Research Photo Blog: Palazzo Giovanelli, Venezia

With enduring gratitude to Errico Costruzioni SRL.

First Visit – December 2015

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Later photos from April 2019

Exterior and Courtyard

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Gothic Circular Staircase

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ground Floor

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Piano Nobile + Other

This slideshow requires JavaScript.






Guest Lecture: Religion in Arabia among Pastoral and Agrarian Civilizations From the Bronze Age through Islam


This survey of a selection of the religious structures, customs, and beliefs on the Arabian Peninsula from the Bronze Age through the advent of Islam by necessity of length is bound to restrict its analysis to a broad differentiation of the civilizations and peoples between a split that occurred sometime in the Neolithic: between those groups whose existence remained nomadic and pastoral, the itinerant tribes recognizable in the Bedouin of the present day whose rhythms of life are tied to the movement of their flocks, and those which mirrored the rise of Sumer and the Mesopotamian empires to the north with the mastery of agriculture, irrigation achieved by the diversion of predictable, seasonal floods, the building of walled cities, monumental temples, and a unique system of writing; these latter are the Qataban, Ma’in, Hadhramawt, and, most prominent of all, Saba (Biblical Sheba) concentrated in the southwestern corner of Arabia in modern-day Yemen. With the Islamification of the Peninsula in the seventh century, after the Sabaean kingdom and the overland trade route of antiquity had given way to the Himyarite Empire and the thriving sea-trade with its connections spanning the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, a deliberate campaign of religious iconoclasm erased much of the material culture of the past in all of its diverse forms. By this time, Judaism and Christianity were well-established and featured prominently in the heterogenous religious landscape. The rare work dedicated by Ibn Al-Kalbi in the ninth century C.E. in the early centuries of Islam on pre-Islamic divinities and religious customs has been until the last thirty years the primary point of access to what Islam deemed the days of Jahiliya, or ignorance.[1] Only relatively recently with the efforts of modern archaeologists and historians have we had the opportunity to encounter the great civilizations of Arabian antiquity and to study their sites, texts, and artworks, although it must be observed that many of these have been deliberately destroyed over the past four years by targeted airstrikes in the ongoing war waged by a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia, tallying losses whose importance among the great civilizations like Sumer, Akkad, and Egypt was just beginning to be recognized. Nevertheless, this paper uses both Al-Kalbi’s text as well as these more recent scientific studies in its exploration of the unique character of religious observances in Arabia including customs of animal husbandry, sacrifice, diverse aspects of pilgrimage, and the veneration of natural materials through history and on the eve of Islam which constitute the cultural background from which the distinct features of Islam emerged.

[1] See Marmardjji, M. S. “Les dieux du paganism arabe d’après Ibn al-Kalbi,” Revue Biblique (1892-1940) 35.3 (1926): 397-420.


We begin our narrative with the migration of anatomically modern humans out of Africa, across the narrow crossing of the Bab Al-Mandab at the meeting of the Red and Arabian Seas, and into the much wetter and greener Arabia of the Holocene. These early sites of human settlements in the Neolithic are marked by the domestication of animals like camels, goats, and dogs for which the petroglyphs at Wadi Jubbah and other sites from Najran to Petra in Jordan provide ample testimony.[1] A rare historical study of pre-Islamic religion and customs from the early Islamic period, the Book of Idols by Ibn Al-Kalbi written in the early ninth century C.E.,[2] observes that the institution of a series of customs around the sacrifice and management of domesticated animal populations was a diversion from the religion of Abraham and Ishmael which Islam would later prohibit. These are the sa’ibah (the liberation of a certain animal or any animal left unattended; this was often the bahirah- see below), the wasilah (a she-goat that births twins in which the male is spared. Usually, single-male births would be sacrificed while female-births spared; the male twin’s stay of sacrifice was contingent on the view that it was joined to its female twin.), the bahirah (a she-camel that has its ears slit and being exempt from slaughter, carrying burdens, and milking; this might be done after a she-camel or she-goat has birthed five, seven, or ten young ones. If the last was a male, it was slaughtered; if female, its ears were slit. There is ambiguity whether the bahirah was the last female birth, the mother, or both), and the hamiyah (a stallion-camel left at liberty when the offspring of its offspring had been fertile). Only against this cultural context does the full picture of the “new order” of Islam in the Quran’s Sura 5 v. 103 emerge with its dictate that, ““Allah has not ordained (the making of) a slit-ear she-camel, or a she-camel let loose for free pasture, or idol sacrifices for twin-births in animals, or stallion-camels freed from work, but those who disbelieve fabricate a lie against Allah, and most of them do not understand.”

[1] Most recently, see Charloux, Guillaume, Guagnin, Maria, and Norris, Jérome. “Reflection on some rock art traditions of large-sized camels in western Arabia.” Presented at the Seminar for Arabian Studies held in Leiden Friday July 12 2019. Publication forthcoming.

[2] Al-Kalbi, Hisham Ibn. The Book of Idols, Being a Translation from the Arabic of the Kitab Al-Asnam, trans. Nabih Amin Faris. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952, 6.


Animals continued to play a central role in the religious and art history of pastoral and agrarian civilizations alike which arose in the coming millennia, but even before this advent, remaining in the prehistoric, we can direct our attention to what would become the literal and spiritual centerpiece of the religious experience through Islam. This is the practice of litholatry or stone worship, evidenced by early arrangements of standing stones on the Tihama plain of coastal Yemen,[1] some of them (as is the case at the site of Al-Muhandid) arranged in circular structures familiar to historians of megalithic architecture at Hagar Qim in Malta, Göbekli Tepe in Anatolia, Stonehenge in England, and many other sites elsewhere. These minasib, or upright stones, possessed a sacred character not only for their original erectors far back in prehistory but also for later periods, when they would be appropriated as stelae or integrated into tombs and religious structures. Writing in the ninth century, there is no expectation that any true memory of the prehistoric erection of these megalithic sites transmitted to Al-Kalbi, yet there is a reference to the transport of several idols from Juddah (perhaps the closer Jiddah on the Red Sea coast of modern Saudi Arabia) to the Tihama, where they were erected and shortly compelled a dedicated pilgrimage. Al-Kalbi relates the instructions of an oracle (a jinn nicknamed Abu-Thumamah) to ‘Amr ibn-Luhayy, whose full significance in the mytho-history of Arabian religion will be explored below:

“To the shores of Juddah make thy way;

There thou shalt find idols in fine array;

With thee to Tihamah take them back,

Let nought alarm thee, fear no attack;

Then bid the Arabs worship them, one and all,

They will hear they voice and heed thy call.”[2]

Another encounter in Al-Kalbi’s with the standing stones of “Juddah,” very likely the same Tihama coast wherein such arrangements and monoliths have been identified by archaeologists in Yemen and Saudi Arabia alike, is the deity Sa’d, described as a “long rock,” which certainly fits the profile of the majority of these prehistoric monuments. The events which led to the abandonment of its worship, which Al-Kalbi recounts in the anecdotal episode of a camel-driver hoping for a blessing believed to be given to animals led to its summit but who becomes enraged by the circumstance of his flock scattered in terror by the blood of earlier sacrifices thereon,[3] reinforce the idea that these sacred sites were locations of pilgrimage and sacrifice for an extremely long duration of time amongst nomadic groups before Islam.

[1] See Khalidi, Lamya, “The late prehistoric standing stones of the Tihâma (Yemen): the domestication of space and the construction of human-landscape identity,” Yémen Territoires et Identités 121-122 (2008): 17-33; “Yemen: Arabia’s Stonehenge,” Current World Archaeology 52 (2012): accessed 8/28/2019.

[2] Al-Kalbi, 47.

[3] “The Malik and the Milkan, the two sons of Kinanah, had at the coast of Juddah in that region, an idol called Sa’d. It was a long rock. Once upon a time a certain man came to it with his flock of camels in order to make them stand on it and thereby obtain its blessing. But as he led them near the rock they shied away from it because it was covered in blood, and they scattered in every direction. Thereupon the man became furious, and picked up a stone and threw it at the rock saying, ‘Accursed god! Thou hast caused my camels to shy.’ He then went after them until he gathered them, and returned home saying: ‘We came to Sa’d in hope he would unite our ranks, / But he broke them up. We will have none of him. / Is he not but a rock in a barren land, / Deaf to both evil and to good?” Idem, 32. The theme of an animal shying away from the blood of sacrifice is not unique in Al-Kalbi to the story of Sa’d; see also the quotation of Ja’far ibn-abi-Khallas al-Kalbi about the idol Su’ayr of the ‘Anazah: “My young camels were startled by the blood of sacrifice / Offered around Su’ayr whither Yaqdum and Yadhkur go / On pilgrimage, and stand before it in fear and awe, / Motionless and silent, awaiting its oracular voice.” Idem, 35.


Archaeological time and Al-Kalbi’s concept of the past rooted in Biblical events are two entirely different yet not wholly unrelateable time-lines with which the present study must reconcile itself. Al-Kalbi, in a form familiar to Arabian genealogies, establishes the worship of stones in a timeline which goes back to Adam.[1] He relates that the children of Seth (Shith), the son of Adam, initiated the practice of pilgrimage and circumambulation when they visited their primogenitor’s tomb on Mount Nawdh, which the author locates in India. The children of Cain (Qabil), another son of Adam, in response carved their own idol, the first graven image, in order for themselves to have an object of veneration, pilgrimage, and circumambulation. The images were multiplied when, according to Al-Kalbi’s relation, five righteous people died within a month of one another, and the grief-stricken community found solace in five carved statues of their likenesses around which they would circumambulate to pay their respects; these were Wadd, Suwa, Yaghuth, Ya’uq, and Nasr, five antediluvian idols which figure prominently in Al-Kalbi’s volume. He places their creation in the time of Jared (Yarid), the great-great-great-grandson of Adam, and asserts that their worship lasted through the centuries that saw the advent of the prophet Enoch (Idris) and his warning to abandon them through the coming of Noah and the Great Flood, 2,500 years after Adam. This washed the five antediluvian carved idols to Juddah (perhaps Jiddah), where ‘Amr ibn-Luhayy dug them up and subsequently transferred them to the Tihama, as detailed above. Modern archaeology of the past twenty years has brought to light a collection of bronze-age anthropomorphic stelae and statuettes dated to between 3,000 and 1,000 B.C.E., ranging from a female form comparable to the “Venus” prototype of Paleolithic statuettes found in Europe and the Near East, a rare contemporary male counterpart with what has been identified as the glans of the male phallus carved into its lower extremity, a seated group colloquially named “the Forefathers,” and three anthropomorphic stelae from the area around Tayma’ and Ha’il in contemporary Saudi Arabia recently included in the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition of 2011.[2] It is appealing to speculate that these antediluvian proto-idols of Al-Kalbi’s straightforward Adamic timeline may be a response of some kind to the appearance of unearthed prehistoric statuettes in his own time and that of his predecessors.

[1] Idem, 43-6.

[2] Franke, Ute, “Early Stelae in Stone” in Roads of Arabia: The Archaeological Treasures of Saudi Arabia, eds. Ute Franke et al. (Berlin: Wasmuth, 2011), 68-71.


Al-Kalbi categorizes carved stone statues and images as wathan or awthan rather than the term idol, or sanam or asnam, reserved for statues made of wood, gold, silver, or other materials.[1] However, if we take Al-Kalbi at his word, any stone the wandering nomad might come across could and would be adapted to a ritual purpose; these he called ansab.[2] One passage has immediate relevance, so far unconnected in any publication to date, to contemporary archaeologists who study triliths, or three-stone arrangements from the Bronze Age forwards which dot the Arabian Peninsula:[3] “Whenever a traveler stopped at a place or station, he would select for himself four stones, pick out the finest among them and adopt it as his god, and use the remaining three as supports for his cooking pot. On his departure he would leave them behind, and would do the same on his other stops.”[4] This lacuna in historical and archaeological scholarship notwithstanding, the transfer of a trilith arrangement some 600 kilometers’ distance from Duqm to the National Museum Oman in Muscat in 2018 underscores the interest and resources presently dedicated to understanding these prehistoric lithic monuments.[5]

[1] Al-Kalbi, 46.

[2]Idem, 28.

[3] See Giraud, Jessica et al. “The first three campaigns (2007-2009) of the survey at Adam (Sultanate of Oman) (poster),” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 40 (2010): 175-183; Newton, Lynne S. and Zarins, Juris, “Preliminary results of the Dhofar Archaeological Survey,” in ibid.: 247-265; Garba, Roman, “Triliths, the Stone Monuments of Southern Arabia: Assessment in landscape and social context,”Public Lecture at the National Museum Oman. Muscat, Oman. 25 Feb. 2019; Garba, Roman et al. “Trilith monuments of Southern Arabia: preliminary results of excavation seasons 2018 – 2019 and implications on triliths chronology,” Proceedings of the Seminar of Arabian Studies 50 (2020), forthcoming.

[4] Al-Kalbi, 28-29.

