Augustine and iconographic relativity

London, British Library, Harley MS 4951, f. 123r

St Augustine refuses to get old. If anything, he gets more and more interesting. We live in an age of icons – not religious icons, but images of all kinds. Our age is also one of a widespread reflection of the nature of imagery. We look at images, we use them, but we also read and write about them. It is therefore hard to see what a 4th-century Christian theologian and philosopher can offer to a debate where names such as Saussure, Baudrillard and Eco crowd the field. Nevertheless, Augustine reflected deeply about the place of signs and images (linguistic, textual and visual) and his observations may be seen as foundational for later theories.

Augustine’s theory of signs can’t even be summarized here. Instead, I  wish to dwell for a moment on a short passage from De Trinitate (book 8, chapter 4) where he advances a general theory of iconographic relativity. What I mean by this is the attachment to the idea that there is nothing wrong with an image that doesn’t conform to its specifics in reality (what we might now call its historical referent). In fact, Augustine argues, it is natural for people to conceive differently of the same object, be it one of visual observation or mental contemplation.

Medieval depictions of historical figures and scenes are well known for their anachronism (as we like to put it). Ancient Roman soldiers dressed in the latest Norman fashion are just one example among thousands. Nor are we ignorant as to why this is so. A large number of theories and ideas have been put forward to explain the apparent indifference to accuracy in the process of medieval historical recollection (although we shouldn’t forget that the first category of the historical consciousness, according to Hegel, is expectation, not recollection, forward-thinking, not back-tracking).

It would be an anachronism, however, to expect Augustine to discuss the anachronism. However, he explains that the human mind is naturally attracted to imagining the countenance, look and shape (facies) of people whom it doesn’t have direct contact with. The anthropology of ikonopoesis (image-making) is clear:

For who is there that reads or hears what the Apostle Paul has written, or what has been written of him, that does not imagine to himself the countenance both of the apostle himself, and of all those whose names are there mentioned?

Augustine makes clear that a person’s historical facies was one, so he doesn’t leave it to imagination to recreate everything according to its own disposition. There is order between imagination and reality. If there be fake news, let everyone know it is fake.

For even the countenance of our Lord Himself in the flesh is variously fancied by the diversity of countless imaginations, which yet was one, whatever it was.

And so he makes no illusion about the departures from historical accuracy, which are not bad as long as we hold the other allegorical and anagogical channels open:

what leads us to salvation is not the image which the mind forms for itself to use for thinking (which may perhaps be far different from what he actually looked like), but according to our mental representation, what sorts of thoughts we have about his humankind.

The image may perhaps be far different from what the reality was. Now look at the image of Christ at the top of this blog. The facies of Christ was fancied by the imagination of this late-eleventh century French illustrator. According to Augustine’s theory, there is nothing more natural than this depiction of Christ. The illustrator has certainly imagined the traits, but he is supposed to have done so, for imaging (mental or graphic) is a task is essential in cognition. There is equality between images depicting reality because, ultimately, whether achievable or not, faithfulness is not everything. We are very far from the Renaissance.

The full passage is given below, in Latin and in translation.

Necesse est autem, cum aliqua corporalia lecta vel audita quae non vidimus, credimus, fingat sibi animus aliquid in lineamentis formisque corporum, sicut occurrerit cogitanti, quod aut verum non sit, aut etiam si verum est, quod rarissime potest accidere; non hoc tamen fide ut teneamus quidquam prodest, sed ad aliud aliquid utile, quod per hoc insinuatur. Quis enim legentium vel audientium quae scripsit apostolus Paulus, vel quae de illo scripta sunt, non fingat animo et ipsius Apostoli faciem, et omnium quorum ibi nomina commemorantur? Et cum in tanta hominum multitudine quibus illae Litterae notae sunt, alius aliter lineamenta figuramque illorum corporum cogitet, quis propinquius et similius cogitet, utique incertum est. Neque ibi occupatur fides nostra, qua facie corporis fuerint illi homine; sed tantum quia per Dei gratiam ita vixerunt, et ea gesserunt, quae Scriptura illa testatur. Hoc utile est credere, et non desperandum, et appetendum. Nam et ipsius facies Dominicae carnis, innumerabilium cogitationum diversitate variatur et fingitur, quae tamen una erat, quaecumque erat. Neque in fide nostra quam de Domino Iesu Christo habemus, illud salubre est quod sibi animus fingit, longe fortasse aliter quam res habet, sed illud quod secundum speciem de homine cogitamus; habemus enim quasi regulariter infixam naturae humanae notitiam, secundum quam quidquid tale aspicimus, statim hominem esse cognoscimus, vel hominis formam. (De Trinitate, VIII, 4, 7)

