Étiquette : cusanus

 

Mutazilism and Arab astronomy, two bright stars in our firmament

By Karel Vereycken

(texte original en français)

“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”
“Seek knowledge from the Cradle to the Grave.”
“Seek knowledge even as far as China.”

Sayings (Hadith) most often attributed to the Prophet.

PROLOGUE

We live in a time of cruel stupidity. While the history of civilization is characterized by multiple cultural contributions allowing an infinite and magnificent mutual enrichment, everything is done to dehumanize us.

By dint of media coverage of the most extreme crimes, notably by claiming that such and such an abject or barbaric act has been committed « in the name » of such and such a belief or religion, everything is done to set us against each other. If we do not react, the famous thesis of a « Clash of Civilizations », concocted by the British Islamologist Bernard Lewis (Henry Kissinger’s, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s and Samuel Huntington’s mentor) as an evil tool of geopolitical manipulation, will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

INTRODUCTION

In order to combat prejudices and dangerous misunderstandings about “Islam” (with 1.6 billion believers a non-negligible part of the world’s population), here follows a brief overview of the major contributions of the Arab-Muslim civilization.

By recalling two major contributions of the “Golden Age” of Islam, notably Arab astronomy and mutazilism, what is at stake here is the recognition that –just like Memphis, Thebes, Alexandria, Athens and Rome– Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba were major crucibles of a universal civilization which is ours today.

While Europe has come to recognize that the invention of printing took place in China long before Gutenberg, and that America was visited way before Christopher Columbus, consensus and group think keeps repeating that the Arabs contributed nothing to the progress of science.

In the 1300 years separating the Greek astronomer from Alexandria, Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 100-178 AD) from the Polish Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), they pretend, nothing but “a black hole”.

In 1958, in his book The Sleepwalkers, British Hungarian writer Alfred Koestler, who helped Sydney Hook to co-found the CIA’s cultural cold war front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, epitomized western arrogance, writing:

the Arabs had merely been the go-betweens, preservers and transmitters of the heritage. They had little scientific originality and creativeness of their own. During the centuries when they were the sole keepers of the treasure, they did little to put it to use. (…) and by the fifteenth century, the scientific heritage of Islam had largely been taken over by the Portuguese Jews. But the Jews, too, were no more than go-betweens, a branch of the devious Gulf-stream which brought back to Europe its Greek and Alexandrine heritage, enriched by Indian and Persian additions.

Nothing is more false. Definitely, one must be born on the right spot to be allowed to have a seat in the train of history…

Copernicus himself, unlike Koestler, was perfectly familiar with Arab astronomy. In 1543, in his De Revolutionibus, he quotes several Arab scientists, more precisely Al-Battani, al-Bitruji, al-Zarqallu, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Thabit ibn Qurra. Copernicus also refers to al-Battani in his Commentariolus, a manuscript published posthumously. Later, the great Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) would also refer to Ibn Al-Haytam in his work on optics.

In reality, Copernicus and even more Kepler, whose creative genius cannot be overrated, came up with answers to questions raised by several generations of Arab astronomers preceding them and whose contribution remains largely ignored and even worse, unexplored. To this day, with about 10,000 manuscripts preserved throughout the world, a large part of which has still not been the subject of a bibliographic inventory, the Arab astronomical corpus constitutes one of the best preserved components of medieval scientific literature waiting to be rediscovered.

Science and religion versus slavery

Miniature of emancipated slave Bilal, Islams first Muezzin.

Before examining the contributions of Arab astronomy, a few words about the intimate link between Islam and the development of science.

According to tradition, it was in 622 CE that the Prophet Muhammad and his companions left Mecca and set out for a simple oasis that would become the city of Medina.

If this event is known as the “Hegira”, an Arabic word for emigration, break-up or exile, it is also because Mohammad broke with a societal model based on blood ties (clan organization), in favor of a model of a shared destiny based on belief. In this new religious and societal model, where each person is supposed to be a “brother,” it is no longer permissible to abandon the poor or the weak as was the case before.

The powerful clans in Mecca did everything they could to eliminate this new form of society, which diminished their influence.

The “Medina Constitution” allegedly proclaimed equality among all believers, whether they were free men or slaves, Arabs or non-Arabs.

The Koran advocates strict equality between Arabs and non-Arabs in accordance with the Prophet, who said, in his farewell address:

“There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”

(Reported by Al-Bayhaqi and authenticated by Shaykh Albani in Silsila Sahiha no. 2700).

Hence, if after the Prophet’s passing away, slavery and slave trade became a common practice in close to all Muslim countries, he cannot be held accountable. Zayd Ibn Harithah, according to tradition, after having been the slave of Khadija, Muhammad’s wife, was freed and even adopted by Muhammad as his own son.

For his part, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s companion and successor as the first Caliph (Arab word for “successor”), also freed Bilal ibn-Raba, the son of a former Abyssinian princess who had been enslaved. Bilal, who had a magnificent voice, was even appointed the first muezzin, that is to say the one who calls for prayer five times a day from the top of one of the mosque’s minarets.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, in Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh Province, Afghanistan.

Among the first verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad one finds :

Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous, Who taught by the pen ; Taught man that which he knew not.”

(Surat 96).

The Prophet also states,

The best among you (Muslims) are those who learn the Koran and teach it.”

Other sayings, often attributed to the Prophet, clearly invite Muslims to seek knowledge and cherish science :

The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr”.
Seek knowledge from the Cradle to the Grave”.
Seek knowledge even as far as China”.

Historical center of Samarkand (Ouzbekistan). The Registan and its three madrasahs.
Astronomical and mathematical notations. Manuscript page from Timbuktu.

The mosque is therefore much more than a place of worship, it is a school of all sciences, where scholars are trained. It serves as a social and educational institution: it may be accompanied by a madrassa (Koranic school), a library, a training center, or even a university.

As in most religions, in Islam, practices and rituals are punctuated by astronomical events (years, seasons, months, days, hours). Every worshipper must pray five times a day at times that vary depending on where he or she is on Earth: at sunrise (Ajr), when the sun is at its zenith (Dhohr), in the afternoon (Asr), at sunset (Magrib) and at the beginning of the night (Icha). Astronomy, as a spiritual occasion to fine-tune one’s earthly existence according to the harmony of the Heavens, is omnipresent.

As an example, to underscore its importance, July 16, 622 AD, the first day of the lunar year, was declared the first day of the Hegira calendar. And during the eclipse of the sun, mosques host a special prayer.

Islam encourages Muslims to guide themselves by the stars. The Koran states :

And He is the One who made the stars for you to guide you with them in darkness of the land and the sea”.

With such an incentive, early Muslims could not but feel compelled to perfect astronomical and navigational instruments. As a result, today more than half of the stars used for navigation bear Arabic names. It was only natural that the faithful constantly tried to improve astronomical calculations and observations.

The first reason to do so is that during the Muslim prayer, the worshipper has to prostrate himself in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, so he has to know how to find this direction wherever he is on Earth. And the construction of a mosque will be decided according to the same data.

The second reason is the Muslim calendar. The Koran states :

The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve (in a year)- so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth; of them four are sacred: that is the straight usage.”

Clearly, the Muslim calendar is based on the lunar months, which are approximately 29.5 days long. But 12 times 29.5 days is only 345 days in the year. This is far from the 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 4 seconds that measure the duration of the rotation of the Earth around the Sun…

Finally, a last challenge was posed by the interpretation of the lunar movement. The months, in the Muslim religion, do not begin with the astronomical new moon, defined as the moment when the moon has the same ecliptic longitude as the sun (it is therefore invisible, drowned in the solar albedo); the months begin when the lunar crescent starts to appear at dusk.

The Koran says: “(Muhammad), they ask you about the different phases of the moon. Tell them that they are there to indicate to people the phases of time and the pilgrimage season.”

For all these reasons, the Muslims could not be satisfied with either the Christian or the Hebrew calendar, and had to create a new one.

Spherical geometry

In order to forecast the phases of the moon, new methods of calculation and new instruments capable of observing them were required. The calculation of the day when the crescent moon starts to become visible again was a formidable challenge for the Arab scholars. To predict this day, it was necessary to be able to describe its movement in relation to the horizon, a problem whose resolution belongs to a rather sophisticated spherical geometry.

It was the determination of the direction of Mecca from a given location and the time of prayers that led the Muslims to develop such geometry. To solve these problems, it is necessary to know how to calculate the side of a spherical triangle of the celestial sphere from its three angles and the other two sides; to find the exact time, for example, it is necessary to know how to construct the triangle whose vertices are the zenith, the north pole, and the position of the Sun.

The field of astronomy has strongly stimulated the birth of other sciences, in particular geometry, mathematics, geography and cartography. Some people like to recall that Platonists and Aristotelians were arguing about rather abstract concepts, each of them believing that reason was sufficient to understand nature. Arab astronomy, on the other hand, played a decisive role in the emergence of a true scientific method by verifying the various hypotheses, by building measuring instruments and astronomical observatories and by rigorously recording observations over many years.

MUTAZILISM

Socrates discussng philosophy with his disciples, Arabic miniature from a manuscript, Turkey 13th Century.

The question then arises as to where this infatuation with science and astronomy could have come from, in a culture essentially centered on religion?

A first answer comes from the fact that in the 8th century, shortly after the birth of Sunnism (656), Kharidjism (657) and Shi’ism (660), but independently of these currents, a school of Muslim theological and philosophical thought appeared, founded by the revolutionary theologian Wasil ibn Ata (700-748), a current known as “mutazilism” (or motazilism), branded in the West as “the rationalists” of Islam. One explanation of its name came from the fact that the mutazili refused to take part in the internal strife inside factions using theological interpretations for earthly power, the arab word iʿtazala meaning “to withdraw”.

Wasil was born in Medina in the Arabian Peninsula and moved to Basra, now in Iraq. From there he formed an intellectual movement that spread all over the Arab-Muslim world. Many of his followers were merchants and non-Arabs (mawâlî) from Iranian or Aramaic “converted” families, victims of the Omayyad dynasty’s discriminating policies between Arabs and non-Arabs. This hypothesis is sufficient to back the claim of a Mutazilite participation in the overthrow of the Omayyad and that dynasty’s replacement with the Abbasid.

In a clear break with dualistic cosmology (Mazdeism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, etc.), Mutazilism insists on the absolute unity of God, conceived as an entity outside time and space. For them, there is a close relationship between the unity of the Muslim community (Ummah) and the worship of the Lord. The Mutazilites are closely inspired by the Koran, and it is quite wrong to present them as the “free thinkers” of Islam.

However, “we reject faith as the only way to religion if it rejects reason,” the Mutazilite saying goes. Relying on reason (the logos dear to the Greek thinkers Socrates and Plato), which it considers compatible with Islamic doctrines, Mutazilism affirms that man can, outside of any divine revelation, access knowledge.

Just as Augustine, a christian, emphasized man can advance on the path of truth, not only through the Gospel (revelation), but by reading “the Book of Nature”, a reflection and foretaste of divine wisdom. One book of the Bible, The Book of Wisdom, recognizes that

For from the greatness and the beauty of created things
their original author,
by analogy, is seen.

(Book of Wisdom, 13:5)

Muzatilism gives human reason (the faculty of thinking) and freedom (the faculty of acting) a place and importance not only unknown in other trends of Islam but even in most philosophical and religious currents of the time. Against fatalism (“mektoub!” = it was written!), which was the dominant tendency in Islam, mutazilism affirms that the human being is responsible for his acts.

More than five centuries before Erasmus, the five principles of the Mutazilite faith offered already the foundations to solve most of the sterile theological disputes that would destroy the Renaissance and throw Europe in the abyss of self-destruction known as the “wars of religion”.

Here are the five principles, described by the Mutazilite theologian Abdel al Jabbar Ibn Ahmad (935-1025) and summarized in 2015 by economist Nadim Michel Kalife:

Monotheism (Al Tawhid) whose concept of God is beyond the simple intellect of the human mind. That is why the verses of the Koran describing God “sitting” on a throne should be interpreted only allegorically and not literally. Hence the Mutazilites called their opponents anthropomorphists who sought to reduce God who is unknowable to a human appearance. And they concluded that this one detail (!) of the Koran is sufficient to prove that the Koran is not “uncreated” but “created” by Allah, via man, to make it accessible to the believer, and therefore, that it can and should evolve and adapt according to the times and circumstances ;

Divine justice (Adl) is about the origin of evil in our world where God is all-powerful. Mutazilism proclaims free will, where evil is man’s doing and not God’s will, because God is perfect and therefore cannot do evil or determine man to do it. And, if human wrongdoings were the will of God, punishment would lose all meaning since man would be doing nothing but respecting the divine will. This unquestionable logic allowed Mutazilism to refute predestination and the « mektoub » of the Sunni schools;

Promise and threat (al-Wa’d wa al-Wa’id): this principle concerns the judgment of man at his death and that of the last judgment where God will reward the obedient in the heavenly paradise, and punish those who disobeyed him by damning them eternally in the fires of hell;

The intermediate degree (al-manzilatu bayn al-manzilatayn), the first principle opposing Mutazilism to the Sunni schools. A great sinner (murder, theft, fornication, false accusation of fornication, drinking alcohol, etc. ) should be judged neither as a Muslim (as Sunnism thinks) nor as a disbeliever or kâfir (as the Kharidjites think), but considered in an intermediate degree from which, when he dies, he will go to hell if he failed to be redeemed by God’s mercy ;

To order the good and blame the blameworthy (al-amr bil ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al munkar): this principle authorizes even rebellion against authority when it is unjust and illegitimate, to prevent the victory of evil over all. This principle attracted the hatred of the ulama (theologians) and imams (predicators) who saw it as a manouver to weaken their own authority over the faithful. And the Seljuk Turks considered it a serious danger since it called into question their power… over the Arabs.

Mutazilism under the Abbasid

Abbasid Caliphate.
Caliph with his advisors. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, 1237.

In Baghdad, it was with the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate in 749 that Mutazilism gained influence, first under the Caliph Hâroun al-Rachîd (765-809) (“Aaron the Well-Guided”) and then under his son, Al-Ma’mûn (786-833) (“The one to be trusted”). Shortly before his death in 833, the latter made Mutazilism the official doctrine of the Abbasid Empire.

This was too much for the conservative ulama and imams who rebelled against the Caliph’s enlightened vision that created a space for secular society and limited their grip over society. Faced with the revolt, the Abbasid administration (made up largely of Persians), which was won over to Mutazilism, carried out a ruthless crackdown on Sunni (Arab) clerics for fifteen years, from 833 to 848. This bloody persecution left an increasingly bitter taste in people’s minds, especially when the Abbasid power refused to release Muslim prisoners in the hands of the Byzantines if they did not renounce the dogma of the “uncreated” nature of the Koran…

Finally, in 848, Caliph Jafar al-Mutawakkil (847-861), changed course completely and asked the traditionalists to preach hadiths according to which Muhammad had condemned the Mutazilites and their supporters.

Dialectical theology (Kalâm) was banned and the Mutazilites were not any longer welcome at the Baghdad court. This was also the end of the spirit of tolerance and the return of persecution against Christians and Jews. If the craze for science continued, Mutazilism disappeared with the fall of the Abbasids and the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in the 13th century.

Mutazilism also influenced Judaism. The Kitab Al-Amanat Wa’l-I’tiqadat – that is, the Book of Beliefs and Opinions – by the tenth-century Jewish rabbinic scholar Saadia Gaon (882-942), who lived in Baghdad, draws its inspiration from Christian theological literature as well as from Islamic models. The Kitab al-Tawhid, the Book of Divine Unity, by Saadia’s Karaite contemporary, Jacob Qirqisani (d. 930), is unfortunately lost.

This makes the German Islamologist Sabine Schmidtke say:

The new tradition of Jewish rational thought that emerged in the course of the ninth century was, in its initial phase, mainly informed by Christian theological literature, both in its content and methodology. Increasingly, specifically Mutazilite Islamic ideas, such as theodicy [*1] and human free will, as well as the emphasis on the oneness of God (tawhid), resonated among Jewish thinkers, many of whom eventually adopted the entire doctrinal system of the Mutazila. The now emerging ‘Jewish Mutazila’ dominated Jewish theological thought for centuries to come.

Leaving aside, therefore, the errors that were very real, it has to be recognized and underscored that the optimistic philosophical vision of Mutazilism (reason, free will, responsibility, perfectibility of man) strongly contributed to the emergence of a true « golden age » of Arab culture and sciences.

The total number of muslim scientists in the 9th Century was larger that the non-muslim scientists in the 15th Century.

Finally, it is not uninteresting to note that today, “neo-Mutazilite” currents are appearing in reaction to obscurantist doctrines and the barbaric acts they provoke. For the Egyptian reformist thinker Ahmad Amin, “the death of mutazilism was the greatest misfortune that befell Muslims; they committed a crime against themselves.”

Bagdad

Artist view of ancient Bagdad. Note the canal that runs through the city and allows it to be integrated into the natural infrastructure of the Tigris River. In reality, the surrounding area was urbanized.

In 762, the second Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur (714-775) (“the victorious”) began construction of a new capital, Baghdad. Called Madinat-As-Salam (City of Peace), it houses the court palace, the mosque and the administrative buildings. Built on a circular plan, it is inspired by previous traditions, notably the one that gave birth to the Iranian city of Gur (current name: Firouzabad).

We are in the heart of fertile Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers”, essentially the Euphrates and the Tigris, both of which have their source in Turkey. It is here that the Sumerians invented irrigation, agriculture (cereals and livestock) [*3], and writing (3400 years BC), starting in the 10th millennium BC.

Baghdad, a powerful and refined city, reigned over the entire East and became the capital of the Arab world. Crossed by the Tigris River, populated today by some 10 million inhabitants, it remains the largest city in Iraq as well as the second most populated city in the Arab world (behind Cairo in Egypt).

Minaret of the Grand mosque of Samarra that many Westerners believed to be the Tower of Babel…

The Abbasid cities were built on huge sites. The palaces and mosques of Samarra, the new capital from 836, stretch along the banks of the Tigris for 40 kilometers. To match the scale of the sites, monumental buildings were erected, such as the Abu Dulaf Mosque or the Great Mosque of Samarra, which had no equivalent elsewhere. Its curious spiral minaret (52 meters high) inspired in the following centuries the Western representations of the Tower of Babel.

Moreover, by relying on an extremely disciplined and obedient army from Khorassan (a region in north-eastern Iran) [*2], as well as on an elaborate system of stagecoaches and mail distribution, the Abbasid rulers managed to increase their hold on the provincial governors. The latter, who in the time of the Omayyad caliphs paid little tax on the pretext that they had to spend locally for the defense of the caliphate’s borders, now had to pay the taxes imposed by the ruler.

The New “Paper” Road

Thanks to high quanlity paper, arab astronomical research survived.

After the military victory against the Chinese in the battle of Talas (a city in present-day Kyrgyzstan) in 751, the year that marked the most eastern advance of the Abbasid armies, Baghdad opened up to Chinese and Indian cultures.

The Abbasid quickly assimilated a number of Chinese techniques, in particular paper-making, an art developed in Samarkand (capital of Sogdiana, now in Uzbekistan), another stopover city on the Silk Roads. The craftsmen of this city smoothed the paper with an agate stone. The resulting extremely smooth and shiny surface absorbed less ink and as a result, both sides of the same sheet became usable. The Chinese, who had invented silk paper, did not need to smooth their paper because they wrote with brushes and not with pens.

Hâroun al-Rachîd was very interested in the industrial production of paper. He ordered the use of paper in all the administrations of the Empire: it is easier to manufacture, less expensive and more secure than silk, because one cannot easily erase what is written on it. He developed the paper factories of Samarkand and established similar ones in Baghdad, Damascus and Tiberias around 1046 – the paper of Tripoli or Damascus was then referred to, and its quality was considered better than that of Samarkand – in Cairo before 1199, where it was used as a packaging for goods, and in Yemen at the beginning of the 13th century. At the same time, several paper factories were established in North Africa. There were 104 paper factories in Fez, Morocco, before 1106, and 400 paper mills between 1221 and 1240. They will emerge in Andalusia, Spain, in Jativa near Valencia in 1054 and in Toledo in 1085.

