Blessed Joachim of Fiore

Founder, Mystic, Theologian, Esoterist
 (1135 – 1202)
Memorial : 30 March

Joachim of Fiore, also known as Joachim de Floris, Joachim of Flora, Joachim the Prophet, Joachim von Fiore, or Gioacchino….  Was the founder of the monastic order of San Giovanni in Fiore. He was a mystic, a theologian, and an esotericist. His followers are called Joachimites.

He is the most important apocalyptic thinker of the whole medieval period, and maybe after the prophet John, the most important apocalyptic thinker in the history of Christianity. He's born in Calabria, some time about 1135, from what we would call a middle class family today. And he was an official in the court of the Norman kings of Sicily when he had a spiritual conversion, and went off on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a mysterious time about which we know little. When he returned to Calabria, he lived as a hermit for a number of years before eventually joining the Cistercian Order. ... Joachim, like many 12th century monks, was fundamentally a scriptural commentator. And he tells us that he was trying to understand and write a commentary on the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse, and finding it impossible. The book was too difficult. He couldn't figure out its symbolism. 

And he wrestled with this (he uses the term "wrestling" with it) for a number of months. ... He tells us that he had been stymied and given up the attempt to interpret the book. And then, one Easter morning, he awakened, but he awakened as a new person, having been given a spiritual understanding ("spiritualis intelligentia" is the Latin), a spiritual understanding of the meaning of the Book of Revelation and the concords (that is, the relationship of all the books in the Bible). And out of that moment of insight, then, Joachim launched into his long exposition on the Book of the Apocalypse, one of the most important commentaries ever written.

Joachim's great insight about history is what is often called his view of the three statuses, or three eras of history. And it's fundamentally rooted in the Trinity. If Christians believe that God is three-fold (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), Joachim then said that the Bible reveals that if the Old Testament was the time of the Father, the New Testament the time of the Son, there must be a coming third status or era of history that is ascribed to and special to the Holy Spirit, who gives the deep understanding of the meaning of both Old and New Testaments. And so Joachim returned to a more optimistic view of history, that after the crisis of the Antichrist (which he thought as imminent, as right around the corner in his own days), there would come a new era of the Church on earth, the contemplative utopia of the Holy Spirit, a monastic era of contemplation. That's the heart of Joachim's great vision and contribution to western apocalypticism.

Like Hildegard of Bingen, Joachim is a great symbolist, a picture-thinker, in a sense. His writings, his Latin writings, are very complex and difficult to read. I'd call them opaque, actually. But he had a wonderful symbolic imagination. And so Joachim created figures, as he called them. ... The Book of Figures, which goes back to his own work but was added to by his disciples, is really the best way into Joachim's thought. So, for instance, when we talk about the three eras or the three statuses of history, it's very difficult to take this out of the texts themselves. But when we have the picture of the three interlocking circles, or when we have the image of what are called the "tree circles," where the two trees representing the Jewish people and the Gentile people grow together through the three ages of history, we get an immediate visual understanding of what Joachim is trying to convey in his often obscure writings. 

What is he trying to convey about the three stages ?

Joachim believes that history is trinitarian, consisting of three status or eras, as he calls them. The first status is the time of the Father, and that's the Old Testament, lasting for 42 generations. The second status is the time of the second person, the Son, and the time of the New Testament, also 42 generations. Joachim's calculations led him to believe that he was living at the very end of that period, and that no more than two generations at most--that is, no more than 60 years, and possibly less--would see the end of the second status. The end of the second status, of course, would mark the seventh head of the dragon, that is, the Antichrist, and Antichrist's persecution. But for Joachim, that wasn't the end of history. A third status, the status of the Holy Spirit, a time of contemplative ecclesiastical utopia, was dawning. ...

Joachim's view of history was deeply organic. And this is why he loves images of trees and flowering in order to present his message. So that there's no clear break or definitive fissure between the first status and the second status. The second status begins to germinate in the first. And the third status, the monastic utopia that I talked about, is germinating in the second status with the monastic life, beginning from Benedict, the founder of monks in the West. And another part then, I think, of the power of Joachim's view of history is its organic growing motif ... .

Joachim's view of the opposition between good and evil was, of course, central to him, as it is to any apocalyptic thinker. But Joachim wasn't into what we might call active apocalypticism, that one must take up arms against the forces of evil. Joachim felt that God controlled history, and that good would need to suffer, and the good would suffer indeed from the persecuting Antichrist, but that God would be the one who would destroy Antichrist and bring about this third status in history. So Joachim felt that the role model of the forces of good was that of the suffering, the persecuted, not of those who would take up arms against the beast of the apocalypse. 