But it must needs be, that, when by reading or hearing of them [of virtues] we believe in any corporeal things which we have not seen, the mind frames for itself something under bodily features and forms, just as it may occur to our thoughts; which either is not true, or even if it be true, which can most rarely happen, yet this is of no benefit to us to believe in by faith, but it is useful for some other purpose, which is intimated by means of it. For who is there that reads or hears what the Apostle Paul has written, or what has been written of him, that does not imagine to himself the countenance both of the apostle himself, and of all those whose names are there mentioned? And whereas, among such a multitude of men to whom these books are known, each imagines in a different way those bodily features and forms, it is assuredly uncertain which it is that imagines them more nearly and more like the reality. Nor, indeed, is our faith busied therein with the bodily countenance of those men; but only that by the grace of God they so lived and so acted as that Scripture witnesses: this it is which it is both useful to believe, and which must not be despaired of, and must be sought. For even the countenance of our Lord Himself in the flesh is variously fancied by the diversity of countless imaginations, which yet was one, whatever it was. But for our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, it is not the image which the mind forms for itself to use for thinking (which may perhaps be far different from what he actually looked like) that leads us to salvation, but according to our mental representation, what sorts of thoughts we have about his humankind: for we have a notion of human nature implanted in us, as it were by rule, according to which we know forthwith, that whatever such thing we see is a man or the form of a man.


A reflection on Maundy Thursday

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Christ washing Peter’s feet in the ‘Tibertius Psalter’, 12th century, London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 11v.

Out of the entire Holy Week cycle, I am particularly drawn to Holy Thursday. The English call this day Maundy Thursday, using a word derived from the Latin ‘mandatum’, meaning commandment. It is one of Christ’s words to his disciples the night before his arrest: ‘A new commandment I give unto you: that you love one another’. (mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem, John 13:34)’. Unlike Good Friday which strikes the believer and the unbeliever alike with the cruelty and gore of the crucifixion and the suffering leading up to it, Commandment Thursday, as we might call it, is not only about the disclosure of that which moves the sun and the other stars, but also a time of utter despair, anxiety and sadness. Whereas Friday with its desolate landscape stares one in the eye, the Hill literally standing out like in a Flemish painting, Thursday is all about questions and hesitation: will it happen? If so, what is actually going to happen? Will I have the strength to bear it? Will we find the courage to stay by his side when the time comes? Will I keep my eyes open when I’m so opressed with sleep and the sound of the wind through the trees is so soothing? Nothing is certain this Thursday – things, as far as we care, may go either way. Anticipation is at its highest, but so is despair over the greatest question of all – what if it’s all but a lie, a delusion, a trick? We believe, or so we say, but we haven’t seen anything, and if you ask most of those watching, they will say the odds are against it. But the night is a time of rejecting the odds and keeping watch not so much against sleep, but against the slumber of the greatest of uncertainties, seminal doubt, the combustion engine of faith and the via regia of self-discovery and self-transcendence through the one who dies the day after.

In defence of books and bookshops: 1993

Nearly 25 years ago, the French novelist Jean d’Ormesson reflected on the future of books and bookshops in a world invaded by television and new technologies. ‘Books’, he wrote, ‘are a great blessing in uncertain times.’ ‘The modern world was built through books. The Bible is a book. The Koran is a book. The Discourse on the Method is a book. The Capital is a book.’

