The view from above

The early chapters of Mr. Baxter’s work “The Infinite Beauty of the World” describe how some medieval and classical texts were deliberately encyclopedic. Some, like Bestiaries, might simply catalogue all the known kinds of animals. Others, like epic poems or novels or even paintings, might include descriptions of every kind of animal, plant, geographical formation, human craft, or other categories. Some familiar examples of this include Dante’s Divine Comedy and Virgil’s Aenead. In any case, this kind of encyclopedia could serve as a spiritual exercise, in which the student built in their mind’s eye a map of the world, as if seen from above. From this perspective, and with great attention and practice, an epiphany of sorts was anticipated. The vastness of God’s work, held in the mind in totality (at least as best the student could achieve), opened the eye of the heart to recognize God’s Creation in all its magnificence and enormity. The eyes of the flesh could never achieve this vision, being limited to seeing the material things in ones immediate surroundings.

In chapter two, for instance, he describes in some detail works by Thierry of Chartres, William of Conches and Bernard Silvestris, from the twelfth century. Some snippets (I’ve simplified, indicated by “…”):

William of Conches…understands the pursuit of wisdom as the comprehesive grasp…of the totality of reality. […] the wisdom of God [is] displayed in the providential management of the cosmos. …the physicist becomes the theologian….

(pp. 54-55)

If, then, man considers with due subtletly the fabric of the world, he will recognise that God is its efficient cause, that his wisdom is its formal cause, that his goodness is its final cause, and that its material cause is the four elements which God himself ‘created’ from nothing ‘in the beginning.’

(p. 55, quoting Thierry of Chartres)
Jean Colombe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bernard Silvestris’s Cosmographia…provides us with a … Catalogue Poem…constituting 482 lines of elegiac couplets…describing the movement of creation from [chaos to order]. Bernard, like Thierry, lets us stand on the brink of creations as order unfolds from chaos… he names each of the nine ranks in the angelic hierarchy, lists nearly fifty stars and constellations by name, and mentions nearly thirty historical persons whose fates are contained within them. Bernard names the seven planets…the four winds…some thirty animals, nearly twenty mountains, and approximately fifteen rivers.

(p. 59), all quotes from The Infinite Beauty of the World by Jason Baxter.

I was reminded of my fascination with the variety of birds, so subtlely different, so similar, so creative. I posted some examples here and here.