ORB Online Encyclopedia
Pseudo-Dionysius in the Twelfth Century Latin West
During the twelfth-century search for authorities the writings of
Pseudo-Dionysius were increasingly used as part of a new theological
outlook. No doubt the choice of pseudonyms by the author of the
corpus aided in its popularity, yet the original synthesis of Christian
teaching and the Neoplatonism of the fifth century found in the
writings spoke powerfully to the twelfth-century context. Writers
sought to mine the Dionysian corpus for insights into the nature of
reality and the contemplative ascent ending in union with God.
While Augustine had proposed his own understanding of
Neoplatonism and its relationship to the Christian life, from Pseudo-
Dionysius twelfth-century writers were exposed to an alternative
Christian vision based on the same philosophical framework. To aid
in understanding the extent of Dionysian influence a brief synopsis of
certain features of the corpus will be given, followed by a historical
look at its introduction to the West before aspects of Dionysian
thought in twelfth-century authors are examined.
Brief Synopsis of Dionysian System
The Dionysian system is a complex and sophisticated integration
of Neoplatonic motifs into a Christian framework. From this system
three streams emerge forming part of the theological atmosphere of
the twelfth century: an outlook concerning the nature of reality; a
proposed method to interpret and understand this reality; a means
by which reality itself is transcended in union with the divine. Each
of these comprises a different aspect of the world-view the corpus
sets forth and will be examined
Pseudo-Dionysius postulates the structure of the universe as an
emanation of procession and return from God through various
hierarchies which comprise its fabric. These hierarchies, Celestial,
Ecclesiastical and Legal, are further subdivided into various orders
which are described in detail throughout the Dionysian writings.
Each order has no power in itself, rather it is an agent of the power
of God and as such participates in that power. The orders form the
central part of a continuum proceeding and returning to God in
which all are caught up.
This structure is both ontological and epistemological. That is, it is
how the universe exists in itself (the nature of reality) and it speaks
to how we come to knowledge of this universe. The epistemological
structure, like the ontological, functions in terms of procession and
return. In the procession God is involved in self-revelation while in
the return humans are involved in both knowing this revelation and
eventually unknowing it in union with the divine. Through
participation in the emanation the self-revelation of God is encoded
or demonstrated in the hierarchies making them symbolic in nature.
As symbols, the hierarchies have significant content which when
interpreted points beyond itself, causing an anagogic or uplifting
ascent to the next hierarchy. Furthermore, by virtue of its
participation in the divine, the symbol is also referred to as a
theophany or divine manifestation which involves every created
thing. Knowledge is then gained through interpretation of the
symbolic hierarchies. Thus The Celestial Hierarchy states, We
must lift up the immaterial and steady eyes of our minds to that
outpouring of Light which is so primal, indeed much more so, and
which comes from that source of divinity, I mean the Father. This is
the Light which, by way of representative symbols, makes known to
us the most blessed hierarchies among the angels. But we need to
rise from this outpouring of illumination so as to come to the simple
ray of Light itself (CH 1; Complete Works 145-46).
The second Dionysian influence is the methodological
interpretation of this structure through a positive/negative dialectic.
Pseudo-Dionysius devises a method for interpreting the symbols of
the hierarchy enabling the return or anagogic ascent. It is actually
through the interpretive process that one ascends through the
hierarchy. This process begins in the positive, that is, what can be
affirmed about God in the symbols, and moves into a negative mode
of interpretation whereby what has been affirmed of God previously
must now be denied. Thus, each symbol has what is termed a
dissimilar similarity indicating that there is simultaneously a
similarity to be affirmed and a dissimilarity to be negated. This
dialectic continues until the last stage of the process.
The interpretation of the symbols corresponds to a three stage
ascent of the soul; the purgation of the materiality of symbols,
illumination of the significance of the symbols and perfection by an
abandonment of the significance in ascent to the next hierarchy.
Each stage is related to the epistemological structure so that
purgation is the removal of ignorance, illumination is the reception of
new knowledge, and perfection is the abandonment of present
knowledge for something higher (CH 3; EH 5, 6;
Complete Works 153-55, 233-49). These three stages are
repeated throughout each hierarchy as one continues to ascend.