Our times are no less certain, but 25 years later, books and bookshops are still among us, albeit more enfeebled than ever. The new media, not television, are now their most redoubtable enemy, and new battle-lines, retreats and shifts of strategy, often with loss of matter and soul, are being enacted. If books and bookshops were in need of a apologia a quarter of a century ago, they certainly need one today.

I am not going to offer one now, though, but I would refer you to d’Ormesson’s text, perhaps as applicable now as it was back in December 1993, when it appeared in Le Figaro Magazine (reprinted in Odeur du temps, (Éditions Héloïse d’Ormesson, 2007), pp. 873-75):

Vivent les libraires!

Les libraires, depuis quelques siècles, ont suffisamment servi les écrivains pour que les écrivains, à leur tour, dans des circonstances difficiles, viennent aider les libraires. C’est une affaire qui dépasse de loin le cercle restreint des libraires et des écrivains. Elle concerne un public immense : celui des lecteurs. Entre l’écrivain et le lecteur, le premier lien est constitué par l’éditeur. Chaque écrivain débutant connaît les affres de la recherche d’un éditeur. Parce que l’éditeur dispose du pouvoir immense de rendre réel l’imaginaire, les relations entre l’écrivain et son éditeur constituent tout un chapitre de l’histoire littéraire et les noms de Michel Levy, de Hertzel, de Poulet-Malassis, les noms de René Julliard, de Gallimard, de Grasset sont mêlés à ceux de Hugo, de Dumas, de Baudelaire, de Proust, de Morand, de tant d’autres parmi les morts ou parmi les vivants. Mais l’éditeur n’est pas seul entre l’écrivain et son public. L’éditeur donne sa chance à l’écrivain en le faisant sortir de la clandestinité et en fournissant un support à un monde qui n’existe pas encore. Ce support est le livre. Le livre est un objet parmi d’autres, mais chargé de puissance, d’énergie, de beauté aussi, de quelque chose de presque sacré qui peut bouleverser l’univers et changer le cours des choses. Le monde moderne a été construit par les livres. La Bible est un livre. Le Coran est un livre. Le Discours de la méthode est un livre. Le Capital est un livre. Ceux qui sont chargés de diffuser les livres et surtout les livres nouveaux et de leur ouvrir l’accès à un public qui n’existe pas d’avance s’appellent les libraires. Parce qu’ils prennent des risques souvent comparables à ceux des auteurs et des éditeurs, parce qu’ils servent de lien entre les écrivains et leur public à venir, ils ont joué et ils jouent un rôle capital dans la diffusion de la culture. Le commerce de la librairie remonte aux Grecs et aux Romains. À Athènes et à Rome, les librairies sont des lieux de réunion des auteurs et des lecteurs cultivés et l’on y donne des lectures publiques. Les volumes se répandent à Alexandrie, à Byzance, dans toute la Méditerranée et jusqu’en Gaule. Des libraires s’établissent à Marseille ou à Lyon. Au Moyen Âge, des règlements précisent les obligations des libraires établis autour des universités. Dès le x v C siècle, des foires se tiennent à Francfort ou à Leipzig. L’imprimerie bouleverse évidemment le commerce des livres et la censure devient un des thèmes principaux des rapports, souvent difficiles, entre pouvoir, écrivains et libraires. Le métier de libraire peut devenir presque dangereux. La Révolution garantit aux Français le droit d’écrire, d’imprimer et de publier librement. La République supprime le brevet de libraire et l’obligation du serment et du contrôle qui avaient été rétablis par l’Empire et la Restauration. Une double menace pèse aujourd’hui sur les milliers de libraires qui assurent la vente des livres. Ils souffrent, en tant que commerçants, de la crise qui frappe tous les secteurs de l’activité nationale et internationale. Et ils souffrent en tant que libraires, de la crise spécifique qui frappe les livres dans un monde où l’écrit est battu en brèche par la télévision et par l’électronique. Menacés par la dépression, menacés par la montée des images et par les grandes surfaces, les libraires ont le sentiment d’exercer une profession sur le point d’être sinistrée. La télévision joue à l’égard des livres un rôle apparemment ambigu et en vérité dévastateur. D’un côté — de moins en moins souvent —, elle aide leur diffusion et chacun connaît les noms des grandes émissions littéraires à la télévision ; de l’autre, elle n’a pas d’autres choix que de transformer la littérature en spectacle. Il peut


