8. Orientation

The directions of the wind


The orientation by  the four winds is very old, but its origin cannot be precisely indicated. The Greek seafarers used them and Erathosthenes, in his book ‘Geography’, mentioned the Boreas, Apeliotes, Notos and Zepyros. He subdivided the earth by parallel east-west and north-south lines and could  measure the circumference of the earth by these directions and the height of the sun.

Hipparchus of Nicaea (c. 165 – c. 127 BC) amended Erathothenes’ division of the earth – in sixty parts – by drawing ‘climata‘-lines at regular intervals (360 parts, the modern ‘degrees’). In that way, it was possible to locate every place on earth by co-ordinates. Ptolemy (AD 90 – 168) provided in his ‘Geography‘ the latitude and longitude of eight thousand places.

The importance of the winds was emphasized by Andronicus of Cyrrhus, who built, around 50 BC, the octagonal ‘Tower of the Winds’ in Athens, also called the ‘Horlogeion‘ (fig. 26).


Fig. 26 – The ‘Tower of the Winds’ or Horlogium in Athens (Greece). Photo in: BOARDMAN (1993).

Orientation is fairly well documented in the maritime and shipping history. Every ship leaving a harbor and sailing at an empty sea, away from the shoreline, is comparable with a human mind on a ‘tabula rasa‘: the observer has to invent some sort of dynamic structural framework for guidance. Alternatively, like Daniel BOORSTIN (1983, p. 47) rightly put it in his book ‘The Discoverers‘: ‘When people set out to explore the oceans, they found it more than ever necessary to know the heavens.’ But to approach the heaven in an orderly way, one has to take decisions over the type of division in a comprehensive composition.


Fig. 27 – This wooden quadrant was built by Paul Hainzel, Burgomaster of Augsburg, and a friend of Tycho Brahe. It is an illustration from Tycho Brahe’s work ‘Astronomia Instaurate Mechanica‘ (1598). Many types of quadrants were built during the development of navigation- and surveying-tools in the sixteenth century. A star was focused through the small rings E and D, and the angle could be read at the quarter-circle with a graduated scale (H). The whole contraption of the nineteen-foot radius quadrant and a brass scale could  turn from a platform. Without a reliable quadrant, it was impossible to fix any of the cardinal points of the sky.

The position and movement of the sun and the stars were the most obvious points of references in maritime orientation.  The sun comes up at a certain point, reaches it height and sinks to another point on the horizon. ‘The operative line was not that from N. to S., but that from E. to W’, said Eva TAYLOR (1937/1957, p. 23). ‘A seaman “oriented” himself by facing the north (the pole of heavens) and spreading out his arms to east and west.’ Instruments were made to measure angles. The simplest  one is the measuring staff, but more elaborated forms are the quadrant (fig. 27), the theodolite and the astrolabe (fig. 28). In the late sixteenth century, these instruments found their apex in the armillary, or a small-scale model of the universe.


Fig. 28 – The four parts of an astrolabe: 1. Mater. Round disc with graduation on the outer edge (limbus), divided in 360 degrees or 24 hours; 2. The planisphere or tympana. Tables for different pole-elevations; 3. Rete. Disk with fixed stars from Zodiac; 4. Alhidade (Al-hidada). Indicator turning around a fixed point (not shown here). The illustration to the lower right shows the backside of the astrolabe with additional tables. From a manual made for the Spanish king Alfonso the Sage (around 1300).

The astrolabe or ‘star-shooter’ is a quadrant to measure the height of stars compared to the earthly horizon (DREIER, 1979; LEHR, 1981). One of the oldest descriptions of the instrument is by Hermann the Lame from Reichenau (who died in 1054). Chaucer (1340? – 1400) wrote, in 1391, a ‘Treatise for the Astrolabium‘ for his ten-year old son Lewis. This is the oldest early scientific work in English. The drawings in fig. 28 were prepared for King Alfonso the Sage at the end of the thirteenth century.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth century, the use of the astrolabe was sporadic, but this changed drastically when the spirit of discovery took hold in the fifteenth century. Orontius Fine (1532) issued many treatises and construction rules in the sixteenth century, like the beautiful book ‘Protomathesis’.


Fig. 29 – This astrolabe is from the seventh tablet of the series ‘Sapihal-al-Afakiyah’ (pictures of the horizon), a description of a Persian astrolabe, constructed for Shah Husain Safawi, around 1700.

The seafarer could, apart from the sun and the stars, also rely on the winds as a sailing aid. ‘The Spanish sailors on Columbus’ crew’, says BOORSTIN (1983, p. 217) ‘thought of direction not as degrees of compass bearings but as ‘los vientos‘, the winds. Portuguese sailors continued to call their compass card a ‘rosa dos ventos’, a wind rose’. Before the general use of the compass a direction was understood to be a certain wind, blowing from a given direction.

Windroses flowered, even before the introduction of the compass, as detailed indicators of direction, based on a division of the circle in four, eight, twelve, sixteen or even thirty-two parts.  The ancient system of ‘winds’ (or ‘plagae‘) was essentially a system of division.

The Greek geographer Timosthenes, a direct predecessor of Erathosthenes, knew the so-called ‘twelve-wind’ system. TAYLOR (1937) noted – in an article over Matthew Paris’ ‘De Ventis‘ (written on the last folio of the ‘Historia S. Albani’, Cotton MSS. Nero D.5, dated after 1250):

The twelve-fold division, associated with the name of Aristotle, and later with that of the sea-admiral Timosthenes, is an astronomer’s system, harmonizing with the twelve hours of the day and of the night, the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and the twelve ‘houses’ used in prognostication, i.e. in general with the duodecimal numeration.’

The division is related to the 360 degrees circle and angles of 60, 30, 15 and 5 degrees, and therefore, finally, based on a combination of three- and fourfold division. The Romans, although lesser seafarers than the Greek, also use the twelve-division.

Erathosthenes abandoned the ‘twelve-wind system’ in favour of the ‘eight-wind system’, because it was too difficult for mariners (BROWN, 1949/1979 and HAPGOOD, 1966/ 1979). This may be true, but another consideration can be put forward: maybe this change came about by a shift in division thinking (from ‘triple-four’ to ‘dual-four’).

The eight-wind system (or, one step further, the sixteen fold division) was generally used on navigation charts known as portolan-maps. This particular type of map making flourished in the fourteenth century and was used by sailors (mostly in the Mediterranean) to chart their way from harbor to harbor. The maps were based on a sixteen-fold division (‘quadruple-four’) of the circle.


Fig. 30 – The construction of the eight-wind system of the Portolan Charts as given by Livengood, Estes and Woitkowski in HAPGOOD (1966/1979). A circle is bisected eight times, resulting in sixteen lines from the centre to the periphery at equal angles of 22,5 degrees. Horizontal and vertical lines through the intersections form a grid of sixteen squares. Geographical details, like a coastline, are marked within this grid.

The stages to construct this system by bisecting the circle four times (fig. 30) results in angles of 22,5 degrees (HAPGOOD, 1966/1979; p. 14/15). This procedure displays the ‘ratiocinationis quadrivium‘ (as mentioned earlier):

1. Division:  Four times division of a circle results in angles of 22,5 degrees.

2. Definition:   Horizontal and vertical lines are drawn from the intersections of the angle-lines with the circle. This results in a grid of sixteen squares, a theoretical framework.

3. Demonstration: Geographical landmarks are indicated on this grid.

4. Resolution: The procedure of sixteen directions – or ‘plagae‘ – within a theoretical framework filled with empirical data, enables an observer to known a location in a given context.

The aforementioned scheme has little to do with the elaborate mathematical projections, employed by later map makers like Gerard Mercator (1512 – 1594), Abraham Ortelius (1527 – 1598) and the Blaeu family to catch the spherical earth in a convenient flat plane. It is a strictly theoretical approach to the communication between an observer and the environment, based on an ‘a priori‘ definition of division. It has, simultaneously, a philosophical connotation, inherent to this choice. This aspect is much less obvious in the ‘scientific’ map making of later centuries.

It is important to realize that the orientations of the great Portuguese and Spanish discoverers originated in a theoretical division-framework and not in any form of mathematical projection.

Pedro de Medina published in 1545 in Valladolid (Spain) his book ‘Arte Del Navegar’ and gives a sketchy, but remarkably complete picture of the earth, encompassed by eight winds (fig. 31). Here we see the merger of a well-developed theoretical division-idea with an emerging mathematical approach based on projection. The book was translated in French, German, English and Italian and the map figures in the editions printed in Venice in the years 1554, 1555 and 1609, but not – due to rivalry – in the French edition.


Fig. 31 – The world with eight winds. An illustration of Pedro de Medina’s book ‘Arte Del Navegar‘ (Valladolid, 1545). This fairly complete world picture, in some sort of fantasy-projection, is surrounded by eight winds as indicators for the main directions.