Agro-industrial revolution

Watermill in Cordoba, Spain.
Floating watermill, to be attached with cables in a strong current.

The first Abbasid caliphs led the economic transition from the Umayyad model of tribute, booty or the sale of slaves to an economy based on agriculture, manufacturing, trade and taxes. The introduction of more energy dense modes of technologies modes of energy (compared to the former ones), will revolutionize irrigation and agriculture:

–Construction of canals ensuring irrigation and limiting flooding;
–Construction of dams and the exploitation of the mechanical energy they produce;
–Construction of water mills;
–Use of tidal energy;
–Construction of windmills;
–Distillation of kerosene used as fuel for lamps and used since. [*4]

Ancient wind mills in Persia

Industrial uses of water mills in the Islamic world date back to the 7th century. During the time of the Crusades, all provinces of the Islamic world had operating mills, from al-Andalus and North Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia.

These mills performed various agricultural and industrial tasks.

When Erasmus’ follower Cervantes’ Don Quichote starts attacking the windmills of La Mancha, a Spanish region where Arab influence was notable, he not only ironially mocks the cult of chivalry, but also the insane undertaking called the crusades.

Irrigation, inherited from the ancient world (floods of the Nile in Egypt, canals in Mesopotamia, pendulum wells (shadoof), water wheels used to raise water (noria), dams in Transoxiana, Khuzistan and Yemen, underground galleries at the foot of the mountains in Iran (qanat) or in the Maghreb (khettara), is organized thanks to a solid community organization and the intervention of the State.

Abbasid artisans and engineers will develop machines (such as pumps) incorporating crankshafts and use gears in mills and water-lifting machines. They will also use the dams to provide additional power to watermills and water-lifting machines. Such advances will allow the mechanization of many agricultural and industrial tasks and free up the workforce for more creative occupations.

At its peak in the tenth century, Baghdad had a population of 400,000 to 500,000. Its food survival depended entirely on an ingenious system of canals for the irrigation of crops and the management of the recurring floods of the Euphrates and Tigris. Example: the Nahrawan canal, parallel to the Tigris, which allowed the waters of the Tigris to be diverted to protect the capital from flooding.

Agricultural production gains in diversity : cereals (wheat, rice), fruits (apricots, citrus fruits), vegetables, olive oil (Syria and Palestine), sesame (Iraq), roe, rapeseed, flax or castor oil (Egypt), wine production (Syria, Palestine, Egypt), dates, bananas (Egypt), sugar cane.

Breeding remains important for food, for the supply of raw materials (wool, leather) and for transport (camels, dromedaries, horses). Sheep are present everywhere but buffalo farming is developing (marshes of lower Iraq or Orontes). Small poultry, pigeon and bee farms are in high demand. The people’s diet is predominantly vegetarian (rice cake, wheat porridge, vegetables and fruits).

A number of industries will emerge from this agro-industrial revolution, including the first textile factories, the production of ropes, silk and, as noted above, the manufacture of paper. Finally, metalworking, glassware, ceramics, tooling and crafts also experience high levels of growth during this period.

Charlemagne, Baghdad and China

Charlemagne receiving elephant, camel and other gifts sent to him by Hâroun al-Rachîd.

Finally, in the eighth and ninth centuries, seeking to counter the Omayyad and the Byzantine Empire, Abbasid and Carolingian Franks conclude several agreements and alliances.

Three diplomatic missions were sent by Charlemagne to the court of Hâroun al-Rachîd and the latter sent at least two embassies to Charlemagne. The caliph sent him many gifts, such as spices, fabrics, an elephant and an automatic clock, described in the Frankish Royal Annals of 807. It marked the 12 hours with copper balls falling on a plate at each hour, and also had twelve horsemen who appeared in turn at the same intervals.

The same caliph sent a diplomatic mission to Chang’an (now called Xi’an), capital of the Tang dynasty. Chang’an being the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, the western market of Chang’an became the center of world trade. According to the record of the Tang Six Authority, more than 300 nations and regions had trade relations with Chang’an.

Maritime Silk Road

These diplomatic relations with China were contemporary with the maritime expansion of the Muslim world into the Indian Ocean and the Far East. Apart from the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, navigable rivers were uncommon, so transport by sea was very important. The ships of the caliphate began to sail from Siraf, the port of Basra, to India, the Straits of Malacca and Southeast Asia.

Arab merchants dominated trade in the Indian Ocean until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Hormuz was an important center for this trade. There was also a dense network of trade routes in the Mediterranean, along which Muslim countries traded with each other and with European powers such as Venice or Genoa.

The Silk Road crossing Central Asia passed through the Abbasid caliphate between China and Europe. At that time, Canton, or Khanfu in Arabic, a port of 200,000 people in southern China, had a large community of traders from Muslim countries. And when the Chinese Emperor Yongle decided to send his famous flotilla of ships to Africa, he chose Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433), a court eunuch who was born a Muslim. And when in 1497 the Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama reached the Kenyan city of Malindi, he was able to obtain an Arab pilot who took him directly to Kozhikode (Calicut) in India. In short, a sailor who knew how to navigate on the stars.

Scientific and cultural renaissance

Thus, it is under the caliphate of Hâroun al-Rachîd and his son Al-Ma’mûn, that Baghdad and the Abbasids will experience a real golden age, both in the sciences (philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, etc.) and in the arts (architecture, poetry, music, painting, etc.). For the British writer Jim Al-Khalili, “the fusion of Greek rationalism and Mutazilite Islam will give rise to a humanist movement of a type that will hardly be seen before 15th century Italy.”

In the field of sciences, an assimilation of Hellenistic, Indian and Persian astronomical doctrines took place very early. Several Sanskrit [*5] and Pehlevi [*6] writings were translated into Arabic.

Indian works by the astronomer Aryabhata (476-560), a prominent scientist of the Indian Gupta Renaissance, and the mathematician Brahmagupta (590-668) were cited early on by their Arabic counterparts. A famous translation into Arabic appeared around 777 under the title Zij al-Sindhind (or Indian Astronomical Tables). Sources indicate that this text was translated after the trip of an Indian astronomer invited to the court of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur in 770. The Arabs also adopted the sines (inherited from Indian mathematics) which they preferred to the chords used by Greek astronomers. From the same period, a collection of astronomical chronicles compiled over two centuries in Sassanid Persia and known in Arabic as the Zij al-Shah (or Royal Tables).

In the field of music, the Persian-born Arab musician Ishaq al-Mawsili (767-850), among others, can be mentioned. A composer of about two hundred songs, he was also a virtuoso on the oud (a kind of lute with a short neck but no frets). He is credited with the first system of codification of learned Arabic music.

The death of the Prophet Mohammed. Ottoman miniature painting from the Siyer-i Nebi, kept at the Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul (Hazine 1222, folio 414a) . circa 1595. Ottoman miniature painter 492 Siyer-i Nebi 414a

Respecting the visual arts, let us first stress that, contrary to the prevailing opinion, the Koran does not prohibit figurative images. There is no explicitly stated and universally accepted “ban” on images of living figures in Islamic legal texts. On the other hand, Islam, like other major religions, condemns the worship of idols.

From the eighth to the fifteenth century, numerous historical and poetic texts, both Sunni and Shi’a, many of which appeared in Turkish and Persian contexts, include admirable depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The purpose of these images was not only to praise and pay homage to the Prophet, but represent occasions and central elements for the practice of Muslim faith.

In this respect, the book by the German art historian Hans Belting with the catchy title Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance Art and Arab Science (2011) is not only misleading but downright outrageous. Belting presents “Islam” as an aniconic faith (banning all human and animal representations), while in reality, besides exquisite calligraphy and geometric patterns in search for the infinite, representations of men and animals are an essential part of Islamic artistic expression.

In addition, other religions have experienced strong outbreaks of iconoclasm. For example, and this is one of the reasons why so little is known about ancient Greek painting, between 726 and 843, the Byzantine Empire ordered the systematic destruction of images representing Christ or the saints, whether they were mosaics adorning church walls, painted images or book illuminations.

From there on, Belting, for whom Islam is in essence an aniconic civilization, has great difficulty in demonstrating what he announces in the title: the influence of Arab science (notably Ibn al-Haytam work on human vision) on the Renaissance in Florence (in particular its definition of “geometric perspective”). In fact, presenting himself as an erudite, peaceful and “objective” scholar, Belting’s book feeds into the bellicose thesis of a supposed “Clash” of civilizations, while claiming the opposite.

Frescos of the « desert castle » of Qusayr ‘Amra (Jordan).

The first manifestations of pictorial art in the Arab-Muslim world date back to the Omayyad period (660-750). It is from this period that date the famous “desert castles”, such as Qusayr ‘Amra, in Eastern Jordan. Covered with wall paintings, these palaces reflect a contribution of the Byzantine, but also Persian Sassanid modes of representation. Thus, in the palace of Qusayr ‘Amra, used as a resort by the Caliph or his princes for sport and pleasure, the frescoes depict constellations of the zodiac, hunting scenes, fruits and women in the bath.

In the field of literature, Al-Rashid built up a vast library including a collection of rare books as well as thousands of books that kings and princes of the ancient world offered him.

For example, Kalila and Dimna, also known as the Indian Fables of Bidpaï, one of the most popular works of world literature. Compiled in Sanskrit nearly two thousand years ago, these animal fables, from which Aesop and La Fontaine drew, were translated from China to Ethiopia. Translated into Arabic around 750 by Ibn al-Muqaffa, they were richly illustrated in the Arab, Persian and Turkish worlds. The oldest illustrated Arabic version was probably produced in Syria in the 1200s. The landscape is symbolized by a few elements: a strip of grass, shrubs with stylized leaves and flowers. Men and animals are represented with bright colors and simplified lines.

A true manual for the education for kings, one of the fables evokes the idea,



of creating a university dedicated to the study of languages, ancient and modern,
and to the preservation, in renewed forms, of the heritage of the human species…

Illustration of Kalima and Dimna.


And at the end of his story, the wise Bidpaï warns the young king Dabschelim:



I must insist on this last point: my stories do not require, at this stage, any commentary, any elucidation, any analysis on your part, on mine or on anyone else’s. Of all habits, the worst would be to waste the active substance in recipes for behavior. One must stubbornly resist the temptation to attach nice little rationalizations, snappy formulas, analytical summaries, symbolic markers or any other attempt of classification. Mental encapsulation perverts the remedy and renders it inoperative. It actually short-circuits the true purpose of storytelling, for to explain is to forget. It is also a form of hypocrisy – something toxic, an antidote to the truth. So let the stories you remember act on their own by their very diversity. Get familiar with them, but don’t make them a toy…



Also noteworthy is The Sessions of the poet and man of letters Al-Hariri (1054-1122) [*7], written at the end of the tenth century and which had a tremendous diffusion throughout the Arab world. The text, which recounts the adventures of the brigand Abu Zayd, is particularly suitable for illustration.

Al-Ma’mûn and the Houses of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma)

After a violent dispute with his brother who sought to remove him from power, Al-Ma’mûn, the youngest son of Al-Rashid, became the eighth Abbasid caliph in 813. He was particularly interested in the work of scholars, especially those who knew Greek. He gathered in Baghdad thinkers of all beliefs, whom he treated magnificently and with the greatest tolerance. They all wrote in Arabic, a language that allowed them to understand each other. He brought manuscripts from Byzantium to enrich the vast library of his father. Open to scholars, translators, poets, historians, physicians, astronomers, scientists and philosophers, this first public library became the basis of the Bayt Al-Hikma (the “Houses of Wisdom”) combining translation, teaching, research and even public health activities, long before the Western universities. It was here that all known scientific manuscripts of the time, especially Greek writings, were gathered for study.

In Baghdad, this cultural bubbling will not remain confined to the Court but will go down to the street as this description of Baghdad by Ibn Aqul (died in 1119) testifies:

“First there is the large space called the Bridge Square. Then the Birds’ Market, a market where one can find all kinds of flowers and on the sides of which are the elegant stores of the money changers. (…) Then the caterers’ market, the bakers’ market, the butchers’ market, the goldsmiths’ market, unrivaled for the beauty of its architecture: high buildings with teak beams, supporting corbelled rooms. Then there is the huge booksellers’ market, which is also the gathering place for scholars and poets, and the Rusafa market. In the markets of Karkh and the Gate of the Ark, the perfumers do not mix with the merchants of grease and products with unpleasant smells; in the same way the merchants of new objects do not mix with the merchants of used objects.”

Persia, the Nestorians and medicine

Ruins of Gondichapur (Iran)

As a model for the Houses of Wisdom, the Persian influence and precedents are often mentioned. It is true that the Barmakids, a family of Persian origin [*8], had a great influence on the first Abbasid caliphs.

In fact, al-Ma’mûn’s tutor was Jafar ben Yahya Barmaki (767-803), a member of the family of the Armenians and the son of the Persian vizier of his father Al-Rashid. The Persian elite who advised the Abbasid caliphs took a keen interest in the works of the Greeks, whose translation had begun during the reign of the Sassanid king Khosro I Anushirvan (531-579).

The latter founded the Academy of Medicine in Gondichapur. Many Nestorian (Christian) scribes and scholars had taken refuge there after the Council of Ephesus in 431. [*9]

The liturgical language of the Nestorians was Syriac, a Semitic dialect [*10].

A Tang Dynasty Chinese ceramic statuette of a Sogdian merchant riding on a Bactrian camel.

Like the Jews, these Nestorian Christians possessed a cosmopolitan culture and a knowledge of languages (Syriac and Persian) that enabled them to act as intermediaries between Iran and its neighbors. And thanks to their access to the wisdom of ancient Greece, they were often employed as physicians. [*11]

The Academy of Medicine of Gondichapur [*12] had reached its peak in the 5th century thanks to the Syriac scholars expelled from Edessa. In this school, medicine was taught based on the translations of the Greek scholar and physician Claudius Galen. These teachings were put into practice in a large hospital, a tradition taken up in the Muslim world. This school was a meeting place for Greek, Syriac, Persian and Indian scholars, whose scientific influence was mutual. Heir to the Greek medical knowledge of Alexandria, the school of Gondichapur trained several generations of physicians at the court of the Sassanid and later at that of the Muslim Abbasid. As early as 765, the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur, who reigned from 754 to 775, consulted the head of the Gondichapur hospital, Georgios ben Bakhtichou, and invited him to Baghdad. His descendants will work and teach medicine there. Long after the establishment of Islam, the Arab elites sent their sons to this Nestorian Christian school.

Timothy I (727-823) was the Christian patriarch of the Church of the East (“Nestorian”) between 780 and 823. His first decision was to establish the seat of his church in Baghdad, where it was to remain until the end of the thirteenth century, thus forging privileged links between the Nestorians and the Abbasid caliphs. A man with a good command of Syriac, Arabic, Greek and eventually Pehlevi, Timothy enjoyed the consideration of the Abbasid caliphs Al-Mahdi, Al-Rashid and Al-Ma’mûn.

During his forty-three years of pontificate, the Eastern Church lived in peace. Moreover, the Nestorians played a major role in the spread of Christianity in Central Asia as far as China via the Silk Road. In Central Asia, before the arrival of Islam, it was Sogdian, (the Iranian language of Sogdia and its capital Samarkand) that served as the lingua franca on the Silk Road. [*13]

Translating, understanding, teaching, improving

Scholars at an Abbasid library. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, 1237.

In Baghdad and Basra, in the Houses of Wisdom, the histories and texts collected after the collapse of the empire of Alexander the Great were translated and made available to scholars, texts initially collated and translated from Syriac into Persian under the aegis of the Sassanid emperors.

The Arab historian and economist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who came from a large Andalusian family of Yemeni origin, paid tribute to this effort to preserve and disseminate the Greek heritage: “What happened to the sciences of the Persians whose writings, at the time of the conquest, were annihilated by order of Omar? Where are the sciences of the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the inhabitants of Babylon? Where are the sciences that reigned among the Copts in the past? There is only one nation, that of the Greeks, whose scientific productions we possess exclusively, and that is thanks to the care that Al-Ma’mûn took in translating these works.”

These first translations into Arabic made available to the Arab-Muslim world hundreds of texts on philosophy, medicine, logic, mathematics, astronomy, music, etc., from Greek, Pehlevi, Syriac, Hebrew, Sanskrit, etc, including those of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Sushruta, Hippocrates, Euclid, Charaka, Ptolemy, Claudius Galen, Plotinus, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta.

An illustration of a self-trimming lamp from Ahmad’s (Banu Musa) On Mechanical Devices, written in Arabic.

They were accompanied by reflections, commentaries, translations of commentaries, etc. and gave rise to a new form of literature. According to the Nestorian patriarch Timothy I, it was at the request of the Caliph Al-Mahdi that he translated Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac into Arabic. He also wrote a treatise on astronomy entitled The Book of Stars, now lost.

An astrology and astronomy enthusiast, Al-Ma’mûn once made it a condition of peace with the Byzantine Empire to hand over a copy of the Almagest, Ptolemy’s main work, which was supposed to summarize all Greek astronomical knowledge. In 829, in the upper district of Baghdad, he built the first permanent observatory in the world, the Baghdad Observatory, allowing his astronomers, who had translated the Astronomical Treatise of the Greek Hipparchus of Nicaea (190-120 B.C.), as well as his star register, to methodically monitor the movement of the planets.