lui arriver de changer en vedettes des écrivains et des livres, mais sa nature est de mordre sur le temps de la lecture et de la dévaluer. Elle parle trop rarement de littérature et, sauf exceptions éclatantes, même quand elle en parle, elle l’aplatit, elle la déforme, elle la détruit presque aussi sûrement que par le silence. Les grandes surfaces, de leur côté, jouent un rôle important et légitime dans la diffusion des livres, mais elles ne peuvent pas remplacer le libraire dans le contact familier et confiant avec les oeuvres, dans ce rôle de conseiller et d’ami, presque de médecin et de confesseur, qui a si longtemps été le sien. Elles ne le remplacent pas, mais elles restreignent son domaine. Face à la crise, face à la télévision, face aux grandes surfaces, les libraires, aujourd’hui, sont dans un péril mortel. Tous ceux qui aiment les livres, tous ceux qui y trouvent un des plaisirs les plus délicieux qui soient et une consolation à tous les chagrins de la vie, doivent aider les libraires. Les fêtes approchent. Offrez les livres que vous aimez à ceux que vous aimez. Et si vous ne savez pas ce que vous aimez, votre libraire vous aidera. Il ne vous aidera peut-être pas à trouver des gens à aimer, mais il vous aidera, à coup sûr, à trouver des livres à aimer. C’est un grand bonheur dans les temps incertains.

Ex libris

When away from books, manuscripts and dazzling illuminations, and with a few days to spare along the eastern ribs of France, make sure you tick the following: a. visit (at least) a Romanesque basilica in Burgundy; b. stop for (at least one) wine-tasting along the Côte d’Or; c. Move from the Pinots to the pine trees in the neighbouring Alps; d. go skiing in Haute-Savoie and watch the world from an altitude of 3230m.

The church of St Philibert of Tournus, built in the early 11th century as a Benedictine abbey, is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture in Burgundy.
The extensive crypt of St Philibert church of Tournus lies on the edge of revelry.
Nunc est bibendum. Clos de Vougeot is one of the wall-enclosed vineyards in Burgundy. The Château du Clos de Vougeot is to the left.
The trouble with skiing in the world’s largest ski area (Les Trois Vallées) is that it takes forever to move from one valley to another.
Looking south from Mont du Vallon (2952m).
Méribel Mottaret (1750m) lies nicely between the two extremes of the Les Trois Vallées area (700km of slopes).



To hold and to cherish… a medieval book

As discussed in a previous post, there are many ways to hold a book in the Middle Ages. The collection of Romanesque sculpture at the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse offers an interesting take on the subject of fashionably holding a book in the early 12th century.

Let’s start on familiar ground (below). There is nothing wrong with crossing one’s legs if (and only if) the book one’s holding is a quarto format, conveniently held with one hand, while the other is pointing to some important text therein. This may be called the single-author ad-pose: “please read my book”, it seems to say, “there’s only one but it will change your life, especially this passage on folio 40 recto”.

Sharing is good, but co-authoring is better. It’s easier to collaborate on a roll than on a codex (obviously, as Google Docs tells us), and when you’re happy with the results, there’s nothing wrong in showing it. One word of advice, though: don’t forget to acknowledge your colleague. This may be done by patting him or her on the back. Touching the colleague’s shoulder, however, may be construed as an acknowledgment of inferiority. He or she may have done most of the work, but don’t be so self-effacing. Even limestone gets a certain luster with time.