[5] “Relocation of trilith monument from Duqm to The National Museum in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman.” Czech Archaeology News, 5 Feb. 2019. Accessed 31 Aug. 2019.–sultanate-of-oman..html


Another class of stone idol which features in Al-Kalbi’s medieval account of pre-Islamic worship as well as recent anthropological essays is the stone which is the divinely-transformed human or animal; however, as we shall shortly see, there is an appreciably spectrum to the motives and context for such a transformation to occur, although the worship of this stone by later descendants is common to all. Al-Kalbi informs us of the two stones of Isaf and Na’ilah,[1] two lovers from Yemen whose transgression in the sacred space of the pre-Islamic Ka’bah of Mecca brought down the deity’s petrifying wrath. Al-Kalbi explains their inclusion and changing arrangement among the idols of the Ka’ba of Mecca until the time of Mohamed as well as reveals that menstruating women were not allowed close to Isaf (whether this was also the case with the female Na’ilah is nowhere made as clear.)[2] The Hebrew parallel of Lot’s wife’s transformation into a pillar of salt comes to mind as a relatable phenomenon in broader Semitic mythologies (Genesis 19:26), but examples from Arabian contexts much closer at hand are also to be found. A living relic of this belief and veneration of a transformed rock continues at the pre-Islamic- or rather, trans-Islamic since it draws pilgrimages in the month of Sha’ban each year still- sanctuary of Qabr Hud in an otherwise uninhabited, ravine of the Wadi Hadhramawt in the southern Arabian Peninsula in modern-day Yemen.[3] The antediluvian prophet Hud, whose legend unfolds during the time of the giant ‘Adanites and whose continued worship is due to his prominence in the Qu’ran, given second place in importance only to the Prophet Mohamed, escaped the hostile tribesmen who rejected his preaching with divine aid that opened up a cleft in the rock into which he disappeared (and remains a focal point of the shrine, framed by an opening in the plastered architecture of its interior) to live out his days, nourished only by the milk of his faithful she-camel. At his death, God pitied the camel and transformed her into the giant rock which gives its adjoined terrace, built in the pre-Islamic era but rebuilt as late as the end of the nineteenth century,[4] the name al-Naqa. Another instance of a petrified camel has been noted at the shrine of Mawla Matar, in the Hadhramawt on the old camel track between Mukalla and Wadi Do’an, which preserves the old form of its name “Lord of the Rain” rather than that of any Islamic wali or saint; this rock is smaller than its counterpart at the Qabr Hud, but both sites remain the destinations of yearly pilgrimages and ritual which have preserved distinctly pre-Islamic features explored in detail by Werner Daum.[5]

[1] For their transformed forms, Al-Kalbi uses the term miskhs, which the translator includes in its transliteration without further comment. This term does not appear elsewhere in the translation of Faris, and the full sense in relationship to the body of stone-specific terminology is no further explored. See Al-Kalbi, 8.

[2] “On being transformed into petrified form, they were placed by the Ka’bah in order that people might see them and be warned. Finally, as their origin became remote and, therefore, forgotten, and idol worship came into vogue, they were worshipped with the other idols. One of them stood close to the Ka’bah while the other was placed by Zamzam. Later the Quraysh moved the one which stood close to the Ka’bah to the side of the other by Zamzam where they sacrificed to both.” Idem, 24-25.

[3] See the most recent study of the site and its customs: Daum, Werner. “Qabr Hud revisited: The pre-Islamic religion of Hadramawt, Yemen, and Mecca” in Pre-Islamic South Arabia and its Neighbors: New Developments of Research, eds. Mounir Arbach and Jérémie Schiettecatte (Oxford: British Foundation for the Study of Arabia, 2015), 49-72.

[4] Idem, 51.

[5] Idem, 64. The stark coordinates of the site (14°46’N, 48°48’E) in no way communicate the same evocative picture as the words of Freya Stark reproduced by Daum: “Our track wound between the two [Kawr Sayban, Hadhramawt’s highest elevation and Jabal Matar], and skirted small funnel holes that mark the heads of Wadis Thwinne and Haram, by twisted samr trees, few and bent, until we came to where, like the gates of an Egyptian temple, the two cliff faces stand. Here we entered, with primitive feelings of awe, into the highest defile of the land… and here the Bedouin, responding to the natural religion of the place, have built the shrine and grave of their ancestor, Sheikh Amtar…” 64-65.


In summary, Al-Kalbi many kinds of stones worshipped by various groups on the Arabian Peninsula before and through the advent of Islam: prehistoric monuments whose obscure origins proved no impediment to ongoing sacrifice and ritual circumambulation, stones upon whose surfaces anthropomorphic images had been carved, stones recognized as miraculous transformations of once-living beings, and any stone elected for the privileged role of temporary baetyl by nomads who organized others nearby into the characteristic triliths that dot the borders of the Empty Quarter. Al-Kalbi’s translator’s use of the term baetyl belies a far-reaching interpretation of litholatry spanning the ancient world and which remains at the heart of Islam. The Greek origins of this term are theorized to be a corruption of the Hebrew Beth-El or “House of God,” the locus of Joseph’s divine dream in the Old Testament (Genesis 28:10-22[1]), but the Arabic bayt however is certainly closer in pronunciation. In any linguistic case, the divine quality to these stones is attached to their origin in heaven abode, the home of God and a host of gods alike across virtually every ancient civilization. It has been argued on a general anthropological level that perhaps the oldest “cult images” probably did not begin as images at all but evolved from meteoric rock and iron fallen from the sky; baetyls, baitulia, or lithoi empsychoi were these kinds of stones which in their earliest incarnations were left in their natural state or minimally carved. Assyrian reliefs document this convention, and archaeologists have identified a likely baetyl as the focus of worship in the ruins of Gournia on Crete by its Minoan inhabitants a full thousand years before Archaic Greek sculpture would appear. The Cyrenaica Votive Statue then from the sixth century B.C.E. is a rare transitional piece which intentionally left the face a smooth, uncarved surface stet in the emerging form of the Archaic kore. Returning to Arabia, we find mention in Al-Kalbi of an uncarved, cubic baetyl as the embodiment of goddess Allat, perhaps better known as a trinity with the other goddesses Manah and Al-‘Uzza, the three “Numidian cranes” or “daughters of Allah” in a scrubbed Quranic passaged dubbed the “Satanic Verses” (Sura An-Najim [53]: 18-22) in the modern period but which Al-Kalbi unflinchingly quotes.[2] Al-Kalbi’s description of Allat’s form also associates it with a “certain Jew” who used to prepare his barley porridge (sawiq) beside it, but this any further clarification to this aspect of its identity and worship would appear hopelessly lost to time.[3] At the time of his writing in the ninth century C.E., Al-Kalbi located the former placement of the Allat baetyl in the place of the left-hand side minaret of the mosque of Taif; while there are a profusion of mosque-sites in the present-day city of Saudi Arabia, an architectural history has yet to be conducted which would establish which mosque to which Al-Kalbi could have been referring. It is worth noting however the linguistic position which the goddess Allat occupies in relation to the name of Allah; the horizontal line which would render the final taa to the feminine taa marbuta, and which is conspicuously absent in the male form of the divinity’s name, is the natural written form of the pre-Islamic female goddess. Another large, quadrangular, and unhewn stone is identified by Al-Kalbi’s translator with the figure of Dhu Al-Shara (or Dusares), chief god of the Nabataeans that had its own splendid dedicated temple at Petra in Jordan.[4] Finally, no discussion of the significance of sacred stones in the Arabian context would be complete without mention of the pre-Islamic Black Stone (hijr as-swad), a much-debated possible meteorite,[5] set into the eastern corner of the Ka’bah in Mecca. Its origin is cast to the beginning of human existence, when it fell from heaven and indicated to Adam and Eve where the first altar should be built; after becoming lost, it was rediscovered by Ishmael, who used it as the foundation stone for the new Ka’bah his father Abraham ordered built. Muslim pilgrims kiss and touch the stone in emulation of the Prophet Mohamed’s treatment of the same before the revelation of Islam, but Islamic scholars underline that it is not the stone being worshipped. This fine point notwithstanding, a salient feature of religion before Islam was the plurality of sacred stones worshipped and the many sites of pilgrimage and circumambulation of said stones, versus the reduction of acceptability and ritual (if not exactly sacrality) to one stone, housed in the Ka’bah of Mecca, and one major pilgrimage with its ritual circumambulation, the Haj required of all practicing Muslims.

[1] And in particular Gen. 28:18 (NIV): Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it.

[2] “By Allat and al-‘Uzza, / And Manah, the third idol besides. / Verily they are the most exalted females (lit. Numidian cranes) / Whose intercession is to be sought.” Idem, 17. On the modern controversy which provoked the 1989 fatwa against the Iranian author Salman Al-Rushdie, see Slaughter, M. M. “The Salman Rushdie Affair: Apostasy, Honor, and Freedom of Speech,” Virginia Law Review 79.1 (1993): 153-204.

[3] Al-Kalbi, 14.

[4] Idem, 33.

[5] Thomsen, E. “New Light on the Origin of the Holy Black Stone of the Ka’ba, “Meteoritics 15.1 (1980): 87.


The ritual circumambulation, also encountered described as circumrotation or quite simply the circuit walked around an object of worship is named dawar by Al-Kalbi and testified to in as variety of forms as the worship of various stones.[1] Among the verses related to this phenomenon are included the love-struck ones of ‘Amir ibn-al-Tufayl (“O that my mother’s kin, the Ghani / Would circumrotate their baetyls every evening!”), an excerpt from the ode of al-Muthaqqib al-‘Abdi (“Young lads circumambulate their baetyls, / Until their hair (lit. eyebrows) becomes almost grey.”), and an Islamic prophecy from a hadith, or saying attributed to the Prophet Mohamed (“This world shall not pass away until the buttocks of the women of Daws wiggle [again] around Dhu Al-Khalash and they worship it as they were wont to do [before Islam]”).[2] The act of circumambulating the Ka’bah of Mecca is a continuous practice reduced to a single site in the Islamic Period from a multitude of sacred objects in the age prior, and the Islamic requirement of at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in the lifetime of a Muslim has codified and expanded what was previously a phenomenon of diverse tribes to their diverse respective pilgrimage destinations. The timing of these ritual pilgrimages, reduced to the one principal haj of Islam, also was subject to a break with its past, but not one so dramatic as to render its former practice totally alien. Another hadith attributed to the Prophet of Islam makes direct reference to this revolution the sacred calendar of Arabia underwent in the seventh century: “Rajab is the month of God, Sha’ban is my month, Ramadan is the month of my people.”[3] Daum observed that the pilgrimage to Qabr Hud in the Hadramawt, a site which has maintained a continuous use from the pre-Islamic era, occurs in mid-Sha’ban, while smaller sites like Mawla Matar- mentioned above in conjunction with the rock of a petrified she-camel- and Bin Hud in the Hadramawt take place in mid-Rajab; the “minor haj,” the ‘umra to Mecca, was a phenomenon of the month of Rajab until the twelfth century C.E.[4]

[1] Al-Kalbi, 28.

[2] Idem, 32, 36.

[3] A more detailed discussion can be found in Daum’s study cited above, particularly his conclusion: “In Yemen, those Walis and sanctuaries that go back to the pre-Islamic period have their great annual celebration in either mid-Rajab or mid-Sha’ban. The two months are interchangeable. Islam has abolished their holy nature, and instituted Ramadan instead, but the Yemenis preferred not to take notice of this,” Daum, 66.

[4] Ibid.


Another feature which has translated to the Islamic haj of the present day amply-attested in the volume of Al-Kalbi is the practice of shaving the head at the conclusion of a pilgrimage.[1] The worship of Manah, another of the three goddesses worshipped around Mecca[2] before Islam of whom Allat was introduced above, closed what appears to have been a long circuit of pilgrimage made by the Quraysh, the Aws, the Khazraj, and the inhabitants of Medina: “At the end of the pilgrimage, however, when they were about to return home, they would set out to the place where Manah stood, shave their heads, and stay there a while.”[3] Another pre-Islamic pilgrimage site which Al-Kalbi locates in the Syrian hills is associated with this act of ritual hygiene: “I swore by the baetyls of Al-Uqaysir a solemn oath, Where the foreparts of the heads and the lice are shaven.”[4] In the case of this latter Syrian idol, the addition of the shaved hair and even lice with wheat offered to the god which would be claimed by a nomadic tribe as the dough with which they would bake bread.[5] This practice is cited explicitly in a hadith of the Prophet Mohamed quoted by Al-Kalb, here excerpted from a longer passage:

“Have ye not seen that the Jarm have prevailed,

While your father is squatting amid the lice in al-Uqaysir’s vale?

And when a gift of wheat is offered he would say,

‘Give it unto me, without the lice, and be rewarded there-with;

For I am one of the poor men of the Hawazin tribe.’”[6]

The clearly-stated preference for the wheat without the lice and hair rules out any construct that the addition of these materials imparted any kind of sacred quality associated in any way with ritual consumption; rather, the picture that coalesces is one of the contrasts of ancient Arabian society between the agrarian, productive settlements which produced and dedicated the wheat with their hair, the “haves,” and the itinerant, impoverished nomads, the “have-nots” for our purposes. By the time of Al-Kalbi, the participation of entire populations, both agrarian communities as well as the pastoral nomads, was a given in Arabian society and religious life; we may start the proverbial clock of the rise of these settled cities of the ancient Arabian Peninsula at 4,800 B.C.E., with the oldest dating of evidence of cultivated sorghum excavated in Oman,[7] signaling a long history of trade and influence between the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia. By the time of the first mention of the expedition of a gift (namurtu) of semi-precious stones and aromatics from the Sabaean king Karib’il Watar to the Assyrian king Sennacherib ca. 683 B.C.E.,[8] we observe the material development of Sabaean and other South Arabian architecture and religious custom already to a parallel advanced degree of development that has occurred outside the cuneiform historic record. These gaps are only beginning to be filled by the work of archaeologists, epigraphers, and historians working from the South Arabian sources themselves.

[1] For the modern practice and transition from blades to electric shavers, see Naar, Ismaeel. “Barbers of Mecca and why pilgrims shave their head as Hajj nears its end.” Al-Arabiya. 21. Aug. 2018. Accessed 2 Sep. 2019.

