Saturday, April 24, 2010

Was Dante a Rosicrucian?

I have to admit, this was one I never heard of before. That is, until a dear friend of mine came to visit me in the hospital during my recovery and said quite causally, "Did you know Dante was a Rosicrucian?"  My friend is not any sort of Rosicrucian, but was merely repeating what he had seen claimed in some videos on the Internet. I was skeptical of the claim at the time, but decided to research it anyway. As I suspected, the claim is spurious and based on a mixture of pseudo-history and plain ignorance of medieval Christian symbolism, as I will explain below. First, let's take a look at what Rosicrucianism is exactly.

Primer on Rosicrucianism

But to begin with, what is Rosicrucianism? Basically, we can see the Rosicrucians as another esoteric fraternity in the tradition of Freemasonry, with which it was later associated.

Rosicrucianism first appears in history around the years 1614 -1615with the anonymous publication of two tracts; the "Rosicrucian Manifestos", published in Germany, were called the "Fama Fraternitatis" and the "Confessio Fraternitatis". They claimed to be from a secret brotherhood called the Rosicrucians, which (according to the documents) was founded around around 1407 by a German Crusader called Christian Rosenkreuz. According to the documents, this Rosenkreuz was initiated into the mysticism of the Arab Sufis and the Kabbalist tradition of the Jews, finally becomeinginvolved in the occult in Europe. The knight founded a secret "Fama" called the Invisible College which consisted of eight members. These eight members, dedicated to esoteric spiritualism and pantheistic mysticism, were bound to replace themselves before they died so that the order could survive. It was not until the early 17th century that the scientific, philosophical and religious freedom had grown so that the public might benefit from the Rosicrucians' knowledge. Thus at that time the order was made public, and the manifestos basically contained an open invitation for all men of means and knowledge to seek admission. Like the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians came into being during the early Enlightenment and sought to oppose what they though to be the superstition of the Catholic Church; many of the first 17th century adherents to Rosicrucianism were Protestants, especially Lutherans. In fact, as we shall see below, it was a Lutheran pastor who is believed to have authored the Rosicrucian manifestos.

Chronological Problems

Of course, there is no way to verify the historicity of what is alleged in the Rosicrucian manifesto; how can one prove or disprove the existence of a secret society consisting of eight members allegedly formed in 1407? There is no historicity to the tale, and there is no mention of any noble named Christian Rosenkreuz in other sources (the name itself appears to be allegorical, and even many occultists consider Rosenkreuz to be an allegorical figure). But the Rosicrucians themselves claim a much more ancient descent than this. The following was taken from a website on Rosicrucianism and Kabbala. Describing the origins of Rosicrucianism, it claims:

[I]ts origins go back to the time of the Mystery School of Pharaoh Thutmosis III (c.1468-1436 BC). The ancient teachings are documented in the Wisdom of Lamech and in the Tablet of Hermes. Pythagoras and Plato added their own part to the History. They found their way in Judaea through the ascetic Egyptian Therapeutate who presided at Qumran just before Jesus’ time. The Samaritan Magi of West Manasseh, under the leadership of the Gnostic Simon (Magus) Zelotes, a lifelong friend of Mary Magdalene, allied themselves to the Therapeutate. Simon Zelotes nominated Mary Magdalene as his devotional sister. The Samaritan Magi who played an important role in the Nativity, were founded in 44 BC by Menahem, a Diaspora Essene and the grand father of Mary Magdalene. Menahem descended from the priestly Hasmonaeans, the family of Judah Maccabaeus...

The list of past Rosicrucian Grand Masters includes the names of Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet and philosopher; the astrologer, mathematician and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, Dr John Dee; the lawyer and philosophical writer, Sir Francis Bacon. Among Bacon’s Rosicrucian colleges, we can mention the Oxford physician and theological philosopher Robert Fludd who participated in the English translation of the King James Version of the Bible. In the Stuart era, the Rosicrucians were linked with FreeMasonry and the Royal Society. Academics like Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren were also linked with the Rosicrucians. The Order aimed to advance the study and application of ancient science, numerology, and cosmic law. It also encouraged the ideals of the Egyptian Therapeutate by promoting international medical aid for the poor. The International Red Cross uses their symbol (the Red Cross) [source]

