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"In Search of Sophia" by Quenten Quesnell

The following is a Katherine Asher Engel Lecture given by Professor Quenten Quesnell, Department of Religion and Biblical Literature, on April 7, 1992.

Thank you for the great honor of letting me address you in this distinguished series. Aware of the high tradition established by previous Katharine Asher Engel lectures, I have looked for a topic pertinent to the concerns of Smith College and the interests of this audience; yet illustrative of my own research interests; and with some significant content related to the life and work of Katharine Asher Engel. I propose asking you to join me in spending this hour "in search of Sophia." Here is what I mean. As the given name of the founder of the College, Sophia Smith, Sophia is itself a name we have grown familiar with, making it our own in a special way, as when, for instance, we call the student newspaper "The Sophian." Sometimes we grow even more familiar, as in our annual "Sophia's circus" or the recent campus coffee-house and bar known as "Sophie's." A musical combo, with our dignified college chaplain thumping the bass, long went by the title of "Sophia's Mustache."

Most people are no longer aware that this college was once only a mustache-breadth away from being called "Sophia Smith College." That was her specific directive— until the final revision of her will, written just weeks before her death, when, without giving a reason, she suddenly changed it to what it is today. 1

In itself, Sophia is a name of power and dignity. It is after all, the Greek word for "wisdom"; and, as a personification of wisdom or as a personal name based on such personification, it has behind it a long tradition, or rather many long and honorable traditions. Actually that fact was noted by a Smith commencement speaker, who in 1886 remarked on how appropriate it would have been if the college were named Sophia. 2

I don't plan here to second that suggestion. But I would like to look into some of the tradition behind the name. I am spurred to this partly by the reawakening to the Sophia/Wisdom tradition that has to some extent followed the gradual publication and analysis of the Coptic manuscripts discovered in 1946 in the ruins of Chenoboskion in upper Egypt, the texts known as the Nag Hammadi Gnostic library.3

In these still largely unfamiliar relics of a religion strange to most, there appears over and over again the supernal feminine figure of Sophia. (The Greek form, Sophia, remains in the Coptic.) Descriptions of her are diverse, because the documents in the library are of diverse origin. Gnosticism was not so much a distinct religion as rather a movement and a tendency within many different religions and philosophies; so that there were Jewish Gnostics, Christian Gnostics and Gnostics loyal to the gods of the Roman state. The Nag Hammadi documents reveal Stoic backgrounds in some places and Neo-Platonist backgrounds in others.

Sophia then is pictured differently in different contexts, but she is prominent in at least ten of the documents and is recognizable under other names in a dozen more.4 The general picture is that Sophia exists before the universe, before time. She brings into existence the God who created our universe, while she is herself one of the original emanations from the eternal unknown, the silent abyss, which precedes even the reality of God. She is the source of the divine spark in every human being; and the way to salvation involves union with her through esoteric knowledge or gnosis. (5)

Achieving gnosis, knowledge, was the concern of Gnostics of all stripes; "knowledge" strictly so-called, real knowledge, as opposed to all that we lesser mortals may think we know. In the Christian Testament there is a curious back and forth between documents that warn against such emphasis on "knowledge" and others which insist that Christian revelation is precisely the divinely given new gnosis.(6) As late as the third century, we find gnosis being used by some christian writers to characterize the highest levels of spiritual attainment, while for others it is the reprobated name of the most pernicious of heresies.7 By the way, philologically gnosis is not the Greek word for scientific knowledge. That would be episteme. Gnosis is knowledge in the sense of recognition, insight, coming to a personal awareness of how things really are. We shall return to that point.

Most Gnostic groups revered Sophia— or, in one Gnostic group, as many as seven different Sophias, providing the feminine component on each level of spiritual being.(8) Very frequently Gnostic cosmology distinguished at least two Sophias, a higher and a lower wisdom; in which case one of them was commonly given the name Achamoth.(9) Achamoth points to a Hebrew background. It has been identified as an attempt to reproduce in a Hellenistic alphabet the word and name Hochmoth, a form of Hochmah, the Hebrew word for wisdom.

And in fact it is easy to see that the Sophia/Achamoth of the Gnostic literature were clearly inspired by the feminine personification of wisdom in the Hebrew scriptures. The most frequently cited instance is the eighth chapter of the Book of Proverbs, where Hochmah is a feminine figure at God's side, before God's eyes, in creating the universe. There she says of herself:

"The Lord made me his own in the beginning of his ways, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth existed. When he prepared the heavens, I was there... when he established the clouds above; when he appointed the foundations of the earth; I was by him, I was daily his delight, playing always before him."10

The feminine divinity of Sophia is still more prominent in the book Sophia Solomontos, the Wisdom of Solomon, which the Greek-speaking diaspora Jews accepted into their canon of k'thuvim. There we read that "Sophia is a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty... she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, an image of his goodness. .. She can do all things... she is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars... she reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well...She glorifies her noble birth by living with God, and the Lord of all loves her." 11

In another deuterocanonical work, the wisdom of Ben Sirach, Sophia celebrates her own beauty in images reminiscent of the Song of Songs: "like a palm tree in Engedi, like a rose plant in Jericho... Like cassia and camel's thorn I gave forth the aroma of spices, like a vine I caused loveliness to bud, and my blossoms became glorious and abundant fruit." 12

By the first century of the Common Era, the renowned Jewish sage, Philo of Alexandria will write of the spousal relations between Sophia and the God of Israel, her husband.(13)

In the early rabbinical period of Talmud and Midrash, Wisdom as a distinct personality largely disappears probably because those writers are trying to distance themselves from the contemporary Gnostic movements. But soon other supernal feminine figures take her place in Jewish tradition; figures in whom characteristics of Sophia appear: the personified Torah, the Shekinah (the divine presence), the Matronit, the Sabbath, Shabbat, as the maiden princess in whom the Lord delights.14 Hochmah does reappear in a central position in the medieval Jewish tradition of the Kabbalah, especially as this is summed up in the Zohar, the book of splendor. Scholars today are convinced that the Zohar was written in or around 1286 by Moses de Leon in Castile, Spain; but that scholar always insisted he was only passing on what he found in a manuscript from Shimeon ben Yohai, who taught at the religious center of Safed in Palestine in the second century C.E.