[2] On the location, Al-Kalbi wrote that the idol of Manah was erected on the seashore in the vicinity of al-Mushallal in Qudayd, between Medina and Mecca. For her position in this feminine trinity, see the explicit assertion: “This Manah is that which God mentioned when He said, ‘And Manah, the third idol besides.’ [Sura LIII:20]” Al-Kalbi, 12-13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This site was frequented by the Quda’ah, the Lakhm, the Judham, the Amilah, and the Ghatafan; the quote is attributed to Zuhayr ibn-abi-Sulma. Idem, 33.

[5] “The Quda’ah, the Lakhm, and the Judham, as well as the people of Syria, had an idol called Uqaysir to which they were wont to go on pilgrimage and at the [shrine] of which they used to shave their heads. Whenever one of hem shaved his head, he would mix the hair with wheat, for every single hair a handful of wheat. During this time the Hawazin were wont to frequent the place, and, if they arrived before the pilgrim had mixed the wheat with the hair, they would say, ‘Give it unto us, we are poor men from the Hawazin.’ But if they should arrive too late, they would take the whole thing, wheat, hair, and lice, [knead it into dough], bake and eat it.” Idem, 42.

[6] Idem, 42-43.

[7] Franke, Ute. “Between Euphrates and Indus: The Arabian Peninsula from 3500-1700 BC,” in in Roads of Arabia: The Archaeological Treasures of Saudi Arabia, eds. Ute Franke et al. (Berlin: Wasmuth, 2011): 73-85, 73.

[8] Sumerian and Akkadian written sources’ geography has been reconciled to modern maps to a limited extent: the Persian Gulf as an Upper and Lower Sea, Oman as copper-rich Magan, Tarout Island in Saudi Arabia as Dilmun. Idem, 81.


Offerings were a central aspect of worship in pre-Islamic Arabia, and the rendition of a certain percentage or tithe from the variety of crops’ yields was commonplace. This perhaps is the critical socio-economic context from which the votive iconography of the Qatabanian Dhat Himyam type- with the left hand holding stalks of wheat close to her chest while the right is raised in an apparent gesture of blessing or salutation- must be placed (or at the least argued, albeit in a future study).[1] Elsewhere, vestiges of the association of a successful crop of wheat and the promise of a ritual bride given to the deity are made explicit by Werner Daum in the Hadhramawt as well as in the Tihama coastal region,[2] and the link between the fertility of crops and the rituals of hieros gamos, the sacred marriage ceremony, in ancient Saba is in the beginning stages of study.[3] In the context of the ongoing pilgrimage to Qabr Hud in the Hadhramawt, we see a variability about the precise time of the pilgrimage between nomadic and settled agrarian groups; whereas the nomadic bedu maintain the full moon day of the 15th of the month as the most reliable time to undertake their ziyara, we see a postponement of the trip to after the time of the date harvest for the agrarian communities of the inner Hadhramawt.[4] Equally if not more prominent however in pre-Islamic religion than the rendition of crops was the sacrifice of livestock and the subsequent division of its meat among the pilgrim population. The slaughter of animals continues to be a salient feature to the Islamic holidays, the various occasions of Eid celebrated throughout the year, but as we have seen in the matter of pilgrimage-calendars, circumambulation, and the preservation of a baetyl at Mecca, much older practices have been preserved with procedural differences that make them “Islamic” rather than “pagan.” As we saw above in the initial section dedicated to the aspects of animal husbandry abolished by Islam- the sa’ibah, wasilah, bahirah, and hamiyah– a rigorous system had long been in place to determine what was sacrificed at what time and in what way. Before the mandates of Islam, large animals (for ancient Arabians, bulls in the south; camels in the north) were sacrificed as aqira (pl. aqa;ir)[5] with a heavy blow dealt to the head after the tendons were cut, rendering it immobile physically as well as in relation to the wider linguistic context of Arabic (e.g. aqara as immobile propert or real estate in the Western sense). This term is also encountered as ‘atira (pl. ‘ata’ir) are more specifically rajabiya, the sacrifices offered in the months of pre-Islamic sacred month of Rajab (alternatively Sha’ban).[6] Daum cites hadiths ascribed to the Prophet Mohamed which reinforce this break with tradition[7] and the Islamic substitution of a new protocol, which called for the living animal’s throat to be cut. Historic accounts of the now-vanished phenomenon of bull sacrifice at the site of Qabr Hud, proposed to have lasted through the turn of the twentieth century, in Daum’s study plainly articulate[8] what archaeologists have excavated in Sabaean and other South Arabian civilizations’ temple sites in the last thirty years: the public nature of the sacrifice in its own dedicated architectural setting. It is a commonplace of Al-Kalbi’s volume to assert that sacrifices were made before its various idols, and some specifics of location are also given: the sacrificial site to Al-‘Uzza (the third goddess of the divine feminine trinity before Islam) was called al-Ghabghab,[9] and the transformed stones of Isaf and Na’ilah described above were associated with locations of sacrifice by Zamzam in Mecca.[10]

[1] See Pirenne, Jacqueline. “Notes d’archéologie sub-arabe: I. Stèles à la déesse dhat himyam (hamim).” Syria 37 (1960): 326-347. On the dedication to Dhat Himyam of other tokens of fertility, namely votive phalluses, see Frantsouzoff, Serguei A. “The Inscriptions from the Temples of Dhat Himyam at Raybun.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 25 (1995): 15-28.

[2] An ancient pilgrim’s chant (tahwid) alludes to this practice: “If the halba (a Yemeni variety of wheat) be safe from Taraf (a star that brings a crop-damaging cold spell) for a night / We’ll build a tent, and the Prophet (Hud) shall have a bride.” Daum, 59. On Tihama see Daum. “A pre-Islamic Rite in South Arabia,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1987: 5-14.

[3] Maraqten, Mohammed. “Sacred spaces in ancient Yemen – The Awam Temple, Ma’rib: A case study,” in Pre-Islamic South Arabia and its Neighbors: New Developments of Research, eds. Mounir Arbach and Jérémie Schiettecatte (Oxford: British Foundation for the Study of Arabia, 2015): 107-133; 111-112; Müller, W. W. “’Heilige Hochzeit’ im antiken Südarabien,” in Studies in Oriental Sulture and History. Festschrift for Walter Dostal, eds. A. Gingrich et al (Frankfurt: Lang, 1993): 15-28.

[4] Led by the Ba Abbad Sheikh as detailed in Daum, 58.

[5] Versus the dhabaha (pl. dhabiha) sacrifices of smaller animals like sheep or goats. Daum, 60.

[6] Idem, 61-62.

[7][7] “Do not eat from an animal that the Arabs have slaughtered as ‘aqira – I have to believe that it was dedicated to a divinity other than Allah” and more to the point, “No ‘aqra in Islam.” Idem, 60.

[8] “And they sacrifice the ‘aqa’ir before [=on the platform surrounding] the qubba, everybody according to his intention and the obligation of his heart, and this is in fulfilment of the vows he had made.” Ibid.

[9] Further locales dedicated to the goddess Al-‘Uzza, along with material finds and a proposed iconography among the Nabataean Arabs are to be found in Patrich, Joseph. “’Al-‘Uzza’ Earrings,” Israel Exploration Journal 34.1 (1984): 39-46. See as well Lindner, Manfred. “Eine al-‘Uzza-Isis-Stele und andere neu aufgefundene Zeugnisse der al-‘Uzza-Verehrung in Petra (Jordanien),” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins (1953-) 104 (1988): 84-91.

[10] Al-Kalbi, 18-19, 25.sacrifice

The inseparable role between sacrifice and religious veneration is the critical context which explains the idols of Sa’d, Su’ayr, and those blood-smeared rocks and baetyls encountered in the Arabian wilderness and earlier in this study, and these more rustic practices included sacred mountain peaks as well. An isolated verse in Al-Kalbi, “He moved therefrom and reached a mountain top, / Like a high altar sprinkled with the blood of sacrifice”[1] is our study’s introduction to the phenomenon of Sabaean mountain-temples as doubles of the primordial mount, a “pillar of heaven, and the omphalos or cosmic naval related most recently in a study by Mohammed Maraqten.[2] The well-known sanctuary at Jabal al-Lawdh[3] and lesser-known sites such as Jabal Balaq al-Awsat[4] and Jabal Riyam, the last of which is the only of this group mentioned by Al-Kalbi,[5] are prototypical examples of sacrality which later, more refined architectural temples of the Sabaean and other ancient South Arabian imitated in concept and epithet; the description “’r’wm”, Mount of Awam, is applied to the principal temple of the Sabaean kingdom of Ma’rib, even though it is not constructed on a mountain (rather it functions as the mountain).[6] So too can we draw a parallel between the rustic conventions of sacrifice and the refined lexicon of architecture and ritual furniture which served the same purpose and which has come down to the present in diverse instances of the archaeological record and published studies.[7] The Awwam Temple dedicated to Almaqah- colloquially called the Mahram Bilqis after the Biblical Queen of Sheba in the enduring Yemeni memory[8]– functioned as the epicenter of the Sabaean state religion, and its monumental sacrificial altar echoes in its form the architectural features of the divinity’s “house” (as sacred sites were and continue to be conceived; consider the ongoing usage of the linguistic construct of the Sacred House of Mecca) in which it originally stood. Not only bayt (house; Sabaean: byt) but also mahram (Sabaean: mhrmm) as well as the use of Ka’b for pre-Islamic sites anticipate the common Islamic monikers of the Meccan Ka’ba.[9] This echo or “doubling” of temple architecture on the forms of its sculpted sacrificial altar is also seen at a Sabaean temple dedicated to Almaqah across the Red Sea in Ethiopia, indicating that this was a widespread convention in elite temple sites of the culture and period.[10] The Awwam and Ethio-Sabaean altar alike both also possess a spout in the form of a bull’s head, indicating that a channeled flow of the blood or other fluid offered was considered on some level to be a sacred performance to which the object’s design added a further element of display. The dedicatory statuettes and plaques with bulls’ heads in relief which proliferate in South Arabian archaeology (and in today’s black market of antiquities) are object which further echo or double the phenomenon of rendering animal sacrifice to the god, albeit on the smaller scale of an individual, rather than the communal nature of the living animal’s donation. It is also worth noting that the bull itself (thawr of modern Arabic) was conflated with the divinity of Almaqah, which finds mentions in inscriptions as the thwr b’lm (“the Bull of Ba’lum,” e.g. the Bull of the Lord), ‘lmqh w-thwr b’lm b’ly ‘wm w-hrnm (“Almaqah and the Bull of Ba’lum, the two Lords, of Awam and of [the temple] Harunum”) and which has also been associated by Maraqten with the qualities of a storm god.[11]

[1] “He moved therefrom and reached a mountain top, / Like a high altar sprinkled with the blood of sacrifice.” Idem, 29.

[2] See Maraqten, 117;

[3] Robin, Ch. J. and Breton J.-F. “Le sanctuaire préislamique du Gabal al-Lawd (nord-Yémen),” Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres 126.3 (1982): 590-629; Daum, W. “Der heilige Berg Arabiens,” in Im Lande der Königen von Saba: Kunstschätze aus dem antiken Jemen, eds. W. Daum et al (Münich: Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, 1999): 223-232.

[4] Schmidt, J. “Tempel und Heiligtimer in Südarabien. Zu den materiellen und formalin Strukturen der Sakralkunst,” Nürnberger Blätter zur Archäologie 14 (1997-1998): 10-40.

[5] “The Himyar had also another temple [bayt] in Sana’a. It was called Ri’am; the people venerated it and offered in it sacrifices. According to one report, they used to receive communications from an oracle therein.” Al-Kalbi’s description continues with an account of its destruction in the reign of the Himyar king (Tubba’) converted to Judaism, almost definitely Dhu Nuwas in the early sixth century C.E. Al-Kalbi, 10-11.

[6] Maraqten, 117.

[7] See Dostal, W. “Some remarks on the ritual significance of the bull in pre-Islamic South Arabia” in Festschrift R. B. Serjeant, Arabian and Islamic Studies, eds. R. L. Bidwell and G. R. Smith (London: Longman, 1983): 196-213.

[8] This Biblical personage has become conflated with the prominent queen of pre-Islamic Yemen who lived during the eighth century B.C.E., the daughter of the King Hudhad who saved an enchanted ibex from a wolf that became his bride and Bilqis’s jinni-mother. See Abdulaali, Wafaa. “Echoes of a Legendary Queen: Contemporary women writers revise and ­recreate Sheba/Bilqīs,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 40 (2012). Accessed 31 Aug. 2019.

[9] Maraqten lists these and further Sabaean terminology attested to in the inscriptions of the Awwam temple. Maraqten, 108-110.

[10] Scnelle, Mike. “Ethio-Sabaean libation altars – First considerations for a reconstruction of form and function,” in Pre-Islamic South Arabia and its Neighbors: New Developments of Research, eds. Mounir Arbach and Jérémie Schiettecatte (Oxford: British Foundation for the Study of Arabia, 2015): 143-151.

[11] Maraqten, 111; I have substituted th for Maraqten’s notation of the syllable as ṯ for greater ease of Western pronunciation as well as for reasons of personal familiarity; the distinguished family in Yemen to whom I owe my great love and fascination for South Arabian subjects bears the name Al-Thor, and very ancient bull-iconologies and themes continue to play a role in their collective identity. These constructs of the Sabaean bull-deity have elsewhere been explored in the context of an expiatory sacrifice for homicide (hajar/tahjir) and the Islamicized thawr al-Id, on the occasion of Eid. See Daum, 62.


