By SANDRA RENDGEN
I stumbled upon this severe beauty of a tree diagram from 1608 in the Beinecke digital collections and was immediately thrilled. But I never got around to really studying it – until now
Now, Christian theology is not exactly a field of knowledge I am well schooled in. The cleric William Perkins, creator of this diagram, lived from 1558 to 1602, so we’re talking Shakespearean times here. It was an age of religious debate, as the Anglican church tried to define its spiritual position between Roman Catholics and reformed confessions from the continent (such as Lutheran or Calvinist). Perkins himself taught and preached in Cambridge. Many students praised him as a charismatic religious leader, who excelled in bringing about spiritual experiences in his audiences.
He achieved a long-term influence when his works were posthumously published and translated to several European languages. It is in these books that this wonderful tree diagram has been preserved for us. So what is it all about? Let’s look: “The red line [a thick white line in our copy] shows the order of the causes of salvation from the first to the last. The black line shows the order of the causes of damnation.”
Ok, salvation and damnation. Puritan movement in early modern England. Some creative Google searches turned up the Christian doctrine of predestination as the apparent base for this piece. It holds that everything happening on Earth was willed and foreseen by God, who predetermined the fate of every individual – even before Creation. The doctrine had been discussed since the early days of Christianity and was an important concept to the puritans. Our tree spells out the core ideas of this doctrine as a memorizing tool for believers.
Here is the source of power, the root from which God’s grace and wrath trickles down onto the believing individual: the Holy Trinity, represented through the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Look at how they communicate: Strange “cursors” point from Father to Son, and from both to the Holy Ghost. And from this point downwards, the world is divided into the Good and the Bad. First after the Holy Trinity comes God’s foreknowledge, second his decree which parts the blessed souls from the damned ones. Only then, God sets out to create the world, to create life, to create Man.
Now here we’re deep in the mist. We see complexity spread out in nodes and connecting graphs. I won’t pretend to fully understand the fine-grained nuances of righteous Christian behaviour as spelled out on the left, and sinful behaviour as spelled out on the right. However, it is impressive how the author managed to carve out a number of discrete ideas and arrange them in a vertical symmetry that indicates a succession of steps — from God’s decree at the top to life in Heaven or Hell at the bottom.
It’s great how this diagram showcases its Protestant mindset in its design; in addition to that strong symmetry, there is no decoration and no colour. Its strictly black and white, austere presentation invokes the intellectual rigour that Perkins and his peers claimed for themselves.
What I like is the diagram’s educational intention. It is common sense today that visuals help in the learning of difficult theories. Back then, however, this idea was nowhere near as prevalent. At the same time, Protestant movements demanded that normal people with just a rudimentary education actually understood their teachings.
Perkins had conceived his diagram as a supporting tool for lay people, including illiterates, who could memorize the elements by pointing at them with their finger. Whether this actually worked we may never be able to judge. But I like to think about it as a sort of exoskeleton. It creates a solid visual structure for something which would otherwise remain an unmanageable mass of words and text.
Images via the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. A beautiful collection of tree diagrams (old and new) can be found in Manuel Lima’s “Book of Trees”.
Sandra Rendgen is the author of two bestselling books on data visualisation and infographics, both published by Taschen. Currently she is getting lost in the history of data visualisation.