Book illuminations of the British Isles are dominated by plaited or basketry ornaments. It devalues the tectonic qualities of the tectonic elements, interprets them largely ornamental, sometimes renders them cumbersome. Columns and arch are decorated with square interlacing patterns at the bottom and dynamically flat rosette and spiral-shaped motifs at the top. Capitals and column bases are represented by medallions with birds at the top and quadruped animals at the bottom. The interior is rich in contrast, packed with figures, and resembles a child's room. David with his harp is positioned in the centre, and around his sofa there are smaller figures cheerfully beating the drum, tooting, and clapping.
-> Canterbury psalter, about 735, from Canterbury [London, British Library, Cotton Ms. Vaspasianus A.I]
The tectonic structure of the canon table is preserved but is now interpreted – completely independent of the tectonic conditions – with Celtic and Anglo-Saxon plaited and basketry patterns. The arch is subdivided into various areas that are each decorated differently. Columns become bands and the capitals resemble loose heads of lettuce. Evidently the autochthonous develops its own world, overcoming the imported canon of forms.
-> Table from the Codex Aureus of Canterbury (Christ Church, about 750 [Stockholm, Kungl. Biblioteket, A.135]
Fig. 22, 23
The following two pictures of the Evangelists Matthew and John seem strangely stiff. The columns and their bases look rough and wooden, just like compressed heaps of earth. Similarly rigid are the chairs and the figures themselves. In contrast, the arches are light, filigreed, and treated decoratively. Both show a medallion at their bases. In picture 22, it is filled with saintly half length figures and melted with the rough capital. In picture 23, the rude capital forms a kind of stable fork in which the medallion with its dynamic whorl or roll patterns rests like the cross section of a round beam, this evidently an influence from the local environment. In the tympana there are winged symbols of the Evangelists. Both pictures show a tripartite background: three greyish-blue areas, limited by the chair; the darkest area above evidently symbolizing earth, ocean and, above that, heaven.
-> Same source as 21.
Early Spanish book illustrations likewise adopt the columns-arch-schema in their canon tables but they frequently treat the bases like roots or, rather more simply here, represent them as bulges. Capitals too, show roll motifs or, as in this case, a whole bunch of flowers. The circular extension of the arch may be put down to Moorish influence.
-> Table from Biblia Sacra Hispalense; late 9th, early 10th cent., from Andalusia. [Madrid, Bibl. Nac. Cod. Vitr. 13-1]
This Beatus manuscript is one of the most richly illustrated leonesian scripts. It shows the Evangelist John accompanied by a witness. Compared with the previous pictures, the extended arch creates an ambiguity emphasized by the quite untectonically placed plaited band. The lower part projects beyond the capitals into the tympanum. -> Beatus manuscript of the Pierpont Morgan Library (10th cent.) showing St. John accompanied by a witness [New York, Pierpont Morgan Library M. 644]
This illumination depicts Christ instructing John to reveal to the world the terrible consequences resulting from the establishment of his kingdom (the Apocalypse). Above, there is Christ in a richly decorated medallion, flanked by two angels. Two columns schematically support the extended arch, but are almost concealed by some sort of curtain, on which the angel transmits the commission now verbally, and then, on the left–hand side, in writing. The outer plant symbols are untectonic with regard to the whole. They are open at the centre of their sides but closed at the corners; this, together with the homogenous texture of the background, probably points to a textile origin.
-> Beatus manuscript of Santo Domingo de Silos [1109, London British Library, Add. ms. 11695]
The dome of one of the most magnificent architectonic constructions in the world, the Hagia Sophia, the imperial church of Justinian’s Byzantine empire, is maltreated by art historians. It is being considered in technical terms, treated like the "suspension" of a car, or a lampshade suspending from a golden chain (see text). This rather embarrassing limitation asks for the presentation of a contrasting thesis, which locates the "Church of the Divine Wisdom" (the Hagia Sophia) at the centre of the medieval world view. The result is highly plausible, revealing the basic medieval thought pattern and showing the incompatibility between the art historian’s "science" and art or architecture. The "theory of relativity" of art is closed to science!
-> Hagia Sophia. Exterior and interior view, floor plan, facades, sections and perspectives (acc. to Fletcher 1975)
Fig. 31, 32
The frame is geometrically conceived, its tectonic elements have disappeared. At the centre, the hilly horizon seems to melt with the cloudy waves of the tympanum. The tympanum is filled with astrological speculation, symbols, and stars. At its centre, closer to the pragmatic world, there is a celestial chariot, the mythical concept of the sun. Below, there is a realist landscape scene: depicted are the lives of aristocrats and rural peasants. Particularly the latter, in its highly localized poetry of the home, forms a stark contrast to the geometrically measured heaven. The contents have greatly changed with regard to the earlier illuminations, which were completely embedded in Christian ontology, but the picture’s bipolar partition into a unity of celestial imagination and realistic world continues. Ontology has changed, but the 'ontological proportion' forms a continuum. Such changes to the contents in a continuously conceived iconic structure must have impressed many at the time.
-> From Duc de Berry's Book of Hours. Early 15th century.
