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The importance of Origen of Alexandria’s legacy for Giovanni Pico della Mirandola has been widely debated for its role in Pico’s trial, its possible reverberations on the entire “Apology,” and its assonance with the Pichian idea of the dignity of man. This article aims instead to show the substantial role of Origen in shaping the Pichian construction of the Christian Kabbalah’s tradition. This scrutiny, by clarifying the extent of the Origenian influence as well as Pico’s rhetorial strategies, helps to put the Pichian idea of the freedom of man in a new framework.


Renaissance Philosophy, Pico della Mirandola, Christian Kabbalah, Origen of Alexandria, Esotericism


The legacy of the early Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria in the writings of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola has been widely debated in recent decades.1 The eternal salvation of Origen—an influential exegete, whose eschatological and Trinitarian views were considered heretical after his death—was, after all, an issue at the center of Pico’s Vatican trial in 1487. The young Pico had tried to organize a large debate in Rome on his nine hundred theses on philosophical, theological, magical, and cabbalistic themes. This disputation never took place, and the theses faced the first [End Page 343] inquisitorial action in the history of printing. Thirteen propositions were extracted from them, to be judged unacceptable or dangerously close to heresy. In order to defend these propositions, Pico worked for twenty nights writing an Apologia. The quaestio on Origen emerged as the longest and most erudite section of that book.2

A large part of the section was focused on biographical and philological problems concerning the life and works of the Church Father. Nonetheless, the possible liberation of Origen from Hell was a spark that lit two flames in a potentially incendiary debate. First, by defending Origen’s doctrines, which Origen had developed before the crystallization of key elements of Christian doctrine, Pico endorsed the possibility of a philosophical inquiry into issues not yet formally defined by the Church, as well as the idea that Church dogmas were progressively unveiled over time. Second, he challenged the sovereignty of the earthly Church over the destiny of souls in the afterlife.

Pico’s enthusiasm has suggested that an Origenistic fil rouge could help account for several other parts of the Apologia, and that the defense of Origen could ultimately become a defense of Pico himself.3 Several notable scholars such as Eugenio Garin, Ernst Cassirer, Henri de Lubac, and most recently Giulio Busi, have been captivated by the similarity between Pico’s anthropology, as outlined in his Oratio de hominis dignitate (Oration on the Dignity of Man), and the ideas of Origen, who argued for the existence of the same kind of soul for angels, devils, and mankind, whose actions were governed by free will. Not only might Origen the person be present in the Apologia—through allusions to his biography and to opinions on his eternal fate—but Origen’s writings may also have profoundly influenced the Oratio. Thus, as has been traditionally argued, an understanding of Origen’s legacy has become essential to a critical evaluation of Pico’s anthropology and theory of knowledge.4 This article amends this interpretation by reexamining the precise nature of Origen’s influence on Giovanni [End Page 344] Pico. In particular, it analyzes Origen’s role in shaping Pico’s construction of Christian Kabbalism, a connection that has been overlooked by earlier scholarship. I will argue that when Pico wrote the Oratio, the Conclusiones, and the Apologia, he was primarily attracted to Origen because of his status as an esoteric master and the only (or at least the most important) Christian thinker who knew about the Kabbalah.

The similarities between Origen’s and Pico’s doctrines on free will are impossible to ignore. Although Pico’s close attention to the Greek Father is irrefutable, there is a high risk of misjudging and, especially, overestimating his influence. Despite the fact that Pico read Origen’s De Principiis and Contra Celsum in Florence, before writing the Conclusiones,5 we must exercise caution for two principle reasons. The first relates to one of the main themes of Oratio, the place of man in the universe. Any explicit textual influence of Origen here is doubtful and remains only a possible hypothesis, because Pico presents ideas that were both widespread among the Church Fathers and broadly debated in the Quattrocento. In fact, several scholars have noted a passage of Clemens of Alexandria (Stromata, 4.23, 159) as the direct source of Pico’s elaboration.6 Second, care must be taken because the writings of Pico that are relevant to the issue are themselves complex and incomplete. They include the framework for a debate that never occurred (the Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalisticae et theologicae) and its unpublished introduction (which would eventually be called the Oratio de hominis dignitate), along with thirteen short essays on topics chosen by the Church that constitute Pico’s Apologia, essays that he wrote quickly and furiously with defensive necessity.

On the one hand, if Pico had turned his sights to Origen when he was about to unveil his doctrines in the Conclusiones, he would have had broader and more revolutionary objectives beyond merely reviving Origenist theology. On the other hand, the dominant role that Origen assumed in the Apologia was primarily caused by the Roman theologians who were [End Page 345] its first audience. They would likely have felt more comfortable debating about the fate of the Greek Father than about unusual theories unknown and seemingly bizarre to them. The book is, in effect, an exceptional document for understanding both the vision of a defender of Origen and the worries and strategies of the Vatican.

A closer inspection of the canon of great authors that Pico presents in the Oratio reveals, in fact, that Origen is nearly absent. Pico cites him only twice, in the second part of the book (devoted to introducing the content of the Conclusiones), and in a fleeting manner. His limited appearances do not directly relate to the topic of the dignity of man or the issue of eternal damnation; rather he is invoked as an early Christian advocate of the genesis and existence of the Jewish Kabbalah. It is surprising that the scholarship devoted to revealing the face of Origen behind Pico’s mask has never considered more deeply the context of these occurrences, which are not simply superficial erudite references. Indeed, Pico turns to Origen at a pivotal moment of the Oratio where he writes:

I come now to those things that I deduced from the ancient mysteries of the Hebrews and that I cite as confirmation of the sacrosanct and Catholic faith. So that these things not be considered, by those who are ignorant of such matters, imaginary trifles or the fables of storytellers, I wish to explain to all men what they are and what they are like; where they come from; by whom and by how many enlightened authors they are confirmed; and how enigmatic, how divine, how necessary they are for those of our own faith for the safeguard of our religion against the importunate calumnies of the Jews. Not only the celebrated Hebrew doctors, but also some among our own, such as Esdras, Hilary and Origen write that Moses received from God on the mount not only the five books of the Law that he bequeathed to posterity but also a true and more secret explanation of the Law.7 [End Page 346]

