The north-west roundel – Angel of the Rose

[now reduced by 30% to > 2,000 words!]

The North-West roundel  shows a bay or sea, some promontories being given finely drawn buildings. At the centre stands what I will call the ‘Angel of the Rose’.

The Angel of the Rose

The figure’s head is drawn very like that on an image of a chart-maker that was included in a portolan-chart made by Pietro Vesconte. Some believe it his self-portrait.

fol.86v (detail) image is flipped to face right.

But once again, the imagery in ms Beinecke 408 finds its closest matches and explantion in works of the ancient period, from the Achaemenid  through the Hellenistic era and then in the Roman period to c.3rdC AD.

Alexander’s general Nearchus, a renowned navigator and explorer, was commemorated on a medal of the fourth century BC, and the medal shows just such a winged and hatted figure.  Its short skirt and hat are  unusual for a Greek ~ but such skirts were worn by Cretans and Hittites,  and  Nearchus was neither from Greece, nor Macedon, but a man of Crete, possibly of Hittite origins.

The same benevolent character, as I see it,  again informs a figure in fol.72r.  It is interesting to see, here, that transition between these versions relies on a recognised equivalence of shield and star, similar to the use of magen in Semitic languages.   (cf. Magen David)

Such parallels would deserve less attention if they hadn’t – as they do have – a common underlying context in matters to do with navigation over land and sea by reference to the stars and winds, and the cosmographers’ habit of correlating all these in their maps or charts.

The older  ‘Angel’ was  once well-known. On coins of Sinope in the Black Sea it is pictured even before the time of Alexander, and here again the short skirt is not only that of the dancer, but of the sea-going peoples of the ancient world.  In this case, the palm branch signifies both measuring and the practice of inscription.

As a costume for maritime peoples, it is found as early as the third millenium BC, pictured as the costume or the keeper of the tiller on a great galley pictured at  Akrotiri, Santorini.

Other coins from Sinope show the Carian cock, Sinope being a colony founded in the 7thC BC by Miletus, and used for centuries as a port of the Hittites, called by them “Sinuwa”.

Coin Sinope c.400BC  Carian cock

Such influences may well have led to the form given our Angel of the Rose, but it is also clear that other elements here were associated by the later and Latin-speaking world with Persia.

When these coins were made, of course, Persia still ruled much of Asia minor, and also ruled in Egypt. It held Egypt during the Achaemenid period before Alexander’s rise and again afterwards, under the Sassanids. (Achaemenid control of Rhodes lasted throughout the classical centuries).

As far as medieval Europe is concerned, Abraham Cresques’ world-map, made as part of a cosmographical compendium for the king of France (c.1373(?) – 1375) provides a nearer historical context.

On his worldmap, Cresques placed – also in the north-west –   an abstracted figure that is usually considered the first ‘compass rose’ on any European chart. Cresques renders it as a formal, abstract, geometric object, pictures it using the ‘crowsnest’ view from above, and turns the head to face towards the line of the sun, In his worldmap all the drawings in the north face towards that line, and those below, similarly, so that the ecliptic serves as a mirroring line.

In that way, the ‘rose’ no longer marks the central position on an axis passing from pole to pole (as that in fol 86v does), but instead forms a circular shield which blocks the viewer’s sight of anything referring to the world below its ‘flat’ inhabited zone and horizon.

Nonetheless, when its head is laid north, kinship between it and the Angel in fol.86v becomes apparent. It is difficult to avoid the implication that our fifteenth-century work copies matter which by then had been known to Mediterranean cartographers for at least a century.

In Cresques’ design one senses an adjustment being made,  to suit Mediterranean habits (such as the use of parallel waved lines for the sea) and Christian prejudices of that time, which considered all below the southern horizon to be dark, sterile and often demonic. There are even accounts, from Protestant England, of persons burned as devil-worshippers for no reason other than that they had faced that direction while praying.

