God as Creator of the World with a Compass, from the Bible moralisée by Unknown artist [Paris]

Unknown artist [Paris]

God as Creator of the World with a Compass, from the Bible moralisée, c.1225–50, Body colour on parchment, 430 x 295 mm, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Cod. 1179 HAN MAG, fol. 1v, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

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Genesis and Geometry

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

Manuscript 1179 in the Austrian National Library in Vienna is one of four early copies of the Bible moralisée (moralized Bible) that was most likely made for the education of King Louis VIII of France (1187–1226). The manuscript opens with a spectacular full-page image of Christ as the creator.

While this is a common theme in medieval art and manuscript illumination, this page differs greatly from the standard iconography. In the folio, Christ sits enthroned—rather than assuming the standing position which was more customary—while holding the swirling cosmic disc in his lap. He wields a large compass with which he will form the universe. The compass is more prominent than in earlier variants, and the creator neither holds balancing scales, nor holds out fingers on which he may be counting. It has been argued that this shifts the image-type away from earlier associations with Wisdom 11:20 (‘thou hast arranged all things by measure and number and weight’) and towards Genesis 1 (Friedman 1974).

The compass came to be a medieval symbol of Euclidian geometry as well as Ptolemaic astronomy and geography (Friedman 1974: 422). Since Christ here employs it to make the world, this image asserts the congruence of Christian theology with scientific truth. The verse on top of the page reads: hic orbis figulus disponit singulus solus (‘Here the sole maker of the universe arranges each separate [element]’). In the circular universe, three distinct elements are visible: wind forms the outermost green layer, water is the blue undulating matter that turns into icy white closer to the centre (as if to echo contemporary medieval theories that the centre of the earth was frozen), and earth is the golden swirling material that fills the centre of the sphere.

Christ himself is seated in the gold eternal space of the heavenly realm in a quatrefoil frame held aloft by four angels, who witness the moment of creation. The red band of the frame is decorated throughout with a unique gold ornament that resembles Arabic script. The ciphers are meaningless, however. They are there to convey an air of alterity and link the moment with Eastern texts. Since most scientific knowledge at the time was translated from Arabic manuscripts, this pseudo-Islamic ornamentation evokes the language of scientific creation and lends a sense of scientific authority to the image of divine creation.



Friedman, John Block. 1974. ‘The Architect's Compass in Creation Miniatures of the Later Middle Ages’, in Traditio 30

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