Date of Degree
Kathryn A. Smith
Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Art and Architecture | Arts and Humanities | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology
cosmology; diagrams; encyclopedias; history of science and technology
Diagrams blur the line between text and image; they are both tools for communicating linguistic meaning and powerfully evocative visual forms. However, scholarship on medieval diagrams has focused primarily on their didactic functions, emphasizing the ways in which monks and other scholars used diagrams as tools for learning—about everything from Christian theology to ancient philosophy—and for developing modes of thought that support such learning. In the late Middle Ages, as education expanded beyond the realm of the intellectual elite, new book types emerged. One of which, the encyclopedia, endeavored to simultaneously instruct and delight a broader, non-monastic and non-scholastic audience, including court society and a burgeoning merchant class. In this new manuscript context, diagrams supported didacticism, but surpassed their role as instruments of learning; they became sensuous art objects that incited wonder for knowledge itself.
One particular encyclopedia, the Breviari d’amor (Occitan, ca. 1288-1292), takes an original artistic approach. With over two hundred images in complete manuscripts, the Breviari is a highly inventive “visual encyclopedia,” a spectacular manifestation of the idea of the encyclopedia as a “mirror” to the world. Its vast cycle of imagery accompanies a summa of knowledge framed around the concept of love—a historically contingent idea defined in this work by its permeation through three branches of thought: natural philosophy, Christian history, and fin’amor (courtly love) ethics. Of its vast cycle of imagery, the Breviari’s series of cosmological schemata stand out as the most visually stunning, inventive, and original; unlike the narrative and figural scenes pertaining to Christian history, they are unparalleled in late-medieval manuscript culture.
This dissertation reveals the ways in which late-medieval encyclopedic diagrams are more than mere learning aids for introductory scholastic education, elucidating numerous aspects that parallel, exceed, and/or contradict epistemic instrumentality. Crucially, the Breviari’s cosmological diagrams prompt consideration of the artistic potentiality of schematic forms, as their dynamic compositions, luxurious coloration, and patterned ornamentation rival the finest illuminations of their time. Their spectacular qualities are achieved through intervisual connections with arts in other media; these diagrams integrate elements from elite materials like sumptuous metalwork and textile, as well as more utilitarian objects like state-of-the art scientific technology. In the meta-context of the encyclopedia, these intervisual connections negotiate the special place of the diagrammatic, as a mode of representation, in the pursuit of knowledge. But they are also often incomprehensible—whether due to corruptions or by design, whether because of their overwhelming complexity or their arresting sensorial appeal. Thus, this dissertation argues, these diagrams express a historically contingent type of wonder rife with contradiction: they both invite intellectual engagement and confound understanding; they both celebrate facts and revel in the mysteries of the natural cosmos.
Partridge, Joy, "Visualizing Knowledge in the Illuminated Manuscripts of the Breviari d’amor" (2018). CUNY Academic Works.