Posted by: glue | May 17, 2009

Painted Definitions

A chief lesson for electracy to be drawn from the history of literacy is the extent to which nearly every representational practice in every institution was based on some application of Aristotle’s categories in particular, and Classical Greek metaphysics in general.  This point is as true for the use of images as for texts.  Gombrich observes, for example, that the iconic allegories of the kind represented by Titian’s Prudence were designed as “painted definitions.”  When such works are described as “personified concepts,” the phrase must be understood literally, in that the selection of features used in the personification followed the rules of essence, of substance and attribute, which also guided propositional predication.  The iconology used in the formation of emblems – a practice inspired by the hermetic understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics, was based explicitly on Aristotle’s use of definition to sort out essence and accident.



“The category of images which are the subject of this discourse [writes Ripa] corresponds to the definition… which can conveniently be expressed by means of the human figure.  Because just as man is always a particular man in the same way as a definition is the measure of the defined, so the accidental form which appears external to him can be the accidental measure of the qualities to be defined.” . . . . But how are we to account for the fact that the same concept can be represented in so many different ways, as Ripa himself was anxious to demonstrate in his book?  We are referred to Aristotle’s distinction of the four types of definition, corresponding to his four types of causes, the material, the efficient, the  formal and the final.  The deviser of visual definitions is equally free to characterize a concept according to any of these approaches, illustrating, say, the cause or the effect of Friendship.  “When by this method we have become distinctly aware of the qualities, the causes, the properties and the accidents of a definable concept on which the image can be based, we have to look for the similitudes that exist between these concepts and material things and which function as substitutes for the  words as used in the images and definitions of the orators (Gombrich, 142-43).

The instruction for electracy:  if the emblem is to be to electracy what the definition was to literacy, it must be designed according to an image metaphysics (expressing the image category).

It might be, as the emblematic treatment of the Seven Arts indicated, that when it came to dealing with the ultimate mysteries, that theology would have to relieve prudence as the guide to thought in the Christian era.  Nonetheless, as Roy Wagner shows in the case of the theological invention of the Eucharist, the reasoning relied on Aristotle’s principles of substance and accident (literate metaphysics).

The doctrine of transubstantiation was developed from the realist philosophy of the previous epoch, and was based on the assumption of the essential reality of conventional conceptual or verbal categories.  The imperceptible type-essence, or universal, inherent in every particular thing according to its kind, was called the substantia.  The sensuous, perceptible aspects that differentiate the thing from others of its generic were called accidentia.  On this basis, “the idea of transubstantiation is that in the consecration of the elements the substania change but the accidentia remain the same.  The substantia of the bread and wine become the substantia of the body and blood of Christ.  The accidentia remain the same, and the accidentia are all that remain of the original bread and wine.”   This made the ground of being, the divine presence in communion with clergy and  worshipers, a kind of disembodied trope, like  a figure of speech moving independently of language (Wagner, 104).


Wagner demonstrates the flexibility and inventiveness of this trope, which he argues is the core figure of the entire Western tradition.  He shows that this structure of substance and accident has been able to support, and perhaps even direct, every shift in worldview experienced during the epoch of literacy.  “The ‘age of scientific discovery,’ of Copernicus, Galileo, Columbus, and Magellan, and the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, were two sides of the same coin.  Accidentia was discovered as nature, not in Erigena’s sense of the figurative manifestation of God, but as a new, secular ground of being, in the very epoch in which substantia, the presence of God, was determined by Luther and others to be a function of human faith.  Thus the epoch of Reformation was the point at which Western culture, not having a stabilizing ritual, fell through its figure-ground reversal” (111).


  1. It’s in reality a nice and useful piece of

    information. I am glad that you simply shared
    this useful

    information with us. Please keep us up to date like this.
    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Great blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?

    I’m hoping to start my own site

    soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you propose
    starting with a free platform like

    WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m totally

    overwhelmed .. Any ideas? Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: