(c. 500)


 St. Denys, med. illum. MS

DIONYSIUS, the (Pseudo-)Areopagite (c. 500), mystical theologian. The name given to the author of a body of writings in Greek to which the Monophysites appealed in 533, attributing them to Dionysius (1) of Athens. The author is now believed to have written c. 500, prob. in Syria. His extant writings are: the Celestial Hierarchy, the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, the Divine Names, and Mystical Theology, and the Letters.

THE Pseudo-Dionysian writings aim at achieving a synthesis between Christian dogma and Neoplatonist thought. Their leading idea is the intimate union between God and the soul, and the progressive deification of man. This is to be obtained by a process of unknowing, in which the soul leaves behind the perceptions of the senses as well as the reasoning of the intellect. The soul will then enter an obscurity in which it will be increasingly illuminated by the Ray of Divine Darkness and brought ultimately to the knowledge of the ineffable Being that transcends affirmation and negation alike.

THERE are three stages in the spiritual life by which this goal is reached: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive ways, a division which has become the groundwork of subsequent treatises on the mystical life.

THE supposed apostolic authority of the writings, added to their intrinsic merit, gave them a profound influence on medieval theology in both the East and West where they were known through the translations of John Scotus Erigena. (862).  Dionysius achieved enormous influence and popularity, particularly among the (Franciscan and Domincan) friars from the mid-twelfth century onwards (see below).

Based on an article in The Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church. ed. E.A. Livingstone, (Oxford, 1996).


(Angels & Angelology in the Middle Ages,  David Keck Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 55-56)

THE renewed study of Pseudo-Dionysius and his Celestial Hierarchy that began in the middle of the twelfth century provided medieval Christendom with an even greater authority for discussing the hierarchies. Because of their studies of the Areopagite's extensive reflections on these spirits, Hugh of Saint Victor (who wrote a commentary on the Celestial Hierarchy ), Bonaventure, and Aquinas were able to explore the angelic orders far more confidently than Augustine and Bernard could. Nevertheless, some ambiguities and uncertainties remained.

Ironically, the precise identity of the most important angelologist of the Western church (and perhaps of the Christian tradition as a whole) remains unknown. The author of the Celestial Hierarchy, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, The Divine Names, Mystical Theology, and various letters claims to have been the Dionysius the Areopagite converted by Paul in Athens (Acts 17:34); he was probably a late fifth-century Syrian monk. While some doubts existed about his claim even in the first known reference to the Dionysiac corpus (532), by the thirteenth century he had acquired the status of apostolicity. In its life of this saint, the Legenda Aurea affirmed that Paul had taught his convert about the mysteries of the heavens.  And since Paul himself had experienced the rapture of the splendor of heaven ( 2 Cor. 12:2), the apostle must have taught Pseudo-Dionysius many things concerning the spirits of heaven. Appropriately, in the Legenda, angels escorted Pseudo-Dionysius to his final resting place after his death. In Paradiso X, Dante places the Areopagite in the sphere of the Sun, the abode of the theologians, along with Aquinas, Peter Lombard, Bede, Bonaventure, and others.

Pseudo-Dionysius seems to have composed his works around 500. The earliest Latin translation of the Greek corpus was by Abbot Hilduin of Saint-Denis in Paris in 838 (according to the Legenda, these texts themselves healed several sick men). Hilduin also contributed greatly to the status of Pseudo-Dionysius by conflating three different persons--the author of the texts, the Dionsyius of Acts 17:34, and the Dionysius who was the first bishop of Paris-- thereby constituting a rather venerable authority indeed. At the request of Charles the Bald, John Scotus Eriugena completed a more useful translation in 862, and in 1165, John Sarrazin also translated the texts. While these translations were available for centuries, Pseudo-Dionysius remained an obscure figure until the cathedral schools of Laon and Saint Victor began to comment on his work. Cistercians and Benedictines took less interest in the Areopagite because the difficulty of his language and concepts required the environment of a school to be meaningfully utilized [and, perhaps, because Dionysius contradicted the angelic hierarchy of Gregory the Great].

THROUGH these cathedral schools, Pseudo-Dionysius entered into the Sentences of Peter Lombard and hence irrevocably into academic theology in the Middle Ages and beyond. The number of texts and commentaries on the Areopagite available in Paris in the thirteenth century is impressive. Indeed, there seems to have been something of an industry around this figure. So popular was he that the thirteenth-century Franciscan Salimbene de Adam expressed his regret that he had not been named Dionysius in his honor.















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