In the Zohar is developed what looks like a veritable mythology involving Hochmah and other Sephiroth, the ten divine emanations. They love, they marry, are faithful or unfaithful, have adventures, trials, happy endings.15

Similar stories occur in 18th century Hasidism, which was heavily influenced by Kabbalah.

Of course this is personification. In orthodox Judaism, there can be no family in God, no wife at God's side. Yet in the prophets Ezekiel and Hosea, God the passionate lover pursues Israel his bride16; in the Song of Songs as the rabbis read it, the same divine love story continued. Jewish doctrine remained relentlessly monotheistic, but, as Gershom Scholem explained in regard to the feminine Shekinah, it "obtained recognition in spite of the obvious difficulty of reconciling it with the... absolute Unity of God." Yet "no other element of Kabbalism won such a deep degree of popular approval." This fact, says Scholem, "is proof that it responded to a deep-seated religious need."17

Historians of religion will note certain patterns here that reach back to the days when Jeremiah witnessed devotees of the queen of heaven burning incense to her, baking cakes for her and pouring out drink offerings to her in the streets of Jerusalem.18 The paraphernalia of such cults could be found in the temple itself all through the high period of the Judaean monarchy, from Solomon to Josiah.(19) Their popularity is attested by the hundreds of small naked-goddess figurines still regularly turned up by excavators in Israel.

In the Gnostic documents of Nag Hammadi, from which we began, a striking feature of one group of texts that combines both Jewish and christian elements, is a divine triad of Father, Mother, Son at the origin of all reality.20 But later texts within the same collection focus on a divine triad of Father Son and Spirit,21 as we know it from the definitive orthodox Christian tradition of the Trinity after the church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. In other words, in the final form of the tradition an important part of the mediating role played by feminine Sophia is assigned to the masculine figure of the Logos, the Word, or the Son. Now instead of Sophia being the reflection of eternal reality; stimulus to creation of the material universe; source of the light born within every human being; inspiration and enabler of the return to the heavenly world, all these are attributed to the male figure of the Logos22— male, not just because of the gender of the Greek noun, but because the man, Jesus, was considered the embodiment of the person of the Logos. 23

There is a further weakening of the Sophia image. The notion that God and the Wisdom of God co-existed as a Father and Mother was never meant to multiply divinities without necessity. The sophisticated thinkers who proposed it as a divine model were quite sure that there was only one ultimate, one God. What they were doing was trying to forestall the instinctive human perception that to be one and only is to be alone and lonely— as it is in human life. To counter that impression, not to affirm two gods, they imagined the Father and Sophia in eternal, inseparable embrace. The elements of that image are still present in the developed dogma of the Trinity with its circumincession of the Father and the Logos, and the Holy Spirit as the love breathed out between them. But the impact of the image is lessened considerably.

Once christian theology of the Logos was confirmed by the great councils, one would expect that all references to Sophia would disappear, except as an occasional tame, abstract personification. But just as the ancient cults of feminine divinity seem to have maintained some underground existence in Jewish mystical and popular religion, so in christian theology, when direct references to divine Sophia disappear, elements of the tradition continue to be developed under other forms. These are what I think of as hidden or underground manifestations of Sophia. Sometimes they are little more than her reflections or her shadows.

The first development in christian tradition is that the wisdom texts of the Book of Proverbs, of Sophia Solomontos and Ben Sirach are studied with a new enthusiasm, because now they can be interpreted of Christ. This simply required that interpreters ignore the fact that in all those texts wisdom is a woman. So, for a time at least, they did ignore it.

Another way the Sophia tradition went underground was in the developing theology of the Holy Spirit. In Semitic languages, Spirit is feminine; until the 14th century, a Semitic christian culture flourished in the Syriac speaking area covering today's southeast Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Its theological output was as extensive and as impressive as that of the Greeks; which is very large indeed.

That influence (of a feminine Holy Spirit) shows in certain dyadic interpretations of Genesis I, where they take "God" and "the Spirit of God" from Genesis I:1 ("God created heaven and earth...and the Spirit of God moved over the waters") and make those the two speakers who say in v. 26: "Let us make humankind to our image and likeness." The same double image, God and the feminine Spirit of God, is behind the next verse: "in the image of God he created humankind; male and female he created them." (I:27).

Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, with the apparently female figure in God's bosom, peering over God's shoulder as he extends a vivifying finger to Adam,  is one of the best known witnesses to that living interpretation.(24) It appears as well in the fourteenth century fresco of the church at Urschalling, south of Munich: the one that shows the trinity of white bearded Father, black bearded Son and between them both a long-tressed female Holy Spirit.25

Other shadows of Sophia occur where feminine figures are used to portray human intellectual aspirations; as for instance in the frescoes of Andrea di Firenze in the Spanish chapel of Santa Maria Novella, from which we borrowed the seven liberal arts for the poster advertising this lecture. The seven liberal arts are the seven daughters of wisdom; and when this fourteenth century artwork can show wisdom herself only in the form of a dove, the Holy Spirit, whose influence flows down through theology to the seven liberal arts, at least the shadow of Sophia can be discerned, her reflection in the faces of her seven daughters.26

Another reflection or shadow of Sophia that I have been pondering recently is the figure of Beatrice in Dante's Paradiso. After earthly knowledge has reached its limits, Beatrice is the one who can guide Dante through the upper regions, the circles of paradise, past sun and moon and star. Her proper place is in the upper circle of paradise, surrounded with divine radiance. She attracts the poet's eye to herself, and then she turns and fixes her look on the eternal flame, and so draws him up to union with it. Commentators usually say she is theology; or faith; or charity; but even as such she still has the features of heavenly wisdom, Sophia.27

Still, in christian western Europe Sophia does not emerge again openly under her own name before the writings of the Protestant mystic, Jakob Boehme, in the early 17th century. Wanting a figure to express the approachable side of God, he makes the aim of the spiritual life "the love and marriage of the noble virgin, Sophia." She "cometh to the soul and kisseth it with her sweetest love." "She impresseth her love into the soul's desire." He invites his reader "into the inner choir where the soul joins hands and dances with Sophia." By following his popular spiritual guidebook, The Way of Christ, one may finally gain the magnum mysterium, the Pearl, the nuptials with Sophia.28