How did this view differ from Augustine's ?

Apocalypse commentators for many centuries before Joachim had ruled out any attempt to use the apocalypse as a prophetic book, either about the history of the Church that was going on, or of future ages to come. That was, of course, something that Augustine had insisted upon; that the book can't be read in that literal fashion. Joachim broke with that, by finding in the images and symbols of the Book of the Apocalypse the whole history of the Church: the past, the present that he was living in, and the future to come. So he historicizes the book, in the sense that he ties it to actual historical events. This is what Augustine had ruled out. 

What signs did Joachim see ? And what was his sense of the nearness ?

Joachim was a real apocalypticist in the original sense of the prophet John and others, because he believed the current events that he saw around him, particularly events connected with persecution of Christians, were signs of the times, signs that had been predicted in the Book of the Apocalypse and now were being fulfilled.
This is what Augustine and others had ruled out, but Joachim felt was a part of Revelation itself. A good example of Joachim's reading the signs of the times would be his emphasis of the figure of Saladin, and Saladin's reconquest of Jerusalem in the year 1187. When Joachim comes to interpreting the 12th chapter of Revelation, he sees the seven-headed dragon as indicating seven heads of concrete historical persecutors through the course of history, and not just as a general symbol of evil. He identifies the sixth head with Saladin--he Islamic leader who reconquered the city of Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the year 1187--and sees him as immediately preceding the coming seventh head, who will be the Antichrist, the last and greatest persecutor of the second status of the Church.

Joachim had an international reputation in the late 12th century. We know that he functioned as what I have called an apocalyptic advisor to a number of the popes of the 1180s and the 1190s. Despite living on a lonely mountaintop in his monastery in Calabria, the prophet's fame had spread very wide. And so it shouldn't surprise us that King Richard the Lion Hearted, when he's on his way to the Third Crusade and he has to spend the winter in Sicily (because of course you can't sail during the winter on the Mediterranean), when he stops there in Messina, he calls for Joachim, the famous prophet, and asks for his prophetic advice about what will happen. And Joachim travels to the palace there in Messina, in the winter of 1190-1191. And we have the accounts of his preaching to King Richard, and Richard's questions to him. 

What would somebody like Richard the Lion Heart ask Joachim? What kind of advice could Joachim give?

Well, Richard, like any medieval figure, did believe in prophecy. And he felt that God did indeed send visions to certain inspired figures, and that these visions could sometimes give one a hint, or even more than a hint, about what was to come. Now, one of the accounts emphasizes that Joachim predicted a victory for Richard. And we know Richard achieved at best a kind of Pyrrhic victory. But I see no reason to doubt that Joachim prophesied something to Richard, probably in a vague enough fashion so that if it didn't fully come out that way, he was, in a sense, covered. ... 

Jaochim and the Dragon (The Seven Headed Dragon)

Apocalyptic religious thought has been around for millennia. Many religious traditions have a belief in a final confrontation between good and evil, and this belief is especially common to the three great monotheistic religions of the Middle East. Christian apocalypticism holds that in the end times the forces of evil will become stronger and spill out onto the world for a period of pillaging and death. They will be led by a powerful Antichrist who will win over people’s souls even as he wins great military victories. However, in the end Jesus Christ will return to defeat the Antichrist and to judge all of the living and the dead.  In the Christian tradition this story is primarily told in the Book of Revelation, which relates visions given to John on Patmos. Many others modified this basic vision over the years. One of these was Joachim of Fiore, a 12th century abbot who drew many images that have to do with the coming tribulations. The figure of the Seven Headed Dragon by Joachim of Fiore can be viewed as an attempt to understand the history of persecutions of the Church in light of the prophecies in the Book of Revelation.

Joachim dedicated his life to the pursuit of God after a trip to the Holy Land. After a brief period as a wandering preacher, Joachim entered the Benedictine monastery at Corazzo. However, he soon left and founded his own house at San Giovanni da Fiore in the Sila plateau; it was there that he carried out most of his work. Joachim never claimed to have any prophetic powers- rather, he believed that he had the gift of understanding what was already written. One of his major works is a collection of sixteen basic images called the Book of Figures and one of the major illustrations was that of the Seven Headed Dragon.    

