List of Figures

February 19, 2012

All Good Things

Exhibit A:
This is a very interesting historiated initial from a very interesting manuscript. Illustrating a small text about a comet, it comes from one of the earliest encyclopaedias in the modern sense of the word. Organized alphabetically, Omne Bonum (literally, All Good Things) was composed and written circa 1360s-1370s by James le Palmer, clerk of the Exchequer, probably for Edward III. A team of illuminators, almost certainly instructed by the author, added hundreds miniatures, making this book one of the best windows into the fourteenth-century mind we have.
Having stayed in the Royal Collection for some four and a half centuries, it was eventually donated, along with thousands of other books, to the British Museum by George IV in 1823. Now in a special section of the British Library (a section almost impossible to get access to), it is also available online: MS Royal 6 E VI, MS Royal 6 E VII (it’s actually in four volumes now, but they kept the old nomenclature).
I enjoyed browsing it immensely. Here’s a selection of some of the more curious images:
Teeth: dentist at work Age: сhildren playing with toys and catching butterflies Jews (expelled from England in 1290) Adolescence (note the convex mirror) Brain: trepanation Colour: artist mixing pigments
I found this gem thanks to the BBC’s Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings.
You can see a couple of excerpts from it on my new blog: 1, 2.

Exhibit B:
Now, this miniature is a good example of how you shouldn’t believe your intuition when interpreting old images. At least one texbook and one generally reliable photo bank tell us that this is a very early depiction of multiple waterspouts bursting from a cloud lit by lightning, from a 13th century manuscript De natura rerum by Albertus Magnus. A few places on the web repeat this very believable claim, and so, at first, did I.
But then I found the manuscript itself and a dissertation about it. The text of the manuscript and other illustrations in it are unambiguous: this is supposed to be a solar eclipse. You’d never think you could mix up those two, would you?

The circular spinning top, half-hidden behind the clouds, is in fact the Sun (compare it to the vista of the night sky from the same chapter, and to a roughly contemporary parallel — both shown below). And those wavy things are either light rays or some kind of emanating matter\energy (the very next page has a star or a comet with a similar tail, and an earlier example shows God moving primeval substances in a similar manner — ibid).
They got the author wrong, too, by the way. The text was actually written by Albert’s friend and student Thomas of Cantimpré. Full reference, for posterity:
Thomas of Cantimpré, “De natura rerum”, Valenciennes Municipal Library MS 320, folio 196v, miniature of a solar eclipse.
P.S. I would like to thank Christopher Chatfield and Chet Van Duzer for helping me to get to the bottom of this.

January 19, 2012

How China Never Started Worrying and Loved the Bomb

In The New Shock of the New, a little-known 2004 follow-up to the 1980 classic art history documentary series The Shock of the New, ever grumpier Robert Hughes touches upon an intriguing topic:

The fall of the World Trade Center immediately entered that small stock of images by which we remember the horror and cruelty and violence of the 20th cetury. The atomic bomb, the death camps at the end of WWII, the assassination of JFK. Thinking of these events, I sometimes wonder: why so few of them have been depicted by contemporary artists? And I try to imagine what the great painters of the past might have made of them. How would Turner have painted the mushroom cloud? How would Goya — depicted the liberation of Belsen? Or David — shown the assassination of Kennedy?

The latter reference opens up further, even more discomforting questions. So, the death of an enthusiastic accomplice of the Reign of Terror, an outright evil, orcishlooking man can be transformed by an equally unpleasant genius into a martyrdom scene of exquisite serenity and beauty. Surely, then, it’s conceivable for a great artist to glorify doctor Mengele’s laboratory, or celebrate the moment the second plane crashed into the WTC, or exalt the sacrifice of those behind the Columbine High School massacre? Probably not. I hope not.