In this passage, Pico describes the existence of two revelations: an esoteric knowledge (“mysteries of the Hebrews”) worthy of being communicated only to the sages; and a religion of precepts, revealed within the Pentateuch, for the beneficial daily practice of the multitude. Pico goes on to list a number of sources where esotericism is presented as a legitimate method in conveying spiritual matters: Pythagoras, the admonitions of the Sphinxes, Plato, and Aristotle. Among the Christians, he highlights Dionysus the Areopagite and Origen. As he notes, Origen, in particular, “asserts that Jesus Christ, the Teacher of Life, revealed many things to His disciples, which they refused to write down so that these things would not be communicated to the common people.”8 Pico adds that the secret explanation of the Law, transmitted by God to Moses along with the sacred books and then communicated to later generations, corresponds to the Kabbalah. For Pico, Origen’s authority on both the secret Revelation to Moses (that becomes analogous to the Kabbalistic mysteries) and the legitimacy of an esoteric inclination in Christianity that begins with Jesus9 could be explained by a famous event in Origen’s biography. According to Porphyry’s Vita Plotini, Origen received the esoteric lessons of his teacher Ammonius Saccas and devised a pact with the other two disciples, Plotinus and Erennius, in order to ensure that these lessons were not divulged.10 Pico, who was one of the first to receive Ficino’s translation of the Vita Plotini,11 also refers to this account in the proem of the Heptaplus, linking it to the Pythagorean tradition.12

Indeed, for the particular history of the books examined, texts written by Pico between 1486 and 1487 include similar information, useful for clarifying the brief aforementioned references to Origen. However, aside from the references to Origen in the section entitled Disputatio de Origenis salute (Dispute on the Salvation of Origen) of the Apologia, it has not been noted that all of the direct citations of Origen in the Oratio, the Comento sopra la canzone di Girolamo Benivieni, the preface of the Apologia (in [End Page 347] which Pico merged a large part of the Oratio), and the Disputatio de Magia naturali et de Cabala are directly concerned with Kabbalistic issues.13


Before closely examining these references, it will be useful to construct a brief outline of Origen’s view on the general issues connected to Pico’s citations. A characteristic of Alexandrian culture was the integration of Christianity, Platonism, and Judaism. Since antiquity there had been a strong association of Origen with esotericism on the one hand and with Jewish wisdom on the other.14 In particular, his idiosyncratic attention to the idea of a continuous revelation over time and his hermeneutics, based on the different levels of exegesis, point to a real crossroads in the longer history of esotericism. These essential elements of Origen’s thought can be found in the texts that were available to Pico. In particular, Pico interweaves three principal sources: the biographical notes of Eusebius of Caesarea and Porphyry; Origen’s Commentary on Romans (unpublished but accessible in manuscript form in Florence); and, foremost, his Contra Celsum, which had been recently printed in Rome (1481), and where the issue of esotericism was widely debated. Paradoxically, although the principal aim of Contra Celsum was to defend the Christians from the charge of being a sect, Origen admits the “existence of certain doctrines” for the few, noting that this practice was not peculiar solely to Christians, but also common among the Greeks.15 Thus, although Contra Celsum argues against philosophical obscurities, Origen adopts a sacred rhetoric that nonetheless takes as fundamental both the enigmatic nature of the Holy Books and the existence of secret doctrines.16

In discussing the attitude of Plato toward esotericism and circumspection, Origen reports the existence of oral teachings by Jesus, spread only to his disciples and never revealed to all, a common belief in ancient Christianity that also appears in the writings of Clement of Alexandria.17 Origen also [End Page 348] insists that St. Paul and St. John were aware of esotericism.18 Furthermore, the prologue to Origen’s Commentary to the Song of the Songs, which circulated in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century, stressed the need for an esoteric explanation of the first book of Genesis (a sensitive topic for Pico, who explores this in the Heptaplus).19 His method of exegesis reflects this conviction: in order to reach a deeper truth it is necessary to transcend the literal and expose the light of truth from the biblical shadows, as he taught in the fourth book of De Principiis.

Several times Origen addresses the issue of Jewish esotericism. He claims, for example, that “the Jews say many things according to hidden doctrines.”20 His interest was also piqued by the Hebrew alphabet,21 so much so that a specific doctrine of naming is laid out in Contra Celsum 1.24–25, which would later become highly significant for Ficino and Pico, as we will soon see. Origen assumed that divine names were not arbitrary, and, on the contrary, actually had specific powers. For this reason they could lose efficacy when translated into another language. Within this framework, Origen emphasized the privileged nature of the Jewish alphabet.

Finally, if Pico read the Homilies on Jeremiah, where Origen relies on the esoteric Jewish books in order to support an apocalyptic doctrine on the end of the world, he would have noticed a suggestive anecdote in the fragments on Psalms in the Philocalia (an anthology of selected passages of Origen). There, the Church Father states that a Jew had revealed to him that the scripture was like a palace composed of many locked rooms and scattered keys.22 In order to penetrate the secret doctrines and to reach divine revelation, one had to find the right keys. [End Page 349]


These doctrines were striking to Pico as he traced the origins of Christian truth, seen particularly in the “Defense of Natural Magic and Kabbala” in the Apologia. Here he offers other pivotal insights into a deeper understanding of the “Pichian Origen,” and his relationship to that Church Father becomes even more apparent. In the section concerning magic, he mentions Origen twice, among other early Christian theologians, on the power and the properties of numbers and their role as a fundamental means of communication in religious hermeneutics. According to Pico, Origen and Hilary of Poitiers converged with the Kabbalistic mysteries regarding the interpretation of the quinquagenarium (the number 50) as the emblem of the Holy Spirit.23 This is the first occurrence of the firm alliance between Origen and the Jewish wisdom that innervates subsequent pages. Pico adopts this strategy to validate the use of numerology before turning the argument toward the more general issue of the hermeneutical procedures universally accepted by patristic theologians.