For an unbroken tradition of veneration of Sophia, we have to move to the Byzantine tradition, carried on to our own day especially in Russia. There seem always to have been Greek or Russian churches dedicated to Wisdom.29 The ikons honored within them often were of a woman or of an angel of indeterminate gender. Later theologians would diligently explain that the angel must represent Christ; and they turned the woman into a certain Saint Sophia, of whom no historical records existed, but around whose name old legends quickly gathered. In other cases, the woman was assimilated into the intense devotion of eastern Orthodox christians to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

That is what we see, for instance, in Istanbul, in the great mosaic over the entrance of Hagia Sophia, which shows Justinian offering a model of his newly constructed church to Mary. Later theologians, convinced that the great church named for divine wisdom must be dedicated to Christ, will point out that in that mosaic the child Jesus is in Mary's arms, and Justinian might really be offering the church to him, not to his mother. But that suggestion leaves something else unexplained; namely, the collection of seals also found in the old church, on which Justinian is offering his church to Mary, and the child does not appear.30

That amalgamation of the Sophia tradition with the Marian cult reaches a high point in the so-called "sophialogy" of the nineteenth century Russian orthodox theologian, Vladimir Soloviev, frequently called theosophic and gnostic. In twentieth century Russia, Sergei Bulgakov develops a sophialogy, modified in a more orthodox direction. For him, Mary "is created Wisdom," in whom is realized the purpose of creation, the complete penetration of the creature by Wisdom. 31 Now it is a commonplace among historians of religion that the Mary-cult assimilated shrines, attributes and rituals of the ancient Mediterranean goddesses. In the early fifth century crowds roared through the streets of Ephesus shouting support of Mary theotokos— God-bearer, mother of God; exactly as in the first-century they had rioted through the same streets shouting "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians." 32It takes more than a glance to be sure whether an ancient fresco of a veiled woman holding a male child is a christian madonna or an Isis with the infant Horus at her breast.

In light of these facts, one would expect Sophia to resurface occasionally as Mary. But a link with Sophia is not easy to establish where Mary is shown holding the child or acting out scenes from the gospels, which is how the art and literature of the earliest centuries usually portray her. But one of the first pictures of Mary alone does strongly suggest a Sophia interpretation. It is an engraved marble tablet from about the fifth century in the crypt of St. Maximin in Provence. A young woman stands facing forward, arms extended in ritual prayer. The inscription is "Maria virgo, minester in tempulo Gerusale." "Mary the virgin, minister of the temple in Jerusalem."33 But of course neither Mary nor any other woman actually was minister in the Jerusalem temple. However the 24th chapter of Ben Sirach, one of the most popular wisdom texts, contains Sophia's hymn of self-praise, with the words: "In the holy tabernacle I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion."34

The next manifestation takes place in three big steps. The first step is in the sixth century. Three authors representing both east and west, apply to Mary for the first time the text of Revelations 12:1: "A great sign appeared in the heavens; a woman clothed in the sun, and the moon beneath her feet; and on her head a crown of twelve stars."35 That's a powerful image. When they apply it to Mary, they open the way to imaging her alone in transcendent glory. When artists start portraying this image, they instinctively make the moon a crescent in which the virgin stands, thus immediately revivifying the horned-moon goddess traditions of many ancient European and middle-eastern cultures. They set up an image into which Sophia can easily step.

The second stage is the use in a Marian context of the classical wisdom or sophia texts from the Hebrew bible and apocrypha. The earliest instance I have found is a ninth century German theologian, and as an isolated instance, that is not much worth.(36)

But by the eleventh century we possess original manuscript evidence that in the several Marian celebrations of the church year, the prescribed reading from the Scriptures consisted of selections from the Wisdom texts. E.g., besides the ones we have seen already, texts like: "Thou art all fair, my beloved, and there is no stain in you"; "From eternity in the beginning he created me; "I dwelt in high places, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven, and have walked in the depths of the abyss."37

These readings are not explained at the time. No one says expressly, "Mary is divine wisdom." 38

Those theologians who do ask about these texts usually say only that Mary brings divine wisdom into the world insofar as she brings Christ into the world. 39

But the texts have their own intrinsic sense and power and create their own convictions. That brings us to the third stage: uniting the texts with the image. This occurs in the course of efforts by 15th-16th century artists to portray something called Mary's immaculate conception.

Now this is not the place to go into all the different stages of development of the doctrine of the immaculate conception. That development and the accompanying iconography has been extensively researched and would provide more than enough material for an entire seminar.40

Here I want only to say that what at that period was called by that name was the conception of Mary herself, celebrated on December 8th, nine months before the celebration of her birthday on the 8th of September; and that the point of the celebration, by the fifteenth century, was the belief that she had been conceived without inheriting original sin.

As you may imagine, the artist wanting to execute an image of a conception for a church or chapel faces certain problems. The artists of the period I mentioned tried different devices to deal with the problem: they showed Mary's parents kissing chastely at the city gate; they did cut-out or see&#$5;through representations of Mary's mother's womb; they turned to the purely symbolic, illustrating a scene from the book of Esther, where the king exempts Esther from the law that applies to all others. But somewhere in the late fifteenth century they make an enormous leap. They take the wisdom texts already read during the celebration of Mary's feasts— including the feast of her conception. They take the image of the woman clothed in the sun, standing on the moon, already applied to Mary in other contexts. And they put them together, using the combination to represent "the immaculate conception."

Their intuition is that that image of the supernal woman can illustrate those texts on the eternal conception of wisdom in the mind of God. Then, since the wisdom texts are already applied to Mary, this same image can stand for her as a conception in the divine mind.42 Moreover, the image suits their belief that she never inherited original sin, because it shows her as she was envisioned and chosen before creation, before Adam and Eve committed the original sin.43 In the sixteenth century, that becomes the most common way of picturing the Immaculate Conception.