But what about that other symbol of destruction and inescapable death, haunting the humankind’s collective consciousness for the last sixty years? What about the Bomb? I can hardly imagine anyone in the West looking at the admittedly graceful outlines of the rising mushroom cloud and not thinking of everything it could bring. Especially so in the sixties — no European, Soviet, or American artist working after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis could possibly paint a nuclear explosion as something to be marveled at, as an achievement to be proud of, as a sight of grandeur, as a spectacle rivaling nature’s greatest events. Yet this is exactly how scholar and traditionalist painter Wu Hufan depicted it in 1965, after the October 1964 explosion of China’s first atomic bomb triggered a nation-wide euphoria:

Wu Hufan, 1965, Celebrate the Success of Our Glorious Atomic Bomb Explosion!
Hanging scroll, ink and colour on absorbent paper, 135 x 67 cm.
Shanghai Chinese Painting academy.

September 29, 2011

Iconic types

Exhibit A:
This somewhat naïve painting was made in 1774 by Georg Forster. Naturalist, travel writer, — and revolutionary! — he spent his formative years accompanying his father Johann Reinhold Forster on scientific expeditions around the world, including the famous second voyage of James Cook on HMS Resolution. On Ulietea (now Raiatea), one of the Society Islands in South Pacific, the team collected one specimen of a previously unknown bird. As an assistant to the expedition’s official naturalist, it was Georg’s job to record the acquired samples of local flora and fauna (there’s actually a picture showing him doing exactly that in Tahiti). Later, the specimen was sent to the collection of Joseph Banks (the renowned naturalist of Cook’s fist voyage, for whom the Forsters were a last-minute replacement). While there, it was examined and scientifically described by John Latham as a Bay Thrush. Just four years later, this important type specimen disappeared, nobody quite knows how. No living bird was seen again, either; the species was almost certainly extinct by 1850. Despite a considerable effort, no bones, eggs or skins could be found. Nothing. All that remains is this small watercolor.

Exhibit B:
This is another example of what is known as iconotype, an image used instead of the type specimen, when it’s destroyed, lost, or otherwise unavailable. For this particular species, though, the iconotype is not just a poor substitute. Described from this picture in 1915, White-throated Pigeon died out on its native Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea some 60 years prior; no specimen or skin was ever obtained. The unique depiction was produced by George Raper, a self-taught painter who was a midshipman on board HMS Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet bringing convicts to establish the first European colony in Australia.

September 26, 2011

Elephant in the book

Take a look at this page from an early 9th century French manuscript copy of Expositio Psalmorum by the 6th century Roman writer Cassiodorus:[1]

Just you look at this wonderful initial:

No, seriously, look:

Alongside three imaginary and highly stylized monsters, we find a surprisingly accurate sketch of an elephant![2][3] The depiction is faithful enough for us to identify the species: the iconic small floppy ears could only belong to an Asian elephant.

To understand just how unsual this is, you only have to see other pre-Renaissance examples:[4]

    First Bible of Charles the Bald (circa 846),
    BNF, ms. lat. 1, folio 328v, detail.
    Morgan Beatus (circa 940-945)
    Morgan Library, ms. M.644., f. 79r
    Bestiary of William the Clerk (13th century),
    Trinity College Library, ms. O.2.14
    Rochester Bestiary (circa 1230)
    British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii

The thing is, as you can guess, elephants were not a frequent sight in medieval Europe; nor was there a statue, painting or carving of an elephant, made by a person who actually saw one. All they had to base their images on were short, vague, and often inaccurate textual descriptions. Ironically, Cassiodorus himself wrote about elephants several times, including a passage in Expositio Psalmorum. Towards the end of the book, when explaining why, in Psalm 44, ivory houses are appropriate for virtuous women, he writes:[5]

The elephant to whom these tusks belong is said to be most chaste; among quadrupeds he is endowed with the highest intelligence, his intercourse with his mate is disciplined, and he enjoys no second spouse.

In one of his letters he goes into much more detail, saying among other things:[6]

these animals live in the flesh more than a thoudsand years

The living elephant … cannot get up again unaided. This is because it has no joints in its feet.

its breath … is said to be a remedy for the human headache.

So, what about the nicely delineated head in St-Denis manuscript? Actually, the very fact, that it is so much better than anything else of the period, suggests that the artist drew it from personal experience. Which immediately identifies the animal.