If there is no way to verify the existence of a Christian Rosenkreuz in Germany in 1407, then the idea of positing, much less proving, the existence of some kind of continual order existing from not only the Middle Ages but the Egyptian Middle Kingdom period is ridiculous and is unbelievable to any serious historian. But those who are accustomed to dealing with these esoteric groups such as the Freemasons will recognize this trick of trying to invent an absurdly long pedigree for their organization. For example, we know that the Freemasons were founded in 1717 in England. Yet, if we consult the Masons themselves, they will claim a descent all the way back to the Templar Knights and even further, like the Rosicrucians, attaching themselves to some venerable figure of antiquity - in the case of the Masons, King Solomon and Hiram of Tyre, who both lived around 950 BC. Thus we have an order established in the Enlightenment attempting to throw up a fabricated pedigree antedating Christianity. The Masonic claims of an existing order going back 3000 years to Solomon are of course nonsense, just as are the Rosicrucian claims of an origin with Thutmoses III.

A similar method is used in claiming many historical figures as Masons or Rosicrucians. We all know that the Freemasons claim persons like Leonardo da Vinci, Victor Hugo, Isaac Newton as Grandmasters, which is of course absurd (akin to the debunked claims of Peter Plantard and the Priory of Sion hoax). By the way, this is not uncommon to what homosexuals also attempt to do, trying to go back into history and claim certain figures for homosexuality - such as Joan of Arc, Lawrence of Arabia and even King David and Jonathon from the Old Testament. It is a common but devious trick to try to give more historical credence to something that really doesn't have any to begin with. And, of course, there is no "list" of Rosicrucian Grand Masters, at least not one with any validity to it.

This is where Dante comes in - just as the Masons attempt to claim that historical personages predating their own existence were in fact secret Grand Masters, so the Rosicrucians have claimed Dante Alighieri as one of their own, assuming his Rosicrucian connection by the alleged heavy presence of Rosicrucian symbolism in the Divine Comedy. What is it about Dante that leads some to posit him as a Rosicrucian?

Before we get into this, we must point out that this assumption about Dante is untenable, even if we do take the Rosicrucian time line seriously. According to the Rosicrucian manifestos, Christian Rosenkreuz did not found the modern Rosicrucian order until 1407 (which in itself is doubtful); even if we take this seriously, how could Dante have been a Grand Master when he died in the year 1321, some eighty-six years before Rosenkreuz founded the Rosicrucians and fifty-seven years before the date given for Rosenkreuz's birth (1378)? How is Dante the Grand Master of an order that didn't exist when he was alive?

That is my first problem with the claim that Dante was a Rosicrucian - the chronology is not just a little off; it is totally unbelievable, even if we grant the fantastical time line in the Rosicrucian manifesto. This is what I mean when I say that these claims are based on faulty chronology and pseudo-history.

The Celestial Rose

But on to the alleged presence of Rosicrucian symbolism in the Divine Comedy. In the first place, what is considered Rosicrucian symbolism? Both Rosicrucians and those who make an effort to find Rosicrucian or Masonic conspiracies behind everything basically assert the presence of Rosicrucian symbolism anytime a rose shows up, or more damningly, a rose and a cross together. Thus, if some tomb, monument, illustration or literary piece makes use of the rose as a symbol, Rosicrucians will often claim that there was a Rosicrucian connection This very well could be true of many things; for example, the Masonic and esoteric leanings of many of our Founding Fathers is well documented and I have no doubt that many of these Revolutionary era monuments in Washinton D.C. probably do contain Masonic-Rosicrucian symbols.

But this method of discerning Rosicrucian influence breaks down when we attempt to apply it to the Middle Ages, which was thoroughly Catholic and had its own rich symbolism apart from later Enlightenment era thought and influenced by Christian allegory. In Dante's Divine Comedy, the Paradiso Canto XXX, Dante beholds the throngs of the blessed surrounding the throne of God arranged in the shape of a great white rose, memorably portrayed in the famous 1868 engraving by Gustave Dore:

The Rosicrucians are quick to point out that this presence of the rose so close as the climax of Dante's vision indicates that he subscribed to Rosicrucian thought, as Rosicrucians were known to insert the symbol of the rose liberally throughout their works of art.