Here is what Sâ’id al-Andalusî (1029-1070) tells us about Al-Ma’mûn’s interest in astronomy and his efforts to advance it:

“As soon as Al-Ma’mûn became caliph, his noble soul made every effort to attain wisdom, and to this end he was particularly concerned with philosophy; moreover, the scholars of his time studied in depth a book by Ptolemy and understood the diagrams of a telescope that was drawn therein. So Al-Ma’mûn gathered all the great scholars present throughout the regions of the caliphate, and he asked them to build the same kind of instrument so that they could observe the planets in the same way as Ptolemy had done and those who had preceded him. The object was built and the scholars brought it to the city of al-Shamâsiyya in the region of Damascus in the Sham in the year 214 AH (829 AD). Through their observations they determined the exact duration of a solar year as well as the inclination of the sun, the exit of its center and the situation of its various faces, which allowed them to know the state and positions of the other planets. Then the death of the caliph al-Ma’mûn in 218 A.H. (833) put an end to this project, but they nevertheless completed the astronomical telescope and named it ‘the Ma’mûn telescope’”

Now, let me present you a short list of the main astronomers, mathematicians, thinkers, scholars and translators who frequented the Houses of Wisdom:

Al-Jahiz (776-867). The encyclopedic approach of this Mutazilite is conceived as « a necklace gathering pearls » or as a garden which, with its plants, its harmonious organization and its fountains, represents in miniature the whole universe. He sketches the principle of the evolution of species;

Al-Khwarizmi (780-850), (in Latin Algorithmus). This Persian mathematician and astronomer, according to some a Zoroastrian converted to Islam, would have been a follower of mutazilism. He is best known for having invented the method of solving mathematical problems, which is still used today and which is called algorithm. He studied for some time in Baghdad but it is also reported that he made a trip to India. Al Khawarizmi invented the word algebra (from the Arabic word j-b-r, meaning force, beat or multiply), introduced the Indian numerical system to the Muslim world, institutionalized the decimal system in mathematics, and formalized the testing of scientific hypotheses based on observations;

Sahl Rabban al-Tabari (786-845), a Jewish astronomer and physician whose name means “The son of the rabbi of Tabaristan”. His son Ali was the tutor of al-Razi (865-925). An alchemist who became a physician, he is said to have isolated sulfuric acid and ethanol and was among the first to advocate their medical use. He greatly influenced the conception of hospital organization in connection with the training of future doctors. He was the object of much criticism for his opposition to Aristotelianism;

Al-Hajjaj (786-823) made the first Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements from Greek. He also translated Ptolemy’s Almagest;

Al-Kindi (801-873) (known as Alkindus), considered the father of Arab philosophy, was a mutazilist. He was a prolific author (about 260 books) and explored all fields: geometry, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, physics, arithmetic, logic, music and psychology. Along with his colleagues, Al-Kindi was entrusted with the translation of the manuscripts of Greek scholars. After the death of Al-Ma’mun in 833, he was considered too much of a mutazilist, fell into disgrace and his library was confiscated;

The Banu Musa (“children of Moses”) brothers, three brilliant sons of a deceased astrologer, friend of the Caliph. Mohammed will work on astronomy; Ahmed and Hassan on the canals linking the Euphrates to the Tigris, a guarantee of the control and optimization of their respective floods. They published the Book of Ingenious Mechanisms, an inventory of new techniques and machines [*14];

Hunayn ibn Ishâk (808-873) (known as Iohannitius). This Nestorian Christian was entrusted by Al-Ma’mun with the task of overseeing the quality of translations; a physician, he translated some of the works of the Greek physician Claudius Galen;

Thabit ibn Qurra (836-901), a Syrian astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and musicologist;

Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912), a Greek Byzantine physician, also a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, naturalist and translator. A Christian of the Melkite Church, he spoke both Greek (his mother tongue) and Arabic, as well as Syriac. Considered, along with Hunayn ibn Ishaq, as one of the key figures in the transmission of Greek knowledge from Antiquity to the Arab-Muslim world. He was the translator of Aristarchus of Samos for whom the Earth revolved around the Sun and the author of a treatise on the astrolabe;

Ibn Sahl (940-1000), in the footsteps of Al-Kindi, wrote a treatise on burning mirrors and lenses around 984, explaining how they can focus light on a point. His work was perfected by Ibn Al-Haytam (965-1040) (Latin name: Alhazen), whose writings reached as far as Leonardo da Vinci, via the Commentaries of Ghiberti. In Ibn-Sahl, we find the first mention of the law of refraction, later rediscovered in Europe as the law of Snell-Descartes.

Drawn into Bagdad for the opportunities it offered, these scholars generally worked in teams in a totally interdisciplinary spirit. Al-Ma’mûn, monitoring the science projets and noting the contradictions that arose from the translations of Greek, Persian and Indian sources, fixed with the scholars the next great scientific challenges to be met:

–To obtain, thanks to more efficient astronomical observatories, tables of astronomical ephemerides [*15] of greater precision than those of Ptolemy;
–To calculate with precision the circumference of the Earth with more advanced methods than those of the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes (3rd century BC);
–Produce a world map integrating the latest geographical knowledge concerning the distances between cities and the size of the continents;
–Deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs that Al-Ma’mûn had discovered during his trip to Egypt.

Translations of Plato

Socrates and his Students, illustration from ‘Kitab Mukhtar al-Hikam wa-Mahasin al-Kilam’ by Al-Mubashir, Turkish School, (13th c).

By asserting that what had advanced science at this period was the rediscovery of Aristotle and his purely empiricist method, one forgets the rediscovery of Plato, whose dialectical and hypothetical method has often done more for science than blind empiricism.

Al-Kindi’s intense involvement in the Platonic tradition is reflected in his summaries of the Apology and the Crito, and in his own works that paraphrase the Phaedo or are inspired by the Meno and the Symposium. The Syrian scientist Ibn al-Bitriq, a member of Al-Kindi’s “circle” in Bagdad, translated the Timaeus.

Otherwise, the House of Wisdom’s top translator, Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his circle translated the Greek physician Claudius Galen’s commentaries on the Timaeus, especially his On what Plato said in the Timaeus in a medical way and his On the doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato. And from Hunayn’s own works, we know that some of his students translated Galen’s lost Greek summaries of Plato’s Cratylus, Sophist, Parmenides, Euthydemus, Republic and Laws. Finally, the physician al-Razi presented and commented on Plutarch’s treatise On the Generation of the Soul in the Timaeus.

Inter-religious dialogue:
possible for some, complicated for others

In the West, the name of Al-Kindi is best known in association with The Apology of Al-Kindi, an anonymous text of the time. It is probably a fictitious dialogue between two believers, one Muslim (Abdallah Al-Hashimi), the other Christian (Al-Kindi), both criticizing the other’s and praising one’s own religion and inviting the other to join him! This dialogue supposedly took place at the time of the caliph Al-Ma’mûn. What we know about the open-mindedness of the Caliph does not contradict this assertion. The earliest known mention of the existence of this Apology came to us from Al-Biruni (973-1048).

The manuscript of Al-Kindi’s Apology was translated into Latin in 1142 at the request of Peter the Venerable (1092-1156), grand abbot of the abbey of Cluny, the most powerful and important in Latin Europe. That same year, after visiting Toledo, he conceived the idea of a systematic refutation of the Muslim religion, which he considered heretical and errant.

Here is how he explains the translation he has just ordered of the Koran (the Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete) by a team of translators (including an Arab) brought together for the occasion:

Whether one gives the Mohammedan error the shameful name of heresy or the infamous one of paganism, one must act against it, that is, write. But the Latins and especially the moderns, the ancient culture perishing, according to the word of the Jews who once admired the polyglot apostles, do not know any other language than that of their native land. So they could neither recognize the enormity of this error nor stop it. So my heart was inflamed and a fire burned in my meditation. I was indignant that the Latins did not know the cause of such a perdition and their ignorance robbed them of the power to resist it; for no one answered, for no one knew. So I went to find specialists in the Arabic language which has allowed this deadly poison to infest more than half the globe. I persuaded them, by dint of prayers and money, to translate from Arabic into Latin the history and doctrine of this wretched man and his very law, which is called Koran”.

Accused hence “the Arabic language which allowed this deadly poison (Islam) to infest more than half of the globe”…

This declaration of war was undoubtedly required to motivate his troops. Let us recall that Eudes de Châtillon, the grand prior of the abbey of Cluny, who will become Pope Urban II in 1088, will be, in 1095, at the origin of the first crusade sending the bandits who ravaged France, to go and wage war elsewhere.

The decline and Al-Ghazali

Aristotle trying to explain the astrolab to his pupils. Miniature from The best rulings and the most precious sayings of Al-Moubachir, Arabic manuscript, 13th Century. Istanbul.

Let us return to the Abbasids. As we have said, with the arrival in power of Al-Mutawakkil in 847, mutazilism was removed from power and the Houses of Wisdom were reduced to simple libraries. This did not prevent a traveller, describing his visit to Baghdad in 891, from reporting that the city contained more than one hundred public libraries. Following the Bayt Al-Hikma model, small libraries were founded on every street corner of the city…

Entangled in endless theological debates between experts and won by sectarianism, the mutazilist elite cut itself off from a people who were losing confidence and eventually welcomed with a sense of relief the obscurantist doctrine of Al-Ghâzalî (1058-1111) (Latin name: Algazel), the worst enemy of the mutazilites.

Al-Ghâzalî proposed a radical solution: philosophy is only right when it agrees with religion – which, according to Al-Ghâzalî, is rare. This leads him to radicalize his position, and to attack more and more the Greco-Arab philosophy, guilty, in his eyes, of blasphemy.

Where someone like the Persian Ibn Sina (980-1037) (Latin name: Avicenna), author of the Canons or Precepts of Medicine (around 1020), crossed Greek philosophy and Muslim religion, Al-Ghazali wanted to filter the first through the second.

Hence his most famous and important work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, written in 1095. In it, he denounces the “pride” of the philosophers who claim to “rewrite the Koran” through Plato and Aristotle. Their error is above all a logical one, as the title of the book itself indicates, which underlines their “incoherence”: they want to complete the Koran with Greek philosophy, whereas the Koran comes later in history and therefore does not need to be completed. He therefore promotes a much more literal approach to the Koranic text, whereas Ibn Sina defended, cautiously it is true, a metaphorical approach. In truth, it is Aristotelianism and nominalism that triumph.

From the eleventh century onward, the Abbasid, whose Empire was fragmenting, called upon the Turkish Seljuk princes to protect them against the Shiites, supported by the Fatimid caliphate of Cairo. Gradually, the Turkish and Mongol troops, coming from Central Asia, ended up governing the security of the Abbasid caliph while letting him exercise his religious power.

Then, in 1258, they deposed the last caliph and confiscated his title of successor of the Prophet, which gave them religious power over the four schools of Sunnism. In order to subdue the Arab and Persian populations, the Seljuk Turks created the madrasa (Koranic school) where the conservative doctrine of Acharite Sunnism was taught to the exclusion of the dialectical Mutazilite theology, considered an ideological threat to Turkish authority over the Arabs.

The Abbasid Empire declined as a result of administrative negligence, abandonment of canal maintenance, flood-induced famine, social injustice, slave revolts, and religious tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. At the end of the 9th century, the Zendj, black slaves (from Zanzibar) who worked in the marshes of the lower Iraq, revolted several times, even occupying Basra and threatening Baghdad. The Caliph restored order at the cost of an unprecedentedly violent repression. The rebels were only crushed in 883 at the cost of many victims. The empire did not recover.

In 1019, the Caliph forbade any new interpretation of the Koran, radically opposing the Mutazilite school. This is a brutal stop to the development of critical thinking and intellectual and scientific innovations in the Arab Empire, the consequences of which are still felt today.

ASTRONOMY

Since the dawn of time (it is the case to say it), man has tried to understand the organization of the stars in the environment near the Earth.

Installations such as Stonehenge (2800 BC) in England allowed the first observers to identify the cycles that determine the place and the exact day when certain stars rise. All these observations posed paradoxes: around us, the earth appears relatively flat, but the Moon or the Sun that we perceive with the same eyes seem spherical. The Sun « rises » and « sets », our senses tell us, but where is the reality?

It seems that Thales of Miletus (625-547 BC) was the first to have really wondered about the shape of the Earth. He thought that the Earth was shaped like a flat disk on a vast expanse of water. Then Pythagoras and Plato imagined a spherical shape, which they considered more beautiful and rational. Finally Aristotle reported some observational evidence such as the rounded shape of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during eclipses.

The Greek scientist Eratosthenes (276 BC- 194 BC), chief librarian of the Alexandria library, then calculated the Earth’s circumference. He had noticed that at noon, on the day of the summer solstice, there was no shadow on the side of Aswan. By measuring the shadow of a stick planted in Alexandria at the same time and knowing the distance between the two cities, he deduced the circumference of the Earth with a rather astonishing accuracy: 39,375 kilometers against some 40,000 kilometers for current estimates.

Between Ptolemy’s Almagest and Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, as we have said, Arabic astronomy constitutes “the missing link”.

The original title of Ptolemy’s work is The Mathematical Composition. The Arabs, very impressed by this work, called it “megiste”, from the Greek meaning “very great”, to which they added the Arabic article “al”, to give “al megiste” which became Almageste.

It is important to know that Ptolemy never had the opportunity to re-read his treatise as a whole. After writing the first of the thirteen books of his work, the one on “The Fundamental Postulates of Astronomy”, Ptolemy passed it on to copyists who reproduced it and distributed it widely without waiting for the completion of the other twelve books…

Astrolabe made of brass by mathematician Ibrahim ibn Sa’id al-Shali. It is dated in the year 459 of the Hegira, corresponding to 1067 and was built in a Toledo workshop.

In the end, confronted with observations that called into question his own observations and in order to rectify his errors, Ptolemy wrote another work, after the Almagest, entitled Planetary Hypotheses. The author returned to the models presented in the Almagest while making modifications to the average motions (of the planets) to take into account the latest observations. However, his Planetary Hypotheses went beyond the mathematical model of the Almagest to present a physical realization of the universe as a set of nested spheres, in which he used the epicycles of his planetary model to calculate the dimensions of the universe. Finally, the Almagest also contains a description of 1022 stars grouped into 48 constellations.

Ptolemy also presents stereographic projection invented by Hipparchus, the theoretical basis for the construction of the astrolabe by Arab astronomers.

In the ninth century, when the Arabs became interested in astronomy, knowledge was based on the following principles summarized in the work of Ptolemy:

–Ignoring the assertions of Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) for whom the Earth revolved around the Sun, Ptolemy resumed in the second century AD the thesis of Eudoxus of Cnidus (approx. 400-355 BC) and especially Hipparchus (180 to 125 BC) to assert that the Earth is a motionless sphere placed at the center of the world (geocentrism);

–Ptolemy agreed with Plato, who was inspired by Pythagoras, that the circle was the only perfect form, and that the other bodies turning around the Earth did so according to circular and uniform trajectories (without acceleration or deceleration);

–Yet everyone knew that some planets do not follow these perfect rules. In the 6th century, the neo-Platonic philosopher Simplicius, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, wrote: “Plato then poses this problem to the mathematicians: what are the uniform and perfectly regular circular motions that should be taken as hypotheses, so that we can save the appearances that the wandering stars present?” ;

–In order to account for the « apparent retrograde motion » of Mars, Hipparchus will introduce other secondary perfect figures, again circles. The articulation and interaction of these “epicycles” gave the appearance of sticking with the observed facts. Ptolemy took up this approach;

–However, the more the precision of astronomical measurements improved, the more anomalies were discovered and the more it was necessary to multiply these interlocking “epicycles”. It quickly became very complicated and inextricable;

–The universe is divided into a sub-lunar region where everything is created and therefore perishable, and the rest of the universe, supra-lunar, which is imperishable and eternal.

Hipparchus of Nicea

Ptolemy’s Almagest in arab with figures of Hipparchus epicycles.

The Arab astronomers, for both religious and intellectual reasons that we mentioned at the beginning of this article, initially discovered and then, on the basis of increasingly detailed observations, challenged Hipparchus’ hypotheses, which were the basis of the Ptolemaic model.

Hipparchus imagined a system of coordinates for the stars based on longitudes and latitudes. We also owe him the use of parallels and meridians to locate the Earth as well as the division of the circumference into 360° inherited from the sexagesimal calculation (base 60) of the Babylonians.

In astronomy, his works on the rotation of the Earth and the planets are numerous. Hipparchus explains the mechanism of the seasons by noting the obliquity of the ecliptic: the inclination of the Earth’s axis of rotation. By comparing his observations with older ones, he discovered the precession of the equinoxes due to this tilt: the Earth’s axis of rotation makes a conical movement from East to West and of revolution 26,000 years. Thus in a few millennia, the North Pole will no longer be found with the North Star (Polaris) but with another star, Vega.

Based on Hipparchus, the Arabs perfected and fabricated an important instrument for measuring positions: the astrolabe. This “mathematical jewel” allows to measure the position of stars, planets, to know the time on Earth. Later, the astrolabe was replaced by more precise and easier to use instruments, such as the quadrant, the sextant or the octant.

With the manuscripts at their disposal in the Houses of Wisdom and the observatories of Baghdad and Damascus, the Arab astronomers had texts of an incredible richness but often in flagrant contradiction with their own observations of the movements of the Moon and the Sun. It is from this confrontation that later discoveries were born. The Arabs introduced a lot of mathematics to solve problems, especially trigonometry and algebra.

The Arab astronomers

In order to present the main Arab astronomers and their contributions, here is an excerpt from J. P. Maratray’s remarkable article L’astronomie arabe.

Al-Khwarizmi (783-850) called Algorithmi.
A mathematician, geographer and astronomer of Persian origin, he was a member of the « House of Wisdom ». He is one of the founders of Arab mathematics, inspired by Indian knowledge, in particular the decimal system, fractions, square roots… He is credited with the term “algorithm”. Algorithms are known since antiquity, and the name of Al-Khwarizmi (Algorithmi in Latin) will be given to these sequences of repeated elementary operations. He is also the author of the term “algebra”, which is the title of one of his works on the subject. He was also the first to use the letter x to designate an unknown in an equation. He wrote the first book of algebra (al-jabr) in which he described a systematic method of solving second degree equations and proposed a classification of these equations. He introduced the use of numbers that we still use today. These “Arabic” numbers are in fact of Indian origin, but were used mathematically by Al-Khwarizmi. He adopted the use of the zero, invented by the Indians in the 5th century, and adopted by the Arabs through him. The Arabs will translate the Indian word “sunya” by “as-sifr”, which becomes “ziffer” and “zephiro”. Ziffer will give “number”, and zephiro, “zero”. Al-Khwarizmi established astronomical tables (position of the five planets, the Sun and the Moon) based on Hindu and Greek astronomy. He studied the position and visibility of the Moon and its eclipses, the Sun and the planets. It is the first completely Arabic astronomical work. A crater of the Moon bears his name.

Al-Farghani (805-880) called Alfraganus (mentioned in Dante’s Commedia).
Born in Ferghana in present-day Uzbekistan, he wrote in 833 the Elements of Astronomy, based on the Greek knowledge of Ptolemy. He was one of the most remarkable astronomers in the service of Al-Ma’mûn, and a member of the House of Wisdom. He introduced new ideas, such as the fact that the precession of the equinoxes must affect the position of the planets, and not only that of the stars. His work was translated into Latin in the 12th century, and had a great impact on the very closed circles of Western European astronomers. He determined the diameter of the Earth, which he estimated at 10500 km. We also owe him a work on sundials and another on the astrolabe.

Al-Battani (850-929) called Albatenius.
He observed the sky from Syria. He is sometimes called “the Ptolemy of the Arabs”. His measurements are remarkably accurate. He determined the length of the solar year, the value of the precession of the equinoxes, the inclination of the ecliptic. He noted that the eccentricity of the Sun is variable, without going so far as to interpret this phenomenon as an elliptical trajectory. He wrote a catalog of 489 stars. We owe him the first use of trigonometry in the study of the sky. It is a much more powerful method than the geometrical one of Ptolemy. His main work is The Book of Tables. It is composed of 57 chapters. Translated into Latin in 1116 by Plato of Tivoli, it will greatly influence the European astronomers of the Renaissance.

Al-Soufi (903-986) known as Azophi.
Persian astronomer, he translated Greek works including the Almagest and improved the estimates of the magnitudes of stars. In 964, he published « The Book of Fixed Stars », where he drew constellations. He seems to have been the first to report an observation of the large Magellanic cloud (a nebula), visible in Yemen, but not in Isfahan. Similarly, we owe him a first representation of the Andromeda galaxy, probably already observed before him. He described it as « a small cloud » in the mouth of the Arabian constellation of the Great Fish. Its name (Azophi) was given to a crater on the Moon.

Al-Khujandi (circa 940- circa 1000).
He was a Persian astronomer and mathematician. He built an observatory in Ray, near Tehran, with a huge sextant, constructed in 994. It is the first instrument able to measure angles more precise than the minute of angle. He measures with this instrument the obliquity of the ecliptic, by observing the meridian passages of the Sun. He found 23° 32′ 19 ». Ptolemy found 23° 51′, and the Indians, much earlier, 24°. The idea of the natural variation of this angle never occurred to the Arabs. They discussed for a long time about the accuracy of the measurements, which made their science advance.

