9. Continents

The four parts of the world

The notion of four parts of the world dates back to Antiquity and was based on ‘a priori‘ ideas closely related to the four-fold way of thinking. When the first outlines of a European cultural identity took shape, these impressions were still in existence. On the earliest known, oval-shaped oekumene-map of Isidore of Seville – dated in 775 A.D. – a great island is drawn to complement the four-division with the antipode-continent. The written text says: ‘Insula incognita enim sunt IIII partes mundi‘ (VERRYKEN, 1990). Reality is forced here into a conceptual scheme, because nothing was known of the ‘insula incognita‘ (fig. 37).


Fig. 37 – The Vatican world map of Isidore of Seville, dated 775 A.D. The elongated island in the left-hand corner carries the inscription: ‘Insula incognita enim sunt IIII partes mundi‘, referring to a conceptual world view based on four parts. The city of Jerusalem is schematically drawn near the centre. The rivers of Paradise are clearly visible to the right.

After the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the conceptual four-part world turned out to be true. Because of the structural and metaphorical background, the four parts of the world (Europe, Africa, Asia and America) caught on very fast. The expression was popular by the Jesuits in the Contra-Reformation of the sixteenth century to indicate the long-known truth of a christian unity on the earth and a reference to a ‘holy’ fourfold-division thereof.

The symbolic expression of the parts of the world is pioneered by Cesare Ripa, in his ‘Iconologia‘ (1603). This book, with a wide field of influence, gave a review of a great number of abstract notions, that circulated in Europe at the time. The four parts of the world are shown as female figures in a distinct symbolic setting (fig. 38):


Fig. 38 – This symbolic representation depicts the continent Africa as a woman with a scorpio in her hand and a lion and snakes at her feet. It is part of a series of the four continents in the ‘Iconologia‘, an influential book by Cesare Ripa, printed in 1603.

HYDE (1924/1927) made a specialized study of the pictures of the four continents in theater- and ballet form. One of the publications opens with the appeal: ‘The author would be grateful for any information about symbolical representations of the Four Quarters of the World in the Fine and Applied Arts’.

The heydays for the representations of the continents are in the early seventeenth century. The symbolic forms of Europe, Asia, Africa and America are depicted on wall-paintings, ceilings, tapestry (fig. 39), folding screens, etchings and paintings.


Fig. 39 – The four parts of the world are used here as designs of four tapestries by G. Maes, executed by J. van der Beurght in Bruxelles. End of the seventeenth century. Top left: Europe as a queen with the horn of plenty (cornucopia). This horn was the symbol of Fortune, the Roman goddess, shaped after Tyche. The Greek mythical roots lay by Amaltheia, the goat which fed Zeus and became a ‘cornu copiae‘. Top right: Asia with a pagoda; Bottom left: Africa, with a pyramid; Bottom right: America with exotica. Collection J.H. Hyde, Paris.

The symbolism of the continents is often supported by the following characteristics (HALL, 1974)(fig. 40):

1. Europe – Queen of the world, with crown and sceptre; temple (relation to religion); arms-array – horse or bull; horn of plenty (cornucopia), reference to art and science.

2. Asia – Flowers, jewels; odours – perfumes from the East; palm and camel.

3. Africa  – Person with black skin, coral beats; scorpio; lion/ snake; head of an elephant.

4. America – Native inhabitant with feather headdress; bow and arrow; caiman/ crocodile.


Fig. 40 – The four parts of the world and its animal symbolism: Europe with a horse, Africa with an elephant, a camel for Asia and a panther-like animal for America. End of the seventeenth century. Panneaux d’Aubusson royal. Collection J.H. Hyde, Paris.

The theme is elaborated in books and plays. CHEW (1962) mentioned, in an interesting commentary of that period, the ‘tedious allegorical drama’ of Barten Holyday, titled ‘Technogamia, or the Marriages of the Arts‘ (1618). The tetradic thoughts are reduced in this period of the European cultural history to mythological paraphernalia. On the ‘fêtes galantes‘ only  the exterior remains of the tetradic world are used. The symbols are known, but the world in which they originate, seems to be forgotten (fig. 41).

guerra d'amore

Fig. 41 – La Guerra d’Amore. A symbolic parade in the seventeenth century representing the continents. Etching of Jacques Callot (Florence, 1616), working at the court of the Medici. The seventeenth century was for many countries in Europe, despite the continuing struggles in the first half of it, a ‘Golden Age’, with hitherto unknown material wealth and a feeling of power and command. A fourfold division was often demonstrated, but in a far more symbolic way than in the twelfth century. It was not felt as a basic starting-point for a communication, for which the two-fold way seemed much more appropriate and practical, but as a relict of bygone times, a living memory, used in plays.

Some ten years after the enacting of the ‘la Guerra d’Amore‘ a ballet was performed in Paris under the title ‘The Dowager of Billebahaut’ (The widow of Bilbao) for the carnaval of 1626. Daniel Rabel made several drawings of the (lost) costumes of the personifications of the continents, who played in the ballet (fig. 42).