The captions of the figure have survived and explain the image in detail. The ‘vast red dragon having seven heads and ten horns” comes from Revelation 12:3.2 Joachim gives each head the name of one of the kings who have persecuted Christians throughout history, one of the persecutions, and designates it as a certain time. He identifies the seven kings as Herod, Nero, Constantius II, Mohammed, Mesemoth, Saladin, and the Antichrist. Joachim quotes Revelation 17:9-10 when he notes that “there are seven kings. Five have fallen, one is present, and the other has not yet come.” Most people would take that to mean that at the time of the writing of Revelation five of the kings had already fallen. However, of the kings Joachim selects, only Herod and Nero would have already fallen at that time (1st-2nd century). He is taking the words in Revelation to refer to the present time (12th century), which is strange because in that case the prophecy would have been incorrect in the time that it was written.

The names of the seven kings also show strong bias for the age in which Joachim was writing. Most Christians would cite Herod and Nero as great persecutors of Christians. However, the other four kings that Joachim names are a bit doubtful. Constantius II was a forth century Arian emperor who persecuted non-Arians. However, he was a Christian and his persecution is not notable in Church history. Although he wielded large amounts of temporal power, Mohammed was not really a king in the way that the others were. His movement did lead to many battles between Muslims and Christians, but his religion shared much with Christianity and he taught that Jesus was a messenger from God. Mesemoth appears to be some North African ruler, but the particular one has not been identified. From a modern perspective, one would certainly not see him as one of the seven greatest persecutors of Christians. Saladin was the Islamic leader who finally pushed the Christians out of Jerusalem in 1195. One could easily make the case that he was just defending his home. One of Saladin’s lieutenants, Nasser Al-Aedin wrote in his journal that Saladin “thinks that the Christians are not really our enemy and we should give them respect,” and also that he “was kind to them when they arrogantly walk into our city and refused to negotiate.” He was only responding to Christian forces attacking his homeland, not attacking the Christians in theirs. Certainly, many other leaders have done much more to persecute Christians.

The tail of the dragon bears the inscription “Gog. He is the final Antichrist.” The term antichrist has been applied liberally throughout history to various figures. However, none has stood out and explicitly fulfilled all of the prophecies set forth in the Book of Revelation.   This led Joachim and many others to regard the lesser figures as antichrists, but not the Antichrist. Joachim states that “just as many holy kings, priests, and prophets went before the one Christ who was king, priest and prophet, so likewise many unholy kings, false prophets and antichrists will come before the one Antichrist who will pretend that he is a king, a priest, and a prophet.” The seventh king and the Final Antichrist will be similar in power. The seventh king will wage war on earth but be defeated. The space between the lowest dragon head and the tail represents the last thousand years of peace and prosperity on earth. Then, Gog will command his army to come against the elect one last time. Joachim sets this Final Antichrist in the tail because “the heads will already have been crushed.”10  In the end, God will be victorious and Gog will be cast with the devil into the lake of fire where the Beast and False Prophet already reside.

Joachim’s work is a good representation of Christian Apocalypticism. He believed that the world was in the final age, and this influenced his writing and interpretation of the scriptures very much. The figures that he draws help make sense of his conception of the history of time and the place of the current age within that framework. The figure of the Seven Headed Dragon that is a chilling image of the dragon from the Book of Revelation can be viewed as Joachim’s attempt to understand the persecutions of the Church based on the historical and political conditions of his world.

The Trees with Side-Shoots

An interesting pair of trees is the sketch of the Trees with Side-Shoots, which is reproduced in translation in fig.1.  The tree on the left is based on the family tree of the Patriarchs of Genesis.  This is taken as a paradigm for the spiritual development of all the descendants of the Patriarchs in the Judaeo-Christian world, represented by the tree on the right.

At the bottom, there are buds; farther up are leaves, flowers and fruit; and at the top the luxuriant growth is likened, by M.Reeves and B.Hirsch-Reich, to the crown of a palm tree, a heavenly palm tree of exaltation.  These trees of spiritual inheritance are two of the most elaborate and beautiful pictures in the collection.

Note that it is usually the junior partner, the later arrival, the younger brother, who passes on the all-important spiritual tradition, represented by the main stem: Jacob rather than Esau; the youngest, Joseph, not the eldest, Reuben. Although the Jews were the first chosen people, the Gentiles accepted Christ and so received the favour of the Holy Spirit. Although the Greek Church was far more spiritual than the Latin in the early Christian centuries, it is now the Latin Church that will pass on that spiritual understanding.  The final luxuriant growth of the spirit will grow out of the Cistercian movement.