Ibn Al-Haytam (965-1039) called Alhazen.
A mathematician and optician born in Basra in present-day Iraq, he was asked by the Egyptian authorities to solve the problem of the Nile floods. His solution was the construction of a dam towards Aswan. He gave up in front of the enormity of the task (the dam was finally built in 1970!). Faced with this “failure”, he feigned madness until the death of his boss. He made a critical assessment of Ptolemy’s theses and those of his predecessors, and wrote Doubts on Ptolemy. He draws up a catalog of the inconsistencies, without however proposing an alternative solution. Among the inconsistencies he noted were the variation in the apparent diameter of the Moon and the Sun, the non-uniformity of the allegedly circular motions, the variation in the position of the planets in latitude, the organization of the Greek spheres. Observing that the Milky Way has no parallax, he placed it very far from the Earth, in any case further away than Aristotle’s sub-lunar sphere. Despite his doubts, he maintains the central place of the Earth in the universe. Ibn Al-Haytam takes up the work of Greek scholars, from Euclid to Ptolemy, for whom the notion of light is closely linked to the notion of vision: the main question being whether the eye has a passive role in this process or whether it sends a kind of fluid to “interrogate” the object. Through his studies of the mechanism of vision, Ibn Al-Haytam showed that the two eyes were an optical instrument, and that they actually saw two separate images. If the eye sent this fluid, one could see at night, he speculated. He understood that the sunlight reflected off the objects and then entered the eye. But for him, the image is formed on the lens… He took up Ptolemy’s ideas on the rectilinear propagation of light, accepted the laws of reflection on a mirror, and sensed that light has a finite, but very great speed. He studied refraction, the deviation of a light ray as it passes from one medium to another, and predicted a change in the speed of light as it passes. But he could never calculate the angle of refraction. He found that the phenomenon of twilight is related to the refraction of sunlight in the atmosphere, which he tried to measure the height, without success. Already known in antiquity, we owe him a very precise description and the use for experimental purposes of the dark room (camera obscura), a black room that projects an image on a wall through a small hole drilled in the opposite wall. The result of all this optical research is recorded in his Treatise on Optics, which took him six years to write and was translated into Latin in 1270. [*16] In mechanics, he asserted that an object in motion continues to move as long as no force stops it. This is the principle of inertia before the letter. An asteroid bears his name: 59239 Alhazen.

Al-Biruni (973-1048).
Certainly one of the greatest scholars of medieval Islam, originally from Persia, he was interested in astronomy, geography, history, medicine and mathematics, and philosophy in general. He wrote more than 100 works. He was also a tax collector and a great traveler, especially in India, where he studied language, religion and science. At the age of 17, he calculated the latitude of his native town of Kath (in Persia, now in Uzbekistan). At the age of 22, he had already written several short works, including one on cartography. In astronomy, he observed the eclipses of the Moon and the Sun. He is one of the first to evaluate the errors on his measurements and those of his predecessors. He noticed a difference between the average speed and the apparent speed of a star. He measured the radius of the Earth at 6339.6 km (the correct figure is 6378 km), a result used in Europe in the 16th century. During his travels, he met Indian astronomers who supported heliocentrism and the rotation of the Earth on its axis. He will always be skeptical, because this theory implies the movement of the Earth. But he will ask himself the question: « Here is a problem difficult to solve and to refute ». He believes that this theory does not lead to any mathematical problems. He refuted astrology, arguing that this discipline is more conjectural than experimental. In mathematics, he developed the calculation of proportions (rule of three), demonstrated that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is irrational (future number Pi), calculated trigonometric tables, and developed methods of geodesic triangulations.

Ali Ibn Ridwan (988-1061).
Egyptian astronomer and astrologer, he wrote several astronomical and astrological works, including a commentary on another book of Claudius Ptolemy, the Tetrabible. He observed and commented on a supernova (SN 1006), probably the brightest in history. Its magnitude is estimated today, according to the testimonies that have come down to us, at -7.5! It remained visible for more than a year. He explains that this new star had two to three times the apparent diameter of Venus, a quarter of the brightness of the Moon, and that it was low on the southern horizon. Other western observations corroborate this description, and place it in the constellation of the Wolf.

From the 11th to the 16th century.
After a first phase, more important observatories were built. The first of them, model of the following ones, is that of Maragheh, in the current Iran. Their purpose was to establish planetary models and to understand the movement of the stars. (…) The school thus constituted will have its apogee with Ibn Al-Shâtir (1304-1375). Other observatories will follow, such as the one in Samarkand in the 15th century, Istanbul in the early 16th century, and, in the West, the one of Tycho Brahe in Uraniborg (Denmark at that time) at the end of the 16th century. The new models were no longer Ptolemaic inspired, but remained geocentric. The physics of the time still refused to put the Earth in motion and to remove it from the center of the world. These models were inspired by the Greek epicycles, keeping the circles, but simplifying them. For example, Al-Tûsî proposes a system comprising a circle rolling inside another circle of double radius. This system transforms two circular motions into an alternating rectilinear motion, and explains the variations of the latitude of the planets. Moreover, it accounts for the variations of the apparent diameters of the stars. But to go further, it will be necessary to change the reference system, which the Arabs refused to do. This change will occur with the Copernican revolution, during the Renaissance, in which the Earth loses its status as the center of the world.

Al-Zarqali (1029-1087) said Arzachel.
Mathematician, astronomer and geographer born in Toledo, Spain, he discussed the possibility of the movement of the Earth. Like others, his writings will be known to Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. He designed astrolabes, and established the Toledo Tables, which were used by the great Western navigators such as Christopher Columbus, and served as a basis for the Alphonsine Tables. He established that the eccentricity of the Sun varies, more precisely that the center of the circle on which the Sun rotates moves periodically away from or towards the Earth. A crater of the Moon bears his name, as well as a bridge of Toledo on the Tagus.

Omar Al-Khayyam (1048-1131).
Known for his poetry, he was also interested in astronomy and mathematics. He became director of the Isfahan observatory in 1074. He created new astronomical tables even more precise, and determined the duration of the solar year with great accuracy, given the instruments used. It is more accurate than the Gregorian year, created five centuries later in Europe. He reformed the Persian calendar by introducing a leap year (Djelalean reform). In mathematics, he was interested in third degree equations by demonstrating that they can have several solutions (he found some of them geometrically). He wrote several texts on the extraction of the cubic roots, and a treaty of algebra.

Al-Tûsî (1201-1274).
Astronomer and mathematician, born in the city of Tus in present-day Iran, he built and directed the observatory of Maragheh. He studied the works of Al-Khayyam on proportions, and was interested in geometry. On the astronomical side, he commented on the Almagest and completed it, like several astronomers (Al-Battani…) before him. He estimates the obliquity of the ecliptic at 23°30′.

Al-Kashi (1380-1439).
Persian mathematician and astronomer, he witnessed a lunar eclipse in 1406 and wrote several astronomical works afterwards. He spent the rest of his life in Samarkand, under the protection of Prince Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) who founded a university there. He became the first director of the new observatory of Samarkand. His astronomical tables propose values with 4 (5 according to the sources) digits in sexagesimal notation of the sine function. He gives the way to pass from a system of coordinates to another. His catalog contains 1018 stars. He improves the tables of eclipses and visibility of the Moon. In his treatise on the circle, he obtained an approximate value of Pi with 9 exact positions in sexagesimal notation, that is to say 16 exact decimals! A record, since the next improvement of the estimation of Pi dates from the 16th century with 20 decimals. He leaves his name to a generalization of the Pythagorean theorem to any triangles. This is the Al-Kashi theorem. He introduced the decimal fractions, and acquired a great reputation which made him the last great Arab mathematician astronomer, before the West took over.

Ulugh Beg (1394-1449).
Grandson of Tamerlan, prince of the Timurid (descendants of Tamerlan). Viceroy from 1410, he acceded to the throne in 1447. He was a remarkable scholar and a poor politician, a position he delegated to devote himself to science. His teacher was Qadi Zada al-Rumi (1364-1436) who developed in him a taste for mathematics and astronomy. He built several schools, including one in Samarkand in 1420 where he taught, and an observatory in 1429. He worked there with some 70 mathematicians and astronomers (including Al-Kashi) to write the Sultanian Tables published in 1437 and improved by Ulugh Beg himself shortly before his death in 1449. The accuracy of these tables will remain unequaled for more than 200 years, and they were used in the West. They contain the positions of more than 1000 stars. Their first translation dates from around 1500, and was made in Venice.

Taqi Al-Din (1526-1585).
After a period as a theologian, he became the official astronomer of the Sultan in Istanbul. He built an observatory there with the aim of competing with those of European countries, including that of Tycho Brahe. The observatory was opened in 1577. He drew up the Zij tables (“the unbroken pearl”). He was the first to use comma notation, rather than the traditional sexagesimal fractions in use. He observed and described a comet, and predicted that it was a sign of victory for the Ottoman army. This forecast turns out to be erronous, and the observatory is destroyed in 1580… He then devotes himself to mechanics, and describes the functioning of a rudimentary steam engine, invents a water pump, and is fascinated by clocks and optics.

The destruction of the observatory of Istanbul marks the end of the Arab astronomical activity of the Middle Ages. It was not until the Copernican revolution that new progress was made, and what progress! Copernicus and his successors were certainly strongly inspired by the results of the Arabs through their works. Travel and direct contact between scientists of the time were rare. Since Westerners did not understand Arabic, Latin translations probably influenced the West, along with the works of some Greek philosophers who had questioned the central position of the Earth, as Aristarchus of Samos had proposed around 280 BC.

Arab observatories

Scale model of the giant sextant constructed inside the Maragheh observatory (1259).

The modern observatory, in its conception, is a worthy successor of the Arab observatories of the late Middle Ages. Unlike the private observatories of the Greek philosophers, the Islamic observatory is a specialized astronomical institution, with its own premises, scientific staff, teamwork with observers and theoreticians, a director and study programs. They have recourse, as today, to increasingly large instruments, in order to constantly improve the accuracy of measurements.

The first of these observatories was built during the reign of Al-Ma’mûn in Bagdad in the 9th century. We have already mentioned the observatory of Ray, near Tehran and second city of the Abbasid Empire after Baghdad, with its monumental wall sextant dating from 994. To these must be added the observatories of Toledo and Cordoba in Spain, Baghdad and Isfahan.

Finally, the one in Maragheh in the north of present-day Iran, built in 1259 with funds collected to maintain hospitals and mosques. Al-Tusi worked there. Then came the era of the observatory of Samarkand, built in 1420 by the astronomer Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), whose remains were found in 1908 by a Russian team.

Today’s museum in Maragheh, Iran.

Conclusion

Mongol siege of Bagdad of 1258

Much more than the crusades, it will be the Mongol offensives that will devastate entire sections of the Arab-Muslim civilization. Genghis Khan (1155-1227), to the great pleasure of some Westerners, will destroy the Muslim kingdoms of Khwarezm (1218) and Sogdia with Bukhara and Samarkand (1220). The great city of Merv in 1221. In 1238, his son will seize Moscow, then Kiev. In 1240, Poland and Hungary will be invaded. In 1241, Vienna was threatened.

Before bringing down the Song Dynasty in China in 1273, the Mongols turned against the Abbassid.

Hence, the Houses of Wisdom came to a brutal end on February 12, 1258 with the Mongol invasion of Baghdad led by Hulagu (Genghis Khan’s grandson), who killed the last Abbasid caliph Al-Mu’tassim (despite his surrender) and destroyed the city of Baghdad and its cultural heritage. Hulagu also ordered the massacre of the caliph’s entire family and entourage.

Mutazilism was banned and the magnificent collection of books and manuscripts in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad was thrown into the muddy water of the Tigris, which turned brown for a few days because of the inked papers of the books and manuscripts.

One report says that the Mongols exterminated twenty-four thousand scholars and an incalculable number of books were lost. Of Mutazilism, its doctrine was only known through the texts of the traditionalist theologians who had attacked it. It was only the discovery of the voluminous works of Abdel al Jabbar Ibn Ahmad in the 19th century that made it possible to understand the key role played my this current of thought in the Arab renaissance and the formation of current Muslim theology, whether Sunni or Shiite.

Closer to home, the Iraq war of 2003: until then, Iraq was the world’s largest publisher of scientific publications in Arabic. As a result of the chaos caused by a war waged in the name of “democracy” and “the war on terror”, both the National Library and the National Archives were looted and burned. The same happened to the Central Library of Pious Legacies, the Library of the Iraqi University of Sciences, as well as many public libraries in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. The same was true for the archaeological treasures of the Iraqi Museum and its library. It seems that some people have declared war on civilization.

British troops entering Bagdad in 1917.

NOTES:

  1. A theodicy or « righteousness of God ») is an explanation of the apparent contradiction between the existence of evil and two characteristics peculiar to God: his omnipotence and his goodness.
  2. Sumer. The natural environment of the Sumerian country was not really favorable to the development of a productive agriculture: poor soils with a high content of salts harmful to the growth of plants, very high average temperatures, insignificant rainfall, and flooding of rivers coming in the spring, at harvest time, and not in the fall when the seeds need them to germinate, as is the case in Egypt. It was therefore the ingenuity and relentless labor of Mesopotamian farmers that enabled this country to become one of the granaries of the ancient Middle East. From the 6th millennium BC, the peasant communities developed an irrigation system which gradually branched out to cover a large area, thereby taking advantage of the advantage offered to them by the extremely flat relief of the Mesopotamian delta, where there was no no natural obstacle to the extension of the irrigation canals over tens of kilometers. By regulating the level of water derived from natural watercourses to adapt it to the needs of crops, and by developing techniques aimed at limiting soil salinization (leaching of fields, practice of fallow), it was possible to obtain very high cereal yields.
  3. Khorassan is a region located in northeastern Iran. The name comes from the Persian and means « where does the sun come from ». It was given to the eastern part of the Sassanid Empire. Khorassan is also considered the medieval name of Afghanistan by Afghans. Indeed, this territory included present-day Afghanistan, as well as southern Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
  4. In the 10th century, the Persian medical scholar Mohammad Al-Razi describes the distillation of petroleum to obtain kerosene or « illuminating petroleum » in his Book of Secrets.
  5. Sanskrit is a language of India, among the oldest known Indo-European languages ​​(older even than Latin and Greek). It is notably the language of Hindu religious texts and, as such, it continues to be used as a cultural language, like Latin in centuries past in the West.
  6. Peshlevi or Middle Persian is an Iranian language that was spoken during the Sassanid era. She descends from Old Persian. Middle Persian was usually written using the Pahlevi script. The language was also written using the Manichean script by the Manichaeans of Persia.
  7. Abu Muhammad al – Qasim ibn ’Ali al – Hariri (1054–1122), Arab man of letters, poet and philologist, was born near Basra, in present-day Iraq. He is known for his Oaths and his maqâmât (literally fashions, often translated as assemblies or sessions), a collection of 50 short stories combining social and moral commentary with the brilliant expressions of the Arabic language. If the genre of maqâma was created by Badi’al – Zaman al – Hamadhani (969–1008), it is the sessions of al – Hariri that best define it. Written in a rhyming prose style called saj ’and interwoven with exquisite verse, the stories are meant to be entertaining and educational. Each of the anecdotes takes place in a different city in the Muslim world during the time of al – Hariri. They tell of an encounter, usually at a gathering of townspeople, between two fictional characters: the narrator al – Harith ibn Hammam and the protagonist Abu Zayd al-Saruji. Over the centuries, the work has been copied and commented on many times, but only 13 copies still in existence today have illuminations illustrating scenes from the stories. The manuscript presented here, executed in 1237, was both copied and illustrated by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, often considered the first Arab artist. It contains 99 miniatures of exceptional quality. No other known copy contains so much. The miniatures, recognized for their striking depiction of Muslim life in the 13th century, are considered to be the earliest Arab paintings created by an artist whose identity is known. Al – Wasiti, founder of the Baghdad School of Illumination, was also a remarkable calligrapher, as evidenced by his fine Naskhi style. The almost immediate popularity of the maqâmât reached Arab Spain, where Rabbi Judah al-Harizi (1165-c. 1225) translated the sessions into Hebrew under the title Mahberoth Itiel and subsequently composed his own Tahkemoni, or Hebrew sessions. . The work was also translated into many modern languages.
  8. The Barmecids or Barmakids are members of a Persian nobility family originally from Balkh in Bactria (north of Afghanistan). This family of Buddhist religious (paramaka means in Sanskrit the superior of a Buddhist monastery) who became Zoroastrians and then converted to Islam provided many viziers to the Abbasid caliphs. The Barmakids had acquired a remarkable reputation as patrons and are regarded as the main instigators of the brilliant culture which then developed in Baghdad.
  9. The Christological thesis of Nestorius (born c. 381 – died 451), Patriarch of Constantinople (428-431), was declared a heretic and condemned by the Council of Ephesus. For Nestorius, two hypostases, one divine, the other human, coexist in Jesus Christ. From the Eastern Church, Nestorianism was one of the historically most influential forms of Christianity in the world throughout late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, to India, China and Mongolia.
  10. Syriac (a form of Aramaic, the language of Christ) is alongside Latin and Greek the third component of ancient Christianity, rooted in Hellenism but also descended from Near Eastern and Semitic antiquity. From the first centuries, in a movement symmetrical to that of the Greco-Latin Christian tradition towards the west, Syriac Christianity developed towards the east, as far as India and China. Syriac is still today the liturgical and classical language (a bit like Latin in Europe) of the Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean and Maronite Churches in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and South India. Where is. Finally, it is the branch of Christianity most in contact with Islam in which he continued to live.
  11. In South-West Asia, the Greek influence remained alive in several cities under Christian influence: Edessa (now Urfa in Turkey), at the time capital of the county of Edessa, one of the first Eastern Latin states, the closest to the Islamic world; Antioch (now Antakya in Turkey); Nisibe (now Nusaybin in Turkey); Al-Mada’in (ie “The Cities”), an Iraqi metropolis on the Tigris, between the royal cities of Ctesiphon and Seleucia on the Tigris and Gondichapour (now in Iran) whose ruins remain. To this must be added the cities of Latakia (in Syria) and Amed (today Diyarbakir in Turkey) where there were Jacobite centers (Christians of the East, but members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, not to be confused with the Nestorians).
  12. The Gondishapour Academy was located in present-day Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran, near the Karoun River. It offered the teaching of medicine, philosophy, theology and science. The faculty was well versed not only in Zoroastrian and Persian traditions, but also taught Greek and Indian languages. The Academy included a library, an observatory, and the oldest known teaching hospital. According to historians, the Cambridge of Iran was the most important medical center in the Old World (defined as the territory of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East) during the 6th and 7th centuries .
  13. Sogdian is a middle Iranian language spoken in the Middle Ages by the Sogdians, a trading people who resided in Sogdiana, the historic region encompassing Samarkand and Bukhara and covering more or less present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. Before the arrival of Arabic, Sogdian was the lingua franca of the Silk Road. Sogdian traders settled in China and Sogdian monks were among the first to spread Buddhism there. As early as the 6th century, Chinese rulers appealed to the Sogdian elite to resolve diplomatic, commercial, military and even cultural issues, prompting many Sogdians to migrate from Central Asia and China’s border regions to major Chinese political centers.
  14. The Book of Ingenious Machines contains a hundred machines or objects, most of them due to the Banou Moussa brothers or adapted by them: funnel, crankshaft, conical ball valves, float valve and other hydraulic regulation systems, mask gas and ventilation bellows for mines; dredge, variable jet fountains, hurricane lamp, auto-off light, auto-powered; automatic musical instruments including a programmable flute.
  15. Astronomical ephemeris: registers of the positions of stars at regular intervals.
  16. Ibn Al-Haytam. In 2007, during a conference at the Sorbonne, I explored the use, by the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck (early 15th century), of a bifocal geometric perspective, wrongly qualified as « primitive », erroneous and intuitive, actually inspired by the work and binocular experiences of the Arab scholar Ibn Al-Haytam (Alhazen). The latter drew on the work of his predecessors Al-Kindi, Ibn Luca and Ibn Sahl. Alhazen was widely known in the West thanks to the translations of the Franciscans of the University of Oxford (Grosseteste, Bacon, etc.). See summary biography.