Well, first off, as I said before, Dante simply could not have been a Rosicrucian for chronological reasons.
Second, are we to assume that just because Rosicrucians utilize the rose that everybody else who does so must also be a Rosicrucian? Did anybody out there have rose shaped frosting on their wedding cake? Get their spouse roses on any occasion? Say the rose if your favorite flower? Just because we find Dante utilizing the symbol of the rose to explain a heavenly mystery need not imply he is a member of an esoteric secret society. Let us not forget, the rose also appears as a symbol of love in the Bible itself in the Song of Songs: "I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley" (S.of S. 2:1). Many Fathers interpreted this to be a reference to Christ Himself.

Third, the celestial rose is not the climax of Dante's vision, as any fan of Dante would recognize; that comes in Canto XXXIII when Dante is escorted into the presence of the Trinity with St. Bernard,  where Dante says that his powers of speech failed him in describing the glory he beheld. 

Fourth, the Rosicrucian explanation for the presence of the celestial rose is not necessary because Dante gives us his own internal reason for why he has the blessed arranged in the form of a rose as he does. A cursory look at the introduction to the Dorothy Sayers translation of Paradiso has a very helpful graph showing the logic of Dante's placing of the saints in a rose formation. Here is the illustration taken right from the Sayer's translation of Paradiso:

The center of the rose, of course, is the Trinity, around which all of the saints are gathered in worship. When we read why Dante placed these saints as he did, we see that his arrangement is entirely theological, steeped in Catholic tradition and has nothing whatsoever to do with any Rosicrucian mumbo-jumbo. It comes down to this - if Dante's symbolism can be explained easily in Christian theological terms, why appeal to an esoteric secret society to explain them? Unless of course someone will say, "But Boniface, if there was a secret Rosicrucian society in the 14th century, that is exactly how one would expect them to act - hiding occult symbols in Christian veils." In that case we simply fall into the fallacy whereby the lack of evidence for something is twisted to become evidence in support of it.

The Symbol of the Rose in Medieval Literature

This leads into the fifth, and I think most important, reason why Dante's use of the rose is being misconstrued in this argument: a lack of understanding of medieval Catholic symbolism.

Even today, the rose is a splendid and enduring symbol of love and affection, as it was in the Middle Ages. What is the origin of the association of the rose with love, and how does this play into Dante's use of the symbol in the Paradiso?

In medieval Christianity, flowers were seen to represent virtues. The most well-known example of this is the lily, which has always represented purity. The myrtle was chastity (there is a fairly helpful chart here). Father F. X. Lasance wrote a devotional book called "The Catholic Girl's Guide" back in the 1920's in which the virtues are presented as a wreath of flowers (see here); this book received the acclamation of Pope Pius XI. We could also recall the Christmas song "King Jesus Hath a Garden", originally composed in Dutch around 1633 and calling to mind the traditional association between the soul and a garden; as one toils in the garden to get flowers to blossom, so the Christian must labor to bring forth the fruit of virtue in the soul:

King Jesus hath a garden, full of divers flowers,
Where I go culling posies gay, all times and hours.

The Lily, white in blossom there, is Chastity:
The Violet, with sweet perfume, Humility. 

The bonny Damask-rose is known as Patience:
The blithe and thrifty Marygold, Obedience.

The Crown Imperial bloometh too in yonder place,
'Tis Charity, of stock divine, the flower of grace.

Yet, 'mid the brave, the bravest prize of all may claim
The Star of Bethlem-Jesus-bless'd be his Name!

 Ah! Jesu Lord, my heal and weal, my bliss complete,
Make thou my heart thy garden-plot, fair, trim and neat.

Then what of the rose? What does it stand for in medieval floral symbolism? The rose is love, of course (well, the red and white roses at least - the pink rose has been associated with grace). In the ancient Church, the five-petaled rose was seen as symbolic of the Five Wounds of Jesus. Later, the rose came to stand for the Virgin Mary; one of her titles is Rosa Mystica, the Mystic Rose. Interestingly enough, one prominent use of the rose theme in the Middle Ages was the rose window of the Gothic cathedrals. The most common theme depicted on a medieval rose window was the Last Judgment. In such windows, Christ is shown seated in the centre "light" and within the lights around him are the symbols of the four Gospel writers, Apostles, Prophets, Saints and Angels.This is interesting because if we scroll back up and look at Dante's scheme for the celestial rose of the blessed, we see exactly the same arrangement.

