Urbi et Orbi

I’ld like to take a moment to interpret the image of the famous Flammarion Woodcut that I posted in the previous article entitled “Peregrinator”.

The woodcut’s origins are controversial. Although it appears to be medieval, no version dated earlier than 1888 has been found outside Camille Flammarion’s popular work on Astronomy. I first came to know of the woodcut in my university days when it appeared as the cover illustration on an introductory textbook of philosophy.

(A bit of the history of the woodcut, filed as universum.jpg”, can be found on the Wikipedia commons site).

I do not believe it to be medieval, in fact. Although the style is medieval, the concepts represented definitely are not. The caption to the original (uncoloured) image that appeared in Flammarion’s 1888 work states: “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…”. The caption “Urbi et Orbi” that appears at the bottom of the later copy was apparently added by someone at a later date. That modification, however, is not insignificant in itself.

The Latin “Urbi et Orbi” means “To the City and the World”. This is the traditional opening of a papal message (such as the Easter Blessing) where the Pope addresses the City of Rome (or the Vatican) and the (Catholic) World beyond — the part and the whole, the particular and the universal, are meant. The employment of this traditional opening address as a caption for the Flammarion Woodcut is extremely odd, and even appears to be somewhat out of place. But, as we shall see, it is not without meaning, even a revolutionary one.

This “medieval missionary” depicted is sometimes described as being a “monk”. But his attire is not typically that of a missionary or a monk, but of a pilgrim (he carries a walking stick. And my university textbook took him for a philosopher, too). In general, the figure can be taken as a symbolic form for Man in the universal and the abstract. In particular, being described as either missionary, monk, or pilgrim, he is a representative of a particular historical type of human being we might describe as homo religiosis. By rendering the scene in medieval style, the artist wants us to lead us to understand that this historical type has become antiquated as history’s “past man”, who has now left the cozy and comfortably familiar enclosed and enchanted sphere of the medieval life-world — the world in which God was omnipresent matrix of existence in which human beings “lived, moved, and had their being”.

What do we read from the figure in the picture described as having “found the point where heaven and Earth meet”? There is the gesture of his right hand which may have an ambiguous meaning. On the one hand, it may be that he has just thrust this hand through the curtain that separates the earth from the heavens, or the urbis from the orbis. But to me, it appears that his hand is raised in a gesture of dismay or shock, as if he is attempting to ward off the terrifying sight now present before his eyes. It is not the City of God and the Angels — the heavenly paradise — that greets his gaze, but a dark, cold, blind, menacing, and lifeless universe of wheels and cogs, ice and cloud, with its darkness and coldness contrasting starkly with the warm, colourful, and enchanted domain of the familiar Earth. “Heaven” just ain’t what it used to be.

(And, if you want to really appreciate what is here depicted in the 1888 woodcut, reading Morris Berman’s 1989 book, The Re-enchantment of the World, will certainly help put the image in broader historical context — even if I have a few reservations about Berman’s book myself).

This pilgrim is historical Man. And what the artist has rendered here is something quite remarkable; something which accounts for much of the fascination this woodcut has had for people, whether the artist actually intended this or no. It comes in the form of a question the woodcut places before us: just what does this pilgrim do now that he has faced the horrible truth that “the world to come” is a lifeless monstrosity and a mechanistic horror? Remember: 1888 is virtually the same time that a still unknown German philosopher named Friedrich Nietzsche is also writing about “the death of God”, which is here visually represented in the Flammarion Woodcut.

If you know Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, you may recall his parable of “The Madman in the Marketplace”, who, wailing and lamenting in public, announces the death of God which he has witnessed, and who, being mocked by the gathering crowd who he calls “the murderers of God”, retreats into a church to sing his last rites over God’s bloodied corpse. It is not difficult to imagine, at all, that Nietzsche’s “madman in the market” is this very same pilgrim depicted in the Flammarion woodcut.

It may have been an inadvertent stroke of genius, here, but what the artist has rendered here is not just a contrast of “the Other World” or “the Beyond” as being in reality a godless, lifeless, and unholy machine — the Clockwork — that exists behind the warm, illuminated, enchanted, and living world. The choice to render this woodcut in medieval style serves, essentially, an historical purpose. What the pilgrim is gazing upon, in apparent shock and horror, is not “the other world”, but quite literally “the world to come”. He is looking into the future. He is looking into the same future that Nietzsche described as “two centuries of nihilism”. There is a direct line leading from the mood of this woodcut through to Ginsberg’s poem Howl and to the barren “Machine World” of The Matrix. It is through such examples as these that we can trace historically how the meaning of “Universal Reason” as conceived by the early Deists gradually comes to be objectified, quantified, and implemented logically as the world machine called “Global Economy”.

