Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Early Modern Period

16th - 18th century


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.

Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.






This was one of the favorite positions used to convince "heretics" to recant.
Besides causing excruciating back pains, it was easy to administer other torments.


a theological doctrine or system rejected as false by ecclesiastical authority.

Heresy differs from schism in that the heretic sometimes remains in the church despite his doctrinal errors, whereas the schismatic may be doctrinally orthodox but severs himself from the church. The Greek word hairesis (from which heresy is derived) was originally a neutral term that signified merely the holding of a particular set of philosophical opinions. Once appropriated by Christianity, however, the term heresy began to convey a note of disapproval. This was because the church from the start regarded itself as the custodian of a divinely imparted revelation which it alone was authorized to expound under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Thus, any interpretation that differed from the official one was necessarily “heretical” in the new, pejorative sense of the word.

This attitude of hostility to heresy is evident in the New Testament itself. St. Paul, for instance, insists that his gospel is identical with that of the Twelve Apostles, and in the later books of the New Testament the contrast in attitudes regarding approved doctrines and heretical ones is even more sharply drawn. In the 2nd century the Christian church became increasingly aware of the need to keep its teaching uncontaminated, and it devised criteria to test deviations. The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd-century Christian writers, appealed to the prophets and Apostles as sources of authoritative doctrine, and Irenaeus and Tertullian laid great stress on “the rule of faith,” which was a loose summary of essential Christian beliefs handed down from apostolic times. Later, the ecclesiastical and universal church council became the instrument for defining orthodoxy and condemning heresy. Eventually, in the Western church, the doctrinal decision of a council had to be ratified by the pope to be accepted.

During its early centuries, the Christian church dealt with many heresies. They included, among others, Docetism, Montanism, Adoptionism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and Gnosticism. See also Donatist; Marcionite; monophysite.

Historically, the major means that the church had of combating heretics was to excommunicate them. In the 12th and 13th centuries, however, the Inquisition was established by the church to combat heresy; heretics who refused to recant after being tried by the church were handed over to the civil authorities for punishment, usually execution.

A new situation came about in the 16th century with the Reformation, which spelled the breakup of Western Christendom’s previous doctrinal unity. The Roman Catholic church, satisfied that it is the true church armed with an infallible authority, has alone remained faithful to the ancient and medieval theory of heresy, and it occasionally denounces doctrines or opinions that it considers heretical. Most of the great Protestant churches similarly started with the assumption that their own particular doctrines embodied the final statement of Christian truth and were thus prepared to denounce as heretics those who differed with them. But with the gradual growth of toleration and the 20th-century ecumenical movement, most Protestant churches have drastically revised the notion of heresy as understood in the pre-Reformation church. It does not now seem to them inconsistent for a person to stoutly maintain the doctrines of his own communion while not regarding as heretics those who hold different views. The Roman Catholic church, too, draws a distinction between those who willfully and persistently adhere to doctrinal error and those who embrace it through no fault of their own, e.g., as a result of upbringing in another tradition. The term heresy also has been used among Jews, although they have not been as intense as Christians in their punishment of heretics. The concept and combating of heresy has historically been less important in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islām than in Christianity.

Anabaptists in northern Europe were drowned because they
practiced baptism by immersion.




(from Greek dokein, “to seem”), Christian heresy and one of the earliest Christian sectarian doctrines, affirming that Christ did not have a real or natural body during his life on earth but only an apparent or phantom one. Though its incipient forms are alluded to in the New Testament, such as in the Letters of John (e.g., 1 John 4:1–3; 2 John 7), Docetism became more fully developed as an important doctrinal position of Gnosticism, a religious dualist system of belief arising in the 2nd century ad which held that matter was evil and the spirit good and claimed that salvation was attained only through esoteric knowledge, or gnosis. The heresy developed from speculations about the imperfection or essential impurity of matter. More thoroughgoing Docetists asserted that Christ was born without any participation of matter and that all the acts and sufferings of his life, including the Crucifixion, were mere appearances. They consequently denied Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension into heaven. Milder Docetists attributed to Christ an ethereal and heavenly body but disagreed on the degree to which it shared the real actions and sufferings of Christ. Docetism was attacked by all opponents of Gnosticism, especially by Bishop Ignatius of Antioch in the 2nd century.


The victim in  the background appears to still be alive after the flames have gone out.



also called Cataphrygian heresy, or New Prophecy
a heretical movement founded by the prophet Montanus that arose in the Christian church in Phrygia, Asia Minor, in the 2nd century. Subsequently it flourished in the West, principally in Carthage under the leadership of Tertullian in the 3rd century. It had almost died out in the 5th and 6th centuries, although some evidence indicates that it survived into the 9th century.

The Montanist writings have perished, except for brief references preserved by ecclesiastical writers. The chief sources for the history of the movement are Eusebius’ Historia ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical History), the writings of Tertullian and Epiphanius, and inscriptions, particularly those in central Phrygia.

According to the known history, Montanus, a recent Christian convert, appeared at Ardabau, a small village in Phrygia, about 156. He fell into a trance and began to “prophesy under the influence of the Spirit.” He was soon joined by two young women, Prisca, or Priscilla, and Maximilla, who also began to prophesy. The movement spread throughout Asia Minor. Inscriptions have indicated that a number of towns were almost completely converted to Montanism. After the first enthusiasm had waned, however, the followers of Montanus were found predominantly in the rural districts.