The compass, although known from the twelfth century, was in its initial stages a rather crude instrument and did not contribute substantially to the geographical discoveries of the fourteenth and fifteenth century. In fact, it was surrounded by superstition and seen as a magical force. Alexander Neckam (1157 – 1217) could write: ‘When the mariners cannot see the sun clearly in murky weather, or at night, and cannot tell which way their prow is tending, they put a needle above a magnet which revolves until its point looks north and then stands still.’

There might have been other than ‘mechanical’ reasons for the initiation of the great journeys, which resulted in the discovery of new lands. It could well be that this urge was caused by a desire for delimitation, for finding the end of the earth. This spirit could only develop in a mind that valuates an awareness of boundaries in the first place. A world without fixed limits is incomprehensible – and unacceptable – in a mind that operates on the lower division-level. So towards the end of the fifteenth century – in the Renaissance as the identity crisis of the European cultural history – these limits had to be found at all costs. That might be the true reason Columbus set sail.

And maybe it would have been better for the credibility of oppositional thinking as Columbus had dropped of the earth and was forever vanished. Then the world would, at least, have a definitive end. The reality was different when, three decades later, the diminished crew of Fernao de Magelhaen – he died in 1521 on an island of the Philippines – returned home in 1522 with the physical proof of a round world. A world with no beginning and no end. The Captain-General had shown the four lights (meaning: get under way), but the great search for boundaries and limitation came to no avail: cyclic thoughts had to be with us for the years to come, they were part of our living world. The two-fold way of thinking took its first blow, despite the immediate success of material discoveries, rich booty and fulfillment.

The upheaval in mental images can be seen in many pictures of the early sixteenth century, indicating the tension between the lower and higher forms of division thinking and the confusion of old symbolism. Fig. 32 shows an example of a reversed interpretation of (Eriugena’s) ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’: the cosmic/heavenly elements (the winds) are four-fold and the earth (in T-O representation) is three-fold.


Fig. 32 – The four winds and the world. A symbolic representation of a four-fold cosmic (heavenly) division and a three-fold terrestrial (earthly) division. This is a reversal of the interpretation of Eriugena (in the ninth century). The highest power (in three-partition) is shifted from God to earth (man). From the Florentine Codex, Vol. II, fol. 236r. , completed 1577.

The Greek traveler and geographer Kosmas Indicopleustes already figured out the theoretical implications of a cyclic approach in the sixth century AD (fig. 33). He was fiercely against the idea, because it did not fit in the Biblical interpretation. The geographer tried – in his book ‘Topographia Christiana‘ – to shape the Christian and Biblical representations into a comprehensive world view (WOLSKA, 1962). The earth has, in Kosmas’ opinion, the shape of a disk and is on four sides surrounded by oceans. The sun is each day raised by angels. And a round shape is impossible because on the Youngest Day the antipodes would be unable to see the Lord come down from the clouds (DIJKSTERHUIS, 1950, I: 119 – 120).


Fig. 33 – The antipodes are seen here in a manuscript of the ‘Topographia Christiana‘ of Kosmas Indicopleustes, sixth century AD. This picture tried to prove the impossibility of a round earth. In:  Laur.  fol.  98v – Topographie Chretienne van Cosmas Indicopleustes. WOLSKA  (1962).

Later, in the thirteenth century, the picture of two observers leaving each other in opposite directions, was revived by Gauthier de Metz and Vincent of Beauvais just to prove the spherical shape of the earth (fig. 34). The late fourteenth-century French bishop Nicole Oresme went even a step further: ‘Suppose that Plato leaves Athens heading westward on his way to circling the world, and Socrates does the same heading eastward. They return after three years, coming from the opposite directions. Now, did Plato, Socrates and the Athenians, who stayed behind, have the same time or not?’ He also knew the answer, long before the establishment of time zones and the international data-line: Plato would have lived one day longer than the Athenians and Socrates one day less.


Fig. 34 – Two observers would meet each other, if they set out in the opposite direction on a round earth: Gautier de Metz shows, in the thirteenth century, the consequences of a round earth. This picture is of the printed version of Vincent of Beauvais’ influential book ‘Speculum maior‘. (In: HARLEY, J.B. & WOODWARD, D. (1987) and Ch. XVII of: VINCENTIUS  (1481/1979)

The directions of the winds were gradually changed by magnetic bearings in the sixteenth century, but the main division in four directions (north, east, south and west) continued to be the structural setting for any orientation by a traveler or observer. It is now often forgotten that the four-division of the winds represents an ancient orientation system, which had philosophical implications as well.

The last, great book to offer a prominent position to the wind-directions is the publication by Cesare Cesariano (1484 – 1543) of Vitruvius’ ‘De Architectura’ (Como, 1521). All classical ideas about direction, in particular in relation to the building of cities and buildings, are brought together in this book (fig. 35).


Fig. 35 – The division of the wind rose in ‘Ventorum regiones‘ as given in Vitruvius’ book ‘De Architectura‘, published by Cesare Cesariano (Como, 1521). In the classical writings of Vitruvius, the direction was found by means of a sundial. Note the central spine for casting a shadow from the sun. Meridies (South) is, for this reason, placed at the top. In: KRINSKY (1969).

The ‘Cosmographia‘ of Peter Apianus (1495 – 1552) was edited and published in Antwerp by Gemmae Frisius in 1553. Apianus treated all sorts of cosmological and geographical divisions: a ‘Schema praemissae divisionis‘ with the ‘Circulis sphaerae‘ in Chapter III (folio 3) elaborates on ‘De Sex Circulis Sphaerae‘, ‘De Quatuor Circulis Minoribus‘ and ‘De Quinque Zonis‘. No particular division is prominent. Chapter (XV, folio 24) deals with the winds (De Ventis) and gives an illustration of a ‘quadratum nauticum‘ (fig. 36).


Fig. 36 –  A ‘Quadratum Nauticum‘. Example of a combination of ‘rosa dei venti‘ and magnetic bearings on a compass described in the ‘Cosmographia‘ (f. 24) of Petrus Apianus and Gemmae Frisius (1553). This edition has revolving diagrams on verso of l. 8 and 11, and on recto of l. 30 and 57. Inscriptions on these diagrams, also on some of the illustrations in the text, are in French. In: GUNTHER (1976).

The classical division in ‘rosa dei venti‘ is moved to the outer edge, while the more modern, ‘scientific’ division fills up the central part, with the four primary direction (Septentrio, Oriens, Meridies, Occidens) in a circle. This ‘quadratum nauticum‘ was used in combination with a magnet, and the orientation is therefore to the North. Map making since the sixteenth century has adopted this orientation (at the expense of the orientation to the East). It is another sign of the increased influence of the material elements (earth) over the immaterial (heaven).

The directions of the wind, and the way they are treated over the ages, provide a narrative of observation, which is closely related to the history of division-thinking. The roots are firmly embedded in the characteristics and relations of the four elements. Air and water are the elements of the multitude, whereas fire and earth are thought of as unities.

Orientation in the multitude is far more difficult than to establish a direction in a unity. The central fire of the sun is an easy fixture, just as the magnetic pole is a sure point of reference, but to find a way in the sky or over the waves of the sea is a different matter. Some frame of reference has to be developed. The stars and the winds have provided the material for the building of a mental structure, which could support the observation and direction-finding in the multitude or the unknown. And in the end it was not only the seafarer that benefited from that knowledge, but everybody who wanted to chart a route through life.

BOARDMAN,  John (Ed.)(1993). The Oxford History of Classical Art.  Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-81433386-9

BOORSTIN, Daniel J. (1983). The Discoverers. Random House, New York. ISBN 0-394-40229-4

BROWN, Lloyd A. (1949/1979). The Story of Maps. Dover Publications, New York.

DIJKSTERHUIS, Eduard J. (1950). De Mechanisering van het wereldbeeld. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam. ISBN 90 290 1570 5

DREIER, Franz A. (1979). Winkelmessinstrumente. Vom 16. bis zum frühen 19. Jahrhundert. Ausstellung im Kunstgewerbemuseum vom 9. November 1979 bis 23. Februar 1980, Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin.

GUNTHER,  Robert T.  (1976). Astrolabes of the World. Vol. I. The  eastern astrolabes. The Holland Press, London

HAPGOOD, Charles H. (1966/1979). Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings. Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age. Turnstone Books, London. ISBN 855500 018 X

KRINSKY, Carol Herselle (Intr.)(1969).  Vitruvius.  De Architectura.   Cesare Cesariano (Como,  1521). Wilhelm Fink Verlag,  München.

