24. In search of extremes

Around the pivotal point (1350 – 1650)

The pivotal point in the European cultural history was – arbitrary – chosen  as the year 1500 AD. This specific year can be seen in the literal meaning of the word ‘pivotal’, as the turning around a point of support. The meaning is closely related to a cyclic point of view. That is to say: it is an element of reconstruction of an observer, who realizes that his observation is made from an imaginary circle. It is necessary to define at least two points on the circle to find the centre point (pivot). The middle (of a straight line) is, on the other hand, just one position, leaving two equal parts on both sides.

The Renaissance – as the collective noun for the cultural visibility in Europe between 1350 en 1500 – formed the introduction and culmination of the period leading to the pivotal point. The Renaissance might have been, in its initial intentions, an effort to find certain markers in the past, which could provide the fixed points to ‘calculate’ the imaginary cosmological circle. It followed the directions, which were set out by Ramon Lull. However, the verbalism itself only sprang to life nearly six hundred years later, when the Swiss historian of art and literature Jacob Burkhardt (1818 – 1897) vividly expressed the concept in his book ‘Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien‘ (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy) (1860).

The geographic pluriformity of Europe offered, around the year 1500, a noticeable proof of a cultural unity: it could put its own existence in perspective, to see the past as an essential contribution to the present. ‘Renaissance means the revival of the thoughts, views, and ideals of Antiquity’ stated Rudolf ALLERS (1944) in his excellent essay on the microcosmism. The first, mature and collective move in European cultural history was the search for a new belief in the significance of things and the expectation to find the ‘code’.

However, the characteristics of the ‘Great Renaissance’ were historically distorted by later interpretations. ‘Back to the past’ was a selective process: it was mainly Platonism and Neo-Platonism which excited man like Marsilio Ficino (1433 – 1499; ‘Theologia Platonica’) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463 – 1494; ‘De Dignitate Hominis’). The emphasis was on the Ego, on man itself: ‘the true impulse toward liberation came not from a new concept of nature but from a new concept of man’s own worth’ (CASSIRER, 1927/1964; SEZNEC, 1953/1972).

Rudolf Allers described the Renaissance as a recurrent ‘historico-cultural phenomenon’, with earlier ‘rebirths’ in the ninth and twelfth century. This view of the Renaissance included all features of the classical culture: not only Plato, but also Aristotle and others. The idea of the human endeavor as a microcosmos, which was derived from the macrocosmos, provided continuity, a way to explore the circle of time.

The Renaissance was a period of growing self confidence in the cultural history of Europe. The movement started in the fourteenth and fifteenth century in Italy and found its way to the rich regions north of the Alps, in Flanders, Holland and Germany. It left a trail of observable evidence. Around 1500 there is a fanning out of styles (like Mannerism; HOCKE, 1957) and the essential humanistic spirit was surpassed by religious quarrels and reformation.

Wylie SYPHER (1955) distinguished four periods between 1400 and 1700: Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque and Late-Baroque and indicated the markers between the different style-groups. Many modern  scholars regard the Renaissance as the ‘real’ moment of visibility of the European culture. The humanistic element gave a strong bond between man and the earth  (GILMORE, 1952). The Antique examples of the Greek and Romans were studied, translated, copied and reworked, but not always understood.

PATCH (1927) characterized the period – in relation to the Goddess Fortuna – as follows: ‘Renaissance welcomes a pagan figure like the time of Augustus in Rome, it is a restless period with much traffic and discovery, much hazarding, much toying with strange gods for the very delight of their strangeness, much questioning (with little passion for an answer).’ It is, in short, a culture in search of an extension of its identity, reaching for the limits.

John RUSKIN (1910) gave, in his classical book on ‘The Stones of Venice’ a strong verdict on the unbounded energy spent in this search: ‘The desperate evil of the whole Renaissance system is, that all idea of measure is therein forgotten, that knowledge is thought the one and the only good, and it is never inquired whether men are vivified by it or paralysed.’

In other words: Ruskin missed the ‘feelings’ in the endeavors of such men as Piero della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giotto and others and despised their ‘horror vacui‘. He did not take into account, that the main concern of these men was the definition of human proportions and limitations. The study of perspective, with its mastery of mathematics, was the result of the Renaissance artist’s genuine effort to delimit nature and Leonardo’s passion for curved lines, waves, knots and doodling can be traced back to the same goal, only approaching it from an opposite direction.

The emphasis on identity is not productive for a deeper understanding of the tetradic mind. The selective search for the roots of the European unity led to a shift from the invisible to the visible. The attention was gradually focused on earthly matters in preference to the heaven, to the material rather than the immaterial. Knowledge had to be verified in facts.

