The Abbot Joachim on Spiritual History

It is not unreasonable to wonder whether the Cistercian Abbot Joachim (Gioacchino da Fiore) might have influenced the Amalricians, with one of his many patterns of universal religious history.  There is, certainly, no proof of a connection, although there may be signs that suggest a link.[1]  Joachim came from Calabria in the Norman kingdom of Sicily where, as a well-educated young man, he had been chosen for an administrative career in the royal chancery in Palermo, where many documents had to be issued in Latin, Greek and Arabic.[2]

Three revelations about patterns of history in the Bible

On his life-changing visit to the East, a religious calling overwhelmed him, and he dedicated his life to religion and study, and on his return to the kingdom of Sicily he became a hermit on Mt.Etna.[3]  He then crossed the straits back into Calabria, to enter the Benedictine monastery of Corazzo.  He was rapidly promoted to Abbot, and was soon agitating for his house to join the Cistercian order.  For this to happen, he had to persuade an existing Cistercian abbey to adopt it as a daughter-house.  The nearest, Sambucina, refused.[4]  The next, Casamari, also refused; but its Abbot allowed Joachim to stay there for one and a half years, during which time he went to see Pope Lucius III (1181-85), who was residing nearby at Véroli.  The Pope gave his blessing to Joachim’s work of Biblical interpretation.[5]  (Very sensibly, Joachim made sure that he went to see the next three Popes, to obtain their sanction for his continuing work.[6])

He worked on three books of Biblical analysis: first, the Liber Concordiae (Book of the Harmony of the Old and New Testaments), then Expositio in Apocalypsim (Explanation of the Apocalypse) and finally Liber Psalterii decem chordarum (The Ten-Stringed Psaltery).[7]  His later revelations sometimes revised his earlier statements.

Joachim seems to have started from a belief that the Jewish and Christian dispensations refer forward and backward to each other all the time, often in hidden and symbolical ways.  (I refer to two ‘dispensations’ rather than ‘testaments’ because, although pre-Christian history is covered in the Old Testament, the New Testament only deals with the first few years of Christian history; and Joachim wants to relate Old Testament events to what has happened in Christian history, i.e. New Testament plus subsequent history up to his own day.)  He finds many repeating patterns in Jewish and Christian history.  He assumes that, since the overall plan must have been ordained by God, it should be open to discovery in God’s book, the Holy Bible.

It was just as well that, like all Cistercian scholars, Joachim was extremely well read in scripture, because the task he set himself was daunting.  He hoped to elucidate the most important patterns that occur in the Old Testament, and then to find, for each one of them, the early part of a corresponding pattern in Christian history.  By referring back to the Old Testament model, he should be able to project the remainder of the unfinished Christian pattern into the future and, to that limited extent, to predict the course of Christian history.  He would give Christians hope for the fulfilment of the work of the Holy Spirit in times to come.

Basic patterns of 2, 3, 7, and 12

Joachim finds in the Bible all sorts of recurring patterns which could proclaim God’s plan for the salvation of man, patterns of 2s, 3s, 4s, 7s, 12s and 21s in particular.  He tries to put them all together to make a coherent plan, which corresponds to what has happened in the past, and to what has been prophesied for the future.  He begins with simple concordances between the Old and New Testaments.  Take for example Abraham and Zacharias: they both have an only son from a barren wife: Isaac and John the Baptist.  Isaac fathers Jacob, who is the ancestor of the twelve tribes of Israel, the chosen people for what Joachim calls the carnal law of the Old Testament age.  John the Baptist baptises Jesus, which leads to the formation of the Christians, the chosen people of the age of grace.[8]  Much of Joachim’s thinking, in all three of his books, deals with the two testaments, the two peoples (Jews and Christians) and the two dispensations.