LEHR,   Andre  (1981). De  Geschiedenis  van  het  Astronomisch  Kunstuurwerk. Martinus Nijhoff, Den Haag. ISBN 90-247-9082-4

TAYLOR, Eva G.R. (1937). The ‘De Ventis‘ of Matthew Paris. Pp. 23 – 26 in: Imago Mundi 2. A Periodical Review of Early Cartography. Edited by Leo Bagrow and Edward Lynam. Henry Stevens, Son & Stiles, London.

– (1957). The Haven-Finding Art. History of Navigation from Odysseus to Captain Cook. Hollis & Carter, London/Institute of Navigation.

VINCENTIUS (Vincent of Beauvais). The Mirrour of the World (Westminster, 1481)(1979). Number 960. The English Experience. Its Record in Early Printed Books published in facsimile. Walter J. Johnson, Inc. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Ltd., Amsterdam/Norwood, N.J. ISBN 90 221 0960 7

WOLSKA, Wanda (1962). La Topographie Chretienne de Cosmas Indicopleustes. Theologie et Science au VIe Siecle. Bibliothèque Byzantine – Etudes 3. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris.

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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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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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11. Four seasons

The seasons

The changing weather conditions in the moderate climate zones north and south of the equator bring about a natural division in time, generally called the seasons. Marker points are the spring-equinox (associated with the first of the twelve signs of the zodiac), the summer solstice (the longest day), the autumn equinox and the winter solstice (the shortest day).

These points (in time) find their origin (in space), because they are related to the changing position of the Sun between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn due to the tilting and rotation of the earth. The practical division of four seasons does also occur in areas where the climatological changes are less obvious. In that situation – towards the equator – period of rain cause a ‘rainy season’ or annual strong winds (trade winds) are used as marker points in time. The ‘canonical’  four-way division of seasons is strongly established in the early Hellenic times of the third century AD. There are very few examples from the classical period (HINKS, 1939).

In the second to first century BC the Greek sun-year was adopted by the Jews (BEHRMANN, 1976). Initially, they only used two times of the year. In the new arrangement four angels were assigned to the seasons: Melekjal, Helemmelek, Melejal en Narel.

On the fourth day of Creation (tetras) the sun and the moon were positioned to mark the time (Genesis 1: 14 – 19). This notion is rather curious since it means that half of the creation took place before the appearance of light. BOBER (1961) has written an interesting article over this phenomenon. The ‘In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram‘ (the creation of heaven and earth) is preceding the creation of day and night (the time). Ambrosius concluded therefore to a ‘double’ creation. In the New Testament (John 1) the ‘In principio‘ returns in the opening-sentence ‘In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum‘ as a fulfillment of the Old Testament.

Victorinus of Pettau (died in the third century AD) used in his ‘Tractatus de fabrica mundi‘, a numerological four-fold method to divide the time, with no relation to the actual seasons. The ‘quattuor tempora‘ of Victorinus fit into a fourfold way of thinking, supported by the four living Things, the four Gospels, the rivers of Paradise and the four Generations (Adam – Noah; Noah – Abraham; Abraham – Moses and Moses to Christ).

The same dividing elements are elaborated by the Church fathers, who wanted to prove, with all possible means, that the Gospels hold the true message of God. Ambrosius (339 – 397), as the most prolific of them as far as numbers are concerned, summarized a tetradic list in his book ‘De Abraham’: four Gospels, four apocalyptic animals, four parts of the world and four ages (pueritia, adolescentia, iuventus, maturitas). He pointed to the tetrad as the base for the decad, which sounds like an echo of classical times (SEARS, 1986).

Johannicius refers, in his ‘Isagoge’, to adolescentia, iuventus, senectus en senium as the four seasons of life. Cassianus (c. 360 – 435) connected, in his ‘Collationes’, the four senses with types of knowledge (ESMEIJER, 1973/1978):

————–          anagoge         –        prophetia

————–          allegoria         –       revelatio

————–          historia           –      doctrina

————–          tropologia      –       scientia

Mosaics of the fourth century in Antioch show the four seasons in a pavement setting (MYERS (Ed.), 1985; p. 223, fig. 33). This period of the declining central power of the Roman Empire is fruitful for writers, who implemented the general division-idea in a religious-historical context.

The ‘Concordia Veteris et Novi Testamenti’ positioned the two Testaments opposite to each other. Ambrosius provided the captions by the paintings in the cathedral of Milan, where eighteen scenes from the Old Covenant are placed opposite ten of the New One. In the ‘Dittochaeon’ of Prudentius (348 – 410) some twenty-four episodes of the two Covenants are compared (TIMMERS, 1978). The Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit were represented in a three-fold division and the (numerological) four-fold emerged in the elements from the Scriptures.

Cyprianus (c. 400 AD.) extended the numerological scheme to twelve. He compared – in the attributed ‘De Pascha computus‘ – the twelve hours of the day and the twelve month with the twelve Apostles and the four seasons were equivalents of the four Evangelists (van RUN, 1989).

The search for analogies between worldly and holy items (regardless of the division-frame) was generated by a desire to find harmony. Augustinus’ work ‘De Musica’ was not primary concerned with music, but with harmony-in-general: ‘Musica est scientia bene modulandi‘. All important is the ‘modus‘ in which the communication takes place.

The numerical approach was two centuries later again favored by Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 633). His ‘Liber numerorum qui in sanctis scripturis’ was for centuries the ‘Fundgrube‘ for Christian-numerological evidence. The tetradic thought is strongly, but not exclusively, represented and sometimes illustrated with diagrams.

Transcriptions of the encyclopedic ‘Liber de natura rerum’ show seven cosmological diagrams. Six in a circular and one in a square setting. These diagrams, for mnemonic use (to memorize), are subsequently redrawn in manuscripts of the ninth to the thirteenth century (fig. 51). A good example of a time-division is found in the ‘Sacramentarium Fuldense’ (Göttingen) in the so-called Annus-miniature (fol. 250v). Annus is placed as a god amidst four wheel (the remains of the sun-wagon) and surrounded by four elements and the month.


Fig. 51 – These types of tetradic diagrams were used between the ninth and the thirteenth century as guidelines for the quadruple way of thinking. In the centre is the observer (homo), the world (mundus) or the year (annus) in a square or circle. Further circles underline the cyclic nature of different features like elements (ignis, aer, aqua and terra) or qualities (calidus, humida, frigida, sicca). However, also the direction of the wind, temperatures, times of the year and quarters and life periods support the tetradic world view. 1. From John Sacrobosco’s ‘Computus ecclesiasticus’, Ms 69, fol. 38v, New York Public Library; 2. From a compilation of Isidore of Seville. Ms. lat 12999, fol. 7r, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; 3. Annus-Mundus. Ms 3516, mappe-monde, fol. 179r, Bibliotheque de l’Arsenal, Paris; 4. From the ‘Dragmaticon’ by William of Conches, MS lat. 6415, f. 6r. Bibliotheque nationale, Paris.

The work of the eminent scholar Bede – the Venerable Bede, Beda Venerabilis – living in the Carolingian period (c. 800 AD) – connected the old-European and Celtic thoughts with Christian symbolism. He shaped, from his monastery of Jarrow in England, the different forms of division thinking into a firm base.

This blend of thoughts gained momentum some two hundred years later in the Scholastic movement centered on the ‘Libri Quattuor Sententiarum’ (‘Sententiae‘) by Petrus Lombardus, bishop of Paris. This compilation of excerpts from the Bible, works of the Church fathers, council-decisions and quotations from Abelard and Gratian’s ‘Decretum’, was written around 1150.

The ‘Sententiae’ were composed as a memorial of tetradic thinking. The structure is reflected in its outlay: the first book is concerned with God and his nature, the second book deals with the Creation and the Fall of man, the third book discussed the Incarnation of Christ and the Saviour and finally the fourth book explains the Sacraments and the Last Things (fig. 52).


Fig. 52 – The tetradic division of the ‘Sententiae’ of Petrus Lombardus: God – Creation – Incarnation – Sacraments, reflected the four ‘senses‘ of (religious) life. This book – and its associated tetradic approach – was the most influential document of the Scholastic period. It lost its prominence during  the thirteenth century and never lived up to a ‘revival’ or revaluation.

In the present day, the book is virtually unobtainable. It seems as if the symbiosis between (unconscious) tetradic thinking and a religious experience was broken forever. In stead, the majority of believers followed the narrower margins of dichotomous thinking, resulting in an increased materialism (known as science), rather than a pursuit of higher spiritual values.