The primordial storm god, the bringer of thunder, “thou whose lightning flash flickers forth from the East,”[1] and most dramatically (and importantly) the harbinger of great quantities of water to an otherwise predominantly-arid landscape is a central figure in the worship of ancient Arabia which still bears recognizable traces in aspects of pilgrimage sites and practices through Islam and the present day. The uniform topography of some of the most-frequented pilgrimage sites before Islam has led to the reconstruction by Werner Daum of a detailed analysis of the role of seasonal floods and water sources in the worship-practices of Arabia before (and to an extent through) Islam. Daum’s hypothesis that sites like Qabr Hud and the Ka’bah of Mecca[2] were intentionally built in the course of seasonal flood plains in deep ravines, or sh’ib, around which the roaring waters would predictably and dramatically inundate the area finds a parallel in Al-Kalbi’s description of the temple site of Al-‘Uzza in just such a topography.[3]Certainly, perhaps the most lauded accomplishment of the ancient Sabaean civilization was their advanced grasp of hydraulic engineering for which the Marib Dam stands as an eternal monument, damage from a 2015 Saudi air strike notwithstanding.[4] The form which largely stands today can be dated to between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C.E., but scholars attest to the activity of South Arabians of constructing sophisticated systems of channels- falajs in some context- to harness seasonal floods, groundwater, and other sources for intensive agriculture from a much more distant antiquity still.[5] Above we have seen a chant from the Qabr Hud pilgrimage preserve the memory of making a kind of agreement with the deity for a crop that has weathered the perils of unpredictable weather; the same pilgrims’ hymn about rain gets right to the point, “We made the pilgrimage to you, Bin Hud, and to your wadi, we now want a miracle, we want the water to flow down.”[6] In the Qur’an, the Sura Hud (v. 52) preserves this ancient rain-making association: “[if you, the people of ‘Ad, return to God, so spoke Hud the prophet, then:] will he send down the skies [i.e. the rains] upon you, showering upon you rain in abundance…”[7] Elsewhere the songs sung at Mawla Matar, the shrine which we recall has preserved its old name “Lord of the Rain,” express the same urgent sentiment,

Rain! Oh Lord of the Rain!

Turn, oh turn the floods!

Oh God, water us with the floods

So that every wadi will drink its crop-bringing share

Oh God, water us with rain![8]

On the subject of the divine acts of making rain and releasing floods, modern scholarship has revealed a rich landscape of South Arabian religion whose very purpose and complex ritual apparati it would seem evolved to serve that fundamental end.

[1] This is a loosely paraphrased line from a hymn sung by pilgrims to Qabr Hud on the descent from the shrine; Daum observes that the thunder-god they addressed is the pre-Islamic figure of Hud himself. Idem, 57.

[2] The batn Makka is the deepest spot of the ravine where the Ka’bah was erected. See Daum, 50.

[3] “The Quraysh had dedicated to it, in the valley of the Hurad, a ravine [shi’b] called Suqam and were wont to vie there with the Sacred Territory of the Ka’bah.” Al-Kalbi, 17.

[4] Romey, Kristin. “’Engineering Marvel of Queen of Sheba’s City Damaged in Airstrike,” National Geographic Online. 3 June 2015. Accessed 3 Sep. 2019.

[5] For an introduction see Harrower, Michael J. “Hydrology, Ideology, and the Origins of Irrigation in Ancient Southwest Arabia,” Current Anthropology 49.3 (2008): 497-510.

[6] Daum, 63.

[7] Quoted from idem, 70.

[8][8] Idem, 64.


Here, in the reconstructed sacred drama of the rain acted out in pre-Islamic South Arabia, we significantly depart from anything in the vast stretches of the Islamic world, with exceptional vestiges noted by Daum that have persisted in the Hadhramawt valley of south-eastern Yemen. These confirm what has elsewhere been attested to in Sabaic epigraphy and the forms of that nascent field we might begin to delineate as South Arabian art history. Whereas Islam to a certain extent preserved the ritual of the sacrifice of domesticated livestock, replacing rams and lambs conventionally with the large aqira bulls and camels of the northern Arabs, there is no equivalent preservation of the much older tradition of the hunt of the undomesticated animal, principally the wild ibex that are indigenous to the area. Bronze-age petroglyphs in north Yemen testify to the antiquity of the practice, as well as its importance to the prehistoric people who repeatedly carved either the ibex alone or hunt-scenes with multiple figures[1]. Ibexes proliferate in Sabaean art and architecture: as sculptural votives, reliefs on plaques, and integrated as architectural cornices of both temple and altar. In the body of scholarship which has grown around the phenomenon of the survival of this ancient hunt even in contemporary Hadhramawt, in defiance of long-standing disapproval from Islamic authorities,[2] has furnished details which are echoed in the forms ancient South Arabian artwork. The requisite that the ibex hunted be the oldest male with the largest set of horns is clearly identifiable in the stylized ibex iconography in which the spiral curl of the horns in profile is the dominant form of its composition. The sculptural votives in a spectrum of minerals and stone, bronze, clay, and other materials may probably have functioned as figured doubles, much like the figured bulls may be objectified offerings of the sacrificial livestock. Daum identifies and publishes for the first time images of the continued phenomenon of ibex-votives, these made of unfired clay, which are continued to be brought clandestinely on the Qabr Hud pilgrimage.[3] However, the bull iconography which we encountered earlier in this study also functioned as the visual evocative of the god Almaqah for the Sabaeans and host of other divinities in the wider Near East; just so did the ibex also “double” for a specific divinity, albeit one whose precise identity and character remain more obscure. That the ibex hunt is a ritual act is indicated by the state of ritual purity its hunters must enter before its beginning; the triumphant, ritualized announcement at the slaughter, “the old man is killed!”[4] was the necessary prerequisite for what has been identified as a divine marriage banquet to proceed between a bride, Wasila al-sabb (“Wasila, the woman who causes abundant rain and makes the wadi flow”[5]) and the primordial thunderer, Hud at the shrine of the Hadhramawt but this could be Almaqah or the host of names for various sky-gods known to the region in antiquity.

[1] Jung, Michael. “Rock Art of North Yemen,” Rivista degli studi orientali 64 (1990):255-273.

[2] See Daum, 68-69, Rodionov, M.A. “The Ibex Hunt Ceremony in Hadramawt Today,” New Arabian Studies 2: 123-129; Bin ‘Aqil, A. J. Qanis al-wa’l fi-Hadramawt (al-Khubar, 2004).

[3][3] Daum, 67.

[4] Wa-l-shaiba-maqtul; idem, 69.

[5] Daum’s construction, idem, 59. Daum cites as well a Yemeni folktale that Wasila is the girl who fills the dry wadi bed with her tears, making the flood or sayl.


That ritual banquet, celebrated with all the enthusiasm of a marriage feast and the gravitas befitting its divine honorees, will constitute our final comment on the characteristics and continuation of South Arabian social and religious customs from antiquity through Islam. One painted banquet scene is known: a ca. first- or second-century C.E. mural from the site of Qaryat Al-Faw in Saudi Arabia. Furniture and architecture associated with the banquet however appear much more frequently at archaeological sites.[1] The Sabaean ritual banquets following, presumably, a parallel ibex hunt in north Yemen in the vicinity of Jabal Al-Lawdh have been recognized in scholarships for their political currency in uniting the tribes and pledging their support to the Sabaean king in the early centuries before the common era; however, the socially-cohesive role of these ceremonial banquets following the hunt of a wild ibex or the slaughter of a sacrificial bull can be understood on the more individual level between community members, among the nomadic Bedouin and settled agrarian communities alike. Among the numerous idols described by Al-Kalbi, the generous sharing a slaughtered animal is accorded the imperative of a sacrament,[2] and the communal rendering of all aspects of produce- fruits, grains, dates, cattle, etc.- figures into another pre-Islamic figure’s worship, specifically that of ‘Amm-Anas. Here a reproduction of Al-Kalbi’s text is valuable because through its Islamic lens which condemns the consumption of the divinity’s food by its people, it reveals the essential property-transfer of livestock to the divinity which Daum and others have written about in the ancient Sabaean context:

They were wont to set apart a portion of their livestock property and land products and give one part to it and the other to God. Whatever portion of the part allotted to ‘Amm-Anas made its way to the part set aside for God they would restore to the idol; but whatever portion of the part consecrated to God made its way to the part allotted to the idol they would leave to the idol…Moreover they set apart a portion of the fruits and cattle which he hath produced and say, ‘This is for God’- so deem they – ‘And these for our associates.’ But that which is for these associates of theirs, cometh not to God; yet that which is for God, cometh to their associates.

Ill do they judge. [3]

The communal nature of the ritual sacrifice, in this case the aqira specifically, is reinforced with an observation made in the early twentieth century, before this practice had disappeared at Qabr Hud, that no man eats the bull which he gives; all donations to the divinity (in this case Hud) become his property, which he then bestows upon the gathered pilgrims.[4] The emphasis that all eat equally, rather than in proportion to their donation, underlines the egalitarian ideal which these ritual banquets upheld for Arabian society through time. We also possess inscriptional evidence from the Awwam Temple of Ma’rib that sacrifice could required if the boundaries of sacred space, called a mwtn or gwr in Sabaic penitential inscriptions, were transgressed,[5] and an episode of just such a transgression is detailed in Al-Kalbi’s account of the ultimate rejection of the worship of an idol, in this case Al-Fals.[6]

[1] For the plan and dedicated banquet-spaces at Awwam, see Maraqten, 125.

[2] “When thou meetest two black shepherds with their sheep, / Solemnly swear by Nuhm, / With shreds of flesh between them divided, / Go thy way; let not gluttony prevail.” Al-Kalbi, 35.

[3] Al-Kalbi, 37-38.

[4] Daum, 61.

[5] See Maraqten, 110.

[6] Al-Kalbi, 51-52.


Here ends the overview of some but by no means all of the salient characteristics of worship in pre-Islamic Arabia and particularly those of the southern edge of the peninsula’s vibrant and advanced civilizations in antiquity. Much more could be said on the subject; the inscriptions of Awwam marking sacred space and calling for physical as well as ritual purity we very well may draw an anthropological trait-d’union to Islamic wudu rituals undertaken before entry into a mosque’s sacred space. The sculpture from Dedan and the Lihyannite dynasty in antiquity also line up with Al-Kalbi’s Biblical time-line which was introduced next to the carved stones of the bronze age in the beginning of this study. A great deal of the various idols mentioned by Al-Kalbi have proliferated in the most recent translations of Sabaic and ancient South Arabian epigraphy, and any one of those instances is a worthwhile study of its own. These are, however, far beyond the present scope of this paper which was to shed light on the period and culture from which emerged the Prophet Mohammed and the Islam which proclaimed to erase all that had come before. As we have seen in more than a few instances, not everything was erased completely, and the work of historians and anthropologists in bringing to light the picture of Arabian society and religion on the eve of Islam makes possible a fuller appreciation of the true scope of the revolution of the new religion from the seventh century forwards in Arabia and beyond.

43. Fin de Siècle Art in Europe: Symbolism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism


The final quarter of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth on the eve of World War I saw the significant developments and variety in painting which expressed a new spectrum of artistic expressions. This lecture will take a look at some of these different directions European artists pursued, from the mid-nineteenth century phenomenon of the Pre-Raphaelite style and its descendants at the Paris Salon through the advent of symbolism to the developments away from Impressionism and towards Expressionism and a new color theory. These latter works of art were disruptions in themselves within widely-accepted ideas about what art could look like, how it could be created, and the value which the artist’s own projected experiences imbued to painted works.


In the mid-nineteenth century and contemporary with the Realist works of artists like Courbet and Millet that we encountered in our previous lectures, a group of artists who rejected the notion that their paintings be documents of the real-life experiences of ordinary people formed an association called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which oriented their works in a Romantic, yet Modernist direction. Whereas the Romantic painters of the early nineteenth century found inspiration in contemporary events and literature, the Pre-Raphaelites were interested in reviving the purity, ideals, and sentiments of the High Renaissance artists. For the Pre-Raphaelites, the subsequent course of Western Fine Arts, which saw Mannerist artists and then Baroque and its heirs in the French Academy, was one which had derailed from the clarity of purpose and aesthetic values of the Early Renaissance; anything after Raphael was suspect, and this distinction gave this group their name. However, the Pre-Raphaelites nevertheless were products of their own century’s standar for fine arts. Though the subjects, like the Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, were drawn from literature and their historical imagination, the Pre-Raphaelite painters nevertheless responded to their Realist contemporaries by deploying a painstaking naturalism and the use of live models. In the case of this painting by John Everett Millais, a model spent long hours in a warm bath, and the painter went to a local stream, the Hogsmill River in Surrey, and painted en pleine air to achieve the meticulously detailed and realistic of the riverbank, the true-to life effect of the Ophelia herself, and the buoyancy of her sinking clothes. The moment the artist depicts is sourced with that same concern for factual accuracy, even for a fictional scene. Millais recreates Shakespeare’s verses (4.7.174-183):

“When down her weedy trophies and herself

Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;

And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up…

Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,

Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay

To muddy death.”

