Narrating Ontology with Images

Hello Folks,

“What, two posts in one week?” you may be asking yourself “has he gone insane?” Well yes I have gone insane actually, but in a good way: insane with ideas (the best kind of insane).

Over the last few days, i’ve been toying with the idea of writing a chapter on water symbolism that is, in effect, an art history chapter (something that excites me). Since I am effectively arguing within my thesis that water symbolism (and indeed all symbolism) is not simply a byproduct of the imagination process, but part of a process of imaginative hermeneutics in which the imagined feeds back into the imaginer. This is, as I realized yesterday, a narration of ontology (being) through symbolism. This is important, because almost all of the symbologists, medievalists and other scholarly experts that I have read assume that symbolism is the byproduct of a world-view. I will argue that symbol and idea exist in a state of reciprocity, engaging in a two-way dialogue to produce meaning. This is a particularly important point when one is studying the Middle Ages, for this symbolic correspondence was planned: it was imagined as the method by which an omnipotent God spoke to His creations through Creation itself (compare this comment with some of the secondary source quotes in my last post regarding epistemology and symbolism).

Now at this point you may be asking yourself, “where are the pictures, he promised me pictures!” Fear not, gentle reader, for I will now show you some beautiful images. Most are from a particularly beautiful French manuscript of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’  De proprietatibus rerum (on the properties of things) from the late 14th century by Jean Corbechon, entitled Livre de propriétés de choses

This image comes from Bartholemaeus, and depicts the four elements of the cosmos surrounded by the signs of the zodiac. I particularly like the way that wind kind of looks like a series of gribbly tentacles (I mean, how else do you draw wind I suppose). This picture, although simple, depicts the disparate yet unified nature of the cosmos. The circles represent the world (inner circle) within the cosmos (the celestial realm) – the word mundus means both world and cosmos in Latin, a duality containing what Hugo Rahner described as ‘typical Latin pregnancy’ – for the circle was a perfect shape, without division or flaw. It was the sphere that represented creation, for it is one (the generator of all integers) reflecting the undivided nature of its Creator. The number four was a number of balance, an appropriate number for the elements that, through their interrelationship, defined the order of the world. In the words of Clement  of Alexandria, ‘Righteousness is Quadrangular’, for four was the first wholly even number, and thus stood in balance despite its multiplicity.

In this image, we see the balance of four applied to the human body, the little world or minor mundus within the ‘big world’. In this image, the four humors of the body are linked to their elemental companions. Blood, Phlegm Choler and Black bile were tied to Fire, Earth, Wind and Water in addition to Hot, Cold, Wet and Dry. As we can see in this image, humanity exists in between these extremes, with a hand or foot in each corner of creation, splayed between competing forces. If once could balance these principles then one would be healthy, but if an imbalance occurred (discrasia), then sickness and emotional disturbance would follow.

This image shows the dichotomy of body and soul, a cause for concern (for humanity should be one), yet also a reminder of our spiritual dimension. The body exists superimposed over the soul (the glowing yellow). The flesh was heavy, stolid and earthly, and had no place in the spiritual realm; the soul was ascendant, floating the the top like fire, ascending the heavens and communing with the Divine Intellect.

This is my last image, and a personal favorite. It comes from a 13th century moralized Bible, and shows an image of the Divine Architect using his compass to measure and differentiate the cosmos during the Hexaemeron, or six days of Creation. This image is interesting, because it shows an occasionally occurring notion of the cosmos as an egg. The world in this image is quite distinctly yolk-like, suspended within the albumen (white), representing the water (note the womb symbolism); the shell is the sky and the membrane the aether.

So there we go: hopefully you can see that it is possible to narrate the nature of Creation, time, life, the body etc through symbolism. The symbols in these images are not merely side-effects, they signify extremely complex metaphysical concepts that take pages and pages to explain in full. A picture does mean a thousand words when medieval symbolism is concerned, and is of particular importance when you remember that the ‘thousand words’ option was only available to a very small percentage of medieval society. Images such as these had to tell an entire story, and often defined one’s understanding of the forces shaping the cosmos.

Best Wishes,



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