Pico finds even more evidence for his position in Origen’s debate on the properties of names, which constitute the real link between the section on magic and the section on the Kabbalah. If names have an effect on nature and can capture celestial influences, then they are a crucial foundation of a particular kind of enchantment. Indeed, Pico affirms that special names are beneficial “not as signifying by convention but as natural objects in themselves . . . unless perhaps there are some in which the signification is natural.”24 He grounds this claim in a cluster of explicit and implicit sources, among which Origen’s Contra Celsum stands out. In apparent concordance with the (notoriously enigmatic) Cratylus of Plato—which debated the question of whether meaning was derived from human agreement or whether it was intrinsic in the genesis of words—Origen testifies to the unique natural power (vis) of certain Hebrew words, such as Sabaòth, Adonai, Halleluiah. These words do not denote created things, but are directly related to the divine mysteries. That is, these formulas could not be translated without losing their natural meaning and efficacy.25 [End Page 350]

The importance of this reference can hardly be overstated. In a debate with Ermolao Barbaro on rhetoric and philosophy, Pico had implicitly expressed a preference for the conventional function of languages. The passages from Plato’s Cratylus and Origen’s Contra Celsum that Pico cites establish, instead, a semi-essentialist theory of language based on the assumption that the link between words and their meanings, on determinate conditions, is natural and not conventional. This “sympathetic” linguistics would become quite common during the later Renaissance.26 What should be noted is that this stance is grounded in a forced interpretation of the Cratylus,27 which in reality is not directly devoted to the problem of magic and evocation. Moreover, at the end of the dialogue, Plato rejected the idea that language is a direct mirror of nature. The connection between Plato and Origen—that is, the process of turning Socrates’s thoughts on naming in a theurgic direction—can be traced to Ficino’s reflections on language in his Commentaries on Plato and in his De Vita.28 The recent printing of Origen’s Contra Celsum (1481) fundamentally clarified Plato’s position for Ficino and, especially, for Pico. The Platonic/Origenian concept, then, is an important argument for the defense of magic. Furthermore, it explains why some words could exert power on objects and is crucial to setting out the rules for Kabbalistic interpretation, which Pico analyzes in the successive pages of the Apologia.

It should be noted that before the reference to Origen in the Argumentum in Cratylum, Ficino specifically notes that on Mt. Sinai, God gave Moses both the written Law and the knowledge of divine names, which are [End Page 351] connected to the essence of things.29 This is the exact concept that Pico aims to prove and to illustrate when he moves from the section concerning magic to the Kabbalah, and then connects its genesis to the debate on the special status of language.

Pico discusses the Kabbalah without hiding his contempt for the ignorance of his Vatican opponents who believed that it was the name of an anti-Christian man or, alternatively, that the Kabbalists were phantasmagorical monsters like the hircocervus or centaur.30 For this reason, and in order to legitimize the ancient historical origins of the Kabbalah, Pico highlights the exposition of the secret and divine oral Law that was originally revealed to Moses, and is evident in both Jewish and early Christian traditions.31 Pico then extends the basic structure of the account contained in the Oratio, where he names Esdras, Paul, Origen, and Hilary (in addition to the Gospel) to reinforce his statements, with the aim of showing the legitimacy of the Kabbalah from a Christian point of view. In the Apologia he shows where and how these authors had endorsed the doctrine of the secret Mosaic revelation.

Pico, perhaps troubled by the trial in progress, begins his discussion of Origen here by claiming that the Church Father was very persuasive (“validissimo”) regarding issues approved by the Church, because “where he spoke well, no one said it better.”32 This statement is noteworthy for giving the reader the first part of a classic assessment of Origen while omitting the second part that normally followed: “where bad, none worse.”33

The principal contribution of Origen, particularly as we see in his Commentary on Romans, lies in the clarification of the Pauline difference between the letter (which kills) and the spirit (which gives life). Origen had explained why Paul talks of “sentences of God” instead of “writings of [End Page 352] God”: God indeed transmitted to the Hebrews, via Moses, not only the letter, but also its spirit, contained in His speeches (“eloquia Dei”).34 In this passage, Origen explained that the Jews had probably also received the real meaning and explanation of the Law, but many of them spent their entire lives studying without ever reaching the truth. The letter is destined for those who read and do not understand, while the “eloquia” is meant for those who accept the doctrine of Moses and thus recognize the truth of Christ.

Through his exegesis of Origen, Pico compares the enlivening spirit, which unveils the text, to the Kabbalah:

From the words of Origen follows that the Jews have received, in addition to the literal Law, what Paul calls here “eloquia Dei.” No one denies that the Hebrews received the letter, namely the literal Law, but it is not exclusive, because the letter kills and is a dead thing without the spirit that gives life. In addition to the letter, they receive the oral speeches of God [the “eloquia Dei”], which are nothing other than that which Hebrews called Kabbalah, namely the real meaning of the Law received from the mouth of God. . . . What is called “oral Law” is the same thing that, as a result of the successive reception, is called Kabbalah.35

Given Ficino’s Argumentum in Cratylum and Pico’s prior references to Origen, it is important to note that the spirit contained in the “eloquia Dei” (divulged or impressed in Moses’s mind) shares, at least in part, the power of special names.

This divine, Kabbalistic wisdom was known by few through the centuries, as Origen himself had testified. Origen, in concordance with Hilary, confirmed that the secret Law was orally transmitted to the members of Sanhedrin, namely the seventy sages, who could only reveal it to their [End Page 353] descendants (Kabbalah in fact means “reception”).36 The secret oral Law was finally transcribed, at the time of Esdras, in seventy books, reflecting the number of the seventy sages. According to Pico, this is the origin of the surviving Kabbalistic books translated by Flavius Mithridates for Sixtus IV. Pico’s method would become crucial to the development of Christian Kabbalism. His goal, which followed the traditional idea that a double revelation had been handed out on Mt. Sinai, was twofold. First, he sought to identify the oral Law with the seventy books transcribed but not disclosed at the time of Esdras (according to the scene of the dictation of the lost tomes in 2 Esdras, considered canonical until the Council of Trent); 37 and second, he aimed to connect both to the (thus far) mysterious Kabbalah and the issue of the natural vis or power of divine names.

The aforementioned Pauline distinction between the letter and the spirit involved the question of biblical hermeneutics. As previously stated, Pico declared that the Kabbalah was not only the oral Law, but it also corresponded to the anagogical way of reading the Scripture: “The anagogical sense is called Kabbalah, because the exposition transmitted by the mouth of God to Moses and then communicated in a hereditary way follows almost always the anagogical sense.”38 Pico essentially outlined the fourfold interpretation of the Scripture, known by both Christians and Jews: the first is the literal sense (Pesat), the second allegorical (Midras), the third tropological (Sekhel), and the fourth anagogical (Kabbalah).39

It has been noted that Pico merged two controversial ideas under the same name of the Kabbalah: a secret explanation, directly revealed by God, and a hermeneutical method, that is to say, human, the two of which correspond quasi semper, “almost always.”40 The slight discrepancy between [End Page 354] revealed truth and interpretation alludes to the inherent “shadowy” knowledge of man, who can discover many mysteries in his spiritual ascent, but who can never reach the level of God. In any case, Pico’s Vatican opponent, the Spanish theologian Pedro Garcia, was quick to note the impiety of the demonstration of Christ’s divinity through the Kabbalah, whether in its status as a secret Jewish discipline or in taking it as a sacred science knowable by man. That is why Garcia focused his efforts on denying the filiation, through Ezra, between the “lex ore tradita” and Kabbala.41

At the end of his examination, Pico proposes a possible partition: he divides an authentic Kabbalah, which derives from the original revelation and to which he refers in the condemned theses, and a derivative (or improperly articulated) Kabbalah, which refers to any body of knowledge transmitted in a secret way. He also further delineates the differences. The Jews, he argued, understood Kabbalah also to be an ars combinandi that was similar to Lullianism but different in its procedures. It was a science devoted to the properties of supernal things (“scientia de virtutibus rerum superiorum”) and which, in turn, could be a part of natural magic or related to a necromantic art that should be condemned. He claims to have found in the Kabbalah, defined as the Mosaic reception (its original sense), only a science (human, not revealed) of the virtutes of things; the remainder of these texts are only malicious forgeries. Though he is not always explicit in this distinction, both in the Apologia and in the Conclusiones dedicated to this issue,42 Pico disdains the rules of the Jewish Kabbalah and its techniques as notarikon and gematria; he prefers instead a philosophical reading of the ancient wisdom of Mosaic derivation, devoted to disclosing its divine core, as can be seen in his Heptaplus.


Pico’s version of the origin of the hidden wisdom poses several questions and contradictions—well known to both Pico’s contemporaries and modern scholars—regarding his rhetorical strategies and sources, and what exactly the Kabbalah is for him. I have argued that in fact we can see in this instance a twofold rhetorical strategy. First Pico unveils the meaning of [End Page 355] Paul’s letter/spirit dichotomy with reference to the Kabbalah; then he identifies the secret oral Law as the doctrines transmitted to the seventy sages and eventually written down on Ezra’s orders. In this undertaking we can see the essential role that Origen played in Pico’s thought. Origen is the source that supports both the genesis and the revelation of secrets. In this way Pico recognized the Church Father—whose writings also supported his approach to the properties of divine names—as a crucial point of reference in the esoteric tradition and in the history of exegesis.

Pico also appeals to Origen’s authority in two unresolved questions that he was forced to disentangle when faced with the real problem of the alleged antiquity of the Kabbalah (for unknown to Pico, these texts emerged not in antiquity but only in the twelfth century). Indeed, evidence for the diffusion of the Kabbalah in antiquity is scarce. Did the ancient Jews follow the Kabbalah? And why do the Church Fathers seem unaware of the existence of the Kabbalists?43 The first problem concerns the context of the Pauline letter/spirit distinction, a fundamental dichotomy through which the dialogue and, more often, clashes between Jews and Christians can be read. In the pages where Pico demonstrates that the Kabbalah proves the divinity of Christ, this letter/spirit distinction glosses the issue of the unrealized conversion of the Jews. From an anagogical perspective—following the spirit, not the letter—the Kabbalah is in fact the most sublime and supreme means for elevation from the corporeal to the spiritual, from the human to the divine. This reading would have allowed the reader to recognize the advent of Christ and understand His promise of freedom in the celestial Jerusalem. The paradox lies in the fact that if the Jews had truly followed the Kabbalah, which was ostensibly their tradition, they would have been obliged to trust in Christ; yet they did not. According to Pico, this was due to their difficulty in abandoning the “letter” and grasping the highest level of the “spirit” as Christians did. For Pico, this explains their historical blindness.44 Such a line of reasoning is essentially circular and unconvincing, even without considering it an argumentum fictum.45 However, when Pico subsequently tries to resolve the problem, he invokes the authority of Origen, adding that, after all, Jewish stubbornness was not even touched by the miracles of Christ, as the same Church Father wrote.46

Origen is also involved when Pico seeks to show that the writings of ancient Christians acknowledged Kabbalists. According to Pico, because it [End Page 356] is generally very rare to find explicit references to any Jewish master in the Christian tradition, it is not surprising that the authors of the Kabbalah are never mentioned. Origen is the only author, to Pico’s knowledge, who quotes a Hebrew rabbi by name: the patriarch Huillo.47 He also argued that Origen, along with Eusebius and Clement of Alexandria, often referred generically to “Jews” when trying to corroborate their statements. In the eyes of Pico, for chronological and structural reasons these references could not be allusions to the other Jewish interpretive schools, the Talmudists and the philosophers (about whom Pico, like his Christian colleagues, had only a vague and often incorrect chronological sense). So, for Pico, when these authors referred to “Jews” in their writing, they had the Kabbalists in mind.48

These two examples—Origen clarifying Jewish stubbornness and validating the existence of Kabbalists through his writings—might seem minor and historical pieces of evidence. Yet Pico’s use of Origen as support in these crucial pages goes beyond the merely doxographic. Origen is fundamental for Pico in confirming the existence of the Kabbalah during antiquity, in explaining the presence of esotericism in the Christian tradition, and in offering the reason why the Jews were said not to have understood their own texts. Each of his references to Origen leads to mutually related pivotal problems: the philosophical question of res/verba for the foundation of a semi-naturalistic theory of language; the connection between the genesis of the Kabbalah and the Pauline letter/spirit dichotomy (which has been considered the core of Pico’s argumentative structure);49 and, finally, the identification of the Kabbalah with the anagogical sense, which explained not only the failure of the Jews to convert but also the legitimacy of Christian exegesis. In none of the other sources quoted by Pico is the relationship among these three points so strongly connected. Despite the authority of Paul, the crucial place of Ezra as scribe of the apocryphal book,50 and the extensive quotations from Hilary, Origen plays the key role in Pico’s version of the Kabbalah: he is simultaneously a Platonic interpreter, a master of an esoteric Christian tradition, and the ideal biblical exegete.

Indeed, the explicit closeness for Pico of the Kabbalah with the extra-literal interpretation of the Bible, and Origen’s central role in supporting [End Page 357] that claim, ultimately raises another slippery question. Traditionally, the practice of interpreting the Bible in multifold senses, a practice whose first elaboration dates back to Philo of Alexandria, was identified closely with Origen and his hermeneutical method. Origen’s errors were typically attributed to his excessively radical allegorical reading of the Bible. This awareness might have reinforced Pico’s convictions. Beyond the proof drawn from the Origenian texts, further details might have prompted Pico to recognize a close link between Origen and the Jewish Kabbalists. In one of the Conclusiones cabalisticae, Pico reveals that “He who knows in Kabbalah the mystery of the gates of understanding will know the mystery of the great jubilee.”51 He is alluding to a tradition already established in the Babylonian Talmud, but also present in the Kabbalistic corpus translated for him. Fifty Gates of Wisdom were created in the world; forty-nine of them were revealed to Moses because God had created him slightly below the hierarchical station of the angels.52 This is evidently the foundation upon which Pico built his version of the secret revelation through the accounts of Paul, Origen, and Ezra. However, the knowledge of this tradition could also have offered Pico further confirmation that Origen had been aware of secret Jewish hermeneutics. As outlined above, Origen described his method of exegesis, revealed to him by the Jewish masters, as the path in a palace with many locked doors that could be opened by keys furnished only through interpretation. Furthermore, the same mystery of the “great jubilee”—the resting of matter and restoration of all things, according to the Talmudic interpretation of Leviticus—could easily be related to the Origenian doctrine of the Successive Worlds, ending with the apocatastasis or restoration (a confusion that would eventually take place in the late sixteenth century, for instance in Jean Bodin).53

It would be natural to ask if Pico believed that Origen, who was aware of the existence and the turns of the secret Law, could also have known the Kabbalah’s method, which was surprisingly similar to his own, as well as its contents. This gives rise to an important question: if the Kabbalah—secret [End Page 358] to the Christians and misread by the Jews—is the spirit which enlightens the letter and access to the Gates of Wisdom, could the Origenistic method of reading the Holy Books be one of the most appropriate ways to attain truth? Pico’s Apologia, specifically the section on the “Defense of Magic and Kabbalah,” was certainly not the best place for him to make such explicit deductions since it could weaken the defense of both Origen and the Kabbalah. Although impossible to prove, it is highly probable that, in Pico’s eyes, Origen’s knowledge of these hidden Jewish doctrines was related to his method of spiritual exegesis. In any case, a conclusion can still be drawn: for Pico, Origen is not only the advocate of ontological freedom and champion of a merciful Afterlife, but also the best witness and connoisseur of the “long chain of hidden wisdom,” a process that has as its kernel a Kabbalah interpreted in an orthodox Christian manner.54

Furthermore, in spite of Origen’s well-established attention to the Jewish world and his role in the history of esotericism, the role that Pico attributes to Origen is absolutely new and disruptive. Starting with Pico, this link between Origen and the Kabbalah became so authoritative that it was destined to become a commonplace in the successive decades. By the second half of the sixteenth century, this image of the Church Father as a master of secret wisdom (as well as the exegete of free will, and the theologian of infinite mercy) was a lens through which Origen was understood. Indeed, it is thanks to Pico that the orientalist Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter reads Origen as an emulator of the Kabbalists in his 1543 edition of Epitome of the Qur’an and Erastus labels Origen a “Cabalae studiosus” in his 1573 Disputationum de medicina nova Philippi Paracelsi.55

In conclusion, this new view of the Origen-Pico relationship shifts the focus from the question of patristic influence on humanistic anthropology to the roots and development of interest in the Kabbalah and esoteric traditions. However, it is not a complete turn away from earlier concerns. My analysis also challenges current interpretations that separate Kabbalism and the issue of the freedom and dignity of man,56 because I argue that the [End Page 359] Kabbalah, as a means for spiritual ascesis, is a constitutive part of Pico’s concept of deificatio hominis. Despite its primary role as a means to certify the divinity of Christ,57 for Pico the Kabbalah is indeed the principal method, given exclusively to man, to know the extent and the proportions of natural powers58 in order to traverse the living unity of the existent. The same dignity is apparent in man’s ability to walk this path “per visibilia ad invisibilia Dei.” This explains why in Pico’s writings the reflections on man, on the one hand, and the Kabbalah, on the other, share the same theoretical complexity, as borders and places of mediation between transcendence (revelation) and immanence (interpretation). Using Origen as a source is directed toward the same purpose: Origen’s role in Pico’s elaboration of the idea of dignity of man stems from the fundamental role he held, to Pico, in clarifying an ancient secret theology. As the guarantor of the reconciliation of ancient wisdom and Christianity, through the lens of the Kabbalah, Origen served as an outstanding guide in deciphering secret truths. Within this framework we should reconsider Pico’s use of Origenian doctrines in enforcing his translation of Platonic themes and spaces into biblical contexts, in his identification of the garden of the Symposium with the Earthly Paradise (both of which he reduced to spiritual places) and in the angelology of the Heptaplus and the Comento, reconnected to the Origenian exegesis of the celestial water.59

