As a young man he decided to get to know the Islam and the Greek Orthodox Church. Thus he undertook a pilgrimage to the Orient and to Palestine. There he had his first mystical experiences: visions in the desert and on Mount Tabor, which revealed to him the meaning of the Holy Scriptures, the Bible.
Returning from the Holy Land, Gioacchino wanted to become a monk; he joined the order of the Cistercians in the monastery of Corazzo. In the year 1177 he was elected abbot by his fellow brothers. He led a life of strict asceticism and contemplation. He would not remain abbot for long, a few years later he left the monks and founded his own monastery in Casamari. From this a new order emerged, called the Fiorenses.
Gioacchino had his decisive mystical experience, the hour of his enlightenment, on the night before Pentecost in 1190. He describes his vision thus:
When I awoke from sleep about the time of prayer, I took in hand the Revelation of John for meditation. Then, at the hour when Christ was risen, the light of understanding suddenly brightened the eyes of my mind, and the fulfillment of this book and the symmetry and inner connection between the Old and New Testament were revealed to me.
This vision led to a ten-year struggle to interpret the meaning of the Holy Scriptures, but especially to gain insight into the effect of divine revelation in history. By analogy with the trinity of God, the trinity of father, son and holy spirit, Da Fiore designed a form of spiritual history through four writings. In it the divine trinity unfolds in three phases, three eras. The history of mankind from Abraham to his own time was revealed in the Old Testament. In it he saw the era of the father, which era ended just before the birth of Jesus Christ. Then came the era of the son, as revealed in the New Testament. Finally would follow the third era of the holy spirit; this stage would be revealed through what he called “the everlasting gospel.”
A division of time, based on a spiritual development, was not new. Before Gioacchino da Fiore, Augustine had done so by dividing creation into six and seven creation days respectively, corresponding to six epochs; the seventh was the Sabbath, the period of rest. Thus it is written in the book of Ezra (O.T.), namely, that the creator gave rhythm and time to the world:
He set a measure for the course of the times with his tapeline. With the certainty of reason he set the number of the hours.
Our abbot from southern Italy also calculated the number of years for each era. As for the eras of the father and the son taking 42 generations, each of thirty years, so also was true for the third era, that of the holy spirit. Added up, Da Fiore came out with the year 1260 as the beginning of the era of “the everlasting gospel.”
But Gioacchino went further than merely classifying the eras in time. The sequence was, above all, meant to point at a culmination, for the era of the son was the fruit of the preceding age of the father, and the era of the spirit is the fruit of the era of the son.
The mysteries of the Holy Scriptures point us to three world conditions,
wrote the friar,
to the first in which we were under the law, to the second in which we are in grace, and to the third which we soon expect, in an even richer grace. Because God, – as John says -, gave us grace for grace, namely faith for love and the two together.
This unfolding takes place in three circles:
science, the power of wisdom, perfect knowledge;
the bondage of the slave, the service of the son, the freedom of the spirit;
the first in fear, the second in faith, the third in love;
starlight, dawn, daylight;
the status of servants, the status of the liberated, the status of friends.
In short, the third era is the fulfillment. Spiritual, direct insight will take the place of faith; in perfect freedom an ecclesia spiritualis, a spiritual church of friends, will be born. In the third era a New Testament will also unfold, according to the text in the Revelation of John it will be an Evangelium Aeternum:
And I saw another angel in the midst of heaven, and he had an everlasting gospel to proclaim.
This eternal gospel, which would transcend all the previous handed down scriptures, was of Da Fiore’s concern. History is coming to an end, he believed, and time will be swallowed up by “eternal duration.”
The spirit, he proclaimed in his prophetic words, will dwell in the bridal chamber of the heart of men: God in man, God in the world, immanent and transcendent. The face of the earth will be renewed, transformed into a new star, the planet of freedom and love.
Now, of course, the question is: how real, how viable has his utopian prophecy become? Mystical experiences and visions were common in his time. Not infrequently they were aroused by extreme forms of asceticism or the product of exaltation. Has any of his prevision of an utopian, third era of fulfillment come true? Such a vision may have been an event beyond time and place, but it took our prophet ten years to interpret and explain it, to process it in four books, as well as in many geometric representations.