To make the meaning clear, the earliest examples often include an explicit citation of a wisdom text; for instance, "the abysses were not, and I was already conceived" (Prov 8:24) will be lettered across the bottom; or "from the beginning and before all ages" (Sir 24:14) will float across the picture on a banner.44 Eventually the pattern is recognizable without explanatory words, and in fact becomes so formalized that by 1649 Pacheco in his Art of Painting can lay down in rich detail the rules for painting an immaculate conception. (She is to be young, with golden hair, not holding the child, standing on the moon, the sun behind her shedding radiance round her, etc.)(45)

Here is one of the best known renditions of this theme in basic conformity with those canons. It is by Bartolome Murillo, 1656. The point is that it makes sense to portray Mary this way only if one takes the wisdom texts seriously as actually applying to her. That is, of course, just another way of saying, "only because in her wisdom, Sophia, reappears."

Catholic theologians could not say that, any more than Jewish orthodoxy could accept a feminine figure at God's side. But popular tradition and liturgical practice carried such ideas forward, and artists gave expression to the popular feelings.

And that interests me in a search for Sophia, because although Murillo painted this theme many, many times— we know of at least sixteen different versions extant— this one is the most famous. It is known most commonly today as the Soult Conception, after Marshal Soult who seized it while conquering Spain for Napoleon. His heirs put it up for auction in 1852, when it received the highest price ever paid to that date for a single painting.46 In 1872 it became the model for another famous image connected with women and wisdom.

Sophia Smith died in June,1870. The Board of Trustees named in her will appointed a committee in September, 1871 "to procure a design for a seal." By November the committee reported their design, and seven months later, July 15, 1872, the board voted that the design "be accepted as the seal of this corporation."47 The trustees' minutes do not include their discussions of what they chose or why they chose it. But you will notice from the date—1872— that Smith College had as yet no students, no faculty, no president; their first building had not yet been constructed or even planned. All they had was half a million dollars, a dream, and this seal.

When they did erect their first building, they gave this seal the place of honor. From 1874 until 1931 this image in stained glass, 3 feet in diameter, stood above the main entrance to College Hall. Most of us rarely use the main entrance any more; it is the one under the bell tower, the one you walk into if you come up from Elm Street through the Grecourt gates. If you stop in front of that entrance even today and glance upwards to the tall set of windows just to your right, you will notice a rosette of plain glass, exactly the right size to contain this colored image. From that position it dominated the great stairwell inside the main entrance. A graduate of 1886 wrote in her yearbook, this symbol "has greeted our eyes every morning as we came from the chapel service."48 She is referring to the service then attended by the entire college community at a quarter to nine in the Social Hall on the second floor of College Hall. Here is an old engraving of the area at the head of the stairs just outside the president's office. 49

Let's look at the seal more closely. It contains a motto and an image. The motto is a fragment of biblical text, II Peter, in the original Greek: en tei aretei ten gnosin. Gnosin is the accusative case of the word we began this lecture from: Gnosis, the special and secret knowledge. Smith students of those days had all studied Greek for two years before they were admitted, so they could read the phrase and could even supply the missing verb needed to complete the thought; for they would recognize the text from their daily bible classes and they knew the missing verb as it appeared in their King James Bible, : "Add to your virtue knowledge."50

In two of the speeches given at the opening ceremonies of 1875, we find the motto used, in this English bible translation, to support two quite different notions of what Smith education should be. One speaker, a trustee, warns the new students, to "add to your virtue knowledge" because knowledge is power, and virtue, without knowledge, is blind." The next speaker turns this around. He says that "add to your virtue knowledge" means that "knowledge is a valuable... addition, but, without virtue and piety," knowledge is of little worth.51 This speaker was the Rev. Dr. Peabody of Harvard College. Fortunately he was not a trustee.

Fortunately too for the peace of mind of the trustees, Greek scholarship of the day did not lead them to suspect that "arete" in this passage was not what they meant by "virtue" any more than "gnosis" referred to the kind of knowledge they planned to see taught at Smith College.52

As to the image on the seal, no one at those opening ceremonies of 1875, mentioned Murillo or the immaculate conception or the eternal birth of Sophia/Wisdom. William S. Tyler, the trustee who had headed the committee that chose the seal, said that it shows a woman "radiant with the light of heaven, like the angel standing in the sun in the Apocalypse." This is strange. There is a line in Apocalypse, the book we now usually call Revelation, chapter 19: "I saw an angel standing in the sun." But that angel is not a woman. Moreover that angel has only one function: he is to summon all the birds of heaven to come feast on the flesh of captains and kings, of mighty men, horses and riders, "and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great."53 It is hard to believe that that was Tyler's idea of the mission of Smith College.

Tyler is citing the right book, but the wrong chapter. The angel he refers to is in Apocalypse 19; but Murillo's image was from Apocalypse 12: the woman clothed in the sun, with the moon beneath her feet. But Tyler never mentions that text. It is almost as if, while acknowledging the basic source, he hopes to misdirect the audience's attention slightly. 54

Some sixty years later, in 1932, the Smith College archivist proposed a very interesting question in a letter to an early alumna: How did it happen that those first trustees, with their New England Protestant background, chose for their seal an image from 17th century Spanish Catholicism? All but one of the trustees was an orthodox Congregationalist. Five were ordained Protestant clergy. Why did they adopt an image that represented a distinctively Roman Catholic doctrine, the immaculate conception?55

The alumna to whom the archivist wrote was Mary L. Linehan, a graduate of 1884. She replied that she had always heard that the picture was chosen for the seal by Sophia Smith personally.56 Miss Smith had a copy of the Murillo in her own home, and, in fact, another representation of the immaculate conception as well. How did this happen? Linehan's letter gives the background in the following words:

"Miss Smith, so the story runs, had in her employ at one time an Irish Catholic woman, born in Ireland and educated in a convent in that country. She was a very devout Catholic, and used to attend her church service in Springfield or whenever such services were held...She lived with Miss Smith many years, and one version has it that she married and went west, another that she died, etc. I have heard that some of her people lived in Hatfield and vicinity. Miss Smith, so the story runs, was given this picture in question, also a medal of the Immaculate Conception. By Miss Smith's request either the Blessed Virgin in the picture or the one in the medal was worked into the seal of Smith College..."