Thus Origen, through his Commentary on the Song of the Songs, appears to have been among the implicit sources that inspired Pico on his pedagogical path toward celestial dignity, a path that is articulated through moral, intellectual, and mystical modes of thought and epitomized by Thrones (action), Cherubim (contemplation), and Seraphim (love).60 Pico’s description is related to the three modes that, according to Origen, correspond to the biblical books ascribed to Solomon (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of the Songs).61 This triadic model, considered by Pico to be a [End Page 360] hidden truth common to all the ancient traditions, is foundational to the doctrine of the miraculous powers of man, which is the core of the Oratio. It can be viewed as the paradigmatic example of the way in which Origen—esoteric master acquainted with different cultural traditions—shaped Pico’s elaboration of human dignity.62 [End Page 361]

Pasquale Terracciano
University of Pisa


1. Edgar Wind, “The Revival of Origen,” in Studies in Art and Literature for Belle da Costa Greene, ed. Dorothy Miner (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954), 412–24; Wind, The Eloquence of the Symbol (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992); Lorenzo Giusso, Origene e il Rinascimento (Rome: Gismondi, 1957); Henri Crouzel, “Pic de la Mirandole et Origène,” Bulletin de littérature ecclésiastique 66 (1965): 174–94 and 272–88; Crouzel, Une controverse sur Origène à la Renaissance: Jean Pic de la Mirandole e Pierre Garcia (Paris: Vrin, 1977); Max Schar, Das Nachleben des Origenes im Zeitalter des Humanismus (Basel and Stuttgart: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1979); Daniel Nodes, “Origen of Alexandria among the Renaissance Humanists and their Twentieth Century Historians,” in Nova Doctrina Vetusque: Essays on Early Christianity in Honor of Frederic W. Schlatter, S. J., ed. Fredric W. Schlatter, Douglas Kries, and Catherine Brown Tkacz (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 51–64; Pasquale Terracciano, Omnia in figura: L’impronta di Origene tra ’400 e ’500 (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2012); Alfons Fürst and Christian Hengstermann, eds., Origenes Humanista: Pico della Mirandolas Traktat “De salute Origenis disputatio” (Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2015).

2. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Apologia, ed. P. E. Fornaciari (Florence: SISMEL Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2010); Stephen A. Farmer, Syncretism in the West: Pico’s 900 Theses (1486) (Tempe, AZ: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1998), 533; Rudolph Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450–1550 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1967), 89.

3. Eugenio Garin, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, vita e dottrina (Florence: Le Monnier, 1937), 141; Ernst Cassirer, “Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: A Study in the History of the Renaissance Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 3 (1942): 330. For the specific issue of eternal punishment debated in the second section of the Apologia, see Giacomo Mariani, “Giovanni Pico e Roberto da Lecce: Annotazioni su una ritrovata fonte dell’ Apologia e l’origenismo quattrocentesco,” Schifanoia 46–47 (2014): 137–48.

4. In addition to the aforementioned books by Garin and Cassirer, see Edward P. Mahoney, “Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Origen on Humans, Choice and Hierarchy,” Vivens Homo 5, no. 2 (1994): 376; Giulio Busi and Raphael Egbi, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: Mito, Magia, Qabbalah (Turin: Einaudi, 2014), xxxii.

5. Sebastiano Gentile, “Niccoli e Traversari, Pico e Ficino,” in Tradizioni patristiche nell’ Umanesimo (Atti del Convegno, Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Firenze, 6–8 febbraio 1997), ed. Mariarosa Cortesi and Claudio Leonardi (Florence: SISMEL Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2000).

6. Henri de Lubac, Pic De La Mirandole: Études et discussions (Paris: Aubier Montaign, 1974), 181–82; Pico, Oeuvres Philosophiques, ed. Olivier Boulnois and Giuseppe Tognon, suive d’Humanisme et dignité de l’homme selon Pic de la Mirandole, par Olivier Boulnois (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1993), 308–9; see also Pico, Discorso sulla dignità dell’uomo, ed. Francesco Bausi (Parma: Fondazione G. Bembo, 2003), xxii–xxiii.

7. “Venio nunc ad ea quae, ex antiquis Hebreorum mysteriis eruta, ad sacrosantam et catholicam fidem confirmandam attuli; quae ne forte ab his, quibus sunt ignota, commentitiae nugae aut fabulae circumlatorum existimetur, volo intelligant omnes quae et qualia sint, unde petita, quibus et quam claris auctoribus confirmata, et quam reposita, quam divina, quam nostris hominibus ad propugnadam religionem contra Hebreorum importunas calumnias sint necessaria. Scribunt non modo celebres Hebreorum doctores, sed ex nostris quoque Hesdras, Hilarius et Origenes, Mosen non legem modo, quam quinque exaratam libris posteris reliquit, sed secretiorem quoque et veram legis enarrationem in monte divinitus accepisse,” Pico, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. Francesco Borghesi, Michael Papio, and Massimo Riva (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 251–53.

8. Pico, 259.

9. Origen of Alexandria, Contra Celsum, 3.21. The thesis was also argued by his master Clement of Alexandria. See Guy Stroumsa, Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism, 2nd ed. (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2005), 113.

10. Porphyry, Vita Plotini, 3.24.

11. Gentile, “Niccoli e Traversari,” 104.

12. Pico, “In eam denique iuratos Ammonii discipulos, Origenem, Plotinum et Herennium, Porphyrius est auctor,” in De hominis dignitate. Heptaplus: De Ente et uno et scritti vari, ed. Garin (Florence: Vallecchi, 1942), 172.