The final stream of Dionysian influence is the abandonment of all
interpretive concepts through their "unknowing." The last stage of
anagogic ascent moves beyond the interpretive positive/negative
dialectic by a negation of all that has been negated. This places one
in state of "unknowing" where the experience of silent union with the
divine occurs. The Mystical Theology provides an apt
description, ...as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond
intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words
but actually speechless and unknowing (MT 3; Complete
In order to describe what is beyond all categories of human
knowledge, Pseudo-Dionysius uses the prefix huper
(super in Latin) before terms such as "being" (ousia)
which emphasize the transcendent nature of the divine. Each of
these aspects of Dionysian thought were to impact twelfth-century
writers as the corpus was transmitted to the West, a point to which
the discussion now turns.
Introduction of Pseudo-Dionysius to the West
The Dionysian corpus came into prominence in the West through
diplomatic exchanges which occurred between the Carolingian court
and Constantinople. These political meetings normally were
accompanied by an exchange of cultural gifts from each party and
took place between the years 756-840 C.E. (McCormick 25-34). One
such gift was a Greek manuscript of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius
given by the Byzantine Emperor Michael the Stammerer to Louis the
Pious at Compiegne in 827 C.E.. Hilduin, abbot of St.-Denis, a
monastery on the outskirts of Paris placed under the patronage of
Dionysius, saw this as an opportunity to increase the prestige of his
abbey. He first intention was to produce a translation of the corpus.
Although the translation itself was barely readable, Hilduin also
composed a work entitled, Incipit passio sancto Dionysii which
drew on previous sources and firmly established the Dionysian
legend in the West. He argued that Dionysius was not only bishop of
Athens but later bishop of Paris and was now buried in the
monastery of St.-Denis where he was the abbot. Hilduin's ultimate
proof for this was the miracles which had accompanied the gift of
Pseudo-Dionysius' writings which indicated the saint's own blessing.
Though Pseudo-Dionysius already was viewed as an authoritative
figure, the Passio renewed his prominence among those in the
The work of John Scotus Eriugena served as the primary channel
of Dionysian thought through his translation of the corpus and
appropriation of its content into a philosophical system. Due to the
unintelligibility of Hilduin's translation, Charles the Bald
commissioned John Scotus Eriugena to make a fresh translation in
862 C.E. Eriugena revised this translation several times and the
papal librarian, Anastasius brought out a further revision in 875 C.E.
This translation of the entire corpus was widely used in the twelfth
century to understand Dionysian thought. In addition, Eriugena
added a commentary to the corpus and translated other works from
Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nyssa. His own thought was
an attempt to harmonize East and West in a new philosophy by
incorporating the Greek sources into the Periphyseon. In many
cases Eriugena's thought and that of Pseudo-Dionysius went hand in
In the first few decades of the twelfth century certain authors
referred to the Dionysian corpus through the works of Eriugena. At
the School of Laon run by Anselm of Laon (d. 1117) and his brother
Ralph began compiling the Glosa Ordinaria, a compilation of
quotations from various authors around passages of scripture for the
purposes of exegesis and clarification. Anselm and Ralph were both
fond of the writings of Eriugena placing quotes from his writings into
the Glosa. A second writer which brought attention to the
Dionysian corpus in the early part of the twelfth century is Honorius
Augustudonensis (d. ca. 1140). He was a wondering scholar who was
highly influenced by the work of Eriugena. In fact, the Clavis
physicae of Honorius is a summary of Eriugena's own masterpiece
Periphyseon. Through Eriugena Honorius and the brothers
from Laon appropriated some Dionysian themes into their writings,
particularly insights into the structure of the universe. In the
following years the influence of Dionysius began to steadily grow,
increasing the popularity of the corpus.
Dionysian Thought at the Abbey of St.-Denis
It is undisputed that Suger, abbot of St. Denis (1122-1151) drew
on Dionysian light mysticism for the justification of the stained glass
windows and symbolism throughout the abbey church (Panofsky 19-
26). In his works, the De Administratione, the De
Consecratione and the Ordinatio there is a polemical
description of the project which acts as a guide to the construction of
the building and its symbolism. Suger used Dionysian thought for
the inspiration of the symbolism as well as the justification for the
elaborate nature of the project. The poem in De
Administratione 26 lies at the heart of his Dionysian framework
for the symbolism of the tympanum. Suger recorded the verses
which were inscribed on the door. He states,
- Whoever thou art, if thou seekest to extol the glory of these doors,
- Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of
- Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work
- Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true
- To the True Light where Christ is the true door.