3 and 4 are important symbolic numbers: 3 symbolises the spiritual (because 3 is the number of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit), just as 4 symbolises the temporal and material world, – because the earth was created on the 4th day, matter is composed of 4 elements (fire, air, water and earth), the earth has 4 points of the compass, the year has 4 seasons etc.[9]  The number 7, the sum of 4 and 3, the material plus the spiritual, is therefore symbolic of completion: God rested on the 7th day.[10]

There are lots of examples of patterns of sevens.  One comes from the correspondence between the 7 days of creation (of Genesis chapter 1) and Augustine’s 7 stages (aetates in Latin) in the development of man (infancy, childhood, adolescence, young manhood, maturity, decrepitude and life after death), which Augustine then related to 7 stages, or periods, of human history.[11]  Augustine was a 4th-century Latin Christian thinker and prolific writer, who had an enormous influence in the medieval West.  Joachim’s first 5 stages, or periods, of history are the same as Augustine’s, and begin with: 1) Adam, 2) Noah, 3) Abraham, 4) David, and 5) the Babylonian captivity.  Augustine’s 6th period goes from Christ to the end of the world and his 7th period is eternal rest after the end of time.  However, Joachim’s 6th period starts with John the Baptist and ends in proximo (soon); the seventh and last period will start soon and will, unlike Augustine’s, take place in this world.[12]

Joachim also takes another traditionally significant number, 12, and finds that in the Bible it is often divided into 5 and 7.  For instance, 5 tribes of Israel receive their inheritance first (Joshua chaps.13-17) and the other 7 later (Joshua chaps.18-19).  In Christian history, there are 5 important early churches (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Rome) but, in the Apocalypse, John’s revelation is made to “the seven churches of Asia” (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea).[13]  Joachim always sees the 5 as coming first but representing the outer, the more worldly, the more literal interpretation, for those engaged in the active life; while the 7 have the final word, representing the inner, the more spiritual, the more symbolic meaning, for those engaged in the contemplative life.  There are 5 bodily senses, but 7 spiritual gifts.[14]

Counting Biblical generations

21 must be a powerful number, since it is the product of two of the most religiously significant numbers of all: 3 x 7.  21s are very important in Joachim’s calculation of historical time by counting generations.  He counts 21 generations from Adam to Jacob, another 21 to Ozias, 21 to Christ, and then 21 to Benedict, who made the Rule by which monks like Joachim lived.[15]

Who is this Ozias (or Uzziah), who is given such a pivotal position?  He is the Ozias who comes midway between Abraham and Jesus in the genealogy given in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew; he is the King Azariah, or Uzziah, who

“did that which was right in the sight of the Lord”(2 Kings 15:3).[16]

According to Augustine, Romulus and Remus founded Rome in the time of King Uzziah.  Also this is approximately the time of Isaiah, whose prophecies, in Christian interpretation, accurately foretold the birth of Jesus Christ.[17]

For each dispensation, there are 21 generations of initiation or germination before 42 generations of fructification,[18] although the final 21 generations are sometimes called the time of consummation.  In the New Testament dispensation, the 21 generations of germination begin with Ozias, the first 21 of fructification with John the Baptist and the last 21 with Saint Benedict.  As generations were usually counted as periods of 30 years, the 42nd generation after Christ’s birth would not be long after Joachim’s own time.  This is why his work was so urgent.  He thought that the Antichrist, the expected final persecutor of the Church, might already have been born, as he discussed with King Richard I of England, at Messina in 1191 (when the king was on his way to the Third Crusade),[19] and with the Cistercian abbot, Adam de Perseigne, whom he met around 1196.[20]

The Trinity at work in history

Of all the patterns that Joachim uses, his Trinitarian division is the one which might have appealed to the Amalricians.  In the Expositio in Apocalypsim, he considers the text about the first and last letters of the Greek  alphabet:

“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord.”[21]

