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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:


These, I take it, are purely qualitative images in contrast to the Ptolemaic diagram — making no propositional claims as to physical or mathematical accuracy, but portraying Hildegarde’s sense of cosmic order. And just as we would not argue whether it is Van Gogh or El Greco who is “right” about the skies in their respective paintings, so I don’t think Hildegarde is worried about which of her diagrams is “right” in its portrayal of the world she lived and prayed in – each one illustrates some aspect of her vision of the world, and one does not necessarily contradict another.


Here are two descriptions of Hildegarde’s world, which may give us some insight into the diagrams above. For the top one:

For Hildegard of Bingen, twelfth century German Benedictine abbess, the universe is like an egg in the womb of God. Her view of the universe, conditioned as it is by her times and her education, represents her visionary understanding of God’s motherhood of this sphere that we call the universe. Hers is a view that is organic and holistic, coloured neither by Greek philosophy nor Enlightenment rationalism, refreshing and strikingly “true” in its perceptions around the source of created life.

Jean Evans, RSM, Viriditas and Veritas: The Ecological Prophets Hildegard of Bingen and Miriam Therese MacGillis, OP

And for the third:

God created the world out of the four elements, to glorify His name. He strengthened the world with the wind. He connected the world to the stars. And he filled the world with all kinds of creatures. He then put human beings throughout the world, giving them great power as stewards of all Creation. Human beings cannot live without the rest of nature, they must care for all natural things.

von Bingen, Physica, 755, quoted in Stephanie Roth, The Cosmic Vision of Hildegard of Bingen,” The Ecologist 30, no. 1 (2000).

It’s probably worth mentioning that three of the “four elements” of the ancients are still known to us, though we call them “states” rather than “elements” at this point — the solid, liquid and gaseous states correspond with what the ancients called “earth”, “water” and “air”, respectively — and it has even been suggested that their “fire” corresponds to the fourth state we now term “plasmas” — not my line of business, however, so who knows?


Hildegarde picked up the word “viriditas” from Gregory the Great and made it peculiarly her own. It means greeness, literally, and freshness by extension — but for Hildegarde’s integral view of all that is, it also carries a theological dimension, Christ being the greening of the world for her:

For Hildegard, viriditas was an attribute of the Divine nature, a reflection of God’s goodness and beauty. It stood for vitality, fertility, fruitfulness and growth; in fact all the things that we now associate with the “greenness” of nature. For us today “greenness” is a sign that the Earth is healthy and flourishing. Similarly, for Hildegard, viriditas was synonymous with physical and spiritual health, with the continuing vivifying force of the Holy Spirit.
Dr Carmel Bendon Davis, Hildegard of Bingen: Eco-warrior and Superwoman

This greening or freshening is not, for Hildegarde, just a matter of earth and water, of river and forest, it is also infused with fire and air:

I am likewise the fiery life of the substance of divinity. I flame over the beauty of the fields and sparkle in the waters, and I burn in sun, moon, and stars. And with an airy wind that sustains all things with invisible life, I raise them up vitally. For air lives in greenness and flowers, waters flow as if alive, the sun, too, lives in his light, and when the moon comes to her decline she is kindled by his light, as it were to live again… Thus I, the fiery force, am hidden in [the winds], and they take fire from me, just as breath continually moves a man, and as a windy flame exists in fire. All of these live in their essence and are not found in death, because I am life.

Nor is it “merely” natural, it can also be found in the soul:

Understanding in the soul is like the Veriditas of the branches and the leaves of the tree

It is, in fact, neither exclusively natural nor supernatural, but non-dual.


Dylan Thomas, being a Welshman and a poet, thus has an insight that bears a family resemblance to Hildegarde’s, but phrases it in a way that leaves the “force” neither personified nor otherwise… and thus with no necessary doctrinal implication:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

Due to the idiocy of copyright, you’ll have to go elsewhere to read the whole, fine poem.