The essential principle of Montanism was that the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, whom Jesus had promised in the Gospel According to John, was manifesting himself to the world through Montanus and the prophets and prophetesses associated with him. This did not seem at first to deny the doctrines of the church or to attack the authority of the bishops. Prophecy from the earliest days had been held in honour, and the church acknowledged the charismatic gift of some prophets.

It soon became clear, however, that the Montanist prophecy was new. True prophets did not, as Montanus did, deliberately induce a kind of ecstatic intensity and a state of passivity and then maintain that the words they spoke were the voice of the Spirit. It also became clear that the claim of Montanus to have the final revelation of the Holy Spirit implied that something could be added to the teaching of Christ and the Apostles and that, therefore, the church had to accept a fuller revelation.

Pushing off bridge


Another important aspect of Montanism was the expectation of the Second Coming of Christ, which was believed to be imminent. This belief was not confined to Montanists, but with them it took a special form that gave their activities the character of a popular revival. They believed the heavenly Jerusalem was soon to descend on the Earth in a plain between the two villages of Pepuza and Tymion in Phrygia. The prophets and many followers went there, and many Christian communities were almost abandoned.

In addition to prophetic enthusiasm, Montanism taught a legalistic moral rigorism. The time of fasting was lengthened, followers were forbidden to flee from martyrdom, marriage was discouraged, and second marriages were prohibited.

When it became obvious that the Montanist doctrine was an attack on the Catholic faith, the bishops of Asia Minor gathered in synods and finally excommunicated the Montanists, probably c. 177. Montanism then became a separate sect with its seat of government at Pepuza. It maintained the ordinary Christian ministry but imposed on it higher orders of patriarchs and associates who were probably successors of the first Montanist prophets. It continued in the East until severe legislation against Montanism by Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527–565) essentially destroyed it, but some remnants evidently survived into the 9th century.

The earliest record of any knowledge of Montanism in the West dates from 177, and 25 years later there was a group of Montanists in Rome. It was in Carthage in Africa, however, that the sect became important. There, its most illustrious convert was Tertullian, who became interested in Montanism c. 206 and finally left the Catholic Church in 212–213. He primarily supported the moral rigorism of the movement against what he considered the moral laxity of the Catholic bishops. Montanism declined in the West early in the 5th century.




The drowning of Anabaptists in northern Europe.



Christian heresy
either of two Christian heresies: one developed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and is also known as Dynamic Monarchianism (see Monarchianism); the other began in the 8th century in Spain and was concerned with the teaching of Elipandus, archbishop of Toledo. Wishing to distinguish in Christ the operations of each of his natures, human and divine, Elipandus referred to Christ in his humanity as “adopted son” in contradistinction to Christ in his divinity, who is the Son of God by nature. The son of Mary, assumed by the Word, thus was not the Son of God by nature but only by adoption.

Opposition to this view of Christ was expressed, which led Pope Adrian I to intervene and condemn the teaching. Elipandus gained the support of Felix, bishop of Urgel, who eventually engaged in a literary duel with Alcuin of York over the doctrine.

In 798 Pope Leo III held a council in Rome that condemned the “Adoptionism” of Felix and anathematized him. Felix was forced to recant in 799 and was placed under surveillance. Elipandus remained unrepentant, however, and continued as archbishop of Toledo, but the Adoptionist view was almost universally abandoned after his death. It was temporarily revived in the 12th century in the teachings of Peter Abelard and his followers.







Christian heresy
a Christian heresy that developed during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It opposed the doctrine of an independent, personal subsistence of the Logos, affirmed the sole deity of God the Father, and thus represented the extreme monotheistic view. Though it regarded Christ as Redeemer, it clung to the numerical unity of the Deity. Two types of Monarchianism developed: the Dynamic (or Adoptionist) and the Modalistic (or Sabellian).

Dynamic Monarchianism held that Christ was a mere man, miraculously conceived, but constituted the Son of God simply by the infinitely high degree in which he had been filled with divine wisdom and power. This view was taught at Rome about the end of the 2nd century by Theodotus, who was excommunicated by Pope Victor, and taught somewhat later by Artemon, who was excommunicated by Pope Zephyrinus. About 260 it was again taught by Paul of Samosata. It is the belief of many modern Unitarians.

Modalistic Monarchianism took exception to the “subordinationism” of some of the Church Fathers and maintained that the names Father and Son were only different designations of the same subject, the one God, who “with reference to the relations in which He had previously stood to the world is called the Father, but in reference to His appearance in humanity is called the Son.” It was taught by Praxeas, a priest from Asia Minor, in Rome c. 206 and was opposed by Tertullian in the tract Adversus Praxean (c. 213), an important contribution to the doctrine of the Trinity. See also Sabellianism; Adoptionism.



Joan of Arc, Witch and Heretic



Christian heresy
Christian heresy that was a more developed and less naive form of Modalistic Monarchianism (see Monarchianism); it was propounded by Sabellius (fl. c. 217–c. 220), who was possibly a presbyter in Rome. Little is actually known of his life because the most detailed information about him was contained in the prejudiced reports of his contemporary, Hippolytus, an anti-Monarchian Roman theologian. In Rome there was an active struggle between the Monarchians, or Modalists, and those who affirmed permanent distinctions (“Persons”) within the Godhead. The Monarchians, in their concern for the divine monarchy (the absolute unity and indivisibility of God), denied that such distinctions were ultimate or permanent. Sabellius evidently taught that the Godhead is a monad, expressing itself in three operations: as Father, in creation; as Son, in redemption; and as Holy Spirit, in sanctification. Pope Calixtus was at first inclined to be sympathetic to Sabellius’ teaching but later condemned it and excommunicated Sabellius.