- In what
manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines:
- The dull
mind rises to truth through that which is material
- And, in seeing this
light, is resurrected from is former submersion
In the final two verses there is a clear Dionysian theme of the
person rising through the various hierarchies encoded in symbols
from material to immaterial until union with the divine is achieved.
The extent to which Pseudo-Dionysius thought was incorporated
into the construction of the abbey and Suger's own source for that
thought have caused debate. Panofsky suggested that Suger mined
the Celestial Hierarchy and Eriugena's commentary for insight
(Panofsky 18-19), recently however scholars have looked to a more
contemporary source for Suger's inspiration. Hugh of St. Victor has
been pointed to as the one who brought Dionysian thought to the
attention of Suger. Zinn and Rudolph have both argued that one can
detect certain features of Hugh's own thought interwoven into the
design of the abbey (Zinn, "Suger" 33-40; Rudolph 32-47). One such
feature is the prominence of Christ in the symbolism. Christ has
virtually no role to play in the Dionysian writings, however, Hugh
placed Christ at the center in his writings. The extent of the
influence of Hugh on Suger has not been fully explored, yet it points
to the central role which St. Victor played in the dissemination of
Dionysian thought. Regardless, Suger's use of Dionysian thought
introduced new justifications for the art program at St.-Denis and its
Dionysian thought was proliferated further through the abbey of
St.-Denis by a new translation from John Sarrazin. One of the few
persons in the West who understood enough of the Greek language to
provide a translation. Sarrazin had already written a commentary on
The Celestial Hierarchies (1140 C.E.). William the Physician, a
Provencal, returned to Paris from Constantinople with new
manuscripts of the Dionysian corpus and at the request of John of
Salisbury (Patrologia Latina 199.143-44) Sarrazin used them to
improve on the translation of Eriugena. His basic project was to
eliminate the Hellenisms and Greek terms in order to simplify the
Latin of Eriugena's translation (Dondaine 30). Sarrazin's revision was
completed in 1167 and used extensively in the thirteenth century
being referred to as the "new translation" of the Dionysian corpus.
Dionysian Thought at the School of St. Victor
The school of St. Victor is primary in the development of
Dionysian thought and its spread in the twelfth century. The two
main representatives of the school, Hugh and Richard, both
incorporated Dionysian themes into the mysticism they developed
and both were highly influential in certain areas of thought for the
remaining of the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries. Hugh of St.
Victor (d. 1142) is the most significant source for the transmission
and adaptation of Dionysian categories in the early part of the
twelfth century. He worked for several years on two commentaries
on The Celestial Hierarchies eventually combining them into
one around 1137. The finished commentary has been referred to as
being Dionysian in its themes but Augustinian in its tone (Baron
133). In it Hugh sets forth his understanding of symbol as "a
collecting of visible forms for the demonstration of invisible things"
(Patrologia Latina 175.941B). This statement communicates the
basic Dionysian idea that symbols "demonstrate" the divine, acting as
"bridges between the experience of the senses and that which lies or
reaches beyond" (Ladner 241). He next defines anagogy as an
"ascension," "elevation of mind," or a "drawing above" to higher
things as the invisible comes through the visible (Patrologia
Latina 175.941C; De scripturis et scriptoribus, Patrologia
Latina 175.12B). In Augustinian fashion he then classifies
symbols into those of nature and grace centering the image of grace
on Christ, the Wisdom of God. While Pseudo-Dionysius provides the
framework, Augustine shifts some of the emphases in that
If the commentary is Dionysian in theme and Augustinian in tone,
the exact opposite can be said of Hugh's thought in general.
Following Augustine, his contemplative ascent is an inward one that
integrates the Dionysian three stage ascent through the hierarchies.
