Vitruvian man and geometry as a description of the world

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Past and present civilizations are characterized by customs and traditions that are often expressed through symbols and representative concepts.

Each civilization refers to an alphabet, a language, iconographic codes, colors, and materials, and it is in this way that a particular artistic and historical period is defined and categorized.

Iconography, “the complex of motifs and criteria that distinguish and frame the image from a cultural point of view.” is the key to understanding the thought of a civilization, the social priorities it had and how existence and life were perceived.

Vector geometries

If we were to refer to the iconography of our day, rather than looking at the history of art, we would look at visual design, the digital graphic alphabet, made up of vector logos, emoticons and advertising. The industrial age followed the capitalist economic ideology and today, a good part of visual representations are at the service of the economy. Our eyes, on the street and in the media, are constantly subjected to images that sponsor objects and/or services related to consumption, unlike past eras when naturalistic, religious, historical and ornamental themes were reproduced. Our eyes see goods, slogans and our brains reason by purchases. The graphic or editorial grids start from geometry to guide the movement of the eye and entice economic/social interest.

The geometries of Humanism

This speech started from my observation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s work “Vitruvian Man” (1490 approx.), which becomes an icon/symbology strongly explanatory of the historical period in which it was designed, the Humanistic one: man at the center of heaven and earth, man the measure of all things, an aesthetic strongly linked to the idea of beauty and classical harmony. This current lays the foundations for the Homo-centric discourse that will lead, century after century, to the most modern definition of Anthropocene, in which human activity is a new telluric force capable of changing the physical structure of the planet. During the Humanistic-Renaissance period, man relies on study and knowledge as a means of asserting his dignity based on his own intrinsic abilities: he is self-determined with respect to God. Today, in the Industrial era, it is the object and its production that is the epicenter of everything, since our yardstick of judgment is calibrated on the profitability of things/people.

Going back to Da Vinci’s work, the synthetic symbolism of geometric shapes is used to tell the will of his era. The circle is the sky, the spirit, whose center is described precisely by the human navel. The square is the representation of matter, whose diagonals cross over the male genitals. Matter and spirit surround man, who consequently becomes the origin (O.) around which everything rotates. In this sense, the humanist and western point of view, makes a formal division, symbolic, geometric and philosophical, of what is terrestrial and mundane, compared to what belongs to the spiritual celestial sphere. The circular fluidity is aesthetically interrupted by the edges of the quadrilateral and this is very clear in Leonardo’s sketch. Circle and square are superimposed disharmoniously, while man fits perfectly into both. There is no balance between heaven and earth, except through human mediation. Today, Vitruvian man comes down to us engraved on one of the sides of the one euro coin, renewing its meanings in the story of today’s world: Homo faber fortuna suae.

The geometry of harmony

Going back in time, we notice how the graphic-geometry symbology changes, representing a different intellectual conception of the world, in which the spirit becomes a prism that reflects and expands matter. In the Chinese Taoist tradition, the symbol of the Tao (circle in which the union of the two opposite creators yin and yan takes place) is enclosed in the octagon of the elements, energy flows that cross the world and can affect human life: fire, lake, earth, sky, water, mountain, thunder and wind.

The Bagua (Chinese: 八卦; literally: eight symbols) is a symbol surrounded by eight trigrams of the I Ching each aligned to a cardinal point, forming a perfect octagon. The trigrams can be combined with each other, giving rise to sixty-four groups of six lines, the sixty-four hexagrams that form the basis of the Chinese book of the oracle: in fact they represent all possible conditions of human life.

There are many works and artifacts where this symbol is represented as an icon of life itself and of the balance that exists between all things. In the Chinese cosmic vision, is very strong the cult of admiration for nature, compared to which man is in a position similar to all other beings: he is placed between earth and sky and receives energy from both without ceasing. In this sense, he is not a generator but a receiver: without a real purpose other than to follow the Dao, the way, man receives the gift of life and rejoices in it. Geometry is a harmonic symbol of universal harmony. At the center is the primordial creative energy that is found within all material and spiritual manifestations. The Bagua was used as a compass, to study energy influences when making decisions or building a house.

Divine geometry

At the same time as the Chinese civilization, the Indian civilization has been the cradle of a vast culture and a wonderful iconographic capacity. Many eras before Raja Ravi Varma (of whom we have written here), Indian symbolism had already developed from the representation of the divine, through the use of synthetic lines of geometry. The use of the Yantra, linked to Tantric and then Hinduist practice, is one of the most effective means of approaching a divinity and therefore its powers and qualities.

Each Yantra is the graphic representation of a divine energy, and meditative practice consists of prolonged observation of these geometries, often accompanied by the repetition of a mantra. The active and focused observation, which takes place in the center of the image (at the dot, the Bindu) often transmits a sense of optical movement and alternation, as in a harmonious frequency that transforms the image from two-dimensional to three-dimensional.

The geometry of the Yantra is made by the repetition of shapes such as the triangle, which facing downwards is the feminine principle, upwards is the masculine principle and is the fundamental representation present in everything (even in the human body). The circle is the universal consciousness, the lotus flowers represent the pure mind in meditation, the square symbolizes the earth element with its 4 doors.

Man in this way, aspires to the divine and can integrate it through practice. On the other hand, Hindu deities, embody the infinite facets of the human, and are all welcomed and integrated without distinction between good or evil. There are benevolent deities and terrifying deities, who are the mirror of humanity and are necessary for the attainment of awareness. Geometry is at the service of meditation and spiritual awakening: it is a direct and personal gateway to the divine, without intermediaries.

In conclusion, the geometry across the ages, is used to represent through the harmony of form, a harmonious cosmic order. With the Vitruvian man, however, it begins to empty itself of meaning to focus on the idea of aesthetics and power. Man, in addition to being the final design, has also become compasses, tape measure and square; this has changed the look with which we look at the world and what surrounds us.

Author Details
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
Paola D'Andrea
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
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