Lignum vitae

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Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University features an excellent website on the Speculum theologiae

Medieval educators gave significant attention to the principles of morality in training their students. Such instruction was closely linked to the cultivation of memory. The individual who came to store edifying texts and moral tenets in his mind was believed to have a solid foundation for future learning, equipped to profitably engage in the loftiest of the human sciences: theology.

The means by which basic moral/mnemonic instruction was delivered changed over time. In the Early and Central Middle Ages, when the learned were mainly monks and elite clergy, its foundations were biblical literature and the texts of the liturgy. In the twelfth century, as education became more analytical and moved beyond the circle of those immersed in the liturgical cycle, new methods of teaching were developed. Ancient mnemonic techniques, stressing the use of specific imaginary spaces as containers of data, began to be cultivated once again. To facilitate learning, teachers developed inscribed diagrams organized according to numerical principles and informed by increasingly sophisticated exegetical methods. Far from supplanting well-established pedagogical tools, these diagrams became important ancillary elements in educational practice.

Beinecke MS 416 is a late thirteenth-century or early fourteenth-century collection of such didactic diagrams from the Cistercian abbey of Kamp in western Germany. It is composed of eight folios of figures that, when found in combination, are often called the Speculum theologiae.

Judging from the diverse contexts in which combinations of these diagrams were copied, the genre was popular throughout Europe beginning in the thirteenth century and continuing until the age of printing. The authorship of the Speculum theologiae is a vexed question not only because it varies in content but also because it is ascribed in manuscripts to different individuals.

Beinecke MS 416 is a fairly typical example of the Speculum theologiae genre. Among the illustrations is a Turris sapientiae (tower of wisdom), a diagram that uses the format of a building to encourage memorization of moral principles. Also present is the Lignum vitae (tree of life) based on the eponymous text by St. Bonaventure, a tool for meditating on the events of the Gospels and the Old Testament prophecies that foretell them. Other diagrams typical of Speculum theologiae collections such as a tree of virtues and a tree of vices are found as well. The Beinecke manuscript also features wheel diagrams, including an illustration in which the seven petitions, sacraments, gifts of the Holy Spirit, arms of justice, works of charity, virtues, and vices are put into concordance. Finally, it contains a number of diagrams in which two or three vertical rows of medallions are connected by two textual scrolls. In one of these tables, for example, the Ten Commandments, ten plagues of Egypt, and ten abuses of the impious are linked. In another the eight beatitudes and their rewards are put into relation with the eight orders of angels. These images have much to tell us about devotional and mnemonic practices of the Late Middle Ages and afford us a unique view into monastic culture in the age of the universities.

Of special interest to me right now is the diagram featuring The Tree of Life:

This diagram presents the events of Christ’s life along with scriptural citations and prompts for meditation in the form of a tree. The diagram was inspired by St. Bonaventure’s Lignum vitae, a thirteenth-century text meant to aid the devout in conforming themselves to Christ through meditation on the events of his life, passion, and glorification.

The diagrammatic tree has twelve branches and twelve fruits, each presenting a different mystery from the life of Christ. Beneath the tree are two rows of verses from both the Old and New Testaments. One row features tree imagery, while the other contains passages alluding to Christ’s death. A verse from Revelation serves as the root of the tree itself, suggesting a link between the Edenic tree in Genesis and the cross of the Gospels. The designer of the diagram also linked the events of Christ’s life inscribed on tree itself with Old Testament verses prefiguring them. These latter are found in the lobes on the margins. In pairing the events of Christ’s career with their Old Testament prefigurations, the designer of the diagram went a step beyond St. Bonaventure, who did not have a broader exegetical program in mind when he composed his text. The Tree of Life as it appears in Beinecke MS 416 concretely depicts the essential unity of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Gospels, illustrating how ancient prophecies have become the fruit of the new dispensation.

Below is the translation of the diagram.

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