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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The impact of ‘hieroglyphics’ on the allegorical art of Renaissance Italy

The Renaissance Humanists quest for the recovery of ancient ‘truths’ and for a greater understanding of God didn’t only find definition through the Renaissance reclamation of ancient texts, artistic styles and architecture. Renaissance humanists were interested in a variety of antique modes of knowledge, from the rituals and numerology of Cabbala; the translation of classic texts; the study of natural magic in, for example, alchemy (and again Cabbala); and also through the study of symbols such as Egyptian hieroglyphs.

In order to examine the general impact of hieroglyphics and the resulting impact on Renaissance art, it is first necessary to understand how and why hieroglyphs became so important, and what they meant to their main sponsor during the Renaissance - the humanists and neo-Platonists.

We can then explore more specific artistic examples of hieroglyphics in commemorative medal; print; portraiture; and emblems.

There are several ways in which hieroglyphs became known to Renaissance scholars. The Roman Empire had of course stretched as far as Egypt, and a number of Egyptian artefacts had been returned to Rome. These included sphinxes and obelisks, which incorporated hieroglyphs in their design, though, in fact, the most often cited example of the famous obelisk standing in St Peter’s Square contains no hieroglyphs. [2]

However, unbeknownst to Renaissance scholars, Roman artists had also produced their own imitations of hieroglyphics, and examples existed in Rome, mixed with the Egyptian originals. These were incorrectly assumed to be of Egyptian origin, and their designs were sometimes copied as genuine. Extant examples include the obelisk at the Piazza Trinita dei Monti (known as the Sallustian); the obelisk in the Pincio Hill’s Gardens made by Emperor Hadrian; and the obelisk in the Piazza Navona [3]. There is also the surviving Roman temple frieze now in the Capitoline Museum, which inspired the Renaissance copies, to be discussed later.

In response to the Egyptian artefacts brought into Italy, other examples of Egyptian structures began to appear. In the Mosaics of San Marco in Venice, pyramids were shown as Joseph’s granaries[iv], and pyramids were also incorporated into tomb monuments in Bologna.[v]

In addition, the ever popular Physiologus, whilst not strictly containing Egyptian hieroglyphs, kept alive the notion of Egyptian symbolism.

As well as the visual examples, the humanists had translated a number of classical texts which cited Egyptian wisdom and hieroglyphs, putting Egyptian knowledge on an almost exalted level. Poggio Bracciolini had translated Diodorus describing the wonders of Egypt, and Nicolo dei Nicoli had copied Ammianus Marcellinus, who had written in the fourth century of his trip to Egypt and the marvels he’d seen. Herodotus too had written that “the Egyptians … have made themselves much the most learned of any nation of which I have experience”, (Histories ii. 77), and that “The names of nearly all the gods have been known in Egypt from the beginning of time”, (Histories ii. 50).

When in 1419 Cristoforo Buondelmonte discovered a manuscript on Andros, apparently a description and explanation of Egyptian hieroglyphics by Horapollo[vii], [viii], [ix], he sent it to his friends Nicoli and Bracciolini expecting it to pique their interest. Divided into two books, the original is thought to have been written in Egypt in the fourth or fifth century, and translated in this instance into Greek by the unknown Philippos. For the first time Renaissance humanists felt as though they might truly understand the extant Egyptian remains in Rome and scattered elsewhere. (The hieroglyphs in the first book whilst not entirely accurate, generally hold true and are now thought to be original to Horapollo. The second book is thought to contain later additions accompanying the Greek translation, and the examples generally don’t bear any resemblance to Egyptian hieroglyphics).

Some years later in the early 1460’s, Marsilio Ficino, leader of the Platonic Academy in Florence established in 1439 by Cosimo de Medici, translated a text thought to be by the Egyptian sage, Hermes Trismegistus[x]. Hermes Trismegistus had been known to scholars throughout the medieval period[xi], and was denounced by Augustine in chapters 23-26 of the City of God.

