Dürer and perspective


Albrecht Dürer (b. Nuremberg, 21 May 1471; d. Nuremberg, 6 April 1528)

Painter, draughtsman, printmaker and writer. Now considered by many scholars the greatest of all German artists, he not only executed paintings and drawings of the highest quality but also made a major contribution to the development of printmaking, especially engraving, and to the study of anthropometry.

It was in Bologna that Dürer was taught (possibly by the mathematician Luca Pacioli) the principles of linear perspective, and evidently became familiar with the ‘costruzione legittima’ in a written description of these principles, found only, at this time, in the unpublished treatise of Piero delle Francesca. He was also familiar with the ‘abbreviated construction’ as described by Alberti and the geometrical construction of shadows, a technique of Leonardo da Vinci. Although Dürer made no innovations in these areas, he is notable as the first Northern European to treat matters of visual representation in a scientific way, and with understanding of Euclidean principles. In addition to these geometrical constructions, Dürer discusses in the last book of Unterweysung des Messung an assortment of mechanisms for drawing in perspective from models and provides woodcut illustrations of these methods that are often reproduced in discussions of perspective.

Perspective: the technique of representing three-dimensional objects and depth relationships on a two-dimensional surface.

Illustration from T.17.28[1]
p. 581 [i.e. 185]
Here we have an illustration from a work published in 1535 based on or possibly a reprint of Unterweysung des Messung (T.17.28[1]).

Dürer’s illustration shows apparatus for drawing a classic set-piece, a foreshortened lute. A pointer is attached to a thread running through a pulley on the wall. The thread represents a ray of light passing through the picture plane to the theoretical eye-point denoted by the pulley. As one man fixes key points on the lute, his assistant records the vertical and horizontal co-ordinates of the thread as it passes through the frame, and plots each new point to create a drawing.


Have a look at an art teacher’s theory that Dürer originally meant to put the frame in the centre of the image.

Here are some additional images from the book:

Illustration from T.17.28[1]
p. 179
Title page to T.17.28[1]
title page










Grove Art Online


Bird iconography in a 13th century English Bestiary

Pelican from R.14.9
A pelican feeding its young by piercing its own breast. This was symbolic of the Crucifixion in the medieval mind.


Copied out in religious centres by monastic scribes, medieval bestiaries are part catalogue of wondrous beasts and part moral allegory. They represent a world in which God created animals as object-lessons for man in morality, piety and Christian doctrine. Birds in bestiaries tend to be symbolic either of spiritual renewal and the ever-lasting life of the spirit (eagles and peacocks), or of the proper care of parents for their young children and children for their ailing parents (crows). Some, however, represent specific episodes or concepts from the Bible. The Pelican, shown above piercing its own breast to feed its young on its blood, represents Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of others.

The Caladrius, pictured below, is a mythical, pure white bird, reputedly kept in the houses of Kings, which would perch on the bed of anyone who fell ill. If the Caladrius looked away from the convalescent, the person would die of their illness. However, if the bird looked at them, they were sure to recover. The Caladrius would then draw the sickness into itself by virtue of its gaze and then fly up to the sun where the sickness was burned away. This was an allegory for the cleansing away of sin by Christ’s sacrifice in the Bible.

R.14.9 image
Illustration of the Caladrius, a mythical bird, healing a sick king.

That the Caladrius is able to predict the life or death of an individual is emblematic of the larger world of medieval bird symbolism. The word ‘auspicious’ – describing an event about which there are omens, especially good omens – comes from auspex, from the Latin avis, bird, and specere, to watch, someone who could predict future events by observing birds in flight. In addition to representing aspects of human spirituality, birds in the middle ages were linked to the spirit world in a very unique way, representing fate, dreams, prophecy and the future. We retain aspects of this symbolism to this day, with our rhymes about magpies portending different future events based on their numbers, for example.


‘Wordless’: one word’s journey from a Mediaeval Manuscript to the Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is one of the greatest achievements of English language scholarship. The brainchild of various members of the Philological Society and edited by James A.H. Murray (1837-1915), it took decades to compile and write the definitions for 600,000 words representing 1,000 years of written English and it continues to grow and change as our language does.

The magnitude of its achievement is not simply in its scale. The Dictionary also provides the etymology of each word and traces usage and sense through quotations from the corpus of written English, seeking out the earliest and most exemplary uses of each word. In order to achieve this unprecedented feat, Murray and his editorial team put out a call for volunteer readers to pore over manuscripts, books, newspapers and magazines. Volunteers were asked to write illustrative quotations for common and unusual words and where they were found on slips of paper and to send these to the Dictionary.