The trend had started with the four books on animals by Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) – called by Robert DELORT (1974) ‘le premier veritable zoologue du Moyen Age cretien‘ (the first true zoologist in the Christian Middle Ages). Thomas of Cantimpré (1186 – 1263) depicted four hundred animals in his ‘De naturis rerum’ (1230 – 1248) and Albert the Great (1193 – 1280) ventured the first steps in ecology in his ‘De animalibus’ (1270).

The onset of this development (of a consciousness of nature) can be demonstrated in the so-called ‘Books of Hours‘. These books, often richly illustrated, were not primary made to please God, but to impress less wealthier human beings. The major development of the ‘Books of Hours’  took place in the fourteenth and fifteenth century in northwestern Europe (fig. 155).

matthiasFig. 155 – The  Apostle Matthias with three axe-like swastika’s is seen here in the ‘Book of Hours’ of Catherine of Cleves. Pierpont Morgan Collection, p. 235 in:  PLUMMER (1964).

The text of the Books goes back to the ‘Officium parvum beate Marie Virginis‘, a part of the ‘Divinium Officium‘. The Brevarium, which describes the ‘holy work’, opens with a calendar, indicating the particular actions for a certain day. It is followed by an ‘Ordonarium‘, a list of instructions. Then the Psalter, with psalms, hymns and songs for the particular time of the year. A short ‘course’ devoted to the Virgin Mary developed in the tenth century from the additional prayers and songs, which were introduced by Saint Benedictus (c. 750 – 821). The popularity of this addition of the Brevarium was the base of the ‘Book of Hours’.

Examples are the well known ‘Les Très Riches Heures de Jean de Berry’ of the brothers Paul and Herman Limburg (MEISS, 1973) and the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves (PLUMMER, 1964) (fig. 155). Many of these books were produced. Abbé Leroquais composed, in 1927, a list of three hundred and thirty-five Books of Hours in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris alone. The ‘Book of Hours’ of Marechal Jean de Boucicaut, illustrated by the anonymous Boucicaut-master (‘the greatest pioneer of naturalism’ (Panofsky), the ‘Brevarium’ of John of Lancaster by the Bedford-master and the ‘Grandes Heures de la Famille de Rohan’ by the Rohan-master also qualify as absolute masterpieces of book-illustration.

The ‘Book of Hours’ of Catharine of Cleves expressed a particular sense of beauty. The accessible facsimile-edition by PLUMMER (1964) was composed of the manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. (M. 917; 164 folios; Guennol Collection M. 945; 193 folios). The same appreciation of craftsmanship was found in the selection of other Books of Hours by HARTHAN (1977).

‘The Middle Ages were preoccupied with parallels, analogies and symbols’, said PLUMMER (1964) in the introduction to Catharine’s ‘Book of Hours‘. Most remarkable, therefore, is the absence of any kind of division-thinking: neither the naturalistic fringes of the pages nor the illustrated subjects are drawn with even the vestige of a particular division in mind. Only in exceptional cases or when the subject leaves no other choice – like the evangelists – a fourfold symbolism becomes evident. Fig. 156 gives a rare, non- representative example with tetradic motifs.

crucifixionFig. 156 – ‘Crucifixion‘ (Morgan, f. 160) is an example of the sporadic occurrence of four-fold imagery in the ‘Book of Hours‘ of Catherine of Cleves, created around 1440. The devotion of Catherine and the Mother of Christ is fitted in geometric designs and knots.

The attention for detail is one of the most characteristic aspects of this period. The search for the tiny illustrates a devotion to the visible visibility of nature. Going into the smallest details is a quest for a deep experience: wood- work, sculptured stones, food, tools, birds traps, cages, fabrics and jewellery are favorite objects for reproduction. Along the edges of the pages are illustrations of animals and plants. Nature became a communication-partner to test our visibility.

The experience (of nature) reached an apex around the pivotal point in the European history. The universal description of animals by Conrad Gesner (1516 – 1565) in Zürich and Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605) in Bologna, who produced respectively 4500 and 7000 folios on animals, were encyclopedic works in their own right (fig. 157). Less universal in scope, but still aiming for details, were the works of Rondelet (1507 – 1556) and Pierre Belon (1517 – 1564) with their ‘Histoire naturelle des Poissons’ (1551) and ‘Histoire naturelle des Oiseaux’ (1555).