Ficino and the other Renaissance Neo-Platonists were convinced that writers such as Plato and Hermes Trismegistus had in some way pre-figured Christ and were to be reclaimed into the Christian corpus - it is therefore no wonder that Egypt seemed to take on such significance[xii]. Erik Iversen states that ‘According to Ficino, Hermes Trismegistus was a sage of the Egyptians, a contemporary or maybe even a predecessor of Moses. He had attained a knowledge of things surpassing even that which was revealed to the Hebrew prophets, and comparable only to that of the Evangelists. Pythagoras had become acquainted with his teachings in Egypt, and through his intermission they had been transmitted to Plato who was a student of Egyptian wisdom himself, and had eventually based his own philosophy on the doctrines of Hermes. Egyptian wisdom, Neo-Platonic philosophy, and the humanistic studies became in this way consecutive links in an unbroken chain of tradition, joined together and united with Christianity by their common aim: the knowledge and revelation of God’,[xiii] and this view is born out by others.[xiv] Some critics disagree with this notion of a continuous flow from one to the other, but in any case Ficino clearly believed there was a level of continuity in the intention of the texts.[xv]

Ficino included Pimander in the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of hermetic writings, but had no idea that in fact the text post-dates Christ, referring obliquely back to him rather than prophesising Christ. However, such was his standing that in 1488 Hermes Trismegistus was included in the mosaic pavement of Sienna Cathedral and is there cited as a contemporary of Moses (see Fig. 1). He was also a prominent figure in alchemical writings, where his writings were quoted, and his image re-created [see Fig. 2].

In 1492 Ficino translated Plotinus’s Enneads into Latin. In it Plotinus states that “‘The Egyptian sages … drew pictures and carved one picture for each thing in their temples, thus making manifest the description of that thing. Thus each picture was a kind of understanding and wisdom and substance and given all at once, and not discursive reasoning and deliberation.’ To which Ficino added the following gloss, ‘The Egyptian Priests did not use individual letters to signify mysteries, but whole images of plants, trees and animals, because God has knowledge of things not through a multiplicity of thought processes, but rather as a simple and firm form of the thing.’” Both quotes are taken from Rudolf Wittkower’s ‘Hieroglyphics in the Early Renaissance’.[xvi], [xvii], [xviii]

Wittkower goes on to add that “In other words, in Ficino’s exposition the image does not simply represent the concept, it embodies it. If one could only decipher hieroglyphs, one would have access not only to many ancient mysteries, but above all to the secret of how to express the essence of an idea, its platonic form, as it were, perfect and complete in itself, by means of an image. So the humanists of the 15th century turned for enlightenment to the ancient writers”.

In a letter to John of Hungary, Ficino states that “the ancient tradition of theologians was to shroud divine mysteries in the numbers and forms of mathematics as well as in the images of poetry. At length Plotinus stripped Theology of these coverings and, as Porphyry and Proclus bear witness, he was the first and only one to penetrated, by divine inspiration, the secrets of the ancients”[xix]

These notions lie at the heart of the Humanists thinking on hieroglyphics – that somehow the image represented something sacred, something to be discovered, translated and utilised. It also met with the Renaissance notion of ‘the eye of the mind, that there is a certain realism between the eye of the body and the eye of the mind’[xx] and contributed to Ficino’s belief that the Egyptians had been privy to some secret knowledge, not yet revealed, which was to be uncovered for the Christian faith.

Leon Battista Alberti also came to the same understanding. Wittkower quotes from the Eighth Book of his Ten Books on Architecture: “The Egyptians employed symbols in the following manner: they carved an eye, by which they understood God; a vulture for nature; a Bee for King; a circle for Time… the manner of expressing their sense which they used on these occasions, by symbols, they thought must always be understood by learned men of all nations, to whom alone they were of the opinion that things of moment were fit to be communicated”. Again there is this belief that an understanding of hieroglyphs will only be available to the initiated, to the erudite man.