On fol.86v, the Angel seems to stands upon the rose, supported by a fish-tail or buttressed column. This is not in fact the case; this rose is again a plane of reflection, and only the human-looking head set on the northern part distracts the viewer from realising that. When the upright and inverted views are set side by side, the ‘mirroring’  by the rose is perfectly clear. Perhaps early chart-makers used the camera obscura, which had been known in the west from Alexander’s time, and discussed by Aristotle.

The design- element which rises from either side of the rose is associated with Persia, both its land and its ‘nation-star’ by the Codex-Calendar of 354AD,  otherwise known as  ‘The Chronography of 354 Ad’ but for convenience often called simply the Philocalus.

In its image for the month of June, this almanac shows a montage of items associated with Persia,  which at that time remained Rome’s intractable opponent and the only nation ever to oppose Rome and survive.  (Imperial Rome never understood the concept of peaceful and pleasant co-existence).

The flaming torch signifies the heat of summer and the Sassanid’s Zoroastrian religion; the fruit in this basket is the ‘Persian apple’ or peach (known to Theophrastus by the fourth century BC); the curved blade was known to the Latins as the curvus saturnus and identified by them with an asterism of similar form in the constellation Perseus, itself identified with the Persians’ eponymous ancestor and in that way already known to the ancient Greek-speaking world.

Our very word ‘Perseus’ comes from the Greek, in which language it means  ‘the destroyer’.

The herb-like plant in the background I cannot certainly identify, but expect it is whichever plant Theophrastus and Hippocrates meant by their ‘Persea‘. (Modern scholarship suggests possibly  Cordia myxa or a Mimusops species).

The important point in all this is not only that the ‘batwing’ form which is the chief element in the image of the Angel on fol.86v is ancient and associated with Persia, but that here again we have the same interaction of geographic, astronomical, historical and botanical information as that informing the new ‘portolan-charts’ or those ‘cosmographers’ maps’ which appeared in the Mediterranean from the fourteenth century, and which were gridded by the network of radii from the wind- and or sidereal compass. ( a sidereal compass names its points by certain stars, rather than by the names of winds).

In another Genoese map, the famous eye-shaped map of 1475, an inscription proudly notes that its maker has followed the cosmographers’ custom in  eliminating all fabulous elements from its picture of the world.

Despite this, many commentators have failed to realise that the few unusual images here carry quite different implications. They are images carried over from ancient astronomical and navigational lore, displaying the same pragmatic interaction of  astronomy, geography and practical navigation.

In Europe, only the northern character for the Angel remained, and there it was thoroughly Christianised, becoming a popular figure in the various arts of Renaissance Italy: either as the ‘cynosure’ or as the world-soul. In either case, it seemed to be associated chiefly with the ‘crowsnest’ view of the world.

What makes the Genoese map of 1475 so interesting is that this one includes the correct figure for the northern Angel’s southern counterpart, its mirror image.

Here it is, with batwing-like cloak marked with those radii. It has the head of a bull (or devil) and the tail of a fish. It is clear why no earlier map made in the west had provided the head of the northern ‘angel’ with its southern counterpart.

In these more southerly seas,  and from long before the rise of Macedon or Rome, mariners had identified as a notional southern Pole star that which we call Canopus (a Argo navis, a Carinae). In India, it was identified with Agastya.

However, as an exact southern equivalent for the role played in ancient Mediterranean habit – which referred not to Polaris but to stars in Ursa Major as the northern Pole, the precise equivalent in the southern seas is a constellation vital to navigation there.  It is the constellation we call  Crux, known as ‘Sulba’ ~the measurer’s cord~ in ancient India,  and later by Arabs as Sulbar which means the beam (sing.) of crucifixion.

A  ninteenth-century astronomer says that the Persians also “knew the Cross well, and celebrated a feast by its name, [but] their descendants, to whom it was lost by precession, found its successor in the Dolphin.”