SUMMARY CHRONOLOGY:

  • 310-230 BC.: Life of the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos;
  • 190-120 BC.: life of the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea;
  • v. 100-160 : life of Roman astronomer Claudius Ptolemy;
  • 700-748: life of Wasil ibn Ata, intellectual founder of Mutazilism;
  • 750: beginning of the Abbasid dynasty;
  • 751: Abbasid victory against the Chinese at the battle of Talas (Kyrgyzstan);
  • 763: founding of Baghdad by Caliph Al-Mansur;
  • 780: Timothy I, patriarch of the Nestorian Christian church in Baghdad;
  • 780-850: life of the Arab mathematician al-Kwarizmi;
  • 786 to 809: caliphate for 23 years of Haroun al-Rachîd, legendary hero of the Thousand and One Nights tales. Development of mutazilism;
  • 801-873: life of the mutazilist and Platonic philosopher Al-Kindi;
  • 805-880: life of Al-Farghani, treatise on the Astrolabe;
  • 813-833: caliphate of Al-Ma’mûn (20 years);
  • 829: creation of the first permanent astronomical observatory in Baghdad followed by that of Damascus;
  • 832: creation of the public library and creation of the Maisons de la Sagesse;
  • 833: shortly before his death, Al-Ma’mûn decrees the created Koran and has mutazilism adopted as the official doctrine of the Abbasids;
  • 836: transfer from the capital to Samarra;
  • 848: the mutazilites removed from the Baghdad court;
  • 858-930: life of Al-Battani, known as Albatenius;
  • 865-925: life of translator and doctor Sahl Rabban al-Tabari;
  • 869-883: revolt of the Zanj (black slaves from Zanzibar);
  • 892: return from the capital of the Abbasids to Baghdad;
  • 965-1039: life of Ibn Al-Haytam, known as Alhazen;
  • 973-1048: life of Al-Biruni;
  • 1095: first crusade;
  • 1258: Baghdad sacked by the Mongols;
  • 1259: creation of the Maragheh Astronomical Observatory (Iran);
  • 1304-1375: life of Ibn Al-Shâtir;
  • 1422: creation of the Astronomical Observatory of Samarkand, capital of Sogdiana;
  • 1543: Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus publishes his De Revolutionibus;
  • 1917: British troops enter Baghdad;
  • 2003: looting and destruction by systematic arson of libraries and museums during the Iraq war.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  • Mutazilism, website of the Association for the Renaissance of Mutazilite Islam (ARIM);
  • Antoine Le Bail, Who are the mutazilites, sometimes called the « rationalists » of Islam ?, website of the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), Paris;
  • Richard C. Martin, Mark R. Woodward with Dwi S. Atmaja, Defenders of Reason in Islam, Mu’tazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol, Oneworld, Oxford, 1997;
  • Nadim Michel Kalife, The Lights of the First Centuries of Islam, on financialafrik.com, 2019;
  • Mahmoud Azab, A Vision of the Universality of Arab-Islamic Civilization, Oberta de Catalunya University, www.uoc.edu;
  • Sabine Schmidke, The People of Monotheism and Justice: Mutazilism in Islam and Judaism, Institute for Advanced Study, 2017;
  • Malek Chebel, Slavery in the Land of Islam, Fayard, Paris 2012;
  • Jacques Cheminade, Sublime words and idiocy by Nasr Eddin Hodja;
  • Jacques Cheminade, Proposals for an inter-religious dialogue;
  • Hussein Askary: Baghdad 767-1258 A.D., Melting Pot for a Universal Renaissance, Executive Intelligence Review, 2013;
  • Hussein Askary: The Beauty of the Islamic Renaissance, the Elephant Clock, S&P website;
  • Dr Subhi Al-Azzawi, The House of Wisdom of the Abbasids in Baghdad or the beginnings of the University, pdf on the internet;
  • Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arab Culture. The movement of Greco-Arabic translation in Baghdad and primitive Abbasid society (2nd-4th / 8th-10th centuries), Aubier, Paris 2005;
  • Jim Al-Khalili, The House of Wisdom, How Arab Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, Pinguin, London 2010;
  • Jonathan Lyons, The House of Wisdom, How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, Bloomsbury, London 2009;
  • Pastor Georges Tartar, Islamo-Christian Dialogue under Caliph Al-Ma’mûn, Les épitres d’Al-Hashimi and d’Al-Kindî, Nouvelles Editions Latines, Paris, 1985; –Al-Kindî, On First Philosophy, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1974; –Marie Thérèse d´Alverny, The transmission of philosophical and scientific texts in the Middle Ages, Variorum, Aldershot 1994;
  • Danielle Jacquart, Françoise Micheau, Arab medicine and the medieval West, Maisonneuve, Paris 1990;
  • Juan Vernet Gines, What culture owes to the Arabs of Spain, Sindbad, Actes Sud, Paris, 2000;
  • Karen Armstrong, Islam, A Short History, Phoenix, London, 2002;
  • Muriel Mirak Weisbach, Andalusia, a gateway to the Renaissance;
  • Régis Morelon, Eastern Arab Astronomy between the 8th and 11th Century, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 1, Astronomy, Theoretical and Applied, Seuil, Paris, 1997;
  • George Saliba, Planetary Theories in Arab Astronomy after the 11th Century, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 1, Astronomy, Theoretical and Applied, Seuil, Paris, 1997;
  • Roshi Rashed, Geometric Optics, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 2, Mathematics and physics, Seuil, Paris, 1997; –Jean-Pierre Verdet, A History of Astronomy, Seuil, Paris, 1990;
  • J. P. Maratray, Arab Astronomy, on the Astrosurf.com website;
  • Jean-Pierre Luminet, Ulugh Beg – The Astronomer of Samarkand, 2018;
  • Kitty Ferguson, Pythagoras, His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe, Walker publishing Company, New York, 2008;
  • Sir Thomas Heath, Aristarchus of Samos, The Ancient Copernicus, Dover, New York, 1981:
  • A. T. Papadopoulo, Islam and Muslim Art, The Art of Great Civilizations, Mazenod, Paris, 1976;
  • Olag Grabar, Art and Culture in the Islamic World, Arts & Civilizations of Islam, Köneman, Cologne, 2000;
  • Christiane Gruber, Images of Muhammad in Islam, Afkar / Ideas, Spring 2015;
  • Hans Belting, Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance art and Arab science, Harvard University Press, 2011;
  • Dominique Raynaud, Ibn al-Haytham on binocular vision: a precursor of physiological optics, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2003, 13, pp. 79-99;
  • Jonathan M. Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World, Yale University Press, 2001;
  • Karel Vereycken, Jan Van Eyck, a Flemish painter in Arabic optics, S&P website;
 
Merci de partager !
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La révolution du grec ancien, Platon et la Renaissance

Enseignement à l’Université de Bologne (Italie) avant 1400. Sans livres scolaires,
les élèves ont bien du mal à se concentrer.

Par Karel Vereycken,
peintre-graveur, zoographe, passionné d’histoire.

Des amis m’ont interrogé sur les conditions ayant conduit à la découverte de la philosophie grecque, en particulier les idées de Platon, et le rôle qu’a pu jouer la découverte du grec ancien pendant la Renaissance européenne.

On entend parfois dire que c’est à l’occasion des grands conciles oecuméniques de Ferrare et de Florence (1439) qu’en apportant avec lui les manuscrits grecs de Byzance, le cardinal Nicolas de Cues (Cusanus), avec ses amis Pléthon et Bessarion, aurait permis à l’Europe occidentale d’accéder aux trésors de la philosophie grecque, notamment en redécouvrant Platon dont les œuvres étaient perdues depuis des siècles.

C’est l’introduction par Nicolas de Cues de la vision positive de l’homme qui aurait suscité en partie la Renaissance. Comme preuve, le fait qu’après le Concile de Florence, les Médicis auraient été les premiers à financer la traduction de l’œuvre complète de Platon, une percée qui aurait permis à la Renaissance de devenir ce qu’elle est devenue.

Si tout ceci n’est pas entièrement faux, permettez-moi d’y apporter quelques précisions.

La Renaissance fut-elle le fruit du Concile de Florence ?

Coluccio Salutati, chancelier de Florence.

Pas vraiment. C’est le programme de renouveau des études grecques et hébraïques, lancé par Coluccio Salutati (1332-1406), futur chancelier de Florence, qui marqua le début du processus.

L’idée lui vient de Pétrarque et de Boccace. Avec Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), c’est sans doute le poète italien Pétrarque (1304-1374) qui incarne le mieux l’idéal qui animait les humanistes de la Renaissance.

Toute sa vie, il tenta de « retrouver le très riche enseignement des auteurs classiques dans toutes les disciplines et, à partir de cette somme de connaissances le plus souvent dispersées et oubliées, de relancer et de poursuivre la recherche que ces auteurs avaient engagée ». *

Après avoir suivi ses parents à Avignon, Pétrarque fit ses études à Carpentras où il apprit la grammaire, puis à Montpellier, la rhétorique, et enfin à Bologne, où il passa sept ans à l’école de jurisconsultes.

Cependant, au lieu d’étudier le droit qui ouvrait sur une belle carrière, Pétrarque, en secret, lira tous les classiques alors connus, notamment Cicéron et Virgile, malgré le fait que son père ait brûlé ses livres à l’occasion.

Barlaam de Seminara

L’évêque basilien Barlaam de Seminara, portant un sac d’épaule,
traverse une rivière. Haguenau, 1469. Encre et lavis sur papier.
Pétrarque

Sous le pontificat de Benoît XII, Pétrarque tenta d’acquérir les rudiments de la langue grecque grâce à un savant moine de l’ordre de Saint-Basile, Barlaam de Seminara (1290-1348), dit Barlaam le Calabrais, venu en 1339 à Avignon en tant qu’ambassadeur d’Andronic III Paléologue afin de tenter, en vain, de mettre un terme au schisme entre les Églises orthodoxe et catholique.

Philosophe, théologien et mathématicien, Barlaam, tout en ayant une connaissance limitée du grec et du latin, fut un des premiers à souhaiter que l’étude de la langue et de la philosophie grecques renaisse en Europe.

Dans son Traité sur sa propre ignorance et celle de beaucoup d’autres (1367), Pétrarque se déclara fier de ses manuscrits grecs – et de sa bibliothèque en général – et évoqua avec admiration Barlaam :

J’ai chez moi seize œuvres de Platon. Je ne sais pas si mes amis en ont jamais entendu nommer les titres […]. Et ce n’est là qu’une petite partie de l’œuvre de Platon, car j’en ai vu, de mes yeux, un grand nombre, en particulier chez le calabrais Barlaam, modèle moderne de sagesse grecque qui commença à m’enseigner le grec alors que j’ignorais encore le latin et qui l’aurait peut-être fait avec succès si la mort ne me l’eût ravi et n’eût fait obstacle à mes honnêtes projets, comme de coutume.

En 1350, c’est-à-dire deux ans après le décès de Barlaam, Pétrarque rencontra Boccace (1313-1375). Ce dernier, comme Pétrarque, se prit d’un vif amour pour le grec. Dans sa jeunesse, à Naples, il avait lui aussi rencontré Barlaam et appris quelques mots de grec, recopiant avec une émouvante maladresse des alphabets, des vers, y joignant la traduction latine et des indications de prononciation.

Le calabrais Léonce Pilate,
traducteur d’Euripide, d’Aristote et d’Homère.

Pour se remettre au grec, Boccace fit alors venir de Thessalonique un disciple de Barlaam, Léonce Pilate (mort en 1366), un personnage austère, laid et de fort mauvais caractère. Mais ce Calabrais lui expliqua l’Iliade et l’Odyssée d’Homère et lui traduisit seize dialogues de Platon. Comment se fâcher avec lui ?

Boccace le garda trois ans dans sa maison et fit créer pour lui, chose totalement nouvelle, une chaire de grec à Florence. Mais Pilate ne maîtrisait pas vraiment cette langue. Bien que se faisant passer pour un Grec de souche, l’homme n’avait qu’une maigre connaissance du grec ancien et ses traductions ne dépassèrent jamais le niveau du mot-à-mot. Quant aux leçons qu’il donna à Pétrarque, elles étaient si brutales qu’il l’en dégoûta pour toujours.

Ce qui ne l’empêchera pas, sur les instances de Boccace, de traduire l’Iliade et l’Odyssée d’Homère en latin à partir d’un manuscrit grec envoyé à Pétrarque par Nicolaos Sigeros, l’ambassadeur de Byzance à Avignon.

L’histoire étant ce qu’elle est, c’est grâce à cette traduction très imparfaite que l’Europe redécouvrit une des grandes œuvres fondatrices de sa culture !

Et sur ce terreau fragile s’élèvera une flamme qui va révolutionner le monde.

Ne fut-ce pas moi, écrit Boccace dans sa Généalogie des Dieux, qui eus la gloire et l’honneur de me servir le premier de vers grecs parmi les Toscans ? Ne fut-ce pas moi qui amenai par mes prières, Pilate à s’établir à Florence et qui l’y logeait ? J’ai fait venir à mes frais des exemplaires d’Homère et d’autres auteurs grecs alors qu’il n’en existait pas en Toscane. Je fus le premier des Italiens à qui fut expliqué, en particulier, Homère, et je le fis ensuite expliquer en public.

La chasse aux manuscrits

Le traité de Boccace, Des femmes célèbres. Il s’agit, dans la littérature européenne, de la première œuvre ne présentant que des biographies de femmes.

Ce qui importe, c’est qu’au cours de ces rencontres, Pétrarque créa un réseau culturel couvrant toute l’Europe, qui se prolongea jusqu’en Orient.

Il demanda alors à ses relations et amis, qui partageait son idéal humaniste, de l’aider à retrouver dans leur pays ou leur province, les textes latins des anciens que pouvaient posséder les bibliothèques des abbayes, des particuliers ou des villes. Au cours de ses propres voyages il retrouva plusieurs textes majeurs tombés dans l’oubli.

C’est à Liège (Belgique) qu’il découvrit le Pro Archia et à Vérone, Ad Atticum, Ad Quintum et Ad Brutum, tous de Cicéron. Lors d’un séjour à Paris, il mit la main sur les poèmes élégiaques de Properce, puis, en 1350, sur une œuvre du Quintilien. Dans un souci constant de restituer le texte le plus authentique, il soumet ces manuscrits à un minutieux travail philologique et leur apporte des corrections par rapprochements avec d’autres manuscrits. C’est ainsi qu’il recomposa la première et la quatrième décade de l’Histoire Romaine de Tite-Live à partir de fragments et qu’il restaura certains textes de Virgile.

Ces manuscrits, qu’il conserva dans sa propre bibliothèque, en sortirent par la suite sous forme de copies et devinrent ainsi accessibles au plus grand nombre. Tout en reconnaissant que « la vraie foie » manquait aux païens, Pétrarque estimait que lorsqu’on parle vertu, le vieux et le nouveau monde ne firent pas en lutte.

Le « Circolo di Santo Spirito »

Le couvent augustinien Santo Spirito de Florence.

A partir des années 1360, Boccace réunira un premier groupe d’humanistes connu sous le nom de « Circolo di Santo Spirito » (Cercle du Saint Esprit), emprunté au couvent augustinien florentin datant du XIIIe siècle.

Forme embryonnaire d’une université, son Studium Generale (reconnu en 1284) était alors au cœur d’un vaste centre intellectuel comprenant des écoles, des hospices et des réfectoires pour les indigents.

Avant son décès en 1375, Boccace, qui avait récupéré une partie de la bibliothèque de Pétrarque, léguera au couvent l’ensemble de cette précieuse collection de livres et manuscrits anciens.**

Ensuite, dans les années 1380 et au début des années 1390, un deuxième cercle d’humanistes s’y réunit quotidiennement dans la cellule du moine augustinien Luigi Marsili (1342-1394). Ce dernier, qui avait étudié la philosophie et la théologie aux universités de Paris et de Padoue, où il était déjà entré en contact avec Pétrarque en 1970, se lia rapidement d’amitié avec Boccace. En fréquentant à partir de 1375 le Cercle Santo Spirito, Salutati s’éprit à son tour d’un amour infini pour les études grecques.

En invitant à Florence le savant grec Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) pour y enseigner le grec ancien, c’est Salutati qui donnera l’impulsion décisive conduisant à la fin du schisme entre l’Orient et l’Occident et donc à l’unification des Églises, consacrée lors du Concile de Florence de 1439.

Un siècle avant Salutati, le philosophe et scientifique anglais Roger Bacon (1214-1294), un moine franciscain résidant à Oxford, auteur d’une de l’une des premières grammaires grecques, appela déjà de ses vœux une telle « révolution linguistique ».

Comme le précise Dean P. Lockwood dans son article Roger Bacon’s Vision of the Study of Greek (1919) :

« De toute évidence, le grec ancien était la clé de voûte du grand entrepôt des connaissances antiques, l’hébreu et l’arabe étant les deux autres. En outre, nous ne devons pas oublier qu’à l’époque de Bacon, la supériorité des anciens était un fait incontestable. Le monde moderne a surpassé les Grecs et les Romains dans d’innombrables domaines ; les penseurs médiévaux se rapprochaient encore du standard hellénique.« Trois choses étaient claires pour Roger Bacon : la nécessité de maîtriser la langue grecque, l’ignorance qu’on avait de cette langue à son époque et aussi, l’occasion réelle de pouvoir l’acquérir. On peut dire la même chose de l’hébreu, mais Bacon faisait passer, à juste titre, le grec en premier. Le programme de Bacon était simple :
1. Rechercher les Grecs byzantins natifs résidant en Europe, de préférence des grammairiens. Ils sont très peu nombreux, bien sûr, mais on peut les trouver dans les monastères grecs du sud de l’Italie.
2. A partir de ceux-ci et de toute autre source disponible, retrouver des livres en grec ancien. Si l’on réalisait ce programme, Bacon prophétisa avec confiance que les résultats ne se feraient pas attendre ».

Leonardo Bruni

Leonardo Bruni (manuscrit du XVe siècle).

Manuel Chrysoloras arriva à Florence à l’hiver 1397, un événement qui apparaîtra comme une nouvelle grande opportunité selon l’un de ses élèves les plus célèbres, le savant humaniste Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444). Celui-ci occupera le poste de chancelier de Florence lors du Concile qu s’y déroula. Bruni disait qu’il y avait beaucoup de professeurs de droit, mais que personne n’avait étudié le grec ancien en Italie du Nord depuis 700 ans.

En faisant venir Chrysoloras à Florence, Salutati permit à un groupe de jeunes, dont Bruni et Vergerio, la lecture d’Aristote et de Platon en grec original.

Aristote (la Logique) contre Platon (la Dialectique),
bas-relief de Luca della Robbia.

Jusque-là, en Europe, les chrétiens connaissaient les noms de Pythagore, Socrate et Platon par leurs lectures des pères de l’Eglise : Origène, Saint-Jérôme et Saint Augustin. Ce dernier, dans sa Cité de Dieu, n’hésite pas à affirmer que les « platoniciens », c’est-à-dire Platon et ceux qui ont assimilé son enseignement (Plato et qui eum bene intellexerunt), étaient supérieurs à tous les autres philosophes païens.

Comme nous l’avons démontré ailleurs, notamment dans notre étude sur Raphaël et l’École d’Athènes, c’est en grande partie la démarche philosophique optimiste et prométhéenne de Platon, pour qui la connaissance provient avant tout de la capacité d’hypothèse et non pas du simple témoignage des sens, comme le prétend Aristote, qui fournit la sève permettant à l’arbre de la Renaissance d’offrir à l’humanité tant de fruits merveilleux.

Le cercle d’Ambrogio Traversari

Buste d’Ambrogio Traversari au couvent Sainte-Marie-des-Anges.

L’élève le plus célèbre de Chrysoloras fut Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439) qui devint général de l’ordre des Camaldules. Aujourd’hui honoré comme un saint par son ordre, Traversari fut l’un des premiers à conceptualiser le type « d’humanisme chrétien » que promouvront le Cusain et plus tard Erasme de Rotterdam (qui forgea le concept de « Saint-Socrate » en unissant Platon aux Saintes Ecritures et aux Pères de l’Eglise), ainsi que celui qui se considérait comme son disciple, le bouillonnant François Rabelais.

