❉ This is the sixth in a series of blogs that discuss diagrams and the diagrammatic format, especially in relation to fine art. I recently completed my PhD on this subject at Kyoto city University of the Arts, Japan's oldest Art School.
Feel free to leave comments or to contact me directly if you'd like any more information on life as an artist in Japan, what a PhD in Fine Art involves, applying for the Japanese Government Monbusho Scholarship program (MEXT), or to talk about diagrams and diagrammatic art in general.
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.
FIgure 3: Opicinus de Canistris (1296–ca. 1354), Diagram with Crucifixion, Avignon, France; 1335–50,
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City, Pal. Lat. 1993
The accommodating and fluid nature of the diagrammatic format allowed Opicinus to rework figures in a variety of layouts, and search for new ways to arrange the numerous images, beliefs and hypotheses encoded in his works. Maps were overlaid with other maps to create new hybrid schemes of varying transparency and opaqueness. The results are a labyrinthine, diagrammatic logic of Medieval metaphysics - a disorientating mixture of factual accuracy, fanciful creativity and divine revelation that pushes recognition and interpretability to its limits.
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.
Figure 4: Opicinus de Canistris (1296–ca. 1354) Diagram with Zodiac Symbols, folio 24r
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)
The large parchment 'Diagram with Zodiac Symbols' is Opicinus' densest surviving composition, containing over twenty different sets of information: the major prophets, minor prophets, planets, two different sets of zodiac symbols, the doctors of the Church, four monastic orders and their founders, months, days, an implied world map, the genealogy of Mary, the Ave Maria, three personifications of the church, two crucifixions, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the four types of Biblical exegesis, the four Evangelists, the apostles, and the names of the letters of Paul. (3)
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.
Figures 5-7: The divine visions of Opicinus De Canistris, 14th Century
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.)
Figure 8: Opicinus De Canistric, The seed of faith, c. 1330.
Below is a gallery of various Medieval diagrams that embody the creative range of their use during this period. From blood letting to early anatomical compendiums and surgical procedures, diagrams were also used to predict the dates of religious events, solstices and equinoxes, as well as map regions of coast, the world and even the cosmos.
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.
Dr. Michael Whittle
British artist and researcher