Fig. 157 – This illustration, from the ‘Ornithologiae hoc est de avibus historiae libri XII’ (1599) of Ulisse Aldrovandi (p. 367; Lib. V), exhibits the eagle and the snake. The symbolism of these two animals as the struggle between good and evil was well known at the time. The theme fitted in the general preference for thinking in opposites, which was characteristic of the period after the pivotal point (1500) in the European cultural history.
In: WITTKOWER (1977).

The relation between the so-called ‘Tacuina‘-manuscripts and the ‘Books of Hours’, was pointed out by COGLIATI ARANO (1973/1975). The illustrated manuscripts of the ‘Tacuinum sanitatis‘ (Tablets of Health) deal with medicinal herbs and their effects. Scenes from the daily life were depicted. The inspiration was found in the publications of an Arab doctor named Ibn Botlan, who lived in Baghdad, and died after the year 1068 (or in the monastery of Antioch in 1065, according to Diane O’DONOVAN (2006). The ‘Tacuinum’ was composed of four seasonal ‘books’ and a fifth section on activities in relation to health (in the Cerruti manuscript).

The birthplace of these types of manuscripts was in Lombardy (Northern Italy) where the ‘Book of Hours of the Visconti’ (MEISS & KIRSCH, 1972) also found its origin. The Visconti-book was first produced in the work-shops of Giovannino dei Grassi and continued by Belbello da Pavia after the death of Giangaleazzo Visconti (in 1402).

Tacuina’-manuscripts are now stored in Liège, Paris, Vienna and Rouen. The illustrations of the ‘Tacuinum sanitatis‘ show a consistent occurrence of a four-fold motif – like a sort of wall-paper – on the tiles of the shops where herbs are produced and all sorts of daily activity (baking, linen-weaving, etc.) takes place (fig. 158). This type of tetradic ‘wall-paper’ was also common in many ‘Books of Hours’ and was fairly typical for the illustrations of the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century.


Fig. 158 – Some interiors from the ‘Tacuinum sanitatum‘ with tetradic motifs at the walls and ceilings. These specific manuscripts of herb books, dated from the end of the fourteenth century, showed daily activities with captions, which refer to occurrence, use, remedy and contra-indications of medicinal herbs. The use of depth (perspective) in the interiors is remarkable. The pictures can be seen as close predecessors of the mathematical perspective, the ‘construzione legittima’, which was developed by Leone Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) in his book ‘Della Pittura’ (1435). In: COGLIATI ARANO (1976).

Simplification and a concentration on the human aspects in the belief of God typified the spiritual life of this period. This trend started after the culmination of the (moral) power of the Roman Catholic Church around 1200 AD. A steady increase of religious groups within the Church searched from that moment for simplicity and orthodoxy, away from the complicated world of human power play.

The establishment of the Franciscan Order by Francis of Assisi (1182? – 1226) was a sign of this new concern. The order could be joined by a vow to poverty. The Dominican Order, named after Saint Dominic (1170 – 1221) was founded in 1215. They had a devotion to learning, although this was not part of Dominic’s message, which was to combat heresy. It could also not have been the intentions of the founders of the Orders, that both the Franciscans and Dominicans took an active part in the Inquisition, the murder-organization founded by Pope Gregory IX in 1233.

Nicolas of Cusa (1401 – 1464) was a representative of the stronger forces of straight forwardness. His book ‘De Docta Ignorantia‘ (about the learned ignorance) aimed to be a treatise on the three-fold way of thinking, centred on the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Other options or divisions were rejected: the four-fold division was plainly described as ‘impossible’ (Book 1, Ch. XX). Nicolas adopted a ‘coincidentia oppositorum‘ (the coinciding of the opposites): there was only one truth, because there was only one unity. Opposition ends when the division is abandoned: this would be the ultimate solution when Ockham’s razor is used to the full. This state of mind implied a simplified universe.

Auguste JUNDT (1875) wrote a captivating history of popular pantheism in Europe. This, somewhat dated, but thorough study, is, without intention, also a history of division thinking. He pointed to the continuous influence of Neoplatonism from the third to the sixteenth century, ‘correcting the irrational aspects of the Gnostic dualism’. Gnosticism originated from Egypt and was quickly absorbed in the Roman Empire. From the sixth century onwards, it was integrated in the Christian belief.

John (Scotus) Eriugena revived the (neo-platonic) ideas in the middle of the ninth century. He applied them in his doctrine of fourfold thinking (‘De Div. Nat.’, II, 1): the observer (faithful) can opt for two way to reach to God: the first way is the approach through the ideas to the ultimate Idea (God), the other way leads through the multitude to the ultimate Being (God): God is the beginning of every division and the end of all reunion. The divisible character of the idea of God gained Eriugena and his followers the label of ‘pantheist’ by those who were not willing or able to understand the width of tetradic thinking.

