10. Time and division

The fourfold division in time


Time and division are both abstract entities. They have a distinct connection in thoughts, and the one can hardly exist without the other. Both cannot be made visible and only come to live in a comparison. ‘Moments cannot exist if there are no objects’ says WHITROW (1972) in his book ‘What is time?’ And because the visibility is always specifically related to the observer every observer has basically his own time(frame).

And time and division find their identity in a division-model. So, for instance, the period between the sunrise and sunset is called a ‘day’, with a certain duration, which can be divided in hours, minutes, etc. In classical times the day was divided in twelve hours (and twelve hours night). If the sun reached the highest point in the daytime it was six o’clock (rather than twelve o’clock nowadays) (HAGEN, 1981).

Time becomes meaningful in a comparison with the sun. The same holds for the division: boundaries can be drawn, but they only become significant, if they have taken part in a comparison with something else. Time and division are the abstract quantities of the First Quadrant, ruled by the invisible invisibility, the ‘holy’ aspect of creation.

The fourfold division of a (twenty-four hours) day results in the time-units of morning, afternoon, evening and night. Michelangelo has sculptured this division at the tomb of Giuliano de Medici in the Medici Chapel in Florence (PANOFSKY, 1939/67). ELSEN (1985) suggested that the representation of the ‘Morning‘ might have been a model for Rodin’s ‘Thinker‘.

The new day, as a fresh beginning, has been a source of inspiration. In poetry the image is used in connection with light and a renewed visibility. The morning holds the promise of a new start. The motif has also been used in a literally sense as a source or spring. The four rivers of the Garden of Eden play a symbolic role here.


Fig. 43 – The new day as a source of inspiration. Left: an illustration of ‘TWonderboek‘ of David Joris (1542), inspired by the opening of Psalm 45: ‘My heart is inditing a good matter’.  In:  BOHEEMEN (1986); Right: Der Morgen (The Morning). Etching of Philipp Otto Runge, 1805. In: HOFSTÄTTER (1965).

TWonderboek‘ of David Joris (dated 1542) depicted a face above a heart, floating on water (fig. 43 left). Five fountain-like streams flow from the mouth of the head. Four return to the earth and one disseminates as rain. The (Dutch) caption says: ‘Een zeer goede Reden berst mij ter herten uit‘ (A good reason flows from my heart). These words are the opening lines of Psalm 45 in the Holy Bible, now reading in the authorized King James version as:

 ‘My heart is inditing a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made touching the king: my tongue is the pen of a ready writer.’

This same symbolism of a spring can also be found in the work of Philipp Otto Runge (1777 – 1810), at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This German salesman developed into a painter of a new religiosity (‘die neue individualistische Religiosität‘; HÜTT, 1986), first in Dresden (1801) and later in Hamburg (1804).

rungeThe theme of the ‘Tageszeiten‘, as an expression of ‘Werden und Vergehen’, was central in his thoughts. In 1803 he made sketches and completed in 1805 a copper-etching of the ‘Morning’ (fig. 43 right). The fountains are shaped into flowers and a new day burgeoning from the earth. In 1808, just before his premature dead on the age of thirty-three due to tuberculosis, he painted an oil-painting of the same motif: ‘Der Morgen‘, kleine Fassung (109 x 85,5 cm) (fig. 44). The full cycle could not be completed due to his death in 1810.

Fig. 44 – Oil painting of Der Kleine Morgen (109 x 85,5 cm) by Otto Runge, 1808. Hamburger Kunsthalle.

The fourfold division of the day is moralized in a seventeenth century etching of Abraham Bach ‘Die Vier Zeiten dess Tages’ (fig. 45). Morning, afternoon, evening and night are depicted in four illustrations of the Holy family, with Josef, Maria and the child Jesus as leading figures in a rural and homely setting.


Fig. 45 – The four times of the day: morning, afternoon, evening and night. A woodcut by Abraham Bach, around 1670. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg. The fourfold division of a twenty-four hours day is relatively little used by artists.

The distinction between the twofold division in day and night and the fourfold classification in morning, afternoon, evening and night is a matter of time-consciousness. This fundamental psychological human quality is important:  behavior, motivation and emotion are strongly intertwined with the time-perspective of individuals (LEWIN, 1942; WINNUBST, 1975).

A short time-perspective is related – according to FRANK (1939) – to an impulsive, naive and consumptive behavior, while a long time-perspective is correlated with preparatory and instrumental behavior, aiming at control over the environment. The time-perspective is – essentially – a matter of choice with regards to the fundamental region in division-thinking. A lower partitional approach (black-and-white thinking) results in a short time-perspective, while a higher partitional way (the fourfold way of thinking) gives a longer time-perspective. Oppositional thinking is characterized by easy-made and quick switches, while a consciousness of multiple parts requires more time to change.

