The Medieval Origins of Architectural Drawing

In 12th-century Paris, a Scottish monk wrote a biblical commentary and inadvertently invented architectural drawing as we know it.
Richard’s lateral sectional elevation for a gatehouse. Paris, BnF, ms Lat. 14516, f. 240v.
By: Karl Kinsella

One morning, sometime in the early 12th century, the theologian and teacher Hugh of Saint Victor left his cell inside the abbey of Saint Victor in Paris and went for a walk. His stroll soon took him along the banks of the Seine, and as he gazed across the assorted vessels his curious and energetic mind, perhaps naturally, turned to the tricky problem of Noah and his ark. What especially caught Hugh’s attention was that the barges and sailing boats in front of him could stay afloat only by employing a keel — something that could cut through the water and prevent the vessel from toppling over.

This article is adapted from Karl Kinsella’s book “God’s Own Language: Architectural Drawing in the Twelfth Century.”

But such a simple observation made a fundamental historical problem abundantly clear, for as Hugh knew only too well, the Bible recounts how Noah built his boat — the first-ever structure, on land or water — according to instructions relayed directly from God. These instructions must have been precise since the ark floats with Noah, his family, and the animals inside it, but for those wanting to picture the ark, the account in the book of Genesis is not very clear. The general dimensions are outlined but not whether it should have a window, what type of roof it should have, or even the shape of its hull; there were many questions unanswered.

Earlier writers, such as Saint Augustine and Origen, stated that the ark had no keel, and that issues such as whether it would float or not did not really matter since it was, after all, created by God, who was all-powerful. Seeing the boats in front of him on the Seine and especially their keels, Hugh realized that the ark’s design, as conceived by these earlier authors, would immediately fail, and with it the salvation of humanity. His observation, in this sense, disagreed with what he had been taught to be true, and to disagree with people such as Saint Augustine was, frankly, no small matter.

Hugh realized that the ark’s design, as conceived by these earlier authors, would immediately fail, and with it the salvation of humanity.

God’s Own Language” is not about Noah’s ark or even, for the most part, about Hugh’s description of it. Instead, it is about the visual language of architecture; Hugh, his protégé Richard, and their home of Saint Victor in Paris during the 12th century are an insufficiently studied part of that history and of architectural drawing more widely. This language of architecture was both visual and textual, and applied to structures such as Noah’s ark because it could make sense of the strangeness inherent in biblical descriptions. Hugh no doubt would have agreed with Italian architect Massimo Scolari’s modern statement that “the ark is a symbol of artificial order which floats on natural disorder.” From the perspective of Hugh, as a man embedded within a culture of religious and intellectual elitism, the past was defined by the Old Testament and the walking, talking, and communicative God that inhabited it, and the ark was both a historical structure and a platform for better understanding a strange world.

Despite the ark’s obvious importance, Hugh had no way to visualize it or to represent a historically correct version of it for his intended readers, since in the 12th century there was little in the way of a recognized formal language of architectural drawing, and plans and elevations were rare. If Hugh did make a drawing, no matter how rudimentary, none has been found. All that is left is a detailed written description of how one could draw it, a text as opaque and convoluted as the complex system of allegory Hugh hoisted onto the ark as a platform for his theology. The difficulty in understanding Hugh’s vision for the ark and other buildings could be ameliorated only by drawing it.

God creating the universe and holding a compass. Vienna, National Library of Austria, MS 2554, f. 1v.

In the Old Testament, God gave Noah plans for the ark, and its form was thought to retain the primordial divine spark of its heavenly origins. In this sense, the language of architecture is the language through which God speaks to humanity and his creation. The ark is just one structure among the many described in the Bible, and all are important because they tell something of the mind of God. The architectural nature of God’s creation was recognized in the Middle Ages and beyond. Indeed, from the 12th century, God is sometimes depicted holding a compass, the tool of the medieval architect and geometers. In this guise, the profession of architect, a profession barely in existence as we might recognize it today, is propelled to the highest status. Concurrently, God becomes an architect, the builder and intellectual driving force behind the universe. We see God, larger than life, at work during the act of creation, not clicking his fingers and transforming nothing into something, but hunched over his work in the guise of both artist and artisan.

And the ark was his first construction. Its physical, material, and historical reality for someone such as Hugh was important to know and to understand, because in doing so it would be possible to know God better. Because of the ark’s importance to the history of humanity, medieval authors felt an urgency to understand that language and to comprehend even the simplest elements of the ark and biblical architecture more generally. How else to explain the various and many representations of the ark that exist today?