You might think of going to the other extreme. There is room for two authors in the world of medieval letters, you know. No need to be so dismissive of your rival. And remember: a closed book is no way inferior to an open one. If anything, it might be more mysterious and might sell better (or simply get copied more) than one which has nothing to hide. On the other hand, if you offered to help with the proofs but were turned down, you may certainly show your contempt with the right hand. Or you may end up in a book-holding beauty pageant. If you do, then make sure you cross your legs (or at least bend a knee), oil your beard and smile.

There’s always the thorny question of which one is better, the codex or the roll. If you ask Peter of Poitiers, he will tell you it’s the roll, and everyone at the Exchequer would approve. Everyone else, however, would be of the opinion that a rolling roll gathers a great deal of moss in the library cupboards and is becomes useless. If we’re looking at the problem in terms of tablets vs soundbite-phylacteries, however, then we might find room for both. The medievals were a lot more postmodern that we give them credit for.

Nota benissime: The above photos are copyright Daniel Martin of I took photos of my own when I was in Toulouse in January 2018, but they’re nothing compared to these. Also, the sculptures may be dated to 1120-1140 AD, but the artist remains unknown.

Where did Dante’s Empyrean come from?

Image result for dante empyrean

Perhaps the most artistically and textually advanced passage in Dante’s Commedia is the description of the Empyrean, a place which doesn’t exist materially, beyond space and time. The Dante Encyclopedia defines it as follows:

The tenth and highest heaven, encompassing all creation (< Greek empyrios, fiery). Unlike the other nine heavens, or moving celestial spheres, the Empyrean is immaterial, the ninth heaven or Primum Mobile being the maggior corpo, the “greatest body”. The Empyrean is pure (intellectual) light, love, and joy; the divine mind itself; and the abode of God, angels, and the blessed.’

Immaterial and uncreated, the Empyrean doesn’t exist in time and space. It is immobile, it lacks nothing, and is the place where the medieval metaphysics of light finds expression: God as self-radiant; Creation as the reflection of divine light; light bridging matter and spirit, the common substantial form of everything; the human intellect as active and radiant. The Empyrean is the Divine Mind, the ground of being (not being a sphere like the other heavens, it is the splendor of God’s mind); it does not determine identity, but instead it is the reality within which the determination of identify occurs. The most luminous heaven, it suffers nothing to be outside itself, except God’s ‘uninflected verb ‘to be’. Critically relevant to humanity, it is the ‘place’ where the ‘transhumanizing’ (Dante’s word is transumanare) or the ‘inGoding’ (indiare) of the human individual is accomplished. In the Commedia, the pilgrim’s arrival in the Empyrean amounts to an existential explosion, a luminous supernova which dissolves being, feeling and text. It is the end of the journey, the end of the poem.

How did the Empyrean develop into the concept that Dante inherited and transformed in his poem? The Dante scholar Christian Moevs writes:

The doctrine of the Empyrean gained currency only in the twelfth century, when the widely diffused Glossa ordinaria explain the first verse of Genesis (In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram) by saying, “Not the visible firmament, but the Empyrean, that is, the fiery or intellectual heaven, which is so called not because of its burning but because of its splendor, since it was immediately filled with angels.” Echoed by Peter Lombard in the Sentences (2.2.4), the Glossa ordinaria’s definition of the Empyrean was absorbed into Scholastic philosophy, albeit as a more or less malleable concept based, as Aquinas remarks in the Summa theologiae (1a.61.4), on theological tradition rather than on scriptural authority.

With the sudden infusion of Greco-Arabic learning into Christian thought at the end of the twelfth century (Ptolemy’s Almagest was translated from Greek in Sicily in 1160, and from Arabic by Gherardo da Cremona in 1175; the Liber de motus celorum of Alpetragius [al-Bitruji], which defended the original Aristotelian system, was translated by Michael Scot in 1217), the seven heavens (air, ether, olympus, spacium igneum, firmament, acqueous [crystalline] heaven, and Empyrean or heaven of angels) common in pre-Scholastic cosmologies were replaced by the ten known to Dante: the nine mobile heavens of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system, plus the Empyrean.

