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Pseudo-Dionysius in the Twelfth Century Latin West

Dale Coulter

During the twelfth-century search for authorities the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius were increasingly used as part of a new theological outlook. No doubt the choice of pseudonyms by the author of the corpus aided in its popularity, yet the original synthesis of Christian teaching and the Neoplatonism of the fifth century found in the writings spoke powerfully to the twelfth-century context. Writers sought to mine the Dionysian corpus for insights into the nature of reality and the contemplative ascent ending in union with God. While Augustine had proposed his own understanding of Neoplatonism and its relationship to the Christian life, from Pseudo- Dionysius twelfth-century writers were exposed to an alternative Christian vision based on the same philosophical framework. To aid in understanding the extent of Dionysian influence a brief synopsis of certain features of the corpus will be given, followed by a historical look at its introduction to the West before aspects of Dionysian thought in twelfth-century authors are examined.

Brief Synopsis of Dionysian System

The Dionysian system is a complex and sophisticated integration of Neoplatonic motifs into a Christian framework. From this system three streams emerge forming part of the theological atmosphere of the twelfth century: an outlook concerning the nature of reality; a proposed method to interpret and understand this reality; a means by which reality itself is transcended in union with the divine. Each of these comprises a different aspect of the world-view the corpus sets forth and will be examined successively.

Pseudo-Dionysius postulates the structure of the universe as an emanation of procession and return from God through various hierarchies which comprise its fabric. These hierarchies, Celestial, Ecclesiastical and Legal, are further subdivided into various orders which are described in detail throughout the Dionysian writings. Each order has no power in itself, rather it is an agent of the power of God and as such participates in that power. The orders form the central part of a continuum proceeding and returning to God in which all are caught up.

This structure is both ontological and epistemological. That is, it is how the universe exists in itself (the nature of reality) and it speaks to how we come to knowledge of this universe. The epistemological structure, like the ontological, functions in terms of procession and return. In the procession God is involved in self-revelation while in the return humans are involved in both knowing this revelation and eventually unknowing it in union with the divine. Through participation in the emanation the self-revelation of God is encoded or demonstrated in the hierarchies making them symbolic in nature. As symbols, the hierarchies have significant content which when interpreted points beyond itself, causing an anagogic or uplifting ascent to the next hierarchy. Furthermore, by virtue of its participation in the divine, the symbol is also referred to as a theophany or divine manifestation which involves every created thing. Knowledge is then gained through interpretation of the symbolic hierarchies. Thus The Celestial Hierarchy states, We must lift up the immaterial and steady eyes of our minds to that outpouring of Light which is so primal, indeed much more so, and which comes from that source of divinity, I mean the Father. This is the Light which, by way of representative symbols, makes known to us the most blessed hierarchies among the angels. But we need to rise from this outpouring of illumination so as to come to the simple ray of Light itself (CH 1; Complete Works 145-46).

The second Dionysian influence is the methodological interpretation of this structure through a positive/negative dialectic. Pseudo-Dionysius devises a method for interpreting the symbols of the hierarchy enabling the return or anagogic ascent. It is actually through the interpretive process that one ascends through the hierarchy. This process begins in the positive, that is, what can be affirmed about God in the symbols, and moves into a negative mode of interpretation whereby what has been affirmed of God previously must now be denied. Thus, each symbol has what is termed a dissimilar similarity indicating that there is simultaneously a similarity to be affirmed and a dissimilarity to be negated. This dialectic continues until the last stage of the process.

The interpretation of the symbols corresponds to a three stage ascent of the soul; the purgation of the materiality of symbols, illumination of the significance of the symbols and perfection by an abandonment of the significance in ascent to the next hierarchy. Each stage is related to the epistemological structure so that purgation is the removal of ignorance, illumination is the reception of new knowledge, and perfection is the abandonment of present knowledge for something higher (CH 3; EH 5, 6; Complete Works 153-55, 233-49). These three stages are repeated throughout each hierarchy as one continues to ascend.