Lambert of St. Omer wrote, around 1121 AD, a cosmological compendium, known as the ‘Liber floridus’. The seasons are related to other four-fold partitions in this most interesting encyclopaedic work. However, there are many other numerological connections and a specific form of division thinking is absent. The knowledge was mainly derived from Martianus Capella’s ‘De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii’ (The Marriage of Phylology and Mercurius), dating from the sixth century (fig. 53):

spring  (vera)      – air         –  adolescentia   –  blood            –  risus Iovis  (smile of Juve)

summer (esta)    – fire         –  iuventus          –  red bile        –  vertexVulcani (flame of Vulcan)

autumn (autumn) – earth   –   senectus         – black bile      –  ubera Iunonis (breast of Juno)

 winter(hiemas) – water – etas     – phlegm    – exitium Saturni decrepita                                                                                                               (destruction by Saturn)


Fig. 53 – Human presence (Homo) in a four-fold world, as given in the ‘Liber floribus‘ by Lambert of St. Omer (1121).

Honorius Augustodunensis issued his ‘Imago mundi’ at about the same time (c. 1110), using the same variations (probably with Bede’s ‘De temporum ratione’ as a source):

 spring            –         blood                  –     wet/hot            –        infantes

summer        –          red bile              –    dry/hot             –         iuvenes

autumn         –          black bile          –    melancholy      –         provectiores

winter            –          phlegm             –     old age              –        senes

The ‘Twelfth-century Renaissance’, as proposed by HASKINS (1927), is in many ways a definitive swing of the European culture into visibility and summarizes the thoughts of the previous ages. Most important of all is the shift to the physical aspect of seeing, a realization of presence.

The rose window in the cathedral of Lausanne (Switzerland) is the ‘iconographical statement of four seasons symbolism’ par excellence (HARLEY & WOODWARD, 1987). The windows fitted between 1235 and 1275 and can be seen as the apotheosis of the medieval tetradic thoughts. Ellen Judith BEER (1952; 1956; 1975) studied the imagery of the windows, while previous studies by BACH et al. (1944) covered the changes made by the restorations between 1894 and 1899.

The Lausanne rose window incorporates many numerological aspects of the fourfold division. Circle and square are the basic constituencies. The circle is seen as an abstract entity, while the square is earthly directed. The division in time (eight circles and the complete window) is more prominent than the division in place (two squares).

The year (Annus) is placed in the centre, surrounded by time-indicators like light/ darkness, and day/night, followed by seasons and months. The four rivers of Paradise are situated in the corners of the great square (fig. 54).


Fig. 54 – An explanation of the rose window of the cathedral of Lausanne, Switzerland. The year (Annus) is positioned in the centre (no. 1) of the rose window. The dual entities of sun (Sol, no. 2) and moon (Luna, 3)  and day (Dies, 4) and night (Nox, 5) are also in the central square. The seasons are in the (half) circles directly around this square: spring (Ver, 11), summer (Estas, 7), autumn (Autumpnus, 19) and winter (Hyems, 15). The elements fire (Ignis, 24), earth (Terra, 25), water (Aqua, 26) and air (Aer, 27) are the centres of the outer circles. According to BACH et al. (1944); BEER (1952) and  BEER: in BIAUDET (1975).

The motif of the four seasons revived in the Renaissance. It was expressed by such painters as Botticelli (Primavera), Cosimo Tura, Francesco del Cossa, Matteo Balducci, Giulio Romano and Tintoretto. The actual depth of the four-fold way of thinking is hardly ever touched by the Renaissance artists, and more often than not they place the outward appearances of bygone classical elements in a setting of power and opposites.

Otho van Veen (Vaenius) gave – in his ‘Quinti Horatii Flacci Emblemata’ (Antwerpen, 1612) – an illustration of the symbolism of the four seasons. Four persons of increasing age march away from the observer (fig. 55). The landscape is empty and only a butterfly-like angel is holding a sundial, representing the time (CHEW, 1962). Spring is a young child, sowing; summer is a grown-up man returning from the harvest; autumn is represented by an elderly man enjoying the fruits of life and winter is an old man, trying to keep the pace. In the right-hand corner lies a snake biting in his own tail. This is the so-called ‘uroborus‘, representing the cyclicity of time and rebirth (FISHER, 1984). The ‘uroborus‘ finds its origin in the Egyptian classical period and is closely related to the Alexandrian heritage of tetradic thinking.


Fig. 55 – Time leading the seasons. From the ‘Emblemata‘ of Otho van Veen (Vaenius), published in Antwerp in 1612. The illustration is typical for the rhetorical treatment of tetradic thinking in the seventeenth century.

The woodcuts of Robert Vaughan in Robert Farley’s ‘Kalendarium Humanae Vitae’ (Milan, 1638) represented the seasons with upper- (Latin) and lower (English) captions. Various actions are indicated: the spring is time to bud and sprout, summer is harvest-time, autumn is time to relax and winter invites to enjoy the fruits of life (fig. 56).

The setting of the four seasons in a linear and finite time-span is indicative of a dualistic approach, which generated the presentation of the tetradic motif of the seasons and is fairly typical for the period around the year 1650. Life is visualized as a natural curve, following the environmental changes within a year.


Fig. 56 – The seasons. Woodcut of Robert Vaughan in Robert Farley’s ‘Kalendarium Humanae Vitae’ (Milan, 1638). Vaughan used the same framework to characterize the seasons in pairs: one medallion is a personification of the season and the other one points to the (agricultural) activities in the time of the year.

The land is ploughed with a two-span in springtime. The harvest is reaped and fishing is done in the summer. The autumn gives the opportunity to enjoy the wine, but also make one realize, that the forward movement has turned into a retreat (I shall go backward). In winter one sits near the fire with a small child playing at your feet, pointing to a new cycle of life, just like the seasons.

The seasons figured ‘fairly frequent’ on paintings in the seventeenth century (HALL, 1974). Representations were supported by classical-pagan symbo-lism, which got drawn from the corpus of Roman story telling, in particular Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’:

 Season                           Product/attribute                Instrument                   Pagan god


Spring                                    flowers                             spade/hoe                  Flora/Venus

Summer                         fruits/sheaf of corn                   sickle                            Ceres

Autumn                              grape/vine                            wine-press                   Bacchus

Winter                               thickly clad                                                            Boreas/Vulcanus

Pietro Testa (1612 – 1650) was a draughtsman from Lucca, who produced etchings of the four seasons in an Italian Baroque style (fig. 57), about thirty years after the ‘Emblemata’. CROPPER (1988) gave a comprehensive review of his prints and drawings, released under such light-hearted titles as the ‘Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus‘, ‘The suicide of Cato‘, ‘Achilles Dragging the Body of Hector‘, ‘An Allegory of the Massacre of the Innocents‘ and ‘The Rape of Proserpina‘. He pointed to the interest of Rembrandt in his work in the 1650’s.


Fig. 57 – Sketch for the etching of the ‘Summer‘ by Pietro Testa, part of a series of the four seasons in an allegorical setting. Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. Juno symbolizes, in the final version, the air, Cybele (and the lion) the earth, Vulcanus the fire and the vase/river god the water.

The theme of the seasons and elements was repeated in the ‘Allegory of the Elements of Nature‘ (1644). Four elements descending from the heavens to the earth: ‘Like the drawing of the Elements in the Pierpont Morgan Library, this composition is closely related to the series of ‘The Seasons‘, completed in 1644. Here, as in Summer and Winter, the natural world was characterized as a cyclical elemental struggle between fire, air, water, and earth’ (CROPPER, 1974; 1988).

The etchings of Testa (Autumn and Spring, 1642; Winter and Summer, 1644) are most likely inspired by Michelangelo’s ‘Times of the Day‘ in the Medici Chapel (PANOFSKY, 1939/67; pp. 205 – 208). Elizabeth CROPPER (1974) summarized the spirit as follows: ‘The mortal soul caught in the coil of the elements and their changes, struggling to be free and to rise beyond the reach of Time and the elemental passions.’

A new homage to the seasons was presented by James Thomson, who praised, between 1726 and 1728, nature in a poem called ‘The Seasons’. The complete work was published in 1730 (THOMSON, 1981)(fig. 58).


Fig. 58 – Winter. An illustration of James Thomson’s poem ‘The Seasons’, published in the first complete version in 1730. All four elements together create an atmosphere of disaster in a once Arcadian landscape.

Antonio Vivaldi’s concertos called the ‘Four Seasons‘ (Le quattro stagioni, 1725) expressed the same spirit of the time. They were part of a group of twelve concertos called ‘Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione’ (The struggle between Harmony and Invention). The four seasons were again in the centre of interest at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Haydn’s ‘Die Jahreszeiten‘ (1801) used the text of James Thomson’s ‘The Seasons‘ (fig. 59).

haydnFig. 59 – The original edition of ‘Die Jahreszeiten‘ (The Seasons) by Joseph Haydn was published by Breitkopf & Hartel in Leipzig.

The seasons are cyclic weather-patterns, which influence human behavior. An analogy with various stages in a life can be made in a general way. The seasons are now hardly related to a four-fold way of thinking or seen as a guideline to an understanding of the cyclic forces of nature.