There is some irony in the circumstance that in the image of the death of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, this canvas functions for art historians as a document of the living appearance of Millais’s model, Elizabeth Siddal, who married a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When Siddal died from an opium overdose, her grieving husband cast her as the heavenly love of his medieval namesake poet, Dante Alighieri, who in the Divine Comedy finally ascends to meet Beatrix in Paradiso. The title of this work translates to “Blessed Beatrix” in English, and this is a posthumous icon in the visual language of the Brotherhood’s style which draws on a long tradition of symbolism to articulate its spiritual content. In the center of the canvas is the white pallor of his “Beatrix,” his wife Siddal, in an almost-full side profile, in imitation of the Early Renaissance posthumous portraits of aristocratic wives. The dark shape in the direction of her downcast eyes is a sun dial in shadow, alluding to the limited passage of time on the earthly plane, and below, a divine red bird with a gold halo brings a glowing poppy flower, the instrument of his wife’s death, to her limp hands in prayer. Not only does an enhaloed, ethereally-red dove evoke ideas about the phoenix, a mythical red bird which incinerated itself at the end of one life and was reborn from the ashes anew, the close grouping of white, black, and red at the center of the composition visually recalls a prominent feature of alchemical artwork in the Renaissance, an area of study with which the Pre-Raphaelites were familiar. The promise of alchemy, like the phoenix, was the promise that the death of one material would be followed by successive transmutations into new life. Rossetti’s devoted portrait of his deceased “Beatrix” is nevertheless an erudite expression of the movement’s sophisticated blend of learned symbolism on the one hand, and sentimental, philosophical expression on the other.


This taste for the Renaissance, by-now elevated among students of art and history as a Golden Age of the early modern era, continued in the rarefied style of painting which continued to be exhibited in the Paris Salons through the turn of the century. Around twenty years after the Beata Beatrix, the Early Florentine Renaissance continues to exert a strong influence on the imagination and painted forms of Pierre Puvois de Chavannes, who served as a Salon juror until resigning in protest over his peers’ narrow vision. The debt to Neoclassicism and the Pre-Raphaelites’ return to the Early Renaissance is apparent in the Sacred Grove’s subject matter and linear treatment which recalls the grand panels of Botticelli. Puvis’s overt Classicism endeared his works to the Academy, but the artist’s orientation towards the world of the imagination and a refinement of the intellect and spirit which his works communicated resounded among the Symbolists. These artists were not interested in Realism’s communication of the material, capitalist world of the present-day like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood before them; instead, their works channeled alternative visions steeped in references to both high culture as well as their own intensely-subjective experiences, which were being scrutinized through the new discipline of Freud’s theory of psychology. In Vienna, Gustav Klimt realized compositions in the simplified visual language of the Art Nouveau, a style which explored the reduction of forms to shapes and textures, as exemplified by the swathe of patterned gold which obscures the bodies of the two central figures engaged in The Kiss; the repetition of geometric shapes on the two sides of this mass are gender distinctions, and we see how form can be invested with symbolic meaning through repetition and placement on the canvas. Below, a bank of flowers echoes the repeating forms of the gold cloth, all of which is placed on a field of otherwise blank gold, giving the entire composition the opulence and feel of a Byzantine mosaic. This interest the technically-demanding craftsmanship of Klimt’s also belongs to the Arts and Crafts movement which would continue to develop through the twentieth century.


The Symbolist style held great appeal even for artists who could not claim neither the education nor career of painters like Puvis or Klimt. An artist like Henri Rousseau, an “amateur” who took up painting after he retired from service to the French government as a customs inspector, was itself a phenomenon of the transformation that the modern economy enabled. Unlike artists in a medieval guild who purchased the pigments and raw materials for specific works with the funds of the commission, the availability of pre-mixed, industrially produced paints and art supplies in urban Paris at the turn of the twentieth century democratized the participation in artistic creation, making it possible for a retired customs-official to begin painting Symbolist works like Sleeping Gypsy, which used “primitive,” doll-like figures in elusive compositions. Rousseau touched upon the unsettled nature of the spirit and the impending danger experienced by the subconscious which we first encountered in works like Fuseli’s Nightmare, but ultimately, his lack of formal training led to his ostracization by critics, even in the more liberal arena of the Salon des Indépendents. The enduring influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolists’ concern with the sentimental and the spiritual can be seen in the development of aesthetic photography through the turn of the century, Gertrude Käsebier’s Blessed Art Thou Among Women has been posed, we might better say composed, with the light creating the ethereal haze more readily associated with the movement’s painters. For this reason, her photography is classed within an emerging pictorial style, and the title of the work adds a religious and sentimental dimension. “Blessed Art Thou among Women” are the words spoken by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in the Biblical account of the Annunciation, and this message invests the moment of a mother turning to her child, haloed in light, as she speaks her message a depth and Symbolism which this domestic scene otherwise presents.


The contemporary world, which first the Pre-Raphaelites and then the Symbolists rejected so utterly in their compositions of psychologically-introspective sourced in equal parts imagination and literature, and specifically the urban environment of fin de siècle Europe provided endless artistic representations which shaped this social fabric as much as it was shaped by it.

The Belgian artist James Ensor couches a very Symbolist painting in the visual language of the French Impressionists and the nascent Primitivism; in spite of its appearance as a chaotic parade scene, its title, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, as well as the diminutive figure of Christ on a donkey at the center of the canvas, convey the essentially Symbolist commentary of the artist on the materialism and short-sightedness of contemporary society, which proclaims its worship in the text of visible banners for the social state alongside religious banners lost in the hoi polloi of the crowd. Ensor, although he was perhaps among the most prominent of the Belgian Symbolists, nevertheless lived far from the epicenter of the modern world and its art market at the turn of the century: Paris. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s artistic career immortalized the demimonde of Parisian nightlife with which he was intimately acquainted, and the Realism of these contemporary views gives way, as they do in the works of Degas or Cassatt and other French artists influenced by the vogue for Japonisme which we looked at in our last lecture, into flattened compositions seen from a high, steep angle and peopled by the dark forms of figures with eerily-colored, mask-like faces. The Impressionistic quality Manet’s Folies-Bergères or Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette, which captured fleeting moments in the contemporary venues of Parisian society by day and by night, has been distorted by Toulouse-Lautrec into a scene of almost claustrophically-close quarters with its denizens devoid of the human qualities painted by the earlier Impressionists.


Already at the Moulin Rouge of Toulouse-Lautrec, the interior scene is beginning to express an emotional state of the artist who is its witness. This heightened, anxious state of the artist as he paints himself simultaneously within and outside the bars and other social venues of the late nineteenth-century urban environment is more fully developed in the Night Café by Vincent van Gogh, an artist who did not achieve success in life but whose works created a lasting bridge between the French Impressionist documentation of a real, contemporary moment and a new Expressionism, which departed from the faithful depiction of reality in favor of heightening the artist’s subjective and emotional experience. The Starry Night has gone beyond the visual representation of the view from the window of the asylum where Van Gogh was living in the final year of his life; its free-wheeling forms which are etched into the fabric of the sky, with its radiant cosmic bodies, are communicating a dynamism and pulse to Van Gogh, who transmits this vision in the course, impasto-application of the Impressionists before him, but while going beyond in the work’s ambition to express a psychological and spiritual experience.


The Scream by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch is, like Van Gogh’s works, the product of an artist whose personal experiences with loss, despair, and tragedy found their outlet on canvas. The winding lines recall Van Gogh’s sinuous forms whose motion and dynamism serve to involve the viewer in the emotional state of the artist, transmitted in this case to the central screaming figure executed in the same long, curving lines as the forms of the background. The rigid diagonal of the bridge, with otherwise normal passers-by walking its rational line, stands in stark contrast to the figure and landscape. Expressionism went on to become a major movement in the history of German painting, particularly through the advent of World War I, as artists projected social anxieties onto the urban environment, as with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street, Dresden or their own bodies, as was the case with the Nude Self-Portraits of Egon Schiele.


When we look closely at the Expressionist works of Van Gogh, Munch, and Kirchner, we can see the use of non-complementary, starkly contrasting colors which disorient the eye that expects the coherence of the earlier Impressionists’ studies of light and subject. Although colors had been invested with religious and philosophical symbolism since the Medieval period in Western Europe, the re-evaluation of color theory and optics in the nineteenth century led to an unprecedented period of experimentation and ultimately discovery by the French post-Impressionists. Georges Seurat had worked out a system which he called Divisionism because it divided an image and all of its colors into the smallest component of primary color; Seurat we may consider the ancestor of digital media which relies on this process at the pixel-level to create vast and richly-colored images which remain at their smallest level, a collection of assembled dots, or points. For this reason, we know Seurat’s technique as Pointillism, because it relied on this series of points to achieve its macro vision. In this case, the subject was a scene taken, as the French Impressionists were fond of doing, from contemporary reality, in this case a popular island in the River Seine, where a cross-section of working-class Parisian society has gathered. Another artist who remade Impressionism to suit his own theories of color, form, and light is Paul Cézanne, who realized three-dimensional space in his Impressionist landscapes like Mont Sainte-Victoire through the careful selection of contrasting colors. Although he did not adopt the miniscule pointes that defined Seurat’s technique, Cézanne’s application of small patches of juxtaposing paint colors created the impression of receding and advancing space and overall the depth and perspective of a new kind of landscape art which sought to convey a lasting quality to the fleeting Impressionism of his contemporaries.


Earlier, we encountered an amateur artist whose works participated in the Symbolist movement, and now we will close with a look at another “amateur” who made lasting contributions to the furthering of Post-Impressionism and the rise of Primitivism, which would become a hugely influential force in European and American art of the twentieth century to come. Paul Gauguin, like Rousseau, worked in an office until the stock market crash forced him from his broker’s office in Paris. Disillusioned with the modern urban environment and its economy, Gauguin fled to parts that he considered “untouched” by the materialism of the modern West: first Brittany, the rugged coast of northwest France with its own distinct culture, and then French Polynesia. Like other painters of his day, Gauguin was initially influenced by Japonisme’s debt to Japanese wood-block prints in the composition of the Vision after the Sermon, in which we see a Biblical struggle take place in the contemporary- yet timeless- setting of a Breton religious festival. The distinctive white head-pieces of the women, worn in the present-day still in Brittany on religious and cultural occasions, situates this supernatural episode from the Bible in the here-and-now, similar to Christ’s Entry to Brussels, but removed from the chaos that Ensor chafed against. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is a monumental composition from Gauguin’s sojourn in Polynesia, where he was disillusioned to discover that his fantasy of an uncontacted, “primitive” people did not align with the realities of the French colony. Nevertheless, Gauguin used the forms and figures of the native Polynesians as stand-ins for his fantasy about a simple life uncomplicated by the modern problems of the urban European environment. This French-colonial lens by which the non-European world was deemed “primitive,” and fetishized as objects of aesthetic interest for artists and buyers alike would go on to have a foundational role in the most significant developments in modern art of the early next century, both in , namely with the rise of Cubism, as well as in political and social histories. Gauguin, though an amateur, contributed to the French and European fantasy that somewhere, a “pure” state existed in both life as well as art, and that their distillation of forms and ideas would somehow bring them, and the European collector of art, closer to this ideal state.


Special Topics Lecture 23. The Tranmission of Craft Knowledge to the Medieval West


Last lecture we familiarized ourselves with the late-Hellenestic-era phenomenon of Hermetic philosophy, alchemical, treatises, and the genre of “secrets literature” and esotericism generally. This second part of the lecture follows the transmission of the technical legacies of these Greco-Egyptian practical recipes as the bedrock of the developing craftsmanship and applied arts of the Medieval Latin West. Glass-making, the properties and places of origin of stones, minerals, ores, plants, and other natural materials used in the preparation of dyes, varnishes, alloys, and other products are among the recipes which were transmitted from the antique world via this alchemical literature which blended theory and practice from Greco-Egyptian sources.


In our last lecture, we encountered the earliest known technical treatises: the Leyden X and Stockholm papyri, written in Greek from the third or fourth century C.E. We also saw how these two papyri duplicated practical recipes also found in the first-century treatise of Bolos of Mendes (Pseudo-Democritus), Physica et Mystica, though the later papyri excavated from an Egyptian tomb had by then been divorced from the theoretical, spiritually-oriented content which originally accompanied the procedures in the earlier alchemical treatise. The duplication of recipes found in these two Greek-language Egyptian papyri within the three earliest Latin-language craft manuals to appear in Europe of the eighth and ninth centuries, as well as the heavy reliance upon Greek terminologies by their authors, indicates their likely transmission from Byzantine or Hellenistic originals.  The De coloribus et artibus Romanorum is recognized to be the earliest of these technical recipe-books produced in the Lombard context of north Italy in the eighth century. Its attribution to one Heraclius has led to its circulating under the name “Eraclio” in the Italian scholarship; it is known only in later manuscripts: one German, dated 1250-1300, and one French, compiled in 1431, each accompanied by the later treatise by Theophilus, De diversis artibus. In its effort to transmit what the author bemoans as the “forgotten” Roman arts in the earlier and original Books I and II (to which a third was added between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), the text concerns itself with pigment preparation, decorative uses of glass in mosaics and other contexts, various techniques for gilding and giving copper the appearance of gold, as well as ceramic glazing processes.


The Codex Lucensis 490 is a collection of recipes under the title Compositiones Variae that has been theorized to have been compiled as a reference work for the Cathedral School of Lucca, documented from the mid-eighth century, at a time when the city had become the regional capital of the Lombards under Frankish rule. Mozarabic elements have led to the identification of Spanish influence from the presumed source of the Lucca Codex, though these as well as its Greek characteristics have been assimilated under a markedly Visigothic hand native to north Italy which provide great insight into the contemporary material culture from both Spain and Italy. A pendant excavated from the grave of an Ostrogothic woman in Domagnano, Italy is from the century prior to the composition of the Codex Lucensis, or the earlier De coloribus et artibus Romanorum, composed at most only decades prior. Nevertheless, this pendant is testament to the access to the artists’s craft knowledge that came to light in these later manuals of the early medieval period. The gold itself is not one of the alloys described in the text; instead, it has been recognized for its remarkable purity and weight, estimated to have been the result of melting down around seventy gold coins. The incorporation of other materials into the gold framework affords an occasion to comment on the technical content of the Lucca Codex. Alongside cut and shaped garnets are small pieces of green glass; the process of melting glass as well as its coloring is among the recipes the Codex Lucensis transmits in Latin. The slightly-earlier treatise on the “Roman arts” that is believed to have been composed in the Veneto region also testifies to the familiarity with the glass-making processes alongside the material evidence of the furnaces and their products in the archaeological record.


