The Tower of Wisdom

| November 15, 2010
The Tower of Wisdom

The Tower of Wisdom, from the Speculum theologiae at Beinecke Library, Yale University

The Tower of Wisdom is found frequently in diagram collections of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was part of a tradition of architectural mnemonic aids going back to the “memory palaces” promoted by the Roman author Cicero. It also served as an object of meditation; by internalizing its principles, a patient student (often a monk) pursued the path of moral rectitude.[source]

More than an aid to memory, however, do we not see an architectural elaboration of a moral cosmology? One should recollect any number of images portraying the architecture of the city at the center of a divine drama. If one can use a building to remember, and if remembrance of these discreet notions is tied to learned morality, we might do better to turn it around and suggest that walking through the path of the tower is not the means to remembrance, but rather remembrance is meant to keep you on the path. Interestingly, according to the gloss, the peaked “guardians” of the top level represent the application of virtue in the public sphere. In which case, the ascent up through the building would indicate a journey up through the city to its idealized form.

What should we take from this? Do we not frequently continue to structure our actual educational spaces in a similar fashion? Lest we imagine that one can simply leave behind the architectural model by switching to a more organic form, we should note that the Speculum theologiae typically pulled from various layouts, including a tree structure. It is as if there is an internal spatial coherence shared across the diagrams. Which is to say, the educational dimension of these mnemonic diagrams is untroubled by apparent changes of imagery.

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, from the Speculum Theologiae, at Beinecke Library, Yale University