13. Pico, Apologia, 24–26; for the references in the Heptaplus and Comento, see Pico, De hominis dignitate, 172–74, 580.

14. For his role in the history of esotericism in antiquity, see Stroumsa, Hidden Wisdom, 92ff; for his attitude and relation with Jewish worlds see Gustave Bardy, “Les tradition juives dans l’oeuvre d’Origène,” Revue Biblique 34 (1925): 217–52; Ebraismo in Origene: Dizionario, la cultura, il pensiero, le opere, ed. Adele Monaci Castagno (Rome: Città Nuova, 2000).

15. Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.7.

16. Origen, Contra Celsum, 3.45, 7.10; Origen, Peri Archon, 4.2.

17. Origen, Contra Celsum, 6.6–7, 3.21; see also 2.60–64.

18. Origen, 6.6; concerning Paul, see also Origen, Homilies on Joshua, 23.4.

19. For the role of Origen in the Heptaplus, see Crofton Black, Pico’s Heptaplus and Biblical Hermeneutics (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2006), ad indicem and Hengstermann, “Der Kosmos als Freiheit und Geschichte: Pico Origenismus in Heptaplus” in Fürst and Hengstermann, eds., Origenes Humanista.

20. Origen, Commentary on John, 19.15.92; see also Origen, Contra Celsum 4.38–39, 6.23.

21. For further details see Naomi Janowitz, “Theory of Divine Names in Origen and Pseudo-Dionysus,” History of Religions 30 (1991): 359–72; Robbert M. van der Berg, “Does It Matter to Call God Zeus? Origen’s Contra Celsum I, 24–25 Against the Greek Intellectuals on Divine Names,” in The Revelation of the Name YHWH to Moses, ed. Geurt Hendrik Van Kooten (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 169–83; Robert J. Wilkinson, Tetragrammaton: Western Christians and the Hebrew Name of God (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 130.

22. Origen, Selecta in Psalmos 1, in Patrologia Graeca, vol. 12, 1080–1081, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne (Paris, 1856–1866).

23. Pico, Apologia, 172.

24. “Quam quidem activitatem naturalem non habent ut significativa sunt ad placitum, sed ut sint in se quaedam res naturales . . . nisi forte essent aliqua quibus significatio esset naturalis,” Pico, 176. I use, in this case, the translation in Brian Copenhaver, “Number, Shape, and Meaning in Pico’s Christian Cabala,” in Natural Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe, ed. Anthony Grafton and Nancy Siraisi (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 40.

25. “Origenes . . . dicit quod quaedam nomina hebraica in sacris litteris . . . fuerunt sic riservata et non mutata in aliam linguam, in qua non retinuissent suam naturalem significationem et consequenter virtutem,” Pico, Apologia, 176. See Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.24–25.

26. Allison Coudert, “Some Theories of a Natural Language from the Renaissance to the Seventeenth Century,” in Magia Naturalis und die Entstehung der modernen Naturwis-senschaften (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1978); Brian Vickers, “Analogy versus Identity: The Rejection of Occult Symbolism, 1580–1680,” in Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, ed. Vickers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); James Bono, The Word of God and the Languages of Man, vol. 1, Ficino to Descartes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995); Michael J. B. Allen, “Marsilio Ficino on Significatio,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 26 (2002): 30–43.

27. See D. P. Walker, Ancient Theology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), 101.

28. Marsilio Ficino, The Philebus Commentary: A Critical Edition and Translation, ed. Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 141; Ficino, Argumentum in Cratylum, in Ficino, Opera omnia, 2 vols. (Basel: Henrich Petri, 1576; repr. Turin: Bottega d’Erasmo, 1962), 2:1309. See Vittoria Perrone Compagni, “Abracadabra: Le parole nella magia (Ficino, Pico, Agrippa),” Rivista di Estetica 19, no. 1 (2002): 105–30, 120–28; and Stephane Touissant, “Ficin, Pic de la Mirandole, Reuchlin et le pouvoir des noms: À propos de Néoplatonism et de Cabale chrétienne,” in Kristliche Cabbala, ed. Wilhelm Schimdt-Biggemann (Stuttgart: Thorbecke, 2003), 67–79.

29. For the philological problems and the internal philosophical reasons behind Ficino’s choice, see Franco Bacchelli, Giovanni Pico e Pierleone da Spoleto: Tra filosofia dell’ amore e tradizione cabalista (Florence: Olschki, 2001), 39–51, esp. 39n133, and Guido Bartolucci, “Marsilio Ficino, Yohann Alemanno e la ‘scientia divinum nominum,’ ” Rinascimento 48 (2008): 137–63; see Ficino, Argumentum in Cratylum, 1309.

30. Pico, Apologia, 178.

31. “Quod autem ita sit, ut supra diximus, quod Deus Moysi, praeter litteralem legem quam ipse scripsit, dederit etiam et revelaverit misteria in lege contenta, habeo ex nostris quinque testes: Esdram, Paulum, Origenem, Hylarium, et Evangelium,” Pico, Apologia, 178.

32. “Secundo habemus auctoritatem Origenis, cuius testimonium, in his in quibus ab Ecclesia recipitur, est validissimum, quia, ubi bene, nemo melius,” Pico, Apologia, 180.

33. The statement “ubi bene, nemo melius, ubi male, nemo peius” was reported by Cassiodorus, De Institutiones divinarum et secularum litterarum, in Patrologia Latina, vol. 70, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne (Paris, 1844–1865), 1112 A and Coluccio Salutati, Epistolarium, 4 vols, ed. Francesco Novati (Rome: Forzani, 1891–1911), book 14, ep. 24, 235–36.

34. Pico, Apologia, 180. Here Pico quotes Origen from Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2.10.6 [Origène, Commentaire sur l’Épître aux Romains. Livres I–II, ed. Caroline P. Hammond Bammel, Luc Brésard, and Michel Fédou (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2009), 424ff.].