Joachim takes the Alpha to be a Greek (and Roman) capital Α, a shape that could be said to be triangular, with three straight lines making one letter. The 3 in 1 is a common way of describing the Trinity.  Joachim takes the Omega to be a lower case Greek ω, in which a double shape (double u) produces 3 points (just as the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son to complete the Trinity).[22]  Both Alpha and Omega symbolise the Trinity, but the first emphasises its three-ness (Father, Son, Spirit), and the second its duality (creation and redemption).  Joachim will be careful to use both symbolic methods, in his study of religious history.[23]

The Omega (ω) or dual approach to religious history is to divide it into two dispensations (Jewish and Christian): the first lasts from Adam (preparing the way for Abraham and Moses) to Christ; the second lasts from Ozias (Isaiah and others preparing the way for Christ) to the end of the world.  The Alpha (Α) or triple approach is to divide history into three overlapping periods: from Adam to Christ; from Ozias to the 42nd generation after Christ; and from Benedict to the end of the world.[24]

Having expounded the Alpha and Omega, he then attaches a Trinitarian reading to his 7 periods of religious history.[25]  The seven periods (aetates) can be grouped together as three ages, which he calls statūs (states).  The first five periods make up the first (Old Testament) status, the state which proclaims the Father.  The sixth period is the second (Christian) status, the state which proclaims the Son.  The seventh period will be the status of the Holy Spirit.  All three persons must be at work in all of them, but

“God the Father was openly seen at work in the first five [periods], and in the sixth the Son,”[26]

and similarly, in the seventh period, the Holy Spirit will be seen to be openly at work.

This final era will, therefore, be both a seventh (Sabbath) period of peace, and a third Trinitarian age, that of the Holy Spirit.  As he puts it in the Psalterium:

“the church of the contemplatives in the third state of the future will be a Sabbath for the people of God.”[27]

The three historical ages or states of the Trinity

The status (or age) initiated by Adam and flourishing in Old Testament times can be seen as dominated by God the Father.  The status initiated by Ozias (Uzziah) and flourishing in the Christian Church belongs to God the Son.  A third, more spiritual, status has been initiated by Benedict, and will flourish in the future, in which all that is obscure will be clarified, and the understanding of the old and the new dispensations will be united by the Holy Spirit.[28]

“The third epoch, therefore, will be ushered in toward the close of the present age, no longer under the screen of the letter, but in the spirit of complete freedom.  The first epoch, under the law of circumcision, was begun with Adam.  The second, flowering under the Gospel, was instituted under Uzziah.  The third, based on our calculation of the generations, was heralded by Saint Benedict; its consummation of unsurpassed splendour is to be seen near the end.  At that time, Elias will be revealed and the unbelieving people of the Jews will be converted to the Lord.”[29]

This age of the Holy Spirit will be announced by the reappearance of Elijah (Elias) and the return of the Jews to God.  The Holy Spirit will reconcile Jews and Christians in a spiritual understanding of both religions.  Joachim uses the word status (state), rather than ‘age’ or ‘epoch’, because this progress will occur in individuals, before it becomes general.  The first status can be represented by the married, the second by clergy, the third by monks.[30]

The 3 statūs are also clearly distinguished in the Liber Concordiae: as a first state of servitude, a second state of filial obedience and a third state of liberty; a first state of fear, a second of faith and a third of love.[31]

“The first age belongs to the Father, the creator of all things; the second to the Son, who deigned to take our nature upon Him; the third age will be that of the Holy Ghost, of which age the apostle speaks when he says: ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’” [32]

In the first status, men live according to the flesh; in the second, they live partly according to the flesh and partly according to the spirit; in the third, they will live according to the spirit.[33]  As the Holy Spirit comes from both the Father and the Son, the spiritual understanding of the last state will come from the Old and New Testaments:

“The letter of the former Testament seems properly to pertain to the Father.  The letter of the New Testament pertains to the Son.  Likewise the spiritual understanding proceeds beyond both Father and Son to the Holy Spirit.”[34]

The life of monastic contemplation of the third state has a double origin, in Elisha from the old dispensation, and in Benedict from the new.[35]

Joachim is always keen to stress the dual, or omega (ω), Jewish / Christian approach at the same time as his triple, or alpha (Α), Trinitarian approach.  If Joachim had stressed only the triple division, he could have been reprimanded for subordinating Christ (and the carefully-guarded grace of his Church) to the freer and much more individual authority of the Holy Spirit.  No wonder he used up so much energy to get constant papal approval.