The heresy broke out again 30 years later in Libya and was opposed by Dionysius of Alexandria. In the 4th century, Arius accused his bishop of Sabellianism, and throughout the Arian controversy this charge was levelled at the supporters of Nicene orthodoxy (those who accepted the doctrine of the Trinity set forth in the Nicene Creed), whose emphasis on the unity of substance of Father and Son was interpreted by Arians to mean that the orthodox denied any personal distinctions within the Godhead. About 375 the heresy was renewed at Neocaesarea and was attacked by Basil the Great. In Spain Priscillian seems to have enunciated a doctrine of the divine unity in Sabellian terms.

At the time of the Reformation, Sabellianism was reformulated by Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian and physician, to the effect that Christ and the Holy Spirit are merely representative forms of the one Godhead, the Father. In the 18th century, Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish mystical philosopher and scientist, also taught this doctrine, as did his disciples, who founded the New Church.






Christian heresy
a Christian heresy first proposed early in the 4th century by the Alexandrian presbyter Arius. It affirmed that Christ is not truly divine but a created being. Arius’ basic premise was the uniqueness of God, who is alone self-existent and immutable; the Son, who is not self-existent, cannot be God. Because the Godhead is unique, it cannot be shared or communicated, so the Son cannot be God. Because the Godhead is immutable, the Son, who is mutable, being represented in the Gospels as subject to growth and change, cannot be God. The Son must, therefore, be deemed a creature who has been called into existence out of nothing and has had a beginning. Moreover, the Son can have no direct knowledge of the Father since the Son is finite and of a different order of existence.

According to its opponents, especially the bishop Athanasius, Arius’ teaching reduced the Son to a demigod, reintroduced polytheism (since worship of the Son was not abandoned), and undermined the Christian concept of redemption since only he who was truly God could be deemed to have reconciled man to the Godhead.

The controversy seemed to have been brought to an end by the Council of Nicaea (ad 325), which condemned Arius and his teaching and issued a creed to safeguard orthodox Christian belief. This creed states that the Son is homoousion tō Patri (“of one substance with the Father”), thus declaring him to be all that the Father is: he is completely divine. In fact, however, this was only the beginning of a long-protracted dispute.



From 325 to 337, when the emperor Constantine died, the Arian leaders, exiled after the Council of Nicaea, tried by intrigue to return to their churches and sees and to banish their enemies. They were partly successful.

From 337 to 350 Constans, sympathetic to the orthodox Christians, was emperor in the West, and Constantius II, sympathetic to the Arians, was emperor in the East. At a church council held at Antioch (341), an affirmation of faith that omitted the homoousion clause was issued. Another church council was held at Sardica (modern Sofia) in 342, but little was achieved by either council.

In 350 Constantius became sole ruler of the empire, and under his leadership the Nicene party (orthodox Christians) was largely crushed. The extreme Arians then declared that the Son was “unlike” (anomoios) the Father. These anomoeans succeeded in having their views endorsed at Sirmium in 357, but their extremism stimulated the moderates, who asserted that the Son was “of similar substance” (homoiousios) with the Father. Constantius at first supported these homoiousians but soon transferred his support to the homoeans, led by Acacius, who affirmed that the Son was “like” (homoios) the Father. Their views were approved in 360 at Constantinople, where all previous creeds were rejected, the term ousia (“substance,” or “stuff”) was repudiated, and a statement of faith was issued stating that the Son was “like the Father who begot him.”

After Constantius’ death (361), the orthodox Christian majority in the West consolidated its position. The persecution of orthodox Christians conducted by the (Arian) emperor Valens (364–378) in the East and the success of the teaching of Basil the Great of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus led the homoiousian majority in the East to realize its fundamental agreement with the Nicene party. When the emperors Gratian (367–383) and Theodosius I (379–395) took up the defense of orthodoxy, Arianism collapsed. In 381 the second ecumenical council met at Constantinople. Arianism was proscribed, and a statement of faith, the Nicene Creed, was approved.

Although this ended the heresy in the empire, Arianism continued among some of the Germanic tribes to the end of the 7th century. In modern times some Unitarians are virtually Arians in that they are unwilling either to reduce Christ to a mere human being or to attribute to him a divine nature identical with that of the Father. The Christology of Jehovah’s Witnesses, also, is a form of Arianism; they regard Arius as a forerunner of Charles Taze Russell, the founder of their movement.



Die Hexenprobe. Stich von G. Franz



religious history
also called Pelagian Heresy, Main
a 5th-century Christian heresy taught by Pelagius and his followers that stressed the essential goodness of human nature and the freedom of the human will. Pelagius was concerned about the slack moral standards among Christians, and he hoped to improve their conduct by his teachings. Rejecting the arguments of those who claimed that they sinned because of human weakness, he insisted that God made human beings free to choose between good and evil and that sin is a voluntary act committed by a person against God’s law. Celestius, a disciple of Pelagius, denied the church’s doctrine of original sin and the necessity of infant Baptism.

Pelagianism was opposed by Augustine, bishop of Hippo, who asserted that human beings could not attain righteousness by their own efforts and were totally dependent upon the grace of God. Condemned by two councils of African bishops in 416, and again at Carthage in 418, Pelagius and Celestius were finally excommunicated in 418; Pelagius’ later fate is unknown.

The controversy, however, was not over. Julian of Eclanum continued to assert the Pelagian view and engaged Augustine in literary polemic until the latter’s death in 430. Julian himself was finally condemned, with the rest of the Pelagian party, at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Another heresy, known as Semi-Pelagianism, flourished in southern Gaul until it was finally condemned at the second Council of Orange in 529.