This connection between time-perspective and division thinking has never been made in psychology – as far as I know – and deserves a further elaboration. A whole new, four-fold context of human existence could be described, leaving Freud’s two-fold, gender-based approach to psychological behavior as a historical relict.

The association of day and night with good and evil is very old and can be seen as a monument of two-fold thinking. In the North-European saga-world, as captured in the works of the Icelander Snorri Sturluson (1179 – 1241) the figure of Odin, is the messenger of the light and the good, opposite Ymer, the representative of the night. Odin kills Ymer and from his blood springs a race of giants (of which Loki is the most prolific). Loki personifies the bad habits and the weakness and is assisted by the wolf Fenris, who has to eat the sun.

The light, as the medium of the day, allows the observation of physical reality, the (visible) visibility. This quality is often rated as positive. The human being is in control. The night, on the other hand, makes observance difficult. Darkness is a form of (invisible) invisibility, which can only be appreciated on a spiritual level. It can evoke, from a material point of view, a sense of fear and is for that reason regarded as negative.

The antithesis between day and night – as a two-fold element – is part of the four-fold way of thinking. ROSENBERG (1961) pointed to an illustration of the ‘four birds of the day’, fighting with the bird of the night (the owl). The illustration is used in the ‘Dialogus creaturarum‘ (fig. 46). This popular work was published in Gouda in 1480 and had several reprints. The first English edition of 1511 was reissued in 1816 in London by Joseph Haslewood as ‘The Dialogus of Creatures Moralized’.


Fig. 46 – The owl is attacked by four birds of the day. A woodcut from the ‘Dialogus creaturarum’; Gouda, 1480. This motif is commonly explained as strife between the good, represented by the four birds of the day and evil, portrayed by the bird of the night, the owl.

The little used symbolism and its explanation can be seen – in a four-fold context – as a derivative of the visualization of Concordance (or Harmony) between the one and the many, as birds coming from four directions. Albrecht Dürer applied the same motif – between 1509 and 1511 – in a woodcut, which was printed in Nürnberg (ROSENBERG, 1961) (fig. 47).


Fig. 47 – The owl fighting with other birds. Woodcut from Albrecht Dürer (Nürnberg, 1509 – 1511). Four birds attack a central-seated, frightened owl from four directions. The traditional explanation, in a two-fold frame of mind, is a confrontation of the Good (the four birds) and the Evil (the owl). There are reasons to question this explanation, or at least to consider other possibilities. The owl  (associated with wisdom) is a symbol of unity, while the four birds (associated with imagination) represents multiplicity.

The trail to a more appropriate explanation starts in the publication of Alciatus’ ‘Emblemata’, where the birds are an expression of ‘Concordia‘. LEEMAN (1984) points to the evolution of the motif in the various editions between 1534 and 1614. In the edition published in Paris in 1534 are only two birds, but in the edition of the ‘Emblemata’ of Roville and Bonhomme (Lyon, 1614; XXXIX) are clearly four birds (fig. 48), with a strong reminiscence to the picture of Dürer.


Fig. 48 – The different forms of the ‘Concordia‘-motif in various editions of  Alciates’ ‘Emblemata’ (LEEMAN, 1984). The illustration at the top shows ‘Concordia‘ as four birds of which one is crowned (Augsburg-edition, 1531). Their sharp claws have a distinct violent undertone. Some three years later, in the edition of ‘Emblemata’ published in Paris in 1534, the ‘Concordia‘-motif (bottom-left) is more symmetrical (and peaceful), with two birds on a square frame and a flock of birds in the sky. In the 1614 edition of Roville and Bonhomme in Lyon (bottom-right), the four birds are equally centered on the top of a sarcophagus, with a flock of birds in the far distance. The setting of the attacking birds reminds of the representation of Dürer’s four birds some hundred years earlier.

Four birds, but in a complete different setting, are encountered in a remarkable picture by William Caxton, the first printer in England. He gives an illustration of Evilmerodach, ‘a jolly man without justice who did  hew his father in pieces’. It shows four birds making fun with the extremities of Nebuchadnezar (fig. 49). No sign of Concordantia or Harmony here, rather the opposite.


Fig. 49 – Evilmerodach cuts his father, Nebuchadnezer, in pieces: ‘Evilmerodach, a jolly man without justice who did hew his father in pieces‘. This woodcut is by William Caxtor, the first printer in England. The four birds are depicted as scavengers, and represent the complete opposite of concord and harmony.