The expectation of the third state

No date is given for this momentous change from the second to the third state, but the Liber Concordiae says openly:

“The fructification of the third state lasts from the 22nd generation after Saint Benedict until the end of the world.  Its initiation was by Saint Benedict.”[36]

The twenty-first generation after Benedict, the end of the second state, could not be far in the future.  Joachim would probably have considered himself to be in the twentieth generation.

Each of the three states, or ages, ends in a final tribulation.  As the Old Testament ended with King Antiochus, so the Christian period will end with “the seventh persecuting king”.[37]  Who is this seventh and final persecutor?  The beast with seven heads of the Apocalypse[38] is interpreted by Joachim as representing the 7 great persecutors of the Christian church.[39]  In his interview with Richard I of England, Joachim explained that the 6th persecuting king was Saladin, and that the 7th would be the Antichrist, who would organise a final and terrible persecution.[40]

After the overthrow of the Antichrist,[41] there will be a state of peace and spiritual contemplation, and, according to the Liber Concordiae:

“In this generation, first of all the general tribulation will be completed, and the wheat carefully purged of all tares; then a new leader will ascend from Babylon, namely a universal pontiff of the New Jerusalem, that is, of Holy Mother, the Church.”[42]

(He does not specify what a new ‘universal pontiff’ may signify; but it is surely a courageous prophecy to make to a Church that was already becoming increasingly suspicious and intolerant.)

According to the Expositio in Apocalypsim, there will be two new orders: an order of monks, whose life will be like

“rain watering the face of the earth in all perfection and brotherly love”;

and an order of hermits, whose spiritual purity will consume all wickedness, like

“a fire burning in love and zeal for God.”[43]

It will be the reign of the contemplatives.

From a detailed study of Biblical texts, this ambitious but reluctant abbot produced a doctrine of evolutionary spiritual progress that would, in a rather modern fashion, give rise to revolutionary hopes (particularly in the later 13th century).  It is clear that his doctrines of the progressive involvement of the three persons of the Trinity in history, with its Sabbath Age of the Holy Spirit expected in the near future, could have been appropriated by the Amalricians.  They may or may not have been the first, but they would certainly not be the last, to be excited by his prophecies.[44]

His own new order

When his abbey of Corazzo was finally adopted by the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova, Joachim had already left to live an eremitic life at Pietralata, in the foothills of the Sila plateau.[45]  He then went on to build, higher up, his own monastic cell of San Giovanni in Fiore.  This was not just the foundation of a new monastery, but the start of a new Florensian order.  San Giovanni in Fiore was dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist and the Holy Spirit, and the name translates as St. John in Flowering.  This may be connected to Joachim’s belief that the name of Nazareth, where Mary conceived Jesus, had a similar meaning of flowering.[46]  Did he hope that the annunciation of the new spiritual order would take place in his new Nazareth?[47]

In 1196, Pope Celestine III gave his approval for Joachim’s new Florensian order, which had powerful imperial backing.  Joachim had worked hard to reconcile imperial and papal parties, when the crown of Sicily had passed to the German Emperor, Henry VI.[48]  Approval of the Florensian order was confirmed by Pope Innocent III in 1204,[49] even though Innocent III had been the anti-imperial candidate in the papal elections.[50]

By this time, Joachim was dead.  He died in 1202, while founding a second monastery for his order in the high Calabrian hills.[51]  As the historian R.E.Lerner wrote, Joachim’s last years, when he was desperately trying to prepare for the spiritual age, whose advent he calculated to be imminent, were both literally and figuratively “an ascent up the mountain”.[52]

If the Amalricians’ ideas about a new and more spiritual age in the future seem to be remarkably close to one part of Joachim’s complicated theories, how could they have known about them so quickly?  This must be the subject of the next piece.