In Asclepius, from the Corpus Hermeticum, we find “Do you know, Asclepius, that Egypt is an image of heaven or to speak more exactly, in Egypt all the operations of the powers which rule and work in heaven have been transferred to earth below? Nay it should rather be said that the whole Kosmos dwells in this our land as in its sanctuary”[xxi]

Of course we know that hieroglyphs are in fact a phonetic language or alphabet, but because Egypt had undergone a series of incursions and occupations, the hieroglyphic language had all but died out in the fourth century. During this period it was known and practiced principally by the priests, which confirmed in the minds of those writing later that it was a form of secret communication with God.

As I have already mentioned, scholars such as Pico della Mirandola were working on Hebrew texts and the Cabbala, particularly the Sefer Yetzira (the Book of Creation)[xxii], with others trying to re-discover Adam’s sacred form of communication with the angels. Whilst clearly the Cabbala and Hermetic writings do not “meet”, it is possible to see that Ficino and Pico were working towards a common goal, albeit from different sources. Both sources seemed to point to hieroglyphs as a potential key to the puzzle.[xxiii]

In this context, the Classical interpretation of hieroglyphics seemed perfectly logical to the Renaissance Humanists - they saw no reason to question the interpretation of the image as a complete and secret symbol. Combined with the rogue and indecipherable Roman examples, the false examples in the Hieroglyphica, and the incorrect dating of Hermes Trismegistus’ Pimander, we can see how a number of contributing errors led to the mistaken understanding of hieroglyphics. The prevailing view that hieroglyphic symbols encapsulated a complete idea in each image survived until they were finally translated by Champollion, using as his key the surviving Christian Coptic texts in Egypt.

It is against this background that we should examine a few instances of Renaissance hieroglyphics.

Some of the best known examples of hieroglyphics are those used on two commemorative medals for Alberti. Wittkower states that “There is no doubt that the Renaissance medal was an important vehicle for the communication of esoteric pictographs… they were made for a small circle, and the ideas expressed by them were meant to remain dark and mysterious to the public at large.” Most importantly he says “They were a kind of priestly currency, the reserve of the few – just as in their view the Egyptian hieroglyphs had been a secret of the sacerdotal caste”[xxiv]. Again the prevailing view is that hieroglyphs should be kept a secret language, available only to a select coterie of ‘worthy’ men.[xxv]

Alberti used a winged eye hieroglyph below what is regarded as a self-portrait, dated 1438 [Fig. 3]. But this emblem is also shown on the reverse of Matteo de’ Pasti’s medal of Alberti. Here the emblem is joined by the expression “What then?”. Scholars continue to debate Alberti’s intention - he had already spoken of the eye as being the symbol of God’s omniscience, and Wittkower has the quote as appearing to come from Cicero[xxvi]. Douglas Lewis states that “In this emblem a human eye – understood by association to be the artist’s own – is born aloft by the wings of a raptor, a falcon or an eagle, to a height from which the entire universe is visible, The eye not only sees all, it is also all powerful, for the thunderbolts of Jupiter are grafted onto its end. Through his art, the new, all-sing, humanist artist wields a potentially godlike power”[xxvii]. In this context Lewis concludes that the motto when accompanying the emblem should be read as “what then, or what next? - implying that there is nothing that cannot be imagined or attempted”[xxviii]. However other readings exist – some critics believe that the motto refers to Alberti’s illegitimate birth – that he is saying in effect “so what?”. I think it is precisely this ambiguity which appeals to Alberti – the winged eye may be read in many different ways – depending upon the reader, its meaning remains obscure.

Textual examples also had a profound impact on the study of hieroglyphs. In 1499 Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Polifili was published in Venice by Aldus. A very complicated romance, it includes a number of different languages and styles, from Tuscan, Latin, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean to Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Except that the hieroglyphs copied in the Hypnerotomachia, which are of particular concern to us, are modelled on a Roman temple frieze which had existed in the San Lorenzo fuori le mura. It had been copied by others, including Mantegna, but Colonna used the hieroglyphs in a very unique way. What is perhaps surprising to modern readers is that Renaissance scholars didn’t seek just to understand and imitate the extant Egyptian hieroglyphs. On the contrary, they seem to have applied the technique in an innovative sense to create their own hieroglyphs.[xxix]

Colonna was convinced that not only was he able to string together some meaning for existing hieroglyphs, including his translation of the base of a crypt, but also that by linking together new ideographs by means of, say a ribbon, that he could create new sentences which might be translated by the modern reader [see Figs 4-12]. Again Colonna didn’t understand the system to be phonetic, but along with other scholars though them a complete ideogram. However, Diekmann states that “from the moment of the publication of the Hypnerotomachia, Renaissance art became flooded with hieroglyphs. Lionardo, Mantegna, Pintrucchio, Giolio Romano, Durer, to name only a few, delighted in this fashion.”[xxx]

In portraiture, hieroglyphics were used by Sebastiano del Piombo in his Portrait of Andrea Doria, dated 1526 [Fig. 13]. Doria was an important sea captain who came to the aid of Clement VII in defence against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. According to George Gorse, Clement VII “in effect sealed the personal and contractual relationship between Clement and his Captain of the Sea. Apparently on the initiative of the pope, the portrait made a formal declaration in humanistic terms of the admiral’s condotta, his military contract, and of this alliance, to be displayed within the Vatican palace and near to the pope, as a sign of personal affection”[xxxi]. The hieroglyphs in the portrait reflect Clement VII’s interest in hermetic humanism “which purported to ‘uncover’ Egyptian ‘sacred knowledge’ and the hidden order of Nature – that is, the secrets of Creation understood by Adam before the Fall”[xxxii]. Many of the examples are shown in the Hypnerotomachia Polifili, and the temple frieze discussed, now in the Museo Capitolino. The symbols are clearly meant to represent the skills ideally found in a sea captain: “discipline, steadfastness, caution, prudence, and fortitude”[xxxiii] Ironically Doria subsequently left the patronage of Clement VII and defected to Charles V, taking his portrait with him.

In each of these examples the principle stated earlier holds true – the meaning of the message is obscure, but not illegible. For the educated reader familiar with the translations made by Ficino and others, and aware of the hieroglyphs in Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica, and Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia, the text can be deciphered. The key is a proper understanding of intention.

However by the time we reach Alciato’s Emblemata, circulated in 1521, but first printed in 1531, the nature of the image had changed. For the first time the intention is to elucidate, not conceal, meaning. This marks a significant alteration in the way in which images of this nature had been used – if you can read, the meaning of the symbols in now available to you. Although this point is made by several scholars, most forget to point out that the illustrations to the Emblemata were only added in later additions. Whilst some of the symbols used have been taken directly from Horapollo and the Hypnerotomachia, others are taken from different sources[xxxiv]. The illustrator is unknown, and Alciati was not sure about the inclusion of images as being necessary to meaning of the motto. What is clear is that the more popular versions of the Emblemata did include the illustrations, and were translated into and circulated all over Europe. The text went on to have a major impact on renaissance art and literature, and is still published today. In addition we might consider other forms of visual symbols, such as imprese, rebuses, all of which might be considered to have been influenced by, if not have stemmed from, Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The overwhelming question remains, why did hieroglyphs appeal so directly to Renaissance Humanists? We have already considered a number of reasons. Humanists were interested in seeking the essential ‘truth’ of Christianity. They believed that although Christ was unknown to classical writers, a number of their texts clearly, to their mind, pre-figured him. Although the Church condemned a number of these classical sources, scholars such as Ficino and Pico believed they should be re-incorporated into the Christian corpus. Some texts were later to be shown to post-date Christ, such as those of Hermes Trismegistus, but there seemed to be some essential Christian truth in the writings of, for example Plato. It is for this reason that the Humanists felt compelled to view the ideographs of the Egyptians in the same way – surely these were also the secret communications of God? They may have predated Christ, but they surely contained some essential message relating to Christianity?

Interestingly, where the Humanists sought the truth, they also sought to conceal it from all but the enlightened. Where paintings contained allegories designed to obscure meaning from all but the initiated, hieroglyphs might also be employed for the same intention. Alberti’s medal is still not clear to us today – is it secular or religious, or both? What is clear is that hieroglyphics had far-reaching affect on all cultures which came across them, way beyond their loss of meaning between the fourth and eighteenth centuries - but nowhere was as creative with hieroglyphs as the Renaissance period, which created its own language of ideographs and which influenced several other areas of specialisation, such as emblems, rebuses, and imprese. The humanist’s understanding of hieroglyphs all but died when Champollion discovered the true nature of hieroglyphs, and unlocked for the first time the ancient dead language. However, if left us with a rich vein of humanist and neo-platonic exploration and creativity.

This piece was written in 2006 - the bibliography will not be up-to-date.

Aldred, C., Review of ‘The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 105, No. 721 (April, 1963), 172
Barasch, M., ‘Renaissance Hieroglyphics’ in Hieroglyphen, Stationen einer anderen abendlandishchen Grammatologie, (Munich, Germany: Wilhem Fink Verlag)
Caldwell, D., ‘The Paragone between Word and Image in Impresa Literature’, Journal of Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol., 63 (2000), 277-286
Dannenfeldt, K., ‘The Renaissance and the Pre-Classical Civilisations’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 1952), 435-449
Dieckmann, L., Hieroglyphics: The History of a Literary Symbol, (St Louis: Washington University Press, 1970)
Elsky, M., ‘George Herbert’s Pattern Poems and the Materiality of Language: A New Approach to Renaissance Hieroglyphics’, English Literary History, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Summer, 1983), 245-260
Ficino, M., The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, Volume 7, (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 2003)
Goldscheider, L., Unknown Renaissance portraits: Medals of Famous Men and Women of the XV and XVI Centuries (London: Phaidon Press, 1952)
Gorse, G. L., ‘Augustan Mediterranean Iconography and Renaissance Hieroglyphics at the Court of Clement VII: Sebastiano de Piombo’s Portrait of Andrea DoriaThe Pontificate of Clement VII: History, Politics, Culture, Ed. K. Gouwens and S. E. Reiss, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005)
Herodotus, The Histories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1972)
Hill, G., Medals of the Renaissance (London: British Museum Publications, 1920, repr. 1978)
Iversen, E., The Myth of Egypt and it Hieroglyphs in European Tradition (Copehagen: GEC GAD Publishers, 1961)
Magee, G. A., Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001)
Panofsky, E., Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939, reprint)
Panofsky, E., Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939, reprint) 
Scher, S., The Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance (London Thames and Hudson, 1994)
Seznec, J., The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, repr. 1995)
Tervarent, de G., Review of ‘The Hieroglyphics of Horapollon’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol.94, No. 589 (April, 1952), 122-123
Volkmann, L. von., Hieroglyphik und Emblematik bei Giorgio Vasari (Leipzig: Hiersemann 1923)
Wind, E., Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958, repr. 1980)
Wittkower, R., ‘Hieroglyphics in the Early Renaissance’, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977; repr. 1987)

List of Figures:

Fig. 1 Hermes Trismegistus in the mosaic pavement of the Sienna Duomo,,%2Bhermes%2Btrismegistus%26svnum%3D10%26hl%3Den%26lr%3D%26sa%3DN

Fig. 2 Hermes Trismegistus from D. Stolcius von Stolcenbeerg, Viridarium chymicum, Frankfurt, 1624

Fig. 3 Alberti’s medal, taken from Scher, S., The Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance (London Thames and Hudson, 1994), p. 42

Fig. 4-12 Examples of hieroglyphs used in the Colonna ‘Hypnerotomachia Polifili’.

Fig. 13 The Portrait of Andrea Doria, from Gorse, G. L., ‘Augustan Mediterranean Iconography and Renaissance Hieroglyphics at the Court of Clement VII: Sebastiano de Piombo’s Portrait of Andrea Doria’ The Pontificate of Clement VII: History, Politics, Culture, Ed. K. Gouwens and S. E. Reiss, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005)


[1] Where the neo-Platonist sought to uncover truths, it is inevitable that any language which apparently expressed the thoughts of God directly would interest them. Liselotte Dieckmann agrees that “It is not accidental that most of the passages under consideration are intimately connected with Platonism and its traditions … The problems of the relationship between matter and spirit, appearance and reality, outward form and true meaning, tangibility and idea, constitute the basic problems of all Platonic thinkers, in metaphysical as well as in aesthetic considerations. It is in this contact that we will find the hieroglyphical thinkers.” Dieckmann, L., Hieroglyphics: The History of a Literary Symbol, (St Louis: Washington University Press, 1970), p. 2.
[2] Wittkower, R., ‘Hieroglyphics in the Early Renaissance’, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977; repr. 1987), p 114. “In the course of time Rome had more than forty-two obelisks, twelve of which survive to this day… Nobody interfered with this obelisk standing next to the old basilica of St. Peter’s, the centre of Christianity.”
[3] Taken from the site, on Roman obelisks.
[4] Dieckmann, p. 31
[5] Wittkower, p. 114
[6] Herodotus, The Histories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1972), pp. 105 and113
[7] Iversen, E., The Myth of Egypt and it Hieroglyphs in European Tradition (Copehagen: GEC GAD Publishers, 1961), p.59. According to Iversen, Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica had been coped down until the fourteenth century, but the ‘Egyptological material was never studied for its own sake, for the information it provided about Egypt and Egyptian culture, but exclusively for philological reasons’.
[8] Wittkower, p. 116
[9] Dieckmann, p. 31
[10] Magee, G. A., Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 28. “In 1460, fourteen out of the fifteen “philosophical” Hermetica were brought to Florence from Macedonia by a monk employed by Cosimo de'Medici to locate manuscripts for him. Remarkably, Cosimo ordered Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) to interrupt the translation he was preparing of Plato's dialogues to begin work immediately on a Latin translation of the Corpus Hermeticum. Ficino's translation, entitled Pimander (after the first of the treatises) and printed for the first time in 1471, had an incredibly wide circulation. It went through sixteen editions up until the end of the sixteenth century”.
[11] Magee, p. 22: ‘from the end of the Roman world until the Renaissance, the Latin Asclepius was the only portion of the Corpus Hermeticum available in the West. During this period of nearly a thousand years, the primary transmission of Hermetic ideas to Europe was through alchemy. During the Middle Ages Hermes Trismegistus was given as the author of scores of occult works, and even medical texts. Prominent among this “pseudo-Hermetic” literature were the various Arabic texts attributed to Hermes. The most famous of these works was the Emerald Tablet. A very short work (about a page long) it was nevertheless extremely influential, particularly on alchemy. According to the text, Apollonius of Tyana discovered the tomb of Hermes Trismegistus and, inside, an engraved emerald tablet still clutched in his gnarled hands. The text of the tablet then follows. It consists of twelve propositions. The initial one is the most famous: “In truth certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing.”‘
[12] Panofsky states: “For Ficino, Plato is both a ‘Moses talking Attic Greek’ and an heir to the wisdom of Orpheus, Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster, and the stages of ancient Egypt”. Panofsky, E., Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939, reprint), p. 183
[13] Iversen, p.60.
[14] Magee, p. 28. “In the preface to Pimander, Ficino presented his own genealogy of wisdom, which he culled from a variety of sources, including the church fathers Augustine, Lactantius, and Clement. It began with Hermes Trismegistus and Zoroaster, and traced a direct line to Plato.”
[15] Iversen, p.60, Iversen points to Ficino’s De Christiana Religione and Theologica Platonica as linking these together. See also note above.
[16] Wittkower, p. 115-116