Traversari, l’un des principaux organisateurs du Concile de Florence, fut également le protecteur personnel du grand peintre de la Renaissance Piero della Francesca et l’architecte du Dôme Filippo Brunelleschi.

Le couvent florentin Sainte-Marie-des-Anges.

Selon Vespasiano de Bisticci, l’historien de la cour d’Urbino, Traversari animait des séances de travail hebdomadaires sur Platon et la philosophie grecque au couvent florentin Sainte-Marie-des-Anges avec la fine fleur de l’humanisme européen dans le domaine des lettres, de la théologie, de la science, de la politique, de l’aménagement des villes et des territoires, de l’éducation et des beaux-arts. Parmi eux :

  • Le cardinal-philosophe allemand Nicolas de Cues ;
  • Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, le célèbre médecin et cartographe, lui aussi ami et protecteur de Piero della Francesca et de Léonard de Vinci ;
  • L’érudit collectionneur de manuscrits Niccolò Niccoli, conseiller de Côme l’ancien, héritier de l’empire industriel et financier des Médicis. Considéré à l’époque comme l’homme le plus riche d’Occident, il fut l’un des mécènes du sculpteur Donatello ;
  • Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, le futur pape humaniste Pie II ;
  • Le secrétaire apostolique du pape Innocent VII puis de ses trois successeurs, Leonardo Bruni, élève de Chrysoloras. Il succèdera à Coluccio Salutati à la chancellerie de Florence (1410-1411 et 1427-1444).
  • L’homme d’Etat italien Carlo Marsuppini, passionné de l’Antiquité grecque et successeur de Bruni, à sa mort en 1444, au poste de chancelier de la République de Florence.
  • Le philosophe, antiquaire et écrivain Poggio Bracciolini. Après avoir conseillé pas moins de neuf papes (!), il est nommé chancelier de la République de Florence suite à la mort de Marsuppini en 1453 ;
  • L’homme politique et ambassadeur Gianozzi Manetti. Amoureux du grec ancien et de l’hébreu, son cercle comprend Francesco Filelfo, Palla Strozzi et Lorenzo Valla. Valla ;

Manuel Chrysoloras à Florence

L’érudit grec Manuel Chrysoloras,
dessin de Paolo Uccello.

Chrysoloras ne resta que quelques années à Florence, de 1397 à 1400. Tout comme à Bologne, Venise et Rome, il y enseigna les rudiments du grec ancien. Parmi les nombreux jeunes qui profiteront de ses cours, plusieurs de ses élèves comptèrent parmi les figures les plus marquantes du renouveau des études grecques dans l’Italie de la Renaissance. Outre Leonardo Bruni et Ambrogio Traversari, on compte parmi eux Guarino da Verona et Palla Strozzi.

Chrysoloras se rendit à Rome à l’invitation de Bruni, à l’époque secrétaire du pape Grégoire XII. En 1408, le savant grec fut envoyé à Paris par l’empereur Manuel II Paléologue (1350-1425) pour une importante mission. En 1413, choisi pour y représenter l’Église d’Orient, il se rendit également en Allemagne pour une ambassade auprès de l’empereur Sigismond, dont l’objet est de décider du lieu du Concile sur l’union des églises, qui se tiendra à Constance en 1415.

Chrysoloras a traduit en latin les œuvres d’Homère et La République de Platon. Son Erotemata (Questions-réponses), qui fut la première grammaire grecque de base employée en Europe occidentale, circula d’abord sous forme de manuscrit avant d’être publiée en 1484.

Réimprimée à de multiples reprises, elle connut un succès considérable non seulement auprès de ses élèves à Florence, mais également auprès des humanistes les plus éminents de l’époque, dont Thomas Linacre à Oxford et Erasme lorsqu’il résida à Cambridge. Son texte devint le manuel de base des élèves du fameux « Collège Trilingue » créé en 1515 par Erasme à Louvain en Belgique.

Un cercle d’étude à la Renaissance.

Traversari rencontra Chrysoloras à l’occasion des deux séjours qu’il fit à Florence pendant l’été 1413, puis en janvier-février 1414, et le vieux lettré byzantin fut impressionné par la culture bilingue du jeune moine. Il lui adressera une longue lettre philosophique en grec sur le thème de l’amitié. Ambrogio lui-même exprima dans ses lettres la plus grande considération pour Chrysoloras et son émotion pour la bienveillance qu’il lui avait témoigna.

Notons également que le riche érudit humaniste Niccolò Niccoli, grand collectionneur de livres, ouvrit sa bibliothèque à Traversari et le mit en relation avec les cercles érudits de Florence (notamment Leonardo Bruni, et aussi Côme de Médicis dont il était le conseiller), de Rome et de Venise.

En 1423, le pape Martin V envoie deux lettres, l’une au prieur du couvent Sainte-Marie-des-Anges, le Père Matteo, l’autre à Traversari lui-même, exprimant son soutien au grand développement des études patristiques dans cet établissement, et tout particulièrement au travail de traduction des Pères grecs mené par Traversari.

Le pape avait en vue les négociations qu’il allait mener avec l’Église grecque : début 1423, son légat Antoine de Massa rapporta de Constantinople plusieurs manuscrits grecs qu’il confia à Traversari pour traduction : notamment l’Adversus Græcos de Manuel Calécas, et pour les classiques les Vies et doctrines des philosophes illustres de Diogène Laërce, qui ne sera longtemps diffusé que dans la traduction latine de Traversari.

C’est suite à ce travail que Traversari manifesta son intérêt à voir résolu le schisme entre les Eglises latine et grecque. Fin 1423, Niccolò Niccoli procura à Traversari un vieux volume contenant tout le corpus des anciens canons ecclésiastiques. Le savant moine exprima dans sa correspondance avec l’humaniste son enthousiasme de pouvoir se plonger dans la vie de l’Église chrétienne antique alors unie. Sur sa lancée il traduira en grec une longue lettre du pape Grégoire le Grand aux prélats d’Orient.

Bessarion et Pléthon furent-ils les premiers à introduire l’ensemble de l’œuvre de Platon en Europe ?

Giovanni Aurispa, traducteur de Platon.

Pas vraiment. Si Jean Bessarion (1403-1472) apporta effectivement en 1437 sa propre collection des « œuvres complètes de Platon » à Florence, elles avaient déjà été introduites plus tôt en Italie, notamment en 1423 par le Sicilien Giovanni Aurispa (1376-1459), le précepteur de Lorenzo Valla (un autre collaborateur du Cusain, avec lequel il dénonça la fraude de la « Donation de Constantin » et dont les travaux influenceront fortement Erasme). 

En 1421, Aurispa, travaillant avec Traversari, fut envoyé par le pape Martin V afin de servir de traducteur au marquis Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, en mission diplomatique auprès de l’empereur byzantin Manuel II Paléologue. Sur place, Aurispa gagna la faveur du fils et successeur de l’empereur, Jean VIII Paléologue (1392-1448), qui fit de lui son secrétaire. Deux ans plus tard, Aurispa accompagnera l’empereur byzantin dans une mission à la cour d’Europe.

Jean VIII Paléologue, ici représenté comme le roi Balthazar,
fresque de Benozzo Gozzoli.

Le 15 décembre 1423, 16 ans avant le Concile de Florence de 1439, Aurispa arriva à Venise avec la plus grande et la plus belle collection de textes grecs à pénétrer en Occident ; donc avant ceux apportés par Bessarion.

En réponse à une lettre de Traversari, il précisa avoir ramené 238 manuscrits. Ceux-ci contenaient toutes les œuvres de Platon, dont la plupart jusqu’alors n’étaient connues que très partiellement ou pas du tout en Occident, à quelques exceptions près. Par exemple, en Sicile, dès 1160, Henri Aristippe de Calabre (1105-1162) avait traduit en latin le Phèdre et le Ménon, deux dialogues de Platon.

Le virus du néo-platonisme

Les authentiques platoniciens (tels que Pétrarque, Traversari, Nicolas de Cues ou Erasme), s’opposèrent avec force aux « néo-platoniciens » (tels que Plotin, Proclus, Jamblique, le Ficin et autres Pic de la Mirandole) dont l’influence suscitera ce que l’on peut et doit appeler une « contre-Renaissance ».

Quelques siècles plus tard, le philosophe humaniste Leibniz mettra lui aussi fortement en garde contre les « néo-platoniciens » et exigera que l’on étudie Platon dans ses écrits originaux plutôt qu’à travers ses commentateurs, aussi brillants soient-ils :

« Non ex Plotino aut Marsilio Ficino, qui mira semper et mystica affectantes diceren tanti uiri doctrinam corrupere. » Il faut étudier Platon, dit-il, « mais non pas Plotin ou le Ficin, qui, en s’efforçant toujours de parler merveilleusement et mystiquement, corrompent la doctrine d’un si grand homme. »

Examinons maintenant, dans ce contexte, la figure de Pléthon, qui estimait que Platon et Aristote pouvaient jouer chacun leur propre rôle.

George Gemistos Pléthon,
fresque de Benozzo Gozzoli.

George Gemistos « Pléthon » (1355-1452), fut un disciple du neo-platonicien radical Michael Psellos (1018-1080).

Vers 1410, Gemistos ouvrit son académie « néo-platonicienne » à Mistra (près du site de l’ancienne Sparte) et ajouta « Pléthon » à son nom pour ressembler à Platon. A part Platon, il admirait aussi Pythagore et les « Oracles chaldéens », qu’il attribua à Zoroastre.

Alors que la plupart des écrits de Pléthon, soupçonné d’hérésie, furent brûlés, une partie de son œuvre finira entre les mains de son ancien élève, le cardinal Jean Bessarion. Ce dernier, avant de mourir, légua sa vaste collection de manuscrits et de livres à la bibliothèque Saint-Marc de Venise (ville où résidaient plus de 4000 Grecs). Parmi ces livres et manuscrits se trouvait le Résumé des Doctrines de Zoroastre et de Platon. Ce texte, un mélange de croyances polythéistes et d’éléments néo-platoniciens, était un résumé que Pléthon avait écrit en partant de l’œuvre de Platon, Les Lois.

Jean Bessarion, ce véritable humaniste qui participa au Concile de Ferrare (1437) et de Florence (1439), en tant que représentant des Grecs et a signa le décret de l’Union, il s’en tint au principe :

« J’honore et respecte Aristote, j’aime Platon » (colo et veneror Aristotelem, amo Platonem).

Pour lui, la pensée platonicienne ne serait acceptable pour le monde latin (Occident) que lorsqu’elle obtiendrait le même droit que la pensée aristotélicienne en apparaissant comme une interprétation irénique de l’aristotélisme, sans être en contradiction avec le christianisme.

Les Médicis financèrent-ils un programme intensif pour traduire les œuvres de Platon ?

Côme de Médicis.

En 1397, le banquier et industriel Giovannni « di Bicci » de’ Medici (1360-1429) fonda la Banque des Médicis. Giovanni possédait deux manufactures de laine à Florence et fut membre de deux guildes : l’Arte della Lana et l’Arte del Cambio. En 1402, il fut l’un des juges du jury qui sélectionna le projet du sculpteur Lorenzo Ghiberti pour les magnifiques bas-reliefs en bronze des portes du Baptistère de Florence.

En 1418, Giovanni di Bicci, souhaitant doter les Medicis de leur propre église familiale, confia à Filippo Brunelleschi, futur réalisateur du Duomo, la fameuse coupole de la cathédrale de Santa Maria del Fioro, le Duomo, le soin de transformer radicalement l’église basilique de San Lorenzo et chargea Donatello de réaliser les sculptures.

Politiquement, la puissante famille des Médicis, actifs dans la finance et l’industrie textile, n’accéda au pouvoir qu’en 1434, trois ans avant le Concile de Florence alors que la Renaissance battait déjà son plein.

Certes, le fils et héritier de Giovanni di Bicci, Cosimo (Côme) di Medici (1389-1464), connu comme l’homme le plus riche de son siècle, fut si enthousiasmé par les paroles de Pléthon qu’il acquit une bibliothèque complète de manuscrits grecs. Il lui acheta également un ensemble de 24 dialogues de Platon, ainsi qu’un exemplaire du Corpus Hermeticum d’Hermès Trismégiste l’Égyptien (entre 100 et 300 après JC.), trouvé en Macédoine par un moine italien, Leonardo de Pistoia.

Cosimo songea à traduire du grec ancien au latin la totalité des œuvres de Platon. Cependant, comme nous l’avons déjà dit, Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), chancelier de la république florentine de 1427 à 1444, avait déjà traduit bien avant une grande partie des œuvres de Platon du grec ancien vers le latin.

Cosimo choisit comme traducteur Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), le fils de son médecin personnel, âgé seulement de cinq ans au moment du Concile de Florence en 1439. Ayant de sérieux doutes sur les capacités du Ficin lorsque ce dernier lui offre en 1456 sa première traduction, Les institutions platoniques, Cosimo lui demanda de ne pas publier cet ouvrage et d’apprendre d’abord la langue grecque… que le Ficin apprit auprès du savant byzantin Jean Argyropoulos (1395 -1487), un élève aristotélicien de Bessarion.

Avancé en âge et gagné par la corruption, Cosimo lui donna finalement le poste. Il lui alloue une bourse annuelle, les manuscrits nécessaires et une villa à Careggi, un quartier de Florence, où le Ficin fonda son « Académie platonicienne » avec une poignée d’adeptes, parmi lesquels Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), Jean Pic de la Mirandole (1463-1494) et Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498).

Marsilio Ficino (à gauche) avec ses disciples.

L’Académie du Ficin, reprenant (comme il le dit lui-même) l’ancienne tradition néo-platonicienne de Plotin et de Porphyre organisait chaque année, le 7 novembre, un banquet cérémonial « négligé depuis mille deux cents ans ». Cette date correspondait, selon lui, à la fois à l’anniversaire de Platon et de sa mort.

Après le dîner, les participants lisaient le Symposium de Platon, puis chacun d’entre eux commentait l’un des discours de l’œuvre. Il s’agissait de démonstrations sans véritable dialogue et dépourvus de l’essence de toute vraie dialectique socratique : l’ironie.

En outre, il est à noter que la plupart des réunions de l’Académie du Ficin avaient lieu en présence de l’ambassadeur de Venise à Florence, en particulier le puissant oligarque Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), père du cardinal « poète » Pietro Bembo, plus tard conseiller spécial du pape guerrier, le génois Jules II.

C’est cette alliance formée par la famille des Médicis, de plus en plus dégénérée, des Vénitiens et des néo-platoniciens qui permit de consolider une emprise oligarchique sur l’Église catholique romaine.

Les Médicis eurent peu de considération pour Léonard de Vinci dont ils jugeaient trop lente l’exécution de ses œuvres et ses fresques défaillantes techniquement. Déçu de n’obtenir aucune commande de la part du pape, Léonard se rendit en France où le roi François Ier l’attendait.

Giorgio Vasari, peintre médiocre, fut l’homme orchestre des Médicis. Dans sa Vies des peintres, il répandit le mythe que la Renaissance fut le bébé quasi-exclusif des ses employeurs.

Soulignons également qu’avant de traduire les œuvres de Platon, et à la demande expresse de Cosimo, le Ficin traduira d’abord (en 1462) les Hymnes orphiques, les Dictons de Zoroastre et le Corpus Hermeticum d’Hermès Trismégiste.

Ce n’est qu’en 1469 (trente ans après le Concile de Florence) que le Ficin achèvera ses traductions de Platon après une dépression nerveuse en 1468, décrite par ses contemporains comme une crise de « profonde mélancolie ».

En 1470, sous le titre plagié de Proclus, le Ficin écrivit sa Théologie platonicienne de l’immortalité des âmes. Bien que complètement gagné au néo-platonisme ésotérique, il devint prêtre en 1473 et écrira son Livre de la religion chrétienne sans renoncer à sa vision païenne néo-platonicienne, puisqu’il entreprit alors toute une nouvelle série de traductions des néo-platoniciens d’Alexandrie : les cinquante-quatre livres des Ennéades de Plotin ainsi que les œuvres de Porphyre et de Proclus.

Le Ficin, dans ses « Cinq questions concernant l’esprit », s’attaqua explicitement à la conception prométhéenne de l’homme :

Rien n’est plus déraisonnable que l’homme qui, par la raison, est le plus parfait de tous les animaux, non, de toutes les choses du ciel, le plus parfait, dis-je, par rapport à cette perfection formelle qui nous est donnée dès le commencement, que l’homme, également par la raison, devrait être le moins parfait de tous par rapport à cette perfection finale pour laquelle la première perfection est donnée. Cela semble être celui du plus malheureux Prométhée. Instruit par la sagesse divine de Pallas, il a pris possession du feu céleste, c’est-à-dire de la raison. C’est à cause de cette possession, sur le plus haut sommet de la montagne, c’est-à-dire à la place la plus élevée de la contemplation, qu’il est à juste titre jugé le plus misérable de tous, car il est rendu misérable par le rongement continuel du plus vorace des vautours, c’est-à-dire par le tourment de l’enquête… 

(…) Que disent les philosophes de ces choses ? Certainement que les Mages, disciples de Zoroastre et d’Ostanès, affirment quelque chose de similaire. Ils disent que, à cause d’une certaine vieille maladie de l’esprit humain, tout ce qui est très malsain et difficile nous arrive…

L’Académie néo-platonicienne florentine, soutenue par le flamboyant Lorenzo de Médicis (1449-1492) dit « Laurent le Magnifique », ne fut jamais à l’origine d’une quelconque Renaissance. Bien au contraire, elle servira d’opération « delphique » : défendre Platon pour mieux le détruire ; le louer en des termes tels qu’il en devienne discrédité.

Et surtout détruire l’influence de Platon en opposant la religion à la science, à un moment où Nicolas de Cues et ses partisans réussirent à fertiliser l’une avec la semence de l’autre. N’est-il pas étrange que le nom du Cusain n’apparaisse pas une seule fois dans les œuvres du Ficin ou de Pic de la Mirandole, si érudits ?

Infecté par ce néo-platonisme ésotérique, Thomaso Inghirami (1470-1516), le bibliothécaire en chef du pape Jules II, n’accomplira rien d’autre que cela en dictant au peintre Raphaël le contenu des Stanze (chambres) au Vatican quelques décennies plus tard.

La « mélancolie » néo-platonicienne, que l’ami d’Erasme, le peintre-graveur Albrecht Dürer, prendra comme thème de sa célèbre gravure, deviendra la matrice philosophique des romantiques, des symbolistes et de l’école dite moderne.

Quant à la révolution que susciteront les études grecques dans les sciences, j’ai eu l’occasion d’expliquer la question dans mon texte « 1512-2012 : De la cosmographie aux cosmonautes, Gérard Mercator et Gemma Frisius ».

Humanistes et traducteurs

Pour conclure, voici une courte liste de traducteurs (il en manque certainement) et des langues étrangères qu’ils maîtrisaient.

Remercions-les pour tout ce qu’ils nous ont apporté. Sans eux, l’homme n’aurait certainement pas pu poser le pied sur la Lune !

