Sanctity, vision, science, ecology and the creativity of diagrams

[ by Charles Cameron — of [almost] no military or intelligence interest, this is a post for computer scientists, historians, scientists, artists, contemplatives and other creatives ]


I’ve been on a bit of a binge about medieval and renaissance diagrams recently, putting together an anthology of early “semantic networks” for the Sembl game site – but also thinking about the alternate track of art history which would focus on diagrams rather than paintings (I’m thinking of two dimensions here, hence no mention of sculpture) – an alternate history which may have something to teach our richly diagrammatic and data-visual times.

My interest in all this tracks back at least to my early encounter with an essay by the computer scientist Margaret Masterman in Theoria to Theory (1967).


Yesterday brought me a post from Jason Wells, a scientist and bright all-rounder I follow on Google+, in which he posted an image of the cosmos from the Ptolemaic (pre-Copernical) point of view, which I’ve put at the head of this post.

Jason commented on this diagram:

As pretty as this is, this is not how your universe works.

That is all.

The diagram Jason posted purports to be mathematically and astronomically based: it is, if you like, a quantitative diagram. I don’t happen to think it’s pretty, although the two creatures (angels, goddesses?) up towards the top of the circle may be, and the serpent eating its tail around it is nicely done -– I think it has a rather austere beauty to be honest, but I’m likely to concede to Jason that it isn’t “true” in the sense of being an accurate representation of the (abstract) laws of celestial motion.

But then I also think there’s more to truth than accuracy, useful though that may be – there’s also a qualitative element to truth, and perhaps “beauty” is (among other things) a name for it.


Yesterday also brought me a news bulletin that ties into that same interest in medieval and renaissance diagrams. From the Vatican Information Service (via Chant Cafe) , we learn that Hildegarde of Bingen (1098 – 1179) is now a saint of the Catholic Church with universal cultus:

Vatican City, 10 May 2012 (VIS) – The Holy Father today received in audience Cardinal Angelo Amato S.D.B., prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. During the audience he extended the liturgical cult of St. Hildegard of Bingen (1089-1179) to the universal Church, inscribing her in the catalogue of saints.

Consider, then, in contrast to Jason’s mechanistic Ptolemaic diagram, this diagram which today’s fresh-minted saint produced in the late 1140s or early 1150s to illustrate her visionary intuitions of the universe in the first of three books, Scivias:

and these two, from Liber divinorum operum:

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