The Spanish Inquisition in Holland.



religious movement
any of various related philosophical and religious movements prominent in the Greco-Roman world in the early Christian era, particularly the 2nd century.

The designation gnosticism is a term of modern scholarship. It was first used by the English poet and philosopher of religion Henry More (1614–87), who applied it to the religious groups referred to in ancient sources as gnostikoi (Greek: those who have gnosis, or “knowledge”). The Greek adjective gnostikos (“leading to knowledge” or “pertaining to knowledge”) was first used by Plato to describe the cognitive or intellectual dimension of learning, as opposed to the practical. By the 2nd century ad, however, gnostikoi had been adopted by various Christian groups, some of which used it positively as a self-designation, though others criticized this practice as a presumptuous claim of exclusive access to truth.

Consensus on a definition of gnosticism has proved difficult. The groups conventionally classified as gnostic did not constitute a single movement with relatively homogeneous organization, teachings, and rituals. Even the self-designation gnostic is problematic, since it is attested for only some of the traditions conventionally treated as gnostic and its connotations are ambiguous. Whereas some researchers argue that the term gnostic should be restricted to the sects or schools that called themselves by this name, others extend the category to include additional religious movements that allegedly shared various distinctive features. Still others treat gnosticism as a world religion that existed from antiquity to early modern times—surviving, for example, in the mythology and ritual of the Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (see below Influence).

Many of the so-called gnostic groups are characterized by a mythology that distinguishes between an inferior creator of the world (a demiurge) and a more transcendent god or order of being. Another frequently encountered theme is that there is a special class or race of humans that is descended from the transcendent realm and is destined to achieve salvation and to return to its spiritual origins. Salvation is understood as a revelation that reawakens knowledge (gnosis) of the race’s divine identity; in contrast, the more “orthodox” Christian emphasis is on redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although the myth of a demiurge and the theme of reawakened awareness of divine origins have parallels in Platonic and Neo-Pythagorean philosophy—and in fact were partly derived from those traditions—it is often asserted that in the gnostic myths there is a far sharper dualism, involving a much more negative attitude toward the inferior creator god, the material cosmos, and the human body.

Texts » Adversus haereses
The classic source for ancient controversies regarding groups conventionally classified as gnostic is Adversus haereses (Latin: “Against Heresies”), a five-volume work written in Greek about ad 180 by the Christian bishop Irenaeus of Lyons. Originally titled “Exposure and Refutation of Knowledge Falsely So-Called,” this extraordinarily influential work was studied, adapted, and expanded upon from the late 2nd through the 4th century by Christian writers including Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, Origen of Alexandria, and Epiphanius of Constantia. In Adversus haereses Irenaeus catalogs and criticizes the doctrines of various Christian teachers and their followers from the 1st and 2nd centuries, devoting particular attention to Valentinus and other teachers who were said to have adapted Valentinus’s doctrines. He also reports on the teachings of other deviant movements, such as those of Simon Magus, Menander, Satornil (or Saturninus) of Antioch, Basilides, Carpocrates, Marcellina, Cerinthus, Cerdo, Marcion of Sinope, Tatian, and the Ebionites.

At one point Irenaeus mentions “the sect called gnostikê,” or “knowledge-supplying,” whose myths he claims had been adapted by Valentinus. He may have had in mind the teaching that he later summarizes as that of certain gnostikoi—or “Barbelo-gnostikoi,” as the original text may have read. The summary of the myth is ambiguous at points, but it begins with a primordial aeon (eternal entity or age) named Barbelo and an unnameable Father, perhaps to be understood as female and male aspects, respectively, of the highest god. In any event, the Father and Barbelo generate a divine family of entities, each of which is a mythic personification of a divine faculty or attribute: Thought (a personification of the Father’s first self-thought), Foreknowledge, Incorruptibility, Eternal Life, and so forth. Among these spiritual entities is a perfect human named Adamas—a divine prototype of the earthly Adam of Genesis. Adamas is united with a consort, Perfect Knowledge (gnosis). This teaching thus provides a mythic account of how plurality (of divine attributes) originated from unity and how true humanity is also divine. The last divine entity to emerge is Wisdom. But unlike the other entities, Wisdom is said to be without a consort. Her attempt to find one, though well intentioned, leads her away from the supernal realm to lower regions, and she generates an inferior “first ruler” who then creates the material world.

The myth conveys the message that the biblical creator is only a parody of divinity. Life in this imperfect world does contain inklings of truth; human wisdom does have a relation to divinity reality. Yet wisdom can go astray, and false gods can result. Humanity, in a state of spiritual amnesia before accepting the revelation of this myth, is awakened by reconnection with Perfect Knowledge.

Many scholars would reserve the term gnostic in the most proper sense to the sectarians who taught this myth. Irenaeus’s use of gnostikoi is somewhat confusing, however, since he sometimes seems to apply it to all of the groups he condemns, rather than to only one or two sects—as when he refers to “Marcion or Valentinus or Basilides or Carpocrates or Simon or the rest of the falsely called ‘gnostics.’ ” Furthermore, it is uncertain from his report how many of these movements called themselves gnostic and whether those that did intended the term as a proper name indicating sectarian identity or merely as the assertion of a general quality (“informed” or “enlightened”). Later sources provide further information about the movements described by Irenaeus as well as about other groups, but they offer little help in understanding the term gnostikoi itself, which they sometimes apply to one or two specific sects and sometimes to a wide variety of groups deemed heretical.


