Contemplative Ascent and the Limitations of Vision in the Omne Bonum

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Charles Singleton Center for the Study of Pre-Modern Europe
The Omne Bonum, an encyclopedia compiled in London between 1359 and 1375, is unprecedented in both its scale and ambition to organize knowledge from various fields in alphabetical order. Before beginning to read the hundreds of articles contained in the manuscript, however, the viewer encounters in the prefatory material a full-page illumination dominated by a fiery, disembodied face. This paper argues that this perplexing image diagrams the possibilities and limitations of human vision. Comparing the painting to its likely source, found in a miscellany created some thirty years earlier, the paper situates both images in relation to contemporary theological debates concerning the beatific vision, the deceased soul’s face-to-face encounter with God. It is furthermore demonstrated that both images visualize contemporary optical theories employed in these debates to make fundamentally different claims about human vision and the visio Dei. The paper concludes that the Omne Bonum illumination positions imperfect human vision in relation to its most perfect form, unachievable by the manuscript’s reader in this life. Such a message was crucial to the presentation of the manuscript’s contents: before turning to the entries presenting knowledge gained by human inquiry, the reader is first asked to recognize the limitations of the epistemological potential of human vision.
Art, Vision