A much smaller group of volunteers (for a time including Murray’s own children) sorted the slips alphabetically by headword into purpose-built pigeonholes. Then the editorial team painstakingly sorted the quotations for each headword into their individual senses before finally writing the definitions. In order to continue funding the project, the publishers released the Dictionary in small volumes known as fascicules, one at a time, between 1884 and 1928.

The word “wordless” provides an example of this process from the perspective of one word from one manuscript in the Trinity College Library collection and the reader who submitted it, to its use as the earliest citation in the OED.

Poems and sermons in English (13th century?) – B.14.52

Trinity ms B.14.52, ff.050v/051r
The folio from B.14.52 containing the word “wordless” as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is located at the bottom of the right hand page.

Known as the Trinity Homilies, this volume contains poems and sermons in an early form of English. M.R. James dates the homilies to the 13th century, but R. Morris and other academics disagree, placing it in the previous century and identifying the language as Old English rather than Middle English. In order to date manuscripts such as this, academics use linguistic forms, word choice, script, dialect and numerous other textual and contextual clues, but as yet no definitive date has been concluded for the Trinity Homilies. What is clear is that this volume is written in a transitional form of English, containing Old French and Latin-derived vocabulary, while retaining many Old English forms from an earlier exemplar that was almost certainly composed in Anglo-Saxon. At least one of the scribes was literate in Anglo-Saxon and translated it rather than simply transcribing it.

The manuscript contains interpolations, explanations of words or passages of an earlier text for the purposes of instruction. They function almost like definitions, making them perfect illustrative examples of meaning for the compilers of the Dictionary. Indeed this manuscript is the 185th most frequently quoted source in the OED and provides the earliest evidence of 287 words, including “wordless”.

The passage quoted in the OED can be found near the end of the right hand leaf of the image above and in the close-up below, and reads: Wordles song is þe herte michele blisse, þe heo haueð of heuenliche ðinge, and ne mai þeroffe be stille, ne mid worde hem atellen. “Wordless songs are the great bliss that the heart hath on account of heavenly things, and may not thereof be silent, nor tell them in words” (trans. R. Morris). It is an interpolation of the Latin word iubilus (related to “jubilation”), translated into English as “wordless song”. Here the author/translator describes a feeling of such joy that one feels moved to sing, but no words will suffice.

Trinity ms B.14.52, f.051r detail
A detail of Trinity MS B.14.52, f.051r, showing the word “wordless” and the quotation used in the OED: “Wordles song is þe herte michele blisse, þe heo haueð of heuenliche ðinge, and ne mai þeroffe be stille, [ne mid worde hem atellen].”
In the OED, “wordless” is sorted into three senses, the oldest of which, “Inexpressible in words; unspeakable, unutterable,” (OED) is illustrated by this quotation. We might use the related phrase “lost for words” today. Its other senses refer to a person characterized by silence or a piece of music or theatre without verbal accompaniment.

You may have noticed that the word “wordless” has been underlined in pencil both times it appears on the page. Perhaps these markings were made by the lexicographer who was researching the book, Richard Morris, though it is not possible to know that for certain.

(Note: this manuscript has been digitized in full and is available to view for free on the James Catalogue.)

 Old English Homilies of the Twelfth Century (1873) translated by R. Morris – LL 108 ET 130

R. Morris detail
Detail of R. Morris’ transcription of the Trinity Homilies, including the passage on “wordless” that was quoted in the OED.

The man responsible for the citation of the Trinity Homilies in the OED was Richard Morris (1833-1894). Like James Murray, Morris was a largely self-taught philologist, having read widely in English and Pali, the traditional language of Buddhism. He was a member of the Philological Society and the Early English Text Society, producing twelve texts, including this volume containing the Trinity HomiliesIn 1876, while he was President of the Philological Society, he suggested James Murray as editor of the OED and was also a volunteer reader.

Like many of his fellow contributors, including James Murray, Richard Morris never lived to see the Dictionary finished. Morris’ quotation for “wordless” was published posthumously, as the fascicule containing headwords from Wise to the end of W was not published until 1928, the 125th and final fascicule produced before the Dictionary was released in full.

Old English Homilies by R. Morris, title page
The title page from R. Morris’ Old English Homilies.
Early English Text Society
Richard Morris’ Old English Homilies, showing his transcription of Trinity MS B.14.52