It would not be a stretch to imagine that Dante had the rose window in mind when laying out his vision of heaven. Just as the faithful gathered in the cathedral would have looked up at the rose window to see Christ, blazing in the sun, surrounded by images of the redeemed in glass, so does Dante imagine the blessed in heaven surrounding and adoring Christ in the form of a glorious celestial rose.

The rose as a symbol of love came to the fore during the troubadour age, especially in the wake of the 13th century allegory Roman de la Rose on courtly love. The red rose in particular has always been associated with human love (think Valentine's Day), as expressed by the great Scottish bard Robert Burns: O, my love's like a red, red rose/That's newly sprung in June.

But Dante depicts the celestial rose as not red but white, signifying that the love enjoyed by the blessed in heaven is not an earthly love but a heavenly love, wherein all of the saints and angels love unendingly by, with and in that one Love which is Love Itself. It is the love of God, He Who is Love.

The rose had a millennium of rich, Christian symbolism surrounding it before the first Rosicrucian manifesto was ever published. It was this symbolism that Dante was deeply immersed in. If we know that Christianity had such a vibrant collection of images and ideals associated with flowers and the rose in particular, why suppose anything conspiratorial?

Furthermore, we might point out that the Rosicrucian manifestos themselves were almost certainly authored by Johannes V. Andrea, the Lutheran theologian of W├╝rtemberg (1586-1654). According to his own admission, Andrea composed in 1602 or 1603 the Rosicrucian book, "Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosenkreuz 1459", which appeared in 1616. This book, called by Andrea himself "a youthful literary trifle" in which he intended to ridicule the mania of the times for occult marvels (Life, p. 10). Alchemistic occultism is mocked at in these works and the follies of the then untimely reformers of the world are openly ridiculed. The fantastic form of the tracts is borrowed from contemporary romances of knighthood and travel.  One piece of evidence suggesting that Andrea was the author of the Rosicrucian manifestos is the fact that the the rose and cross occur in the family arms of Andrea.  In his later life, Andrea was appalled that people took his satirical works seriously and openly renounced Rosicrucianism, frequently referring to it as a ridiculous comedy and folly.


Is there any other evidence for a Rosicrucian connection with Dante other than the fact that he makes use of the image of the rose in Paradiso? There is an obscure argument based on numerology, in which the fact that there are 3 parts to the Divine Comedy, or 33 cantos, or so many circles of hell are given a Kabbalistic significance. You can see here if you really want to dive into this nonsense, but here is an excerpt that makes a Kabbalist interpretation of Dante's Inferno:

There are 9 Circles plus the Well of the Giants; 9 + 1 = 10. There are 10 sefirot on the Tree of Life. The Tree also has a 9 + 1 = 10 structure: Keter + Chakhmah + Binah; Chesed + Gevurah + Tiferet; Netzchah + Hod + Yesod; Malkhut (alone). The Tree has a division between 6 upper and 4 lower sefirot. They are divided by the Veil. Dante’s scheme has 6 Circles in Upper Hell and then 3 Circles plus the Well of the Giants, in Lower Hell. Looking only at the lowest Circles, they have 3, 10 and 4 sub-divisions. There are 3 pillars on the Tree of Life, 10 sefirot and, depending upon how we look at it, 4 sub-divisions of the Tree (which correlate to the 4 Worlds). If Dante is making a cryptic reference to the Tree of Life, then the 32 internal paths lead inevitably to the external 33rd and to Lucifer, the Light Bearer. All 33 cantos describe Dante’s experience in the metaphysical place of Earth; Aristotle’s alchemical element of Earth.    

Now Virgil conducts Dante across the alchemical Water and to the outskirts of Purgatory. Eventually, after meeting 4 classes of Tardy Penitents, they arrive at St Peter’s Gate. The penitents and the gate are all located in the alchemical element of Air. Dante falls asleep and dreams for the first time. They meet the gatekeeper, an angel who strikes Dante 3 times on the chest and paints 7 "P’s" on his forehead. This is clearly an initiation ritual. In mystery religion terms, he has entered the Pronaos of the Temple. He has moved to the alchemical element of Fire.   

Let us pause and note the numbers: 4 classes of penitents correlates to the 4 Worlds of the kabala; 3 + 7 initiation marks correspond to the 3 + 7 division of the Tree of Life. The 3 Supernal sefirot are divided from the 7 lower sefirot by the Abyss. Thus the 3 above are qualitatively different from the 7 below; as blows are different from painted "P’s".   

As in the case of the rose, why resort to this very obscure and overly complex interpretation when standard Christian numerology will suffice? For example, we all know that 3 is a symbol of the Trinity, 12 of th Apostles, 5 of the wounds of Christ, 9 of the Beatitudes, 7 the virtues, etc. But let us take the number 33 - Purgatorio and Paradiso each contain 33 cantos; in traditional Christian symbolism, 33 has stood for the number of years our Blessed Lord was on the earth. This is common knowledge. But here is the Kabbalistic spin:

So what does 33 mean? Obviously, it alludes to the age of Christ at his crucifixion and resurrection...However, 33 also alludes to the kabalistic Tree of Life. There are 32 internal paths on the Tree and then there is the external 33rd path that leads to God.    

Now, is 33 "obviously" alludes to Christ, then why invoke the "32 internal paths" of the Kabbalist "Tree of Life"? Why search for occultic Jewish explanations when Dante's classical Christian numerology is well known and well attested? At some point, Ockham's Razor has to come into play - why multiply these obscure explanations for Dante;s number schemes when conventional Christian numerology satisfactorily explains them all and fits in much better with what we know about Dante and his faith? Like the case with the rose, I think many fail to realize that medieval Christianity had its own very complex economy of symbols - numbers, flowers, animals and even rocks all had symbolic meanings relating to Christ and the Church (see here for an introduction to medieval "Bestiaries and Lapidaries"). This knowledge would have been intuitive to the medieval; perhaps with the strong iconoclastic reaction against symbolism that occured in the 16th and 17th centuries during the Protestant upheaval. In an effort to cleanse the church of statues, symbols and icons, many of these medieval symbols have passed into obscurity.


There is no objective evidence that Dante was a Rosicrucian; it all depends on symbolic meaning read into Dante's works. There is no evidence that the Rosicrucians even existed prior to the early 1600's; the founder of Rosicrucianism, Johann Andrea, wrote the Rosicrucian manifestos as a joke that was never meant to be taken seriously (much like the founders of the Ku Klux Klan started the group as something "fun" to do on Christmas Eve and never meant for it to become what it did). The alleged Rosicrucian symbols in Dante's works make much more sense if we take them in the context of the Christian symbolism that would have been readily understandable in Dante's day. Since everything in Dante can be easily and satisfactorily explained without invoking a Rosicrucian connection (and since the Rosicrucians did not even exist in Dante's day), the claim of the Rosicrucians that Dante Alighieri was one of their member, let alone a Grand Master, is absurd and unhistorical, based on pseudo-history and ignorance of the rich Catholic symbolism of the Middle Ages.


Ben said...

Loved the beautiful exposition of the Rose in Canto XXX. Good work.

Anonymous said...

Dante may not have been a Rosicrucian but he was a Cabalist, a Christian Kabbalist. The rose means something, so do the number of steps to attain oneness.

Boniface said...

There is no evidence to support that. All we have is the Divine Comedy, and there is nothing in the Comedy that is not explainable in terms of standard, conventional Catholic symbolism of the day. You are reading Kabbalistic nonsense into Dante's symbolism.

Anonymous said...

The Divine Comedy is a guide to how a person, any person can through introspection become a better person, a way to realize one's potential. Why do I choose to sin? How do the decisions I make create the world I am living in? This path or idea does indeed have ties to the Kabbalah as well as to Neo-Platonism. Dante was not the first European author or Christian to be influenced by ancient mystical traditions. Know thyself.

Boniface said...

As I said to the last commentor who made such assertions, there is no evidence to support that Dante was involved in Kabbalah. All we have is the Divine Comedy, and there is no internal evidence in the Comedy that is not explainable in terms of standard, conventional Catholic symbolism of the day. You are reading Kabbalistic nonsense into Dante's symbolism.

Anonymous said...

Freemasonry is one of the only western mystery schools still in existence. It may be true that its origins do not go back to Solomon's Temple but it is also not true that they only go back as far as 1717. 1717 is the year that a Grand Lodge was formed from lodges which had already existed prior to that year. There is ample proof that Freemasonry existed prior to 1717.