The only elephant to reach Europe, between the fall of the Roman Empire and until the 13th century, was Abulabaz, owned by the great Charlemagne. A gift from the caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, Abulabaz lived at the emperor’s court from 802 to 810, where he was regularly exhibited. Understandably, he generated a lot of interest and excitement, so, it’s quite possible that the Expositio‘s artist made a journey to Aachen or Augsburg to see the mythical creature.

So, what we have here is probably a sketch of Charlemagne’s pet elephant. Which is quite something, considering no contemporary portrait of the emperor survives.


  1. Cassiodorus, Expositio Psalmorum (Saint-Denis Abbey, early 9th century). Bibliothèque nationale de France, manuscript Latin 2195. gallica
  2. Christopher de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (2nd edition), pages 50,51,259. Phaidon, London, 1994.
  3. Bernhard Bischoff, Die Hofbibliothek Karls des Grossen (The Court Library of Charlemagne), in: Karl der Grosse, Lebenswerk und Nachlebeb (Düsseldorf, 1965-7),
    volume II, Das Geistige Leben (1965, edited by Bischoff), pages 233-234. Citation via [2], gallica and google.
  4. An exhaustive treatment of the subject can be found in: George C. Druce, The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art,
    Journal of the Royal Archaeological Institute, Volume 76, London, 1919. scans at The Medieval Bestiary
  5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms. Translated and annotated by P. G. Walsh. Paulist Press, 1990. Page 446. google books preview
  6. Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus, The Letters of Cassiodorus. The Echo Library, 2006. Pages 333-334. google books preview

September 4, 2011

Gained in translation

Now, there’s a story that just cries to be retold with illustrations: the very existance of the constellation of Canes Venatici is due to not one, but two translation errors.

It all starts with the constellation of Boötes. Known since antiquity, it was usually depicted as a mighty herdsman bearing a club or a crooked staff. One famous example is Germanicus‘s 1st century AD Latin translation of famously incoherent Phenomena, 3rd century BC atronomical/astrological poem by Aratus (based in turn on two prose works by 4th century BC astronomer Eudoxus of Cnidus). Several extant medieval copies are known, including the lavishly illuminated Leiden Aratea (circa 816):

Somewhat less sophisticated, early 11th century Limoges Aratea gives the image both separately and in context:

In the great Ptolemy’s treatise Almagest some of the constellation’s stars were specifically described as representing the club (Greek, Κολλοροβος) of Boötes. 9th century Assyrian scholar Johannitius didn’t know the word, so he translated it using a similar-looking Arabic word, arriving at العصى ذات الكلاب, al-`aşā dhāt al-kullāb, meaning “spearshaft with a hook”. You can get an idea of what he meant from this illustration, from a 1010 copy of Azophi‘s 964 Book of Fixed Stars:

In the first half of the 12th century, several decades after Alfonso VI conquered Toledo and ended more than two centuries of Moorish occupation, Italian scholar Gerard of Cremona found Almagest in one of the city’s many libraries and translated it into Latin, thus bringing the text back to the Western Civilization. Not a native speaker of Arabic, he mixed up the words kullāb (hook) and kilāb (dogs), and so the mysterious “hastile habens canes” (spearshaft with dogs) was born.

Once introduced, the canines never went away. In a star chart in his 1533 Horoscopion generale, German humanist Petrus Apianus shows Boötes with an enormous club and two furry companions:

Finally, in 1687 Johannes Hevelius, best known as an early lunar cartographer, published Uranographia, proposing ten new constellations, most of them still being used today. One of them was Canes Venatici; amusingly, he also named the dogs, Asterion (Greek, “little star”) and Chara (“joy”):

September 1, 2011

Tornado as a sign

I’ve already discussed this detail from a Charles V tapestry, produced circa 1550:

It depicts an instantly recognizable tornado cloud descending next to the Montserrat mountain in Spain. Charles V went on a pilgrimage to the Montserrat monastery before embarking on the Conquest of Tunis in 1535. Since the whole campaign has been meticulously documented and no mention of the tornado is known, it’s been argued that “the tornado … indicates God’s blessing of the expedition”.[1] Although initially not convinced, I’ve since found several parallels that seem to substantiate the hypothesis.