[1] The historian, Gary Dickson, sensibly noted that a scholarly consensus was beginning to grow that it was “highly probable” that the Amalricians borrowed from Joachim: G.Dickson: The Burning… (B.3) p.362 note 78.  Many Joachim scholars, however, stand firm on their statement of “No proof”. 
[2] There was a large Arabic-speaking population in Sicily, which had been, before its Norman conquest, a territory of the Fātimid caliphate of Egypt.  There was also an old-established Greek population throughout southern Italy and Sicily, which maintained Greek Christian traditions (R.E.Lerner: Feast… (B.45) p.7;  D.C.West & S.Zimdars-Swartz (B.45) p.2).
[3] R.E.Lerner op.cit. p.7; D.C.West intro. to Joachim of Fiore in Christian Thought (B.47) pp.ii-iii.
[4] R.E.Lerner op.cit. pp.7-8;  B.McGinn: Calabrian Abbot… (B.45) p.20.
[5] R.E.Lerner: Feast… (B.45) pp.8-9; B.McGinn: Calabrian Abbot… (B.45) pp.20-22 and ‘Ratio’ and ‘Visio’…(B.45) p.29, where he points out how useful Casamari’s large library would have been.
[6] R.E.Lerner op. cit. pp.10-11; B.McGinn op. cit. pp.25-28.
[7] D.West & S.Zimdars-Swartz (B.45) p.4.
[8] M.E.Reeves & B.Hirsch-Reich: The Figurae of Joachim of Fiore (Oxford 1972) (B.46) p.6.
[9] D.West & S.Zimdars-Swartz (B.45) pp.18-19.
[10] Ibid. p.19.  For any reader who wants a more psychological explanation: 3 is an emotional number (you tear things three times when you are really angry; you give three cheers when you are delighted), while 4 is rational and intellectual (you calculate on squared paper; you write on, and read from, rectangular sheets).  Since religion is an attempt to harmonise humanity’s emotional responses with its intellectual perceptions, it is no surprise that 7 (3+4, emotion + intellect) is an important number.
[11] O.Rousseau (B.44) pp.51-53.
[12] Reeves & Hirsch-Reich: The Figurae of Joachim of Fiore (Oxford 1972) (B.46) p.9 & pp.121-2; and the illustration (pl.9).
[13] Rev. chaps.1-3.
[14] M.E.Reeves: Liber Figurarum… (B.46) p.78.
[15] M.E.Reeves & B.Hirsch-Reich: The Figurae of Joachim of Fiore (Oxford 1972) (B.46) p.9;  Liber Concordiae  (S.44) 2:1:4, f.8r.
[16] R.E.Lerner: Feast… (B.45) p.14.  Nevertheless, Uzziah had to be punished with leprosy when he tried to interfere in religious ritual.
[17] D.West & S.Zimdars-Swartz (B.45) pp.31-32.
[18] from Liber Concordiae (S.44) 2:1:4.  The text speaks of initiatio and fructificatio: I have followed Miss Reeves in translating the first as germination.
[19] F.J.Baumgartner (B.44) p.63.
[20] B.McGinn: Calabrian Abbot… (B.45) pp.28-29.  For Adam de Perseigne, see the previous piece.
[21] Rev.1:8.
[22]In the Psalterium decem chordarum, he changes his image to a combination of A for Alpha and O for Omega; his psaltery has a triangular shape enclosing a circle; B.McGinn: Calabrian Abbot… (B.45) pp.162-3; Psalterium… 1:1.
[23] E.Randolf Daniel: A New Understanding… (B.45) p.213.
[24] M.E.Reeves: Influence… (B.47) pp.19-20, from Liber Concordiae (S.44) 2:1:9, fol.10r, and 2:1:21, fol.13v.
[25] B.McGinn: op.cit. p.155.
[26] ibid. p.156, transl. B.McGinn from Expositio in Apocalypsim  (S.43) fol.37va.
