Edgar Wind-The Medal Of Pico Della Mirandola: The 3 Graces

Verso of the 1494 ‘Pico della Mirandola’ medal, created by Niccolò di Forzore Spinelli – Fiorentino:’PVLCRITVDO, AMMOR, VOLVPTAS‘.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Edgar Wind’s study, ‘Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance’, the Norton Library, 1966 for the revised and enlarged edition. Chapter 3, ‘The Medal Of Pico Della Mirandola’: ‘The converting power of Amor is illustrated by the Grace in the centre who, represented from the back, looks toward Voluptas on her right and stretches out her arm in her direction. Her left hand rests, as if for support, on the shoulder of Pulchritudo from whom she turns...’


While the triad of the Graces signified liberality to the Stoics, for the Neo- Platonists it was a symbol of love, inviting celestial meditations. As the Graces were described and pictured as attendants of Venus, it seemed reasonable to infer that they unfold her attributes: for it was an axiom of Platonic Theology that every god exerts his power in a triadic rhythm. ‘He that understands profoundly and clearly’, wrote Pico della Mirandola in his ‘Conclusiones’: ‘how the unity of Venus is unfolded in the trinity of the Graces, and the unity of Necessity in the trinity of the Fates, and the unity of Saturn in the trinity of Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, knows the proper way of proceeding in Orphic theology.’

In this riddling sentence the words ‘Orphic theology’ refer to the Theologia Platonica as expounded by Iamblichus and Proclus. ‘All theology among the Greeks ’, wrote Proclus, ‘is sprung from the mystical doctrine of Orpheus. First Pythagoras was taught the holy rites concerning the gods by Aglaophamus; next Plato took over the whole lore concerning these matters from the Pythagorean and Orphic writings.’ Marsilio Ficino, who chose to conclude that legendary list with his own name, explicitly referred to Orpheus as ‘cuius theologiam secutus est Plato‘. And the tradition was stressed also by Pico della Mirandola. ‘It is written by Iamblichus’, he said, ‘that Pythagoras took the Orphic Theology as a model after which he patterned and shaped his own philosophy. And for that reason alone are the sayings of Pythagoras called sacred, that they derive from the Orphic initiations, from which flowed, as from a fountainhead, the secret doctrine of numbers and whatever was great and sublime in Greek philosophy.’ If Pico went so far as to substitute ‘Orphic’ for ‘Pythagorean’ and ‘Platonic’, it was because he held, not unlike Thomas Taylor in the eighteenth century, that the theology transmitted from the Pythagoreans to Plato was poetically foreshadowed in the Orphic Hymns, and that their sequence and imagery could be completely explained as a mystical expression, suitably veiled, of the theorems recorded by Proclus.

To expound the system in all its ramifications, Pico required several hundred ‘Conclusiones‘ each about as cryptic as the one just quoted. Fortunately we need not traverse the entire range of his or Ficino’s philosophical mythology to understand the role assigned in it to the Graces. All we must remember is that the bounty bestowed by the gods upon lower beings was conceived by the Neoplatonists as a kind of overflowing (emanatio), which produced a vivifying rapture or conversion (called by Ficino conversio, raptio, or vivificatio‘) whereby the lower beings were drawn back to heaven and rejoined the gods (remeatio)fi The munificence of the gods having thus been unfolded in the triple rhythm of emanatio, raptio and remeatio, it was possible to recognize in this sequence the divine model of what Seneca had defined as the circle of grace: giving, accepting, and returning.

If we further consider that all communion between mortals and gods was established, according to Plato, through the mediation of Love, it becomes clear why in Ficino’s and Pico’s system the entire Greek pantheon began to revolve around Venus and Amor. ‘All the parts of the splendid machine (machinae membra)’, Ficino wrote, ‘are fastened to each other by a kind of mutual charity, so that it may justly be said that love is the perpetual knot and link of the universe: ‘amor nodus perpetuus, et copula mundi’. Although Venus remained one deity among others, and as such the bestower only of particular gifts, she defined, as it were, the universal system of exchange by which divine gifts are graciously circulated. The image of the Graces, linked by the knot of mutual charity (segnesque nodum solvere Gratiae), supplied a perfect figure by which to illustrate the dialectical rhythm of Ficino’s universe. His villa at Careggi, the seat of the Platonic academy, seemed to him predestined by its very name to become ‘Charitum ager‘, the soil of the Graces: ‘ Quid enim gratius quam in Charegio, hoc est, gratiarum agro, una cum Cosmo gratiarum patre versari?