Recently, Miquel Gayà published several relevant examples from early chronicles and history books.[2] For example, one of the Punic battles, close to the River Ebro circa 205 B. C., was accompanied by a snake that “demolished everything in its path with a swirling mass of water that kept on coming”. Describing the battle in 1601, historian Juan de Mariana used the waterspout as a premonition of the outcome. Similarily, a 1430 chronicle describes a violent whirl that foretold the defeat of the Christian forces in a 711 battle during the Arab invasion of Spain.

Another striking example, currently the earliest image of a tornado-like phenomenon I know of, is Paolo Uccello’s “Saint George and the Dragon” (circa 1470):

As fist discussed by Martin Davies (in a paper published in 1959, the same year the picture was bought by the National Gallery in London3), the eye of the storm aligns perfectly with the saint’s lance. Thus, it is commonly agreed that the vortex represents the celestial aid, answer to St George’s prayers. As such, it is comparable to other iconic symbols of God’s intervention common in this context: Finger of God, rays of light, rainbow, ring of clouds, etc.

On a sidenote, in all the books and papers I could find, the whirlwind is only discussed in terms of its symbolic meaning, and not as a depiction of a natural phenomena. Well, I can fill this gap.

While the unusual spiral form of the cloud is probably unique in Renaissance painting, some early modern parallels can be named. Firstly, there’s a woodcut of a similarly shaped descending eddy in Ralph Bohun’s 1671 treatise on wind4:

Then, for something completely different, a Japanese silkscreen The Chinese Immortal Ch`en Nan Causing a Rainstorm painted circa 1770 by Soga Shohaku, depicts a dramatic thunderstorm scene with several helpless people being blown away:

Last but not least, there’s a series of sketches by no other than Leonardo da Vinci himself. Executed circa 1517-1518, toward the end of his life, the 11 drawings are collectively known as Deluge or Visions of the End of the World.[5] Here is the most expressive and best known of them:

Although overly theatrical — with buildinds, mountains and even the sky itself crushing into the sea — the images are actually very realistic in one respect. Intense spiral bursts of wind descending from a storm cloud and spreading as a vortex ring over the ground are a classic sign of downbursts.[6] These are fairly common and pose a significant danger to aircraft, but can rarely be observed directly, and were only first described by Ted Fujita in 1976, in the aftermath of the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 66 in JFK Airport in New York on 24 June 1975.

Returning to “St George”, I’m not saying the picture naturalistically depicts an actual downburst. But it could be inspired by a downburst Uccello or one of his contemporaries saw and recognized, in which case they foreshadowed the insights of Leonardo and Fujita by 50 and 500 years accordingly.


  1. Klaus P. Hoinka, Manuel de Castro “A Renaissance Depiction of a Tornado” (2005) Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 86, 543–552. google scholar
  2. Miquel Gayà, “Tornadoes and severe storms in Spain” (2011) Atmospheric Research, Volume 100, Issue 4, June 2011, Pages 334-343. Elsevier
  3. Martin Davies, “Uccello’s ‘St George’ in London”, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 101, No. 678/679, Sep.-Oct., 1959. jstor
  4. Ralph Bohun, “A Discourse Concerning the Origine and Properties of Wind”, Oxford, 1671. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminiatration
  5. Zoomable versions of Leonardo’s Deluge drawings are available at the Royal Collection
  6. Stanley David Gedzelman, “Leonardo da Vinci and the Downburst”, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, vol. 71, Issue 5, pp. 649–791. AMS

August 31, 2011

Paintings from Space

Filed under: Meteorology — Tags: , , , , , , , — Pavel Voronin @ 9:14 pm
Exhibit A:
This is the hand-colored version of the first ever close-up photograph of Mars (dark brown bottom part is space). It is also the first image of the red planet broadcast on tv. Taken by Mariner 4 and received by NASA in July of 1965, it was printed out as columns of numbers on strips of paper that were then glued together and colored with pastels.
Further reading: detailed story, hi-res image.