In the three treatises on Noah's ark, Hugh describes the ark as a
symbol which must be interiorized. As it is interiorized one comes to
participate in the hierarchies because the ark itself "demonstrates"
the history of salvation in the heart. Through this internalization the
contemplative begins to move through each stage. Hugh's first stage
is an Augustinian addition to the three Dionysian stages of purgation,
illumination, and perfection. This is the stage of awakening and
reveals a concern for the sinfulness of humanity which does not
enter the Dionysian corpus. Furthermore, Hugh interprets the stage
of purgation in ascetic and penitential terms rather than as the
removal of ignorance which Pseudo-Dionysius does. These emphases
in Hugh indicate at least a partial embracing of the Dionysian view of
reality, albeit modified to fit with Augustinian categories with Christ
as the Wisdom of God at the pinnacle of the ascent and a doctrine of
sin at its beginning.
Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173) was highly influenced by Hugh's
own use of Dionysian categories and sought to employ them in a
subtle manner in his mystical writings. Bonaventure tells us that
"Richard aimed at Dionysius in contemplation" (De redactione
artium ad theologiam, Quaracchi 321), indicating somewhat
contemporary opinion on the extent Richard's thought weaves
Dionysian themes into its fabric. Older scholars have tended to
discount this aspect of Richard, however, in recent studies it has been
shown that Richard appropriated the corpus in a nuanced manner.
In his commentary on the book of Revelation (In apocalypsim
joannes) Richard constructs his basic understanding of symbols
and anagogy borrowing extensively from Hugh. He states, "symbol is
the gathering together of visible forms to demonstrate invisible
things. Anagogy is the ascension or elevation of the mind
contemplating the highest things" (Patrologia Latina 196.687B).
In the Mystical Notes on the Psalms anagogy is placed alongside
the other senses of scripture as the way in which the invisible things
of God are perceived (Patrologia Latina 196.370A).
These initial explorations using Dionysian categories are extended
in the mature work De arca mystica where Richard describes
the contemplative ascent and its stages. The ark Richard has in mind
is not Noah's as in Hugh, but the ark of the tabernacle. In a recent
study, Chase indicates that Richard moves beyond the Dionysian
dialectic of negative/positive into a coincidentia oppositorum or
coincidence of opposites (Chase 37-48). Building on the relationship
of dissimilar similarity, Richard uses this dialectic of opposites to
express certain distinctions in the contemplative quest. One example
is the two cherubim which represent the final two stages in Richard's
exposition. They symbolize various opposites which are to be held in
tension such as consent to reason/contrary to reason and
trinity/unity. Furthermore, between the cherubim lies the space in
which God speaks. Under the protection of their wings Richard
expresses the desire "to be led above ourselves...with so much
alienation of soul that for a while our mind might know nothing of
itself while it is astounded as it is suspended in the viewing of such
cherubim" (De arca mystica 4.9; Patrologia Latina
196.143-44; Zinn, Richard 272) The ultimate goal here is
"alienation of mind" which leads to "contemplative ecstasy of mind"
by means of "anagogic endeavors" (De arca mystica 4.16;
Patrologia Latina 196.155; Zinn, Richard 286-89). Here
we see the fruit of Richard's own appropriation of Dionysian
Dionysian thought in the larger Platonic context
One difficulty in tracing the extent of Dionysian influence is the
various sources for Platonic thought available in the twelfth century.
This is illustrated best by those interested in cosmology who wove
together different strands of Platonic thought in the Timaeus of
Plato, Boethius, Augustine, and Pseudo-Dionysius among others. One
example is Thierry of Chartres (d. after 1160) whose expression
"unity is the form of being for individual things," (De sex dierum
operibus 31; Haring, Commentaries 568-9) reveals the
Plotinian motif "all things are beings through the one" which is also
found in Boethius and Pseudo-Dionysius. A second Dionysian theme
found in Thierry is that of defining the divine essence negatively as
neither substance or accident (Lectiones 2.56; Haring,
Commentaries 173; Evans, Old Arts 37). Writers such as
Thierry were engaged in a "constant effort to trace that theme back
to a Platonic matrix, juxtaposing with the auctoritas of
Dionysius and Augustine, the Timaeus and the Asclepius"
The balancing of Dionysian thought with other Platonic authorities
was done in the desire to explore and construct a universal
cosmology. Dionysian themes were removed from their mystical
context of anagogic ascent and the ontology which underlie this was
fused together with other sources. Thierry of Chartres has already
provided one such example of this, however two other examples are
William of Conches (d. after 1154) and Bernardus Silvestris (d. ca.
