Introduction: Cosmos as Masterpiece
As many critics have pointed out, the remarkable work of the Portuguese Renaissance artist Francisco de Holanda “seems to predict another singular genius: William Blake, whom it predates by two centuries” (Michael Benson, Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time). Equally remarkable is the fact that many of Holanda’s most astonishing paintings were only discovered a few decades ago. As Benson notes in his compelling examination of visual depictions of the creation of the universe and of Holanda’s work in particular (a rarity in itself in Western academic studies, as there is still almost nothing written about this pioneering figure):
Perhaps the most extraordinary set of pictures depicting space-time’s origins dates from 1573. Discovered in the mid-20th century in an obscure notebook in the National Library of Spain, it was painted by the Portuguese artist and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student and lifelong friend of Michelangelo.
Francisco de Holanda had been sent to Italy by an explicit order of the king of Portugal, to learn the new art: the Renaissance. As luck would have it, Michelangelo was the artist who taught him for two years and turned him into one of the most outstanding Renaissance artists from the Iberian Peninsula when he returned in 1540. As the Biblioteca Nacional de España remarks, in their wonderful facsimile of this forgotten and unknown sketchbook, De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines, “Michelangelo’s influence is obvious; the first thing Francisco de Holanda painted was the creation of the world, inspired in what he could examine in the Sistine Chapel still unfinished.”
Among Holanda’s surviving books of drawings, De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines is undoubtedly the most important. Over thirty years – from 1543 to 1573 – Holanda sketched and painted designs intended to portray the history of the world according to the bible. It is one of the treasures of the National Library of Spain and is available online in full (150+ folio sketches, 15 of them coloured).
Circles and Triangles: Inside the Head of God
Holanda was fascinated by the geometry of the cosmos, and in particular the triangular form and its interplay with the circle. This fascination is perhaps nowhere more evident than in his startling – and very Blakean in many ways – image of “The First Day of Creation”. The image seems to capture not only the Biblical or spiritual moment of the first manifestation of “light” (through the divine “fiat”, the Word of God), but also the creation of light as the effect of a geometrical/mathematical process or structural relationship – as a sort of byproduct rather than a product.
Literally, fiat lux would be translated as “let light be made” (fiat is the third person singular present passive subjunctive form of the verb facio, meaning “to do” or “to make”). This allows us to see the creation of light less the result of an active God, or a God revealing itself through this medium into this world, but rather as the indirect result of God’s sanction of another or ulterior – perhaps even more fundamental – generative process at work in the dynamics of the universe. (Indeed, it is hard to imagine triangles themselves propagating). God, in this reading, merely “allows” this light “to be made” (this reading would fit in many ways with that of Holanda’s contemporary, the German mystic Jacob Boehme – see the previous blog on this website for an exploration of how he saw the principle of “Light” emerging from, and as a necessary contrary to, a prior “Darkness” or “Fire” – the Ungrund, or “God the Father” as it’s sometimes known in more exoteric traditions.
Holanda represents the intelligible reality of the Holy Trinity through a “hypothetical” syntax of geometrical figures. He insisted on the contrast between the ideal plane, the incorporeal form, and the “imperfect copy in the terrestrial zone” (c.f. the “three principles” or “three worlds” of Boehme), and in this his visual language demonstrated an intriguing mixture of Neoplatonism, Christian Kabbalah, and Lullism (named after Ramon Llull, the Catalan mystic who invented a philosophical system known as the Art, conceived as a type of universal logic to “prove” the truth of Christian doctrine to interlocutors of all faiths and nationalities. The Art consisted of a set of general principles and combinatorial operations. It is illustrated with diagrams).
Like many others of the period (from Galileo to Giordano Bruno and Jacob Boehme), Holanda saw the manifest world (sometimes called “the Creation”, or “Nature” – the world of appearances and representation) as exactly that – a manifestation only of a far deeper, hidden world. This was the world of processes, principles, and forms – hence his attraction to formal and mathematical or geometrical systems, as a way of uncovering or mediating between God’s will or mind (on the one hand) and the world we see and experience (on the other).
His paintings therefore seek to provide a link between Nature (the pure mirror of the “Creator”, or Ein Sof) and the eternal forms of God. Whereas Michelangelo was busily covering the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with vast images of the Creation in terms of human bodies, and human forms – “God Creating Adam” being the central focal point of this understanding of the macrocosm – Holanda instead converted this language into the more abstract and rational principles of geometrical relationships.
This is of importance when it comes to comparing his work with Blake’s. As noted, several critics and commentators have remarked on the striking resemblances between their work. Contemporary Portuguese artist Domingos Isabelinho, for example, writes that “Francisco de Holanda is a William Blake avant la lettre”; while Gaudiya Vaishnava guru Swami Bhaktipada closely relates Holanda to Blake in his edited collection, The Bible Illuminated: Illuminated Scriptures of the World (1994).
