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Ars Brevis: The Contested Identities of the Figures for Magical Experiments

The Ars Brevis is a mid-fourteenth-century magical treatise belonging to the ars notoria tradition, but it is most recognizably found in the seventeenth-century Latin text of Agrippa’s Opera Omnia (Collected Works) and translated into English by Robert Turner in 1657. The Latin edition in Agrippa’s Opera Omnia has long been thought to contain just the Ars Notoria, but in fact, it is a composite text of the Ars Notoria (Version B, the long and glossed version), the Ars Brevis, and special blended material of both. The compiler of these original sources is unknown, having only been collected, edited, and published by the Beringos brothers, featuring Agrippa as the leading author of material found in the Opera Omnia. In Turner’s translation, the Ars Brevis begins:

“This is a true and approved experiment, to understand all Arts and secrets of the World, to find out and dig up minerals and treasure; This was revealed by the Heavenly Angel in this Notory Art. For this Art doth also declare things to come, and rendereth the sense capable of all Arts in a short time, by the Divine use thereof.”

Turner’s version of the Ars Brevis essentially ends at the conclusion of his entire treatise (To learn more about Robert Turner’s translation, see my other blog post titled, “Agrippa’s Latin Edition of the Ars Notoria and Robert Turner’s 1657 English Translation Thereof”). Now the Ars Brevis is translated for the first time from a newly constructed Latin edition of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts in my book, Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon (Inner Traditions, 2023). An introduction to its history, art, and ritual is explored there. This blog entry will focus on the four figures for the magical experiments described in the Ars Brevis. The four figures are called the figure of memory, the figure of intellect, the figure of the secrets of God, and the figure of the secrets of Master Albert, bishop of Regensburg. However, the problem is that no one really knows the true identity of three of the four figures.

Now there is only one magical figure contained within the entire Agrippan Latin text (and therefore, also within the Robert Turner translation) called the figure of memory. This figure belongs to the magical experiment for memory in the Ars Brevis. The figure is in the form of a circle with four quadrants encircled by an annulus; the Agrippan Latin edition attributes this four-quadrant figure as the figure of memory which is pictured below. In the Robert Turner English edition, the annulus of the figure reads, “En Coronatorinn Michell” which is a corruption of the Latin, which ought to read “Est coronatorum Michael (‘Michael is crowned’).” The Agrippan Latin text describes a consecration ritual of a figure of memory, and it is assumed that these instructions belong to the one and only figure presented in the text. Turner mentions what to do with the figure thus:

The manner of Consecrating the Figure of Memory. It ought to be consecrated with great faith, hope and charity; and being consecrated, to be kept and used in Operation as followeth. On the first day of the new Moon, having beheld the new Moon, put the Figure under your right Ear, and so consequently every other night, and seven times a day; the first hour of the morning say this Psalm, Qui habitat, &c.”[1]

The ritual steps of the consecration continue, and the text explains that the figure ought to be consecrated with certain prayers for four days. The Agrippan Latin text (and therefore, also the Robert Turner translation) concludes and summarizes:

“Note, that if you desire to know anything that you are ignorant of, especially of any Science, read this Oration: ‘I confess. . .’ afterwards, in the Evening when you go to bed, say the Oration Theos throughout, and the Psalm Qui Habitat, with this versicle, Emitte Spiritum; and go to sleep, and take the Figure for this purpose, and put it under the right Ear: and about the second or third hour of the night, thou shalt see thy desires,[2] and know without doubt that which thou desirest to find out: and write in thy right hand Alpha and Omega, with the sign of the Cross, and put that hand under thy right Ear, and fast the day before; only once eating such meat as is used on fasting dayes.”

These are the only references to a figure in the magical experiment of the Ars Brevis as found in the Agrippan Latin text (and Robert Turner translation). However, there are a couple of problems here. First, the seventeenth-century Agrippan Latin text is defective in that it does not contain the entirety of the much older Ars Brevis. The Ars Brevis describes three other magical experiments, each having its own figure (these other magical experiments are described in my book). Second, the identity of the figure of memory is hotly contested in the manuscript tradition. As mentioned earlier, three of the four figures’ identities are questioned.