Gioacchino was not the only one with a doctrine of three eras. A similar division into three eras already existed among Jewish kabbalists, as Gershom Scholem describes. The parallel concerns not only the number of eras and years, but also the idea of culmination: in a certain rhythm, rung by rung, humanity climbs a heavenly ladder. Thus the kabbalists of Catalonia recorded in the Book of Temunah, that the expiring era was under the sign of strictness and laws, while in the coming new aeon the prohibitions and commandments were to be overcome. It is a fact that this doctrine of three world eras was brought forth precisely around 1250, about the year in which according to Da Fiore the era of the holy spirit would begin.
There is more to say about what happened in the mid-thirteenth century. In 1260, for example, the famous Kabbalistic book the Zohar was published. The Zohar also proclaims the revelation of God through his creatures as free, creative spirits. The thirteenth century, sometimes called the height of the Middle Ages, was the century of Franciscus of Assisi, of Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart and of Dante, born in 1265. Dante mentioned Da Fiore’s ‘prophetic spirit’ in his Divina Commedia, Paradise XII 140-141.
It was also the time of the Flemish mystic Hadewych, a transitional figure, one who rejects spontaneous, ecstatic visions; she wants to possess
a feeling of joy that transcends all.
Henceforth the experience of the unio mystica had to be understood by the mind. Or as she wrote:
Reason is satisfied faster than love, but love is more satisfied in bliss. Yet they are of great use to each other. For reason teaches love, and love enlightens reason. When reason then takes on the glow of love and love allows itself to be controlled and bound to reason, then they are capable of something very great. But no one is able to learn that except through their own experience.
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries we see the emergence of free, independent spirits; I already mentioned Eckhart – he will be discussed later, just like Johannes Ruusbroec.
The direct influence of Da Fiore’s works cannot be traced. An evolution did take place, the development of twin power with on the one hand moral, personal responsibility and on the other hand the birth of rationalism, which began to detach itself from the old piety. They are characteristics belonging to the third era.
We first find a more clear, direct influence in groups such as the Dulcinians and Amalricians. The Dulcinians were a religious sect. Their name was derived from the leader of the movement, Fra Dolcino of Novara. He published a number of letters at the end of the thirteenth century, in which he explained that his ideas of the eras of history were based on the theories of Joachim van Fiore. In 1304, three Dulcinians were burned as heretics by the Inquisition. The group had found a place to stay near Lake Garda, but had to retreat to a nearby mountain peak. There they were defeated by the episcopal troops. Their heresy – they were called gazarri or Cathars – was certainly very radical for the time. Thus they prophesied the fall of the church hierarchy, the fall of the feudal system and the foundation of a new egalitarian society based on mutual support and respect, common property and gender equality. Their collective battle cry Poenitentium agite, repent, do penance, is attributed to them in the well-known novel The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. We would now call the Dulcinians mystical anarchists or revolutionary adherents of millenarianism, the expectation of a millennium of peace and happiness.
This description can also be applied to the current of the Amalricians, a pantheistic, free love movement named after Amalric of Bena. Like the Dulcinians, they went beyond van Fiore’s ideas. Their spread was even greater: among the adherents we find many priests as well as theologians from Paris and Strasbourg.
They started from van Fiore’s tripartite division into the era of the patriarchs (father), of Christianity (son), and the imminent new era of the holy spirit. The Amalricians already put their ideals into practice at the beginning of the thirteenth century. But they too were accused of heresy. Thus the innocent converts, including many women, were forgiven for their delusion. Four of the leaders were imprisoned for life, ten others were burned at the stake.
Which brings us to the question: how did Gioacchino da Fiore himself fare? During his life he was protected by the pope, but after his death the damnamus, damnation, was pronounced on him. His opponent, Peter Lombard, put faith in the church above love for Christ. The condemnation came from Pope Innocentius III, the same pope who had the Cathars massacred in the infamous Albigensian War, and who made celibacy compulsory. Afterwards, pope Innocentius lll would be described as the first great pope who lacked any element of holiness.
There is another side to the matter that has not yet been explained here. Da Fiore not only predicted the revelation of freedom and love, friendship and perfect knowledge, with regard to the third era. In the era of the spirit, the Antichrist would also arise. Simultaneously with the blossoming of the positive qualities also would come the trials; they would increase in strength, because here applied: strength in accordance with the bearing of the cross.