The spirit of quadruple thinking and its implications had a strong influence on the orthodox faith of the Roman Catholic Church. Alternatively, like JUNDT (1875) puts it: ‘Scotus Eriugena and all those who received his spiritual heritage during the Middle Ages, believed in the faith of the Church, but they also believed strongly in the truth of their own particular doctrine’.

The separations and schisms in the Church – which were obvious signs of a search for identity in lower division-thinking – indicated a move away from the quadruple method. Eriugena’s ideas were subsequently labeled as ‘heresy’. They were attacked by the orthodox doctrine, because it did not fit into their power thinking, and they were marked as ‘pantheism’, because the absolute power of God was not defined (THERY, 1925). The end of the twelfth century was a transition from the four- to the threefold way of thinking.

The ‘heresy’ of David of Dinant, around 1200, was a search for the ultimate experience of God, with a systematic abstraction of all differences in the world. His inspiration was drawn most likely from Avicembron and his ‘Fons vitae‘ (JUNDT, 1875; p. 20). Such a concept clashed with the worldly ambitions of the Church. However, it also pointed to an (over)emphasis of a particular psychological setting and therefore to a simplification of thought.

David of Dinant used – in his (lost) work under the significant title of ‘Quaterni‘ or ‘Quaternuli’ – the three-division as a point of reference. Thomas of Aquino, who recorded the doctrine of David of Dinant, quoted him in his ‘Sentences‘ (II, dist. XVII, quaest. 1, art. 1): ‘The universality of being can be divided in three: bodies, souls and eternal substances. The indivisible principle of the bodies is the matter, that of the souls the intelligence and that of the eternal substances God. These three principles are simple and essentially identical: God, intelligence and primal matter are one.’

The emphasis on the visible aspect of faith becomes more and more evident after the twelfth century. This reach for visibility – and lower division thinking in general –  can also explain the attention for extremes in ascetics and mysticism. The Dominican monk Johannes Eckhart, who lived around AD 1300, expressed his feelings in the following way: ‘The soul ought to leave the world and return home to itself. Thought, memory and will must return into the depth of the soul. One must leave all things, must leave and lose oneself’ (BRUNNER, 1968; p. 347). He heralded the time of individualism.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a time of rapprochement: Europe went, for better or worse, in search of its own identity as a cultural unity. This development reached a first climax in the year 1500. It is a fundamental point of reference in the presence of Europe as a cultural entity. The invention of the printing press signified a sudden increase of the visible visibility and established ideas and narratives in a historical context.

The search of extremes was on. The ultimate was a target to reach if it was positive and to avoid if it was negative. This belief was embodied in the symbolism of the four last things (De quatuor novissimis). The four last things refer to a passage in the book of Ecclesiastes (Chapter 7), where a list of oppositions is given (It is better to go to the house of mourning, then to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men). The text on the extremes (Eccl. 7: 20) has been modified in later translations (like the King James Version of 1611) into: ‘For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.’

C. Plantijn in Antwerp printed an influential edition of ‘De vier wterste’ by J.B. Houwart in 1583. VAN VINCKENROYE (1965), in an extensive text edition, traced Houwart’s source back to the so-called ‘Cordiale‘ (probably by Geeraert van Vliederhoven), printed by Geeraert Leeu in Gouda in 1477 and titled ‘Die vier uterste’ (reprints in 1479, 1482 and 1488). Often the message is brought in four sermons, like the editions of Robertus Bellarminus in 1586 (reprinted in 1706) and Thomas Green (in 1749):

———————————  1. The first sermon of death

———————————  2. The second sermon of judgement

———————————  3. The third sermon of torment and hell

———————————  4. The fourth sermon of holy delight and heaven

The ‘Shepherds Calendar (Calendrier des Bergers), published in Paris at the end of the fifteenth century, was probably the first to circulate this particular type of symbolism. The crudely printed ‘Shepherds Calendar’ did not only provided time-tables, but gave all types of related advice in the medical field – as they were often compiled by doctors and (barber) surgeons – and information on astrology, the zodiac and the planets.

A small catechism with the common prayers, the enumeration of virtues and vices, and an elaboration on the four last things was part of the repertory. The description was in a vivid style, not unlike the paintings of Jeronimus Bosch, where cruel punishments awaiting those who did not listen (STEPPE, 1967).

