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Figura & Alphabet


Today, I have decided to post what I am writing right now, that I hope will become the center of the first chapter of my dissertation. The idea for this part of the first chapter comes from the astonishment that none of the manuscripts of the Art preserved at Cisneros's library contain the Art. One of them, catalogued under the signature BH MS 106, contains a curious development of the Art that does not belong to Llull's original works. In my opinion, this treatise could help to understand the way the Art of Ramon Llull was actually studied.

Equivalences between Llull's alphabet and Aristotle's categories. BH MS 106, f. 160v.

Commenting on the relation between the image of the trees and the practice of the Art, I have reached the conclusion that the description of the tree is important but that its display in the manuscript was perhaps not essential to the study of the tree itself. The inclusion of the trees is related to the preservation of the Lullist or to the individual practice, but its display was not directly related to the teaching. As the reading of the materials assembled in BH MS 106, or any of the other manuscripts present in Cisneros’s library, continues, it is astonishing that the manuscripts do not display the figurae. The figurae are the sign of the visibility of the Art and their presence in books is one of the most recognizable traces of Lullism. Many students of Llull such as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Giordano Bruno, or G.W. Leibniz would go on and include circular combinatorial systems adapting his. Nevertheless, the lack of presence of the figurae in the manuscript could indicate they were not essential for the scholars at San Ildefonso to study the Art, or at least that our modern identification of the Art with the paper machines that most early modern and contemporary printed editions do include is mislead.

After the anomaly of a non-Lullist tree in a Lullist manuscript, I will talk about a Lullist text that does not belong to the corpus of Llull’s original works. Instead, this fragment of manuscript is presented after a space of four almost entirely blank pages (two of which are not taken in account in the numeration of the manuscript). Further in the manuscript, between f. 175v and f. 176r, there is a space of 32 pages that is left in blank also. This indicates that the assembling of the manuscript was made with the intent of leaving some space for annotation and commentary. This fragment seems to be that. A development of the method of the Art that need to make it visible not through the figurae, but through the concepts of Christian theology that are related to it. Ultimately, Llull argued that his Art should be able to convince Muslims of the irrefutability of the Sacred Trinity. Thus, the conceptual development of the Art was probably more important to scholar than its mechanic functioning.

The fragment that is contained between f. 159r and f. 162v is entitled “Incipiunt tunc sapientiae figurae artis demonstrative seu regularum introducarum se sunt triangular is figura.” This title is not documented in one single manuscript before in the works of Ramon Llull. Therefore this treatise is an addition to the manuscript and as such it is not trying to copy Ramon Llull, but to expand it. The expansion documents at the same time the necessity of including some kind of example of the uses of the Art and the necessity of showing this work inside the manuscript. The first page is not ruled, yet divided in three columns in which the subiecta/dignitates, combinations of the letters of the alphabet in pairs (b+n), and types of relations generated by the combinations according to the system of the Art. The second page displays a column with spatial positions and a list of correspondences between said positions and the types of relations in the page before. The next page displays a list of virtues and two mirroring lists of subjects. The third page includes subjects, a list of combinations of the elements, and a list of the correlates. On the lower side of the page there are combinations of letters, some of them erased and some of them successful. The next page has written at the beginning “figura universalis” and it is a pure combination of letters in four columns of different length. The last page of this small treatise displays a division in half in the page. The upper half contains three lists important for the definitions of the Art and the lower half contains different schematizations of the Art as a systematizer of other concepts or elements through the letters.

Nobody would have mistaken this entry in the space of the manuscript as an original treatise, but as a development of what need to be explained. Nonetheless, a question remains to be answered about whether the treatise was an addenda made before or after the binding of the manuscript. If it was before the binding, it means that somebody left space in the manuscript for the work to be made. If it was done after, it means that somebody decide to include not only a book but also its preparation inside the kitchen.

