I Saw Three Ships



Surveyor of Two Worlds


The Ape has a long background as a symbol in European history. Throughout the Middle Ages, the ape was seen as a fugura diaboli, that is, a manifestation of the devil, who had devolved from the level of human beings just as man had been demoted from the level of angels by disobeying God in the Garden of Eden.

In the Renaissance,  a new view of the ape as a symbol of arts, especially of painting and sculpture emerged. The notion of ars simia naturae, that is, art as the ape of nature, was developed by Boccaccio and had been applied to the sculptures “Dying Slave” in Michelangelo’s project for the tomb of Pope Juilus II. By the sixteenth century, this interpretation of the ape as ars imitatio in art had degenerated into slavish imitation, but there was one area of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century culture where the metaphyscal significance of the notion of ars simia naturae was continued in the very specific and limited context of alchemy and the occult sciences……

Robert  Fludd of Oxford used the ape in this vein as the occultist metaphor which symbolized “Art” in the sense of every form of human knowledge, both practical and theoretical. The engraved title page of Fludd’s Utriusque cosmi historia (1618) visually portrayed the ape at the centre of the liberal arts and as a symbol of the “universal artist”, i.e. the realm of the arts and sciences.

Very clean line drawn between the medieval perspectives of ape’s and the renaissance  one. I would note that I would place a close narrative relative of the medieval ape, the wild man on the horizon of a cosmological history. The creature demonstrates a knowledge of past, present and future, a perception of time that allows medieval  history to unfold.

I don’t see the same clean line between the medieval and renaissance here, seems more messy. Where I suspect I will see a difference and a history emerge is in the differing situations in which these narratives are first deployed.

The story of the wild man appears to achieve very high levels of repetition amongst the population group it emerges in. Reason I suspect for this high density, is its relationship with the psychology of violence, the narratives ability to help friends and harm enemies.

It is this psychological significance that allows the story to take hold. The situation the creature finds itself in is within  a ravaged land in which the organization of violence is undergoing change.

Certainly the opportunity for a history to be drawn here but I think we are dealing with one world rather than two distant planets.


D.E. Mungello, Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology