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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Authority: Menestrier

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     Prophesies were one of the large class of literary species which were devoted to foretelling the future and as such still had a reading public during and after the Renaissance. Prophecies also had a larger literary significance in that they had an ancient relationship with poetry itself. It is not a surprise that the Latin word vates meant both prophet and poet and it is not too much to suppose that the origin of poetry (and thus literature) lay in the enigmatic utterances of the prophet and the oracle. From the beginning the words of the poet were thought to be divinely inspired. Said Socrates, “for not by art do they utter these things, but by divine influence …..And for this reason God takes away the mind of these men and uses them as his ministers, just as he does soothsayers and godly seers”. (Plato Ion 534c)

     Oracles were both the places such as the oracle of Delphi supposedly founded by the god Apollo and the actual prophesies by the generally anonymous medium (in Delphi called Pythia). The prophets were individuals both classical and Christian. The most notorious classical prophets were the Sibyls memorialized by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where they are given equal status to the Old Testament prophets and as such illustrate attempts during the Renaissance to reconcile the rediscovered classical culture with orthodox Christian beliefs. Originally, there was only one Sibyl and she is first mentioned by Heraclitus (c 500BC). ‘The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth … reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.’ The Roman historian Varro (1st century BC) describes 10 sibyls and later Christian writers recognized even more.

     As far as the Christian is concerned, the prophets typified the rationale for including the Old Testament in the Christian canon since their function was to foretell or prefigure the events described in the New Testament. This function and the interpretation of the prophetic statements of the Old Testament is called typology (typos in Greek, figura in Latin). Origen makes the point in the Contra Celsum: ‘many prophets foretold in all kinds of ways the things concerning Christ, some in riddle and others by allegories or some other way while some even use literal expressions’. Even with typology, early Christian and Renaissance writers were happy to use classical types as prophetic of New Testament events. The most celebrated of all these was the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil. A short and brilliant poem probably written in 40 BC to celebrate the marriage of Mark Anthony and Octavia, the sister of the Emperor Octavian, it refers pointedly to the return of the Golden Age (one of the stages in the Roman myth of the creation and early evolution of mankind) following the birth of a son to the couple. This was too much for the Christian exegetes to resist; it was quoted by the first Christian Emperor Constantine and employed repeatedly up to the 20th century to demonstrate the prophetic credentials of the birth of Christ.

     The Sibylline Oracles were printed in Greek in 1545 by Xystus Betuleius and in Latin the following year. The Chaldaic Oracles supposedly the work of Zoroaster which had been brought to the West by Plethon in 1439 when he attended the Council of Florence were first printed one hundred years later in 1539. A collection of contemporary prophesies were the so-called Centuries of Nostradamus. These were written in verse, published in 1550 and foretold one thousand future events. They were divided into centuries following the example of Erasmus in the later editions of his Adages. Menestrier in his Images Enigmatiques of 1694 had a very poor opinion of the Nostradamus’ prophesies calling them fantastic ineptitudes.

See also: Divinations, Dreams, Lotteries, Visions, Wands