Now Mary Linehan came to Smith only five years after the College opened. Her later career was spent in teaching and in researching Irish and Scottish antiquities. An expert in medieval Gaelic, she was definitely the kind of person to whom a college archivist might turn with a serious question; so we have to take her witness seriously. But then we have to be clear what her witness is. She is testifying not to the fact, but to the story. She says explicitly: "All that I know has come to me from stories handed down and from people who knew Sophia Smith."

In the course of her answer, she mentions that the story exists in different versions, and she returns more than once to the expression, "so the story runs." In other words, she is telling us we can believe the story if we want— it is the story she has heard— but we should not be surprised when today we find no confirmation of the story in the trustees' minutes, the diaries of Sophia Smith, the texts of her five wills; or in any of the several contemporary accounts of how Sophia Smith conceived the idea of Smith College.(57)

In other words, as you have probably already noticed, the story she passes on has all the elements of an aetiological legend. It exists in more than one version. Specific concrete details link the legend to history, but also generalize it by stereotypical features. For instance, Sophia Smith did have an Irish maid. Her name was Sarah, and she was with her ten years. But surely if Sarah did not exist, she would have had to be invented. The Irish Catholic maid is the perfect link explaining how the good Congregationalist, Sophia Smith, had this graven image in her home.

But back to Ms. Linehan's letter. After recounting the story as she heard it, she adds an opinion and comment based on her own observations. She says: "I am inclined to think that the President and the trustees didn't know the significance of the picture, and in my opinion knew very little about Christian Art."

That too makes a good story, but again we have to be careful. First of all, President Seelye does not belong in the story, because he was not yet president and was not a trustee. Moreover he was far from indifferent to the study of art.58 The trustees who did make the choice were well-educated and well-read. The picture in question was famous in the mid-nineteenth century. Parisians then considered it one of the most beautiful in the history of painting; the Louvre kept it in the main exhibition hall. Its theme, the immaculate conception, had attracted attention when, in 1854, Pope Pius IX solemnly defined it to be an article of faith. Critical protests appeared in some American theological journals, copies of which were in the Northampton library of that time and are still in the Forbes collection today.59

Is it really possible the trustees could have chosen this symbol without knowing what they were doing? I find it hard to believe. But then I try asking about the opposite extreme: could they possibly have known all the background we have touched on here today? Could they have known that this motto, en tei aretei ten gnosin, might reflect a Gnostic tradition: in or through this divine manifestation, this vision, seek Gnosis? Known that the woman in the image goes back to ancient and medieval Jewish traditions of the feminine side of divinity; that her concrete form recalls ancient goddesses with abundant free-floating tresses, and their ever-recurring symbol, the horns of a crescent moon?60 Did they know, above all, that under the Marian surface, this is a portrayal of the eternal genesis of Wisdom in the form of a transcendent woman?

If they had known all that, then it is possible that they planned all along to have the seal bear the family name of the founder, Smith, in the title of the College, and alongside it her given name, Sophia, in a cryptic coded form. But I don't really see sufficient evidence of that either.

What then of a completely prosaic explanation in terms of coincidence—if coincidences may ever be said to explain anything? Did the trustees perhaps simply tell an engraver they would like some abstract figure representing truth or justice or honor or higher education— as Harvard had its three open books, Mt. Holyoke its palm trees, and the lately-founded Yale Law School its dog and crocodile? Did they say that for their college they thought the appropriate abstract figure should be a woman; and did the engraver just happen to have this one lying around the shop? That would seem strange, but it is possible.

Perhaps, in comparison to those other possibilities, the story about Miss Smith and her Irish maid sounds better than it did at first. I have to leave you to choose among the various possibilities. Perhaps I should mention one more that may at least tease your imaginations as it does mine. What if the apparent concatenation of coincidences were only an instance of what the Book of Wisdom affirms about Sophia: that "she reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and arranges all things well"? 61

I don't know. For whatever reason,the choice was made, and every diploma ever issued by the college has borne that motto and that image. Here is a picture of it, which Dick Fish of the art department skilfully lifted for me from one of the earliest diplomas.

I want to take a few more minutes to reflect on the reality behind Sophia, which is the reality of wisdom as a human ideal. I am particularly interested in wisdom as a goal of education, since Sophia Smith founded a college and we are in it.

At the first opening of this college, the first president sketched a stirring classical ideal, basically Aristotelian. For that ideal, wisdom is the skill of skills, the competence of all competences. It is the intellectual perfection whereby a person can judge all aspects of life, because one sees everything in perspective and holds it all in balance. It is being able to put it all together, to synthesize, to take the broad view, to grasp the relations of everything to everything else, to see life steady and to see it whole.

One problem with that ideal is that wisdom seems to presuppose knowing everything about everything. Education for that goal means being at least introduced to everything, or at least to everything important; and undertaking certain studies which claim to teach how to find the roots of everything.

That view seems incredibly remote today. A lifetime is not enough to master one field, as we all eventually learn. Walking into a library has always been a humbling experience for an intelligent person; but until recently one could at least hurry through to the section that deals with one's own specialty; and from there withdraw again to the safety of one's own study, where all the books were familiar and the information in them reasonably under one's control. But now computer technologies bring whole libraries full of information to our desk on single laser disks; and awesome bibliographies gathered from all over the world, appear at the touch of a finger. Our own ignorance is becoming so palpable, so inescapable. How dare we talk about educating for wisdom?

Fortunately, alongside the classical tradition another view of wisdom has run parallel. Socrates was the wisest person in Athens because he alone knew that he did not know. The wise woman Diotima explains in Plato's Symposium that love, even the love of wisdom— philosophy— is not in the possession but in the hunger, the want, the need. Love is always a beggar. Nicholas of Cusa in the Renaissance will make the height of human wisdom a "learned ignorance," "docta ignorantia."

