On The Flammarion Engraving Urbi et Orbi

My earlier random and sometimes casual commentaries on the Flammarion engraving entitled “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and to the World”) draw a fair amount of traffic to The Chrysalis (thanks to Google). Perhaps, then, I should flesh out what I see as its significance in more detail. It’s a curious thing that the three most frequent search terms that regularly draw the curious to the pages of The Chrysalis are for the meaning of the Flammarion woodcut, the meaning of the Prodigal Son, and for the meaning of Heraclitus’ ethos anthropos damon (usually translated as “character is fate”).

They are connected, in some ways. (Maybe someone’s trying to tell me something?). So, for the curious seeker and Google pilgrim, here it is again.

Urbi et Orbi

Urbi et Orbi

The first thing to note about this engraving, which people find so fascinating, is that it’s origins are controversial (no later than 1888) and its author anonymous (but most likely by Flammarion himself to illustrate his book on Atmospherics). The Wikipedia entry for the illustration notes something of its history, although I dispute some of its conclusions there, for they seem rather too arbitrary and biased.

The second thing of note about the engraving is it’s title. Urbi et Orbi is the traditional opening for a papal announcement. “To the City and the World” refers to the Vatican City (or Rome as “The Eternal City”) and the World beyond the Urbs. The author of the illustration may have been thinking of the same distinction between the local and the cosmological in appropriating that phrase, but with ironic or perhaps even critical or sardonic intent. The “Orbs” or World simply ain’t what it used to be in the Christian cosmology. In fact, the engraving could be entitled even “Heaven Ain’t What It Used To Be”.

For that reason it’s almost certainly not “medieval”, but something much later, when the metaphor of the Clockwork Universe came into fashion, for now the Heavens — the World to Come or “the Beyond” — is depicted as a cold and brutal thing of gears, cogs, and wheels, not the celestial paradise, nor a continuum that was even expressed in the ancient Greek meaning of the word “physis” in which the human and the natural order formed a continuum. There is now a sharp, antagonistic bifurcation between the cozy, warm, living Urbs and the cold, mechanical, deathly Orbs. Now Urbi et Orbi, as the unifying ecclesiastical formula for papal announcements just doesn’t mean what it used to. It depicts Shakespeare’s “times out of joint”. The Orbs is now deaf to human speech, which is a far cry from the liturgical kind if speech which even addressed salt as a living and responsive substance: “thou creature salt”.

The Wiki article describes the human figure in engraving as a “missionary”. There’s no reason to conclude that. More likely the figure is a pilgrim on pilgrimage, and as such is Mr. Everyman. Nor does the article mention the gesture of alarm that the pilgrim makes when he pokes his head through the place where Heaven and Earth meet, or the Orbs and the Urbs, or the Sky Father and the Earth Mother, as ancient cosmology has it. His hand is raised as if to ward off the sight of something terrible and horrifying. In fact, does that gesture not recall Pascal’s dismayed remark about the new science before he fled from science into a particularly austere form of Christianity — “The silence of the Infinite Void terrifies me”? The pilgrim in the engraving is the representative of man.

The engraving illustrates at least four related things: “Urbi et Orbi” no longer means what it used ta’. Instead of the unity of “here” and “there”, there is now a sharp bifurcation and dichotomisation. The Orbs is now deaf to man’s prayers and petitions and invocations. It’s simply a machine, now — (Mr. Dawkins’ “Blind Watchmaker”) — and an inexorable, implacable Juggernaut. In addition, the engraving depicts a transition between historical eras, that the “world to come” is the transition from an Age of Faith to an Age of Reason, an example of a “mutation” of the consciousness structure from the mythological-symbolical to the mental-rational-analytical, and correspondingly, the sharp dichotomisation of subject and object, the Urbs and the Orbs.

In fact, something really astonishing has occurred here. Although the invocation remains the same — the same words, the same phrase — it has come to have an entirely opposite meaning and significance. Where the word et (“and”) was the unifying “and”, where Urbs and Orbs formed a “we”, the “et” no longer forms a “we”, but merely an aggregation. The Orbs, instead of being a “Thou”, has become an “It”. The “et“, instead of implying the unity of subject and object in mutual creaturehood (or in mutual sin, for that matter), now expresses the opposite — the division between the subject and object.

Mr. Dawkins’ “Blind Watchmaker” is a particularly inapt description of this. It is more the case that the world has become deaf. The invocation Urbi et Orbi has become impotent to form a “we” by the fact that the Orbs has become deaf, and the ancient dialogue between the human and the natural, or heaven and earth, was broken. Note how the “world to come” (the future) is now depicted as a cold, dead, mechanical and deaf thing compared to the representations of the sun and the moon in the “Urbs“. They are alive. They even have ears and a mouth, meaning they are responsive. They were even addressed as such as “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon”.  In fact, the engraving even seems to express something of a nostalgia for the loss of that fellowship of beings or the unity of being in common creaturehood.

That ancient nostalgia may account for the engraving’s enduring fascination and mystery. It does say a very great deal in a very small space, including the great divide now between the secular and the sacred, or the sacred and the profane, or between the City of Man and the City of God, or between Reason and Faith, Urbs and Orbs, consciousness and matter, or subject and object. The pilgrim is now alone in a cosmos that has apparently gone deaf.

That, however, is now changing. The subtitle of Prigogine’s Order Out of Chaos is “Man’s New Dialogue with Nature“. The physicist David Bohm even promotes dialogics. Quantum mechanics can hardly avoid the sense of a conversation and dialogue once again occurring between consciousness and reality. The day when classical physics and science could dismiss the  Trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric — that is, speech itself — as the “trivial” are passing. The Orbs is responding once again, and we’re beginning to understand that it was never the world that went deaf. It was man who went deaf.

“For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”— William Blake



2 responses to “On The Flammarion Engraving Urbi et Orbi

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    I absolutely love the “Flammarion engraving entitled “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and to the World”).

    There’s something about the creation, with its sun that has a bewildered face, the village in the background, the clothing of the man, the tree, everything about it looks a lot like the pictures I used to see in the children’s books my parents bought me when I was a kid.

    I too was introduced to the engraving on the pages of The Chrysalis. To me, as someone who does not know any Latin, the title “Urbi et Orbi” sounds very humorous.

    Looking at the engraving casually, I can say that the image is a perfect materialization of the thoughts I have every time I hear about another deep space exploration project. I mean, we have this most beautiful, vibrant planet filled with energy and life, and yet we spend our resources to raze whole forests to the extent that the damage is visible from space, pollute our beautiful blue oceans that are filled with life and promise, and then go spend billions of dollars to see if we can find a drop of water or a tiny bush on a distant dark planet millions of miles away.

    That’s just crazy.

    I mean I love the images of space vessels being fired into space and all, and I love the “Big Science” work that the people who work on these projects do, but there’s more good in exploring and protecting our own environment on planet earth in the next few years than anything we might find in space in the next ten million years; methinks.

    I realize that the Flammarion woodcut was created before the space age, but that attitude of man to want to wonder and waste time over many things that aren’t worth it is as old as Man himself. It has no cure. Maybe the engraving is saying something about that.

  2. ray says :

    This depicts the flat earth and the dome covering the earth..with the sun and moon close and within the. Dome

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