The Renaissance book containing this picture has definitely turned its back on Christian ontology. It is devoted to Greek philosophy (Aristotle: 'Nicomachian Ethics') declaring human reason as its highest principle. The 'ontological proportion' as a structural principle is preserved, but it is interpreted differently. In the upper part, an imaginary building is presented, something already familiar to us: the celestial building. As usual, the lower part is characterized by realism. Stories from the Odyssey are depicted, paying homage to Odysseus’s reason and cunning stratagems. Architecture is presented rather geometrically but this is not essential (see text).
-> Illumination in Book VI, Aristotle,'Nicomachian Ethics’, of Andrea Matteo Acquaviva, Duke of Atri (1458-1529) [Vienna, Österr.Nationalbibl. Cod. Phil. Gr. 4]
The massive triumphal arch in the countryside is much more than pure geometry. It frames, or leads into a medieval pictorial concept. The place formerly occupied by Evangelists who were related to the Bible and symbolized heaven and earth, is now taken by a new type of 'wisdom': reason and virtues dominate. But this arch with its triumphal potential is encapsulated in a wider concept of heaven and earth: the seemingly realist landscape perspective. This hilly landscape, with its realistic horizon above, is contrasted by an inverse arch cutting out a more distant transcendental heaven out of the perspective one. But the circumstances are inversely interpreted in a Platonically paradoxical way. Figures in the landscape, such as humans, horses, dogs, and other animals, are depicted quite realistically and are, through golden rays, linked with the golden - meaning eternal - celestial shadow of ideas. Thus, real reality is in the cosmos. Within the context of this idealistic paradox, the entire "realistic" landscape becomes imaginary or metaphysical, thus contrasting with the lower part that depicts two realistic consequences of this imaginary Platonic condition of the world: death may be a happier state than life. In contrast to picture 33, this second one nuances its 'ontological proportion' in new ways. Whereas the former was dominated by an art–orientated ontology, the latter thrives on the tension between Plato (idealism) and Aristotle (realism; note that their busts are positioned in opposite spandrels). In the picture Plato clearly dominates.
-> Same source, front page of Book I
A striking conflict situation is shown in a picture by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550), which forms part of an astrological cycle. Various small–town arches supported by pillars and capitals define an ontologically proportioned system in which the Roman god Mercury, depicted in a celestial chariot pulled by winged cocks, somehow gets lost. But the magical quality dissolves, if one understands the picture as an intermingling of two different ways of spatial perception and organization. Note that above the 'heaven' defined by the arch, there is a rich "decoration" of leaves and tendrils which evidently relates to the slender columns sketched on the sides. The whole of the new perspective micro- and macrocosmic experimentation is packed into a primordial code – a leafy hut!
-> Mercury as the patron of certain occupations; woodcut by Hans Sebald Beham, 1530-40; Kenton 1971)
In the following, a picture that again introduces Christian ontology in the way it is interpreted by the Renaissance. The picture is particularly interesting because it shows how the Renaissance dealt with a diachronic situation, in this case the birth of Christ. The tectonic element regresses to the rurally basic, tiny objects delegating tectonics to the natural environment (source, clearing, valley; see text). The two angels positioned vertically above the domed church, at the same time flanking the entrance to the sacred site in the air, are somehow 'magic' to the modern eye. A "hovering effect", the art historians remark, a "suspension in the void"! But the angels are there because - despite the perspective view and the very meagre clouds - they are still supported by 'ontological proportion'. This tectonically based code, strongly emphasized by the Middle Ages, is still present to the contemporary viewer.
-> From the Ghislieri prayer book about 1492-1503 [London Brit. Library. Yates Thomson 29]
Carpaggio's picture shows an encapsulated system of four different stages of polar space organization (perception and conception). The ingenious composition is clearly differentiated in temporal categories: primitive - classical - Renaissance - early modern times. It thus shows an evolution of a distinct complex which closely relates architecture, space, and world view (ontology). If we consider form and space as essential categories of culture, then Carpaggio's picture becomes nothing less than a theory of cultural evolution, supposing the ontological values of the four stages are known. To put it in other words: the picture brings into one spatial and temporal axis as many modern disciplines as 'prehistory', 'history', 'folklore/ ethnology', 'religion', 'art', 'architecture', and 'philosophy'. Four different stages of ontology. A kind of life-tree of knowledge, of world views. <20>
->Vittore Carpaggio. The Apotheosis of St. Ursula, about 1492 [Venice, Gallery of the Academy]
The schema shows the structure and results of the two methods discussed. Wittkower's numerical proportion (NP) at the left, our 'ontological porportion' (OP) at the right. The polar structure provided by built form (column and capital; infrastructure and dome) can be filled with analogously structured objects, persons or symbolic environments (saints, Mary with child, Godfather and man, crowned king, heaven and earth). The highly reductive - and thus non-scientific - method of the art historian is evident. Were it in fact essentially also such forced rationalisms ą la Wittkower, which imprisoned modern man into the geometric cages of his modern urban deserts?
Back to main text 1, 2, 3, 4
To figures 1
Back to homepage