Moreover, our generation is becoming aware as never before of the wisdom of un-knowing passed on in various Asian traditions. We are confronted with the focus on absolute nothingness, sunyata, mu, so basic to the Buddhist-inspired Kyoto school of philosophy.62 Our Sophia has her counterpart in the Indian Prajna-paramita; the wisdom who is "mother of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas," because she represents the insight into the emptiness of existence which makes one a buddha.63

Thus alongside a classical wisdom of fulness is a perhaps equally classical and parallel wisdom of emptiness. These two— the wisdom of mastery of all we know and the wisdom of awe before all that must remain forever unknown— these two wisdoms meet day by day, almost moment by moment, in the living consciousness of every student and every teacher. Each one of us is always a subject in the process of assimilating and creating a universe by experience, understanding and judgment; the past by our memories and understandings; the future by our questions and our dreams.64

Each of us came into the world with a capacity for experience and an instinct to try to make sense of that experience. With those tools alone we set to work building the world in which we actually live our lives. This is as true of every teacher as it is of every student. In the process of formal education teacher and student are doing the work together, and to some extent for and with each other.

Four years may not be much time to shape the knowledge we have acquired into some vaulting, harmoniously proportioned cathedral of the mind. But I think it is ample time in which to become aware through practice of how we come to knowledge, and of how the knowledge we come to results from our own acts, for which we are responsible. It is time enough to become aware, open and alert to the vast, the unending sea of nothingness, of being, of knowledge not yet possessed, from which we come and into which we go. And that too is Sophia.


1. The will is signed March 8, 1870, executed April 12, 1870. She died June 12, 1870. Sophia Smith and the Beginnings of Smith College, by Elizabeth Deering Hanscom and Helen French Greene (Northampton: Smith College, 1926) p. 75.

There had been four previous wills (SSABSC, p. 77). The will of 1868 specified: "Article Two. This Institution shall be called Sophia Smith College." It was written in March and April, 1868, executed July 11, 1868, SSABSC, pp. 60–64.

2. "Young ladies of the graduating class, do you know I sometimes wish that this college of yours, nay, may I not say this college of ours, had taken its title from the Christian name rather than from the surname of its foundress? Surely it would have been a happy inspiration so to have christened it, for as I have said 'Sophia' being interpreted is Wisdom, and of Wisdom it is written that not only hath she builded her house, and hewn out her seven pillars, but she 'hath furnished her table and she hath sent forth her maidens'." Address by William R. Huntington. In 1886 Commencement Booklet, pp. 22-23. Smith College Archives.

3. The most easily available version is The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Third, completely revised edition San Francisco:Harpercollins Paperback, 1990. James M. Robinson, General Editor.

4. As Sophia in "Eugnostos," "Sophia Jesu Christi," "On the Origin of the World," "Hypostasis of the Archons," Apocalypse of John," etc. Probably also the unnamed speaker in "Thunder:Perfect Mind" and under other names in "Trimorphic Protennoia," "Allogenes," "Zostrianos," etc., all in NHL, Robinson.

5. The closest thing to a connected, integral account is "On the Origin of the World" (II,5) together with "The Apocryphon of John" (II,1), both in The Nag Hammadi Library, 170–189.

6. Compare Ephesians 1:9; I Timothy 6:20; and I Corinthians 8:1–11; 12:2.8.

7. Compare Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, early third century, and Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, late second.

8. Cf. "Eugnostos" (III, 3) 81, 25 to 83,1. in NHL, Robinson, pp.232–233.

9. Cf. "First Apocalypse of James," and "The Gospel of Philip", NHL, Robinson.

10. Proverbs 8:22–35.

11. Wisdom 7–9

12. Sirach 24:13–18.

13. Philo Judaeus, "On Drunkenness", VIII.80 and IX.33. Loeb Classical Library, Philo, Vol. 3, pp. 333–335. "On the Cherubim," XIV.49, Vol. 2, p.39.

14. Cf. the account by Murray Lichtenstein in his article "Hochmah" in The Encyclopedia of Religion.

15. As summed up by Raphael Patai in his popular exposition, The Hebrew Goddess (Ktav Publishing House, 1967), Hochmah, Binah, Tif'eret and Malkut make up a family of father, mother, son and daughter, one member for each of the four letters of the sacred and unpronounceable name of God. Cf. Zohar: "Never does the inclination of the Father and the Mother toward each other cease. They always go out together and dwell together. They never separate and never leave each other. They are together in complete union. The Father and the Mother, since they are found in union all the time are never hidden or separated from each other, are called Companions... And they find complete satisfaction in complete union." (I.162a-b. III.77b–78a.)

On the tetragrammaton: "The Supernal H [=the Mother] became pregnant as a result of all the love and fondling—since the Y never leaves her— and she brought forth W [the son], whereupon she stood up and suckled him. And when the W emerged, his female mate [the daughter, represented by the second H in the tetragrammaton] emerged with him. (Zohar III.77b]

16. Ezekiel 16; Hosea 1–3.

17. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, 1961), p. 225.

18. Jeremiah 44:17–19

19. II Kings 23:4

20. "Trimorphic Protennoia" (XIII, 1): 36,20. Cf. "Apocryphon of John" (II,20): 6,15.(NHL, Robinson).

21. "Tripartite Tractate" (I,5): 127-128 (NHL, Robinson).

22. Tripartite Tractate (I,5) 75:16 to 78:13; Silvanus (VII,4) 113:1–l10. Compare those with "Origin of the World," "Hypostasis of the Archons," "Trimorphic Protennoia," etc. (in NHL, Robinson).

23. Some might have hesitated to suggest that the man, Jesus, was the incarnation of the feminine Sophia. Yet this does seem to be the tradition behind Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:35 and perhaps John 1:1–5.14. It seems even more clearly to be part of the Gnostic system behind "Sophia Jesu Christi."

Logically the idea is no more difficult than its reverse: that the Logos or Son might have become incarnate as a woman. Yet even Thomas Aquinas left that possibility open. See my article "Aquinas on Avatars" in Dialogue and Alliance I(1987)pp.33–42.

24. "The Feminine Holy Spirit (Shekinah) in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam," by Jane Schuyler, Studies in Iconography, Volume 11, 1987, pp. 111–136. Note especially pp. 125–129 and 135–136.

25. The fresco fills the southeast corner of the vaulted ceiling of the church of St. Jakobus Major. A print of it may be found on the cover of Leonard Swidler's Biblical Affirmations of Woman (Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox, 1979).