The final stream of Dionysian influence is the abandonment of all interpretive concepts through their "unknowing." The last stage of anagogic ascent moves beyond the interpretive positive/negative dialectic by a negation of all that has been negated. This places one in state of "unknowing" where the experience of silent union with the divine occurs. The Mystical Theology provides an apt description, ...as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing (MT 3; Complete Works 139).

In order to describe what is beyond all categories of human knowledge, Pseudo-Dionysius uses the prefix huper (super in Latin) before terms such as "being" (ousia) which emphasize the transcendent nature of the divine. Each of these aspects of Dionysian thought were to impact twelfth-century writers as the corpus was transmitted to the West, a point to which the discussion now turns.

Introduction of Pseudo-Dionysius to the West

The Dionysian corpus came into prominence in the West through diplomatic exchanges which occurred between the Carolingian court and Constantinople. These political meetings normally were accompanied by an exchange of cultural gifts from each party and took place between the years 756-840 C.E. (McCormick 25-34). One such gift was a Greek manuscript of the works of Pseudo-Dionysius given by the Byzantine Emperor Michael the Stammerer to Louis the Pious at Compiegne in 827 C.E.. Hilduin, abbot of St.-Denis, a monastery on the outskirts of Paris placed under the patronage of Dionysius, saw this as an opportunity to increase the prestige of his abbey. He first intention was to produce a translation of the corpus. Although the translation itself was barely readable, Hilduin also composed a work entitled, Incipit passio sancto Dionysii which drew on previous sources and firmly established the Dionysian legend in the West. He argued that Dionysius was not only bishop of Athens but later bishop of Paris and was now buried in the monastery of St.-Denis where he was the abbot. Hilduin's ultimate proof for this was the miracles which had accompanied the gift of Pseudo-Dionysius' writings which indicated the saint's own blessing. Though Pseudo-Dionysius already was viewed as an authoritative figure, the Passio renewed his prominence among those in the West.

The work of John Scotus Eriugena served as the primary channel of Dionysian thought through his translation of the corpus and appropriation of its content into a philosophical system. Due to the unintelligibility of Hilduin's translation, Charles the Bald commissioned John Scotus Eriugena to make a fresh translation in 862 C.E. Eriugena revised this translation several times and the papal librarian, Anastasius brought out a further revision in 875 C.E. This translation of the entire corpus was widely used in the twelfth century to understand Dionysian thought. In addition, Eriugena added a commentary to the corpus and translated other works from Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nyssa. His own thought was an attempt to harmonize East and West in a new philosophy by incorporating the Greek sources into the Periphyseon. In many cases Eriugena's thought and that of Pseudo-Dionysius went hand in hand.

In the first few decades of the twelfth century certain authors referred to the Dionysian corpus through the works of Eriugena. At the School of Laon run by Anselm of Laon (d. 1117) and his brother Ralph began compiling the Glosa Ordinaria, a compilation of quotations from various authors around passages of scripture for the purposes of exegesis and clarification. Anselm and Ralph were both fond of the writings of Eriugena placing quotes from his writings into the Glosa. A second writer which brought attention to the Dionysian corpus in the early part of the twelfth century is Honorius Augustudonensis (d. ca. 1140). He was a wondering scholar who was highly influenced by the work of Eriugena. In fact, the Clavis physicae of Honorius is a summary of Eriugena's own masterpiece Periphyseon. Through Eriugena Honorius and the brothers from Laon appropriated some Dionysian themes into their writings, particularly insights into the structure of the universe. In the following years the influence of Dionysius began to steadily grow, increasing the popularity of the corpus.

Dionysian Thought at the Abbey of St.-Denis

It is undisputed that Suger, abbot of St. Denis (1122-1151) drew on Dionysian light mysticism for the justification of the stained glass windows and symbolism throughout the abbey church (Panofsky 19- 26). In his works, the De Administratione, the De Consecratione and the Ordinatio there is a polemical description of the project which acts as a guide to the construction of the building and its symbolism. Suger used Dionysian thought for the inspiration of the symbolism as well as the justification for the elaborate nature of the project. The poem in De Administratione 26 lies at the heart of his Dionysian framework for the symbolism of the tympanum. Suger recorded the verses which were inscribed on the door. He states,

Whoever thou art, if thou seekest to extol the glory of these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.
Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights,
To the True Light where Christ is the true door.
In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines:
The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material
And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from is former submersion (Panofsky 47-9).