A circa eighth-century Visigothic horse bit housed at the Metropolitan Museum showcases the mastery of complex and varied alloys deployed in an intricate design; the bit itself is iron inlaid with copper alloy, gold and silver. The Lucca codex furnishes instructions on a variety of metallurgical processes which would appear to have a direct relationship with the Metropolitan Bit; copper ore cement is aided by a formula for making bronze (712B), and the recipes for gold and silver varnish (715B-C), which mix the powdered metal with quicksilver, a laurel compound, and verdigris (for the gold), may relate to the exquisitely fine craftsmanship of the bit’s inlay. The bit’s decorative elements feature Greek monograms, human and animal heads, and vine scrolls; however, it is important for us to re-orient our modern perspective about Greek influence. For the culture of the Visigoths, these Greek techniques and crafts were within the tradition of what was consciously transmitted as the Roman legacy of manufacture, only recently made accessible in Latin through the De coloribus et artibus Romanorum or the Luccan Compositiones variae of the mid to late eighth century and early ninth. The evidence of the use of alloyed or blended metals is apparent in the text of a Mozarabic liturgical manuscript, the Liber Ordinum, which calls for the blessing of a bell in the following words:

“Look down graciously with your usual goodness, and sanctify this vessel made of diverse metals…”


The recipes of these two sources determined the course of art production at the court of Charlemagne in the ninth century, when a conscientious revival of all things Roman drove a new style and an unprecedented scale of production. The knowledge about the smelting and alloying of ores in particular drove a Renaissance in bronze-making at Aachen, and the importance attached to this knowledge is evident in the eighth-century manuscript Problems to Sharpen the Minds of Youth (Prepositiones ad acuendos juvenes), attributed to Alcuin of York, a scholar at Charlemagnes school. One question reads,

“A metal disc weighs 30 pounds and is worth 600 solidi. The disc is made of a mixture of gold, silver, copper, and tin. For each part of gold there are three of silver. For each part of silver, there are three of copper. For each part of copper there are three of tin. Let he who can, say: How much is there of each metal?”

This particular problem also is rooted in the centralized reform of weights and measures that was established by Charlemagne in 794 C.E., which had the effect of standardizing prices for food as well as their measurements, which distinguished the Carolingian economy from its predecessors and contemporaries among the Germanic populations of Europe.


In the slightly-later Deeds of Emperor Charles the Great written by Notker (“the Stammerer”) of St. Gall, an artisan’s familiarity with the alloying process and the king’s willingness to invest any amount into the successful casting of a metal work, in this case a monumental bell for the monastery of St. Gall, figure prominently in what is otherwise a story of deceit and divine punishment that illustrates the significance attached to these works:

“There was another artisan, more skilled in every work with bronze and glass than all the others. When Tanco, a monk of St. Gall, forged a great bell and the emperor had greatly admired its sound, that outstanding yet most unfortunate worker in bronze said, “Lord emperor, order a great deal of copper to be brought to me, and I will melt it down until it is pure. Then give me as much silver that I need instead of tin – a hundred pounds right away – and I will make you a bell next to which this other will seem mute.” Then that most generous king, to whom vast riches flowed even though he never set his heart on them, easily commended everything and departed gleefully. He smelted and refined the bronze but instead of silver he substituted purified tin, and in no time he made a bell much finer by far than the one with impure metals. He tested it and presented it to the emperor. Charles admired it greatly on account of its incomparable shape, and once an iron clapper had been installed, he ordered it to be hung in the bell tower. This was done without delay, and the watchman of the church, the rest of the chaplains, and a troop of boys who were loitering nearby tried one after another to make the bell sound, but they could not accomplish a thin. Finally, the author of the work and contriver of this unheard-of-fraud, besides himself, grabbed the rope and yanked at the bell. Behold! The metal, having slipped from its moorings, fell on his head filled with evil schemes. It passed through his already dead corpse and landed on the ground with his guts and testicles. When the mass of silver about which we spoke was found, Charles, the most just of all, instructed that it be distributed among the poor and servants of the palace.”


Another story about fraud in the process of bronze-casting from Normandy in the same century indicate that the secrecy which surrounded the craft, a phenomenon traceable to the Greco-Egyptian Hermetic alchemical works of the late Hellenistic period, often led to moral failure on the part of the craftsman tasked with casting these large-scale works from valuable metals. The Gesta Abbatum Fontanellensium of the ninth century records the history of the Abbey of St. Wandrille near Fontenelle in Normandy.

“Then the same dean (Ermharius), when this basilica was built, instructed a skilled craftsman to make a bell, which was to be placed in the little tower of the same basilica, as was the custom of the churches. While the craftsman attempted to complete the work assigned to him, at the urging of the foe of mankind, he stole some of the metal, from which the device ought to have been made, and he put some in the cauldron to liquefy, so the supply of metal was deficient. And when this diminished supply of metal was cast into the same mold from which the future bell was anticipated, it was misshapen by the deficient supply of metal that had been stolen before it was liquefied, and not returned. Nevertheless the bell was put in the tower. So at whatever hour of the day it was accustomed to give forth its sound, the aforesaid craftsman, who had secretly taken the metal, was turned to madness, and was wont to give out senseless words and barking in the manner of dogs.”


The surviving bronzes of the Carolingian Era testify to the mastery of both the craft as well as the grand imperial statement about wealth and abundance of raw materials that tempted Tanco and the bell-maker of Fontenelle so fatally. The bronze doors made for the main portal of Aachen Cathedral in the  late eighth century are the earliest surviving large-scale bronzes of the Medieval period made by the lost-wax technique, a process which is nowhere found in the technical manuals of the day. Each door was cast as a single object, a massive undertaking which spoke to the ability of the imperial metal-workers as much as it did to the richness of the coffers themselves, that adequate material could be collected, melted down, and displayed for the common imperial good. Before the casting of the Aachen doors, the last known bronze doors of antiquity are those of the church of Hagia Sophia and the Chalke Gate in Constantinople from the sixth century. A bronze railing cast in Aachen at the same time as the Cathedral doors under the aegis of Charlemagne presents clear visual parallels to the type of cast-bronze Roman railwork seen in a Byzantine ivory panel. Exceptionally, pieces of the mold’s cast associated with these grilles have been discovered.


Bronze played a far more extensive role in the objects of Charlemagne’s court at Aachen, including the bronze water clock received from Harun al-Rashid and of which we have spoken at length in prior lectures, a bronze pinecone that has been theorized to have functioned as a centerpiece of a fountain, and a lost monumental cast-bronze eagle with wings outstretched that, according to tradition, was placed on the tallest building, the Aula. The last two of these list, like the doors and railings of the cathedral, were made through the lost-wax technique, a process about which all technical manuals in either Latin or Greek had remained silent. It was not until around 1025 C.E. that any allusion to this process would be made, and we find in the manuscript of Adhémar of Chabannes (988-1034), a monk from Saint-Martial in Limoges and Saint-Cybar in Angouleme, a detailed description of how the figure of a metal crucifix was achieved, couched between varies fables of the Psychomachia, scenes from the life of Christ, an astrological treatise, and the quintessentially Medieval mélange of miscellanea with sophisticated intellectual philosophy. Presently, it is housed in Holland as MS Leiden VLO 15 (see also Adhémar describes the making of a figure for a crucifix using the depth and breadth of the maker’s thumb as a base from which to build the figure; he doesn’t explicitly say that the figure is wax, but allusions to the graininess of the amterial and the impressing of the thumb, following by the use of wooden sticks to create the T-shape aligns with a contemporary example of a silver crucifix figure made from the lost wax technique with an apparent hollow in the back formed first in wax by the maker’s thumb. After this wax model had been encased in a clay mold with drainage conduits, the molten metal would be poured inside, replacing the wax form. Making a religious icon, especially with such an intimate relationship with the craftsman’s own anatomy and in a process which recalled the death of one substance and its rebirth in another form, naturally was invested by Adhémar, Bernward, and others who produced these objects with a profound meditative and devotional dimension.


When we encounter then the famed bronze doors of the same Bishop Bernward at Hildesheim, we can immediately recognize the broader application of identical figures cast in bronze and integrated into the finished panels as products from this same technique which saw their likenesses first take shape upon the artist’s thumb. The narrative panels of these monumental doors provide a far greater variety of posing of the figures, but though their limbs and orientations may change, the distinctly round center of their bodies is the testament to the maker’s own hand. Also included in this body of patronage is the Bernward Column, which incorporates the same figural approach to a column clearly inspired by Hadrian’s narrative monument in Rome.


By the time of Bernward’s monumental bronze commissions for Ottonian Hildesheim, the Mappae Clavicula had been composed, and this was a Latin work which considerably expanded the scope of the technical manuals which had come out of the eighth and ninth centuries before. Manuscripts which belong to this tradition range from the ninth to the twelfth centuries, with principal codices being the ninth-century Sélestat Manuscript (Sélestat, Bibliothèque Humaniste MS 17), the ca. 1130 Codex Matritensis (“Madrid Codex,” Biblioteca Nacional, MS A.16), and the later Philipps-Corning Manuscript (Corning Museum of Glass, MS 5). With the De Diversis Artibus of the turn of the twelfth, the lost wax technique was belatedly added to the written record of Medieval Latin craft knowledge, a shift that signaled the spread of knowledge and interest in the artisans’ secrets that had previously been passed down only to tradesmen, in the initiatic model similarly indebted from tothe Greco-Egyptian alchemical works from which the first Latin craft manuals derived their recipes. In this lecture, we looked primarily at the transmission of this craft knowledge in the context of metallurgy and specifically bronze casting, but the full spectrum of Romanesque art derived its form and appearances from their technical legacy: from the gilded illumination of manuscripts to the use of linseed oil as a matrix for pigment painted upon wooden panels. These texts furnish a key, not as the compiler of the Mappae Clavicula, or “Little Key,” intended for his contemporary audience, but for modern historians seeking to understand the nuanced circumstances of the creation of the artworks from the final days of the Roman Empire through the Carolingian Holy Roman Empire and the Middle Ages.


Special Topics Lecture 22. Hermeticism and the Transmission of Craft Knowledge


In our previous lectures, we have seen how traditions of esoteric philosophy and wisdom traditions have expressed themselves in the material cultures of the Middle Ages in both Islamic East and Latin West, and this lecture intends to look in-depth at a facet of this phenomenon upon which we have touched in our conversation of hidden, or occult, relations and sympathies in nature and the cosmos: the Hermetic tradition and the body of craft knowledge which was transmitted within its context.


Some of the aspects of this phenomenon have been explored in our discussion of medical texts, such as the first-century C.E. Letter of Thessalos of Tralles with the text of the Egyptian pharaoh Nechepsos it purports to transmit. The historian William Eamon however sees this literary convention in full conformity with a wider trend among Late-Hellenistic writings which employ the same formulae as the roughly-contemporary Hermetic literature features in its revelations of doctrine and technology: an account of a neophyte addressed to a living authority, usually an emperor, of an older (and usually Egyptian) tradition whose knowledge has been granted through initiation and revelation, followed invariably by strident exhortations to secrecy. Similar constructs can be observed in the body of Hermetic literature that emerged from the Late Hellenistic Mediterranean and which were so influential in the subsequent transmission of the applied arts in Western Europe in the centuries to come. However, already by the time of Thessalos’s lifetime, his conversation with the god Asclepius heralds a feature which would also recur in Western Medieval literature of various secrets. This was the uniqueness of the efficacy of the revealed knowledge in that present day; for Thessalos, this was the first century C.E. when his successful career flourished in Rome, but for John of Morigny, this was the thirteenth century after the vision of the Virgin Mary had revealed another path to the knowledge promised by the Ars Notoria.


Hermeticism as a doctrine as well as its body of technical knowledge (or “secrets”) coalesced in a body of around forty-two works in the format of initiatory dialogues between Hermes Trismegistus and his son and initiate Tat which were composed by the third century C.E. Much of the “biographical” information about Hermes Trismegistus is preserved in medieval Arabic sources. After the destruction of Alexandria’s libraries and temples, Hermetic lore passed largely to the Islamic East, where it acquired another sacred dimension with the conflation of the earliest Hermes Trismegistus with Enoch and Idris, a prophet-figure who constructed pyramids and temples before the Great Flood.  For Abu Mashar (787-886) and Abu Sahl al-Fadl ibn Nawbakht (ca. 735- ca. 815), a second Babylonian Hermes renewed the sciences of medicine, philosophy, and numerology after the Flood and brought them to the Egyptians when he became their king.  This Hermes also bestowed upon the Egyptians the secret of how to make their living gods; furthermore, scholars of the earliest Hermetic astrological treatise, the Salmeschoiniaka, have discerned a Mesopotamian origin from the mention of the god Nebu and its five-day time-keeping method (a Babylonian convention, as opposed to the Egyptian ten-day week).  This Egyptian flowering of astrology has elsewhere been connected to the success of the Chaldean astronomers in Seleucid times or perhaps the influx of Babylonian refugees into Egypt. Some connection has been made between the papsukkal, the messenger-gods of Mesopotamian religion, with the figure of fleet-footed Hermes, who similarly was responsible for the divine transmission of messages and wisdom. the third and final Hermes becomes the father of Greco-Egyptian wisdom-traditions which reverberate through the ages. The third Hermes is an Egyptian, usually Alexandrian, magus who invented alchemy and who taught to Asclepius the secrets of medicine, star magic, and other Egyptian lore. In Hellenic mythology, Asclepius is the legendary figure who then disseminated this wisdom among the Greeks. The pseudo-historical persons in this narrative are arguably irrelevant outside of their literature and traditions; however, the transfer of knowledge between Hermes Trismegistus and Asclepius encapsulates a very real exchange of cultures occurring across the ancient Mediterranean. Ptolemaic Egypt was the source of much of the Hermetic literature that began to emanate all over the antique world. The production of these texts was the fruit of a concerted effort to translate Egyptian texts into Greek.  Although the Hermetic works’ Hellenistic vocabulary betrays the signs of these linguistic and conceptual redactions which occurred between the first and third centuries of the common era, they are acknowledged to preserve elements from Egyptian papyri, some which have been dated by to the sixth century B.C.   In Alexandria as well occurred the union of Gnosticism, the various magical systems of the ancient world, Eastern astrology, and the Neoplatonic conception of the universe; out of this mélange developed that system of Hermetic philosophy which ultimately influenced European magic.


