Tuesday, 17 May 2022

The Christian Topography of Cosmas - 2 reviews

I first learned about Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th century monk who developed a unique Christian centered theory of the shape of the world (that it’s flat and rectangular with a rounded ceiling above which is found heaven), a few years ago when I was researching Ethiopia. One of Cosmas’s chapters deals with an inscription on a stone throne found in Adulis, the main port city of the Axumite Empire (centered around what is now the Ethiopian province of Tigray & Eritrea). Ethiopia is mentioned several other times in the text. I was also surprised to discover that book 11 focuses on India, with descriptions of some animals found there, including the unicorn! I’ve finally had time to read the book as well as a commentary volume about it.

The Christian Topography of Cosmas, an Egyptian Monk by Cosmas Indicopleustes
Translated and edited by J. W. McCrindle
multiple public domain copies of the book are available at Archive.org

The Christian Toopography of Cosmas started off as a treatise in 5 books, explaining how the Christian view of the world should line up with Biblical scripture, and that the world is therefore not spherical as the Greeks teach, but is in fact rectangular at the base with a rounded vaulted heaven. The heavens are split into 2 by the firmament, above which were the waters that caused the flood, and where Christians will dwell after the resurrection. As time passed and criticisms arose against Cosmas’ arguments, he added subsequent books until there were 12 in all, though not all the manuscript copies that survive from the middle ages contain all 12.

Top image: the world as seen from above with Paradise to the East, and an ocean circumnavigating the land. Below left: a side view of the Earth with the vault of heaven above. Below right: showing how the sun is blocked by the massive mountain, explaining day and night cycles. 

It’s a fascinating book with a fair number of illustrations: some decorative, showing the different prophets etc, and some schematic, helping to explain the cosmography being described.

McCrindle’s translation is very readable, and clear. He includes copious explanatory notes, which help the reader better understand what Cosmas is teaching. In the appendix are a series of line drawings representing many of the illustrations from the manuscripts (three are depicted above).

Knowing that the Ptolemaic theory that the earth was the centre of the universe, surrounded by concentric rings of the sun, moon, planets, and stars, was wrong, it was interesting seeing Cosmas’ scientifically accurate criticisms against it. And as someone who once believed the Bible uncritically, I can understand his desire to make the connection that the tabernacle commanded by God was meant as a template for the creation - following the medieval belief that as things are above, or in the spiritual realm, so they are patterned below, on earth.

It was fascinating getting into the head of someone from the 6th century, seeing how they interpreted scripture and viewed the world. Even if their view was wrong. I also loved learning that the shape of churches, with vaulted ceilings (barrel vaults originally), and rounded apses, was meant to pattern this idea of the heavens over earth. I’d seen it in person in cathedrals and churches, but never heard the reasoning behind it (Kominko’s book referenced some articles I want to look up that expands of the background of this idea).

The World of Kosmas
 by Maja Kominko.

The World of Kosmas focuses primarily on the illustrations in the manuscripts, where they were originally placed in the text, and exterior works that might have influenced their design. There’s a chapter on Kosmas’ background before going into each chapter where miniatures are found (books 2, 4, 5, and then a summary of 6-9). The book has a lot of supplementary illustrations and a full set of miniatures from the three manuscripts of the Christian Topography the author is referencing, at the back. The book does not mention books 10 to 12 of the manuscript.

I found Kominko’s book of great value in giving some wider explanations for each section, putting the treatise in its cultural context, where a discussion of what various groups believed was helpful. She also explained what Cosmos got wrong for those whose astronomy and math skills might not be up to the task of parsing Kosmas’ proofs.

If you don’t have the time or desire to read the full treatise, Kominko summarizes each book for you (and each section of book 5). She thus provides an excellent overview of the book in addition to her commentary on the illustrations.

If you’re interested in astronomy, learning how some medieval Christians saw the world, medieval thoughts about the Bible, astronomy, etc. then Cosmas/Kosmas is an interesting author to read.

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