Whether he is correct, or what name it had in Persia I do not know.

In any case, the bull-headed cruciform figure on that eye-shaped map is informed, I believe by the shape of that constellation, its representation here affected first by the suggestion of Alexander as ‘Dhul Quarnayn’ (the horned) and his legendary use of the radial lines of the military cloak as a model for the street-grid of Alexandria; in addition the image refers to the Indians’ name: ‘measurer’s cord’ (which as you see forms a regular binding by which the cubits/arms are measured), and again in its general appearance,  by the Arabs’ term Sulbar, with its reference to crucifixion.

In more ancient times, Crux had been visible over the latitude of Alexandria and was plainly known to the Egyptians, but procession was taking it ever further into the obscurity of the far south, its highest star vanishing from the sight of Mediterranean peoples during the 1stC AD.

Additional note: April 24th., 2013.  The figure depicted as bull-headed and fish-tailed may be taken as representing a figure taken for the chief south-marking star or constellation. Identification with Crux was probably the original identification, but as Crux sank ever further into the south, its character appears to have been transferred increasingly to Canopus (whether envisaged as one star or a constellation of 17 stars, as happened in some traditions). Canopus appears to have been the ‘south’ star even earlier in northern regions. I’ve kept the discussion here to just Crux and Canopus, but it should be recalled that Magellan uses the phrase ‘a regular canopus’ to mean some regularly-arrayed arrangement, not a single star.  My view is that the star Canopus was in some areas of the Great Sea  imagined as the head, with the creature’s body formed from Crux, but it is a deduction made from the imagery, and without documentary support. In this connection see also ‘Update on the Fish-bull’

That our ‘Angel of the Rose’ in fol.86v depicts the double-ended pole, the axis piercing a globe, and alluding to astronomical-  and not magnetic markers,  is all plain enough.

But for that very reason, it cannot have been an image created in medieval Europe, nor can its original position have been where it is now. As it is, the head still points north, but the split tail points west, not south as it should.

I’d suggest it was originally in the north roundel now occupied by the  ‘minimap’, where a summary is given of the western regions otherwise missing entirely from the world-map it represents.

As for the mariner-as-bull, that is a figure older than we can trace, and very likely older in the eastern seas than urban or literate culture.

Here is a version of it from a stupa said to have been made during the 1st-3rdC AD. The building is thought to have served not only as a Buddhist centre, but a hostelry for foreign traders.

And here is an equivalent northern figure as it was pictured in Egypt. In this case the bull of the sea is imagined in the stars of Ursa Major (north).

The Egyptians were not terribly keen on the sea, the ‘great green’ (as they called it). Its patron, and the patron of military men, was the increasingly detested Seth.

and finally a cosmographer’s image of the whole world (heavens and earth), expressed in the form of the world and its noble bulls. Note the perfectly lyrate horns, like those in the manuscript’s ‘astrological’ roundels.  This image comes from a manuscript not identified in the source where I found it. Apparently the original was in a manuscript which, at least until the second world war, was in England. Any reader able to identify it will have my sincere gratitude. The date is given as “c.1437”. A bull with horns of the same kind can be seen in near ‘Recordanorum’ in the Hereford world-map (1285-1300).

for comment on this section of the Hereford worldmap see           Marcia Kupfer, ‘The Lost Mappamundi at Chalivoy-Milon’, Speculum, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Jul., 1991), pp. 540-571 where it is illustrated on p. 559

In sum:

Once again, this image takes us to a nexus between the Hellenistic period and the maritime journey, and from the older Mediterranean-Black Sea through into the eastern waters.

I believe it relevant here to mention again that Piri Reis says that he used for his own work certain charts known as Jaferiye, ‘made in the days of Alexander’ and that other sources, still earlier, speak of how at the very beginning of Islamic geography, already mariners of the eastern seas had charts and handbooks in which they placed absolute faith.


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