The most acquainted description of the theme of the ‘The four last Things’ was by Thomas More (1478 – 1535), who wrote the work in 1521, but left the manuscript unfinished. ‘Remember your last Things and you will never commit a sin’ was the leading text, which referred to death, judgement, pain and happiness. Thomas More did not go further than a remembrance of the dead and his admonition was limited to the seven sins. He concluded his sermon as a real dualist: ‘There are, as you know, two things essential to reach salvation, namely the rejection and avoidance of evil and the doing of good. While on one side all six capital sins must be avoided, as there is pride, envy, wrath, intemperance, avarice and lechery, because if we indulge in them, we can spoil the other half of the way to heaven.’

GERLACH (1988) pointed in his book on Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) to Dionysius the Carthusian as the writer of the ‘Four Last Things’. This priest was the leader of a Carthusian order, from 1466 in Olland and thereafter in Den Dungen (Ten Eikendonk), until his dead in 1472. The four Latin editions of the ‘Quatuor novissima’ before 1500 were followed, with an interruption until 1532, by thirteen editions until 1693. The Belgian Jesuit William Stanyhurst (1602 – 1663) was very successful with his edition of the ‘Veteris Hominis . . . quatuor novissima metamorphosis et novi genesis’, dedicated to James van Baerlant (Antwerp, 1661; Prague, 1700; Vienna, 1766). The theme was still popular at the end of the eighteenth century.

Titles like ‘Spiegel der Vernunft‘ (Mirror of Knowledge) and ‘Spiegel der kerstenen menschen‘ or ‘Der Kerstenen Spieghel’ (The Cristian Mirror, by friar Dirk of Munster) were very popular at the same period – around the pivotal point (1500) – as ‘The Four Last  Things’. Theodorus Galle followed Hendrick Goltzius in a picture of Prudentia, showing a young boy the four last things in a mirror: Heaven, Last Judgement, Death and Hell (HAZELZET, 1994; fig. 159).


Fig. 159 – ‘De quatuor novissimis’ or the Last Four Things (Heaven, Last Judgement, Death and Hell) are shown here in a mirror to a young boy by the goddess Prudentia. Engraving by Theodorus Galle (1571 – 1633) after Hendrick Goltzius (1558 – 1617).

Jeronimus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516), Pieter Breugel (c.-1525 – 1569) and others often depicted proverbs and maxims in paintings and prints. The recording and exposure of the daily encountered abuses and expressing them in a literary form gave way to a new, humanistic language (FOOTE, 1970). The pivotal point, 1500 AD, was an important moment of change where the established, Christian way of expression was replaced by human symbolism.

The realization that man was responsible for his own misery, rather than – as the Church had suggested for ages – he was part of a God-forsaken world dawned in the time of Bosch and Breugel. The seven sins provided only the entree to a whole exposé of human follies and foolishness. ‘No other epoch has laid so much stress as the expiring Middle Ages on the thought of death’, said HUIZINGA (1924/1955, p. 140) in his time-honored book ‘The Waning of the Middle Ages’, ‘An everlasting call of ‘mento mori’ resounds through life.’ This specific attention can be seen, in the light of division thinking, as just another, typical phenomena of a two-fold frame of mind. Birth and death as beginning and end of visible visibility, are significant moments in time.

The expression ‘Media vita in morte sumus’ (in the middle of life surrounded by death) refers to a midlife crisis, where the urge for visibility reaches a peak. The words are – according to ENKLAAR (1950) unjust attributed to the monk Notker the Stammler (Balbulus) of St. Gallen.  The dance of death is the cheerful and morbid expression of this crisis (ROSENFELD, 1954).

The interest for the phenomenon of death and the perishable nature of all things had been immanent for some time. The ‘triumph of death’ on the Campo Santo of Pisa was an early example of its celebration. Furthermore, the historian Thietmar of Merseburg, recorded the dead in the cemetery of Deventer (Holland), who were singing while bringing their offerings (Thietmari Mersenburgensis episcopi chronican, ed. F. Kurze (1889) 8, I 11). Denis the Carthusian, the great compilator of the Middle Ages, had often seen – ‘Yes, hundreds of times’ – apparitions of deceased persons.

The feeling of a ‘contemptus mundi’ (contempt of the world) developed in a psychological environment where a clear distinction between the visible and invisible world was made. Death, as the gate to heaven or hell, was an awesome boundary, a marker point to celebrate in a dance.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109) called for a contempt of the world in his ‘Exhortatio ad contemptum temporalium et desiderium aeternorum’ and another strong advocate of these feelings was Bernard of Clairvaux, who summoned kings to conquer the Holy Land and live according to the strict rules of Saint Benedict. He was (most likely) the author of the ‘Rhytmus de Contemptu mundi‘, which had the unimportance of the worldly endeavors as a central theme.