BACH, Eugène; BLONDEL, Louis & BOVY, Adrien (1944). Les Monuments d’Art et d’Histoire du Canton de Vaud. Tome II. In: Les Monuments d’Art et d’Histoire de la Suisse, Tome XVI. Edition Birkhaüser S.A., Bâle.

BEER, Ellen J. (1952). Die Rose der Kathedrale von Lausanne und der kosmologische Bilderkreis des Mittelalters. Phil. Dissertation, Bern.

–   (1956). Die Glasmalereien der Schweiz von 12. bis zum Beginn des 14. Jahrhundert. Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Schweiz. Vol. 1, Birkhäuser, Basel.

–   (1975). Les vitraux du Moyen Age de la cathedrale. In: BIAUDET, Jean Charles et al. (1975). Le Cathedrale de Lausanne. Bibliothèque de la Société d’Histoire de l’Art en Suisse. ISBN 3 85 782 030 17

BEHRMANN, Inge (1976). Darstellungen der vier Jahreszeiten auf Objekten der Volkskunst. Herbert Lang, Bern/Peter Lang, Frankfurt. ISBN 3 261 01816 X

BOBER, Harry (1961). In Principio. Creation Before Time. In: MEISS, Millard (Ed.) (1961). De Artibus Opuscula XL. Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky. Vol. I. New York University Press, New York.

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

CROPPER, Elizabeth (1974). Virtue’s wintry reward: Pietro Testa’s Etchings of the Seasons. Pp. 249 – 279 in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Vol. XXXVII, The Warburg Institute, London.

–    (1988). Pietro Testa, 1612 – 1650. Prints and Drawings. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia/University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-7960-3

ESMEIJER, Anna C. (1973). Divina Quaternitas. Een onderzoek naar methode en toepassing der visuele exegese. Proefschrift Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht, 29-06-1973. Also as:

–   (1978). Divina Quaternitas. A Preliminary Study in Method and Application of Visual Exegesis. Van Gorcum, Assen/Amsterdam.

FISHER, Joe (1984). The Case for Reincarnation. Granada Publishing Limited, London. ISBN 0-246-12650-7

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

HARLEY, J.B. & WOODWARD, David (1987). The History of Cartography. Vol. I: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/ London.

HASKINS,  Charles H. (1927). The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

HINKS, Roger (1939). Myth and Allegory in Ancient Art. Pp. 43 – 51 in: Studies of the Warburg Institue, Vol. 6.

MEYERS, Bernard S. (Ed.) (1985). Landmarks of Western Art. Architecture. Painting. Sculpture. Newnes Books/The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited/W.H. Smith. ISBN 0 600 35840 2

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

RUN, van, Anton (1989). Annus, quadriga mundi. Over de adaptatie van een klassiek thema in de vroegmiddeleeuwse kunst. Pp. 152 – 178 in: BEDAUX, J.B. (Ed.) (1989). Annus Quadriga Mundi. Opstellen over Middeleeuwse kunst opgedragen aan prof. dr. Anna C. Esmeijer. De Walburg Pers, Zutphen/Clavis Publ., Utrecht. ISBN 90 601 1660 7

SEARS, Elizabeth (1986). The Ages of Man. Medieval Interpretations of the Life Cycle. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. ISBN 0-691-04037-0

THOMSON, James (1730/1981). The Seasons (Ed./Intr. James Sambrook). Clarendon Press, Oxford/Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0 19 812713 8

TIMMERS, J.J.M. (1978). Christelijke symboliek en iconografie. De Haan, Haarlem/ Unieboek BV., Bussum. ISBN 90 228 4017 4

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12. Time consciousness

The calendar


The calendar is an indicator for the time-consciousness of human beings and therefore related to visibility in general. The introduction of a calendar is of the utmost importance for the orientation in time, just in the same way as a map is of importance for the orientation in place. The present division of a year in twelve month, four quarters and fifty-two weeks is rather a garble of different forms of division thinking. The major two-fold division looms in the background between timekeeping based on the position of the sun or the moon.

The first signs of organized timekeeping occur in the European cultural period in the fourth century AD. The heritage of Jewish timekeeping, based on the orbit of the moon, clashed in early Christianity with the notion of time of the Romans, based on the velocity of the sun. These different approaches came, in particular, to a head in the elaborated way to calculate the day of Eastern. ‘The Christian era, with its years AD arose from attempts to calculate the festival of Easter by  a luni-solar calendar’ (HARRISON, 1976).

The eastern, lunar calculation placed the Resurrection of Christ on the first full moon after the spring-equinox. This is not necessarily a Sunday. In the western idea Easter should be on a Sunday, so there was the problem. On the Counsel of Nicea in 325 AD – where the Holy Trinity was established – the two points of view stood opposite to each other.

Eventually, the Western way prevailed. Easter is now on the Sunday closest to the first full moon on the day of or after the spring-equinox. This period can vary from one to thirty-five days in the period between the 21st of March and the 25th of April (COWIE & GUMMER, 1974; STRUBBE & VOET, 1960/1991). Tables of the day of Easter were created to indicate the day long in advance (fig. 60).


Fig. 60 –  Calendar with the days of Easter on the church wall of the Eglise Saint-Etienne de la Cite (Old Cathedral) in Perigueux (Dordogne, France). In: CORDOLIANI (1964). The inscription was not found when I visited the place in 2007, but then a restoration had sealed off the greater part of the terrain.


Fig. 61 – Eglise Saint-Etienne de la Cite (Old cathedral) in Perigueux (Dordogne, France). ‘Nicknamed “the big mosque” by Victor Hugo, the Saint-Front Cathedral stands out with its Byzantine style and 5 cupolas. The name Périgueux comes from Petrocorii, a Latinization of Celtic words meaning “the four tribes” – the Gallic people that held the area before the Roman conquest. Périgueux was their capital city. In 200 BC, the Petricorii came from the North and settled at Perigueux and established an encampment at La Boissière. After the Roman invasion, they left this post and established themselves on the plaine of L’Isle, and the town of Vesunna was created. This Roman city was eventually embellished with amenities such as temples, baths, amphitheatres, and a forum. At the end of the third century AD, the Roman city was surrounded by ramparts, and the town took the name of Civitas Petrocoriorum. In the 10th century, Le Puy-Saint-Front was constructed around an abbey next to the old Gallo-Roman city. It was organised into a municipality around 1182′ (Wikipedia). Photo: Marten Kuilman (2007).

The ‘Chronica’ of Hiëronymus contained the first design of a time-table. The translation in 380 AD. of Eusebius of Caesarea provided the structural setting of Augustinus’ ‘De Civitate Dei‘. The system became more precise as Dionysius Exiguus applied the year-tables of St. Cyril of Alexandria in 525 AD. The latter wrote – in the early fifth century – a history started with Diocletian (240 AD). Dionysius Exiguus extended the period to the birth of Christ by introducing the ‘anno ab incarnationes domini nostri Jesu Christi‘ (BORST, 1990; DECLERCQ, 2002) (fig. 62). This approach was gradually – in a process spanning several centuries – accepted as the actual ‘beginning’ of Western time-calculation.


Fig. 62 – Easter cycle of Dionysius Exiguus. Marble. Ravenna, 6th cent. Museum Ravenna.
In: BORST, 1990.

Victoris Tonnennensis (c. 567) was the first on record to use the Christian calendar (NEWTON, 1972). The calendar of Dionysius was officially proclaimed as standard on the Council of Whitby (England) in 664 AD. From this time onwards the study and registration of chronology became a major occupation. Bede’s ‘De Temporum Ratione’, dated in 725 AD, was the most notable and influential product of these efforts (fig. 63).


Fig. 63 – Calendar of Bede. Irish manuscript, Laon of Soissons, c. 850. Landesbibliothek Karlsruhe. In: BORST (1990).

The ‘Frankish Annals’ (741 – 788; the ‘Annales Laurissenses’), the ‘Annales Einhardi’ (788 – 829) and the ‘Liber Pontificalis‘ (over the life of the popes between the sixth century and 887) indicated a further general time-consciousness.

EinhardThe ‘Annals of Donegal’ are of importance in Ireland. These stories were collected between 1632 and 1636 by Michel O’Clery and three assistants. They became later known as the ‘Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters’ (O’DONOVAN, 1851; GOUGAUD, 1911). The most complete version of Irish historical writings was formed by the ‘Annals of Ulster‘ (HUGHES, 1972).

Einhardt (775 – 840), scholar and courtier

The period around 900 AD was ‘a low-water mark of historical writing in France and Germany’ (POOLE, 1926). A sharp increase in the number of chronicles, with history-writers like Herman the Cripple of Reichenau, Bernold of Constance and Sigebert of Gembloux, took place after 1050. This pattern fitted into the overall trend to reach for an ‘empirical’ visibility towards the twelfth century.

