the medieval period the viewer of the Signs of Plenty was expected to
submit intellect and will to the spiritual authority of Church, Tradition,
and Scripture. The splendor of the renditions of familiar scenes from
the biblical story was meant to move all people upward to the supra-mundane
region where faith would fill the mind and gratitude the heart. At the
end of the 12th century, the Order of Time
(ordo temporis) still guided the medieval order of things:
Ordained by the creator for the duration of his creation, Hegel's spurious
infinity, the temporal order's three stages were extolled by each panel
as the pattern for the history of the whole world; and this pattern
was to be discerned, in miniature, in each human soul's innately given
potential for growing in virtue, especially hope, faith, and love. The
warrant for the Order of Time was to be found
in the testimonies of biblical allegories as put forward by Augustine
in his City of God.
literate and the unlettered contemplated the images depicting biblical
scenes that revealed Time's sacred story. Sunday and Holyday they listened
to sermons raising their own lives to the level of signs unfolding to
the slow beat of the repetitive rhythms of Western Christianity's liturgical
year. The literate could also read each image's circumscription with
its instruction on how to interpret its meaning within the typological,
i.e., figurative schema. A few of the learned may have known scripture
well enough to tell which passages undergird the panels' cosmic, yet
anthropocentric, arrangement in its doctrinal completeness. The Order
of the Virtues, popping up in gussets between panels, merges antiquity's
main classical virtues with Christian doctrine. Each image has its own
circumscription and, taken together, they define the Order
of Time as humankind's slow, irreversible progression
from receiving the gifts of life, growth, and compassion in the beginning,
to the divine pronouncement of the dreaded just sentence on Judgment
the panels' reader is no longer instructed and constrained by authoritative
interpretation. He is free to accept the work's challenge and respond
with his own cognitive and affective ways as best he can. The web's
hypertext features permit analytical readings that give unprecedented
access to information and open up new possibilities for serious scholarship.-
The first time reader may want some pointers on how to proceed. She
or he are invited to experiment along the lines of a
method used by Wallace Stevens (*see footnote)
in his poem 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.
Stevens, thinker and poet, displays in his poem a modern phenomenological
method based on the knowledge that a thing only appears to our senses
as a thing, and not just as blurry sense data, when it has a recognizable
name. He uses the conjunction of name and thing as a kind of pretext
for the mind's innermost cognitive powers to screen visible and invisible
patterns from a dual, i.e., elliptical, focus. In tandem, intelligence
and imagination discern patterns produced by the mind's heeding the
oscillations attending the interchange of properties of name and thing.
Reflecting on the experience later, the poet gives communicative form
to experiential realities hitherto hidden. On rare occasions, this truth-seeking
method is mid-wife to a poem that reveals, in new guise, the code of
algorisms which underwrite the mind's conscious experience. Senses and
intellect, imagination and memory, intuition and empathy, all combine
in the great desire to know world and self in truth. Readers who are
intrigued by this integral method of inquiry can acquire it for their
own use if they really wish to do so and get ready to practice on blackbirds
jeux d'esprit, Stevens' method has
been adapted in the 13 stanzas below.
seventeen golden panels,
The only moving thing
Is the eye of the viewer.
am of three minds,
Like the Order of Time
In which there mingle three ages.
to and fro we
whirl in tempests.
A small part of
brought here to
The other and I and you
Are to be one.
remote are the pictures
In life's cathedral windows when
The shadow crosses
Over and someone asks who is that
dreamers of Islam,
Why do you imagine
canaries of precious
Do you not see
the tree's blackbirds
The women around
know noble accents,
And light-filled rhythmic pulses;
Ignorance of the
Blackbird is hidden in these panels.
the blackbird flew out of sight,
It left its footmarks on a circular cloud
On the horizon.
the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bells of St. Andrew
Ring out profanations.
river is moving.
The blackbird must be
The panels shine.
Blackbird fluffs its feathers, awaiting the
Invasion of night.
Footnote: "Any truth can be manifested in
two ways: by things or by words. Words signify things and one thing can
signify another. The Creator of things, however, can not only signify
anything by words, but can also make one thing signify another. One lies
in the things meant by the words used-- that is the literal sense. The
other is the way things become figures of other things, and in this consists
the spiritual sense."
Thomas Aquinas in "Quaestiones quodlibetales" VII. 14
Back to the note