Many people before and after Hugh searched for the true form of the ark, believing in its key importance as a structure that marked the beginning of humanity’s compulsion to build things bigger than themselves. The results of these searches usually say more about the concerns of the present than about the past. The problem was that the ark’s appearance cannot be easily understood based on the biblical description alone.

Although there were two main Christian theories about the ark’s appearance — that it was a long-tapered pyramid or a long flat-bottomed vessel of the kind Hugh rejected — representations of the ark could vary quite dramatically. For example, a third-century fresco portrays it as a simple box from which Noah emerges to greet the returning dove that told him there was dry land near. The form reflects the Hebrew term for the ark, which simply means “chest” or “box.” In this sense, the ark is a literal melding of word and image, a pictorial pun in which structure or space play no part in the ark’s realization to Christian audiences. From the very earliest representations of the ark and other biblical structures, language played a key part in how the past could be visualized, in this case providing a like-for-like indication of Noah’s ark without any suggestion that it should be embellished. From a Christian point of view, it is the word of God made manifest in the plainest way possible.

Noah emerging from the ark.
Noah emerging from the ark. Rome, Catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter.

This linguistic focus is one of many ways in which the ark is made real for medieval audiences. In other examples, the ark’s physicality and status as, first and foremost, a vessel on the water comes into focus. For example, in the half-page image of the ark in the Old English Hexateuch — a collection of the first six books of the Bible — the ark has both architectonic and naval elements that speak to the experiences of a contemporary audience. Its form is like that of a longboat seen on the seas of early medieval England, a vision of the present projected back into the past. It is an anachronism that prioritizes a recognizable visual language over any attempt at historical accuracy, but in the process gives status to all such vessels as having something like the original form of God’s creation. It sanctifies the contemporary present through its anachronism, creating a link between the present and the past.

The language of dimensions and precise cubit measurements in the biblical account offered a suggestion to some authors that mathematics and geometry could clarify matters.

The language of dimensions and precise cubit measurements in the biblical account offered a suggestion to some authors that mathematics and geometry could clarify matters. This gave rise to representations in a tidy and schematic style that convey the structure’s overall appearance, enhanced by using geometrical instruments such as a compass. For example, an early 12th-century copy of the Apocalypse contains an elevation of Noah’s ark, where the animals appear in pairs and in separate compartments, giving the image a distinct suggestion of order amid what would no doubt have been chaotic scenes of animals living so close to one another. In this case, the artist has taken care to use a straight edge to construct the square compartments, and even the diagonal lines at the intersections suggest how the timbers were joined to each other by Noah according to God’s instructions. At the top, Noah welcomes back the dove carrying proof that the flood waters have receded and that the world is safe again.

The ark with individual rooms for the animals. Manchester, The John Rylands Library, MS 8, f. 15r.

The compartmentalization of this structure parallels Massimo Scolari’s observation that the ark is the embodiment of order, where both the ark’s clear internal layout and the importance of geometry in interpretations of it are significant. In the 12th century, the point was not to detail to the reader exactly how the ark floated or the arrangement of the animals, but simply to imply a sense of order. In later examples, artists leveraged the significant technological development of the sciences to create rational and hence believable interpretations of Noah’s floating menagerie. This iconography of order, like a visual list, begins to address questions of realism in a much more comprehensive way than Hugh’s simple observation that an ark should float in the same way as all vessels.

This sense of order is foregrounded in Athanasius Kircher’s late 17th-century series of plans, elevations, and dramatic scenes of the ark on the waters of chaos. These pictures and the mathematical preciseness of their form contain a rhetorical power, their clarity testifying to the truth of Kircher’s recreation and giving them a “reality effect.” The ark, like so many biblical images, reflects Kircher’s historical methodology, a testimony to the Enlightenment, where the methods and ideas of a changing present are applied to the past, each iteration taking the viewer and reader a step closer to the “real ark.”

A detailed study of the ark and its parts. Athanasius Kircher, Arca Noë. Amsterdam, 1675, fp. 46/47. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But there is no real ark, only an object that reappears over and over again in our conversations about the past and how we can understand it. For Hugh of Saint Victor, God gave drawings to humanity to turn his imagination into something material: the ark, the tabernacle, Solomon’s temple — all of these buildings were first conceived of in two dimensions, given as instructions to humanity before being realized in fact. The drawings are God-given instructions, God’s voice written in stone and on parchment, and so architectural drawings are a language God uses to talk to his people.