Exhibit B:
This a 1954 painting depicting what the Earth might look like from a satellite 6500 km above North America. It was comissioned by the then-director of meteorological research of US Weather Bureau, so special attention was given to atmospheric phenomena. The most striking features are the weather-defining features: cyclones, hurricanes, fogs and different types of clouds. Obviously, no one knew what they would look like from space, so several very educated guesses had to be made.
Further reading: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Volume 88 Issue 10 (October 2007).

April 5, 2011

Tornado galore

Filed under: Meteorology — Tags: , — Pavel Voronin @ 10:00 pm

I started TornImage, a database documenting depictions of tornadoes and related phenomena in art and science. It turns out, nobody has ever done that!
Scouring scientific and art literature as well as the web, I try to document everything I find as thoroughly as possible (descriptions, references, quotes, links, related images etc.). But you can also just enjoy the pictures!
Excluding the ones I’ve already posted, here is the first batch:

Bonus-pack, a big set of newspaper illustrations of the destructions caused by the 1886 tornado in Madrid:

March 16, 2011


Nowadays, everyone knows what a tornado looks like. Any kid can doodle you a rope-shaped or a trombone-shaped one. The characteristic shape is so recognizable, even when simplified to the limit, that it can be easily used in art as a symbol. An elegant example of that can be seen in the Dutch city of Leiden; one of its many wall poems is “Maskoke Okisce” (“A Creek Fable”) by the Creek Indian poet Lois Little Coon Oliver:[1]

So, imagine my surprise, when I found out that tornadoes were virtually unknown to the Western civilisation until the onset of the scientific age. Not a single depiction of a convective atmospheric phenomena (waterspout, whirlwind, dust devil etc.) is known before the 16th century!

The oldest printed one is from a 1587 broadsheet, describing a tornado observed on July 1 that same year in Augsburg, Germany:[2]

Recently, this was antedated by some 40 years in a paper by Klaus Hoinka and Manuel de Castro.[3] There is a very conspicuous slim funnel-shaped cloud in the very center of the first tapestry of the “Conquest of Tunis” series, produced for emperor Charles V by Willem de Pannemaker in 1549-1551 and based on 1546-1550 cartoons by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen:4

What’s more, the first tapestry also has a depiction of heavy rain, while the fourth has a sandstorm and more rain:

While the sandstorm played a significant role in the campaign and is well documented, there is no mention of a tornado in contemporary documents. Hoinka and de Castro argue that the placement of the funnel next to the important Montserrat monastery (where the attack on Tunis was started), and its connection to massive clouds5 both point to the symbolic use of tornado:

A literature search indicates that the depicted weather phenomena, except the sandstorm, were not recorded during the crusade to Tunis. The tornado and the heavy rain seem to be implemented in order to emphasize symbolically the beginning and ending of the “holy crusade.” The tornado that appears close to the Montserrat mountain indicates God’s blessing of the expedition, which began in Barcelona. The final battle occurred in Tunis where a storm with heavy rain appears on the tapestry. The symbolic interpretation of the storm is that it should be seen as a manifestation of divine anger and punishment of the Muslim corsair Barbarossa. On the other hand, the rain storm could also indicate God’s blessing and approval of the troops who needed rain. Arguments can be made to support both interpretations, and it is not clear that one needs a definitive answer either way, as long as one knows that it has some deeper meaning.

This is in agreement with Cooper (1978), who pointed out that whirlwinds and tornadoes were regarded as a manifestation of energy in nature, rising or descending from a center of power associated with God. The funnel, thus, becomes a vehicle for divinity. Similarly, Cirlot (1988) corroborates this because symbolically “everything that occurs in heaven or descends therefrom, has a sacred quality about it.”

As plausible as it sounds, I have to say I’m not totally convinced. There’s at least two more things this research needs:

  1. Other examples (written or painted) of tornadoes or something similar, linked to a blessing and not punishment. I searched the relevant literature and couldn’t find any.
  2. Historical records on tornadoes in the Montserrat area. If it’s possible there was one anywhere nearby, the whole argument crumbles somewhat.