Alexandrian culture brought forth entirely new religious imagery which reflected this fusion of Greek and Egyptian identities; Serapis is the most well-known figure as the figurehead of a new cult of the Ptolemaic state, but the figure of Harpocrates which emerged is also emblematic of the era’s transformative role and the values which emerged. The original form derives from Egyptian images of the Child Horus, which before the Alexandrian conquest could be either seated, as with this fourth-century example, or sometimes standing in the striding convention, as with the slightly-later Ptolemaic bronze. In Egyptian sculpture, the finger that the Child-Horus puts to his lips is a visual symbol for the hierogylph of his name. The Greeks didn’t quite grasp the finer points of Egyptian hieroglyphics and iconography, so after they Hellenized the Egyptian name Harpa-Khruti to Harpocrates, this figure became for Hellenistic culture a god of silence and secrecy. The representation of the young boy’s body was completely overhauled as a result of the Greek conquest of Egypt, and after the Ptolemaic Era ended with the Roman conquest, we see the diffusion of this Greco-Roman type of Harpocrates image across a wide geography, and well beyond even the borders of Hellenistic Greece or the Roman Empire.  Qaryat Al-Faw in modern-day Saudi Arabia yielded two bronze statuettes which present variations on the image of Harpocrates: one can be described almost the Alexandrine archetype, a vigorous youth instead of a child, which calls to mind the practice of Alexander the Great and later the Roman emperor Augustus’s encouragement of the assimilation of their likenesses to those of the gods of conquered territories, while the other displays the type of a young boy-child which perhaps we identify more easily with Cupid or putti in later styles of artwork. In both of the Qaryat Al-Faw Harpocrates bronzes, we observe a faithful adherence to Classical proportions and contrapposto. Many historians have sourced later Christian iconographies of the Christ child in these Hellenistic representations of Harpocrates. For the Egyptians, the Child-Horus symbolized the new-born sun rising each day at dawn; ultimately, he was the benevolent life-force around which Egyptian ritual revolved. However, in the Hellenistic period, the emergence of the distinct and new figure and image of Harpocrates became a visible expression of a new orientation towards the mystic, the promise of knowledge through revelation, as well as the sacred duty of silence and secrets surrounding that knowledge.


The rise of a new deity like Harpocrates and the values which it represented for Hellenistic civilization is indicative of the broad shift in the Greek-speaking world from the rationalism of the Classical era to the mysticism of the Hellenistic. A common thread emerged whose aim was to shield an inherently secret and privileged wisdom from the common purview, and it can be identified in many philosophical attitudes and magical traditions of late antiquity. From as early as the third century B.C.E., the Greek mind gradually turned towards astrology, sympathetic magic, alchemy, and other mystical philosophies that proliferated in pseudonymous writings that constitute the specific genre that this lecture explores. Different schools of thought contributed varying approaches and attitudes about how best to transmit this sacred knowledge. With the rise Neo-Pythagoreanism, which established Pythagoras as the foremost Greek magus succeeded by Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato, can be observed a codification of philosophical magic with the identification of Pythagoras as a grand magus in a succession of wizards that included Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato. The figure of the magus assumed a special identity as one privy to the occult relations in the universe via the reception of divine gnosis, which was otherwise beyond the reach of normal men.  By the first centuries of the common era, this heightened interest in mysticism and spiritualism is marked by the composition of the Hermetic works.  Two types of texts have been distinguished within this body of work: the philosophical component of the Corpus Hermetica and the technical tracts on alchemy, astrology, natural history, medicine, magic.  During the same era, however, magic remained officially illegal in the Roman Empire, so great pains were taken to differentiate the Hermetic system of magic from illicit varieties.


These technical tracts and their descendants are the focus of the present lecture. The earliest known technical papyri are the Leyden Papyrus and the Stockholm Papyrus, both dated to the late third or early fourth century C.E. and produced in Egypt. The former is a codex whose parts were labelled alphabetically when they were acquired by the University of Leiden in the early nineteenth century; throughout the codex, but particularly in Papyrus X, recipes devoid of any philosophical framework are found that transmit processes of counterfeiting metal, manufacturing dyes, textiles, and the dying process, as well as technical knowledge of mining precious stones and their uses. The Stockholm Papyrus, by contrast, omits metallurgical recipes and features a more extensive collection of applied arts related to the gems, pearls and dyes for textiles. Both papyri travelled together out of Egypt in the nineteenth century, when they were subsequently given to Holland and Sweden, respectively.


There is abundant material evidence for the great antiquity of glass-making,  metal counterfeiting, and the art of pigment-making and cloth-dyeing from truly ancient Egypt long before the time of these two papyri’s composition; when the pigments of the textile fragment from the second millennium B.C.E. were subjected to chemical analysis in 1913 by Maximilian Toch, the components of each color were established as follows: red came from iron oxide and hematite; yellow consisted of clay containing iron or yellow ochre; blue was a finely powdered glass; a pale blue was copper carbonate, probably azurite; green was malachite; black was charcoal or boneblack; gray,  limestone mixed with charcoal. The recipes of the Leyden and Stockholm papyri, composed in a much later historical period, nevertheless transmit aspects of this venerable tradition of craftsmanship, but its immediate source historians have posited to be a first-century alchemical treatise, Physica et Mystica, by Bolos of Mendes, who wrote under the pseudonym Democritus (a common practice for the time and literary genre; this pseudonym would have evoked associations with the Neo-Pythagorean identity of Democritus as a magus, and the recipient of the doctrine revealed to Pythagoras.


The essential alchemy of the treatise of Democritus and the operations of the Leyden and Stockholm papyri is a process of three-fold transmutation that we find applied to the spectrum of arts, not just the well-known pursuit of changing base metals to gold. It is within this philosophical framework that some historians have interpreted the recipes for counterfeiting gold: by changing the color of the metal, the craftsman is putting the material through the symbolic death and rebirth that is at the heart of the Egyptian alchemical ritual. The Physica et Mystica of Bolos of Mendes/Democritus was a comprehensive treatment of the subject with both the practical aspects observed in the Leyden and Stockholm papyri and the theoretical aspects which they lacked. Every recipe in the former concludes with the cryptic phrase, “One nature delights in another nature; one nature triumphs over another nature; one nature dominates another nature.” As the recipes of these works indicate, the “great work” was a three-fold process of color-changing, or transmutation, that was as applicable to ores and stones as it was to the manufacture of dyed cloth; in the case of the latter, the steps of washing, mordanting, and coloring in the Stockholm Papyrus are a ready analogue.


Causing a metal, a stone, or a dye to change colors held a much deeper spiritual and religious significance for the civilization which practiced the technical side of Egyptian alchemy. The central drama of death, magical operation, and rebirth at the heart of the worship of Osiris, the first divine pharaoh, which permeated Egyptian religion and worship was reflected in the “passion” to which the materials were subjected during the course of the alchemical operation. We recall that the death and dismemberment of Osiris by Seth was remedied by the goddess Isis in the first, magical instance of mummification by which Osiris was brought back to life (and by a related magical process, the first line of pharaohs was brought into being by Isis and the revived- though not completely intact- Osiris). The drama of this ritual death and rebirth at the heart of Egyptian religion found parallels in the age of Christianity with the death and rebirth of its central figure, and in the Hellenistic era, metal-tinting featured in a redemptive ritual which competed with the new Christian god. This lecture has looked at the origins of Hermetic alchemy and philosophy in Ptolemaic Egypt and the wider intellectual milieu of Hellenistic antiquity, and we have seen how a recognizable genre of “secret literature” developed that transmitted not only philosophy and theory, but also practical recipes grounded in millennia of craftsmanship and industry. In antiquity, as we have seen, the transformations to which the skilled craftsman could subject metals, stones, and dyed fabrics held deep religious and spiritual significance, and the Hermetic doctrine about the interconnectedness of nature and the cosmic through secret affinities cast these operations as the mirror of the operations through which a soul could die, be purified, and be reborn. Ultimately, this redemptive promise of Egyptian, Hermetic, and later Gnostic alchemy led to conflict with orthodox Christianity, and our following lecture and the second part of this discussion of the transmission of technical knowledge, we will pick up this thread of the fate of Gnostic alchemies and the introduction of craft manuals to the Medieval West.



Special Topics Lecture 21. The Ars Notoria in the Western Middle Ages


The Ars Notoria in Western Medieval civilization played a recurrent role in the history of ritual magic and its intersection with intellectual and material culture produced in monastic contexts and beyond. Essentially, the Ars Notoria was a Christianized procedure for obtaining a holy vision- a practice of ritual magic with deep roots in antiquity- that “sanitized” the demonic aspects of its predecessors with canonically-sanctioned icons of Christian worship and prayer. The story of its rise, spread, destruction, and eventual preservation in a limited number of identified manuscripts paints a picture of the intellectual and religious milieu of the High Middle Ages, when divine wisdom is sought by the age-old method of supernatural revelation, rather than through the proto-scientific channels of experimentation we associate with Roger Bacon, Albert the Great, and the other pioneering scholastic philosophers whose contributions we have previously discussed. The following lecture draws on the collection of chapters, the individual authors will be noted below, of the 1998 book Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic edited by Claire Fanger.


Unlike the medieval philosophers who were meticulous to underline the natural operations of astrological images that were understood by the learned to harness and manipulate natural albeit unseen influences from the Ptolemaic system of heavenly spheres, the procedures of ritual magic from antiquity through the Middle Ages- whether in the Islamic East or the Christian West- addressed themselves to superhuman entities, classed in various cases (and disputed) as demonic or angelic, and they involved a long period of ritual fasting and prayer which would secure a vision of this being. It has been observed by one scholar of the genre that after around twenty-eight days or a similarly prolonged period of fasting, some kind of vision in a dream or otherwise was bound to occur. This fell in-line with the ancient convention that knowledge was received and ultimately transmitted from a non-human, divine source. This was the standard model of the transmission of all knowledge in the ancient world which left legacies in the Greek, Egyptian, and Hermetic literature of secrets which functioned so frequently as the vector by which much of natural philosophy, craft knowledge, magical procedures, and other forms of technical knowledge survived beyond antiquity in Islamic and Christian contexts up through the early modern period.


For historians like William Eamon who has written on Science and the Secrets of Nature, an emblematic episode of the typical way by which knowledge was acquired by a would-be-sage in antiquity is furnished by the Letter of Thessalos of Tralles, a biographical document by a first-century C.E. medical student. This letter functioned as the preface to a treatise attributed to the Egyptian pharaoh Nechepso and is addressed to the Roman emperor Claudius- a typical convention for the genre. Nevertheless, it has historical features that distinguish it: contemporary sources authenticate its references, and the author can be identified with the material evidence for a successful historical doctor from the same era. Pliny described Thessalos and his successful career in Rome in grandiose, though critical terms: Thessalos denounced the medicine of Hippocrates and others, utterly convinced in the divine origin of his new school of medical thought, Methodism, which claimed that all disease could be reduced to three states of the human body. Pliny characterized him a charlatan and by no means without competition, but Thessalos became so popular that a greater crowd thronged around him than any charioteer or actor. Iatronices, “conqueror of the physicians,” graced his tomb on the Appian Way. The Letter, then of Thessalos becomes the very plausible testament of the celebrated doctor to Eamon and others, and this historical Thessalos has also been connected as the named author (a Thessalus) of an unillustrated astrological medical treatise On the Powers of Plants (De virtutibus herbarium) with parallels to be found in the fifth-century Johnson Papyrus excavated from Antinopolis, Egypt that preserves entries and illustrations for the final two herbs of Thessalus’s herbarium (see Thessalos, then, appears as a figure credited as the father of an entire tradition of medical philosophy that derived its legitimacy from its origin in divine revelation. If not historical, then convincingly plausible, Eamon concluded about the contents of this Letter. This letter outlines Thessalos’s reception of not just one answer to a particular problem or circumstance, as was the standard model of the use of oracles in Greco-Egyptian antiquity, but for an entire doctrine of knowledge received from a conjured divine vision. The autobiography of Thessalos describes a medical student from Asia Minor who sets out for Alexandria on a quest for knowledge. However, the treatise of King Nechepso- the very same work which the Letter later prefaces- captured his interest with its instructions on how to collect, prepare, and administer medicinal plants according to their astrological affinities. Yet try as he might, success eluded Thessalos until he undertook a pilgrimage to Thebes and hired a priest skilled in the art of theurgy to conjure Asclepius, the god of medicine. The priest complied, summoning a speaking vision in a bowl of water that told Thessalos exactly why his reproduction of Nechepso’s recipes were unsuccessful;  the pharmacopeia of Nechepso, Asclepius informs him, had not been granted the revelation of the proper times and places that the plants must be gathered nor did he know the rituals and prayers that were necessary to invoke during their collection (otherwise they would have no power). Having secretly brought in a pen and paper to the session with conjured vision of Asclepius, Thessalos was able to write down- or so his Letter recounts- the words of the god Asclepius and the secrets that would bring him great fame in his own medical career.