The Status of Geometry
But there is one profound difference between the two. Whereas Holanda sees the underlying geometries of the universe and space time as revealing something fundamental about the nature of the perceived world, Blake saw them as revealing something about the nature of the perceiver of that world.
For Blake, such rationalising abstractions were the powerful products or reflections of implicit psychological processes at work. In that sense, and with a neat reversal of Plato’s simile of the cave, geometry itself is seen as the true Shadow world. The deification of geometrical forms in certain Urizenic cultures (such as those of Ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, or the European Enlightenment) might therefore be more properly understood as a cognitive reflection rather than an insight into the deep nature of reality. What was being revealed in these systems were the powers and programs of the left hemisphere world itself, through its desire to see everything in terms of its own operating system – a world of ratios, of quantifiable, measurable and permanent objects, and linear and lifeless topographies. The celebration of the Logos was in that sense the veneration of that side of the human brain to dominance – to “Godhead”.
Tho in the Brain of Man we live, & in his circling Nerves.
Tho’ this bright world of all our joy is in the Human Brain.
Where Urizen & all his Hosts hang their immortal lamps
– Blake, The Four Zoas 11:14–17
As Blake understood with remarkable acumen, Urizenic consciousness is utterly obsessed with ideas of order, symmetry, fixity, ratios, perfection, stability, purity, light, geometry. Urizen does not venerate, for example, the implicit (the dark), the bodily, the ambiguous and paradoxical, or the deep flowing reverberational nature of reality.
For Blake therefore, beneath the manifestation were the geometries (as Plato intuited), but beneath the geometries were the deeper imaginative processes, and these can only be understood as relational, and above all in metaphors centred on the human. This is after all the key point of all Blake’s work: to open our eyes to “the fourfold vision”, in which things stop being “things” – stop being “natural” or material objects in space, stop being unreal shadows of some abstracted mathematical or geometrical world (Blake repeatedly satirises and challenges this hyper left-brain aspect of Plato’s doctrine of Ideal Forms), and start being alive.
Those who see only the Geometries, to paraphrase an acute observation of Blake’s, see only themselves. As McGilchrist explains, in his fascinating gloss on this idea of Blake’s:
He who sees the Infinite [looks outward to the ever-becoming with the right hemisphere] in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only [looks at the self-defined world brought into being by the left hemisphere] sees himself only [the left hemisphere is self-reflexive]” (McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)
Scratch the surface of the world and its beautiful forms, and you get structures and patterns and ratios and geometries and numbers. This is the world, just below ordinary consciousness, that many people on psychedelic drugs also seem to gain access to and mistake its revelations for something profound, rather than for simply an initial stage of pealing back the covers. Graham Hancock, for example, recounts his experience on DMT: “BAM! I was projected through it into some strange, pristine geometrical space on the other side of the wall” (Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind). What Hancock is “seeing’ here is the operating system of his own way of seeing, and it’s no surprise to learn that on this level he encounters “machine-line beings” or mechanical elves, like in a “computer programme” – the imaginative forms that his underlying human consciousness generates to reflect back to him, half mockingly, his rather mechanical and geometrical obsessions.
This is rather the same as the reality that Holanda, and indeed Galileo, sees. For theirs was also a rational universe, made by a rational God, and observable by a rational mind. “It is written in mathematical language,” Galileo affirmed, “and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word, and without which one wanders in vain in a dark labyrinth” (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632).
It was Blake’s genius to see beyond the ratios. Few writers and thinkers are brave enough to take on Galileo and Newton and Plato. But Blake was, and this was perhaps because he could so clearly see where they were all going wrong, and believed he had a duty to correct their vision (rather like he corrected Milton and Swedenborg – not to diminish them but on the contrary, to try and preserve the deep insights they contained, and cleanse them of their surface errors). In particular, he seems to have had, from his earliest youth, an extraordinarily clear and cogent understanding of the nature, and limitations, of Rationality – the God of his Age (the “Age of Reason”), which had become by then the centrepiece, or altarpiece, of the new Logos-centric religions and philosophy that now dominated Western culture.
Thus in the middle of the very Age of Reason, in the century when Newton himself died, Blake was able to correct their distortions:
All Bibles or sacred codes, have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True.
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
– The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, italics added.
He was just thirty-three when he wrote these lines. In them he undoes virtually every system of orthodox religious and orthodox materialistic thinking in his culture (both systems, he saw, being rooted in the Urizenic values and programs of the left hemisphere). He saw that “Reason” was not simply “Good”, and that it was not the source or foundation of things but simply the “bound or outward circumference” of things. What Newton and Holanda were drawing, in these terms, were simply the husks, the burial clothes – the retrospective boundaries to the infinite Energy and life that actually drives creation.