Innocent III wrote – before he became pope (from 1198 to 1216) – a book under the title ‘De Contemptu mundi sive de miseria conditionis humanae libri tres‘. It made an early call to despise the visible world. He made it clear that our existence was inevitably connected with death. This final element was a certain sign for the unimportance of the earthly existence. There was a sharp contrast to life in the afterworld, which was far more important.

ENKLAAR (1950) mentioned the outbreak of the plague or Black Death (1347 – 1351) and the Hundred Year War between France and England, with widespread misery in France, as the possible causes for the interest in death and the handling of mortal fear. It can be demonstrated that the dance of death on the wall of the cemetery ‘zu Predigern‘ at Basle (1439) and another one at Lübeck (1463) was made while the plague raged the city and caused many victims. A dance of death in the Dominican cloister of Bern, executed by Niklaus Manuel (1484 – 1530) in 1519, was a medical affair, pointing to the mortal character of human beings (fig. 160).


Fig. 160 – The dance of death in the Dominican cloister in Bern. The image of the medical man as skeletons put their efforts into perspective. It emphasized the opposites between life and death and can be seen as a tribute to duality. In: ZINSLI (1953) and BLOCK  (1966).

The ‘Book of Hours’ of the Duke of Berry (‘Les tres riches Heures du duc de Berry’, around 1400 AD) gave an illustration of the plague (in Rome in 950) with armies of the living and the dead. The same Duke of Berry commissioned (in 1408) to sculpture the legend of the three living and the three dead, a forerunner of the dance of death, in the portal of the church of ‘Les Innocents‘ in Paris.

The Christian legend of the three living and the three dead was known in the West since the thirteenth century. Five written versions are known in France, published by Glixelli. The story centred on a meeting of the living (duke, count, marquis or bishop, count and king) with the dead. The main point was to show the transitoriness of the earthly life, and the positions gained. Three versions of the legend are known in Germany: 1. A manuscript from 1393 in Wolfenbuttel, with three horseman and three dead speaking to them in a half-rotten state, 2. A writing under the name of ‘Hartebok‘ in Hamburg (dated 1404) and 3. A script in Strassburg from around 1350, with a poem titled ‘Dis ist der welte lon’ (this is the reward of the world).

Jehan Le Fevre used the sentence ‘Je fis de Macabree la dance‘ in his poem ‘Respit de la Mort’ (1376). This is one of the first recorded applications of the term ‘danse macabre‘. The meaning of the sentence is rather unclear. Guillebert of Metz gave (in 1434) a description of Paris, using the expression of the ‘danse macabre‘.

The etymological aspects of the ‘danse macabre‘ (dance of death) were described by ENKLAAR (1950). He pointed to a possible Arab origin (‘tanz-d-maskabiri‘) and a mix-up with the militant martyrs in the (apocryph) book of the Maccabeans.

The graphic representations of the ‘danse macabre‘ followed a distinct pattern, with the participants sometimes side-by-side or opposite to each other. The oldest iconographic representations were produced by Baudouin de Conde en Nicholas de Margival. Widespread popularity was reached after the publication by Guyot Marchant in 1485, a ‘Danse macabre’, based on the legend of the living and the dead (fig. 161).


Fig. 161 – Various illustrations of the ‘Danse macabre‘, a publication in the early days of the printing press. Verard readily copied the successful edition of 1485 by Gyot Marchant in 1486. ‘La Grande Danse’ is composed of two pairs and their doubles from the afterlife, making up a foursome. 1.  HIND,  Arthur M. (1935/1963). An Introduction to a History of  BLOCK, Werner (1966). Op. cit.; 3. BLISS,  Douglas Percy (1928/1964).  A History of  Wood-engraving.  Spring Books, London; 4. GRIJP, Louis Peter; HOEK, Everdine & TAMBOER,  Annemies (Red.) (1989).  De dodendans in de kunsten.  HES  Uitgevers,  Utrecht.  ISBN 90-6194-417-1; 5. GRIJP, Louis Peter et al.  (Red.)(1989).  Op.  cit.;  6.  GRIJP,  Louis Peter et al.  (Red.) (1989). Op. cit. Also in: HIND, Arthur M. (1935/1963). Op. cit.