For Hildegarde, this “force” is also Christ — for he himself is the “the fiery life of the substance of divinity” — and his coming to earth a greening and freshening of a world until then barren of the love he brought.


Hildegarde was the abbess in charge of a small flotilla of nuns — but also a mystic, a visionary, philosopher, poet, painter and songstress…

Her song of creation, O Viriditas, bears comparison in spirit with St FrancisCanticle of the Sun. She writes to her “green” Christ and his “green” planet:

O greenness of God’s finger
with which God built a vineyard
that shines in heaven
as an established pillar:
You are glorious in God’s preparation.
And o height of the mountain
that will never be dispersed
in the judgment of God,
you nevertheless stand from afar as an exile,
but it is not in the power
of the armed man
to seize you.
You are glorious in God’s preparation.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit.
You are glorious in God’s preparation.

And she sets her words to the music of the times:

Indeed, her music is sung even today…

How’s that for a twelfth century statement of what we’d these days call “ecology”?


But all this risks getting far too ethereal, I have wandered far along my own epicycles from Jason Wells’ point, and methinks I should bring us back down to earth.

Dennis The Constitutional Peasant, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, meets King Arthur and complains, “What I object to is you automatically treatin’ me like an inferior.” It’s understandable — but so, perhaps, is king Arthur’s response: “Well, I am king.”

Two worldviews clash here — and in the ensuing debate, Arthurian myth meets contemporary politics:

Dennis’ Mother: Well how’d you become king, then?
Arthur: The Lady of the Lake,… [Angel chorus begins singing in background] her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. [Angel chorus ends] That is why I am your king!
Dennis: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
Arthur: Be quiet!
Dennis: You can’t expect to wield supreme power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
Arthur: Shut up!
Dennis: I mean, if I went ’round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!

Or if some bint told me the universe was a cosmic egg in the womb of God, for that matter — even if Benedict XVI did just add her to the calendar of saints.


Here you go, courtesy of YouTube:


Frankly I appreciate both modes of thinking — the mythic and the scientific — and believe we’re in the sort of territory here that Nils Bohr was thinking of when he said:

The opposite of a true statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.

For more on the story of diagrammatic and pictorial imagery in western civilization, see Ioan Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (University of Chicago, 1987). And for more diagrams from the renaissance, there’s nothing I know of better than SK Heninger, The Cosmographical Glass: Renaissance Diagrams Of The Universe (Huntington Library, 1977).

6 Responses to “Sanctity, vision, science, ecology and the creativity of diagrams”

  1. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Charles,
    Excellent post!
    In the three Hildegard images (particularly the first), I see an almost fractal quality in her work. Evans was right about an “organic and holistic” quality to her work—which is fascinating. 

  2. larrydunbar Says:

    I don’t know, I see an almost anti-fractal quality in her work. The want I see in the first is offset by the need in the other two. The third is so decentralized as to give John Robb a wet dream.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    organic and holistic: yes — and I’m glad you liked her work.
    Scott, Larry;
    almost fractal / almost anti-fractal: I’m not quite sure what either one of you is seeing that you’d describe in those terms.  Would you care to expand on your thoughts?

  4. michael robinson Says:

    Charles,  you may find much to interest you in the illustrations on the site devoted to renaissance astronomy, Starry Messenger, prepared by the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge (UK),

  5. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Charles,
    On first glance of the first, I thought of a Mandelbrot graphic…strictly speaking, not fractal or terribly similar but that was a first impression—particularly the repeated elements in the circle.
    Hi Larry,
    Agree on your assessment of the third:))
    Hi Michael,
    Thanks for sharing the link! 

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Well, that was quick.  
    On May 10, 2012, Hildegard of Bingen was named a Saint of the Catholic Church. Today, Oct 7th, St. Hildegard was formally named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI, at today’s Papal Mass [link is to .pdf of the ceremony].

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