The status of the text between f. 159r and f. 162v is uncertain. The incipit seems to point that it should be read as an original. Nevertheless, the carelessness of the scripture, the lack of ruling of the page and the erasing of some parts points to the contrary, which is, that this is a kind of practice of the Art, that this is the work of somebody trying to make sense of the Art. No other Lullist book known to the days shares the incipit of this part of the manuscript. Probably the scribe who wrote this volume intended to show how the Art is practiced. The fact that the practice of the Art must be shown is counterintuitive since the manipulation of the Art is mostly a mental process. Therefore, there is a contradiction between the conceptual and ideal of the Art as a mental practice and the fact that in order to become an expert in it, young scholars need to see for themselves.

The construction of a Lullist manuscript is always between the transmission of the text and the practice. The best copies preserved are polished copies, not working ones. So, the text contained between f. 159 and f. 162v is not really about the figurae, even though the word is in the title, but about the development of the relations between concepts schematized in the figurae. Both the punctuation and the blank spaces before the pages the double articulation at the basis of the practice of the Art. The letters of the Alphabet signify nine concepts and relations that appear in other parts of the Art, i.e.the basic concepts that Llull extracts from the foundations of medieval Christian virtues and articules of faith. Ultimately, it seems that many scholars hit the same wall, which is, the difficulty of learning the whole logic that Ramon Llull used for his Art. This logic is at the same time so intricate and so exclusive that they felt it was too difficult to learn when it had no use for anything else. The obscurity of the system does not mean that it constitutes something boundless or without clear sources. The problem is that the sources have to be retraced because Ramon Llull makes as much as possible to just erase them.

The work of the scribe can be described as a re-alphabetization. The scribe knows how to write and has mastered a system of meaning that uses letters in the composition of words. Here, the treatise teaches the system that translates single letters into different sets values: 1) the system of the nine Lullist dignitates; 2) the combinatory principles of the Art; 3) the correlatives; 4) a list of the elements; and 5) a list of virtues and vices. Therefore, the treatise tries to condense a development of several possibilities of equivalences of the Art and its combinations. This is not an easy task since the Art had many versions and the scribe has several of them in mind. This is the reason why one of the pages displays signs of crossing out one of tabulae. What this fragment displays is something less static and more complex than the transcription of a single medieval book, it is a process of learning of a reduced alphabet entailing different articulative values and different possibilities of combination. It is obvious that this process was kept in the manuscript so others could learn from it and ultimately also learn the Art. It is also an interpretation of the Art since it creates a mix of different versions of the Art.

The re-alphabetization that takes places inside the manuscript shows an interest on Cisneros behalf in the practical aspect on the Art and not merely on the speculative ones. The Art of Ramon Llull via Cisneros intends to produce an interpretation of the world as much it provides with a new form of production of discourse. The fact that a scribe needs to write in the page the system of equivalences is an expression of the complexity of Llull’s main tactic in the construction of his Art, which are the assimilation of theological and philosophical concepts and their transformation inside his own powerful discursive machine. Therefore, the scribe’s operation here is to recreate the formation of Llull’s alphabet so he can memorize it. The figurae are nothing but a display of the mental images used in the learning of the alphabet, the real importance of the figurae is they constitute a tool of meditation. As they are mental images, the scribe does not draw them as he thinks he need to establish equivalence for them.

Last Updated 3 years ago


  • Colomer, Eusebi. De la Edad Media al Renacimiento. Ramón Llull, Nicolás de Cusa y Juan Pico della Mirandola. Barcelona: Herder, 2012. Print.
  • Llull, Ramon. Libro de los correlativos. Ed. & Trans. José Higuera Rubio. Madrid: Trotta, 2008. Print.
  • —. Ad omnes scientias ars brevis. S. XV. Madrid, Biblioteca Histórica Complutense – Marqués de Valdecilla, BH MS 106. Manuscript.


Noel Blanco Mourelle, « Figura & Alphabet », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on January 7, 2015. Full URL for this article

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