The apocalyptic idea, fueled by early printing and its possibilities of wider distribution, caught on and a ‘Danse macabre des femmes’ was printed in the year 1486. The text of the poem was by Martial d’Auvergne. A rival edition was produced by Verard because of its immanent success (CLARK, 1950). A ‘Totentanz mit Figuren’ (Dance of Death with figures) was also produced in Germany by Knocblochtzer (c. 1485). Only single pairs are depicted here (fig. 162). The oldest ‘Dance of Death’ script is in the University of Heidelberg (CPG 314) in a book collected by Sigismund Gossembrot (1417 – 1493). It is a variant of the so-called ‘Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz’, which can be found in Basel (c. 1440).


Fig. 162 – The theme of the ‘Dance of Death’ emerged in the middle of the fifteenth century.  This ‘Totentanz mit Figuren’ was printed by Knocblochtzer (ca. 1485). 1. The death and the young boy; 2. The death and the abbot; 3. The death and the bishop; 4. The death and the friar. The death uses different musical instrument to introduce the living into the afterlife. In: GRIJP (1989). Op. cit.

The emergence of the ‘dance of death’ as a theme is important from a histographic point of view. There is an increasing experience of death, starting – more or less – from the year 1000 AD. The disastrous effect of the plague and the war in the fourteenth century brought the phenomenon of an (involuntary) death close to home. The ‘dance of death’ emerged in literature and iconography at approximately the same time. The legend of the living and the death sets the scene for oppositional thinking as reflected in the use of pairs. At the end of the fifteenth century this confrontational thinking reached a climax.

The theme of pairs would deserve a closer scrutiny in time and place, because it is connected with the two-fold (way of thinking). A first survey revealed three positions (or moments) in a communication where pairs are crucial: at the beginning, in the middle and at the end.

1. The pair is an expression of developing division thinking at the beginning of the first visible visibility in a communication. The creation of Adam and Eve in Paradise is an example, but also the role of parents in the life of a newborn child.

The interpretation of the ‘Psychomachia’ of Prudentius (born 348 AD) provided, in the early stages of the European history, a vivid iconographic element (HAWORTH, 1980). The virtues, symbolized as women, were pictured in this allegorical poem as battling with the vices. The theme of battle was a first indication of oppositional thinking, and was further enhanced by the ‘Prudentian pairs of Virtues’: Patientia against Ira (who killed herself), Humilitas decapitated Superbia, etc.

Jennifer O’REILLY (1972/1988; p. 40) emphasized the influence of the illustrations, accompanying the manuscripts: ‘It is difficult to speculate just how far the enormous popularity of the ‘Psychomachia‘ in the Middle Ages rested upon its ms. illustrations, but their inspiration, whether directly or mediately, was to linger in art for a thousand years.’

2. The pair is an expression of dual thinking at the pivotal point (or the middle) of a communication. The illustrations of the dance of death are a good example, but also many satirical prints in relation to the divided Church used the pair of opposites. The scales and a mirror are favorite symbols.

3. The forming of pairs is also associated with the definition of the final boundary at the end of the visible spectrum of a communication. Aristotle, in his ‘Metaphysica‘ (V, 17), defined ‘limit’ as:

  1. the last point of each thing
  2. the form of a spatial magnitude
  3. the end of each thing
  4. the substance of each thing and the essence

‘Evidently, therefore, ‘limit’ has as many senses as ‘beginning’, and yet more; for the beginning is a limit, but not every limit is a beginning’.

The game of black-and-white was vividly played in the woodcuts of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century and fitted perfectly in a world of contrasts, which is so typical around the pivotal point in European history.

A highlight of dualistic imagery is reached in an illustration of Savonarola’s ‘Predica dell’arte del bene morire’ (Art of a Good Death), issued in Florence in 1504 (fig. 163). A two-partion: God against devil, day and night, living and dead was put into a quasi four-fold environment.


Fig. 163 – Savonarola’s art of a good death as depicted in a woodcut from around the pivotal point in the European history (1500). Two- and fourfold motives are closely intertwined in this picture of life and death, heaven and hell.

Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian Dominican friar and reformer (1452 – 1498). He was against luxury and tried to turn the tide of materialism. There was great popular support in Florence, the most civilized city in the world at the time, but this landed him in a political power-struggle, which he lost. Savonarola was executed in 1498, and his body was burnt.

A noteworthy interest in the marvelous and the grotesque developed in a divided Europe, riddled with local uprisings and violence (ASTON, 1965; ELLIOTT, 1968). Cornutus’ book ‘De natura deorum gentilium commentarius’ (1543) was a repeat of the world of classical mythology, with a special attention to ‘De fabulis’. A long list of curiosities was described: De Centauris, De Pasiphaae, De Actaeone, De Seminatis Gigantibus, De Sphinge, De Vulpe, De Niobe, De Lynceo, De Caeneo, De Cygno, with the mentioning of the Amazons, Orpheus, Pandora and Cerberus.