In the final two verses there is a clear Dionysian theme of the person rising through the various hierarchies encoded in symbols from material to immaterial until union with the divine is achieved.

The extent to which Pseudo-Dionysius thought was incorporated into the construction of the abbey and Suger's own source for that thought have caused debate. Panofsky suggested that Suger mined the Celestial Hierarchy and Eriugena's commentary for insight (Panofsky 18-19), recently however scholars have looked to a more contemporary source for Suger's inspiration. Hugh of St. Victor has been pointed to as the one who brought Dionysian thought to the attention of Suger. Zinn and Rudolph have both argued that one can detect certain features of Hugh's own thought interwoven into the design of the abbey (Zinn, "Suger" 33-40; Rudolph 32-47). One such feature is the prominence of Christ in the symbolism. Christ has virtually no role to play in the Dionysian writings, however, Hugh placed Christ at the center in his writings. The extent of the influence of Hugh on Suger has not been fully explored, yet it points to the central role which St. Victor played in the dissemination of Dionysian thought. Regardless, Suger's use of Dionysian thought introduced new justifications for the art program at St.-Denis and its symbolism.

Dionysian thought was proliferated further through the abbey of St.-Denis by a new translation from John Sarrazin. One of the few persons in the West who understood enough of the Greek language to provide a translation. Sarrazin had already written a commentary on The Celestial Hierarchies (1140 C.E.). William the Physician, a Provencal, returned to Paris from Constantinople with new manuscripts of the Dionysian corpus and at the request of John of Salisbury (Patrologia Latina 199.143-44) Sarrazin used them to improve on the translation of Eriugena. His basic project was to eliminate the Hellenisms and Greek terms in order to simplify the Latin of Eriugena's translation (Dondaine 30). Sarrazin's revision was completed in 1167 and used extensively in the thirteenth century being referred to as the "new translation" of the Dionysian corpus.

Dionysian Thought at the School of St. Victor

The school of St. Victor is primary in the development of Dionysian thought and its spread in the twelfth century. The two main representatives of the school, Hugh and Richard, both incorporated Dionysian themes into the mysticism they developed and both were highly influential in certain areas of thought for the remaining of the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries. Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1142) is the most significant source for the transmission and adaptation of Dionysian categories in the early part of the twelfth century. He worked for several years on two commentaries on The Celestial Hierarchies eventually combining them into one around 1137. The finished commentary has been referred to as being Dionysian in its themes but Augustinian in its tone (Baron 133). In it Hugh sets forth his understanding of symbol as "a collecting of visible forms for the demonstration of invisible things" (Patrologia Latina 175.941B). This statement communicates the basic Dionysian idea that symbols "demonstrate" the divine, acting as "bridges between the experience of the senses and that which lies or reaches beyond" (Ladner 241). He next defines anagogy as an "ascension," "elevation of mind," or a "drawing above" to higher things as the invisible comes through the visible (Patrologia Latina 175.941C; De scripturis et scriptoribus, Patrologia Latina 175.12B). In Augustinian fashion he then classifies symbols into those of nature and grace centering the image of grace on Christ, the Wisdom of God. While Pseudo-Dionysius provides the framework, Augustine shifts some of the emphases in that framework.

If the commentary is Dionysian in theme and Augustinian in tone, the exact opposite can be said of Hugh's thought in general. Following Augustine, his contemplative ascent is an inward one that integrates the Dionysian three stage ascent through the hierarchies. In the three treatises on Noah's ark, Hugh describes the ark as a symbol which must be interiorized. As it is interiorized one comes to participate in the hierarchies because the ark itself "demonstrates" the history of salvation in the heart. Through this internalization the contemplative begins to move through each stage. Hugh's first stage is an Augustinian addition to the three Dionysian stages of purgation, illumination, and perfection. This is the stage of awakening and reveals a concern for the sinfulness of humanity which does not enter the Dionysian corpus. Furthermore, Hugh interprets the stage of purgation in ascetic and penitential terms rather than as the removal of ignorance which Pseudo-Dionysius does. These emphases in Hugh indicate at least a partial embracing of the Dionysian view of reality, albeit modified to fit with Augustinian categories with Christ as the Wisdom of God at the pinnacle of the ascent and a doctrine of sin at its beginning.

Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173) was highly influenced by Hugh's own use of Dionysian categories and sought to employ them in a subtle manner in his mystical writings. Bonaventure tells us that "Richard aimed at Dionysius in contemplation" (De redactione artium ad theologiam, Quaracchi 321), indicating somewhat contemporary opinion on the extent Richard's thought weaves Dionysian themes into its fabric. Older scholars have tended to discount this aspect of Richard, however, in recent studies it has been shown that Richard appropriated the corpus in a nuanced manner. In his commentary on the book of Revelation (In apocalypsim joannes) Richard constructs his basic understanding of symbols and anagogy borrowing extensively from Hugh. He states, "symbol is the gathering together of visible forms to demonstrate invisible things. Anagogy is the ascension or elevation of the mind contemplating the highest things" (Patrologia Latina 196.687B). In the Mystical Notes on the Psalms anagogy is placed alongside the other senses of scripture as the way in which the invisible things of God are perceived (Patrologia Latina 196.370A).

These initial explorations using Dionysian categories are extended in the mature work De arca mystica where Richard describes the contemplative ascent and its stages. The ark Richard has in mind is not Noah's as in Hugh, but the ark of the tabernacle. In a recent study, Chase indicates that Richard moves beyond the Dionysian dialectic of negative/positive into a coincidentia oppositorum or coincidence of opposites (Chase 37-48). Building on the relationship of dissimilar similarity, Richard uses this dialectic of opposites to express certain distinctions in the contemplative quest. One example is the two cherubim which represent the final two stages in Richard's exposition. They symbolize various opposites which are to be held in tension such as consent to reason/contrary to reason and trinity/unity. Furthermore, between the cherubim lies the space in which God speaks. Under the protection of their wings Richard expresses the desire "to be led above ourselves...with so much alienation of soul that for a while our mind might know nothing of itself while it is astounded as it is suspended in the viewing of such cherubim" (De arca mystica 4.9; Patrologia Latina 196.143-44; Zinn, Richard 272) The ultimate goal here is "alienation of mind" which leads to "contemplative ecstasy of mind" by means of "anagogic endeavors" (De arca mystica 4.16; Patrologia Latina 196.155; Zinn, Richard 286-89). Here we see the fruit of Richard's own appropriation of Dionysian categories.

Dionysian thought in the larger Platonic context

One difficulty in tracing the extent of Dionysian influence is the various sources for Platonic thought available in the twelfth century. This is illustrated best by those interested in cosmology who wove together different strands of Platonic thought in the Timaeus of Plato, Boethius, Augustine, and Pseudo-Dionysius among others. One example is Thierry of Chartres (d. after 1160) whose expression "unity is the form of being for individual things," (De sex dierum operibus 31; Haring, Commentaries 568-9) reveals the Plotinian motif "all things are beings through the one" which is also found in Boethius and Pseudo-Dionysius. A second Dionysian theme found in Thierry is that of defining the divine essence negatively as neither substance or accident (Lectiones 2.56; Haring, Commentaries 173; Evans, Old Arts 37). Writers such as Thierry were engaged in a "constant effort to trace that theme back to a Platonic matrix, juxtaposing with the auctoritas of Dionysius and Augustine, the Timaeus and the Asclepius" (Gregory 76).

