4.2.2. Joachim of Fiore and the three ages of universal history

4.2.2. Joachim of Fiore and the three ages of universal history

In 1159, at the age of 25, the Calabrian monk Joachim of Fiore searched for the will of God through a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. According to the legend, at a turning point, just when he thought he would die of exhaustion in the desert of Palestine, Joachim had a revelation similar to that of John the Apostle: a man and a river of oil were shown to him; after he drank from the river of oil he woke up and he realized that he knew all the meanings of the Holy Scripture. It is very likely that Joachim experienced symptoms of the “Jerusalem syndrome” or hallucinations caused by starvation, dehydration or exhaustion.

Upon returning to Italy in 1170, Joachim joined the Cistercian Order, characterized by extreme austerity, and he entirely dedicated himself to Bible study. In the following years he published his work De unitate seu essentia Trinitatis, attacking the Trinitarian teachings of Petrus Lombardus. Then, in 1183, while he was at the Cistercian abbey of Camasari, just the night before the celebration of the Resurrection, Joachim had a new revelation:

In the complete silence of this night, and, as I believe, just in the hour when our “lion of Juda” (Ap.5,5) was resurrected from the dead, while I meditated on “Rapt in extasy on the day of the Lord, I heard behind me a powerful voice, like a trumpet...” (Ap.1,10), I caught with the eyes of my mind something of such clarity of intelligence on the subject of the fullness of this book of the Apocalypse and of all the harmony of the Old and New Testament.285

Another revelation occurred during the celebration of Pentecost:

While I entered the church to pray to the Almighty in front of the altar, I felt in me a sort of hesitation about the belief in the Trinity. It was difficult to grasp for intellect and faith, that all these persons were one god, and one single god was all these persons. When this happened I prayed with fervor and, frightened, urgently implored the Holy Spirit, whose holiday it was, to deign to reveal to me the sacred symbol of the Trinity, through which the Lord promises us complete knowledge of the truth. Saying these things I began to sing to reach the verse for the day in the book of Psalms. At once I had in the mind the image of a psalterium (scilicet: a kind of zither) with ten chords and in this image I saw so clearly and evidently the symbol of the holy Trinity that I was brought to exclaim “Which god is a great as our God” (Sal.77,14).286

These unusual experiences profoundly influenced Joachim and made him begin the famous trilogy that influenced the apocalypticism of the following centuries: Liber Concordie novi ac veteris Testamenti, Expositio in Apocalypsim and Psalterium decem chordarum. Written and refined over a period of 16 years, the three works form a unitary community of thoughts despite the differences of subject. For Joachim, the three studies were inseparable and were designed to be read as a whole.

In chronological order, Liber Concordie... was composed the first and it set the style and the frame for the other two. In an elaborate parallel, Joachim tried to determine the correspondence of every person, event and period that can be found in the Old Testament with a person, event or period in the New Testament. Then these correspondences were shown as prefigurations of similar persons, events and periods within the third era of human history. In essence, Liber Concordie... is an elaborate philosophy of history.

The second work, Expositio... is mainly a detailed commentary about the meanings of the signs described in the Book of Revelation – the key to understanding the entire Holy Scripture – but in relation to the other biblical books, especially the gospels and Genesis. Expositio... is the basis of the whole Joachimite biblical exegesis.

Finally, Psalterium... is an allegorical presentation of the three ages of universal history. His theological contribution and the study of the nature of God is a visualization, and not a debatable theory. He explains how the triangular corpus of the psalterium (a symbol for Trinity) requires all the three wedges (a symbol for the three persons) to fulfill its purpose and to complete the entire body of the instrument. The corpus of the instrument represents the Father, the songs sung with the help of the instrument represent the Son, and the melody produced both by the instrument and the action of singing represents the Holy Spirit, coming from both the Father and the Son. Indeed, the wedges of the psalterium can also be approached separately, but they cease to be an instrument and they can no longer produce the same music.287 Influenced by the diagram "Tetragrammaton-Trinity" of Petrus Alphonsi, Joachim tried to represent Trinity as a geometrical form. The result was the famous symbol “Shield of the Trinity.”288

