Summer 2007

Image Magic

Idol hands are the devil’s tools

Alexander Nagel

In his great compendium The Golden Bough, the early twentieth-century anthropologist James Frazer outlined his theory of the two forms of what he called Sympathetic Magic: magic of contact, or contagious magic, in which “things that have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed,” and magic of imitation, or image magic, based on the idea “that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause.”[1] Frazer’s theory, though much disputed, is still the basis for the anthropological discussion of magic today, but it has a long history of antecedents. For millennia, writers have been trying to describe and explain magical beliefs and their relation to image-making and image-use. Is it the image’s material makeup or the figure “in” the image that effects the magic? How is the image invested with magical power? Long before modern anthropologists tried to tackle these questions, philosophers, doctors, and theologians in the pagan and Christian traditions described and explained magical beliefs in image-making and image-use. For just as long, images have been caught in the double position of being both material object and sign: on the one hand, they have been asked to perform magical functions, and, on the other hand, and even at the same time, they have also offered commentaries on these expectations, representing image-magic practices and beliefs as if from a distance. Images have been both the objects and the exponents of anthropologies of the image.

Practical magic was usually conceived in technological and Promethean terms: certain expert practitioners were believed capable of manipulating and rerouting numinous powers to achieve certain desired effects. The most dramatic form of image magic was the one that most directly mimicked divine creativity: the artificial creation of living beings. And when it came to the animation of effigies, two passages from the Hermetic text known as Asclepius (23-4, 37-8) dominated thinking on the question in the West until the Scientific Revolution. The text is now believed to have been written not much earlier than the third century CE, but until the early seventeenth century it was attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary Egyptian magus, theologian, and quasi-deity thought to have been a contemporary of Moses. The Asclepius celebrates humankind for having learned the magical art of “god-making”—making statues come alive by drawing divine powers into them.[2] The text explains that such statues were made of a mixture of plants, stones, and spices, elements that are invested with “a natural power of divinity.” But to attain full powers, they needed something more: a soul. Thus the statues are entertained with constant sacrifices, hymns, praises, and sweet sounds “in tune with heaven’s harmony,” so as to call up the souls of demons or angels and implant them into the statues “through holy and divine mysteries.”[3]

Commenting on these passages in his City of God, St. Augustine condemned all of this as nothing but the grossest idolatry. And yet he could not help but admire the author for having described the practices so clearly and for having prophesied their demise in a future time—which Augustine took to mean his own Christian era.[4] Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas repeated Augustine’s condemnation, with a few significant clarifications. Aquinas allowed that natural herbs and gems—which had long been believed to carry certain inherent powers due to their astrological influences—could be legitimately used for medicinal purposes. However, when characters or images are inscribed on the stones, or when incantations are used with the herbs, then the user is making signs and so is engaged in a form of magical activity. The images carved on talismans and the invocations cannot of themselves produce a magical effect—they do so only insofar as they are addressed to intelligent beings, namely, good demons (angels) or bad demons. There was no way to control which way it would go, and the risks were great. Words and figurations are meant to be heard and read, and demons are always listening and ready to intercept the messages and begin their work of delusion. Aquinas cites the passages from the Asclepius, together with Augustine’s condemnation, as signal proof that demonic collaboration is invited by such practices.[5]

In 1489, the Florentine philosopher and doctor Marsilio Ficino published the third book of his treatise On Life, a sustained account and defense of astrological magic and medicine. Throughout the treatise, he cites Hermetic and Neoplatonic texts that deal with magical practices, including the “god-making” passages from the Asclepius. Fully aware of the negative commentaries of Augustine and Aquinas, Ficino attempted a more conciliatory line. He reiterates Hermes Trismegistus’s position that certain powers are present in the materials—the herbs, plants, stones, and spices—of which the statues were composed, thus emphasizing the aspect of these practices that Aquinas condoned.[6] In this way, Ficino tried to save the magical practice described in the Hermetic text by claiming that it is a form of medicinal practice, not idolatry.

At the same time, it is clear that Ficino is interested in the power of the figurations themselves, and believes that some sort of demonic agency, hopefully good but possibly bad, is necessary to such practices. Knowing that these practices lead the uneducated into idolatry and superstition—and keenly aware that he could be accused of advocating idolatry himself—he occasionally backpedals sharply, professing that he is merely reporting on the practices without really approving of them: “As I have said, I prefer medicines to images by far.”[7] And yet, in the end, he cannot entirely give up on image magic as a particularly effective form of attracting “cosmic gifts,” and writes with evident fascination about how a statue could serve as a magical enticement or bait (illicium) for drawing down supernatural effects.[8] He can only suggest that the dangers associated with these practices can be avoided if they remain restricted to a small circle of initiates. Ficino’s ambivalence is a response to the real danger of being prosecuted (and very likely executed) as a heretic.[9] But his ambivalence is also historical and nostalgic. There is a sense throughout his treatise that he is speaking retrospectively—that he is drawn to the idea of animated statues in part because the whole idea speaks of mysterious and archaic cult practices. This is the sort of thing people used to do with statues.