Texts » Apocryphon of John
Until the 20th century the works of Irenaeus and other heresiologists (orthodox Christian writers who described unorthodox groups) were the principal sources of information about gnostic movements. Only a handful of manuscripts containing the authentic writings of such groups were known; they existed primarily in two sets of Coptic texts, the Askew Codex and the Bruce Codex, which were discovered in Egypt in the 18th century but not published until the 19th century. A third important Coptic text, known as the Berlin Codex 8502, was announced in 1896 but not published until the mid-20th century. In 1945, 12 additional codices and parts of a 13th codex, all probably dating from the 4th century, were discovered near the town of Nag Hammadi (now Naj Hammadi) in Egypt. The Nag Hammadi collection contains Coptic translations of more than four dozen writings that are diverse in type and content, including “secret sayings” of Jesus, non-Christian works belonging to the Egyptian Hermetic tradition, theological treatises, and lengthy mythological stories. Many of the works also contain doctrines or myths that were condemned by Irenaeus and other heresiologists.

Among the Nag Hammadi writings are three separate copies of the Apocryphon of John, an especially important gnostic myth; a fourth copy is included in the Berlin Codex 8502. Corresponding closely to the myth that Irenaeus ascribed to the sect called gnostikê, the Apocryphon purports to be a secret revelation from Jesus that was received in a vision by the apostle John. It conveys the true nature of the divine realm and its relationship to the material cosmos and humanity. While the transcendent god or invisible spirit is inconceivable and ineffable, the pleroma (Greek: “full perfection”) of the divine is a hierarchical family of personified aeons, who emerge as the fruit of the spirit’s self-contemplation or self-expression. For example, as in the myth described by Irenaeus, Barbelo emerges as the first thought of the transcendent god, and she is soon accompanied by Foreknowledge, Incorruptibility, Eternal Life, and others. The imperfect material realm is understood as a copy of the perfect spiritual realm, an idea partly derived from the Platonic doctrine of Ideas, or Forms. The myth also draws on the biblical theme of humanity as formed in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27); true or divine humanity, however, is this spiritual family brought into being in the realm of perfection as the spirit’s image. This realm is the dwelling place of the spiritual Adamas, his son Seth, and the race or offspring of Seth.

The creator of the visible realm and of the earthly Adam and Eve of the biblical Garden of Eden is a lesser being, a ruler (archon) named Ialdabaoth, who is a dark caricature of the creator God of Genesis and the demiurge of Platonism. Wisdom, the lowest entity in the realm of perfection, creates Ialdabaoth in an unauthorized attempt to produce a likeness of herself. Ialdabaoth in turn creates the material cosmos and rules it with subordinate powers who are his own imperfect offspring. A willful and malevolent figure, Ialdabaoth is unaware of any power above him and is easily duped by providence into actions that either serve divine ends or are stymied by countermeasures from the divine realm. He does not realize that his cosmos is patterned after a more transcendent realm, and he ignorantly boasts that there is no god above him.

When, in response to this declaration, the image of the divine humanity above is revealed on the waters below—an allusion to Genesis 1:2 (“the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”)—Ialdabaoth and his rulers fashion an Adam in its likeness. Wisdom then tricks Ialdabaoth into breathing life into this figure, an act that empties him of what power he had received from Wisdom and transfers it to Adam. The spiritual power now within Adam is portrayed as a feminine entity who supplies him with insight that makes him disobedient to Ialdabaoth. The latter then attempts to deprive Adam of this power by putting him to sleep, extracting the power from Adam’s rib, and molding it into the shape of a woman. But Ialdabaoth’s plan fails. For in this revision of the biblical myth (Genesis 2:21–23), when Adam awakens and beholds the woman, Eve, he experiences an even deeper insight, an awakening from the “drunkenness of darkness.” Enraged, Ialdabaoth casts the couple from paradise, introduces sexual desire, and seduces Eve and begets from her Cain and Abel. Because their father is an oppressive archon rather than a human, however, Cain and Abel are the same. As archons, they rule over the material elements (fire, wind, earth, and water) and therefore also over the material bodies of future human beings. However, Adam begets his son Seth in the likeness of the divine Seth, son of Adamas, the prototype of ideal humanity. The human race is thus spiritually the seed of Seth, though bodily incarnation at birth entails a forgetting of this divine origin. The realization of one’s spiritual ancestry must be reawakened by revelation.

This is a theme from Platonic philosophy, illustrated in the myth of Er in Plato’s Republic, in which a slain warrior named Er is revived briefly on his funeral pyre and tells of what he has seen of the fate of souls after death. The lengthy account includes a description of reincarnation and of the necessity of each soul to drink of the river of Forgetfulness before coming into another body. According to the Apocryphon, until a soul is saved by receiving revelation of its true identity, it continues to experience further reincarnations. If souls knowingly reject the revelation, they will suffer eternal damnation.

Several Nag Hammadi texts include myths that are similar to those of the Apocryphon of John. This tradition has sometimes been labeled “Sethian” because of the prominent role of the figure of Seth in several of these works. The origins of this Sethian mythology remain uncertain, but it may have emerged prior to the birth of Christianity or apart from Christianity in heterodox Jewish circles; it could then have been adapted by Christian writers who identified Jesus with the myth’s original revealer figure. In any event, there is significant diversity among the so-called Sethian sources, and they are probably best viewed as products of different stages of a complex series of religious innovations.