From 1184 he stayed in Rome to comment the sibylline prophecies at the request of the pope, and in the spring of 1191 Joachim went to Messina, where he met King Richard the Lionheart. Richard wished to meet the monk to discuss certain aspects from the Book of Revelation before he went in the campaign of the Third Crusade. Among other things, Joachim explained to Richard the significance of the seven heads of the apocalyptic beast: five were correspondent to five dead persecutors of Christianity, the sixth was Sultan Saladin, and the seventh was the Antichrist himself, already born. In the summer of 1191 Joachim met Emperor Henry VI under the walls of the besieged Naples, to which, through the exegesis of Ezekiel, he prophesied the non-violent conquest of the Kingdom of Sicily. But Geoffrey of Auxerre attacked Joachim calling him false prophet and spread false rumors about his Jewish origins. Between 1194 and 1197 Henry VI, now in the possession of Sicily, made important donations to the community founded by Joachim, and on August 25, 1196, Pope Celestine III approved the establishment of the monastic order Ordo Florensis.289

In 1200 both Expositio... and Liber Concordie... were completed and offered for analysis to Pope Innocent III. But Joachim died on March 30, 1202, at Pietrafitta, before he could find out the position of the pope. Thus, the Joachimite debate and the controversies regarding his works began post-mortem.

Joachim was fond of calculating the world’s age. But, initially, he did not intend to determine the moment of the end of the world, but to depict a coherent history of Christianity within a comprehensive history of the world. Only after he experienced the two visions from Camasari did the historical study metamorphose into an apocalyptic one. Nevertheless, Joachim never considered himself to be a prophet, but a man gifted with the necessary wisdom for understanding the scriptures. For him the purpose of theology was the exegesis – the correct understanding and use of the holy texts. And this understanding was not the result of arguments and debates, but of revelation.290

Joachim’s eschatological theories are based on the image of the Creator and the relation between the Creator and his Creation. God created the Universe according to his limitless wisdom, and he created man in his own image. Thus, human beings can search for God in two ways: through his Word (the Bible) and through his Creation (the Universe). Both ways, not just one, help people know God. Because Creation is an emanation and an imperfect reflection of the Creator (an idea most likely taken from the Greek philosopher Plotinus), Joachim saw the organization and functioning of nature structured after the image of God. And God’s perfection demanded symmetry.

The medieval Christians inherited geographical knowledge from the Romans and the Greeks and adapted it to the Christian doctrine. In the 7th century in Etymologiae Isidore sketched the map of the world as a circle divided into three parts by the letter “T,” with the part representing Asia equal to half of the circle, and Europe and Africa equal to a quarter each.291 Jerusalem was placed in the geometrical (and spiritual) center of the world, where the three continents meet. Genesis 9 confirmed this image: Noah had three sons – Shem, Ham and Japheth – who multiplied and, it was believed, each populated a continent. This conception about the shape of the earth was embraced by subsequent scholars and it lasted until the 16th century. So, at the time of Joachim the entire landmass was believed to have a tripartite division similar to the tripartite image of God.

Joachim went even further with the idea of divine symmetry and applied it to the flowing of time. According to the Bible, the relation between man and God is clearly divided into two large ages separated by the First Coming of the Son of God. And the Book of Revelation also says that a new, third age would begin at the Second Coming of the Son of God. Hence, the Calabrian monk believed that, as space is divided into three parts resembling the structure of the Trinity, in the same way universal history is divided into three ages resembling the same image of God:

(1) The Age of the Father – or the Age of the Law, corresponding to the period of the Old Testament and characterized by the obedience of the Israelites to God’s rules.

(2) The Age of the Son – or the Age of Christendom or of the gospel, margined by the resurrection of Christ and the year 1260, corresponding to the period of the New Testament, when man became the son of God.

(3) The Age of the Holy Spirit – or the Age of the Spirit, which was about to be established sometime between 1200 and 1260, after Parousia, when mankind came in direct contact with God.292

According to Joachim, only in the third age would mankind access the deepest meanings of the Word of God: ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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