Some years ago, I wrote a book called The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels. Rarely have I enjoyed writing a book more. That project involved pursuing a lot of odd historical byways through multiple cultures and different languages, and confronting some real historical mysteries. Here is one of my favorites, and one that still puzzles me.
So here is a medieval religious mystery. I didn’t want to detect a murderer lurking in the cloister — I’ll leave that to The Name of the Rose and the Brother Cadfael books. Rather, my quest was to explain how one almost forgotten Italian heretic seemingly tapped into a mind-boggling underworld of ancient mystical speculations, in a way that defies all our assumptions about the narrow and blinkered nature of the European Middle Ages. Above all, I needed to know where he had found the Crown of Creation. (Older readers should feel free to insert Jefferson Airplane reference here).
The man’s name was Nazarius. He lived from about 1175 to 1250, and around 1210, he became a clandestine bishop of the heretical sect called the Albigensians or Cathars. Nazarius’s whole religious career was not only covert but thoroughly illegal, but only after his death did the church take action against him, in the form of burning his remains. To put those dates in context, he was a rough contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and of St. Dominic (1170-1221).
In the official record, Nazarius appears briefly as the owner of a subversive alternative gospel. This was a strange visionary text called the Secret Supper, or the “Book of John the Evangelist,” which used a dialogue between Christ and his apostle to teach ideas of cosmic Dualism. In this vision, not only does God combat eternally with Satan, but Satan (under various names) actually rules the world and the material creation. One very powerful Dualist church, the Bogomils, was based in Bulgaria, and they influenced the West European movement we call the Albigensians.
The Secret Supper was probably written in the 11th or 12th century, and Dualist congregations could have used it for decades or centuries before it was finally seized. Mere possession of the book would likely have meant death. The book is preserved in the records of the Inquisition of Carcassonne, in France, where it is introduced thus: “This is the secret book of the heretics of Concoreze, brought from Bulgaria by their bishop Nazarius; full of errors.” The note suggests a Dualist missionary smuggling a Bogomil text to Concorezzo near Milan, Italy, from whence it found its way to southern France.
Two Catholic Inquisitors described Nazarius and his career. One was Rainier Sacconi, who about 1250 reported Nazarius’s belief
that the Virgin Mary was an angel, and that Christ did not take on human nature, but an angelic nature and a celestial body. And he said that he learned his error from the Bishop and the Elder Son of the Church of Bulgaria, now almost sixty years ago.
(The “Elder Son” was a senior rank in the Bogomil hierarchy.) That would place Nazarius’s conversion to Dualist views somewhere in the 1190s, around the time of the Third Crusade.
Another Inquisitor called Anselm of Alessandria went on to sketch Nazarius’s vision of the Creation and the Heavens, and in so doing, he suggested a radically heretical cosmology far more sophisticated, and more ancient, than anything we might have suspected given the time and place. Anselm wrote that
Nazarius believes that from Adam’s crown, the Devil made the sun, that is, from one part of it, and from another he made the moon; from the crown of Eve, he made the moon and the stars and the five stars which are not in the firmament [the planets]. From another part [of Eve’s crown], he believes that the Devil made the throne where Satan sits in the starry heaven and from which he rules over all the world below, with the exception of good souls.
Is it just me, or does that passage sound like someone – presumably Nazarius – is semi-quoting or summarizing something like a narrative from an existing text? Although Nazarius’s universe might be the product of an idiosyncratic poetic imagination, some of its features recall truly ancient layers of Christian tradition, not to mention Jewish precedents, and also the ideas of the Manichaean religion that spread deep into Asia.
The rejection of Christ’s material humanity is standard Dualist/Docetic stuff, which you find in a thousand places over the previous millennium. But just where did he find that story of the crowns of Adam and Eve?
The Vulgate Bible?
Let me start with one Biblical source. Psalm 8 describes the creation, including the moon and the stars, and then says, in the words of the KJV:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
The Epistle to the Hebrews regards this as a messianic prophecy of Jesus, the Son of Man.
