Nicholas of Cusa’s apophatic embrace/critique of Islam and the Renaissance

I have been working for a while now on understanding the connection(s) between Cusa’s interactions with Islam, on the one hand, and his critique of Alberti, on the other. This research project has finally culminated in something like an excessively long, clunky abstract for a paper I hope to someday write, which I post here in the hopes of receiving feedback from anyone interested.

My intention in this paper is, in broad strokes, to argue that Cusa’s trinitarian embrace of Qur’anic monotheism and his iconographic critique of one-point perspective are best understood as parallel outworkings of his foundational commitment to Pseudo-Dionysian apophaticism.

In the first case, Cusa situates the Qur’an’s rejection of God’s ‘threeness’ against the apophatic backdrop of Christian trinitarianism: it is entirely true that to say that God is ‘not three,’ explains Cusa, insofar as the Christian God transcends all numerical plurality and schematization. Hence, there is no necessary conflict between Qur’anic monotheism and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; indeed, Christianity not only welcomes the Qur’an’s apophatic censure against tritheism but takes it one step further: just as it is true that God transcends numerical ‘threeness’ (as the Qur’an rightly recognizes), so also is it true that God transcends the limitations of creaturely ‘oneness’ (as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity recognizes). Christianity is thus the religion of apophaticism par excellence, whose God is the coincidentia oppositorum and whose theology is therefore capacious enough to both embrace and exceed that of Islam.

Similarly, Cusa’s understanding of the icon finds room within itself for the one-point perspective of the Western Renaissance (represented here by Alberti). If cataphaticism can be understood, in general terms, as the self-assertion of creaturely perspective, then the artistic technique of one-point perspective — which fictively places the gaze of the observing subject at the center of the picture — can be understood as a distinctively visual mode of cataphatic expression. Just as Qur’anic monotheism is legitimate insofar it is situated within the broader and more apophatic framework of Christian trinitarianism, then, so too is Cusa’s thought is able to accommodate one-point perspective insofar as it ultimately capitulates to the more fundamental and apophatic gaze of the Christian icon (which directs itself toward the observing subject and thus resists her ‘cataphatic’ domination). For Cusa, Albertian perspective is, like Qur’anic monotheism, not so much incorrect as it is internally insufficient.

An illuminating web of intersections opens up here between Cusa, Alberti, and Islam. Cusa evidently shares Islam’s reservations about the ‘cataphatic’ character of one-point perspective, but considers Islamic aniconism an insufficient response to Alberti — that is, an insufficiently apophatic response. Nicholas’ reasoning here is characteristically paradoxical: if true apophaticism consists in the recognition that God is the coincidentia oppositorum — the infinite union of all finite contradictions — then it is not enough to simply deny that God is visible, mutable, material, etc. One must go a step further and admit that God transcends even these denials, i.e., that He is so transcendent as to be not simply ‘wholly other’ (tout autre) but also ‘not other’ (non aliud) to His finite creation. This, for Cusa, is the singular truth communicated definitively by the Incarnation and visualized in the Christian icon: that God stands in analogical relation to creation, and is hence able to incorporate finitude into His own life without forgoing His ‘internal’ infinity. Paradoxically, then, Christian iconography ends up being more apophatic than Islamic aniconism; and insofar as the latter is motivated by genuinely apophatic concerns, the Christian icon in fact ends up being the most authentically Islamic response to Alberti.

As Dr Matthew Milliner pointed out to me, the Cappella Palatina perfectly represents Cusa’s posture toward Islam: The aniconic Arabic arches and muqarnas adorning the chapel’s roof serve as a helpful reminder of divine transcendence, but ultimately give way to the even more apophatic icon of Christ enthroned — the incarnate coincidentia oppositorum.

In sum, then: Nicholas’ approaches to Islamic monotheism and Albertian perspective should both be understood against the backdrop of his apophatic theological vision. And when they are thus understood, it becomes clear that Nicholas finds common cause with Islam in its critique of the Western Renaissance, but also that he considers Christianity the perfect fulfillment of Islamic theology, such that Christianity is — by virtue of its trinitarianism, Christology, and iconodulism — more authentically Islamic than Islam itself.