Perhaps because Plato had advised Xenocrates that he should ‘sacrifice to the Graces’, Ficino worshipped them as an exemplary triad, the archetype after which all the other triads of Neoplatonism appeared to be modelled. No matter whether he was discussing the logical triad of species-numerus-modus, or the theological triad of Mercury-Apollo-Venus, or the moral triad of Veritas-Concordia-Pulchritudo—since every one of these groups was governed by the law of procession, rapture and reversal, Ficino did not hesitate to compare all of them in turn to the Graces, calling them ‘quasi Gratiae tres se invicem complectentes’, or ‘quasi Gratiae tres inter se concordes atque conjunctae’, or ‘tamquam Venus tribus stipata Gratiis’, etc. Apparently he felt none of the scruples which might have beset a less confident dialectician. It is obvious, for example, that if the three Graces were subordinated to Venus in a strictly logical sense, the triad Mercury- Apollo-Venus could not be co-extensive with that of the Graces. Ficino was fully aware of this question but he did not consider it a difficulty because, in the Neoplatonic system, the structure of the whole is repeated in every part. Any smaller or subordinate unit can therefore serve as an image or mirror of the larger, like Leibniz’s ‘miroirs vivants‘ de L’univers.

On one occasion, having identified the three Graces with animus- corpus-fortuna, Ficino proceeded, in the very same sentence, to distinguish within the sphere of animus between the three Graces of sapientia, eloquentia, and probitas. However objectionable as logic, Ficino’s circular regressions conformed to a principle which Proclus had defined in the ‘Elements of Theology'(Proposition 67) as όλον έν τφ μέρει (ólon én tf mérei), that is, ‘whole in the part’; and from it Proclus himself had drawn the kind of lesson which Ficino applied so persistently: ‘Whichever among these you assume, it is the same with the others, because all of them are in each other, and are rooted in the One.’

Pico restated the principle in his ‘Conclusiones’. . . secundum Proclum, no. 17: ‘Granting . . . that the divine hierarchies are distinct, it must yet be understood that all are contained in all according to their particular modes.’ In the ‘Heptaplus‘, a triadic account of the biblical Creation was expanded by Pico according to the same scheme: ‘ Quidquid in omnibus simul est mundis, id et in singulis continetur, neque est aliquis unus ex eis, in quo non omnia sint quae sunt in singulis.’ A single triad, however limited in range, could therefore serve as a cipher for the universe, because the divine trinity had left its traces on every part of the creation. ‘Divinam trinitatem in rebus cunctis agnosces’ , wrote Ficino; and Pico repeated the same idea in a more precise formulation: ‘Est trinitatis divinae in creatura multiplex vestigium.’ The phrasing recalled a passage in St Augustine which it was easy to transfer to the Charites or Graces: ‘Tria in Charitate, velut vestigium Trinitatis.’

It would be natural to look for the source of the inscription in Pico’s own writings, but although they abound in verbal triads, this particular sequence does not, as far as I know, occur in them. It does, however, occur literally in Ficino’s ‘De amore’ II, 2, from which the inscription was clearly taken; and that will prove important for dating the medal. For, after having explained how ‘the supreme maker first creates single things, then seizes them, and thirdly perfects them’, Ficino traced the circle of divine love through the three phases of Pulchritudo, Amor, and Voluptas. The first of them issues from God as a kind of beacon, the second enters into the world which it moves to rapture, and the third returns to its maker in a state of joy:

Circulus… prout in Deo incipit et allicit, pulchritudo: prout in mundum transiens ipsum rapit, amor·, prout in auctorem remeans ipsi suum opus coniungit, voluptas. Amor igitur in voluptatem a pulchritudine desinit.

The last sentence—‘Amor starts from Pulchritudo and ends in Voluptas’—corresponds to the group on the medal exactly. The converting power of Amor is illustrated by the Grace in the centre who, represented from the back, looks toward Voluptas on her right and stretches out her arm in her direction. Her left hand rests, as if for support, on the shoulder of Pulchritudo from whom she turns.

A curious effect, a slight change of focus, is produced by imposing on the classical group the action defined by the inscription: for the latter requires a dynamic shift of emphasis not quite in keeping with the static symmetry of the figures. However, since Amor and Voluptas turn their heads to the right while Pulchritudo faces to the left, it was possible to divide the group asymmetrically, a/ b c, and thus to read into it the Neoplatonic triad of procession, conversion and return.


…If we go back to the Stoic prescriptions for the giving, receiving, and returning of benefits, it may seem strange that the enraptured Grace, who receives the benefit, should now be the one who turns her back; but that is not without sense if we consider that the Platonic conversion or rapture consists in turning away from the world in which we are, so as to rejoin the spirit beckoning from the Beyond. In one of the stucchi in Raphael’s Logge, the three Graces (fig. 40) look like an illustration of ‘De beneficiis‘ in the form recommended in Pierio Valeriano: one Grace is seen fullface, another straight from the back, and the third in profile; yet although they resemble Correggio’s group (fig. 16), the triad they enact is Neoplatonic. The open, inviting gesture of the Grace on the left characterizes her as the ‘offering’ Grace, while the Grace turning her back is clearly the ‘enraptured’ or ‘converted’ one; and the Grace in profile is ‘returning’. Emanatio, raptio and remeatio have rarely been illustrated in a clearer or more engaging sequence, although the Neoplatonic triad appears as Stoicism recast.

If now we return to the classical group on Pico’s medal, we shall find that the ancient description of the Graces by Servius—una aversa pingitur, duae nos respicientes—has acquired a metaphysical meaning which seems to reverse the old moral. Instead of issuing from us to the world, the first benefit (Pulchritudo) descends from the Beyond to us, and it is only right, therefore, that the enraptured Grace (Amor) ‘turns back’ from us to the Beyond (Voluptas). At the same time, the impulse to read the group symmetrically was also reinforced by Neoplatonism, because the middle term in a dialectical triad, while separating the extremes, has also the function of keeping them together: a^b^c. As the Grace Amor is seen from the back, she may still be understood in the sense of Servius as the ‘outgoing’ Grace: Turning toward the Beyond, she is doubly rewarded by the other Graces, who grant Pulchritudo and Voluptas ‘in return’ for the offering of Amor.

The function assigned here to Amor, of mediator between Pulchritudo and Voluptas, corresponds exactly to the definition of Love first given by Plato in the Symposium, and then adopted by all the Platonists: ‘Love is Desire aroused by Beauty.’ Desire alone, without Beauty as its source, would not be Love but animal passion; while Beauty alone, unrelated to passion, would be an abstract entity which does not arouse Love. Only by the vivifying rapture of Amor do the contraries of Pulchritudo and Voluptas become united: ‘Contradictoria coincidunt in natura uniali.’ But to achieve the perfect union of contraries, Love must face the Beyond; for as long as Love remains attached to the finite world, Passion and Beauty will continue to clash. In the ‘Docta ignorantia‘, Cusanus’ explained that a circle and a straight line are incompatibles as long as they remain finite, but coincide when infinite. In the same way do Beauty and Pleasure coincide if they are projected into the Beyond, that is, if they become transcendent Graces united by the rapture of Love.

Although Voluptas is the ultimate term of the triad and represents the goal at which Amor aims, the middle term is indispensable to unite the two extremes. ‘The mean term’, wrote Proclus, ‘reaching out toward both the extremes, links the whole together with itself as mediator; it . . . implants in all a common character and mutual nexus— for in this sense also givers and receivers constitute a single complete order, in that they converge upon the mean term as on a centre.’ With all its insistence on a supernatural orientation, this philosophy produced a theory of balance, in which Aristotle’s prudence, his ethics of the ‘golden mean’, was reconciled with the Platonic enthusiasm of Proclus. Both authors had designated the vital ‘mean’ by the same Greek term, μεσάτης, mesátis.

This is the Voluptas on Pico’s medal—the final joy at which Amor aims, while the initial vision is aroused by Pulchritudo. If Amor turns from Pulchritudo to Voluptas, it is because Love must turn from Vision to Joy. Joy as the highest good, and a gift superior to the intellect, was defended by Pico with his usual vigour: ‘Intelligentiam enim voluptas consequitur, qua nulla maior, qua nulla verior, nulla est permanentior.’ Distinguishing in the ‘Commento‘ between virtu cognoscente and virtu appetitiva, he left no doubt that the first comes to fruition in the second: ‘la quale quel ehe la cognoscente iudica essere buono, ama ed abbraccia…’ His insistence on the appetitive act as an act of the will (appetitio sive voluntas), without which the cognitive act would be incomplete, imparted to his theory of voluptas an energetic force which he occasionally veiled, in what he called his Parisian manner, by an excessive use of scholastic diction.

Yet in one of the cryptic ‘Conclusiones’ … in doctrinam Platonis (no. 6) he expressed his mystical hedonism in an unforgettable paradox:

Love is said by Orpheus to be without eyes because he is above the intellect (Ideo amor ab Orpheo sine oculis dicitur, quia est supra intellectum)’

The tradition that saw in the blind Cupid a symbol of unenlightened animal passion, inferior to the intellect, could not have been more forcefully challenged and reversed.

So important was this paradox in setting the tone of neo-Orphic thought and imagery in the Renaissance, and in causing debates between Ficino and Pico, that it is worth inquiring a little more closely into its sources and developments. With regard to the supremacy of blind love, we shall find at the outset a complete agreement between Ficino and Pico, and at the end a sharp divergence; which will bring us back to Pico’s medal, and help us to establish its date.

Recto & verso of the 1494 ‘Pico della Mirandola’ medal, created by Niccolò di Forzore Spinelli – Fiorentino :’MIRANDVLENSIS IOANNES PICVS’ and ’PVLCRITVDO, AMMOR, VOLVPTAS‘.


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