The balancing of Dionysian thought with other Platonic authorities was done in the desire to explore and construct a universal cosmology. Dionysian themes were removed from their mystical context of anagogic ascent and the ontology which underlie this was fused together with other sources. Thierry of Chartres has already provided one such example of this, however two other examples are William of Conches (d. after 1154) and Bernardus Silvestris (d. ca. 1160). In his Glosa super Platonem, William explores how images function through enigmas which is similar to the Dionysian understanding of how symbols demonstrate the divine (Dronke 42- 47). The occurrence of this reference in his comments on the Timaeus, a treatise which explores cosmological themes, points to William's own combination of the two. Bernardus' Cosmographia is an allegorical look at cosmology developed from Platonic sources. Certain aspects of the work are understood best in light of Eriugena's Periphyseon and the emanationist language stemming from Pseudo-Dionysius (Wetherbee, Cosmographia 52-54). Bernardus combines the Dionysian ontology of emanation, taken from Eriugena with Plato's divine Exemplar and World Soul found in the Timaeus to construct his cosmological allegory. These authors indicate the tendency of some in the twelfth century to remove certain features of Dionysian thought which clarified aspects of Platonic thought in general and led to a greater synthesis.

Aspects of Dionysian thought in monastic settings within the twelfth century

There is little connection between the writings of Pseudo- Dionysius and the early Cistercians. McGinn in his article on the subject notes that "a survey of Bernard (of Clairvaux), William (of St. Thierry), and Aelred (of Rievaulx) produces little evidence for substantial acquaintance on the part of these early Cistercians with the text of the corpus and indicates that Dionysian themes are not really significant in the theology of the three authors" (McGinn 230). However, two of the lesser known Cistercians of the twelfth century display certain affinities with Dionysian categories: Isaac of Stella (d. ca. 1170) and Garnier of Rochefort (d. 1225) who was abbot of Clairvaux from 1186 to 1193.

In Isaac of Stella there are three features of Dionysian thought which are prominent. The first is Isaac's use of symbolica theologia or symbolic theology to describe an anagogic ascent to God (Sermon 22; Patrologia Latina 194.1762C-D). Corresponding to this is his understanding of the positive/negative interpretive dialectic for the ascent. Isaac wants to keep God distinct from all creation and uses this dialectic in a manner similar to Dionysian thought to accomplish his goal. A final feature is the combination of various Dionysian themes such as hierarchy and theophany in some of his writings (McGinn 233-34). Though Isaac is not primarily Dionysian in his thought, he did appropriate certain categories as a means to clarify his understanding of contemplation.

Garnier of Rochefort's thought relates to the cosmologists described in the previous section. He uses Dionysian categories taken from Hugh of St. Victor in a more eclectic manner combining them with insights from other aspects of Platonism. In Sermon 23 Garnier states,

When the mind...ascends to the Most High by certain stages of contemplation...it considers mathematically the visible forms of visible things, or, employing physics, the invisible causes of visible things; or it symbolically juxtaposes and adapts visible forms to demonstrate invisible things; or it contemplates invisible substances, and their invisible natures theologically (Patrologia Latina, 205.730A).

This passage rearranges material from Hugh's commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy combining Boethian and Dionysian themes to describe certain features of contemplation. It is unclear whether Garnier intended to do this or not, yet the passage illustrates the use he made of the corpus. Under the influence of Eriugena, Garnier also explores the positive/negative dialectic and themes dealing with the "unknowing" or divine darkness of the soul (Sermon 5, 30; Patrologia Latina 194.599B-608B, 760A-63C). A final illustration of the eclectic nature of his borrowing is the identification of anagogy and union. Instead of anagogy representing the ascent into union, it illustrates union itself fusing the two together (de Lubac I:642-3).

Others influenced by Dionysian thought

There were many who quoted from the works of Pseudo- Dionysius but never sought to appropriate them in any way. Peter Lombard (d. 1160) in his Book on the Four Sentences provides a few references to Pseudo-Dionysius but his own views are dominated by Augustinian categories. Though Gilbert de la Porree (d. 1154) and his followers use the Greek fathers extensively, they also failed to appropriate Dionysian insights apart from a few minor quotations (Haring, "Porretans and Greek Fathers" 181-209). Two exceptions to this among Gilbert's followers are Simon of Tournai (d. 1201) and William of Lucca (d. 1178). William composed a commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius' The Divine Names mixing the thought of Gilbert with the metaphysics of Dionysius and Eriugena. Simon explored the Dionysian understanding of angels and anagogic ascent through the hierarchies in his Disputations. These two stand out among those who simply cited Pseudo-Dionysius to bring authoritative weight to a statement or subject.

