Three Renaissance Portraits



Tannhäuser, painting by Gabriel von Max (c. 1878)

Tannhäuser, painting by Gabriel von Max (c. 1878)

Tannhäuser, a German minnesinger, was an almost exact contemporary of Thomas Aquinas. After his death an anonymous ballad called “The Song of Tannhäuser” began to be circulated. The ballad tells the story of a knight living in great felicity in Venusberg until, overcome with remorse, he forsakes the mountain of pleasure and sets off for Rome to win the absolution of the pope who tells him that he will forgive him when the dry staff in his hand sprouts leaves. In despair Tannhäuser returns to the Venusberg, but three days later green leaves appear on the pope’s staff. One of the Grimms’ faery tales has a similar scenario: a disgraced but penitent hermit is compelled to wander the world, sleeping with a log for a pillow until his death when three green twigs shoot out of the log.

Owen Lee sees in the Renaissance, which the figure of Tannhäuser foreshadows, the same conflict between the sacred and the profane, or between the noble and the sentimental, that one observes in the early days of Christianity and finds its masterful expression in Wagner’s opera based on the Tannhäuser legend. Wagner’s Tannhäuser is torn not between good and evil but between “two opposing sets of values.” The Landgrave of Wartburg, the minnesingers, and the Thuringian knights represent the Middle Ages, Venus the emerging spirit of the Renaissance. The significance of Tannhäuser for Lee is that in it “Wagner has caught the tension of that historic moment and centered it in the soul of his hero.” Tannhäuser is a man “torn between two worlds, unable to rest in either.” Elisabeth is a comparable figure, torn between Mary and Venus, the two aspects, some would have us believe, of the morning and evening star. Although her sanctity is indisputable she says that Tannhäuser’s songs have brought her “a strange new life,” “emotions I had never felt before, longings I had never known.” The synthesis Tannhäuser and Elisabeth attempt to achieve in their own minds is a synthesis which Father Lee believes, almost in Hegelian terms, modern Europe was to realize. Wagner himself said of the conclusion of the Dresden version of the Tannhäuser overture that “with the hymn of God we hear the joyous sound of the Venusberg, no longer profane but redeemed,” “pulsing, welling up, leaping; the two forces, the spiritual and the sensual, once separated, now embrace.”



Bust of Ficino by Andrea Ferrucci in Il Duomo di Firenze

Bust of Ficino by Andrea Ferrucci in Il Duomo di Firenze

Until Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas the Middle Ages was Platonic; the Renaissance, with its emphasis on the individual and on science, was overall an Aristotelian movement despite the fact that its greatest Aristotelian was so minor a figure as Pomponazzi and that Platonism was represented by philosophers like Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Although most of the Renaissance thinkers were Christian few of them were interested solely in religious questions. Even Ficino’s sickness and subsequent conversion could not get him to forsake Platonism whose Italian revival he assiduously sought. Ficino was much influenced by Plato, Plotinus, and the Hermetic writings, but he was not ignorant of Scholasticism and accepted Aristotle’s contributions to logic and natural philosophy. In the 1460’s Cosimo de’ Medici placed several Greek manuscripts at Ficino’s disposal and gave him a villa outside Florence in which to found a Platonic academy; there Cosimo’s two sons gathered along with Politian and Michelangelo. Ficino translated the Hermetic writings, Plato’s dialogues, and, at the suggestion of Pico della Mirandola, the Enneads. He also wrote a commentary on the Symposium, in which he gave Platonic love the definition it now possesses, as well as his most famous work Platonic Theology which presents a Platonism intended as an attractive and artistic half-religious substitute to Christianity. Ficino subscribed to a hierarchical cosmology, dividing the universe into five substances: God, the angelic mind, the rational soul, quality, and body. Like Plotinus he believed the union of the soul with God was the chief aim of life, but unlike Plotinus he never attained or is said to have attained such unity. For Ficino each of the four elements had many souls derived from it: the bright stellar souls, the opaque terrestrial souls, the aerial invisible souls, and the nereids, “sometimes seen by people with very sharp eyes in Persia or India.”



Portrait of André Thevet by Thomas de Leu (1586)

André Thevet was born in France a year before Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Chapel. His first book, published in 1554, was about his travels in the Levant; the following year he sailed to Brazil where he fell ill and took the next available ship home, claiming falsely that on his return voyage he explored the region north of the Carolinas. The brief ten weeks he was in Brazil he would transform into three extensive explorations of the New World. In 1557 he wrote a book about the natives of Canada, some of its contents based on what he had heard from another more reputable explorer; from this book we learn that the earliest Canadians believed that good men were taken after their death to a place where trees grew and birds sang and that the souls of bad men were snatched up by a great bird who carried them they knew not where. Shortly after writing this book Thevet became an aide to Catherine de’ Medici and soon afterwards was made royal cosmographer of France. He also served under the king who ordered the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Catherine de’ Medici’s son, but his response to that tragedy is not known. It is known that he found himself accused of falsehood by a Calvinist minister and a rival cosmographer. In devising the fiction for a third voyage he had to go against his previous claim that he had spent the year of the voyage in the Holy Land and a second claim that he had passed that time in the house of a friend.

The discovery of the New World was thought to unleash fabulous and untold things, but its outcome was no different than the outcome of the colonization of another planet; in both cases civilized man would bring much of his evil. The New World also lacked something of the timeworn richness that history had given the Old World, a richness that may be civilization’s greatest gift.



Theodore Sabo is a resident of Washington State and an extraordinary lecturer at North-West University of South Africa. He has published in Acta Classica and the Journal for Late Antique Religion and Culture.