  • Cicéron, 106-43 av. JC. : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Philon d’Alexandrie, vers 20 av. JC- 45 apr. JC : hébreu, grec ;
  • Origène, v. 185-v. 253 après JC. : grec, latin ;
  • Saint Jérôme (de Stridon), 342-420 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Boëce, 477-524 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Bède le Vénérable, 672-735 : anglais, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Charlemagne, 742-814, parlait couramment le latin et connaissait le grec, l’hébreu, le syriaque et l’esclavon (l’ancien serbo-croate) ;
  • Jean Scot Erigène, 800-876 : irlandais, grec, arabe et hébreu ;
  • Hunayn ibn Ishaq, 809-873 : arabe, syriaque, persan et grec ;
  • Thabit ibn Qurra, 826-901 : syriaque, arabe et grec ;
  • Al-Fârâbi, 872-950 : farsi, sogdien et grec ;
  • Al-Biruni, 973-1048, chorasmien, farsi, arabe, syriaque, sanskrit, hindi, hébreu et grec ;
  • Héloïse, 1092-1141 : français, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Hugues de Saint Victor, 1096-1141 : français, latin, grec ;
  • Constantin l’Africain, XIe siècle. : arabe, latin, grec et italien ;
  • Jean Sarrazin, XIIe siècle : latin et grec ;
  • Henri Aristippe, 1105-1162 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Gérard de Crémone, 1114-1187 : Italien, latin et arabe ;
  • Robert Grosseteste, 1168-1253 : anglais, latin et grec;
  • Michael Scot, 1175-1232 : écossais, latin, grec, hébreu et arabe;
  • Moïse de Bergame, XIIe siècle : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Burgundio de Pise, XIIe siècle : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Jacques de Venise, mort après 1147 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Roger Bacon, 1214-1294 : anglais, latin, grec, hébreu, arabe et chaldéen ;
  • Guillaume de Moerbeke, 1215-1286 : flamand, latin et grec ;
  • Raymond Lulle, 1232-1315 : catalan, latin et arabe ;
  • Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321 : italien et latin
  • Léonce Pilate, (?-1366) : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Francesco Pétrarque, 1304-1374 : Italien, latin et notions de grec ;
  • Giovanni Boccaccio (Bocace), 1313-1375 : italien, latin et notions de grec ;
  • Coluccio Salutati, 1331-1406 : italien et latin ;
  • Geert Groote, 1340-1384 : néerlandais, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Florens Radewijns, 1350-1400 : néerlandais et latin ;
  • Manuel Chrysoloras, 1355-1415 : grec, latin et italien ;
  • Jacopo d’Angelo, 1360-1410, italien, latin, grec ;
  • Georgius Gemistus Pléthon, 1360-1452 : grec ;
  • Pier Paolo Vergerio (l’Ancien), 1370-1445 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Leonardo Bruni, 1370-1441 : italien, latin, grec, hébreu et arabe ;
  • Guarino Guarini (de Vérone), 1370-1460 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Palla di Onorio Strozzi, 1372-1462 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Giovanni Aurispa, 1376-1459 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Vittorino da Feltre, 1378-1446 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Poggio Bracciolini, 1380-1459 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Ambrogio Traversari, 1386-1439 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Gianozzo Manetti, 1396-1459 : italien, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Jean Argyropoulos, 1395-1487 : grec, italien et latin ;
  • Georges de Trébizonde, 1396-1472 : grec, latin et italien ;
  • Tommaso Parentucelli (pape Nicolas V), 1397-1494 : italien et latin ;
  • Francesco Filelfo, 1398-1481 : Italien, latin et grec ;
  • Carlo Marsuppini, 1399-1453 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Théodore de Gaza, 1400-1478 : grec et latin ;
  • Jean Bessarion, 1403-1472 : grec, latin et italien ;
  • Lorenzo Valla, 1407-1457 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Nicolas de Cues, 1401-1464 : allemand, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • John Wessel Gansfoort, 1419-1489 : néerlandais, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Georg von Peuerbach, 1423-1461 : allemand, latin et grec ;
  • Démétrios Chalcondyle, 1423-1511 : grec et latin ;
  • Marcilio Ficino, 1433-1499 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Constantin Lascaris, 1434-1501 : grec, latin, italien ;
  • Regiomontanus, 1436-1476 : allemand, latin et grec ;
  • Alexander Hegius, 1440-1498 : néerlandais, latin et grec ;
  • Rudolf Agricola, 1444-1485 : néerlandais, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Janus Lascaris, 1445-1535 : grec et latin ;
  • William Grocyn, 1446-1519, anglais, latin et grec ;
  • Angelo Poliziano, 1454-1494 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Johannes Reuchlin, 1455-1522 : allemand, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Thomas Linacre, 1460-1524 : anglais, latin et grec ;
  • Erasme de Rotterdam, 1467-1536 : néerlandais, français, latin et grec ;
  • Guillaume Budé, 1467-1540 : français, latin et grec ;
  • William Latimer, 1467-1545 : anglais, latin et grec ;
  • Willibald Pirckhimer, 1470-1530 : allemand, latin et grec ;
  • Marcus Musurus, 1470-1517, italien, latin et grec ;
  • Thomas More, 1478-1535 : anglais, latin et grec ;
  • Pietro Bembo, 1470-1547 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Jérôme Aléandre, 1480-1542, italien, latin et grec;
  • François Rabelais, 1483-1553 : français, latin et grec ;
  • Germain de Brie, 1490-1538 : français, latin et grec;
  • Juan Luis Vivès, 1492-1540 : espagnol, latin, grec et hébreu.

* * * * *

NOTES :
*A. Artus et M. Maynègre, La Fontaine de Pétrarque, n° spécial consacré au 700e anniversaire de la naissance de François Pétrarque, Avignon, 2004.
**Dans son testament du 28 août 1374, Boccace avait prédisposé qu’à sa mort (advenue le 21 décembre 1375), une partie de sa riche bibliothèque (l’essentiel des textes latins et grecs, à l’exclusion donc des œuvres en langue vernaculaire) aille en héritage au frère augustin Martino da Signa et que celui-ci, à sa propre mort (survenue en 1387), la lègue intégralement à son institution d’appartenance, le couvent de Santo Spirito à Florence.

Merci de partager !
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On Leonardo da Vinci’s « Vitruvian Man »

By Karel Vereycken

Leonardo da Vinci’s « Viruvian Man ». Since we’re commemorating this year (2020) Leonardo Da Vinci, who died 500 years ago, many silly things are presented by fake scholars trying to make a real living.

Since I was introduced into the canon of proportions of the human body during my training as a professional painter and engraver, I want offer you some hints on how to look at what is called Da Vinci’s « Vitruvian man », a drawing currently on exhibit at the Da Vinci show at the Louvre in Paris.

Hence, as Leonardo underlines himself in his notebooks, adopting Cusanus wordings, it is only with the « eyes of the mind » that art becomes visible, because the « eyes of the flesh » are intrensically blind to it.

Canons of proportions

Europe, and Classical Greece, as everybody should know, emerged largely by absorbing several major discoveries accomplished much earlier by other civilizations. Much of it came from Asia, but African and especially Egypt, were key.

The very practice of mummification, a process which takes at least 60 days of work, made Egypt the key area of anatomical research.

Left an egyptian stutue. Right a Greek archaic Kuros.

As demonstrated by early Egyptian sculpture, the exact size of the entire adult human body is 7,5 times the size of the head. The size of a newborn is only four heads, that of a seven year old, six heads and that of a 17 years old adolescent, 7 heads.

Drawing class card of the author.

If one subdivides the overall 7.5 proportion, for an adult, from the top of the head till the lowest part of the torso, one measures four heads, one till the nipples, one till the belly button and a fourth one till the lowest part of the pubis. Going up from the sole till the middle of the pelvis, one measures 3.5 heads: 2 heads till the knee and 1.5 till the middle of the pelvis. That brings the total till 7.5 heads for the entire length of the adult human body and it is proportional in the sense that people with smaller heads also have small bodies.

Polikleitos versus Lysippus

In the Vth Century BC, the Greek sculptor Polikleitos’ spear bearer (The “Doryphoros”) of Naples National Archeological Museum applied this most beautiful canon of proportions, known as the “Polikleitos canon”.

During the Renaissance, the nostalgics of the Roman Empire preferred another Greek canon, that of Greek sculptor Lysippus (4th Century BC), formalized by the Roman author, architect and civil engineer, Vitrivius (1st century BC).

Vitruvius only transcribed the prevalent taste of his epoch. Roman sculptors, in order to give an athletic and heroic look to the Emperors which they were portraying, adopting the canon of Lysippus, could reduce the head of their models to only an eight of the total length of the body. The trick was that by reducing the relative size of the head, the body looked more preeminent and powerful, something most emperors, who were often physical failures, appreciated and secured their popularity. Even extreme cases of 12 to 15 heads of body length appeared. In short, Public relations ruled at the detriment of science and truth.

Today’s comic strip drawers chose proportions according to purpose:

–For real life, 7.5 or “normal canon”
–For a movie star, 8 heads, with the “idealistic canon”;
–For a fashion magazine: 8.5 heads;
–For a comic book hero: 9 heads for the “heroic canon”

Vitruvian man

« Vitruvian man », drawing of Leonard da Vinci.

Text accompanying Leonardo DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man:

Vitruvius, the architect, says in his work on architecture that the measurements of the human body are distributed by Nature as follows that is that 4 fingers make 1 palm, and 4 palms make 1 foot, 6 palms make 1 cubit; 4 cubits make a man’s height. And 4 cubits make one pace and 24 palms make a man; and these measures he used in his buildings. If you open your legs so much as to decrease your height 1/14 and spread and raise your arms till your middle fingers touch the level of the top of your head you must know that the centre of the outspread limbs will be in the navel and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle.

The length of a man’s outspread arms is equal to his height.

From the roots of the hair to the bottom of the chin is the tenth of a man’s height; from the bottom of the chin to the top of his head is one eighth of his height; from the top of the breast to the top of his head will be one sixth of a man. From the top of the breast to the roots of the hair will be the seventh part of the whole man. From the nipples to the top of the head will be the fourth part of a man. The greatest width of the shoulders contains in itself the fourth part of the man. From the elbow to the tip of the hand will be the fifth part of a man; and from the elbow to the angle of the armpit will be the eighth part of the man. The whole hand will be the tenth part of the man; the beginning of the genitals marks the middle of the man. The foot is the seventh part of the man. From the sole of the foot to below the knee will be the fourth part of the man. From below the knee to the beginning of the genitals will be the fourth part of the man. The distance from the bottom of the chin to the nose and from the roots of the hair to the eyebrows is, in each case the same, and like the ear, a third of the face.

Of course, Da Vinci’s exploration of the Vitruvian man doesn’t mean he approves or disapproves the stated fakery in proportions.

Soul or muscle?

It should be known that in Italy, the pure Roman taste has become trendy again following the discovery in 1506 of the statue of the Laocoon on the site of Nero’s villa in Rome. From that moment, artist will feel obliged to increase the volume of the muscular masses in order to appear as working « in Antique style ».

Although Leonardo never openly criticized this trend, it is hard not to think of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, when the artist, seeking to raise the spirit to unequalled philosophical heights, advised painters: « do not give all the muscles of the figures an exaggerated volume » and « if you act differently, it is more a sort of representation of a sack of nuts that you will have achieved than to that of a human figure » (Codex Madrid II, 128r).

Drawing by the architect Giacomo Andrea, a close friend of Leonardo da Vinci, who had studied the work of the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius.

No doubt inspired by his friend, the architect Giacomo Andrea, in « The Vitruvian Man », Leonardo is above all interested by other harmonies: if a person extends his arms in a direction parallel to the ground, one obtains the same length as one’s entire height. This equality is inscribed by Leonardo in a square (symbol of the earthly realm). But if one stretches his arms and legs in a star shape, they are inscribed in a circle whose center is the navel. The location of the navel divides the body according to the golden ratio (in this example 5 heads out of a total of 8 heads, 5+3 being part of the Fibonnacci series: 1+2 = 3; 3+2 = 5; 5+3 = 8; 8+5 = 13; 13+8 = 21, etc.).

Leonardo clearly understood what the golden section really means: not a “magical” number in itself, but the reflexion of the dynamic of least action, the very principle uniting man (the square) with the creator and the universe (the circle).

So if you take a look, beware of what you see and especially what you don’t !

Merci de partager !
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Van Eyck : la beauté,
prégustation de la sagesse divine

Same texte, english version


Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441). Comment saisir l’intention de ce grand peintre flamand dont cinq siècles nous séparent ?

A part regarder son œuvre, voici trois pistes que j’ai tenté de débroussailler pour vous :

  • Le peintre était sans doute initié à la lectio divina , l’interprétation à plusieurs niveaux du sens profond des Saintes Ecritures ;
  • L’influence du penseur religieux français Hugues de Saint-Victor (1096-1141), une figure méconnue mais majeure dont le cardinal philosophe Nicolas de Cues a pu s’inspirer ;
  • Les conseils éventuels qu’a pu donner au peintre le théologien Denys le Chartreux (1401-1471), le confesseur de Philippe Le Bon, duc de Bourgogne, pour qui le peintre effectua des missions diplomatiques.

Par Karel Vereycken

Voici une bonne raison pour apprendre le néerlandais ! Lire dans le texte original le livre inspirant et bien écrit Landschap en Wereldbeeld, van Van Eyck tot Rembrandt (Paysage et vision du monde, de Van Eyck à Rembrandt) de l’historien d’art néerlandais Boudewijn Bakker (Paru en 2004 chez Thoth à Bossum, Pays-Bas, également disponible en anglais).

Dans un style précis et d’accès facile, Bakker nous offre une série de clés permettant au spectateur du XXIe siècle de renouveler le regard porté sur la peinture flamande et néerlandaise et de révéler son sens parfois un peu « caché »…

Ce qui parfois nous étonne aujourd’hui s’avère souvent des références largement partagées par les peintres, leurs commanditaires, les religieux et plus largement le grand public dans ces contrées.

Paradoxe

Avant de lire l’œuvre de Bakker, la peinture du Nord de l’Europe m’a souvent parue aller à l’opposé de la matrice philosophique et religieuse qui prévalait au XVe siècle, alors qu’elle en est l’expression.

Jusqu’ici, je pensais que, pour l’essentiel, la vision du monde qui prévalait à la fin du Moyen-Age se résumait au rejet du monde visible tel que nous le percevons par nos sens. Car ce monde, d’après la mésinterprétation de Saint Augustin et Platon par les scolastiques, n’est que tromperie et tentation, le diable en personne en quelque sorte.

Or, et c’est là que ce paradoxe se manifeste avec toute sa force éruptive, comment réconcilier ce rejet du visible avec en particulier l’œuvre du peintre flamand Van Eyck, qui nous montre des êtres humains animés de bonté, pleins de beauté et de douceur, entourés d’une nature belle, abondante et exubérante ?

 Adam, détail du retable de Gand (1432), Jan Van Eyck.

Comment ose-t-il, me demandais-je, nous montrer tant de beauté alors qu’à son époque la doctrine de la foi, s’érigeant en gardienne du temple, ne cessait de rappeler que l’Homme, dans son imperfection criante, n’est pas Dieu, et mettait systématiquement en garde contre les tentations de ce monde ?

Les tableaux ironiques mais extrêmement moralisateurs de Jérôme Bosch et de Joachim Patinier ne sont-ils pas là pour nous faire comprendre, avec une violence non-dissimulée mais avec humour et méthode, que l’origine du péché se trouve précisément dans notre attachement excessif aux biens terrestres et dans les plaisirs que nous croyons en tirer ?

Coïncidence des opposés

Le cardinal philosophe Nicolas de Cues (Cusanus)

Sans se référer explicitement à la méthode du grand théo-philosophe, le cardinal Nicolas de Cues, celle de la « coïncidence des opposés » (coincidentia oppositorum), c’est-à-dire la résolution de paradoxes d’apparence insolvable mais possible à partir d’un point de vue plus élevé et donc supérieur, Bakker démontre que le paradoxe que nous venons d’évoquer, n’en est, lui aussi, qu’un en apparence.

Pour comprendre cela, Bakker rappelle d’abord que pour le courant augustinien, pour qui l’homme a été créé à l’image vivante du créateur (Imago Viva Dei), la nature, n’est ni plus ni moins qu’une « théophanie », c’est-à-dire, pour ceux qui se rendent capable de la lire, la révélation d’une intention divine.

Pour ce courant, Dieu se révèle à l’homme, non pas par un seul, mais par « deux livres », dont le premier n’est autre que « le livre de la nature » qu’on apprécie par les yeux ; le deuxième étant la Bible à laquelle auquel on accède grâce aux yeux et aux oreilles.

Bakker souligne à ce propos le rôle, un peu oublié, de deux penseurs chrétiens de premier ordre qui, depuis l’hégémonie de l’aristotélisme introduit par saint Thomas d’Aquin, la montée du nominalisme et la contre-réforme, ont fini par tomber dans l’oubli.

Il s’agit en premier lieu de l’abbé et théologien français Hugues de Saint Victor (1096-1141), un des auteurs médiévaux ayant connu une large diffusion manuscrite à son époque, et de Denys le Chartreux (1402-1471), un ami néerlandais et collaborateur de Nicolas de Cues (1401-1464) et confesseur de Philippe le Bon, duc de Bourgogne (1396-1467).

Lectio divina de la nature ?

Saint-Dominique lisant. Fresque de Fra Angelico.

Par rapport à l’interprétation des peintures, l’approche de Bakker, qui en réalité a fait le travail que tout historien de l’art digne de ce nom devrait fournir avant de se livrer à des interprétations d’œuvres d’art, consiste dans la confrontation des tableaux avec, s’ils si elles existent, les écrits de leurs époques.

Dans cet exercice, Bakker formule l’hypothèse fertile que les chefs-d’œuvre de la peinture flamande, truffés d’autant d’énigmes et de mystères que nos belles cathédrales, se lisent « à plusieurs niveaux », tout comme l’exégèse biblique de l’époque faisait appel, pour les textes sacrés, à une méthode de lecture ancestrale, dite « à quatre niveaux ».

D’abord dans le judaïsme, bien avant l’arrivée de Jésus, l’étude de la Torah faisait appel à la « doctrine des quatre sens » :

  • le sens littéral,
  • le sens allégorique,
  • le sens allusif, et
  • le sens mystique (éventuellement caché, secret ou kabbalistique).

Ensuite, les chrétiens, en particulier Origène (185-254), puis Ambroise de Milan au IVè siècle, reprennent cette méthode pour la Lectio Divina, c’est-à-dire l’exercice de la lecture spirituelle visant, par la prière, à pénétrer le plus profondément possible un texte sacré.

Enfin, introduite au IVe siècle par Ambroise, Augustin fait de la Lectio Divina la base de la prière monastique. Elle sera reprise ensuite par Jérôme, Bède le Vénérable, Scot Erigène, Hugues de Saint-Victor, Richard de Saint-Victor, Alain de Lille, Bonaventure et s’imposera à Saint Thomas d’Aquin et Bernard de Clairvaux.

Bakker prend soin de préciser ces quatre niveaux de lecture :

  • Le sens littéral est celui qui est issu de la compréhension linguistique de l’énoncé. Il raconte les faits et la « petite histoire » tout en replaçant l’écrit dans le contexte de l’époque ;
  • Le sens allégorique. Vient du grec allos, autre, et agoreuein, dire. L’allégorie en énonçant une chose en dit aussi une autre. Ainsi l’allégorie explique ce que symbolise le récit ;
  • Le sens moral ou tropologique (du latin tropos signifiant « changement »), en cherchant dans le texte des figures, des vices ou des vertus, des passions ou des étapes que l’esprit humain doit parcourir dans son ascension vers Dieu, nous indique les leçons que chacun peut en tirer pour sa propre vie dans le présent ;
  • Le sens anagogique (adjectif provenant du grec anagogikos c’est-à-dire élévation), est obtenu par l’interprétation des Évangiles, afin de donner une idée des réalités dernières qui deviendront visibles à la fin des temps. En philosophie, chez Leibniz, « l’induction anagogique » est celle qui tente de remonter à une cause première.

Ces quatre sens ont été formulés au Moyen-Age dans un fameux distique latin : littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia (la lettre enseigne les faits, l’allégorie ce que tu dois croire, la morale ce que tu dois faire, l’anagogie ce que tu dois viser).

