God shapes the universe with the aid of a compass. Within the perfect circle already created are the spherical sun and moon and the unformed matter that will become the earth once God applies the same geometric principles to it.
Thomas Aquinas said: “God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed (ut artifex ad artificiata).”Summa Theologica
For most medieval scholars, science, and particularly geometry and astronomy were linked to the divine because God created the universe after geometric and harmonic principles. To seek these principles was to seek and worship God.
This illumination of The Divine Architect was of particular interest to me, since the Iconography Institute is offering a class in Geometry for Iconographers, as the foundation of icons. As I delved deeper into learning about the image itself, I discovered that “The Divine Architect” was not an icon, rather an illumination from a Bible Moralisée, one of only seven completely illuminated bibles produced in the first three decades of the 13th century. This illuminated manuscript is now in the Vienna National Library. The others have been mostly parsed out and can be found in different parts of the world.
As I began to learn more about this image, I made a new discovery about the genre of Bible Moralisée, which is an illustrated bible consisting of over 1000 exquisitely crafted medallions that interpret the bible pictorially, accompanied by “moral” interpretation of the Bible, but in context of the times. This provides a fascinating insight into the medieval 13th century world, as the moral interpretations make comparisons to contemporary life that a 13th century reader would understand, highlighting many of the ideological, political and economic dilemmas of the time.
There are only seven extant illuminated Bibles Moralisée that were created for French royalty, because only royalty could afford to commission such extensive, expensive and exquisite works containing thousands of gilded illuminations. Each page pairs medallions from the Old Testament with the New Testament. At the time, pictures were intended to teach lessons in morality and these bibles were specifically written to teach morality to the French King, hence the name of this genre. “Both the depiction and text must be read because the images hold an interpretation of the world or moment in history, and details within the images hold symbolic meaning.” *
This Bibles Moralisée did not contain every Bible passage, just the most important ones; even so, it contained 5000 illustrations.
“The pictures are arranged in two parallel columns on each page, each column having four medallions with pictures. Parallel to the pictures and alternating with them are two other narrower columns, with four legends each, one legend to each picture; the legends consisting alternatively of Biblical texts and moral or allegorical applications; whilst the pictures represent the subjects of the Biblical texts or of the applications of them. The illustrations are executed with the greatest skill. The painting is said to be one of the best specimens of thirteenth-century work in all probability prepared for someone in the highest rank of life.”Wikipedia
According to Wikipedia, “Of the seven Bibles moralisées only one, manuscript Français 167 in the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, has survived in its complete form. Français 167 can be traced almost without a break from its creation in Paris for King John II of France in 1349-52 up until now. The sixth of the Bibles moralisées is known now as MS Additional 18719 and is the least known of the seven, and is the work of well known late thirteenth-century English artist. Français 166 is the last of the seven fully illustrated Bibles moralisées.”
It was a fascinating journey to learn about this genre that began with the image of Christ the Divine Architect, which is a subject of Orthodox Icons.
Some interesting versions are shown below.
*To learn more about Bibles Moralisée, check out: Bible Moralisée, Codex Vindobonensis 2554, Vienna, Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek, by Harvey Miller Publishers (1995)