The NIV translates the word here as “mankind,” and plural “them,” but the singular better reflects the Hebrew. Also, at least in its original circumstances, the psalm is widely taken to refer not just to man in general, but specifically to Adam. It is Adam, not any generic man, who is a little lower than the angels. If that reading is right, it is actually one of the very few passages in the Hebrew Bible that takes any particular interest in Adam after the opening of Genesis. It also links Adam and Creation with a crowning. But even though the Vulgate Latin that Nazarius would have known refers to homo and “crowning,” nothing points directly to the figure of Adam. Nor is there a word about Eve. A reader really could not have derived any of the other exalted ideas that Anselm describes.
So no, I don’t think Nazarius could have found his ideas just through an interpretation of the canonical Bible. So where else might he have got it?
The Eastern Churches?
Crown imagery has a long history in Christian churches, but chiefly those of Eastern derivation. In the early Syriac text called the Cave of Treasures, God sets a crown of glory on the head of the newly created Adam as a symbol of his sovereignty over the world, possibly borrowing from Psalm 8. This infuriates Satan:
When Satan saw Adam seated on a great throne, with a crown of glory on his head and a scepter in his hand, and all the angels worshipping him, he was filled with anger.
Adam’s crown of glory prefigured Christ’s crown of thorns. Ethiopian churches still hymn “the Glory of Adam and the Crown of Eve.” Neither source, Syriac or Ethiopian, should have been available in medieval Latin Europe, ad presumably they weren’t in the originals? But what intermediary sources were available?
Jewish mysticism offers still closer parallels, with a telling juxtaposition of the ideas of Adam, crown, and creation. In the potent tradition of the Qabala, thinkers imagined the universe to be structured on the pattern of a human body, which together constitutes Adam Kadmon, Primordial or Original Man. Superimposed on that body is the chart of the divine radiances, or attributes, known as the Sefirotic Tree. At the summit of this figure is the divine Crown (Keter or Kether) through which the lower spheres of reality are generated. This Primordial Man creates the first human being reported in Genesis, Adam ha-Rishon (“First Man”). The different spheres are usually identified with cosmic bodies, with Keter as the stellar sphere. In that sense, God created the world through Adam’s Crown. The stars and planets also have their place on the mystical tree of creation.
The image of Adam Kadmon is described in the Zohar, an awe-inspiring Qabalistic text that originated in Spain in the thirteenth century. The Zohar also has a great deal to say about heavenly thrones. Although these ideas were not fully codified until shortly after Nazarius’s death, they were percolating in Jewish mystical circles in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere across the Mediterranean world. Might Nazarius have stemmed from a Jewish background, or else can we imagine mystics from Jewish and Christian traditions in dialogue?
Nazarius might also have drawn from Gnostic or Manichaean ideas. From early times, Gnostic sects had distinguished Primordial Adam (Anthropos) from the first human being recorded in Genesis — Heavenly Man, as opposed to earthly man. For the prophet Mani, Primordial Man was a creature of the kingdom of light, while material Adam was a product of darkness. Following that principle, it would make sense for Adam to be a vehicle for the creation.
In the 10th-century text known as the Kitab al-Fihrist, “Catalogue of Books,” an ancient Manichaean creation epic tells how the forces of Light created the sun and moon as refuges for the Light that was liberated from its captivity in matter. Although it is not directly linked to the creation episode, the next passage in this epic passage reports a heavenly being investing Adam with a crown of splendor to protect his son Seth.
Whether Nazarius’s sources were Manichaean or Qabalistic, the “Adam” he was crediting with the heavenly creation was almost certainly not the familiar first man of the Bible. The orthodox Inquisitors of the day could scarcely have begun to grasp this subtle distinction.
We can argue, then, about exactly where Nazarius found his ideas, and he might have have invented parts of his system. But his thought often suggests a wider intellectual world, including some of the age’s most intriguing undercurrents. Lacking that couple of hostile mentions, would we ever have dreamed that an obscure small town medieval figure could have contemplated such cosmic depths?
What other bizarre treasures might he have had on his shelves? And what might this story suggest about the esoteric underworlds that operated in hundreds of other medieval towns and villages, if we were only able to see them in more detail?