Going to an oracle in antiquity to resolve some personal matter or to ask for insight into a specific event, such as a battle or king’s reign was common place; what made Thessalos’s use of the oracle as described in the Letter exceptional was the imparting of an entire system of knowledge, in this case the secret astrological preparations of plants and other natural materials as potent medicines, from divine source to human recipient. This reception of an entire gnosis, which we see further developed as a concept among the Neoplatonist theurgists like Iamblichus, Porphyry, Plotinus, and others, is the late-antique substratum of the Ars Notoria in the Latin West, which promised a path to the mastery of the entirety of knowledge and learning through supernatural transmission, rather than the grueling lifetime of applied study otherwise demanded of the would-be scholastic. Take, for example, the conventional depiction of Grammar personified in the Middle Ages in the Burney Manuscript in the British Library, which appears adjacent to the stereotypical image of the tutor beating his students. Grammar conventionally was the first and most elementary of the trivium, the group of three liberal arts made up of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, which a student would master before proceeding to the quadrivium of what were considered to be the scientific arts, made up by Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy. This organization had been established by the ninth century, as witnessed in the writings of Boethius, and continued to be the standard in education through the Middle Ages in Europe.


The appeal of the promise of the Ars Notoria, or the Notorial Arts, to grant the operator complete knowledge of the liberal arts not through rigorous study and memorization but through the embodiment of each liberal art in a diagrammatic form that blends geometrical and verbal designs with the characteristic notae, or arcane symbols which functioned as the transcendent symbols by which the human operator might access the celestial powers, and their transmission of the body of knowledge itself. Michael Camille has analyzed the idiosyncratic diagrams (or rather, anti-diagrams, as he explains) and notae contained in the Turin Manuscript (Biblioteca Nazionale MS E.V. 13). Both trivium and quadrivium are represented in multiple pages in highly ordered, albeit unconventional, schematics which evoke the stratosphere of the scholastic milieu of learning.


Another manuscript of the Ars Notoria highlighted by Camille diverges from the typology of the Turin Manuscript for its inclusion of figural elements (mostly angels, with some exceptions) as well as its idiosyncratic presentation of the notae themselves, now tied closely to the tradition of magical designs and images passed down from Arabian astrological texts and elsewhere. Camille has compared the notae of the Paris Manuscript with Aztec codices or the work of Paul Klee, at least to the modern eye, for their free-form, yet precise features which have no ready parallel elsewhere in medieval art. Their uniqueness and specificity, Camille posits, are the source of their magic as well; these were the gates through which the operator must pass in order to reap the promised benefits of the Ars Notoria: improved memory, eloquence, and mastery of all of the liberal arts.


Elsewhere in the material culture of the Middle Ages, the distinctive notae which we have just looked at in the context of their dedicated texts also appeared in a surprising variety of contexts, from the decorative to the scientific and mechanical. The frame of a fifteenth-century Florentine cassone panel (one side of a ritual and ceremonial marriage chest which more usually is the location of various motifs associated with fertility magic) features the distinctive notae inscribed into its field; unfortunately, the Musée des Beaux Arts at Tours, where it is kept, has photographed the piece and cropped out this critical feature of its composition. The notae appear, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the learned astrological atmosphere of fifteenth-century Prague in a luxurious manuscript made for King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia. The notae are not the conventional symbols of the planets found in the outer band of the schematic; rather, they appear outside of the sphere, in the blank space of the margins, and their complexity indicates a complex, if utterly obscure significance to both the maker and recipient of the lavish work.


In the Speculum Maius, “Great Mirror,” of Vincent of Beauvais, finished ca. 1264, a characteristically medieval compendium of knowledge- all things deemed worthy for speculation- modified contemporary and later organizations of the Seven Liberal Arts with its inclusion of four mechanical arts: Architecture, Painting, Philosophy, and Magic. Michael Camille included an image of these in his chapter “Visual Art in Two Manuscripts of the Ars Notoria” which is dark and from such a distance as to impede a full view of all four of the statues, yet this seems to be as yet the only published and identified image of this early fourteenth-century sculptural group which embodied Vincent of Beauvais’s contribution to the structure of the Medieval liberal arts. In this pairing of licit/illicit arts, as Camille writes, architecture and philosophy find themselves on the right side- spatially and symbolically in sacred iconography-, painting and magic find themselves on the left or sinister side. In typical medieval fashion, each carries an attribute of its associated craft: a measuring rule, a board for drawing, an object of nature to contemplate, and a rolled-up scroll, respectively. In the case of Magic, this scroll has been interpreted to reference the art’s dependence upon earlier texts.


Returning now to the subject of the magic contained in the Ars Notoria or “Notorial Arts” of the Middle Ages, the texts which the earliest Latin versions relied upon were the manuals of talismans and image magic from Arabic sources- which we have looked at in detail in our previous lectures- as well as other traditions which transmitted the “Solomonic Arts.” This name comes not from a continuous textual tradition dating back to the historical reign of Solomon (our overview of the survival of material from the much-later Hellenistic period should give an idea how unlikely that scenario would be); instead, prevailing legends about the divinely-given, total wisdom of King Solomon, which included mastery over angels as well as demons. The Clavicula Salomonis (the Key of Solomon) is the manual of ceremonial magic passed down from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages These demonic figures could include, but were not limited to, the older system of Greco-Egyptian and Near Eastern planetary deities; The Book of Angels, Rings, Characters and Images of the Planets attributed to Osbern Bokenham has been transcribed and published by Juris G. Lidaka in an eponymous chapter; this text is an example of the category of magical text indebted to Arabian sources just mentioned. While certain astrological figures and manufacturing traditions- the inscribing of a lamella, the making of an image, or the crafting of a ring, for example- are apparent in the magical texts of the Latin Middle Ages, the visionary quality of the Ars Notoria and magic like it however is linked by historian Richard Kieckhefer to the Merkabah tradition of Jewish mysticism. Whereas early medieval Christian culture condemned the invocation of extra-biblical angels and promised a vision of God, the visio Dei, as a reward for a saintly life after death, early Merkabah mysticism promoted visions in which the seeker ascended to a divine throne or chariot and was ultimately led to perceive the majesty of God and the multitude of ranks of angels in the celestial court. Kieckhefer also connects the use of the divine name in its embellished form as a primary means of magic to Kabbalistic practices as well as later Latin magical texts.


The Liber iuratus (Sworn Book) or Liber sacer (Sacred Book) attributed Honorius, son of Euclid, of Thebes is posited by Kieckhefer and other historians to have come from the early fourteenth-century milieu that followed the suppression of magical practices by Pope John XXII and his cardinals; the earliest manuscripts date to this era. The pretense of the book (which historians doubt for its historicity) is that in the aftermath of the condemnation of magic by the pope, 811 masters assemble at Naples and elect Honorius to distill the essential principles in a secret manual. However, another terminus ante quem has been suggested as the first half of the thirteenth century, due to a mention of a Liber sacratus  by William of Auvergne as  “accursed and execrable”; in this case, the pope in question might be Gregory IX. It should be noted that the Sacred Book is not the only title on William of Auvergne’s black list Kieckhefer however concludes that the Sworn Book of Honorius specifically could not date earlier than the later thirteenth century, due to Jewish elements which were inaccessible to Latin culture before this time. In this work, the elaborated name of God is given as Shemhamphoras, a Latinization of the Hebraicized Aramaic Shem ham-M’forash, the “Ineffable Name.” Before the instructions for the divine vision commence in the work of Honorius, instructions are given to construct the “seal of God” on a sheet of virgin parchment or vellum, the aforesaid consisting of an intricate design around a pentagram surrounded by arcane names with the “Sehemhamphoras,” the great divine name in seventy-two letters in a circle surrounding the work. This image proliferated in Latin texts as the Sigillum Dei, appearing in the much-later works of John Dee, Athanasius Kirchner, and others. In some modern editions, this image’s use on the cover page creates a certain kind of continuity with its original function as an opening seal. More Jewish-derived features include the insistence by the author that the book should be buried if no worthy successor is found (a practice prescribed for all books that mention God in the Jewish tradition) as well as Honorius’s own insistence that although his work may resemble Hebrew mysticism, only his Christianized form that instructed practitioners to make the sign of the cross would be effective in coercing the angels or demons to answer truthfully and to obtain a true vision. Robert Mathiesen also has examined the Sworn Book as the subject of his chapter “A Thirteenth-Century Ritual to Attain the Beatific Vision from the Sworn Book of Honorius of Thebes,” and his work identifies the six surviving manuscripts, all in the British Library, of the work: Sloane 313 (once the property of the Elizabethan magus John Dee then the dramatist Ben Johnson, each of whom left their mark on the manuscript) and 3854 from the fourteenth century, Sloane 3885 from the sixteenth, and Sloane 3826 and 3883 from the seventeenth. For all of the Jewish characteristics brought to light by Kieckhefer, Mathieson highlights the simultaneous deeply Catholic liturgical character of the work, with its reliance on a core of prayers the author calls a “Psalter,” which is then followed by a shorter “Litany.” Otherwise, the Sworn Book of Honorius possesses a feature which the subsequent Latin Christian magical and visionary texts will not: Honorius affirms the sacred quality of magical operations by accusing the pope that is suppressing magic of being the puppet of demons, making the destruction of magical knowledge among mankind a demonic, rather than holy, enterprise. This will be an anomalous position in the later tradition of Medieval magic.


Finally, this lecture will conclude with the unique contribution of John the Monk in his Liber visionum beate et intemerate Dei genetrices virginis Marie (Book of Visions of the Blessed and Undefiled Virgin Mary, Mother of God), which combined aspects of the visionary operations prescribed in the Sworn Book and elsewhere with the promise of a divinely-transmitted wisdom embodied by the Ars Notoria and Solomonic texts. This text is historically significant because its authorship can be attributed to a historical John, a monk of Morigny, who experienced a series of visionary dreams that took the figure of the Virgin Mary as their source of revelation for the liberal arts. This visionary Mary redirects John from his former path of pursuing the standard Ars Notoria, which we have seen in the Turin and Paris manuscripts, as well as in the astronomical manuscript of Wenceslas IV and the Florentine cassone at Tours. The historicity is confirmed by the detailed account of its condemnation dating to 1323:

And in this same year [1323], there was a monk of Morigny, an abbey near Etampes, who through his curiosity and pride wanted to inspire and renew a condemned heresy and sorcery called in Latin Ars NOtoria, although he hoped to give it another name and title. This science teaches the making of figures and designs, and they must be different from one another and each assigned to a different branch of learning. Also, they must be contemplated at particular times with fasting and prayers. And so, after contemplation, the branch of knowledge which one wants to have and acquire through this act of contemplation is bestowed. But one had to name and invoke various little known names, which were firmly believed to be the names of demons. Hence this science disappointed many and many were deceived by it. For nobody using this science, even though he feigned that the blessed virgin Mary had appeared to him many times, thereby inspiring him with knowledge. And so in her honor he had had many images painted in his book, with many prayers and letters, very richly in expensive colors, feigning that the Virgin Mary had revealed everything to him. After these images had been applied to each branch of learning one was seeking would be bestowed- and more, for if there were riches, honors, or pleasure one wanted to have, once could have them. And because this book promised these things, and because one had to make invocations and write one’s name twice in the book, and have a copy of the book personally written for one’s own use, a costly matter- otherwise, if one did not have a copy written at one’s own cost and expense, it would be worthless- the said book was justly condemned in Paris as false and evil, against the Christian faith, and condemned to be burned and put in the fire.

 The survival of the text of John of Morigny in three manuscripts discovered to date (the McMaster text identified in 1994, the Munich version in 1997, and a newly-discovered manuscript in Graz), none of which are French, points to the survival of his work beyond the condemnation and burning, indicating the appeal which this particular variation upon the visionary operations and aims of the Ars Notoria held for Latin Christian readers and practitioners, mostly in the monastic context. Nicholas Watson, Richard Kieckhefer, and Claire Fanger’s contributions to the volume detail the procedure and its specifics, which we will not go into here; rather, the Liber visionum we must take as a quintessentially medieval variation upon magical practices and traditions which had attracted a great deal of popularity in the learned climate of medieval monasteries and universities.


This lecture thus far has been a cursory survey of the principle texts which transmitted a variant form of ritual and ceremonial magic which was the unique product of the intellectual milieu of the Latin Middle Ages; the Ars Notoria, the Key of Solomon, the Sworn or Sacred Books, or the Visionary Book of John of Morigny all had as their goals not the pedestrian magic of antiquity with its garden-variety curses and love spells, but rather the attainment of entire bodies of knowledge, a phenomenon we witnessed in its earliest expression in the Letter of Thessalos. However, whereas in antiquity, Thessalos received medical knowledge from the oracle of Asclepius, by the High Middle Ages, monks could master the seven liberal arts by bypassing the life of toil otherwise required through the practice of ritual magic, Christianized by Honorius, John of Morigny, and the apparently numerous copies which circulated beyond the official condemnation of these texts.