Fig. 42 – Africa (left) and America (right). Costumes used by the ‘Ballet of the Dowager of Billebahaut’, performed at the carnaval of Paris in 1626. Pen drawings by Daniel Rabel, Louvre Museum, Paris.

Michael Maier described in his book ‘Symbola aureae mensae’ (1617) a symbolic ‘peregrinatio‘ to the four corners of the earth: the journey begins in Europe to America and Asia and finally the quest for Mercure and the phoenix ends in Africa (FRICK, 1972; pp. 572ff; JUNG, 1953/1968, p. 369).

Around 1800, as the fourfold way of thinking is revitalized, the symbolism of the four continents is strongly represented. Schlegel complained in his ‘Cours d’histoire universelle‘ (1805 – 1806):

It should be noted that in our time the division in the four parts of the world is overemphasized and used to compare different kind of nations; it has gone so far as to apply the division in South, North, East and West not only to physical but also moralistic entities.’

While the two-fold division is so much easier: ‘It is better to distinguish only two parts of the world, the North and the South’ (ANSTETT, 1939). East and west are, in Schlegel’s approach, only ‘relative’, and north and south are fixed. It seems like a voice from the past, a memory of the years of Absolutism, when people thought that things were fixed and acted accordingly. By the start of the nineteenth century, this time was over and the last great cultural change was about to happen.

Schlegel’s contemporary F.W.J. von Schelling (1775 – 1854) had strong ties with the tetradic thoughts, sometimes with a relapse into numerology. He was, in his later life, influenced by Jacob Boehme (1575 – 1624), the German alchemist (BROWN, 1977).

Von Schelling considered the four parts of the world and the four directions as a basic division-method. He applied this scheme to the four elements nitrogen (N), carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) by placing them in a quinquennial position with water as an undifferentiated medium in the middle (DÜSING, 1988).

As a possible source is pointed to a publication of Franz von Baader (1765 – 1841): Über das pythagoräische Quadrat in der Natur oder die vier Weltgegenden‘ (Tübingen, 1798). This reference has not yet been found. Access to the work of von Baader is provided by Eugène SUSINI (1967), who edited his correspondence (in six volumes between 1943 and 1983). The activities as a mining engineer in Schwabing (near Münich) and his political manipulations played a more important part in this correspondence than his philosophical thoughts.

Von Baader’s main publications were mentioned in a letter from 1819: ‘Beyträge zur dinamischen Philosophie’, a ‘Begründung der Ethik‘, an essay on the French revolution, contributions to Von Schelling’s ‘Journal‘ and a publication titled Über die Vierzahl des Lebens‘ (Berlin, 1818). His ‘Fermenta cognitionis‘ was published between 1822 en 1825, and referred to Jacob Boehme as a source of inspiration.

ANSTETT,  Jean-Jacques  (1939).  Cours d’histoire universelle (1805  –  1806).  Friedrich Schlegel. These l’université de Paris. Imprimerie de Trevoux.

BROWN, Robert F. (1977). The Later Philosophy of Schelling. The Influence of Boehme on the Works of 1809 – 1805. Brucknell University Press, Lewisburg.

CHEW, Samuel C. (1961). The Allegorical Chariot in English Literature of the Renaissance.  In: MEISS, Millard (Ed.) De Artibus Opuscula   XL. Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky. Vol. I. New York University Press, New York.

  –  (1962). The Pilgrimage of Life. Yale University Press, New Haven/London. LCCC 62-8239

DÜSING, Klaus (Ed.) (1988). Schellings und Hegels erste absolute Metaphysik (1801 – 1802). Zusammenfassende Vorlesungsnachschriften von I.P.V. TROXLER. Text von Troxlers Nachschriften der Vorlesung Schellings vom Sommersemester 1801 und der Vorlesung Hegels vom Wintersemester 1801/1802. Jürgen Dinter, Verlag für Philosophie, Köln. ISBN 3-924794-6-5

FRICK, Karl R.H. (1972). Michael Maier’s ‘Symbola Avreae Mensae Dvodecim Nationvm’ (1617) (Facs.). Akademische Druck- u. Verlaganstalt, Graz, Austria.

HALL, James (1974).  Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. John Murray, London. ISBN 0 7195 3103 9

HYDE, James H. (1924). L’Iconographie des Quatre Parties du Monde dans les tapisseries. Extrait de la Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

–  (1927). The four parts of the world as represented in old-time pageants and ballets. Apollo. A Journal of the Arts, London

JUNG, Carl G. (1953/1968). The Spirit Mercurius. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung,  Vol. 13. Bollinger Series XX, New York. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

SUSINI, Eugène (1967). Lettres inédites de Franz von Baader. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris. Publications de la faculté des lettres et sciences humaines de Paris-Sorbonne. Serie ‘Textes et Docu-ments’. Tome XVI.

VERRYCKEN, Amber (1990). De middeleeuwse wereldverkenning. Dossiers geschiedenis; nr. 15. Acco Leuven/Amersfoort. ISBN 90-334-221-5

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