The Tree-Ladders

The illustration, known as the Tree-Ladder of the Three Judgements (see fig.2), gives a clear visual image of the three-fold nature of universal religious growth.  The line of development for each stage of religious understanding, – Jewish, Christian and spiritual, – grows out of the previous one, and is symbolised by a key female figure from the Bible.  In the version of the Book of Illustrations which is found in the Dresden manuscript, the third ladder ends in the “judgement of the church of the third state”, which seems to make better sense than “judgement of Israel”.  Joachim had probably envisaged a correspondence between the literal Jerusalem of the first state and the spiritual Jerusalem of the last.

There is another, similar tree-ladder, which gives more precise information about chronology.  It states that the church of the Son, which had been sterile from the time of Abraham until that of John the Baptist, would be fecund from then until the “present time”, and that the church of the Holy Spirit, sterile until the present time, would be fecund until the end of the world.  On the third branch of the diagram, between “the present time” and “the persecution of Gog”, which leads to “the end of the world”, is marked “the fructification of the third state”.

The Tree-Circles

In the illustration known as the Tree-Circles, or the two-stemmed tree of Noah (see fig.3), two stems grow up from two of Noah’s sons, Shem, the ancestor of the Semites, and Japhet, the ancestor of the Gentiles.  (Ham is shown as a sterile stump.)  As the 2 stems grow up and cross over each other, they form 3 circles for the 3 ages of religious history.  In the first circle, that of the Old Testament, the Jewish stem is on the left and is flourishing a little bit more than the Gentile one.  In the second circle, the time of the New Testament and the Church, the Gentile or Christian stem is on the left and flourishing.  In the third circle, both stems burst simultaneously into a wealth of luxuriant growth, to symbolise the unimaginable new life, which will become manifest in the third status.  Here, manifested in a very simple and visual form, are many of Joachim’s teachings: on the organic nature of history, on the Trinitarian pattern of religious development, – Jewish under the law of the Father, Christian under the grace of the Son, and spiritual under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, – and on the equal importance of Jews and Gentiles in the age of the spirit.

The Trinitarian Circles

The Trinitarian Circles are even more explicit.  There are 3 circles for the 3 persons of the Trinity (and the 3 parts of the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God, Latinised here as IEVE, and divided into 3 syllables).  The first and the third circles overlap on either side of the centre of the second circle, so that the key Christian moment, the time of John the Baptist, is in all 3 circles.  The circle of the Father is coloured green (perhaps symbolising earth, or nature, or unripe fruit), that of the Son is blue (perhaps symbolising water and air, or baptism, or grace, or ripe fruit), and the third circle is red (perhaps for fire, or the spiritual life, or the sweetest and most luscious fruits).  The three ‘states’ are those of 1) the Mosaic Law, 2) the Christian Gospel and 3) the spiritual interpretation of both.

Human history passes from left to right through 4 columns of human progress, – from Adam (primitive man) – to Moses and Aaron (the priestly law of the Old Testament) – to John the Baptist (the sacramental grace of the New Testament) – to a future spiritual state.  Each has its period of germination or initiation, which is coterminous with the period of fructification of the preceding state.  It is clear that the literal interpretation of the Gospel will give way to the spiritual, during “the present time” (presens tempus), although that is left as an unspecified period.

The circles have had to be omitted, because there is insufficient space on the page.  I have, therefore, tried to simplify, into four vertical columns, and seven horizontal bands, the names and the concepts that are given a special relationship in the sketch, according to their position among the interconnected circles.

Because of the overlapping of the 3 circles, Joachim obtains 4 main divisions, each characterised by a prophet.  The prophet for the last status will be Elijah, who is expected to reappear at the time of the second Advent.  Thus, the status of the Holy Spirit will be announced by both Old and New Testament figures.  Joachim is always keen to stress that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, so that the third status must unite both Jews and Christians.

Other splendid images are less relevant for any possible influence on the Amalricians.  The last image to be mentioned here will be that of the ten-stringed psaltery, which combines a triangle of trinity with a central circle of unity.  The 10 strings represent, on one side, man and the 9 grades of the angelic hierarchy, and on the other, the 3 theological virtues and the 7 gifts of the spirit.  One of the rather daring things in this illustration is that man is not added, as the 10th string, but put at the top of the angelic hierarchy!  This is because man can, thanks to the work of Christ, surpass the angels in his mystical ascent to God, to receive things that no eye has seen nor ear heard, as Joachim explained in the Psalterium.

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