Valentinian gnosticism
The category “gnostic,” however, has conventionally included still other movements. The most famous of these are the Valentinian traditions that Irenaeus and other heresiologists discuss at great length and which are also found among the Nag Hammadi works. The evidence regarding Valentinus himself is fragmentary but suggests that he was a Christian mystic with a Platonic approach to the interpretation of scripture. His contribution to the more elaborate mythologies of the Valentinian tradition, however, remains uncertain. That tradition typically involves a myth of the unfolding of the divine perfection in a genealogy of aeons, the last of whom is Wisdom.

Valentinianism recognizes a demiurge that is produced by Wisdom and is distinct from the true god. The creator of the material universe and humanity, the demiurge is not a malevolent figure, as is Ialdabaoth in the Apocryphon of John. Human beings possess a soul given to them by the demiurge, a spiritual element provided by Wisdom, and a body made from matter. The spiritual element, which is sometimes referred to as a “seed,” is that divine aspect of humans which is capable of eventual reunion with the spiritual realm. Valentinian sources often use the image of a school to describe the purpose of one’s existence in this world. Thus, through the discipline of life in general as well as through the instruction that was apparently an important aspect of Valentinian communal life, the spiritual person achieves the maturity necessary to be restored to the realm of perfection after the physical death of the body, while the soul remains with the demiurge in an intermediate place. Some sources distinguish not just three elements within human beings but also three different human types: spiritual, “soulish,” and material. Finally, the Valentinian tradition maintains that the role played by Jesus is primarily instructional: spiritual perfection and salvation are obtained by recognizing his divine nature and by discerning the hidden meanings of passages in the Gospels and other scriptures.

The Trial of George Jacobs, Austust 5th, 1692,  by T. H. Matteson

Diversity of gnostic myths
As Valentinian tradition illustrates, the myths usually categorized as gnostic do not always demonize the creator, as was the case in the Apocryphon of John. What they share is not necessarily an extreme hostility toward the creator or the material cosmos but simply an interpretation of biblical narrative that introduces—in a variety of ways—inferior creators. For example, the myth that Irenaeus reports for the early 2nd-century teacher Satornil of Antioch seems to parallel many elements of the Apocryphon of John. Yet in Satornil’s myth the seven world-creating angels—one of whom is Yahweh, the God of the Israelites—are created by the transcendent god and rebel only later.

Another 2nd-century figure, Justin (not to be confused with the more famous Justin Martyr), taught that there were three original entities, a transcendent being called the Good, a male intermediate figure named Elohim (the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament), and an earth-mother figure named Eden or Israel. The world was created from the love of Elohim and Eden, and the first human couple were also created as a symbol of this love. Ironically, evil was introduced after Elohim learned of the existence of the Good above him and abandoned Eden to ascend to it. The ascent of Elohim entailed pain for Eden, whose consequent anger brought ills on humankind. Two writings in the Nag Hammadi library, the Nature of the Archons and On the Origin of the World, contain a figure named Sabaoth, one of the sons of Ialdabaoth, who is reminiscent of Justin’s Elohim. When Sabaoth realizes that there is a higher realm, he undergoes a kind of conversion, condemns Ialdabaoth, and is enthroned above him.

Marcion of Sinope (born c. ad 110 ) taught a similar myth. He considered the father of Christ to be completely distinct from the creator God of Judaism and saw only contrasts between Jewish religion and the Christian Gospels. Human salvation, announced by Jesus, came from the father as an offer of pure grace and as a rescue from the system of the stern creator. The creator in Marcionite doctrine is not an offspring of a higher realm like Ialdabaoth or the Valentinian demiurge, and Marcion had no mythology of a special race of humans descended from a transcendent realm. His doctrine is therefore often considered to be only a relative of “gnosticism.”

The attraction of these myths lay especially in their solutions to problems of theodicy (the attempt to reconcile the goodness and justice of God with the existence of evil in the world), since distinguishing a lower creator absolved the higher deity from responsibility for evil or imperfection in the cosmos. These myths also addressed problems concerning the interpretation of scriptures (including Genesis) in which human qualities, such as jealously or anger, are ascribed to the creator. Similar doctrines of lower demiurges were already current in late Hellenistic philosophy, and for some Christians (and perhaps earlier for some Jews) an interpretation of biblical tradition along these lines would have seemed only sensible. Opponents such as Irenaeus, on the other hand, considered such doctrines to be pagan corruptions of true monotheism.

Beyond their frequent inclusion of a demiurgical myth, gnostic sources vary significantly in other respects, though there are identifiable clusters of sources that have far more in common, such as the Sethian or Valentinian groups. Very often there is a doctrine of the preexistence of the soul or spirit, the soul’s incarnation and imprisonment within the body, its eventual rescue and ascent, and sometimes its reincarnation—themes that were also common in Platonism or Neo-Pythagoreanism. These themes also can be found in Christian texts that lack any myth of a lower demiurge, such as the Exegesis on the Soul, which appears in the Nag Hammadi collection.

Research on new sources such as those from Nag Hammadi has also called into question several conventional generalizations about gnosticism. In the area of ethics, for example, there is little evidence to support the belief that gnostics were either extreme ascetics or libertines. Many gnostic traditions are ascetic, but others seem to assume the institutions of marriage and family. The occasional charges of libertinistic practices from opponents remain problematic and are unsupported by original writings such as the Nag Hammadi texts. Language about a spiritual race or class of humans saved by revelation has often been understood to imply a characteristic gnostic determinism, yet this has proven to be another questionable stereotype. The Apocryphon of John, for example, seems to envision eventual salvation for everyone except those who knowingly reject the revelation after having received it. Similarly, although gnosticism is often associated with docetism—the notion that divine participation in human experience (such as Jesus’s suffering by crucifixion) is only apparent and not real—the Nag Hammadi tractate Melchizedek, which displays features of Sethian gnosticism, is explicitly critical of docetic interpretations of Jesus’ life and suffering.

