Podcast 11: Medieval Cosmological Diagrams and Opicinus de Canistris

In our most recent podcast Sarah Griffin (DPhil in Art History) talks to us about the enigmatic diagrams of Opicinus de Canistris, a cosmologist, cartographer, theologian, and writer, who worked in the Avignon papacy in the fourteenth century. He made elaborate and complex diagrams, like this one, and some scholars believe that he was insane, leading some to categorise his work as ‘outsider art’:


Diagram with Crucifixion, 1335-50. Public Domain.

Listen to the podcast to find out more about him!

Trained as an illuminator in Genoa, Opicinus drew diagrams and wrote journals that contained calendars and autobiographical, geographical, cosmological, and theological details. Most of his works are kept in the Vatican and you can see the diagram that we discuss here, in images 53 and 54 (fol. 14r). The Vatican has also digitised some of his journals, which are also available on their website. 


Opicinus de Canistris, Diagram with Zodiac Symbols. Public domain.


Attempts to map knowledge and space are also found in documents like the Hereford mappa mundi, made in England in the fourteenth century, which presents the world, its stories and its mythologies, diachronically. Yet Opicinus was trying to do something even more complex, using portolan charts to create his diagrams. It is possible that he may have also been influenced by technologies like astrolabes and astronomical clocks.


Note that in the astronomical clock, the lower circle is a calendar, like Opincius’s diagrams (click thumbnails for larger images).

Opicinus’s diagrams were also used for computus, to calculate the movable feast days, especially Easter. Byrhtferth’s computus diagram can be found here, to give you a sense of what other people were doing (but about 200 years earlier).

Here is a later calendar page from Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry, which also shows the signs of the zodiac (albeit in a rather different manner to Opicinus!).


Limbourg Brothers, February page from Les très riches heures du duc de Berry (early 15th century). Public domain via Wikimedia commons.

More of Opicinus’s diagrams, for your perusal:


Biblioteca Apostolica Vatican, Vat. Lat. 6435 fol. 82

Thanks for listening! If you’re interested in delving further into Opicinus’s fantastic mind (and seeing some excellent pictures!), you can read more about him here: http://cartographic-images.net/Cartographic_Images/230_Canistris.html

Sarah has also kindly provided some additional reading material:

On Opicinus 

  • Harding, C., ‘Opening to God: The Cosmographical Diagrams of Opicinus De Canistris,’ Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 61 (1998), 18-39.
  • Piron, S., and P. Nuss, Dialectique du monstre: enquête sur Opicino de Canistris (France, 2015)
  • Roux, G. and M. Laharie, Art Et Folie Au Moyen Age : Aventures Et Énigmes d’Opicinus De Canistris (1296-Vers 1351) (Paris, 1997)
  • Salomon, R., Opicinus de Canistris: Weltbild Und Bekenntnisse Eines Avignonesischen Klerikers Des 14. Jahrhunderts (London, 1936)
  • Whittington, K., The Body-Worlds of Opicinus de Canistris, Artist and Visionary (1296- c. 1354) (Toronto, 2014)
On Medieval diagrams and maps
  • Murdoch, J., Album of Science: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1984)
  • Maps: Morse,V. M., ‘The Role of Maps in Later Medieval Society: Twelfth to Fourteenth Century,’ The History of Cartography, Volume 3 (2007) 25-52.



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