This research paper considers how Nicholas of Cusa, the fifteenth-century polymath, sought to convey higher truths in diagrammatic form
For Nicholas of Cusa, the fifteenth-century polymath, diagrams comprised the perfect medium with which to represent the highest truths. No less important, they were the ideal vehicle for attaining such truths in the first place. In overlooking the role of colour in his diagrams, which were painted according to his own instructions, not printed in black and white, modern accounts misrepresent Cusa’s method. In ways comparable to contemporary panel painting, Cusa employs colour to reproduce the diffusion of light through space and the interpenetration of light and dark, phenomena central to his theology. In functioning as operative instruments that structure thought, the diagrams visualize his epistemology as well as his ontology, inviting the viewer to experience the process of seeking truth that they set out to exemplify. Although deeply rooted in medieval traditions of diagrammatic representation, Cusa’s diagrammatic method proves to be more innovative than previously imagined.
A specialist in the art of the Middle Ages, Jeffrey Hamburger, the Kuno Francke Professor of German Art & Culture at Harvard University, has recently turned his attention to medieval diagrams. In addition to his work on the diagrams of Nicholas of Cusa, his recent and forthcoming publications on the topic include Diagramming Devotion: Berthold of Nuremberg’s Transformation of Hrabanus Maurus’s Poems in Praise of the Cross and The Diagram as Paradigm: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, co-edited with David Roxburgh and Linda Safran. On a separate topic, his book, The Birth of the Author: Pictorial Prefaces in Glossed Books of the Twelfth Century, just appeared last month. In the autumn of 2022, the pandemic permitting, he will deliver the Panizzi Lectures at the British Library on the topic of “Drawing Conclusions: Diagrams in Medieval Art and Thought.”