Behind the ratios, as Blake saw, lay the relationships:
To my Friend Butts I write
My first Vision of Light,
On the yellow sands sitting
The Sun was Emitting
His Glorious beams
From Heavens high Streams
Over Sea over Land
My Eyes did Expand
Into regions of air
Away from all Care
Into regions of fire
Remote from Desire
The Light of the Morning
Heavens Mountains adorning
In particles bright
The jewels of Light
Distinct shone & clear –
Amazd and in fear
I each particle gazed
For each was a Man
Human formd. Swift I ran
For they beckond to me
Remote by the Sea
Saying. ‘Each grain of Sand
Every Stone on the Land
Each rock & each hill
Each fountain & rill
Each herb & each tree
Mountain hill Earth & Sea
Cloud Meteor & Star
Are Men Seen Afar.’
Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton’s sleep!
– Letter to Thomas Butts, 2nd October 1800; letter to Butts, 22 November 1802
Here, the vision is all about light (“My first Vision of Light”, “The Light of the Morning”), but the light is merely the medium, not the message. The light allows a deeper, “fourfold” vision to unfold – not merely the “Single vision” of Newtonian mechanics. What lies at the heart of this vision, for Blake, as for Boehme, was love – was the heart of God itself. Once we see with the heart as well as with the head – that is, with all the four Zoas (the intellectual, imaginative, bodily and emotional systems of human perception), we see reality – we see the intellectual, imaginative, bodily and emotional nature of the world, in which relationships and ratios and patterns are not merely understood “rationally” or geometrically, but fully, humanly.
The “Creation of Light” therefore, for Blake, was not really the interesting or important point of the Book of Genesis. Urizenic Rationality venerates Light because it is its means to power and is a symbol of itself – the egoic solar rationality that Jung equates with rational consciousness itself: “consciousness, whose symbol is the sun” (Mysterium Coniunctionis). As Jungian analyst Edward Edinger observes:
Light represents consciousness. All peoples have myths of creation which depict it as the creation of light. Such myths refer to the creation of the ego which is the light of consciousness born out of the darkness of the unconscious. (Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche)
You can see why the “creation of light”, and sun worship more generally, is so popular in our hyper Urizenic egoic worlds. The fiat lux is the “ta-da” moment for the Ego. We can see this Urizenic (left-brain) veneration for its objective correlative in both orthodox religious traditions – from the worship of the Aten in ancient Egyptian religion to the “Solar Christos” of Western traditions (converting Jesus into a sort of Mithraic-Apollo-Horus type figure – all synonyms for Urizen, the “prince of Light” as Blake often calls him) – to the supposedly secular and scientific traditions, such as the period of the Enlightenment (the clue is in its name). Thus, as Alexander Pope – the go-to versifier for the Age of Reason – exclaimed:
Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be – And all was light.
– Alexander Pope, Epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton (1735)
Nor was it any surprise that Newton made his name through the study of “optics” – the study of the Light he so venerated and depended upon – or indeed “gravity”, through the retrospective study of the geometries of the planets. As Alexander Pope’s reverential, indeed hagiographic, lines suggest, in the eighteenth century Newton could be spoken of as a kind of Messiah, a divine envoy who literally shed light upon the mysteries of the natural world. Later in the century, the great French philosopher Voltaire would remark, “we are all now disciples of Newton”. They were all “asleep”, Blake gravely noted, intent on reducing the divine relationships and character to straight lines, parabolas, and ratios.
We lost more than we gained with Newton’s Single Vision.
This post has concentrated on the differences between Blake and Holanda, especially with regard to the status of geometry in their apprehensions of spiritual activities, such as the creation of Light. But it’s their resemblances that are so striking and galvanising. Perhaps no other artist than Holanda compels you to really look at his images, drawing you in both by their astonishing beauty and their intriguing concepts and unexpected juxtapositions – they are rather like a trying to work out an ingenious puzzle, and perhaps thereby fulfil the remit of marrying heaven and hell, the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Below are a few of his most astonishing scenes, with images from Blake where they recall a likeness. It is interesting to speculate on where these similarities come from – their shared interest in combining image with text (relatively unusual in art of the period); their interest in both the human and the geometric dimensions to spiritual and material processes ; their vibrant and affecting coloration, which seems to speak of deep psychological responses (the pinks and blues of Holanda, for example, signifying contrary aspects of “God”).
In A Vision of the Last Judgement, Blake observed: “If the Spectator could Enter into these Images in his Imagination approaching them on the Fiery Chariot of his Contemplative Thought … then would he arise from his Grave”. These images – both from Blake and Holanda – are exactly those Chariots, portals through which we might pass to access the infinite and the eternal.