The library of St John’s College in Oxford is in the possession of a compilation manuscript (MS 17), dated from the late eleventh and early twelfth century. It contains copied work of Bede, Heinric of Auxerre, Byrhtferth (of Ramsay), astronomical tables, part of the ‘Arithmetica’ of Boëthius and a discussion over the abacus. Folio 3v contained the date 1110. The moon tables (on f. 29) started in 1083 (HASKINS, 1924/1960).

Further critical remarks on the calendar are made in this same period. The calculations of Dionysius were studied, for instance, by Gerland in his ‘Computus’ (1081, MS lat. 11260, f7v.), Marianus Scottus (1028 – 1082) and in the anonymous ‘Liber decennalis in modum dialogi compositus’ (Bibl. Angelica, Rome. MS 1413, ff. 1 – 24).

Bacon suggested to pope Clement IV – in his ‘Opus Majus’ (Paris, 1267) – to change the calender (DUHEM, 1958; III, p. 412). Action was only taken some three hundred years later in 1582 as an advisory-commission for pope Gregory X proposed to lapse ten days (from 5 to 15 Oct.) to correct the Julian calendar (based on 365,25 days in a year) (COYNE et al., 1983; GIMPEL, 1988). The leap year (bissextile), once every four years, makes up the difference. An extra correction takes place on the turn of the century, when only years, which could be divided by four, get an extra day (on the 29th of February).

From this short survey emerges a confusing pattern. All types of division seem to mix in pluriformity: three hundred and sixty four (or five) days in a year, hundred (century), sixty (minutes in an hour), fifty-two weeks, thirty days (in a month), twelve month (in a year), seven days (in a week), four quarters (in an hour), three quarters (in a year), two (day and night) are all figures with a different division-background and do not indicate any specific prominence in time. However, they all point to the importance of ‘division’ as a guiding entity to tackle the realm of the infinity (of time).

Making a calender (as an event) is a decision on division. It marks a distinct moment of historic consciousness, which is closely related to the (quadralectic) understanding of visibility.

BORST, Arno (1990). Computus. Zeit und Zahl in der Geschichte Europas. Bnd. 28 in: Kleine Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek. Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin. ISBN 3 8031 51287

DECLERCQ, G. (2002). Dionysius Exiguus and the Introduction of the Christian Era. Pp. 165 – 246 in: Sacris Erudiri. Vol. 41. Brepols Publishers. ISSN 0771-7776

CORDOLIANI, A. (1964). La table pascale de Perigieux. pp. 57 – 60  in: Cahiers  des Civilisation Medievale X – XII Siecles. Centre d’etudes superieures de civilisation medievale.  Tome IV. Universite de Poitiers.

COWIE, Leonard W. & GUMMER, John S. (1974). The Christian Calender. A complete guide to the seasons of the Christian year, telling the story of Christ and the Saints from Advent to Pentecoast. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London. ISBN 0 297 76804 2

COYNE, G.; HOSKIN, M. & PEDERSON, O. (Ed.) (1983). Gregorian Reform of the Calender. Proc.of the Vatican Conference to Commemorate Its 400th Anniversary. 1582 – 1982. Specola Vat., Vatican City.

DONOVAN, O’, John (Ed.) (1851). Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. 6 Vol., Dublin.

DUHEM,  Pierre  (1958).  Le Système du Monde.  Histoire des  doctrines  cosmologiques de Platon a Copernic. Tome I – IV. Hermann, Paris.

GIMPEL, Jean (1979/1988). The Medieval Machine. The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages. Futura, London/Scolar Press, Aldershot, England.

GOUGAUD, Louis (1911). Les chrétientés celtiques. J. Gabalda, Paris.

HARRISON,  Kenneth (1976). The Framework of Anglo-Saxon History to AD 900. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.ISBN 0 521 20935 8

HASKINS,  Charles H. (1924/1960). Studies in the History of Mediaeval Science. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York.

HUGHES, Kathleen (1972). Early Christian Ireland. Introduction to the Sources. The Camelot Press Ltd./The Sources of History Limited, London. ISBN 0 340 16145 0

NEWTON, Robert R. (1972). Medieval Chronicles and the Rotation of the Earth. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore/London. ISBN 0-8018-1402-2

POOLE, Reginald L. (1926). Chronicles and annals. A brief outline of their origin and growth. Clarendon Press.

STRUBBE, E.I. & VOET, L. (1960/1991). De chronologie van de Middeleeuwen en de moderne tijden in de Nederlanden. Standaard Boekhandel, Antwerpen/Amsterdam; Palais des Academies/Paleis der Academiën, Bruxelles/Brussel.

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13. Four ages

The fourfold division in human life


The division of a human life in certain periods has been known from Antiquity. Elizabeth SEARS (1986) and BURROW (1986) gave – in the same year and under the same title ‘The Ages of Man’ – a survey of the different types of divisions of the human presence in a historical context. Both books provide a wealth of division types in the (European) Middle Ages, but do not position their results in a time-related context.

Burrow was of the opinion, that biological orientated writers favored the threefold division (with an ‘augmentum – status – decrementum‘ setting), the physiologists (or early medical professions) preferred the fourfold, and the sevenfold division was promoted by astrologists (or early human sciences). An example of the last category was given in a book of the Greek-Egyptian astronomer, mathematician and geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus, called the ‘Tetrabiblos’, dating from the first century AD. This book was written in an intense Alexandrian spirit and presented a seven-division of the human life-span (WINKEL, 1923):

period                                            duration in years                                         cosmic body


 0 –  4                                                          4                                                               Moon

  4 – 14                                                       10                                                              Mercure

14 – 22                                                        8                                                               Venus

22 – 41                                                       19                                                               Sun

41 – 56                                                       15                                                               Mars

56 – 68                                                      12                                                               Jupiter

68 – end                                                     –                                                                Saturn

BURROW (1986) referred to a ‘four-age tradition in Antiquity’, but does not really touch the subject: ‘the development of the tetradic scheme in Antiquity is a much-studied subject which lies outside the scope of this book.’

Nearly four centuries after Bede’s ‘De Temporum Ratione‘, the English monk Byrhtferth wrote his ‘Manual’, and reworked the material to a full-flown tetradic universe (BAKER, 1980; HART, 1972) (fig. 64). The so-called ‘Ramsey Computus’ (1086 – 1092) was the highlight of the Medieval four-fold way of thinking, in a visible form (fig. 65). SINGER (1928) dated the manuscript in 1110. BAKER & LAPIDGE (1995) gave a full description of Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion.


Fig. 64 – A tetradic diagram in Byrthferth’s Manual. Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Ashmole 328, p. 85. In: SEARS, 1986. The ages of man are four-fold: Pueritia (the months January – March), adolescentia (April – June),  juventus (July – September) and senectus (October – December)

The diagram of Byrhtferth in the Ramsey Computus. Oxford, St. John College, ms. 17, fol. 7v (around 1100 AD) is the apotheosis of medieval tetradic thinking.


Fig. 65  – The four-fold micro- and macro-cosmos in the ‘Manual of Byrhtferth‘, Oxford St. John College ms.17 fol.7v. The ages of man (pueritia (-14 years), adolescentia (-28 years),  juventus (- 48 years) and senectus (70 – 80 years) make a clockwise motion.

A rather rough copy is present in the ‘Peterborough Computus‘ (Fol. 8r. British Library, London. MS Harley 3667) (fig. 66). FOYS (2006)  pointed – in his article of an unfinished Mappa Mundi from Late Eleventh-Century Worcester – to this Harley 3667 document. It seems that the ADAM depiction is on the reverse of a mappa mundi map (T-O map) of Harley 3667, 8v.

petersboroughFig. 66 – Byrhtferth’s diagram from the ‘Peterborough Computus‘. Fol. 8r. British Library, London. MS Harley 3667. In: SEARS,  1986.

A further division of the human life in four was given by Philip de Novare (1265) in his ‘Les Quatre Ages de l’homme’ (FREVILLE, 1888). In the same spirit was Aldobrandino of Siena’s ‘La Regime du corps’ (1287) (fig. 67, see also fig. 16).


Fig. 67 – The ‘four ages of man’ by Aldobrandino of Siena (1287) in ‘La regime du corps‘. fol. 42v, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, cod. Reg. lat. 1256. In: SEARS, 1986.

 The theme of the four ages of man continued after the thirteenth century of the European cultural period, but its character became increasingly symbolic. Genuine four-fold thinking drifted towards a lower division environment. This move – which lasted for almost six-hundred years – increased the (visible) visibility, but decreased the character of real tetradic thinking. The invention of the printing press ‘enabled the widespread dissemination of the literature of symbolism including the new genres of emblem and device’ (RAYBOULD, 2009). The world of painting added to the visualization of the four-fold, but not necessarily to the understanding of a tetradic world view. Jan Miense Molenaer’s painting of the ‘four ages of man‘ (1630) epitomized the state of affairs (in division thinking) in the seventeenth century (fig. 68).


