparently poisoned by a member of the famous house of Medici.
Pico has been called the disciple and pupil of the philosopher Marsilio Ficino. They shared an interest in Neoplatonic, Hermetic philosophy and magic, but Pico didn’t think those were enough. He was attracted to the mysterious art of the Kabbalah, whom Hebrew scholars were talking to him about.
Spurred on by his Kabbalist teacher Flavius Mithridates, Pico set himself at an early age to learn the Hebrew language so he could read the Bible and the Kabbalah in original. He also benefited from the Latin translations of Mithridates. By the time he wrote his famous 900 Theses, Pico was able to involve himself in difficult Kabbalistic speculations. His work was inspired by some of the most famous Kabbalists of the period, like Abraham Abulafia, Menahem Recanati or Joseph Gikatilla.
Yet Pico thought he saw in Kabbalah something the Hebrew scholars failed to see: the justification of the Christian faith. Despite his youthful shenanigans, Pico was a very religious man, given to mystical impulses. He saw behind the Kabbalistic speculation the proof that Jesus was son of God, argument which Pico sought to use for the conversion of Jews and heretics.
Pico was interested in two types of Kabbalah, which he described as the Kabbalah of the sephirot and the one of the divine names. Today, the sephirotic Kabbalah is the best known. According to this one, God manifests itself in the Universe through ten emanations, usually portrayed in the form of a tree called ‘the Tree of Life’. These emanations and the complicated relationships between them ultimately channel the divine energy into the creation of the visible world. The basis of sephirotic Kabbalah is in the classical books Sefer Yetzirah (the Book of Creation) and the Zohar (the Book of Splendor), with which Pico was familiar.
Yet Pico was also attracted to another type of Kabbalah: the gematria, or the combinations of Hebrew letters. Permutations are based on the peculiar character of the Hebrew alphabet, which is made up of consonants that have a certain numerical value. The first letter, the aleph, has the value 1, while the last letter, tau, has the value of 400. The practice is based on changing the position of the letters (without changing the sum of the word) or replacing them with letters that result in the same total. The Kabbalists applied this type of analysis to the Bible, particularly the Genesis, whom they thought to hide secrets revealed to Moses by God Himself.
The gematria was particularly advocated by the famous 13th kabbalist Abraham Abulafia, one of Pico’s chief sources. Abulafia believed that combinations of letters, particularly those of God’s names (shemot) unleashed powerful energies in the universe, and Pico took that philosophy forth into the Christian Kabbalah.
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Pico, who was interested in magic just like his elder, Ficino, believed Kabbalah could make magic mainstream and free it of ‘black’ connotations. In fact, he stated that no magic was good except the one that employed the Kabbalah. In this, he forged a union between the Christian Kabbalah and magic which many retractors later used to accuse all Christian Kabbalists of being black magicians or devil worshippers.
Still, Pico’s legacy of Kabbalah to the Christian world survived for several hundreds of years. It passed on from the classical expressions of Johannes Reuchlin and Cornelius Agrippa to Paracelsian speculations, Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, up to the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune. I will try to trace this history in a further article.