Despite the posthumous denunciation and persecution of Gioacchino da Fiore himself and the movements inspired by his prophecies, renewal within both the Church and Christianity could not be stopped. At the same time as the great western schism from 1378 to 1417, in which no less than three popes fought each other at the same time, the first reformer, Johannes Hus, took action. It was the beginning of the spiritually freer movement of European people which eventually led to the final split into Catholicism and Protestantism.
While groups such as the Dulcinians and Amalricians were still sectarian and eccentric, a broader movement during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had a deeper influence on Christian culture and also in an ever-expanding area. We are talking about the ‘Brothers of the free spirit’, also called the ‘Friends of God’. It is believed that the Amalricians, who thus invoked Da Fiore’s division of three eras, in turn influenced the Brothers of the Free Spirit. They adopted the pantheistic theology and propagated the belief that the perfect soul and God were an indistinguishable unity. They also denied the need for redemption by the intermediary of the Church and its sacraments, an idea immediately contested as heresy because of its subversive nature. The verdict was: the spread of false teachings mixed with elements of witchcraft.
A separate and new development was the rise of the beguines. Beguines mostly were single women, who lived separate from a monastic order. Unlike the nuns, the beguines had not taken the vow of poverty. Nor did they form an organization, although communal houses and convents, the beguinages, did arise.
One of them was Marguerite Porete, who wrote the book The mirror of simple souls; even for this pious work she was convicted to the stake. The Brothers of the Free Spirit, which also includes other layman-religious orders such as the Begarden, were found in the Netherlands (particularly the beguines), Germany, France, Bohemia and Northern Italy. This also included great spirits such as Meister Eckhart, a German Dominican, and Johannes Ruusbroec, the mystic from the Sonian Forest.
The designation ‘Friends of God’, as they were also called, is immediately reminiscent of the characteristic friends that Da Fiore foresaw in the third era. The Friends of God of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries formed a network of mystics and scholars who were active throughout Europe. Another feature was the use of the vernacular instead of dead Latin, for which the Czech reformer Hus advocated.
Eckhart, the father of the free spirit, has always been committed to the development of cosmic consciousness along the lines of a practical mysticism. Although he vigorously opposed the charge of heresy, he was forced to withdraw from public life. Ruusbroec also had to deal with critics who doubted his orthodox purity. However, he had such a high status – the ‘miraculous’ was his honorary title – that he was left alone. He was even beatified in the twentieth century.
The fear among the prelates of the Church in Rome concerned the esoteric aspect of the Friends of God and the Brothers of the Free Spirit. As such, this seems to have been an ongoing mistrust, that left many slaughtered because of the reaction against the Gnosticism of early Christianity. Underground, Gnosticism flourished throughout the late Middle Ages within the church, among monks and priests.
Which brings us to the most important and post-Renaissance group in Central and Western Europe: the Rosicrucians. It is believed that the Rosicrucians, who represented Gnosticism, populated many monastic orders and moved among the priestly ministers of the Roman Church during the late Middle Ages.
The Rosicrucians first made their appearance at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Then, in quick succession, (shortly after each other) their three manifestos appeared:
the Fama or The Call of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood;
the Confessio or The Confession of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood;
The Alchemical Wedding of Christian Rosycross.
These three manifestos first appeared in the German-speaking region (1614, 1615, 1616), soon followed by translations and editions in other European countries, including the Netherlands. The writings were published anonymously, although the third, the Alchemical Wedding, was initially attributed to Johann Valentin Andreae. Research has shown that behind the publications stood a circle of scholars from Tübingen.
The publications, addressed to the monarchs and scholars of Europe, caused a shock wave, the extent of which has only now become apparent. In the first nine years after the publication of the Fama alone, more than four hundred publications, reactions to the manifestos, saw the light of day. It was René Descartes who went in search of the Rosicrucians in Germany; Francis Bacon incorporated elements of the scriptures into his New Atlantis. Answers to the Call of the Rosicrucians also appeared in Dutch. Now the question arises: what is the connection between this movement and Gioacchino da Fiore?
