Turning the Lense Around: from Details to Context...


(Thanks to Michael Hurst we now have a better scan of this image). This is a page from the Dialogue Praising the Holy Cross (Regensburg-Prüfening, Germany, 1170–80). The main purpose of this text was to establish how the idea of the crucifixion, or the Holy Cross, was already present in the Old Testament. The whole book is a prodigy of medieval symmetry, and that is precisely the reason why I like it so much. What I like about this specific page I am attaching here is that the first level of symmetry, the visual, literal one, is extremely clear. From that level on all the other levels are elicited in the viewers mind.

The Metropolitan Museum’s site says it very well: “The work is notable for its relentless focus on the cross, which serves as the mechanism to trigger associations between the New Testament and Old.” (Bolds are mine).

If we divide the page in three vertical sections, we see Aaron’s staff being paired with Moses keeping his arms raised to help Israel win in Battle againts the Amalekyte (he is been helped by Aaron and Hur). The analogical relationships -or symmetries- are exquisite: Moses stands like a tree, resembling Aaron’s staff. Both the flowered three/staff and the penitent Moses resemble the cross (Moses is even paired with two men as two thieves). The staff sprouts flowers like Jesus’s hands sprout blood.

On the second section we have a symmetrical composition (we are told to think symmetrically by a symmetric image!): two figures (both Moses) poke the ground with their staffs, both separated by eight animals disposed in two parallel rows. The ground springing water has symmetry with the bush sprouting flowers and therefore, with Christ pouring blood. These eight animals are the only ones suitable for sacrifice under the Jewish law. These lambs and rams have symmetry with Jesus and with Moses’ holding is arms up in the upper section of the page. Moses himself, performing miracles with his staff -the staff has symmetry with the cross- “... strikes his wooden staff on a rock twice to bring forth water for the thirsty children of Israel in the desert, an act that conjures up the two pieces of wood used to make the cross on which Christ was crucified. In the same vein, just as Moses staff taps a source of water, so too does the cross taps the source of life, that is, Christ.” (That is from the exhibition’s catalogue. The text are by Melanie Holcomb, the exhibition’s curator).

Finally, the third section shows two men carrying grapes and two men carrying cups with wine. Again, the grapes have symmetry with the wine and the wine has symmetry with he Holly Communion, which also has symmetry with the blood of Christ, his sacrifice, the sacrificial animals on section two, the pouring of water from stones after Moses hits them with his staff, the sprout of flowers from Aaron’s staff, and Moses’s sacrifice on keeping his arms -and the staff- up along the whole battle as it is shown in the first section. Everything in that page has symmetry with everything, or in my words, everything talks to everything! On top of this, it all has symmetry with the cross. Quoting Holcomb again:

“This network of interrelated events, the fruit of the sort of associative play that engaged medieval minds, further reinforces the notion of the marvelously crafted coherence of the biblical history”.

What makes the notion of symmetry so powerful is how interactive it does make any didactic tool. Both text and image combine to elicit in the reader’s mind all sort of references to the Bible. So reading, or looking at the pages of the book, becomes an exciting process in which our attention is renewed step by step. By the way, there is nothing obscure or arcane in this process, there is nothing to decode. The visual language of medieval symmetries intended to be didactic, and obvious!

For me, the notion of symmetry is crucial to point out how an understanding of the tarot history isn’t at odds with the divinatory use we make of him today, but it makes evident how the tarot must be read. Our personal story has symmetry with the tarot’s story, expressed in a selection of random cards. But our story isn’t detached from the rest of the world. It has symmetry with the summa of salvation depicted in the tarot. So, no matter the cards we get -and I suspect that mixing the deck serves the purpose of renewing or keeping our attention engaged, this is, from an storytelling point of view- our story has the trumps cycle’s morality play as frame of reference, which means we are never completely lost.

The whole tarot’s design is brilliant, but it is also useful. It is art inspiring in his viewers the notions it represents, because it runs on a language of shape, that of symmetries, that is absolutely remarkable at engaging the human mind in such a way that it is, still today, completely relevant under the light of what we now know about the brain.

Precisely and since symmetries are everywhere, today I saw this talk posted at TED:

http://www.ted.com/talks/tom_wujec_on_3 ... aning.html

The main caveat here is that the brain doesn’t only makes meaning through visual input, but when it comes to images and symmetry as a language of shape, Tom Wujec’s analysis applies perfectly. When, around minute 4:12, he suggest to:

- Use images to clarify ideas

- Interact with images to create engagement

- Augment memories with persisting and evolving views

He seem to be talking about all these things that medieval artist were already doing!

By privileging imagery where written world was useless medieval artist crafted a very rich, and clear, language. Then, by designing their works in such a way that anything can symmetrically resonate with anything, and everything would have symmetry with the Bible, these artist made sure the whole process of seeing, or reading images, engaged the viewer by being interactive. The use of drawing in narrative alignments was a mean to trigger associations between any text and any experience and the Bible. Finally, it was because it had the Bible as its navel that this network of symmetries could become memorable, in a persisting yet personalizable way, since the Bible isn’t other thing but series of ‘Aha! Moments’ as Tom Wujec would describe those mental models we all create via moments of discovery. Works like The Bible, the Iliad or the Arabian Nights are that: a collection of memorable mental models.

The whole thing is kind of funny in that, as I pointed out before, what all of our scanners and technologies seem to be doing is to provide us with a factual, colorful, understanding of how the brain works and how the mind created meaning that is simply validating what the work of medieval artists was intuiting and asking to its audience.


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