1160). In his Glosa super Platonem, William explores how
images function through enigmas which is similar to the Dionysian
understanding of how symbols demonstrate the divine (Dronke 42-
47). The occurrence of this reference in his comments on the
Timaeus, a treatise which explores cosmological themes, points
to William's own combination of the two. Bernardus'
Cosmographia is an allegorical look at cosmology developed
from Platonic sources. Certain aspects of the work are understood
best in light of Eriugena's Periphyseon and the emanationist
language stemming from Pseudo-Dionysius (Wetherbee,
Cosmographia 52-54). Bernardus combines the Dionysian
ontology of emanation, taken from Eriugena with Plato's divine
Exemplar and World Soul found in the Timaeus to construct his
cosmological allegory. These authors indicate the tendency of some
in the twelfth century to remove certain features of Dionysian
thought which clarified aspects of Platonic thought in general and led
to a greater synthesis.
Aspects of Dionysian thought in monastic settings within
There is little connection between the writings of Pseudo-
Dionysius and the early Cistercians. McGinn in his article on the
subject notes that "a survey of Bernard (of Clairvaux), William (of St.
Thierry), and Aelred (of Rievaulx) produces little evidence for
substantial acquaintance on the part of these early Cistercians with
the text of the corpus and indicates that Dionysian themes are not
really significant in the theology of the three authors" (McGinn 230).
However, two of the lesser known Cistercians of the twelfth century
display certain affinities with Dionysian categories: Isaac of Stella (d.
ca. 1170) and Garnier of Rochefort (d. 1225) who was abbot of
Clairvaux from 1186 to 1193.
In Isaac of Stella there are three features of Dionysian thought
which are prominent. The first is Isaac's use of symbolica theologia
or symbolic theology to describe an anagogic ascent to God
(Sermon 22; Patrologia Latina 194.1762C-D).
Corresponding to this is his understanding of the positive/negative
interpretive dialectic for the ascent. Isaac wants to keep God distinct
from all creation and uses this dialectic in a manner similar to
Dionysian thought to accomplish his goal. A final feature is the
combination of various Dionysian themes such as hierarchy and
theophany in some of his writings (McGinn 233-34). Though Isaac is
not primarily Dionysian in his thought, he did appropriate certain
categories as a means to clarify his understanding of contemplation.
Garnier of Rochefort's thought relates to the cosmologists
described in the previous section. He uses Dionysian categories taken
from Hugh of St. Victor in a more eclectic manner combining them
with insights from other aspects of Platonism. In Sermon 23
When the mind...ascends to the Most High by certain stages of
contemplation...it considers mathematically the visible forms of
visible things, or, employing physics, the invisible causes of visible
things; or it symbolically juxtaposes and adapts visible forms to
demonstrate invisible things; or it contemplates invisible substances,
invisible natures theologically (Patrologia Latina, 205.730A).
This passage rearranges material from Hugh's commentary on the
Celestial Hierarchy combining Boethian and Dionysian themes to
describe certain features of contemplation. It is unclear whether
Garnier intended to do this or not, yet the passage illustrates the use
he made of the corpus. Under the influence of Eriugena, Garnier also
explores the positive/negative dialectic and themes dealing with the
"unknowing" or divine darkness of the soul (Sermon 5, 30;
Patrologia Latina 194.599B-608B, 760A-63C). A final
illustration of the eclectic nature of his borrowing is the identification
of anagogy and union. Instead of anagogy representing the ascent
into union, it illustrates union itself fusing the two together (de
Others influenced by Dionysian thought
There were many who quoted from the works of Pseudo-
Dionysius but never sought to appropriate them in any way. Peter
Lombard (d. 1160) in his Book on the Four Sentences provides
a few references to Pseudo-Dionysius but his own views are
dominated by Augustinian categories. Though Gilbert de la Porree
(d. 1154) and his followers use the Greek fathers extensively, they
also failed to appropriate Dionysian insights apart from a few minor
quotations (Haring, "Porretans and Greek Fathers" 181-209). Two
exceptions to this among Gilbert's followers are Simon of Tournai (d.
