That the radiance of truth which Plato mentions in his Letters might shine more clearly upon our minds, like the sun rising from the deep.
These words by Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola (1463-1494) sum up the thirst for knowledge and truth of Quattrocento humanists: they (re)discovered new avenues of mysticism and wisdom that they saw as so many facets of true and original knowledge. This quest was driven by the conviction that the theology of the Ancients transmitted the beginnings of truth within the philosophies and mystery cults of the past, a kind of universal divine message. These traditions included Kabbalah—a term derived from the Hebrew qabbalah (reception). Developed around the twelfth century, this expression of Jewish thought was seen as giving privileged access to the divine in order to reveal the secrets of the Creator, Creation, and the biblical text.
Far from forming a homogeneous doctrine and tradition, this knowledge “received” from God fascinated the humanists, who introduced it into the Latin world as a tool of interpretation and reflection. Kabbalah provided original solutions for the relations between the celestial and terrestrial worlds—offering extensive images, symbols, and metaphors—and was seen as a source of philosophical peace and religious fervor. It allowed Christian scholars to construct a universal concord of traditions and knowledges, between Neoplatonism, Christianity, and Jewish mysticism.
Interest for Kabbalah appeared in Italy at the turn of the fifteenth century in the learned circles of Tuscany. It spread through the Latin world, where it was transformed based on contacts between humanists and Jewish scholars. By translating their language and transposing their concepts, the latter engendered a hybrid Judeo-Christian thought. The passeurs of esoteric Jewish culture in the Latin world included Šemu’el ben Nissim Abu’l Farağ (also known as Guglielmo Raimondo Moncada or Flavius Mithridates), who gave courses throughout Italy, as well as the anonymous Sicilian translators in the service of Pierleone da Spoleto. The latter allowed humanists to reinvent Kabbalah as a homogeneous and coherent doctrine; many of its texts were known to humanists exclusively through their transpositions.
Pierleone Leoni da Spoleto (1455-1492) was the first humanist, in addition to Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, to take an interest in Kabbalah and offer a philosophical reading of it. The doctor of Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence and a member of his Platonic Academy, he played the role of protector and practician of Kabbalistic studies, which had long remained unknown. Thanks to the recent discovery in France and Italy of manuscripts that belonged to him, he has emerged as an essential actor during the beginnings of Christian Kabbalah, as well as the diffusion of the Kabbalistic tradition during the Renaissance. He wrote no texts on the subject, but his thought is expressed in the marginal notes that supplement the translations he commissioned. These glosses bear witness to an astute understanding of Jewish esotericism, in accordance with typically humanist methods. For instance, he used the thought of Plato, Galen, and Ramon Llull to arrive at this unknown knowledge, and to offer a syncretic approach in which ancient philosophies are crossed with biblical and Christian readings.
Pierleone thought of Kabbalah as a prophetic knowledge that could perfect human nature and its mystical union with God. His teaching and techniques were meant to break past the rational dimension and to be reborn in the intelligence of God, in a state of ecstasy and spiritual regeneration.
His perspective was shared by Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, to whom the birth of Christian Kabbalah is traditionally attributed. He was the first to propose the Christianization of Kabbalah and a “Kabbalization” of Christianity: he developed a Christian interpretation of Jewish Kabbalistic doctrines, while attempting a Kabbalistic explanation of Christian dogma. He did so by basing himself on a convergence and continuity between Judaism and Christianity. Seeing himself as a profoundly Christian Kabbalist, Pico exposed his ideas in works written between 1486-1487, especially in his 900 Theses, Oration on the Dignity of Man, and Apology. He presented Kabbalah as a divine science whose teachings went back to the Revelation on Mount Sinai, and confirmed the Catholic faith. Pico believed this was the true revelation that God gave to Moses, and that it contains the deep meaning of Hebraic law and the foundations of Christianity. The truths of Kabbalah are consequently analogous to Christian truths. He believed that one could find in them the theological elements on the Trinity and the nature of Christ, the salvation of the soul and the Final Judgment, as well as angels and demons. He saw it in the beginnings of the doctrines of Church apostles and fathers, such as Saint Paul, Dionysus the Areopagite, Saint Jerome, and Saint Augustine. It was this prefiguration that made the “Christianity” of Kabbalah, which was described as best as one could using nouns such as “science,” “philosophy,” “mysteries,” and even “secret theology of the Jews” or “secret, true, and mysterious commentary on Law.”
Each term is used to emphasize the complexity of this knowledge that assumes, among other things, the function of a unifying and classifying principle for other philosophical and theological traditions. To this end, Pico considered Kabbalah as a “Catholic” philosophy in the etymological sense of universal knowledge, one that organizes a range of varying and heterogeneous knowledge.
Following these first humanists, other erudite persons subsequently studied Kabbalah, which was diffused across Europe. From Italy to Germany and France, Kabbalistic knowledge took on an important role in the intellectual landscape, and was integrated within different systems of thought. In Germany for example, Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522) developed a Kabbalistic Christology by proposing an interpretation of Jesus’s name. In France, the Franciscan Jean Thenaud (1480-1542) combined Jewish mysticism and magic. He wrote the first treatises on Kabbalah in a vernacular language with his metered Kabbalah (1519-1520) and Treatise on Kabbalah (1520-1521). Written for Francis I of France, these texts transmitted an ambiguous vision of Kabbalah, combining sacred mystery and occult practices. For Thenaud it was simultaneously a “Catholic and very holy” doctrine through which God reveals himself to man, in addition to a spiritual technique that can summon angels. The Franciscan deciphered this extensive and obscure material, and invited the sovereign to consider the legitimacy of this science that conferred “complete power over all things human and natural, divine and supernatural.” It was in this respect that Kabbalah became a kind of magic that could produce extraordinary effects by placing the invisible and immaterial world in communication with the visible and material one.
Driven by philosophical, mystical, magical, and apologetic interests and ends, humanists offered greatly varying readings of Kabbalah, changing its meaning and often modifying its content. Kabbalah was seen as a prophetic knowledge, an avenue for individual and collective renewal, as well as a secret and supernatural wisdom, and became a preferred tool of humanists for restoring man’s intellectual and spiritual perfection. At the same time, it allowed these Christian Kabbalists to establish themselves as mystics and magicians that could perceive God’s invisible secrets in the visible signs of Nature.