26. Cf. J. Wood Brown, The Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella at Florence (Edinburgh: Otto Schulze, 1902), pp. 156–158.

Cf. too reproductions on pp. 96–105 of Santa Maria Novella:: La Basilica, Il Convento, I Chiostri Monumentali, a cura di Umberto Baldini (Firenze: Nardini Editore, 1981); and the comments of Roberto Salvini, pp. 94-95; especially "l'identificazione del trono di Tommasso col trono di Salomone, con quella sedes sapientiae che gia nell'iconografia del portale dei re di Chartres diviene attributo della Vergine, veicolo dell'incarnazione."

Cf. too Iconographie de l'art profane au moyen age et a la renaissance, II:Allegories et symboles, by Raimond van Marle (La Haye: Martinus Nijhoff, 1932), p. 212: "Un peu plus tard (841–872) furent executees au monastere de Saint-Gall des fresques ou l'on voyait "Sancta Sophia" avec ses sept filles, les Arts Liberaux et leurs representants..."

27. Cf. especially PARADISO 1, 46ff.; I, 63; I, 140; II, 22;XXII, 154; XXIII, 10-12, 22, 37, 46, 70; XXV 110–111, 115–117; (XXVIII 16, 40, 42; XXIX 7–9; XXX 14-36 XXXI, 70–72, 91–93.

28. Boehme The Way to Christ, written in 1622. Republished Canterbury: G. Moreton, 1894. The quotes are from the treatise "Of True Repentance."

29. For instance, "the sobors of Kiev, Novgorod and Iaroslav." "Byzantine and Russian churches still are dedicated to Her [Sophia] as French Cathedrals used to be dedicated to our Lady." From Dyad to Triad, Alexis van der Mensbrugghe (London: The Faith Press, 1935)pp. xiii–xv, 25–29 and plates I–VI.

30. Cf. Hagia Sophia by Heinz Kaehler; with a chapter on the mosaics by Cyril Mango; translated by Ellyn Childs: (NY Washington: Frederick A. Praeger), p.55: Constantine "offers to the Queen of Heaven a model of his city, conventionally represented as a fortified castle..."

"What is rather more surprising is that Justinian should be offering to her, and not to Christ alone, the model of Hagia Sophia. This, too, however, can be explained by the belief that Mary was the 'receptacle' or 'temple' of Divine Wisdom. Even more pertinent are the great lead seals of the clergy— or as we would say, the Chapte— of Hagia Sophia which represent, like our mosaic, Justinian offering a model of the cathedral to the Virgin, who is not even accompanied by the Child."

31. Cf. Bulgakov's The Wisdom of God (1937).

32. Acts of the Apostles 19:23–41.

33. It is described fully and reproduced in Dictionnaire d'archeologie chretienne et de liturgie, edds. Fernand Cabrol and Henri LeClercq (Paris: Letouzoy, 1931) vol. 10:2, cols 1986–1988 and 2816–2820; also in vol. 1 cols 2558–2559.

34. Sirach 24:10.

35. In the East, Oecumenius ed. H.C. Hoskier (University of Michigan, 1928) p. 135ff. In West, Pseudo-Augustine (=Quodvultdeus) (PL 40, col. 661). and Cassiodorus, Complexiones in Apocalypsim 11,5 (PL 70, 1411B). Cf. Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, two volumes (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963). I, p. 132 and 133.

36. Haymon of Halberstadt (Saxony) (PL CXVIII, 765) "Homilia V in Solemnitate Perpetuae Virginis Mariae."

37. Horae Beatae Virginis Mariae copy of Royal ms. 2 B v.(c. 1050).

Cf. too The Iconography of the Immaculate Conception in the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance by Mirella Levi D'Ancona 1957, Published by the College Art Association of America in conjunction with the Art Bulletin, page 20 (First page of Chapter I) discusses the pen drawing that is Figure 1: seated Father and Son, haloed, holding books, conferring together; Spirit dove over Mary and child, who stand to (viewer's) left of the seated pair. The text illustrated by the drawing is a section of prayers to Christ and the Virgin Mary, in the course of which Mary is invoked with the verse from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 24:14: "From eternity and before all ages he created me, and for eternity I shall not cease to exist." (This is Brit Mus Cotton ms. Titus D xxvii, fol. 75v., 1010–1020 A.D.).

38. Prov 8:22–23 was part of the Office of the Nativity of the Virgin in the twelfth century, when Godefridus, Abbot of Admont in Styria, asks himself why this text, which refers to Divine Wisdom, is used in reference to the Virgin Mary as well. His answer is that Mary was foreseen from eternity and that she existed in the mind of God as an idea, in the exact way in which she was to appear as a living being in this world after her birth. "Certe quae mundo necdum nata erat, in prescientia et ordinatione Dei talis erat; talem eam Deus omnipotens praevidebat, qualis nascitura postmodum et victura in mundo erat" (PL CLXXIV, col 1016), in D'Ancona, Iconography, 51.

39. Cf. Peter Oriol "Nondum Erant Abyssi" (1314–1315) in Quaestiones Disputatae de Immaculata Conceptione (Quaracchi, 1904) pp. 23–94; (ref. in Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion.)

40. Cf., e.g., J. Lafontaine-Dosogne, Iconographie de l'Enfance de la Vierge dans l'Empire byzantin et en Occident, 2 vols., (Brussels, 1964–65); The Iconography of the Immaculate Conception in the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance by Mirella Levi D'Ancona 1957. Published by the College Art Association of America in conjunction with the Art Bulletin.

Cf. too Alce, V., L'Immacolata nell'arte dalla fine del sec. XV al sec. XX in Virgo Immaculata (Acta Congressus Mariologici-Mariani Romae Anno 1954 Celebrati) xv, Romae 1957, 107-135; and several other articles in the same collection.

41. Cf. Francia's Masterpiece: An Essay on the Beginnings of the Immaculate Conception in Art by Montgomery Carmichael (New York:E.P. Dutton, 1909).

42. Male, L'art religieux apres le concile de Trent uses the clever formulation "celle qui a ete concue par Dieu avant tous les siecles et affranchie de la loi du peche," exploiting the ambivalence of "concue par Dieu."