An interrogation of biblical architectural representations always indicates something about the historical present, whether it is the seventh or 17th century, but in doing so, that investigation can also be a platform for examining the history of drawing. When looking through the history of architectural drawing in particular, however, the 12th century is nothing more than an empty space. There are so few examples that if these drawings are the language of God, it is a period of silence. Underlining this absence is the complete lack of architectural treatises written between Vitruvius in the first century BCE and Alberti in the 15th century. The fact that no author directly discussed the subject during the intervening period, however, should not be taken as apathy toward its practice and processes; instead, the underlying interest in architecture remained hidden within the cloisters of medieval Europe, kept there by monks and canons who had a highly developed sense of spatial representation both in their imaginations and on the surface of the page. Within these cloisters, there is a protohistory of architectural drawing, but it has never played a significant role in studies of the subject and its origins in the central Middle Ages. There is, however, an overlooked set of medieval manuscripts originally made in Hugh’s abbey of Saint Victor and copied widely across Europe. The drawings in these manuscripts testify to both the importance of architectural drawing and their significant development during the 12th century.

In the middle of the 12th century, Hugh’s protégé Richard of Saint Victor (d. 1173) wrote a biblical commentary — known by its Latin title “In visionem Ezechielis” (On Ezekiel’s Vision) — which considered the series of buildings that the prophet Ezekiel described in a vision of a temple the Israelites were prophesied to build. The title is modern, but it reflects the contents accurately with its emphasis on the importance of seeing what the prophet saw, and also the importance of the reader seeing the drawings in the commentary.

It is then a vision in two ways, one belonging to the prophet and a second for the contemporary reader who has visions of Ezekiel’s experiences. There are over a dozen plans and elevations to help readers visualize the buildings Ezekiel saw, making Richard’s interpretation of this biblical past plain for all to see. The drawings are the earliest to employ a combination of plans and elevations to illustrate several buildings and their relationship with one another. As a result, Richard’s commentary took a leap forward in comparison to Hugh’s solely textual description of the ark. Just like the biblical description of the ark, the words and phrases Ezekiel uses can be difficult to follow and even, at times, contradictory, leaving the reader unsure of what the prophet saw. In presenting the biblical past as a series of drawings, Richard was forced to be crystal-clear in his commentary; there could be no fudging of or disregard for inconvenient dimensions. Such clarity in visual form embodies a significant rhetorical power, since, in this case, seeing is believing.

In presenting the biblical past as a series of drawings, Richard was forced to be crystal-clear in his commentary.

The drawings for “In visionem Ezechielis” demonstrate an extraordinary capacity to communicate a clear vision of the past, and the fact that they were conceived and drawn in a cloister should not stop them from being incorporated into the wider history of architecture. Even today, the images in “In visionem Ezechielis” are easily legible as architectural drawings despite being 850 years old; they still communicate the most important parts of Richard’s peculiar interpretation of the prophet’s vision. In this sense, the drawings’ legibility transcends language and time, as clearly now as on the day they were made. They are a language unaffected by time and space that can still speak to a modern audience with only a little exposition. “In visionem Ezechielis” is not without errors, but the visual strategies brought to bear are decades, if not centuries, ahead of their time.

The purpose of Richard’s commentary is straightforward: to give readers a sense of what Ezekiel saw by rendering the heavenly buildings in both text and image. This simple aim is a direct result of Hugh’s approach to history, which was to bring the past closer to the present, to draw a line between the 12th-century world and the biblical one. By having one foot firmly placed in the present, Hugh and Richard were able to bring the past to life in a much more vivid way than many other contemporary authors. And by including drawings in “In visionem Ezechielis,” Richard made these links between past and present explicit.

The simple act of drawing a picture of a building seems a natural way of showing other people what it looks or looked like, much more effectively than words ever can. Such drawings should be expected throughout much of human history, drawn on ephemeral media such as sand, wax tablets, and scrap material. That we no longer have these images is only evidence that the drawings were not as valued as parchments containing important texts such as the writings of Saint Augustine or, indeed, the Gospels themselves. Fortunately, for our purposes we are not looking for lost lines in the sand, but for ink in a biblical commentary by a Scottish man in 12th-century Paris. And that is where and when “God’s Own Language” begins.

Karl Kinsella is a lecturer in art history at the University of Aberdeen, having previously held positions at the Universities of York and Oxford. A specialist in medieval architectural history and manuscripts, he received the Hawksmoor Essay Medal in 2013 for his work on architectural drawing. This article is excerpted from his book “God’s Own Language: Architectural Drawing in the Twelfth Century.”

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