The edition of Rupert van Deutz’s ‘De Divinis Officiis’ (On divine offices) in Cologne offered a book in which knowledge was presented in its most exuberant form (the original manuscript was from around 1110 AD). Remarkable is the quality of the indexes in the printed version of 1543. The reader is guided to a keyword in the text by  a division of the reference-page in four parts.

———————————  A         –         principium

———————————  B         –         medium superius

———————————  C         –         medium inferius

———————————  D         –         finem paginae

The letters A to D refer to respectively the top, upper middle, lower middle and bottom of the page. This four-fold division of the pages is a monument of non-visual exegesis.

The life of the Benedictine friar and abbot Johannes Trithemius (1462 – 1516; fig. 164) can be classified as ‘pivotal’. He was an intriguing and colorful figure, who embodied the spirit of his time. This friend and teacher of Henri Cornelius Agrippa ‘charted the arduous route to Heaven along a very narrow and perilous course between two opposing ‘monsters’. The first monster, the Scylla, is a languorous and deliberative state still known by its half-Greek name of acedia (distress of heart, lethargy), and the second monster at the opposite pole, the Charybdis, excessive and indiscreet zeal’ (BRANN, 1981; p. 117; BRANN, 1999).


Fig. 164 – Johannes Trithemius (1462 – 1516) is one of the great explorers of the mind. He did not set sail to foreign continents, but tried to find new territories in the human mind with a similar optimism and in the same spirit as the sailors, who headed for the faraway places of the earth. A portrait of Hans Burgkmair from Augsburg around 1510. The original drawing of Hans Burgkmair is in the Musée Dondé de Chantilly near Paris.

Trithemius was a passionate reformer, teacher, book collector and history-writer. He described, in his ‘De Origine Gentis Francorum (1514), a history of the Franks from 439 BC to 841 AD, partly on fictitious evidence (KUELBS & SONKOWSKY, 1987).  ‘He appears by hindsight to have been a transitional or ‘Janus-like’ figure’, said BORCHARDT (1972) in his article on Trithemius.

His greatest reputation was due to a curious book called the ‘Steganographia’, published in 1606, but earlier circulating as a manuscript. ‘The technical side of this science is very complex, involving pages and pages of elaborate calculations, both astrological and in connection with the numerical values of the angel-names’, said Frances YATES (1964, p. 145).

Yates reckoned that Giordano Bruno’s preference for the figure thirty was to trace back to Trithemius’ ‘Steganographia’. In that situation Bruno would have seen a manuscript. YATES (1966, p. 208) pointed to an abstract of this work later made for Bruno, where a list of thirty-one spirits was changed into thirty. Wayne SHUMAKER (1982) emphasized the cryptographic intentions of the ‘Steganographia’ rather than the demonic mysticism for which it became reputed.

Trithemius is one of the great explorers of the mind in a time, which coincided with the discoveries in the geographical field. Both were generated by an urge to go into extremes, to reach hitherto unknown boundaries. Names like Ficino, Pico della Mirandella, Bruno, Reuchlin, Agrippa and Fludd are just as important as those of Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magelhaen, although the latter are often more celebrated because of the visible evidence of their discoveries.

A book of Symphorien Champier, titled ‘De quadruplici vita’ (Lyon, 1507), had the four-fold life as a motto. The title was a strong reminiscence to Ficino’s popular book ‘De Vita triplici’, which introduced magical thoughts and revived the Neo-Platonic spirit. Copies of Champier’s book are available in a limited number of libraries in Europe (Berlin, Dresden, London, Paris, Selestat). An effort to consult a copy in the Humanist-library in Selestat (France) failed, because a letter of recommendation could not be produced. The ‘Catalogue WALTER’ (1929) gave a description of the title (p. 277-278).

Frances YATES (1964, p. 264) mentioned Champier’s book in relation to the Hermetic ‘Definitiones‘ of Ludovico Lazzarelli, which were included. The ‘four-fold life’ was part of the wisdom of the Hermetica and the teachings of Pythagoras: ‘Theologia Asclepii hermetis trismegisti discipuli cum commentariis eiusdem, etc.’ The European history time around the year 1500 AD was in many respect ‘pivotal’. The explanation of many social and cultural phenomena will be clearer in this specific perspective. Further study would be necessary to link the different features in painting, sculpture, architecture and printing together.

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