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Opicinus de Canistris (1296–ca. 1354)
Cathedral of Pavia
Avignon, France; 1335–50
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City, Pal. Lat. 1993

Ordained as a priest and trained in the arts of book illumination and cartography, Opicinus de Canistris served as a scribe in the Papal Curia in Avignon. In 1334, he suffered from a stroke-like illness that rendered his right arm nearly useless, but he still managed to draw. His illness, he felt, had brought him a vision from God, and thereafter he worked obsessively to develop and convey his unique understanding of the divine order through pictures. His labors yielded, among other works, a portfolio of fifty-two drawings on twenty-seven pieces of unbound parchment. Almost all of these strange and evocative works use complicated diagrammatic frames, medieval maps—both mappaemundi and portolan charts—and allegorized representations of the human figure to reveal the relationship between abstract cosmology and the human world. As a whole, they represent an extraordinary instance of drawing used in the Middle Ages as a medium of intensely personal self-expression, albeit one in service to the divine.

The now-destroyed double cathedral of Pavia, Opicinus’s hometown, is the subject of this drawing. The two churches and the campanile are all sketched in three-quarter view, allowing the maximum representation of the facades, naves, transepts and towers. Though he was not trained as an architect, his experiences as a manuscript illuminator and cartographer would have taught him many of many of the geometric strategies necessary to create such a view of the buildings. The only work in his portfolio that does not contain a diagram, this drawing attests to his skills as draftsman and his interest in local landmarks and sites.

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