The fancy, the scientific and the strange: antique book illustrations and theories

Illustrations of codices and other old books bespeak about doctrines and ideas of a certain period of time, besides the artists’ aesthetical tastes. In certain eras, people thought that beauty originated from God and that it was the artists’ responsibility to reflect God’s glory on works of art appropriately. Thus, they made certain masterpieces with especially great sense of responsibility and carefulness.

lead_kódex_20200319_d10b7 Tractatus de mathesi, 1640, Gradualis Romano-Augustini Pars, Miscellanea philosophica - ELTE Egyetemi Könyvtár és Levéltár, PDM

Copernican turn: people realised that the Earth is not the centre of the world


Tractatus de mathesi, 1640 - ELTE Egyetemi Könyvtár és Levéltár, PDM

Copernicus’s work “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” was published in 1543, and became one of the most significant books in the western culture. The book and the story connected to it is an excellent sample of every situation, in which a daringly new idea is undertaken in a way that its creator is willing to protest against the representatives of the ruling opinions, despite fierce negative reactions and prosecutions. In Copernicus’s case, this turn was that he undertook his opinion that the celestial bodies, the planets, the Sun and the stars do not revolve around the Earth, but around the Sun: “definitely, enthroning on its royal place the Sun governs the family of stars surrounding it”. The depiction in this image was made already in accordance with Copernicus’s theory. 


Tractatus de mathesi, 1640 - ELTE Egyetemi Könyvtár és Levéltár, PDM

The beauty that originates from God

Cod_Lat_0017_11_o_a.jpgAs it is showed well in the ornate pictures of medieval manuscripts, beauty played an important role in the values of their makers. But during their reflections, they did not only deal with beauty but also with its essence and origin. According to the ideas in Saint Augustine’s works, beauty originates from God. The theory says that God, as a supernatural being, also created beauty besides creatures. According to this theory, beauty manifests itself in the fine harmony in the proportion of body parts of creatures created by God; so it is based on mathematical continuities:

“The splendor of actual form is found in the proportioned parts of a material thing. Beauty has three very important formal characteristics: radiance of being, integrity and proportion.” – Albertus Magnus


Gradualis Romano-Augustini Pars - 1301 - ELTE Egyetemi Könyvtár és Levéltár, PDM 

Saint Thomas Aquinas’s idea brought a radical turn in the perception of beauty. He defined the main aspects of beauty as manifestations of divine principles and typical characteristics like harmonious integrity, formal perfection or the clear transparency.


Tractatus de mathesi, 1640 - ELTE Egyetemi Könyvtár és Levéltár, PDM

The visible world as representation of an invisible one


According to another theory, there is another world that is invisible to people, and that is the real and original one, the paragon of the earthly world. 

 „For it is not possible for our mind to be raised to that immaterial representation and contemplation of the Heavenly Hierarchies, without using the material guidance suitable to itself, accounting the visible  beauties as reflections of the invisible comeliness; and the sweet  odours of the senses as emblems of the spiritual distribution; and the material lights as a likeness of the gift of the immaterial enlightenment.” – Hugh of Saint Victor's Commentary on the Dionysian Celestial Hierarchy


Gradualis Romano-Augustini Pars - 1301 - ELTE Egyetemi Könyvtár és Levéltár, PDM

This theological theory was probably based on a stage in the Bible – that had been written much earlier – and which says that the visible world with its beauties was created as a paragon of an invisible world:

“Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God; so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” – Paul’s Epistles to the Hebrews 11, 1-7


Miscellanea humanistica - 1301 - ELTE Egyetemi Könyvtár és Levéltár, PDM

E_4__0013_14_22.jpgCuriously, the theory of the parallel existence of the visible and invisible worlds seem to be supported by modern astronomical theories, which say that only 15% of our universe consist of physically visible (made out of atoms) materials, while the other part (85%) is invisible, so called dark matter. This theory is based on computing, mathematical models and computer simulation models, which show that the galaxies of the universe do not have enough gravitation power to keep their planetary systems in orderly state on their places. Thus, astronomers suppose, there has to be a converging power that keeps them on their places. This is called dark matter.

Erdélyi Károly

Translated by Zita Aknai



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