Fig. 68 – The Four Ages, a painting by Jan Miense Molenaer, 1630 (Museum van Loon, Keizersgracht 672, Amsterdam).


BAKER, Peter S. (1980). The Old English Canon of Byrhtferth of Ramsey. Speculum 55, 1

BAKER, S. and LAPIDGE, M. (Ed.). 1995. Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion. Oxford University Press, Oxford. (with Old English and modern translation)

BURROW, J.A. (1986). The Ages of Man. A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought. Clarendon Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-811188-6

FOYS, Martin (2006). Anglo-Saxon England.  An unfinished mappa mundi from Late Eleventh century Worcester. Cambridge University Press.


FREVILLE, M. de (1888). Philippe de Novare. Les Quatres Ages de l’homme. SATF, Paris.

HART, Cyril (1972). Byrthtferth and His Manual. Medium Aevum, 41 (1972), 96.

RAYBOULD, Robin (2009). Emblemata. Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance. The Grollier Club, New York.


SEARS, Elizabeth (1986). The Ages of Man. Medieval interpretations of the Life cycle. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04037-0

SINGER,  Charles  (1928).  From Magic to Science.  Essays on  the  Scientific Twilight. Ernest Benn Ltd., London.

WINKEL, Max E. (tr.) (1923). Tetrabiblos. Buch I und II. Die Hundert Aphorismen nach Philipp Melanchton besorgten und mit einer Vorrede versehenen Ausgabe aus dem Jahre 1553. Ins Deutsche übertragen von M. Erich Winkel. 2 Bände. Linser Verlag, Berlin-Pankow.

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14. Gold, silver, bronze and iron

The four monarchies

The myth of the four monarchies is – like a good myth behooves – a recurrent and renewing story from way back when. A specific motif – in this case a sequence of four periods – follows a historical path and reflects the ways of understanding in different times and places. The four monarchies are a tetradic element in history, but it is questionable  if their presence is more than a numerological curiosity. The decreasing quality of the metals, from gold to iron, points in a linear direction, which is typical for lower division thinking.

Two mainstream developments – from a European point of view – can be distinguished in the myth: a Christian and a pagan version. The first is based on Bible-texts in Daniel 2 : 31 – 45; Daniel 7 : 1 – 14 and II Thess. 2 : 3 – 8. These religious stories are, most likely, younger derivatives of a worldly version, which originate, according to KASSIES (1989), from Asia Minor. There is also a possible eastern connection in the mythology of India, where four ages are related to metals (ENDRES, 1951):

                            Gold                                                     –     happiness

                            Silver                                                   –      fire

                            Bronze                                                 –     doubt

                            Iron                                                      –     sorrow

The periods have the following names in the Hindu-mythology: Satya, Dwarpara, Treta en Kali (ARGÜELLES, 1972).

The Greek epic poet Hesiod of Ascra propagated the myth, in his poem ‘Erga’ (Works and Days, eighth century BC.), in the European cultural realm. The Roman Ovidius, living at the beginning of the Christian era, retold  the story in his ‘Metamorphoses’.  The division of the world history in four units and their characterization by metals remained a cultural theme since. The four ages are, in their elementary form, recorded at the beginning of Book I of the ‘Metamorphoses’:

 Age of:                     Gold             the ‘aetas aurea‘, ruled by justice;

                                   Silver           no offerings to the gods; establishment of the four                                                                            seasons; building of shelters;

                                   Bronze         period of war; warlike and recklessness

                                   Iron              chaos and injustice, disaster is looming;  division of                                                            the land

The older version of Hesiod added a fifth period between the bronze and the Iron Age, characterized as the age of heroes and demigods, living on islands of salvation. Because of the justice, they surpass the third age. Plato (in the ‘Politeia’, 415A) considers himself living in the age of Iron, with much injustice (CORNFORD, 1912).

The poet Lucretius (ca. 99 – ca. 55 BC) revived the idea of the four ages in Roman times in the poem ‘De Rerum Natura’ (Book V) and also Vergil (70 – 19 BC) elaborated on the thoughts of a Golden Age.

The tradition of the four monarchies was of prime interest in the sixteenth and seventeenth century of the European cultural history. It started with the publication of Ovidius’ ‘Metamorphoses’ in a French edition of Jean de Tournes in 1557 (BOLTEN, 1984). The woodcuts of this edition (including the four world ages) are attributed to Bernard Salomon and reach the Low Countries in 1563 through copies of Vergil Solis. Within a century, there were many reprints. Between 1585 and 1590 the theme was taken up by Hendrick Goltzius (1558 – 1617).

This development was strengthened by ‘classical’ material from Italy. The Italian painter and engraver Antonio Tempesta (1555 – 1630) published in 1606 a large series of hundred and fifty etchings based on the ‘Metamorphoses’ (fig. 69). A comparison between the illustrations (of the ‘Metamorphoses’ and the four times of the world) by Salomon, Tempesta and Goltzius was made by  HENKEL (1930).


Fig. 69 – The Aetas aurea, or the Golden Age, is a symbol of a period of prosperity. This etching is by Antonio Tempesta (1555 – 1630). The series of the ‘aetas’ was published in 1606, but Tempesta’s designs were already imitated by Hendrick Goltzius and Chrispijn de Passe (c. 1564 – 1637), who published their own cycles in respectively 1590/1591 and 1602.  In: HORODISCH, Abraham (Ed.)(1984, p. 23).

The history of the myth of the four monarchies is an interesting one, but not always as clear as one would wish. The possible source in Asia Minor is already mentioned by KASSIES (1989). The theme was, according to MEYER (1910/1924), Hesiod’s own invention and any similarity with the Greek (Boeotian) and oriental division were a coincidence. The Christian version is much younger.

The Biblical story of Nebuchadnezar’s dream was the source of the Jewish/Christian branch of the four monarchies. The prophet Daniel explained the dream as follows: the head is made of gold, breast and arms are of silver, belly and thies are of bronze and the legs are of iron. The feeds are partly of iron and partly of clay. The diminishing quality of the metals pointed to the inferior quality of governments following the one of Nebuchadnezar. A large rock rolling from a mountain, which destroys the statue, is the end of the dream (fig. 70).


Fig. 70 – Nebuchadnezar’s dream. From the Silos Apocalypse (completed in 1109). The statue is complete (left) and subsequently in pieces, due to a rock not made by human hands. In: SMALLEY, 1974.

The oneirocritical Daniel situated his prediction in his own time and pointed to the future: Nebuchadnezer (‘You are the head’) personified the Golden Age at the beginning of a communication. ROWLEY (1935/1959) gave – in an excellent description of the historical setting of the myth of the four monarchies – a different position of Daniel:

                           1. Chaldean      –     Nebuchadnezar  –    Neo-Babylonic Empire

                           2. Medes           –     ‘Darius the Mede’

                            3. Persians       –     Cyrus : Daniel in the third year of Cyrus

                            4. Greek            –     Alexander

The Biblical version suggested that Daniel made his prediction in the Babylonian Captivity (586 – 539 BC.). However, historical research showed that the work was composed around 168/165 BC. (TABOUIS, 1931; ROWLEY, 1935/1959; SWAIN, 1940). The ‘prediction’ of Daniel, based on Nebuchadnezar’s dream, was therefore given ‘post eventus’. It was likely fueled by the expectations of a victory by Judas Maccabaeus to enter the Fifth Monarchy (SWAIN, 1940).

Manipulation of the position of the observer (reversal) can even lead to a complete different interpretation: in stead of a downward trend (as predicted by Daniel), there is also an upwards trend, glorifying the last (implicit the Roman) Empire. An example of the ‘upward’ movement is Polybius (c. 200 – 120 BC: Persians, Lacedaemonians, Macedonians, Romans) and Diodorus Siculus (first century BC: Egyptians, Assyrians, Greek, Romans) (SWAIN, 1940; VAN DER POT, 1951).

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, around the beginning of the Christian era, had an unconditional faith in the duration of the Roman Empire. He recognized – in his ‘Romanae antiquitates’ (the history of Rome until the Punic Wars in twenty books) – the four previous world powers (Assyria, Medes, Pers and Macedonia) and puts the Roman Empire as the ‘eternal’, fifth world-power.

A fragment of Aemilius Sura (‘de annis populi Romani‘), mentioning the four world empires, was included in the ‘Historiae Romanae’ of Vellius Paterculus. Appianus wrote, around 140 BC, a Roman history in twenty-four books, also with the Roman Empire as the fifth and last era.

