Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part VIII


In the Tetractys…

Six Days of Creation…Ages of the World…

Six is another number of totality and completion. There are Six Directions in space (up and down, right and left, forward and back). As the union of the two primordial triangles (i.e., fire and water), the ancient Greeks, Gnostics, and Alchemists conceive Six as the number of the hermaphroditic Anthropos. The notoriously odd (yet highly influential) eighteenth-century mystic Swedenborg sees in Six the doubling of the perfect Trinity:

The reason why six signifies what is complete to the end is that three has that signification, and six is double that number, and a number doubled has the same signification as the simple number. (Apoc. Rev., 489)

The importance of Six was guaranteed by its position in the Pythagorean tetractys of the decad, in which it is expressed as the sum of the first three numbers, 1 plus 2 plus 3. In his Moralia on Job, St. Gregory the Great recollects the Pythagorean teaching and finds it both confirmed and “transcended” by Scripture:

The number six is perfect, because it is the first number which is made up of its several parts, that is, its sixth, its third, and its half, which are 1, 2, and 3, and these added together become 6. But because we transcend all this knowledge, by advancing through the loftiness of Holy Scripture, we there find the reason why the numbers 6, 7, 10, and 1,000 are perfect. For the number six is perfect in Holy Scripture because in the beginning of the world God created on the sixth day those works which He began on the first. The number seven is perfect therein, because every good work is performed with seven virtues through the Spirit, in order that both faith and works may be perfected at the same time. The number ten is perfect therein, because the Law is included in ten precepts…

But Gregory has gotten ahead of us.


In particular, Six is the number of the historical process. In the Babylonian and Zoroastrian cosmogonies, the world is created in six epochs: in the first, heaven; in the second, the waters; in the third, the earth; in the fourth, the trees and vegetation; in the fifth, the animals; and in the sixth, man. As the Genesis cosmogonist records (under Babylonian influence), God created the world in six days. In the early Christian and medieval periods, so numerous were the allegorical commentaries on the Six Days of Creation that a separate genre of scriptural exegesis (the so-called “hexaemeral” literature) came into being.

Corresponding to the Six Days of Creation are the Six Ages of the World, another topos of enduring popularity throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the “De diis gentium” (chapter 11 of the eighth book of the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, fl. early 7th), we find one of the earliest universal histories on the comparative method, in which the gods and heroes of pagan myth, arranged in groups and dynasties, are located secundum ordinem temporum in world history divided into six great epochs: from Creation to Flood; from the Flood to Abraham; from Abraham to David; from David to the Captivity; from the Captivity to the Birth of Christ; and from the Nativity to the Last Times. (The tradition continues, in the twelfth century with Ado of Vienne’s Chronicle of the Six Ages of the World and Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, in the thirteenth, with Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum historiale and Brunetto Latini’s Tresor, and in the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth, with the works of Annius of Viterbo and Jacopo da Bergamo, amongst others.)

In his seminal manual on biblical interpretation, Allegoriae quaedam Scripturae sacrae (col. 99), Isidore notes another important point of correspondence between the Six Days and the Six Ages. As the first Adam was created on the sixth day, Christ, the Second Adam, was incarnate during the sixth age of the world. Even as the former condemned mankind to death through his sin, the latter conferred upon man immortal life by His sinless death on the Cross.

To the hexaemerists, it was equally obvious that as God finished the creation on the sixth day, so the sun should reach its zenith at the sixth hour (midday), and the Annunciation should be providentially timed, just as Luke records (1:26-27):

And in the sixth month [of Elisabeth’s pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth. To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph,…and the virgin’s name was Mary.

As the Forerunner, John the Baptist is, of course, a symbol of the Old Law. As the commentators explain, the Incarnation is announced after the five months of his gestation: allegorically, that is, after the five ages of the aera sub lege.

Similarly, “It was about the sixth hour” that Pilate delivered Jesus unto the Jews to be crucified (John 19: 14-16). “But why at the sixth hour?”, asks Augustine in his commentary on John:

Because at the sixth age of the world. In the Gospel, count up as an hour each, the first age from Adam to Noah; the second, from Noah to Abraham; the third, from Abraham to David; the fourth, from David to the removing to Babylon; the fifth, from the removing to Babylon to the baptism of John; thence is the sixth being enacted.

To the medieval allegorical imagination, the entire complex of typological and number symbolism is hidden under the letter of the narrative of Jesus’ first miracle at Cana, as recorded in the second chapter of the Evangelist John:

And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; …And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine…And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews…Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, [he] knew not whence it was…This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested for his glory…

As the author of the

Glossa Ordinaria

explains, the six stone jars filled with water and later found to be full of wine are the Six Ages of the World. The water, in which the wine was invisible to the human senses, is the Old Law under whose literal veil the New Law of Christ is occulted. The letter of Scripture is but insipid water, but Scripture interpreted according to the spirit is heady wine (spiritus). Christ was hidden from the world as the invisible wine in the water during the first five ages of history (the aera sub lege), and revealed in the sixth.

Since the Glossa is indeed an “ordinary” of medieval exegetical commonplaces, it is not in the least surprising that its interpretation should inform the conventional iconography of the Marriage at Cana, as it is depicted, for instance, in the stained glass windows of the clerestory of Canterbury Cathedral. In one series of scenes are represented the Six Ages of the World, symbolized by the figures of Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Jechonias, and Jesus. In a parallel series, the painter depicts the Six Ages of Human Life: infantia, pueritia, adolescentia, juventus, virilitas, senectus. Inscribed in a phylactery are the lines:

Hydria metretas capiens est quaelibet aetas:
Lympha dat historiam, vinum notat allegoriam.

“The water-pots holding the measures of water are, as it were, the ages. The water gives the historical meaning, the wine denotes the allegorical.”