43. Male L'art religieux, pp. 42-43, gives examples of 16th century and earlier paintings showing Mary present at the fall of the angels, the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve, etc.

44. Also Prov. 8:25: "Before all the hills, I was brought forth." One of Murillo's adds a scroll reading: "In principio dilexi eam." This is the tradition attested to already in 1492 in Carlo Crivelli, who has a scroll over Mary's head: "Ut in mente Dei ab initio concepta fui ita et facta sum" [Guldan, p. 106, whose note 3 refers here to M. Davies, National Gallery Catalogues: The earlier Italian Schools, 2., verb. Aufl. London 1961, 165 f. Nr. 906.; and P. Zampetti, Carlo Crivelli, Milano 1961, 60, 96, Abb. 143.]

Cf. Guldan, Eva und Maria (Graz-Koeln: Hermann Boehlaus, 1966), #169, 170, 171, 172, 173, 174, 180. Also Emile Male: L'art religieux apres le concile de Trent , p. 42: "Luther wrote, 'It is certain that Christ existed before all ages, but to say that of Mary is to speak a pure lie. It is to blaspheme against God.' The Church responds to him not only by its doctors but by its artists."

So in Aracoeli (end of 16th c.) and St. Peter's are images of Mary before the creation of the world, assisting at the struggle among the angels and then at the creation and fall of Adam and Eve.

Cf. D'Ancona, Iconography, p. 52: Mary, an infant in swaddling clothes; banner reading: "ab aeterno ordinata sum" Proverbs 8:23 (figure 41).

Also the miniature in a French Book of Hours of the late fifteenth century in the Art Institute in Chicago (ms 17388 in Seymour de Ricci's Census): Mary is shown as a maiden, without the Child, in a medallion in Heaven below a triune (here three-headed) God. In the world below, Adam and Eve are about to taste the forbidden fruit. An inscribed scroll in the border identifies the scene: "Et sic in Syon firmata sum" (Sirach 24:10, part of Wisdom's hymn of self-praise.)

45. In Enggass, Robert: Italy and Spain, 1600–1750, Sources and Documents pp. 165–167: and II, 208–212.

Also many details in Calvert, Albert F. Murillo: a Biography and Appreciation (London: John Lane, 1907), pp. 82–83; cf. p. 31.

46. 615, 300 francs. Cf. Rios, Francisco Abbard Las Inmaculadas de Murillo.

47. Minutes of the Board of Trustees.

48. Mary Eastman, in 1886 Yearbook, p. 3.

49. From Scribner's Monthly, 1877, p. 15.

50. This full form is used by the speakers at the 1875 opening of the College, with the exception of President Seelye. He there and later (1900;1923) used a shorter form: "To virtue, knowledge." Henry M. Tyler in 1918 suggests greater fidelity to the original Greek, citing "our English version as revised: 'in your virtue [supply] knowledge'" (Alumnae Quarterly p.3).

51. literally: "there is no knowledge that is not less than half knowledge."

52. Of the three occurrences of "arete" in the New Testament, two are in this passage of II Peter. The word meant not the moral probity, ethical achievement, or righteousness that the speakers' words seem to reflect, but ability, capacity or power. That sense was still prominent at the time the King James translation was made.

Writing almost half a century after the opening of the College, Henry Tyler, the son of William Tyler, does show some awareness of these issues: "Coming back to this word [gnosis] we are reminded that in the development of the church, in the growth of the famous gnostic theories, Christian believers were forced to appreciate the dangers of a conceit of knowledge if not properly directed, what Paul alludes to in his letter to Timothy as knowledge falsely so called." "There is a suggestive warning here against the intoxication of incomplete and unbalanced knowledge." Article in the 1918 Smith Alumnae Quarterly, pp.1–3.

53. Rev 19:17f. "And I saw an angel standing in the sun: and he cried with a loud voice saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; that ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great."

54. In an address, "The Higher Education of Women," delivered only a year from the date on which he and his committee actually designed the seal, Tyler expressed his own ideal with the same allusion: "Nay, woman, thus fully educated and thus irradiated with the love of Christ, were a fulfilment of the vision of the Apocalypse: 'I saw an angel standing in the sun.'" (July 3, 1873, Mt. Holyoke College. William Tyler was also a Mt. Holyoke trustee.)

55. The questions asked by the archivist, Nina Browne, are included in the reply by Mary L. Linehan.

56. Letter in Smith Archives.

57. Sophia Smith leaves her personal goods "to my cousins, Electa Graves and Charlotte Billings," with the exception of one painting, a portrait of herself. No other picture is mentioned.

Her will contains many details about the College, its curriculum and style of life. It is strange she would have passed on this one wish only by word of mouth, effectively leaving its implementation to the good will of the appointed trustees.

The trustees' minutes assign a committee to choose a design for the seal. Their business is dealt with in the second, third and fourth trustees' meetings, without any hint that the choice was already predetermined.

58. Seelye loved art. He had visited the churches and great collections of Florence, Paris and Rome. He insisted from the first that art history be a required feature of the Smith curriculum.

59. E.g.,"The Catholicity of the Roman Church as Affected by the Progress of the Nineteenth Century; seen in the History of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception," in The Christian Review 22(1857)381–403.

60. Material in Robert Briffault, The Mothers (New York: Macmillan, 1927), Volume II, chapters XX–XXII; and used in many popular modern studies of goddess religion. Chapter 17 of Marina Warner's Alone of all her Sex: the Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Alfresd A. Knopf, 1976) is a helpful summary.

And note "On the Origin of the World" (II,5)122,22: "The two bulls in Egypt possess a mystery, the sun and the moon, being a witness to Sabaoth: namely, that over them Sophia received the universe; from the day that she made the sun and the moon she put a seal upon her heaven, unto eternity." NHL 186.

61. Wisdom 8:1.

62. Two international symposia on this subject were sponsored by the Smith College Department of Religion in recent years; one on the work of Keiji Nishitani (1984), and one on that of Hajime Tanabe (1989).

63. Kurt Rudolph, article "Wisdom" in Encyclopedia of Religion.

64. This analysis follows that of Bernard Lonergan in Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (New York: Philosophical Library, 1958.)