[27] Psalterium decem chordarum (S.45) book 2, fol.265r: “ecclesiam quiescentium, que futura est in tertio statu, cum dabitur sabbatismus populo dei.”
[28] E.Aegerter (B.45) vol.2 pp.91-92, from the introduction to the Expositio in Apocalypsim.
[29] Expositio in Apocalypsim (S.43) fol.5v, transl. D.West & S.Zimdars-Swartz, (B.45) p.18.  Elias is the prophet Elijah, who is expected to re-appear in the last times.
[30] E.Aegerter: op cit. vol.2, p.92.
[31] Liber Concordiae  (S.44) 5:84, fol.112r.
[32] ibid, 5:84, fol.112r, as transl. by Miss Troutbeck (B.45) p.145. (The quotation is from 2 Cor.3:17.)
[33] Ibid. 2:1:4, fol.8r.
[34] Expositio in Apocalypsim (S.43) fol.5, transl. in D.West & S.Zimdars-Swartz (B.45) p.18.
[35] D.West & S.Zimdars-Swartz (B.45) p.59.
[36] Liber Concordiae (S.44) 2:1:4, fol.8r: “Fructificatio tertii status ab ea generatione que fuit vigesimasecunda a sancto Benedicto usque ad consumationem seculi. Initiatio a sancto Benedicto.”
[37] M.Reeves & B.Hirsch-Reich: Seven Seals… (B.45) pp.213-4: “ille septimus rex” from Expositio in Apocalypsim intro. fol.9v-10r.
[38] Rev. chap.13.
[39] B.McGinn: Visions… (B.44) p.317 n.53.
[40] M.Reeves: Influence… (B.47) pp.6-7.
[41] This is actually the first overthrow of the Antichrist. He will eventually break free and will make a second appearance, with Gog, the ultimate tyrant, at the end of the sabbath age, to precipitate the final conflagration and the end of the world.
[42] Liber Concordiae  (S.44) fol.56r; transl. in McGinn: Visions… (B.44) p.135.
[43] Expositio fol.175v-176r; transl. B.McGinn op.cit. pp.136-7.
[44] See M.Reeves: Influence… (B.47) for the extent of his influence in later generations.
[45] R.Lerner: Feast… (B.45) pp.10-11;  B.McGinn: Calabrian Abbot… (B.45) pp.24-25.  The General Council of the Cistercian Order still described him as a fugitive in 1192: Francesco d’Elia (B.45) p.18.
[46] R.E.Lerner op.cit. pp.10 & 35 for thoughts on the use of “fiore”; d’Elia (B.45) p.18 for the dedication.  The site is now known as Fiore antico, as the community later moved to what was considered to be a more suitable location: d’Elia op.cit. p.18.
[47] S.Wessley: Joachim and Monastic Reform (B.45) pp.37-38 & pp.44-48.
[48] R.E.Lerner pp.11-12;  B.McGinn: Calabrian Abbot… (B.45) p.28.
[49] D.West and S.Zimdars-Swartz (B.45) p.5.
[50] B.McGinn: Visions… (B.44) p.127.
[51] B.McGinn: Calabrian Abbot… (B.45) p.30.
 [52] R.E.Lerner: Feast… (B.45) p.10.  Indeed, if the letter To All Those Faithful to Christ (Universis Christi Fidelibus) was, as it proclaimed itself to be, written by Joachim, then he published an urgent plea to Christians, to start amending their way of life in the expectation of the final tribulations, “before the present generation has passed away” (“nec preteribit generatio ista donec omnia fiant”: Universis Christi Fidelibus (S.64) p.223); and he urged them, “if possible, to climb the mount of contemplation” (“aut in montem contemplationis ascendite si potestis”: ibid. p.223).

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