As such, I have chosen to give descriptive titles to these debated figures. One such figure is constructed like a circle whose annulus is composed of the Phos Megalos prayer (actually, the prayer is written as Yos Megale, but I have reconstructed the title from the Greek which means “The Great Light” in reference to God the Father; see Ars Brevis, section 42 and its parallel in the Ars Notoria, section 10). I call it the Phos Megalos figure. Another figure is constructed as a circle with four quadrants, and the Sloane 513 manuscript describes it as containing the divine name AGLA. Thus, I have named it the AGLA figure. An AGLA figure is depicted in the Agrippan Latin text (and the Robert Turner translation) which I just described above. Another circular figure contains a tau cross with the Greek alpha and omega letters on either side of it. Thus, I have dubbed it the tau cross figure. The only figure not contested is the only one found in the Sloane 513 manuscript which has its own name, which is the figure of the secrets of Master Albert, the bishop of Regensburg.

The following images of these four figures come from the fifteenth-century manuscript labeled Sloane 513 which is held in London at the British Library. These images are admittedly quite poor, but fortunately modern reconstructions have been made to restore them. These new reconstructions can be found in my book. Again, the proper titles of the other contested figures are as follows: the figure of memory, the figure of intellect, and the figure of the secrets of God. For the AGLA figure, it can be said that the letters in the annulus originate from the Theos Patir Behennos prayer (De., El., X., P., C., K., G.) which represent certain angelic names constructed from the kabbalistic method called notarikon (for more on what notarikon is, see my other blog post entitled, “Ars Notoria: Why is It Called the Notory Art?”).[3] The reader will notice that the letters do not match exactly, and that is because there are a few variants of this prayer as it apparently circulated widely in the manuscript tradition.

The table below summarizes the attestations of the figures and the manuscript’s assertions as to their identities. As the reader can clearly see, the conflicting assertions are, at present, unresolvable. Fortunately, the study of the Ars Brevis has only just begun in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, so there is still an opportunity to rigorously examine the extant manuscript tradition, and perhaps, even find new ones, so that the matter can be settled.

The Phos Megalos figure.

The AGLA figure.

The figure of the Secrets of Master Albert, Bishop of Regensburg.

The tau cross figure.

The contested figures of the Ars Brevis. Notice that the word “Memory” is crossed-out. This is my own indication to the reader that there is a written description of the figure of memory as the AGLA figure within the Ars Brevis text (the section is labeled L2.3 in my book) but that this description has been crossed-out by the late scribe John Shaxton in the fifteenth-century manuscript labeled Sloane 513.

The manuscripts in question are listed below. It is important to note that there are other manuscripts, and they are listed in my book, however, they have not received the careful attention that they deserve. This task is up to future researchers.

1. Erfurt, Wissenschaftliche Bibliothek, Amplonianum Coll., Octavo 79, f. 63–66, c. 1350.

2. Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Scot.–Vindobonensis 140 (61), f. 140–153v, year 1377.

3. London, British Library, Sloane 513, f. 192–200, 15th century.

4. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 4161, f. 62v–66v, the incipit is at 63r, 16th century.

5. Amsterdam, Stichting het Wereldhart, Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (BPH) M 242, f. 1–153, 17th century.

6. Ars Notoria, quam Creator Altissimus Salomoni revelavit, Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Opera Omnia, pages 603-60, Strasburg: Zetzner, c. 1620.

This digital edition by Matthias Castle, Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.

Please do not copy this text to your website, or for any purpose other than private use.

[This blog entry is an expansion upon some of the content found in the Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon translated by Matthias Castle.]

Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon translated by Matthias Castle, published by Inner Traditions International and Bear & Company, © 2023. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of publisher.

[1] The italics here are mine. [2] The italics here are mine. [3] see Ars Brevis, section 6.

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