In de Fama or The Call of the Rosicrucians, the Home Sancti Spiritus, the House of the Holy Spirit, is mentioned. I quote:
In this way, the Brotherhood of the Rosycross first started with only four people. Through them the magical language and magic script were provided with a detailed explanation of words, which we still use today to the honor and glory of God and in which we find great wisdom. But as that work became too much for them, and the incredible influx of the sick greatly hindered them, and, moreover, the new building called Sanctus Spiritus, was completed, they decided to include several more in their company and brotherhood.
The first of the Brotherhood’s six rules of order is that none of them should practice any other profession than to heal the sick, and to do so free of charge. Rule three reads:
Every year, on the day C., every brother would appear at Sanctus Spiritus or report the cause of his absence.
About the new building is said:
Our building, though hundreds of thousands of people have seen it closely, shall forever remain untouchable, indestructible, invisible, and utterly hidden from the wicked world.
In analogy with the prophecies of Gioacchino da Fiore, the building is a spiritual structure, a residence of the spirit. This house represents eternity and is only visible inwardly. A building requires a construction plan and builders who carry out this plan. The building plan is divine – universal, the builders are those who build a new inner field of life. This building is preceded by a fundamental change of inspiration and consciousness. The first stage in this is the normative stage, the commandments and prohibitions, guided by laws from above. The phase of the father. The second stage, the stage of the son, is the active stage of purification and awakening. The third stage is the step towards the religion of the holy spirit in which a human being comes to self-realization, to creation within the field of free spirits. In a proverb from the Rosicrucian writings, this threefold process is depicted as follows:
Of God we were born, in Jesus we died, by the Holy Spirit we are born again.
In the Fama it is told, that the brothers of the Rosycross discover the grave of their spiritual father, Christian Rosycross. In the center of the tomb were four figures enclosed by circles, around which it was written:
- There is no empty space;
- The yoke of the law;
- The freedom of the gospel.
These corresponded to the famous proverb of the prophet Elias about the three eras of the world, which had been revived by da Fiore. Three eras, the third of which was to give hope for the Chiliastic wings. To this was added the fourth axiom on the circle around the tomb:
The glory of God is untouchable.
The name Gioacchino da Fiore appears in a writing by Christoph Besold, who, along with Tobias Hess, is said to be one of the main actors behind the manifestos. In this book Da Fiore is considered to be one of the important precursors of the development towards a perfect state of society, religious tolerance and new science.
In doing so, the Rosicrucians broadened their field of activity beyond the boundaries of the Christian life of faith. The manifestos were to be a first step towards a general reform, religiously, socially and scientifically. There was no organized group, let alone a cult. But their sympathizers were engaged in mathematics, astronomy, numerology, natural philosophy, medicine and especially alchemy. As adherents of Gnosticism they were hermetically inspired; to the Rosicrucians Hermes was the source of esoteric knowledge and inspiration. Based on calculations from numerology and astrosophy, Hess came to the conclusion that around the year 1620 the third era of the holy spirit would begin.
The Alchemical Wedding of Christian Rosycross can be seen as a renewal of Die Gheestelijke Brulocht, by Ruusbroec, his main work. Its mystical slant acquired a magical component with the third manifesto. Although Christian devotion is its basis, this is transcended by its alchemical elements.
But as Da Fiore had predicted, the trials would also come in the third era. In Central Europe, the Thirty Years’ War broke out in 1618, the first major European war in which not only a lot of blood was shed, but also countless cultural objects, such as libraries, were destroyed.
The impulse of the classical Rosicrucians was forced to go underground temporarily. Once again the Roman Church showed its hostility to religious tolerance. New persecutions came, free spirits like Comenius had to flee to England and the Republic of the Netherlands. Amsterdam flourished as a center of liberalism: there could be printed writings in the seventeenth century that would otherwise have ended up on the stake elsewhere in Europe. But in the same relatively tolerant Netherlands, the painter Torrentius was also accused of being the leader of the Rosicrucians, an accusation that he had to pay for with imprisonment and torture.
Still, in the eighteenth century the movement revived with the publication of The Secret Figures of the Rosicrucians – a classic example of pansophy. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the first organized groups emerged, first in France and the United States; in the twentieth century in the Netherlands, the School of the Modern Rosycross, spreading across European countries and beyond. Today’s Rosicrucians are no longer persecuted or banned. On the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam, in the House with the Heads, is one of the largest Gnostic libraries in the world, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica.
The light once lit by Gioacchino da Fiore has not been extinguished since.