His position, both participating in and commenting retrospectively on magical traditions, was shared by a number of artists of his day. In his Miracle of St. Philip in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, probably painted in the mid-1490s, Filippino Lippi may even have responded directly to Ficino’s ideas.[10] In the fresco we see the apostle Philip confronting a statue of Mars, which stands on a pedestal in a fantastically sumptuous temple. According to the legend, the saint was forced to the temple of Mars to make sacrifice to the god, at which point a dragon issued from the statue’s base, immediately killing three people and sickening the population with its venomous breath. Among those killed was the high priest’s son, whose body we see supported by attendants to the right. In the midst of the turmoil, Philip offered to cast away the dragon and bring health back to the city on the condition that they destroy the idol and replace it with a cross.[11] In Filippino’s fresco, Philip is casting the dragon away, and a small Christ carrying a cross is shown emerging from the clouds in the upper right-hand corner, as if to provide the replacement for the statue.

Filippino Lippi, The Miracle of St. Philip, 1490s, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

The story is an episode out of the legendary life of a saint, but here it has become an emblematic confrontation, a showdown between Christianity and pagan image magic of the sort described in the Hermetic text. We see an animated statue being exorcised of its demon, shown just as it is cut off from its source of power. The other sculptures on the triumphal arch are shown in grisaille, but the statue of Mars is in living color. The leopard skins tied around his legs look as if they are made of a real animal, their fur as natural as the olive branch on the altar below. The trophies and the jars to either side are also in color, as if the war god has just received fresh spoils and tributes.

We can interpret these elements—the olive branch, the trophies, the jugs, the leopard-skin leggings—as actual votive objects and offerings that have been gathered around the statue and even used to dress it. But what about the wolf climbing up his leg—is it an actual creature climbing on a statue, like the dragon living under the statue’s protection, or is it part of the statue? At the statue’s feet perches a living bird—at least we assume it is living, though it looks rather frozen. If the bird and wolf are real, and the god is grasping the wolf by the neck, then what distinguishes the statue from a living body? On the other hand, both the woodpecker and the wolf were established attributes of the war god, so it is conceivable that they figure here as part of the sculptural content—figural elements “attached” to the effigy.[12] The pictorial logic makes it impossible to decide what their status is.

The other elements shown in color, the jars and the trophies, are marked by a similar ambiguity. These are items that once served a real function but that now have been converted into relics and altar ornaments—that is, into sculpture. The shields and arms, surrendered in defeat, now assume a symbolic function as the victor’s sculptural display. The use of color seems to be Filippino’s key for marking signs that are in fact what they represent.

It is not just that the war god’s flesh, hair, and clothing look real; the figure actually seems to be responding to the situation at hand. Both he and the wolf look down, straight at the saint, as if in response to the saint’s challenge. (It is probably inaccurate to say he looks down, as this hollowed-eyed Mars appears to be blind, as he was sometimes described.)[13] There is no clear ontological divide between the pagan god and the saint, and in fact the saint himself adopts a statuesque pose. The other figures cower and huddle, but the two statue-like protagonists are locked into their confrontation, each with his arm raised.

For any Florentine at the time, Philip’s raised arm was more than a dramatic gesture; it was an instrument filled with power. Florence possessed the relic of St. Philip’s arm-bone, brought from Jerusalem in 1203 and placed in the Baptistery in the Piazza del Duomo, where it subsequently performed several miracles of healing. It is likely that the patron of the chapel in which Filippino painted his scene, Filippo Strozzi, was especially aware of this signal relic belonging to his name saint, one of the most important relics in Florence.[14] The temple-like reliquary, octagonal like the Baptistery, was made by Antonio del Vagliente in 1425. At the angles of the cornice perch dragons, perhaps an allusion to the miracle depicted in this fresco by Filippino.

The Mars temple depicted by Filippino, though fantastic, bears a resemblance above all to the temple of Mars Ultor in the Roman forum of Augustus—and that very temple was occasionally adduced as the prototype for the Florentine Baptistery, which was itself believed at the time to have been in antiquity a temple of Mars. And so the Christianized Temple of Mars in Florence held the arm that is here being wielded against the idol in the old Temple of Mars. The statue-like figure of the saint, his arm upright, just as it is in the reliquary, is perfectly counterposed to the ambiguously animated statue, which raises its lance. In ancient Rome, spears and shields associated with Mars—pagan relics of sorts—were kept and revered in the Regia.[15] In Filippino’s fresco, Christian and pagan cult objects are made to face off against one another in the arena.

The “arena” here is the medium of painting, which makes extravagant use of its ability to depict and stage earlier cult forms. As imagined by Filippino, the contest is strangely undecided. The story asserts that the statue was destroyed and replaced with a cross, but the fresco shows us the contest still under way. The lance that Mars holds in his right hand is broken, suggesting that the god is losing the battle, and an expression of sadness spreads over his face. And yet these very elements indicate that the figure is responsive, far from inert. A broken lance is something one might see in an actual battle scene; it only reinforces the impression that this is a living figure engaging his enemy. The figure of Mars may be losing, but it is not lifeless.