1201) and William of Lucca (d. 1178). William composed a
commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius' The Divine Names mixing
the thought of Gilbert with the metaphysics of Dionysius and
Eriugena. Simon explored the Dionysian understanding of angels and
anagogic ascent through the hierarchies in his Disputations.
These two stand out among those who simply cited Pseudo-Dionysius
to bring authoritative weight to a statement or subject.
Alan of Lille (d. 1202-3) stands at the end of the twelfth century
major proponent of the corpus pointing to the greater prominence
Dionysian thought would have in the thirteenth century. Alan's
thought incorporates a positive/negative dialectic as theological
method, an understanding of procession and return and a Dionysian
view of symbols. In the Regulae Theologicae he contends, along
with Dionysius that "no name properly belongs to God" (Patrologia
Latina 210.630C) and that only negative statements about God
can be true and proper. This negative method is also expressed in
his allegorical treatise, Anticlaudianus, where in a chariot made
by the seven Liberal Arts and drawn by Reason, Prudentia ascends
through the cosmos to the summit of perfection in search of wisdom.
Once the threshold of wisdom is reached the Arts, signifying human
understanding, must be "left in peace" as one ascends to the divine
reality (Anticlaudianus 5.83-100; Bossuat 125-26). In this
work one can also detect an underlying view of the universe as
hierarchical in structure and in the De planctu naturae Alan
clearly sees the restoration of all as a participation in cosmic
harmony similar to the Dionysian return. Finally, in the Rhythmus
alter, Alan gives his view of symbols by stating, "every creature
in the world is, for us, like a book and a picture and a mirror as well"
(Patrologia Latina 210.579A), suggesting a connection with
Dionysian thought. These are some of the ways Alan incorporates
Dionysian insights, building on the work of others.
Having outlined the influence of Dionysian thought on writers in
twelfth century we will conclude by suggesting how it impacted the
Conclusion: Transmission of Dionysius to the thirteenth
Alan of Lille and Richard of St. Victor are two examples of the
directions Dionysian thought was taking in the thirteenth century.
As in Richard some elements of the Dionysian corpus were kept
within a mystical framework. Examples of this are Bonaventure and
Thomas Gallus. Bonaventure was highly influenced by Hugh and
Richard of St. Victor building a mystical system on the insights they
provided. Thomas Gallus was trained at St. Victor in the thirteenth
century and eventually became abbot of St. Andrew in Italy. He
wrote commentaries on the Dionysian corpus and developed a
nuanced account of mystical ascent reflecting his insight into
Dionysian thought. On the other hand as in Alan of Lille, Dionysian
elements were removed from their strictly mystical context and
placed in a more scientific one concerned primarily with the ontology
they expressed. Aquinas is the best example here. His Summa
Theologicae is modeled on a Dionysian view of the universe, the
three parts representing God and the creative procession of all things
from him, the return of rational creatures to God, and Christ as the
means of that return (Rorem, "Uplifting Spirituality" 147). In both
Alan and Richard one can broadly view the two streams of Dionysian
influence which would impact the next century.
In this short look at the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius among
twelfth-century writers some themes emerge. First is the
prominence of the school of St. Victor in the dissemination of
Dionysian ideas. Many of the major proponents of Dionysian thought
during this period were related to or impacted by the school in some
aspect. This is certainly true of Suger of St.-Denis, Richard of St.
Victor and Garnier of Rochefort. As the leading interpreter of
Pseudo-Dionysius, Hugh set the standard by which other writers
would use the corpus. A second feature is how Dionysian categories
were fused with other strains of Platonism. For Thierry of Chartres
and Bernardus Silvestris Dionysian themes were reinforced by a
return to the Platonic context from which they originated. Finally,
Dionysian thought contributed to what Chenu has described as "the
symbolist mentality" (Chenu 99-141) of the twelfth century. Writers
as diverse as Bernardus Silvestris, Allan of Lille and Richard of St.
Victor all understood symbols to be powerful means in which reality
was communicated to the human mind. These writers sought to
creatively adapt Dionysian themes in the same way the Dionysian
writings themselves adapt Neoplatonic themes to offer a different
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