Alan of Lille (d. 1202-3) stands at the end of the twelfth century as a major proponent of the corpus pointing to the greater prominence Dionysian thought would have in the thirteenth century. Alan's thought incorporates a positive/negative dialectic as theological method, an understanding of procession and return and a Dionysian view of symbols. In the Regulae Theologicae he contends, along with Dionysius that "no name properly belongs to God" (Patrologia Latina 210.630C) and that only negative statements about God can be true and proper. This negative method is also expressed in his allegorical treatise, Anticlaudianus, where in a chariot made by the seven Liberal Arts and drawn by Reason, Prudentia ascends through the cosmos to the summit of perfection in search of wisdom. Once the threshold of wisdom is reached the Arts, signifying human understanding, must be "left in peace" as one ascends to the divine reality (Anticlaudianus 5.83-100; Bossuat 125-26). In this work one can also detect an underlying view of the universe as hierarchical in structure and in the De planctu naturae Alan clearly sees the restoration of all as a participation in cosmic harmony similar to the Dionysian return. Finally, in the Rhythmus alter, Alan gives his view of symbols by stating, "every creature in the world is, for us, like a book and a picture and a mirror as well" (Patrologia Latina 210.579A), suggesting a connection with Dionysian thought. These are some of the ways Alan incorporates Dionysian insights, building on the work of others.

Having outlined the influence of Dionysian thought on writers in the twelfth century we will conclude by suggesting how it impacted the thirteenth-century milieu.

Conclusion: Transmission of Dionysius to the thirteenth century

Alan of Lille and Richard of St. Victor are two examples of the directions Dionysian thought was taking in the thirteenth century. As in Richard some elements of the Dionysian corpus were kept within a mystical framework. Examples of this are Bonaventure and Thomas Gallus. Bonaventure was highly influenced by Hugh and Richard of St. Victor building a mystical system on the insights they provided. Thomas Gallus was trained at St. Victor in the thirteenth century and eventually became abbot of St. Andrew in Italy. He wrote commentaries on the Dionysian corpus and developed a nuanced account of mystical ascent reflecting his insight into Dionysian thought. On the other hand as in Alan of Lille, Dionysian elements were removed from their strictly mystical context and placed in a more scientific one concerned primarily with the ontology they expressed. Aquinas is the best example here. His Summa Theologicae is modeled on a Dionysian view of the universe, the three parts representing God and the creative procession of all things from him, the return of rational creatures to God, and Christ as the means of that return (Rorem, "Uplifting Spirituality" 147). In both Alan and Richard one can broadly view the two streams of Dionysian influence which would impact the next century.

In this short look at the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius among twelfth-century writers some themes emerge. First is the prominence of the school of St. Victor in the dissemination of Dionysian ideas. Many of the major proponents of Dionysian thought during this period were related to or impacted by the school in some aspect. This is certainly true of Suger of St.-Denis, Richard of St. Victor and Garnier of Rochefort. As the leading interpreter of Pseudo-Dionysius, Hugh set the standard by which other writers would use the corpus. A second feature is how Dionysian categories were fused with other strains of Platonism. For Thierry of Chartres and Bernardus Silvestris Dionysian themes were reinforced by a return to the Platonic context from which they originated. Finally, Dionysian thought contributed to what Chenu has described as "the symbolist mentality" (Chenu 99-141) of the twelfth century. Writers as diverse as Bernardus Silvestris, Allan of Lille and Richard of St. Victor all understood symbols to be powerful means in which reality was communicated to the human mind. These writers sought to creatively adapt Dionysian themes in the same way the Dionysian writings themselves adapt Neoplatonic themes to offer a different perspective.


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__________. "De gradibus ascensionum: The Stages of Contemplative Ascent in Two Treatises on Noah's Ark by Hugh of St. Victor." Studies in Medieval Culture 5 (1975):61-79.

__________. Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, the Mystical Ark, and Book Three of the Trinity. Translation with an introduction. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.

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