For all its magnitude and splendor, the Empyrean has humble beginnings: it emerges as a gloss on Genesis. I have been looking at glossed Bibles recently (see my article on the British Library medieval manuscripts blog and the one on this website), and my eyes fell on the ‘birth-certificate’ gloss on the Empyrean. Glossed Bibles developed during the 12th century as a convenient way to set the text of the Bible and a commentary on the same page in the manuscript. It evolved from a few explanations to a running commentary, almost eclipsing the text of the Scripture. The Empyrean belongs to the early phase of glossing, when the theologian Anselm of Laon (1050-1117) and his collaborators compiled a set of explanations on the text of different books of the Bible drawn from the works of the Church fathers, but also including their own exegesis. Most glosses were linked to their respective sources, so for example, there were comments from St Augustine, St Jerome or Bede. Their names were added alongside their glosses, and therefore a system similar to modern footnotes was developed. The gloss about the Empyrean, however, was not linked to a name, which suggests that it was Anselm’s (or one of his biblical scholar colleagues’ from Laon cathedral) own reflection. The gloss explains the first verse from the book of Genesis:

In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram (In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth). The gloss goes on to explain the passage:

Celum non visibile firmamentum sed empiraeum id est igneum vel intellectuale quod non ab ardore sed a splendore dicitur quod statim repletum est angelis. 

Not the visible firmament, but the Empyrean, that is, the fiery or intellectual heaven, which is so called not because of its burning but because of its splendor, since it was immediately filled with angels.

The gloss also gives a justification for the word ‘Empyrean’ in the form of a compiled quotation from the Old Testament book of Job (38:7):

Unde in Iob:  « Ubi eras cum me laudarent astra matutina, etc.

Whence in Job: ‘Where were you when the morning stars praised me together, etc

The key to this passage follows immediately:

Et nota tria hic commemorari elementa. Nomine celi aerem intelligimus. Nomine terrae ipsam et ignem qui in ea latet.

And note that three elements are here remembered: by the word ‘heaven’ we mean the air; by the word ‘earth’ [we mean] the earth itself and the fire which is hidden within it.

‘Empyrean comes from the Greek word empyrios, meaning fiery, as mentioned above. As the ‘fire’ that the gloss mentions is not referenced in the quote from the book of Job, it is unlikely that the Laon theologians coined the word ‘Empyrean’. It appears, however, the Latin word ’empiraeum’ was first used (and perhaps coined) by the Neoplatonist writer Martianus Capella (360-428), to refer to a luminous “Empyrean realm of pure understanding” beyond the borders of the sensible world. It also appears that the word ’empiraeum’ lay dormant from the 5th to the 12th centuries until the Laon gloss established it as a canonical interpretative key to the first sentence from Genesis.

In a manuscript from the Abbey of St Victor in Paris (now Paris, BNF, Latin 14399), the gloss is aligned with the beautiful initial ‘I’ of the words ‘In principio’ of the Genesis verse.

Paris, BNF, Latin 14399, f. 5v

Heavily abbreviated otherwise, the gloss contains the word ’empireum’ in unabbreviated form (highlighting is mine):

Paris, BNF, Latin 14399, f. 5v (in focus)

On the existential subjunctive mood

My students find it hard to grasp the need for the Latin subjunctive. This also means they cannot accept uncertainty. They are young, why should they? Why should they accept the undeterminedness of life, the unreliability of existence? The human predicament is the only predication on the indicative mode. Everything else is subjunctive, and these young, flowering minds should not bother themselves with the modals: what ought to be, what could, or should, or must be, even what shall be? These are questions for later; let these youth bathe in the simple paratax, devoid of periods, subordinates, subordination and submission, under the Olympian sovereignty of the active voice and personal verbs . There’s nothing pluperfect, more than perfect about the subjunctive, so why bother? Let these young masters rule for the moment, let them be the force in their own lives and in the language they are. All is good, but then an hour passes and the students start asking questions about if clauses – si aliter fecissem, if I had done it differently. And then they graduate into tedium.