Visual Representation and Science: Visual Figures of the Universe between Antiquity and the Early Thirteenth Century

Barbara Obrist


The paper raises the question of the function of visual representations in medieval cosmographical texts. It proposes to view diverse functions of figures in relation to changing discursive environments, including differing philosophical positions and changing social and intellectual contexts. It further suggests a distinction between figures that were elaborated within the highly specialized disciplines of mathematics and philosophy of nature in Greek Antiquity and figures that were instrumental in transmitting accepted world models, thus avoiding the opposition between scientific and unscientific types of verbal and pictorial documents. Simplifying changes, when figures are abstracted form their geometrical context and accompany doxographical, descriptive accounts, are characterized in terms of schematization. Concomitantly, mathematical and philosophical demonstrations tend to give way to proofs of a predominantly rhetorical nature: images are verbally construed and, in order to enhance these, actual visual figures— mostly linear, diagrammatic constructs—are added. With regard to the Middle Ages, the paper distinguishes two principal periods: the period from the seventh to the eleventh century and the period of the so-called twelfth-century Renaissance. First, the verbal and pictorial cosmological corpus of Roman origin gave rise to explanations and variations but not to consequential theoretical developments and cosmological diagrams tended to fuse with summarizing tables at this time. Then, during the twelfth century, mathematical and philosophical documents of a specialized kind that were translated from the Arabic and also from the Greek became available in the Latin West. In mathematics, specialized types of study remained, however, sparse. Continuous elaborations of the assimilated material set in later only, within the thirteenth-century university context. Nevertheless, twelfth-century authors of cosmographical accounts became increasingly aware that their expositions and visual figures were ultimately derived from geometrical models of the universe. More diversified types of demonstration and corresponding visual figures were being used, as exemplified by William of Conches’ Dragmaticon philosophiae.

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