Both these images had only a limited impact. The leaflet was only circulated in Augsburg. The tapestries, although 4 by 7-12 metres (over 100 metres combined!) and occasionally hung on the outside walls of buildings, were only seen by the elite. So, the first image of a tornado to be seen by a wider public was a small drawing of several types of wind from Orbis Pictus[6] by John Amos Comenius (it is also the only 17th century depiction of tornado I know of). The first children’s picture book, Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Visible World in Pictures) was published in Nuremberg, 1658 in Latin, and in countless places, languages and forms ever since. It is very much a product of its time, and I love it to bits:

A Wind under Ground causeth Earthquake!


  1. The poem is in Muskogee language and can be roughly translates as “The little children say: the Tornado’s words come from evil spirits that the tail steals from the turtle, and after, they spin quickly round and round to the ground scared to death.”.
  2. Wegener, A. L., 1917: Wind- und Wasserhosen in Europa (Tornadoes and Waterspouts in Europe). Vieweg und Sohn Verlag, 301 pp. Scans (in German)
  3. Klaus P. Hoinka, Manuel de Castro “A Renaissance Depiction of a Tornado” (2005) Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 86, 543–552. google scholar
  4. Vermeyen accompanied Charles V during his 1535 Tunis campaign and brought back a series of preparatory sketches; I know nothing about their fate. The series consisted of 12 cartoons and tapestries, only 10 of each still exist. The first one only exists in tapestry form.
  5. The clouds in question, by the way, are totally unconvincing. Tornadoes are never associated with fair-weather cumulus.
  6. 1887 London edition, containing the original 1658 woodcuts and Latin text + the oldest 1659 English translation can be found here. The tornado illustration was identified in: M. Setvák et al “Tornadoes within the Czech Republic: from early medieval chronicles to the internet society”, Atmospheric Research, v. 67-68, 2003, pp. 589-605. (google scholar)

February 28, 2011

Gargoyles, grotesques and earmouse

It has long been a tradition among stonemasons to use contemporary motifs and symbols when carving ornamental details of Gothic cathedrals. Virtually the only form of sculpture where a great deal of creative freedom (and fun) was allowed, gargoyles and grotesques are a fascinating window into a medieval craftsman’s imagination. Exotic animals, chimeras, monsters, disfigured bodies, contorted faces – these are some of the most vivid images of the era, rivaled only by the similarily-themed bestiaries and mappae mundi.

We are so used to these playful statues, that we hardly ever notice how out of place they are. And yet no one really knows how they started or what they represent. Even the contemporaries were baffled; the earliest known piece of writing about gargoyles is by Saint Bernard in the 12th century, and he is as puzzled as we are: “What are these fantastic creatures? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions and monsters?” Hear, hear!

Probably the easiest way to understand the intended effect of these grotesque figures is to visualize what kind of bizarre curiosities would a modern carver choose to shock or amuse the public. Lucky for us, we don’t have to imagine anything; the tradition never died out, and there are some striking examples produced in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Washington National Cathedral is a fine neogothic church, built from 1907 to 1990 and covered in hundreds of grotesques. For a very traditional-looking building, these are a very unexpected bunch. The most famous one is the head of, wait for it, Darth Vader:[1]

The Dark Lord is accompanied, among others, by a man with a movie camera, a candid cameraman (Jonah-style), a pacifist and a high-tech pair:

The New Cathedral of Salamanca was constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries in late Gothic and Baroque styles. During the 1992 restoration of its lavishly decorated façade a new element was added, an astronaut entangled in a cable-like ornamental vine:[2]

St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle was founded by Edward III in 1348 and has been the site of many royal wedding, funerals and interments ever since. One of the England’s most important churches, it has been renovated countless time. The most recent restoration project took place in the last ten years. In 2010, several new grotesques were ordered to replace weathered ones. Arguably, the most interesting work was created by Tom Brown. He based the carving on the famous earmouse, Charles Vacanti’s experiment involving grafting of an ear-shaped cartilage onto a laboratory mouse:

In all these cases artists needed a symbolic representation of what is strange, unsettling or frightening about our time. I find it very telling and poignant that they all looked towards science and technology.


  1. Photo by Raymond Fudge: flickr.
  2. Photos via link.
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