The connection between (tetradic) space, the (four) winds and birds has always been a strong one in symbolic representation. In the Bibliotheque Municipale at Reims (MS 672, fol. 1r) is a manuscript of the so-called ‘False Decretals‘, written around 1180. The frontispiece showed the ‘Harmony of Spheres’ (fig. 50).


Fig. 50 – Harmony as the Goddess Air and as a symbol of unity in the four directions of space. Multitude and abundance are eminent in the nine-division of the muses. From a manuscript of the so-called ‘False Decretals’ in the Bibliotheque Municipale at Reims (MS 672, fol. 1r), written around 1180.

The goddess Air (Aer), with reminiscence to Christ, is placed in a syndesmos-posture, holding the winged winds: Aquilo, Oriens, Zephir and Auster. In the inner circle are three representatives of the spiritual world: Arion on a dolphin (symbol of literature), Pythagoras (science) and Orpheus (music). The medallions in the outer circle depict the nine muses according to Martianus Capella, who described them in a mixture of verse and prose in his popular ‘De nuptiis Mercurii et Philologiae’ (‘On the Marriage of Mercury and Philology’).

Harmony, as a concept, is related to the multitude. It is no coincidence that this theme emerged at the end of the twelfth century. The depiction of the nine muses is an indication of over-specialization in the tetradic way of thinking. The first signs of a teratological development are clear. The goddess Air has to hold its winds in a rather forced way, afraid – so it seems – that they may fly away.

The division of a day into morning, afternoon, evening and night is accepted as very common and the associated symbolism follows the four seasons: the morning (spring) is a new beginning and is a positive sign. The afternoon attracts the least symbolical value. It is a time of work and little reflection. In analogy, it is linked with the summer: the sun has passed its highest point, it is harvest time. The evening is the autumn of the day. The natural light is fading. The work is done. And finally the night, as wintertime, is a time of darkness, things coming to a halt. A time of sleep and entrance into a world of the unseen. However, it is also a time of expectation, of a new dawn and the trust in the cyclic recurrence of light.

BOHEEMEN, Petra, van (1986) De vorm van het gedrukte boek in de Noordelijke Neder-landen in de 16e eeuw. In: EKKART,  R.E.O. (1986). Het boek in Nederland in de 16e eeuw. Ter gelegenheid van de tentoonstelling “De eeuw van de Beeldenstorm”.  Rijks-museum Meermanno-Westreenianum, Den Haag. Staatsuitgeverij, ‘s-Gravenhage. ISBN 90 112 05234 3

ELSEN, Albert E. (1985). Rodin’s Thinker and the Dilemma’s of Modern Public Sculpture. Yale University Press, New Haven/London. ISBN 0-300-03334-6

FRANK, L.K. (1939). Time perspectives. Pp. 293 – 312 in: Journal of Social Philosophy, 4 (1939).

HAGEN, M.J. (1981). Zonnewijzers aan Hollandse Kerken. Pp. 3 – 23 in: Bulletin van de Stichting Oude Hollandse Kerken. No. 12.

HOFSTÄTTER, Hans H. (1965). Symbolismus und die Kunst der Jahrhundertwende. Verlag M. DuMont, Schauberg, Köln.

HÜTT, Wolfgang (1986). Deutsche Malerei und Grafik 1750 – 1945. Henschelverlag Kunst und Gesellschaft, Berlin. ISBN 3-362-00023-1

LEEMAN, Frederik W.G. (1984). Alciatus’ Emblemata. Denkbeelden en voorbeelden. Proefschrift ter verkrijging van het doctoraat in de letteren aan de Rijksuniversiteit te Groningen. 14 juni 1984. Bouma’s Boekhuis BV., Groningen.

LEWIN, K. (1942). Time perspective and morale. In: GOODWIN WATSON (Ed.) (1942). Civilian morale. Houghton Mifflin, New York.

PANOFSKY, Erwin (1939/1967). Studies in Iconology. Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. Mary Flexner Lectures, 1937. Oxford.

ROSENBERG, Jacob (1961). On the Meaning of a Bosch Drawing. Pp. 402 – 421 in: MEISS, Millard (Ed.)(1961). De Artibus Opuscula XL. Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky. Vol. I. New York University Press, New York.

WHITROW, Gerald J. (1972). What is time? Thames and Hudson, London. ISBN 0-500-01085-4

WINNUBST, J.A.M. (1975). Het Westerse tijdssyndroom. Conceptuele integratie en eerste aanzet tot construct validatie van een reeks molaire tijdsvariabelen in de psychologie. Stichting Studentenpers, Nijmegen/Swets & Zeitlinger B.V., Amsterdam. ISBN 90 265 0218 4

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