[17] Edgar Wind, however, would have this comment as an “incidental remark by Plotinus”, he goes on to state that “Plotinus has suggested that Egyptian ciphers are more suitable for sacred script than alphabetic writing because they represent the diverse parts of the discourse as implicit, and thus concealed in one single form. Since Pico ascribed the same virtue to the writing of the Hebrew without vowels, it is legitimate to suspect that the Renaissance speculations on ‘implicit signs’ were not concerned with a positive theory of optical intuition, but with that far less attractive subject called steganography, the cryptic recording of sacred knowledge”. Wind, E., Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958, repr. 1980), p. 207. Here I’m unsure if Edgar Wind really means steganography in the literal sense of hidden text, as opposed to a coded message to be deciphered by the recipient.
[18] Liselotte Dieckmann also feels that the Neo-Platonists were quick to utilise Plotinus for their own aims. She states that “Plato’s negative attitude toward the art of writing is carefully omitted later by those authors who considered hieroglyphs to contain supreme truth”. Dieckmann, p. 6. Later she states that “Plotinus mentions the Egyptian hieroglyphics as an example of his idea of ‘form’, thus furnishing the Renaissance authors with a strong philosophical argument”, p. 17.
[19] The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, Volume 7, (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 2003), p. 23, Letter 19 to John of Hungary. For a breakdown of the possibe intended recipients of this letter, see p. 200 of the same volume.
[20] Barasch, M., ‘Renaissance Hieroglyphics’ in Hieroglyphen, Stationen einer anderen abendlandishchen Grammatologie, (Munich, Germany: Wilhem Fink Verlag), p. 170. Barasch goes on to say ‘The eye can be a way of the cognition of God because in itself it has some affinity with the divine, The way the eye acts in the processes of cognition is a reflection of divine thinking. Discursive cognition and recording is an analytical process… seeing, on the other hand, is a grasping in one, single instant, the whole configuration. It is therefore not surprising that it is precisely in a passage dealing with hieroglyphs where Ficino says that “God doubtless has a knowledge of things which is not complex discursive thought about its subject, but is, as it were, the simple and steadfast form of it”. Ficino’s words are a concise description of visual or intuitive thought, as the Renaissance understood it. It is also in this kind of thought that man can perceive, or visually experience, something of the divine’.
[21] Dieckmann, p. 23
[22] Dieckmann, p. 38-39. Dieckmann lists a “brief and incomplete enumeration of some aspects of the Cabala as it made itself felt in Renaissance hieroglyphical thinking: 1. God himself revealed to man the “names” of all things. When Adam, in Paradise, named the things, he was taught to do so by God. 2. Consequently the names of things are the right names, the only meaningful and necessary names of the things. 3. Hence, by pronouncing the name of a thing, the essence of the thing is evoked…”
[23] Martin Elsky also points to this, he states that “Renaissance thinkers, influenced to various degrees by Humanism, Neoplatonism and Christian cabalism, attributed mystic powers and deep symbolic meaning to the Hebrew alphabet, thinking of its letters as secret hieroglyphs, a characteristic that was in some sense passed on to its descendents in the modern languages. For instance, in his De Verbo Mirifico (1494), Reuchin saw in Hebrew letters the same mystical hieroglyphic meaning as the renaissance attributed to Egyptian writing”, Elsky, M., ‘George Herbert’s Pattern Poems and the Materiality of Language: A New Approach to Renaissance Hieroglyphics’, English Literary History, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Summer, 1983), 245-260, pp. 248.
[24] Wittkower, p. 120
[25] Dannefeldt states that “Here was a new language for the humanist to master, and those who were inclined toward the occult and esoteric were especially intrigued, for here, they felt, was not only a key to ancient wisdom, but by clever arrangement of images and by the addition of a few signs of their own, whole sentences, mottoes and coats of arms could be formulated that would be known only to the initiate.”, Dannenfeldt, K., ‘The Renaissance and the Pre-Classical Civilisations’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 1952), 435-449, pp. 449
[26] Wittkower, p. 120
[27] Lewis, D., in The Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance, Ed. S Sher (London Thames and Hudson, 1994), p. 42 

[28] Lewis, p.43
[29] Wittkower, p. 118 “To this misconception we must add the strange phenomenon that, although Egyptian hieroglyphs were the starting point of their search for the lost wisdom, they never regarded it as necessary to use symbols even vaguely reminiscent of true hieroglyphs. Their interest was focused on the method rather than on the original ideogram.”
[30] Dieckmann, p. 44
[31] Gorse, p.314
[32] Gorse, p. 319
[33] Gorse, p. 325
[34] Dieckmann, p. 47

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