This has been a multi-generational project, but it illustrates the principle: “you create the reality you know”. We did not discover that the world is a great machine. It was an hypothesis or assumption originally laid down to be demonstrated by experiment and not necessarily as a truth given and ordained in advance. But, by our very assumptions and actions, we modeled our world on the belief that it was, indeed, a great clockwork mechanism.

Now the caption “urbi et orbi” takes on its meaning as the world that was, and as the world that will be. The artist wants to draw out a stark contrast between the past and the future as two different epochs: a “tale of two cities” in a sense. Not two different “spaces” are here represented, but two different times or eras.

This is even highlighted in the German cataloguing information for the woodcut recorded at the Wikipedia site:

“Eine Montage von Camille Flammarion für sein Werk ‘L’Astronomie populäire’, das 1880 erschien”; siehe: Jean Pierre Verdet. Der HIMMEL. Ordnung und Chaos der Welt. Ravensburg: Maier, 1991, S.26.

Although the file name is given as “universum” (the universe), the German catalogue names the woodcut “Heaven: The order and chaos of the world”. The Universal Machine depicted in the woodcut is here described not as “Order” (Cosmos) but as “Chaos” — a void of meaninglessness which has the same significance as Nietzsche’s “Great Nothingness”.

One man’s Order is another man’s Chaos. Why? Because the world of wheels and cogs, of ice and darkness, that the horrified pilgrim witnesses is a lifeless, cold, and dead world (we can, apparently, see the pilgrim’s breath in the lower left-hand corner). It is the image of the world that follows from the death of God, and one which we seem to be hell-bound — as the saying goes — to create for ourselves — even despite ourselves.

We must learn to imagine the world differently than we have done until now, because all human activity and work is a continuous translation of the imagined into the actualised. As Blake correctly put it, “what is now prov’d, was only first imagined”.

And were we being at all truthful and honest in imagining the cosmos as a great clockwork machine to begin with?


10 responses to “Urbi et Orbi”

  1. Kevin D. Keck says :

    I’m reminded of the Wizard of Oz, as well, exposed by pulling aside the curtain.

    • Scott says :

      You can also take the theme of Urbi et Orbi as the theme of The Matrix, too. The pilgrim has become Neo in the latter-day version.

  2. InfiniteWarrior says :

    The depictions of the sun, moon and tree — symbols which also feature prominently in sacred poetry — are as interesting as those of the pilgrim and “Chaos”….

  3. Daniel says :

    you fail to realize (at least in this article) the significance of the tree and the pilgrim is on his knees. Perhaps the weight of the burden we bear as “enlightened” animals. The knowledge of good and evil is heavy, it crushes some to despair and darkness, others it may crush and lead to light. Perhaps his journey is not over, it is simply at discourse on his way to the Truth. After all, his head (the mind) had broken through to darkness and the unknown while the body (heart) is still attached to earth and home. He is perplexed and broken, searching for Truth. That is our great privilege as pilgrims.

    • Scott says :

      I think the major themes of the woodcut are pretty self-evident: an animate world and inanimate world, a living world and a dead world. This contrast of the animate (soulful) and the inanimate (soulless) is pretty clear, and that contrast is even implied by the title “urbi et orbi”. The artist wants to suggest that this traditional papal greeting even has a different meaning than before.

      I don’t think he’s kneeling. He’s crawling.

      If a poem were to be appended to this illustration, it would certainly be John Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World”. “The element of fire is quite put out”, which is perfectly represented by the frozen, icicle world the pilgrim glimpses beyond the curtain of the Anima Mundi. Donne’s poem, it is said, was written after he paid an official visit as part of an exploratory delegation sent by the English King to interview the astronomer Johannes Kepler. The poem laments the de-souling of the world through the Mechanical Philosophy and its transformation into a clockwork.

      “And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
      The element of fire is quite put out,
      The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
      Can well direct him where to look for it.
      And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
      When in the planets and the firmament
      They seek so many new; they see that this
      Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
      ‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
      All just supply, and all relation;
      Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
      For every man alone thinks he hath got
      To be a phoenix, and that then can be
      None of that kind, of which he is, but he.”

      That’s why the woodcut was used to illustrate the cover of my undergraduate philosophy text, of course. It was intended to highlight the historical shift in natural philosophy from vitalism to mechanism. In effect, therefore, the pilgrim is transiting between two times rather than two spaces — two eras rather than two worlds. One is the image of the soul, the other the image of the intellect.

  4. Granitboll says :

    You don’t have a clue do you?

  5. Hans Wiersma says :

    I just now stumbled across your post after doing a search for “flammarion urbi et orbi” — your blog has the honor of being the #3 hit on google.
    Anyway, thanks for the information and, especially, for the insightful interpretation.

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