The demonic power source has been cut off, and we can almost hear the statue’s animating machinery winding down. We almost expect its vibrant color to turn (back) to grisaille as the “life” drains from it. While it may be a victory for Christianity, in another sense it seems that in order to perform his magic Philip has to assume some of the qualities of the magical statue. The Hermetic text says the magical statues are “ensouled and conscious, filled with spirit and doing great deeds …; statues that make people ill and cure them, bringing them pain and pleasure as each deserves.”[16] Philip may heal and Mars may bring ill, but they effect aspects of the same magic. As the power is leaving the demonic statue, the saint’s arm rises, holding his arm bone, as if his body were already the container for the relic, in animated form. The saint looks across the fresco to the high priest’s child, whom he is about to revive. The ex-animation of the statue and the reanimation of the child seem to be happening in one stroke, but neither has occurred quite yet. The painting shows us things in a state of flux, suggesting that all these transformations—statue into living body, living body into miracle-dispensing instrument, dead body into animate body—are interrelated. The demonic soul is extracted from the statue, which is returning to a state of inert objecthood. The saint becomes statue-like as he dispenses miraculous powers. And what is his miracle? The re-animation of an inanimate body, which is a version of the magical art of animating dead statues.

The rhetoric of the painting thus runs counter to the didactic message of its story. It evinces above all a fascination with the idea that statues can be animated. Positioned outside the idolatry problem, painting here pays ambiguous tribute to the fascination of image magic and its ambivalent relation to Christian cult practices.

  1. James Frazer, The Golden Bough, part 1, The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1911), p. 52.
  2. Brian P. Copenhaver, ed., Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new English Translation, with notes and introduction (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 23.
  3. Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius, pp. 37–38.
  4. St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, 8.23.
  5. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.104. See also Daniel P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), p. 43.
  6. See Brian P. Copenhaver, “Scholastic Philosophy and Renaissance Magic in the De Vita of Marsilio Ficino,” Renaissance Quarterly XXXVII (1984), pp. 523–554.
  7. Marsilio Ficino, De Vita, 3.20, in Opera Omnia, p. 561. See also the highly defensive Ad lectorem of book III, p. 531.
  8. Ficino, De Vita, III, xxviii, in Opera Omnia, p. 571, and see the sources for Ficino’s use of the idea of the illicium in Brian Copenhaver, “Iamblichus, Synesius and the Chaldean Oracles in Marsilio Ficino’s De Vita Libri Tres: Hermetic Magic or Neoplatonic Magic,” in James Hankins, John Monfasani, and Frederick Purnell, eds., Supplementum Festivum: Studies in Honor of Paul Oskar Kristeller (New York and Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1987), pp. 441–455, esp. pp. 444–446.
  9. For the steps he took to stave off persecution from church authorities, see Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic, op. cit., pp. 51–53.
  10. The fresco was connected to Ficino’s hermetically inspired theories by Luciana Müller Profumo, “Per la Fortuna di Ermete Trismegisto nel Rinascimento. Filippino Lippi e la Cappella Strozzi,” Athenaeum, no. 58 (1980), pp. 429–453, who believes the painting adopts an anti-Ficinian position. Jonathan Katz and Patrizia Zambrano, Filippino Lippi (Milan: Electa, 2004), p. 548, contest this view, suggesting that the painting is framed in line with Ficino’s theories. Neither of these efforts takes into account the acute ambivalence of Ficino’s thinking on the question.
  11. Acta Sanctorum, BHL n. 6817, col. 12 A-B, reports the account given in the Roman Breviary (in turn followed fairly closely by the widely read thirteenth-century Golden Legend).
  12. See William Smith, Classical Dictionary of Biography, Mythology, and Geography illustrated by antiquities and coinage [1873], (London: Seaby, 1972), p. 419, and Lexicon Iconongraphicum Mythologiae Classicae, II, 1 (Zürich and Munich: Artemis, 1984), p. 505. Filippino has, in fact, represented the red-headed black woodpecker known as “Bird of Mars,” which according to Pliny, Historia Naturalis, 10.20, played a significant role in the taking of auguries (”in auspicatu magni”).
  13. The tradition is reported by Lilio Gregorio Giraldi, De Deis Gentium (Basel: Oporinus, 1548), p. 441.
  14. The reliquary was displayed on four occasions annually, most significantly on the feast day of St. Philip, May 1st, also a day of special liturgical celebrations in this chapel.
  15. They were kept in the sacrarium Martis and were known to rattle of their own accord on inauspicious occasions. See Plutarch, Romulus, 29.1, and Servius, Aeneid, 8.3. My thanks to Bjoern Ewald for his help in clarifying this point.
  16. Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius, p. 24.

Alexander Nagel teaches and writes about Renaissance and contemporary art and divides his time between Toronto, New York, and Rome.

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