La raison pour laquelle j’amène cette question de l’exégèse biblique à niveaux multiples, précise Bakker, c’est que dans le cadre de la vision du monde du Moyen-Age, on estimait que cette interprétation ne s’appliquait pas seulement à la Bible, mais tout autant à la création visible.

Gros plan de la page du livre devant lequel s’agenouille la Vierge dans l’Annonciation qui décore les volets extérieurs du retable de Gand de Jan Van Eyck (1432). En bas de la page, on lit clairement (en rouge) : « De visione dei », le titre de l’œuvre de Nicolas de Cues de 1453.

Nous voilà donc devant un sentiment amoureux de la création ? Pas du tout ! Loin du panthéisme (un péché), il s’agit de « lire », comme l’affirme Hugues de Saint-Victor, « avec les yeux de l’esprit », ce que « les yeux de la chair » ne sont pas capable de voir, un concept que reprendra Nicolas de Cues dans son œuvre de 1543 : Du tableau, ou la Vision de Dieu.

Le paradoxe se trouve ainsi résolu. Car, dans l’allégorie de la caverne évoquée par Platon dans La République, l’homme qui se trouve enchaîné devant une paroi où il ne voit que défiler des ombres projetées sur la paroi de la caverne, en mobilisant son intelligence, in fine se rend capable d’identifier les processus qui les engendrent.

Certes, l’homme ne peut pas « connaître » Dieu de façon directe. Cependant, en étudiant les effets de son action, il peut deviner son intention. C’est donc à travers Hugues de Saint Victor, que le courant augustinien et platonicien qui avait inspiré la Renaissance carolingienne refait surface à Paris.

Pour ce courant, la création comme un tout, du point de vue anagogique, est un reflet du paradis céleste et une référence directe vers l’omnipuissance, la beauté et la bonté divine.

Pour Bakker :

L’ensemble de ces interprétations sont faciles à illustrer avec les œuvres d’Augustin, parce qu’elles ont inspiré tout au long du Moyen-Age les auteurs sur la nature. Augustin aimait beaucoup le monde tel qu’il se présente à nous ; il savait jouir de ce qu’il appelait ‘certains espaces larges et magnifiques de la ville ou de la campagne’, où la beauté vous frappe avec éclat lorsque vous les montrez à un étranger. Mais la création contient également d’innombrables messages ‘moraux’, autant d’occasions pour un observateur pieux et attentif pour réfléchir sur son âme et sa tâche sur Terre. Coup après coup, Augustin souligne cet aspect lorsqu’il parle des phénomènes naturels. Chaque fois, il nous incite à chercher l’invisible derrière le visible, l’éternel derrière le temporel, etc. Ainsi l’harmonie que nous montre la création nous indique la paix qui doit régner entre les hommes. Chaque créature, pris séparément, apparait, pour celui qui veut le voir comme un exemple (négatif ou positif) pour l’homme. Ceci s’applique notamment pour le comportement des animaux, par exemple. Et ce qui concerne la Terre comme un tout, ne négligez pas les creux du paysage, car c’est là que jaillissent les sources.

Hugues de Saint Victor

Hugues de Saint Victor

En France, c’est lors de la Renaissance intellectuelle du XIIe siècle que les centres d’étude scolaires se multiplient (école cathédrale, école d’Abélard, école du Petit-Pont pour Paris, Chartres, Laon…) et qu’une véritable effervescence intellectuelle fait de notre pays un pôle d’attraction. Ainsi, de nombreux étudiants en provenance d’Allemagne, d’Italie, d’Angleterre, d’Ecosse et du Nord de l’Europe partent pour Paris pour y étudier avant tout la dialectique et la théologie.

Hugues de Saint Victor (1096-1141) est d’origine saxonne (ou flamande ?). Vers 1127, il entre chez les chanoines réguliers de Saint-Victor peu après la fondation de ce monastère installé à la lisière de Paris.

Les Victorins se distinguent dès l’origine par la haute place qu’ils donnent à la vie intellectuelle. Les chanoines de cette abbaye ont un regard positif sur le savoir, d’où l’importance qu’ils accordent à leur bibliothèque.

Les maîtres principaux qui ont influencé Hugues sont : Raban Maur (lui-même disciple du conseiller de Charlemagne, l’irlandais Alcuin), Bède le Vénérable, Yves de Chartres et Jean Scot Erigène et quelques autres, peut-être-même Denys l’Aréopagite dont il commente La Hiérarchie céleste.

Abbaye de Saint Victor à Paris en 1655.

D’une curiosité intellectuelle insatiable, Hugues conseille à ses disciples de tout apprendre car, dit-il, rien n’est inutile. Lui-même est le premier à mettre en pratique le conseil qu’il donne aux autres. Une partie notable de ses écrits est consacrée aux arts libéraux, aux sciences et à la philosophie, dont il traite en particulier dans un manuel d’introduction aux études profanes et sacrées, demeuré célèbre, le Didascalicon.

Ses contemporains le considèrent comme le plus grand théologien de leur temps et lui donnent le titre glorieux de « nouvel Augustin ». Il influence les Franciscains d’Oxford (Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, etc.) dont l’influence sur le peintre Roger Campin n’est plus à démontrer et Nicolas de Cues s’en inspire.

À la question de savoir s’il faut admirer ou mépriser le monde, Hugues de Saint Victor répond qu’on doit aimer le monde, mais à condition de ne pas oublier qu’il faut l’aimer en vue de Dieu, comme un présent de Dieu, et non pour lui-même.

Pour atteindre cette sagesse, l’homme doit considérer son existence comme celle celui d’un pèlerin qui se détache sans cesse de l’endroit où il réside, métaphore très fertile qu’on retrouvera chez les peintres flamands Bosch et Patinier. « Le monde entier est un exil pour ceux qui philosophent », souligne Hugues.

Maître Hugues pose l’exigence d’un dépassement de la dilectio (amour jaloux et possessif de Dieu) pour la condilectio (amour accueillant et ouvert au partage). Il prône l’idée d’un amour tout agapique tourné vers les autres, et non centré sur soi-même, un amour tourné vers le prochain, l’amour de Dieu augmentant avec l’amour du prochain. C’est tout simplement l’idée de charité chrétienne et de solidarité fraternelle qui est ainsi exprimée.

Hugues énumère cinq exercices spirituels : la lecture, la méditation, la prière, l’action, la contemplation. La première donne la compréhension ; la seconde fournit une réflexion ; la troisième demande, la quatrième cherche et la cinquième trouve. Ces exercices ont pour but d’atteindre la source de la vérité et de la charité et là, l’âme de l’homme est toute « transformée en flamme d’amour », reposant entre les mains de Dieu dans « une plénitude à la fois de connaissance et d’amour ».

Pour le sujet qui nous intéresse ici, c’est surtout sa vision optimiste de l’homme et de la création qui se différencie des clichés que nous retenons du pessimisme médiéval. Car pour lui, la création est un don de Dieu et le chemin vers Dieu passe donc tout autant par la lecture du livre de la nature que par la Bible.

Ainsi, pour lui, l’image que nous en percevons n’est d’abord que révélation ou dévoilement de la Puissance divine, perçue « à travers la longueur, la largeur, la profondeur de l’espace », « à travers la masse des montagnes, la longueur des fleuves, l’étendue des champs, la hauteur du ciel, la profondeur de l’abîme ».

Ainsi, le peintre, lorsqu’il excelle dans la représentation de l’univers physique ne fait qu’augmenter sa capacité à dévoiler la puissance du créateur !

Dévoilement également de la Sagesse à travers la beauté. Pour Hugues, « tout l’univers sensible est un grand livre tracé par le doigt de Dieu », c’est-à-dire créé par la vertu divine et

chaque créature est comme une figure, non pas produit du désir humain, mais fruit du vouloir divin chargé de manifester la Sagesse invisible de Dieu (…) Tout comme un illettré regarde les signes d’un livre ouvert sans connaître les lettres, un homme stupide et bestial ‘qui ne comprend pas les choses qui sont de Dieu’, ne voit dans les créatures que la forme extérieure, mais n’en comprend pas le sens intérieur.

Pour s’élever, Hugues propose à ses disciples de Saint-Victor, à tous ceux capables de « contempler sans relâche », de poser « un regard spirituel » sur le monde. Pour son disciple, Richard de Saint-Victor, la Bible et le grand livre de la nature {« rendent le même son et s’harmonisent pour dire les merveilles d’un monde secret. »}

Denys le Chartreux, clé pour comprendre Van Eyck

Le théologien Denys le Chartreux (Van Rykel).

Deux siècles après Hugues de Saint-Victor, c’est une même flamme qui anime le théologien Denys le Chartreux (1401-1471), originaire du Limbourg belge. Sous le titre La beauté du monde : ordo et varietas, Bakker lui consacre tout un chapitre de son livre. Et vous allez comprendre pourquoi.

Avant d’entrer chez les Chartreux de Roermond aux Pays-Bas, Denys, est formé dans l’esprit des Frères de la vie commune à l’école de Zwolle aux Pays-Bas et achève sa formation à l’Université de Cologne.

Avec Jean Gerson (1363-1429) et Nicolas de Cues (1402-1464), et ce malgré un style beaucoup plus bavard et parfois confus, Denys le Chartreux compta au nombre des auteurs les plus lus, les plus copiés puis les plus édités, quand l’imprimerie en vint à supplanter le laborieux travail des moines copistes. D’ailleurs, le premier livre publié en Flandres, ne fut autre que le Miroir de l’âme pècheresse de Denys le Chartreux, imprimé en 1473 par l’ami d’Erasme de Rotterdam, Dirk Martens.

Au monastère de Roermond au Pays-bas, Denys écrit 150 œuvres dont des commentaires sur la Bible et 900 sermons. Après en avoir lu un, le pape Eugène IV, qui vient d’ordonner à Brunelleschi de parachever la coupole du dôme de Florence, exulta : « L’Eglise mère se réjouit d’avoir pareil fils ! ».

En tant que savant, théologien et conseiller, Denys était très influent. « Nombre de gentilshommes, de clercs et de bourgeois viennent le consulter dans sa cellule à Ruremonde où il ne cesse de résoudre doutes, difficultés et cas de conscience. (…) Il se trouve en relations fréquentes avec la maison de Bourgogne et sert de conseiller à Philippe le Bon », confirme l’historien néerlandais Huizinga dans son Déclin du Moyen-âge.

Selon Bakker, ayant rédigé une série d’œuvres d’orientation spirituelle, Denys, remplit le rôle de confesseur et de guide spirituel du souverain chrétien Philippe le Bon , duc de Bourgogne, et par la suite, de celui de sa veuve.

Denys le Chartreux, chaire de la Cathédrale de Laon.

Denys le Chartreux est un ami, admirateur et collaborateur du cardinal Nicolas de Cues.

Ensemble, ils suivent à Cologne les cours du théologien flamand Heymeric van de Velde (De Campo) qui les initie à la théologie mystique du moine platonicien syrien connu sous le nom du Pseudo-Denys l’Aréopagite et à l’œuvre de Raymond Lulle et d’Albert le Grand.

Lorsqu’en 1432, Nicolas De Cues décline la chaire de Théologie que lui offre l’Université de Louvain, c’est De Campo qui, à sa demande, accepte cette fonction.

Politiquement, de 1451 à 1452, c’est Denys le Chartreux que choisit Nicolas de Cues, alors légat apostolique, pour l’accompagner durant plusieurs mois lors de sa tournée en pays rhénan et mosellan pour y faire appliquer, à la demande du pape, le renouveau spirituel qu’il promeut.

Bakker note que Denys a une prédilection pour la musique. Il recopie et illumine de sa main des partitions et donne des instructions sur la meilleure interprétation possible des psaumes. Sa préférence va à des psaumes qui font l’éloge de Dieu. Et pour faire l’éloge du créateur, Denys trouve des images et des paroles qu’on verra rebondir dans l’imagination des peintres de l’époque.

Cependant, pour Denys, la beauté de Dieu signifie quelque chose de plus profond qu’une simple attractivité visuelle. « Pour toi (seigneur), ‘être’ équivaut à ‘être beau’ ». Rappelons que la vue, dans la philosophie chrétienne, est le sens primordial et celui qui résume tous les autres.

Dans les psaumes de Denys, deux notions prévalent. D’abord, celle de l’ordre et de la régularité. On les retrouve dans les corps célestes qui déterminent le rythme des jours et des années. Mais la Terre elle-même obéit à un ordre divin. Et là Denys cite le Livre de la Sagesse de Salomon (11,20) affirmant : « Tu as tout ordonné avec mesure, nombre et poids ».

Ensuite, il y a l’idée de multiplicité et de diversité. Sur les phénomènes climatiques, c’est-à-dire des phénomènes purement « physiques », Denys affirme par exemple,

Dans le ciel, seigneur, tu génères des effets multiples de pression et de souffle, tels que des nuages, des vents, des pluies (…) et différents phénomènes : des comètes, des couronnes lumineuses, des vortex, des étoiles tombantes (…), du givre et de la brume, de la grêle, de la neige, l’arc en ciel et le dragon volant.

Pour Denys, tout cela n’a pas été créé pour rien mais pour pénétrer l’homme de la réalité divine, sa grandeur infinie, son omnipuissance et son amour pour l’homme.

Faites en sorte seigneur, écrit-il, que dans les effets de votre laboriosité universelle, nous vous percevions et que par l’amour dont elle témoigne, nous nous enflammions et que nous nous éveillions à honorer votre grandeur.

Sur Dieu et le beau, Denys écrit un véritable traité d’esthétique théologique sous le titre De Venustate Mundi et pulchritudine Dei (De l’attractivité du monde et de la beauté de Dieu).

agneau

Retable de Gent (Belgique) ou l’Agneau mystique, peint par Jan Van Eyck.

cour

La cour de Philippe le Bon, duc de Bourgogne. Miniature de Rogier Van der Weyden.

En lisant ce qui suit, c’est tout de suite le retable de Gand, l’Agneau mystique, ce grand polyptyque peint par Jan Van Eyck qui nous vient à l’esprit.

Sachant que ce peintre était au service (peintre et ambassadeur) du même Philippe le Bon, duc de Bourgogne, dont Denys le Chartreux fut le confesseur et guide spirituel, on est en droit de croire que ce texte s’est imposé dans l’esprit du peintre dans l’élaboration de son œuvre.

Denys le Chartreux :

De même que toute créature participe à l’être de Dieu et à sa bonté, de même le Créateur lui communique aussi quelque chose de sa beauté divine, éternelle, incréée, par quoi elle est en partie rendue semblable à son Créateur et participe quelque peu à sa beauté. Autant une chose reçoit l’être, autant elle reçoit le bon et le beau. Il existe donc une beauté incréée qui est la beauté et le beau par essence : Dieu.

Autre est la beauté créée : le beau par participation. De même que toute créature est appelée être dans la mesure où elle participe à l’être divin et lui est assimilée par une certaine imitation, de même toute créature est dite belle dans la mesure où elle participe à la beauté divine et lui est rendue conforme. De même que Dieu a fait toutes choses bonnes parce qu’il est bon par nature, de même il a fait toutes choses belles parce qu’il est essentiellement beau.

(…) Le fils unique de Dieu, vrai Dieu lui-même, a pris notre nature et est devenu notre frère. Par lui, notre nature a reçu une dignité de majesté indicible. Dieu a de plus orné les âmes des bienheureux qui sont dans la patrie céleste, de sa lumière et de sa gloire, et les a élevés à la vision béatifique, immédiate, claire et bienheureuse de sa Divinité toute pure. En contemplant la beauté incréée et infinie de l’essence divine, elles sont transformées à son image d’une façon surnaturelle et ineffable. Elles sont remplies et débordent de cette participation, de cette communion de bonté, lumière et beauté divines, au point d’être entièrement ravies en lui, configurées à lui, absorbées en lui. Elles atteignent ainsi une beauté telle, que les splendeurs du monde entier ne sauraient être comparées à la beauté de la plus petite d’entre elles.

Retour au peintre

Ce dernier paragraphe évoque immédiatement la partie supérieure du polyptyque de Jan Van Eyck à Gent.

On a du mal à mesurer l’effet que ce tableau a pu susciter chez les croyants : ils y voyaient non seulement Adam et Eve, élevés au même niveau que Dieu, la Vierge et Saint-Jean Baptiste, mais y découvraient, alors que moins d’un pour cent de la population européenne ne savaient lire et écrire, l’image d’une ravissante jeune femme lisant la Bible. Son nom ? Marie, mère de Jésus !

La partie inférieure de la même œuvre met en scène un autre évènement majeur : la réunification, suite aux différents conciles œcuméniques, de tous les chrétiens, qu’ils soient d’Occident ou d’Orient et jusque là divisés par des querelles subalternes, autour de la quintessence de la foi chrétienne : le sacrifice du Fils de Dieu pour libérer l’homme du péché originel.

Sont regroupés en chœurs autour de l’évènement tout ce qui comptaient dans l’univers : les trois papes, les philosophes, les poètes (Virgile), les martyrs, les ermites, les prophètes, les justes juges, les chevaliers chrétiens, les saints et les vierges.

Le tout présenté dans un paysage transformé par un véritable « Printemps » chrétien. Van Eyck n’hésite pas à représenter, avec moult détails de toute la splendeur de leur microcosme, une bonne cinquantaine d’espèces végétales au moment où elles offrent leurs plus belles fleurs et feuilles.

Littéralement, cela fait apparaître la richesse de la création dans toute sa variété; allégoriquement, cela représente le créateur comme sève de la vie; moralement, c’est le sacrifice du fils de Dieu qui redonnera vie à l’église des chrétiens; et enfin, anagogiquement, cela nous rappelle que nous devons tendre à nous unir au créateur, source de toute vie, bien et sagesse.

Une fois de plus, ce n’est que chez Denys le Chartreux, dans le passage de conclusion de son {Venestate Mundi et pulchritudine Dei} que l’on trouve un éloge aussi passionné de la beauté du monde visible, y compris une référence au fameux {« vert foncé des prés »} si typique de Van Eyck :

{Démarrons par le plus bas, les éléments de la terre. Dans quelles longueur et largeur immensurables elle s’étend loin devant nous ; comment sa surface est ornée d’innombrables espèces et sortes d’individus de choses merveilleuses. Regardez les lis et les roses et autres fleurs de belles couleurs émettant leurs odeurs adorables, les herbes guérissantes qui poussent sur le vert foncé des prés et à l’ombre des forêts, la splendeur des arbres et des champs luxuriants, des hauteurs de montagnes, de la fraicheur des arbres, des étangs, des ruisseaux et des rivières s’étalant jusqu’à la mer au lointain ! A quel point Il doit être beau en lui-même, Celui qui a tout créé ! Regardez et admirez la multitude d’animaux, comment ils brillent dans la variété de leurs couleurs ! Aux poissons et oiseaux se réjouit l’œil et s’adresse notre éloge du Créateur. Dans quels beauté et lustre se drapent les grands animaux, le cheval, l’unicorne, le chameau, le cerf, le saumon et le brochet, le phénix, le paon et l’épervier. Qu’Il est élevé, celui qui a fait tout cela !}

Avec ce que nous venons de lire et de dire, le spectateur peut enfin savourer en pleine confiance et sans modération cette beauté, car il ne s’agit de rien d’autre que la prégustation de la sagesse divine !

Avec ce que nous venons de lire et de dire, le spectateur peut savourer en pleine confiance cette beauté, car il ne s’agit de rien d’autre que la prégustation de la sagesse divine !

Bibliographie :

  • Boudewijn Bakker, Landschap en Wereldbeeld. Van Van Eyck tot Rembrandt, Thoth, 2004 ;
  • Patrice Sicard, Hugues de Saint-Victor et son école, Brepols, 1991.
  • Denys le Chartreux, Vers la ressemblance, textes réunis et présentés par Christophe Bagonneau, Parole et Silence, 2003.

Merci de partager !
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