Certain writings often labeled “gnostic” have attracted unusual popular interest but illustrate the difficulties in such classification. The Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas, for example, does not include any extended mythic narrative, and there is doubt about whether it is justifiably classified as gnostic. It consists entirely of a series of secret sayings ascribed to Jesus, several of which have close parallels in the New Testament Gospels. Although scholars are divided on the issue, some contend that certain elements of the Gospel of Thomas are among the oldest witnesses to Jesus’ words. Surviving Greek fragments do suggest that versions of the Gospel of Thomas existed at least as early as the 2nd century ad.

A Coptic version of the Gospel of Mary is partially preserved in the Berlin Codex 8502, and there are two earlier Greek fragments from the 3rd century. This text has evoked much popular interest, primarily for the prominence it gives to Mary (probably Magdalene, though some have argued that it is Jesus’ mother), who is privileged here with special visions not shared by the male apostles. The importance of spiritual insight appears to be a leading theme in the Gospel of Mary, but what survives of the writing contains no myth of a lower creator, and there is disagreement about the gospel’s relation to so-called gnostic traditions.

The highly debated Gospel of Judas was found in a 4th-century papyrus manuscript, the Codex Tchacos, which also contained at least three other writings, two of which were found in the Nag Hammadi collection. The codex was discovered in Egypt in the 1970s but was subsequently acquired by and passed among collectors in Europe and the United States for years. The delay in proper preservation by experts resulted in severe damage to the manuscript. When the codex was finally published in 2006, sensational attention swirled around the Gospel of Judas. Although Irenaeus briefly mentioned a “Gospel of Judas,” no gospel with this name had been found (and some scholars still question whether the Tchacos Judas is the same as that referred to by Irenaeus). Public curiosity was particularly aroused by early suggestions that Jesus in the Tchacos text praises Judas as a hero rather than calling him a traitor. Subsequent scholarly analysis, however, resulted in spirited debate on this point. Some argue that Judas is in fact demonized and is associated with demiurgical powers in the writing’s elaborate myth, which seems to draw on traditions similar to those in Sethian works. The poor preservation of the manuscript has allowed for such disparate analyses. In any event, this most curious writing is another indisputably important witness to the sheer diversity among so-called gnostic works.


Examination of a Witch by T. H. Matteson, inspired by the Salem trials

Although gnostic movements of various types flourished in the formative period of Christianity, they were likely a minority in most places. At a time when there was still no fixed Christian Bible or uniform church organization, their often elaborate creation myths and eschatologies constituted some of the earliest attempts at a systematic articulation of Christian beliefs. Fundamental features of what eventually became Christian orthodoxy were shaped through controversy over such doctrines. For example, the arguments by which orthodox Christians defended so basic a doctrine as that Jesus was the son of the same God who gave the Torah to Moses were forged amid polemic against demiurgical myths such as those found in the Nag Hammadi writings. The orthodox creed that Jesus truly suffered and yet was fully divine as well as fully human was decisively influenced by early controversies over views found in Valentinian and similar traditions, which seemed to deny any real human incarnation to the divine Saviour.

Similar mythological traditions were also important in the formation of Manichaeism, a dualistic religious movement founded by the Iranian preacher Mani in the 3rd century ad and which survived for a millennium. Although Mani was persecuted and eventually martyred by Persian authorities, Manichaeism spread to the western Mediterranean and as far east as China and during the 8th–9th centuries was even embraced by Uighur rulers.

Modern Mandaean communities were formerly concentrated in southern Iraq and in Iran, but by the beginning of the 21st century persecutions had forced most of the perhaps 70,000 members of this ethnic group into diaspora communities all over the world. Some researchers argue that the roots of the complex mythology, baptisms, and other rituals practiced by modern Mandaeans are traceable to late antiquity and bear kinship with Sethian and ancient Manichaean myths. The Mandaeans may therefore be the “last gnostics.”

Michael Williams




Portrays the torture of Dutch heretics when
Holland was under the control of Spain.




a member of a Christian group in North Africa that broke with the Roman Catholics in 312 over the election of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage; the name derived from their leader, Donatus (d. c. 355). Historically, the Donatists belong to the tradition of early Christianity that produced the Montanist and Novatianist movements in Asia Minor and the Melitians in Egypt. They opposed state interference in church affairs, and, through the peasant warriors called Circumcellions, they had a program of social revolution combined with eschatological hopes. Martyrdom following a life of penance was the goal of the religiously minded Donatist. Despite almost continuous pressure from successive Roman, Vandal, and Byzantine rulers of North Africa, the Donatist church survived until the extinction of Christianity in North Africa in the early European Middle Ages.

The ultimate causes of the schism were both doctrinal and social. Throughout the 3rd century the prevailing tradition in the African church had regarded the church as a body of the elect. This view, which was espoused by Cyprian and developed in response to earlier controversy, had as its corollary the belief that the validity of sacerdotal acts depended on the presence of the Holy Spirit in the minister and that a minister who was not in a state of grace could not administer a valid sacrament. At the same time, riches and sin had tended to become identified; mammon and the Roman world were equally to be shunned.

In 311 Caecilian was elected bishop, but he was opposed by many because he allowed himself to be consecrated by a traditor bishop (one who had surrendered copies of Scripture to the authorities during Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, beginning in 303). The primate of Numidia, Secundus of Tigisi, who had acquired in the previous 40 years the right of consecrating the bishop of Carthage, arrived in Carthage with 70 bishops and in solemn council declared Caecilian’s election invalid. The council then appointed a reader (lector), Majorinus, to replace Caecilian.

