(i) Mediaeval Thought

Each order or degree of angels and of members of the church on earth receives, according to its proximity or remoteness from God, more or less purification, illumination, and perfection from Him. But each order mediates this activity to the next, forming a continuous, connected chain. Hierarchic activity is not only a descending theme; the divinizing of spirits or intelligences leads them to return and cleave to God by corresponding ascending mediations. The hierarchies thus form an immense procession of divine light which attracts and unites all intelligences to itself....
The Celestial Hierarchy of Denis the Pseudo-Areopagite, from David Luscombe’s 'Mediaeval Thought,' OUP 1997

The immediate pre-modern period, commonly known as the Baroque, and occupying (roughly) the 17th century, acted as a link between the mediaeval and the modern, and contained within itself elements of both. We must therefore first take a brief look at the nature of mediaeval thought, in order better to understand the transitional crisis of the Baroque.

The Middle Ages, as generally understood, ran roughly from the Christian conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in 312AD, to the Reformation of the 1520s and 1530s when Luther, Calvin and Henry VIII broke with papal Rome. The Modern, though presaged in a number of ways over the previous two- three centuries, cannot be said to have truly established itself until the early 17th century, with the Classical era of humanism, liberalism, and the burgeoning scientific tradition. It was the counter-reformation in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, directly counterposed to the launch of the modern, which took unto itself the Baroque style, and which is of particular interest to our project. It clung on to the basic tenets of mediaeval thought, as they had come to be after more than a millenium of development, whilst already reformed beyond their reach. But what were these tenets?


Foucault describes briefly in the opening pages of The Order of Things his understanding of the episteme of the middle ages. In a word, it is summed up by 'resemblance.' This over-riding concept within mediaeval thought breaks down into a number of types of resemblance: convenientia, aemulatio, analogy, and sympathy.59

Convenientia is resemblance by juxtaposition, whereby "the extremity of one also denotes the beginning of another," and "in this hinge between two things resemblance appears."60 Thus convenientia is a resemblance linked to place, bringing like things together, and making "adjacent things similar."

Aemulatio is "a sort of convenience...freed from the law of place to function from a distance." It is "the means whereby things scattered through the universe can answer one another....a sort of natural twinship existing in things." The principle locus of aemulatio is of course Man, who, according to Paracelsus, "comes to resemble the order of the world, takes it back into himself and thus recreates in his inner firmament the sway of that other firmament in which he sees the glitter of the visible stars...[and contains] the stars within himself."61

Analogy not only allows aemulatio's "marvellous confrontations of resemblances across space" but also speaks of convenientia's "adjacencies, of bonds and joints,"62 by speaking, not of things, but of the "more subtle resemblances of relations," between the stars and the sky in which they shine, between plants and the earth in which they grow, between living beings and the globe they inhabit. Again Man is at the centre of all analogies, containing both the heavens above and the earth below, his body "always the possible half of a universal atlas."63

Sympathy is more a "principle of mobility," attracting what is heavy to the heaviness of the earth, what is light towards the weightless ether. "Sympathy is an instance of the Same so strong...that it will not rest..., it has the dangerous power of assimilating, of rendering things identical to one another,.. of causing their individuality to disappear."64 To avoid it pulling the universe into one thing, it is opposed by Antipathy, which "maintains the isolation of things and prevents their assimilation."65 Thus the four aspects of resemblance comprise one of Jung's 'quarternios', a square in which one of the corners has two faces, making the square a five-pointed star in disguise.

"The sovereignty of the sympathy-antipathy pair gives rise to all forms of resemblance," the other three resumed and explained by it, "ceaselessly drawing things together and holding them apart."66


But buried similitudes must be indicated on the surface of things, if we are not to walk around never seeing the beautiful harmony of the world. All the forms of resemblance are recognised because of the signatures carried by all things, that reveal their inner resemblance. A convenience between two things, for example, may be revealed by the sign of a sympathy within them. Emulation may be recognised by analogy: "the eyes are stars because they spread light over our faces just as stars light up the darkness." Resemblances require a signature, for their visibility depends upon their clear marking. But these signs are themselves resemblances, of a different type.

"The world of similarity can only be a world of signs."67 and the unearthing and deciphering of these signatures brings about a knowledge of similitudes. Foucault describes how the four (or five) elements interweave between one another, how palmistry and phrenology arise through the study of "sympathies and emulations that indicate analogies," and shows how the whole world of resemblance completes itself in a vast circle, where the resemblance between two things is "but one of another type enabling us to recognise the first, and which is revealed in its turn by a third," and so on.

Indeed, adding up all the signatures, "sliding over the great circle of similitudes, forms a second circle, which would be an exact duplication of the first, point by point, were it not for that tiny degree of displacement which causes the sign of sympathy to reside in an analogy, that of analogy in emulation, that of emulation in convenience, which in turn requires the mark of sympathy for its recognition." In the final analysis, in fact, in mediaeval thought, "the nature of things, their coexistence, the way in which they are linked together and communicate is nothing other than their resemblance."68

Mediaeval Identity

So, for the mediaeval world, all the working consensus's of all situation, and all the discursive formations of discourse, were characterised by one guiding principle, the over-riding discursive practise of Resemblance. The impact upon identity is clear: a unity of self and other, of self and the world; a feeling of belonging and connectedness that brooked of no separation from the whole. The sense of self of mediaeval man was defined by his relation to and above all by his resemblance to everything else around him. Everything has its place in the god-given order of things, and his only concern is to live up to God's expectations of His Creation, as defined by His priests on Earth. Everything which he must cite is predetermined for him, defines him: the social-defining-person process is seamless and complete.

An important element of the spirallic, self-referential totality is of course the tangibility of language. Far from being an independent set of signs, language in the world of resemblance combines in places with the forms of the world and becomes linked and indistinguishable from them, in such a way that words and signs as marks come to play a role in the reality of the world. In the world of resemblance, as Foucault says, "language is not an arbitrary system; it has been set down in the world and forms a part of it," and is studied "as a thing in nature."69

After so many centuries of ascendancy, maintained by the theocracies of Christendom, it is not until the beginning of the seventeenth century that "thought ceases to move in the element of resemblance. Similitude is no longer the form of knowledge but rather the occassion of error."70 Both Descartes and, already Bacon, criticise the "forms of illusion" to which resemblance too often leads. This new kinship between resemblance and illusions, at the close of the age of resemblance, brings about "the privileged age of the trompe-l'oeil painting, of the comic illusion, of the play that duplicates itself by representing another play, of the quid pro quo, of dreams and visions; it is the age of the deceiving senses; it is the age in which the poetic dimension of language is defined by metaphor, simile, and allegory."71 It is the age of the Baroque.