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Figure 1: Unknown artist, The internal and external senses from St Augustine,
De spiritu et anima
(Trinity College Cambridge MS O.7.16 fol 47)
Figure 2: Unknown artist, Diagram of the brain, circa 1300. University Library at Cambridge University
(Avicenna's five ventricles: Common sense, Imagination, Judgment, Image creation and Memory.)
Diagrams played an important role in medieval image making, and it's during this period that fundamental changes took place in how they were used and created. As a result medieval diagrams offer unique insights in to intellectual perception during the Middle Ages.
Medieval diagrams combine utility with beauty and practicality with metaphysics. They also adopt aesthetic tendencies towards either visual refinement and clarity or elaborate adornment in an ornate, Gothic, decorative style (see above).
The rise of Scholasticism lead to a proliferation of didactic tables and diagrams within monasteries, in order to classify and interpret abstract concepts as stylised, diagrammatic mnemonics. The heuristic power of the diagrammatic format meant that it was used create an array of artistic, philosophical, theological and scientific tools to explore novel ideas and make new connections.
On the other hand, the early, esoteric, alchemical diagrams of the period became increasingly hermetic in their interpretation, as their makers employed arcane symbols in chaotic systems of references, and imbued their mystical art with an aura of concealed meaning and noble, archaic secrecy. (See Blog entry: "Cosmic diagrams from the sacred heart of the alchemical laboratory." May 12th, 2016)
The ability of diagrams to express several layers of meaning simultaneously rendered them particularly well suited to medieval attempts to anthropomorphically connect time, matter, the cosmos, man and God. Charts of complex, conceptual interrelations were compiled in an attempt to reveal underlying patterns, harmonies and deep connections hidden within nature.
Some of the most profoundly creative diagrams from this period come from the hand of a Medieval Italian Monk named Opicinus de Canistris. These incredible works were made on animal skin or 'velum' and the neck of the animal can be clearly made out towards the top of the image below, as Opicinus made good use of this expensive but long lasting material.
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City, Pal. Lat. 1993
Karl Whittington proposes that "... Opicinus sought a new value of truth, attempting to find a way to reconcile new science with theological tradition while simultaneously seeing the potential of empirical observation to frame old questions in new ways... his drawings anticipate the concept of man as the measure of all things." (1)
These rich diagrammatic art works cleverly mediate between the classic medieval binaries of: human/divine, matter/spirit, visible/invisible, appearance/truth and microcosm/macrocosm. However what sets the cleric’s work apart from other medieval artists of the time is the way in which he combines empirical objectivity with creative subjectivity. This makes the diagrams of Opicinus one of the earliest examples of what I refer to as "Romantically-Objective" diagrammatic art.
Avignon, France, 1335–50 Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City, Pal. Lat. 1993
Opicinus integrated within his work some of the most technically accomplished cartography of his day in the form of mariners’ sea-charts (portolan charts). This provided an empirical foundation with which to creatively re-structure the more traditional and primarily text based images of the period and, in doing so, create a completely new type of representation.
Two circular ‘wind roses’ are positioned above one another, just below the centre of the above figure. Wind rose diagrams are composed of networks of ‘rhumb lines’, a common element in Opicinus’ work and always associated with maps. In this case they contain within them images of Christ, so that their use here suggests his birth, life and death within the mapped out physical space of the earth. (2)
There is evidence that Opicinus suffered from stroke like symptoms on the 31st of March 1334, at which time he became paralysed, mute and lost his memory. He also experienced divine visions during which he saw visions of continents and oceans transformed into human figures.
These surreal, almost hallucinatory images are amongst Opicinus' most fantastical diagrammatic works, and most depict Europe, as the personification of Christianity, and Africa (Babylon). There are multiple levels of metaphor and meaning within these diagrams, many of which can even be rotated or viewed through a mirror to reveal further storylines and symbols initially hidden from sight upon first viewing.
Sexual metaphors are abundant in the biblical language of the Medieval world, and their use corresponds to a high focus on fertility in man and nature within agrarian communities. As in initiation rituals, birth and rebirth play an essential role in religious experience, and "Sexual reproduction became a metaphor for all creation of worlds and beings, both good and evil" (4)
Thus we have the image below of Christ depicted as Europe with male genitals between his legs, just off the coast of Venice. Opicinus’ visual statements were closely connected to his own spiritual rebirth, and he identifies with Europe’s circumcised penis naming it Opicinus, minister of the church.
In this way Opicinus saw his role and the role of the church as the dissemination of God’s word in the world, spreading the seed of faith so that it may grow among the believers. Opicinus, in "...representing himself as the penis of the Church (...) visualises the idea that all clerics wore the marks of Christ’s circumcision (and thus sacrifice) on their heads." (5)
This explicit free play with concepts of sex and self is very unusual in a medieval context and make Opicinus ‘s work a unique piece of medieval heritage.
(It should be noted that the image below is the reverse of the original, which was drawn in mirror image so that the text was illegible.)
Yet other diagrams show genetic lineage depicted as extended family trees whilst others provide visual overviews to stories in the new testament. Their range of creation and use show how diagrams have played a fundamental role in shaping the way humans think about the world and how we creatively work with novel ideas.
( many of the images are in high resolution, click on images for larger views and captions )
Figure 9: The Tabula Rogeriana (shown here upside down),
drawn by Al-Idrisi for Roger II of Sicily in 1154, one of the most advanced ancient world maps.
Modern consolidation, created from the 70 double-page spreads of the original atlas.
1) Whittington, K.P. (2009) Opicinus de Canistris, Vatican Library Pal. Lat. folios2v, 20r, 24r. In: Holcomb, M. and Bessette, L. (Eds) Pen and parchment: drawing in the middle ages. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009, Yale University Press), p.148-55.
3) Holcomb, M. and Bessette, L. (2009) Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, (2009, Yale University Press), p.154
4) Whittington K.P. The Body-Worlds of Opicinus de Canistris, Artist and Visionary (1296-ca. 1354), PhD Berkely, 2010, p. 106.
5) Ibid, p. 110.