List of Figures

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

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