Plate 15 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

Christian "Magick"


Cornelius Agrippa was the most influential proponent of a form of Christian "magick" in the early sixteenth century. He was a Christian humanist philosopher who wrote declamations on a variety of subjects (for example, one in defense of women and another on the uncertainty of the arts and sciences). His magnum opus was a great compendium of magic, De Occulta Philosophia. He completed an early version of De Occulta Philosophia around 1510. It circulated in manuscript for years. A partial printed version of what became known as Book One was published in 1531, and the entire three books were published in 1533. (Some later editions include a fourth book added by an unknown subsequent author). This synthetic work of philosophical magic drew upon numerous traditions of ancient study that include medicine, alchemy, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, and, not least, the Hebrew cabala.

Agrippa was involved in numerous philosophical-theological controversies and disputes. Although Agrippa's lifestyle, as we know it today, was judged extraordinary even by his contemporaries, there seems to be little reason to doubt that he considered himself a genuine Christian Magus, a man in search of-and in some degree in possession of-powerful esoteric knowledge about creation in all its aspects.

Agrippa's vision of a universal search for wisdom is illustrated by the images of man in Click Here for a Larger Viewthe 1651 edition, probably translated into English by John French. In this image, Agrippa amalgamates several themes from ancient traditions into a fundamentally Christian perspective. The topic of the chapter, illustrated by the image, is the "proportion, measure, and Harmony of man's body" (p. 263). Agrippa proposes that man, so far as our human knowledge or wisdom is concerned, is the measure of all being. The woodcut illustrates this idea by portraying man in a circle, the most perfect symbol of universality. The stars held by the man within the circle suggest man's search for knowledge of the stars, and his intrinsic relationship to the divine realm. On the next page is a similar image of a man with outstretched arms enclosed in a square, illustrating the "four square measure," where man "will make a quadrature equilateral." These images presuppose a basic "macrocosm-microcosm" relationship. Agrippa interprets the relationship in an explicitly mathematical way, specifying the proportional relationships of the human body to human edifices including temples and even Noah's Ark.

These mathematical relationships are built on the assumption that man, by way of proportion and consonance, repeats and reflects in his being the same order that is also perceived in the totality of being. Agrippa states that, "there is no member in man which hath not correspondence with some sign, Star, intelligence, divine name, sometimes in God himself the Archetype," a belief that ultimately builds on the assertion from Genesis that the Creator has made man in his own image and likeness (p. 264). Thus, just as the Great Architect (Archetype) may be known by sign and symbol in the work of his universe, so may man.

Agrippa's Christian cabalism and doctrine of divine signatures is particularly evident in his discussion of the tables of the planets. Click Here for a Larger ViewThese illustrations show the tables and signs for Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. Each planet possesses a table of numbers, shown on the left. Each number in the table corresponds to a divine name and a table of Hebrew letters, and each has a "seale" in three parts that represents, first, the characteristics of the planet as a whole, second, the "intelligence" of the planet, and third, the "spirit" of the planet. The diagrams in the illustration each correspond to one of the seals. By correspondences, sympathies, and celestial influence, each planet influences earthly matters in its own characteristic way. The magus can discover the hidden signs, correspondences, and seals, and thereby understand and, indeed, manipulate cosmic forces for human good.

Donald Grabner
Conception Seminary College

Pamela O. Long
Washington, DC

Suggested Reading

Agrippa, H. C. Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic, by the famous mystic Henry Cornelius Agrippa. Book 1, Natural Magic. Edited by Willis F. Whitehead. Chicago: Hahn and Whitehead, 1898.

Agrippa von Nettesheim, Cornelius. "De occulta philosophia libri tres." Edited by V. Perrone Compagne. Studies in the History of Christian Thought, 48. Leiden: Brill, (1992): 1-660.

Nauert, Jr., Charles G. Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965.

Van der Poel, Marc. Cornelius Agrippa: The Humanist Theologian and His Declamations. London: Brill, 1997.

Zambelli, Paola. "Magic and Radical Reform in Agrippa of Nettesheim." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 39 (1976): 69-103.

Zika, Charles. "Agrippa of Nettesheim and His Appeal to the Cologne Council in 1553: The Politicvs of Knowledge in Early Sixteenth Century Germany." In Humanismus in Köln / Humanism in Cologne, edited by James V. Mehl, 119-74. Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 1991.

On the Web

"Catalog of the Scientific Community in the 16th and 17th Centuries"