The new emperor, Constantine the Great, ordered arbitration of the controversy. A mixed commission of Italian and Gallic bishops under the presidency of Miltiades, bishop of Rome, found Caecilian innocent of all charges on Oct. 2, 313. Meantime, Majorinus had been replaced by Donatus, who appealed against Miltiades’ judgment. Constantine summoned a council of bishops from the western provinces of the empire at Arles on Aug. 1, 314, and again Caecilian was upheld and his position strengthened by a canon that ordination was not invalid if it had been performed by a traditor. Despite further appeals by Donatus and his supporters, Constantine gave a final decision in favour of Caecilian in November 316.

The schism did not die out. Persecution from 317 to 321 failed, and in May 321 Constantine grudgingly granted toleration to the Donatists. The movement gained strength for several years, but in August 347 Emperor Constans I exiled Donatus and other leaders to Gaul, where Donatus died about 355.

When Julian the Apostate became emperor in 361, the exiled Donatists returned to Africa and were the majority Christian party for the next 30 years. Their opponents, however, now led by St. Augustine of Hippo, gained strength, and in 411 a conference presided over by Augustine’s friend the imperial tribune Marcellinus was held in Carthage. This council decided against the Donatists and for the Catholics. In 412 and 414 severe laws denied the Donatists civil and ecclesiastical rights; however, the Donatists expected hostility from the world as part of the natural order of things, and they survived into the 7th century.







Gnostic sect
any member of a Gnostic sect that flourished in the 2nd century ad. The name derives from Marcion of Asia Minor who, sometime after his arrival in Rome, fell under the influence of Cerdo, a Gnostic Christian, whose stormy relations with the Church of Rome were the consequence of his belief that the God of the Old Testament could be distinguished from the God of the New Testament—the one embodying justice, the other goodness. For accepting, developing, and propagating such ideas, Marcion was expelled from the church in 144 as a heretic, but the movement he headed became both widespread and powerful.

The basis of Marcionite theology was that there were two cosmic gods. A vain and angry creator god who demanded and ruthlessly exacted justice had created the material world of which man, body and soul, was a part—a striking departure from the usual Gnostic thesis that only man’s body is part of creation, that his soul is a spark from the true but unknown superior God, and that the world creator is a demonic power. The other god, according to Marcion, was completely ineffable and bore no intrinsic relation to the created universe at all. Out of sheer goodness, he had sent his son Jesus Christ to save man from the material world and bring him to a new home. One of Marcion’s favourite texts with respect to Christ’s mission was Letter of Paul to the Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us.” Christ’s sacrifice was not in any sense a vicarious atonement for human sin but rather a legalistic act that cancelled the claim of the creator God upon men. In contrast to the typical Gnostic claim to a special revelatory gnosis, Marcion and his followers emphasized faith in the effect of Christ’s act. They practiced stern asceticism to restrict contact with the creator’s world while looking forward to eventual salvation in the realm of the extra-worldly God. They admitted women to the priesthood and bishopric. The Marcionites were considered the most dangerous of the Gnostics by the established church. When Polycarp met Marcion at Rome he is said to have identified Marcion as “the firstborn of Satan.”

Marcion is perhaps best known for his treatment of Scripture. Though he rejected the Old Testament as the work of the creator God, he did not deny its efficacy for those who did not believe in Christ. He rejected attempts to harmonize Jewish biblical traditions with Christian ones as impossible. He accepted as authentic all of the Pauline Letters and the Gospel According to Luke (after he had expurgated them of Judaizing elements). His treatment of Christian literature was significant, for it forced the early church to fix an approved canon of theologically acceptable texts out of the mass of available but unorganized material.




The Spanish Inquisition



in Christianity, one who believed that Jesus Christ’s nature remains altogether divine and not human even though he has taken on an earthly and human body with its cycle of birth, life, and death. Monophysite doctrine thus asserted that in the Person of Jesus Christ there was only one (divine) nature rather than two natures, divine and human, as asserted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. In the development of the doctrine of the Person of Christ during the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries, several divergent traditions had arisen. Chalcedon adopted a decree declaring that Christ was to be “acknowledged in two natures, without being mixed, transmuted, divided, or separated.” This formulation was directed in part against the Nestorian doctrine—that the two natures in Christ had remained separate and that they were in effect two Persons—and in part against the theologically unsophisticated position of the monk Eutyches, who had been condemned in 448 for teaching that, after the Incarnation, Christ had only one nature and that, therefore, the humanity of the incarnate Christ was not of the same substance as that of other men. Political and ecclesiastical rivalries as well as theology played a role in the decision of Chalcedon to depose and excommunicate the patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscorus (d. 454). The church that supported Dioscorus and insisted that his teaching was consistent with the orthodox doctrine of St. Cyril of Alexandria was labeled monophysite.

The label also was attached to various theologians and groups, although some who were called monophysite, notably Severus of Antioch (d. 538), repudiated the terminology of Chalcedon as self-contradictory. Most modern scholars agree that Severus as well as Dioscorus probably diverged from what was defined as orthodoxy more in their emphasis upon the intimacy of the union between God and man in Christ than in any denial that the humanity of Christ and that of mankind are consubstantial.

In modern times, those churches usually classified as monophysite (the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Syrian Orthodox) are generally accepted by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christendom as essentially orthodox in their doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ.




The Spanish Inquisition



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