This optimistic outlook on the position of the Roman Empire could not hold forever and had to be modified. Pompeius Trogus proposed a more realistic version at the beginning of the Christian era (SCHUMACHER, 2000). Only the ‘prologi’ of his twenty-four books remain, because M. Junius Justinus adapted them at the end of the third century AD. The Roman Empire is seen as the fourth monarchy, leaving room for a possible (Christian) fifth era. SWAIN (1940) noticed that Trogus (and Justinus) where – up to the Renaissance – more important as historians than Livy and Tacitus. TRIEBER (1892) underlined the popularity of Justinus as a historian, who was only shifted aside by the humanistic tendencies, when the orthodox version of Roman as a fifth and eternal era could take hold again.

The first flaws of the Roman eternal greatness began to show up in the beginning of the Christian era. Flavius Josephus description of the history of the Jewish people (c. 90 AD) was inspired by a genuine disgust of Roman megalomania. He elaborated in his ‘Antiquitates’ (Book X, Ch. 10) on the idea of the four  monarchies. The stone (destroying the statue) must be seen as the Messiah, crushing the Roman Empire. The first century AD was a time of political turmoil. In Syria and Palestine, there was ‘a lot of coming and going of inconsequential visionaries, evangelists, and fakes’ (MacMULLEN, 1984; NEUSNER et al, 1987), who mobilized forces against the foreign domination. The roots of Christianity are closely related to a power struggle in the Roman Empire.

KOCKEN (1935) examined the Christian sources and their eschatological implications. He pointed out, that this latter aspect was typical for the Christian version, while the power of Fate determined the duration of the periods in the pagan explanation of the myth (fig. 71).


Fig. 71 – The apocalyptic animals in the Bible (Ezekiel/Revelations). The four beasts (a lion with eagle wings, a leopard with four heads, a bear and a beast with eleven horns) signify the four world monarchies. British Museum, London. MS Add 11695, f. 240r. Jerome, Commentary on Daniel. Daniel chapter 7, verses 2-10. Daniel’s vision of the four beasts from the sea and the Ancient of Days. In: SMALLEY,  1974.

The four monarchies in the early Christian exegesis of the first centuries are:

                                                    1. Babylonian Empire

                                                    2. Medo-persian Empire

                                                    3. Macedonian Empire

                                                    4. Roman Empire

The four primary sources of the Christian version of the myth are, according to KOCKEN (1935):

 1. The first development of the idea is found by Irenaeus, in his book ‘Adversus Haereses’ (V. 26, 1). The fourth monarchy is the empire at present in force (i.e. the Roman Empire) and the fifth monarchy is due to come.

2. Hippolytus (c. 200 BC), a pupil of Irenaeus, is more important for the generation and dispersion of the theory. He confirmed, in his book ‘De Antichristo’ (19 – 28) and his commentary on the Book of Daniel (II, 12), a strong Roman Empire as the fourth monarchy, which can only delay the disaster afterwards.

3. No commentary on the Book of Daniel is known of Origines (c. 185 – c. 245), but there is a commentary on Genesis (Comm. in Gen. III, 4), which referred to the four monarchies. He did not hind to an eschatological conclusion.

4. The fourth source is Apollinaris of Laodicea, mentioned in book XV of Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 320).

Most influential for the dispersion of the myth of the four monarchies or world periods was the ‘Commentariorum in Danielem prophetam’ of Hieronymus (c. 407). This writing was copied by the ninth century monk Walafried Strabo in his ‘Glossa ordinaria’. This latter version became most authoritative in the Middle Ages. Hieronymus (St. Jerome) gave, according to TRIEBER (1892), ‘allgemeinen Geltung‘ (general meaning) to the theory. BLOOMFIELD (1957, notes p. 276) supported this point of view.

Orosius (c. 418) pretended not to know the Christian version of the four monarchies and did not mention Daniel. However, his ‘Seven Books of the History against the Pagans‘ is structurally based on the four monarchies.  Book I deals with the Assyrians, Book II and III are concerned with the Macedonians, Book IV describes the people of Carthage, Book V and VI is about Rome and finally Book VII leads to the birth of Christ and the Fifth Empire.

The monarchies passed through the Renaissance in either the pagan-humanistic or Christian version and became part of the symbolic representations in the six- and seventeenth century of Europe. Sleidanus (1669) wrote a small ‘pocketbook’ (9 x 12 cm) titled ‘de Quatuor Monarchiis libri tres’. The footnotes – with references to an array of classical authors – took as much space as the text. He attributed the classical theory of the four monarchies (Babylonico, Persici, Graeco and Romano) to Prius. Book I (De Prima Monarchia) dealt with Nabuchodonosor. Cyrus Persarum – rex primus – with Cambyses, the conqueror of Egypt, as a successor, governed the ‘Secunda Monarchia’. The third era (Tertia Monarchia) was centred on Philippus Rex Macedoniae. Sleidanus continued in Book II with the fourth or Roman era (Ceasare C. Octavius) and in Book III the theme got a new meaning with Charlemagne (Carolo Magno) as the modern incarnation of the Roman Empire.

Several portrayals of the four periods in world history are known from the Haarlem School of Hendrick Goltzius (fig. 72). In the ‘aurea Saturno’ (as equivalent to the ‘aetas aurea’) are groups of people in a crowded paradise (about twenty five persons are gathered, among them Bacchus (or Dionysus, god of the wine) and Ceres sitting under a tree like Adam and Eve and Saturn as a god in the clouds). In the second period, the silver age, man is laboring on the land with a plow. In the third age of bronze life is getting harder. There is building, fishing and trade, but also a stack of arms is ready for use. In the last period, the war and destruction have started.


Fig. 72 – The four periods of the world, by an unknown Dutch engraver from the school of painters and engravers around Hendrick Goltzius, based in Haarlem. Dimensions 174 x 250 mm. In: BOLTEN, 1984.

The iconographic elements in the representation of the four periods follow a dual division-line from initial happiness to utter chaos:

 1. In the golden age there are happy human pairs in an Arcadian environment;

 2. In the second age there are still peaceful circumstances, while people laboring on the land;

 3. In the third age there is a more forceful approach to nature by building activities. The equilibrium is disturbed and quarrels and strife treated to take over.

 4.  In the fourth age the balance is completely lost and chaos and degeneration sets in.

 The popularity of the (symbolic) expression of the four world-periods at the beginning of the seventeenth century (1603) was emphasized by Abraham Bloemaert’s portrayal of the motif and also by Crispijn van de Passe de Oude (BOLTEN, pp. 23 e.v. in: HORODISCH (1984)(fig. 73).


Fig. 73 – The four periods of the world, based on Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. These copper etchings by Crispijn van de Passe the Elder measure ca. 80 x 125 mm. Every picture is supported by a Latin text describing the inescapable development from great happiness to chaos and destruction. The four-fold framework (of historical units) is used to convey a strong linear message with a downward trend.

The most outstanding and influential representation of the Four Monarchies can be found in Sir Walter Raleigh’s ‘History of the World’ (1614). The frontispiece of this book showed an eye surrounded by flames labeled ‘Providentia’. Anne Bradstreet used this work to construct her poem ‘Four Monarchies’ (STANFORD, 1983; p. 240) (fig. 74).

historyFig. 74 – Title page of Sir Walter Raleigh, History of the World, London, Printed for Walter Burre, 1614. From the George McArthur Bequest, 1903. (Special Collections, Baillieu Library)

The fusion between the Christian myth of the paradise, as a time and place of perfect happiness, and the pagan Golden Age was made even stronger in the beginning of the eighteenth century. A nostalgic quest for the lost world of happiness started in intellectual circles. The French churchman and scholar Pierre Daniel Huet (1630 – 1721) was – with his book ‘Traité de la situation de paradis terrestre’ (Amsterdam, 1701) – seen as an authority on the geography of the paradise. Olof Celsius the Elder (1670 – 1756) got his Ph. D. at the university of Uppsala in 1714 on the subject of ‘De Situ Paradisi Terrestris’ en Lars Arrhenius studied in 1731, at the same university, the four monarchies. A comparison with Biblical periods was carried out (FRÄNGSMYR, 1983).

The myth of the four monarchies is today only of historical value. The four-fold division of past political entities in relation to the general understanding of present governments has never been an issue. There is, on the contrary, a sense of individuality, generated by ‘scientific revolutions’ (KUHN, 1962/1970; COHEN, 1994). Progress is not a historic necessity, but an act of personal and/or collective achievement.

The word ‘revolution’ is associated with dualism, of ‘before’ and ‘after’. Revolution is a forced change in order to create a new reality. Our present cultural sense of uniqueness, born in ‘scientific revolutions’, is related to a linear mind. The absence of an apparent historical precedence points to lower division thinking. A realization of our position in time and place might be the first step to widen our consciousness of a cyclic approach in higher division thinking.

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