35. “Ex quo dicto Origenis habeo quod praeter litteralem legem aliud quid traditum fuit Iudaeis, quod hic vocat Paulus ‘eloquia Dei.’ Litteras enim idest litteralem legem eis fuisse traditam nemo negat, sed non imputatur eis ad prerogativam, quia littera per se occidit, et nisi adsit spiritus vivificans omnino per se est res mortua. Sed praeter has litteras tradita sunt eis eloquia Dei, de quibus merito gloriantur, quae nihil aliud sunt quae quod apud Hebreos dicitur Cabala, idest verus legis sensus ab ore Dei acceptus. . . . Quod idem est quod ‘lex de ore nata,’ quae propter illam successivam receptionem deinde dicta fuit cabala,” Pico, Apologia, 180.

36. “Quod autem et ista secretior et verior de misteriis legis expositio omnibus passim non publicaretur, sed solum Moysi specialiter a Deo et ab eo aliis tantum LXX fuerit revelata, testatur etiam Origenes,” Pico, Apologia, 182.

37. 2 Esdras 14:3–6; 14:45–47. See Alastair Hamilton, The Apocryphal Apocalypse: The Reception of the Second Book of Esdras (4 Ezra) from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 34; Saverio Campanini, “Talmud, Philosophy, and Kabbalah: A Passage from Pico della Mirandola’s Apologia and Its Source,” in “The Words of a Wise Man’s Mouth are Gracious” (Qoh 10, 12), ed. Mauro Perani (Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2005), 429–47, at 431.

38. “Anagogicus dicitur cabala, et hoc quia illa expositio quae dicitur ore Dei tradita Moysi et accepta per successionem modo praedicto quasi semper sensum sequitur anagogicum,” Pico, Apologia, 186. Busi and Ebgi have related the pre-eminence of anagogy for Pico to the teaching of Origen in Pico della Mirandola, 297.

39. On the erroneous parallelism of Pico, who inverted the meaning of Midras and Sekhel, and the limits in his knowledge of Jewish sources, cf. G. Scholem, “La signification du Loi dans la mystique juive,” Diogène 15 (1956): 13.

40. See the observations of Fornaciari in Pico, Apologia, 423–24; cf. Apologia 158 and 186.

41. Pedro Garcia, Determinationes Magistrales contra conclusiones apologales Joannis Pici Mirandulani, Concordiae comitis (Rome: Eucharius Silber Frank, 1489).

42. Pico, Conclusiones, 11.1–2, in Pico’s 900 Theses, ed. Farmer, 518–20; for an overview see Busi and Egbi, Pico della Mirandola, 297–303.

43. Pico, Apologia, 186–88.

44. See Campanini, Talmud, Philosophy, and Kabbalah, 433.

45. Campanini, 434.

46. Pico, Apologia, 188, quoting Origen’s Commentary on Romans 2.10, 6.

47. “Apud Origenem qui allegat Huillum patriarcham coetaneum suum,” Pico, 188–90.

48. “Nihil dubitandum est de doctoribus cabalae eos intelligere,” Pico, 190. See Black, Pico’s Heptaplus and Campanini, Talmud, Philosophy and Kabbalah, 434.

49. Campanini, Talmud, Philosophy and Kabbalah, 437.

50. See Hamilton, The Apocryphal Apocalypse, 30–36.

51. “Qui noverit in cabala mysterium portarum intelligentiae, cognoscet mysterium magni Ioebeli,” Pico, Conclusio 28.13, in Pico’s 900 Theses, ed. Farmer, 350.

52. The issue has been addressed, with brilliant erudition, by Black, Pico’s Heptaplus, 225–33.

53. For Pico’s doctrine of the cosmic cycles, due to the legacy of Nachmanides, see Brian Ogren, “The Forty-Nine Gates of Wisdom as Forty-Nine Ways to Christ: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Heptaplus and Nahmanidean Kabbalah,” Rinascimento 49 (2009): 27–42. For its future legacy see Bodin, On the Demon-Mania of Witches, trans. Randy A. Scott (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), book 1, chap. 5, 73–74 and S. Cicogna, Palagio de gli incanti (Vicenza: Roberto Meglietti, 1605), 85–86.

54. Concerning its roots, see Hamilton, The Apocryphal Apocalypse, 35–36; Stroumsa, Hidden Wisdom, 8 and 147ff.

55. Mahometis Abdallae filii theologia dialogo explicata, in Alcorani epitome, Roberto Ketenense Anglo interprete, ([Nuremberg?] 1543), Annotationes XIIII; T. Lieber (Erastus), Disputationum de medicina nova Philippi Paracelsi (Basel: Apud Petrum Pernam, 1573), index and 18.

56. Brian Copenhaver, “The Secret of Pico’s Oration: Cabala and Renaissance Philosophy,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 26 (2002): 56–81; Copenhaver, “Giovanni Pico della Mirandola,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2016, ed. Edward N. Zalta,; but also the observations of Cesare Vasoli, “Prisca theologia e scienza occulte nell’ umanesimo fiorentino,” in Storia d’Italia. Annali 25: Esoterismo (Turin: Einaudi, 2010), 199–200.

57. The quaestio in fact is the defense of the Conclusio 9.9 in Pico’s 900 Theses, ed. Farmer, 496: “Nulla est scientia quae nos magis certificet de divinitate Christi quam magia et cabala” (There is no science that assures us more of the divinity of Christ than magic and Cabala).

58. Pico, Apologia, 158.

59. Piercesare Bori, “I tre giardini nella scena paradisiaca del De hominis dignitate di Pico della Mirandola,” Annali di storia dell’esegesi 13 (1996): 551–64; Pico, De hominis dignitate, 256–60, 510.

60. Pico, Oration, 134–36.

61. Origen, The Song of the Songs: Commentary and Homilies, trans. R. P. Lawson (London: Longmans, 1957); Prologue to Commentary, 39, 3.4–7, cf. Pico’s Commento sopra una canzone de amor de Girolamo Benivieni in Pico, De hominis dignitate, 535. See Bori, La pluralità delle vie (Milan: Feltrinelli, 2000), 51ff.

62. Pico della Mirandola, Oration, 54.

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