Ordered Universe Creative News 3: Empyrean at Ushaw College


A third item of news from the creative strands connected to the Ordered Universe project is that Alexandra Carr’s beautiful sculpture of the medieval cosmos, Empyrean, produced during her Leverhulme Artist in Residence at Durham University (2017) with Giles Gasper, is on display at Ushaw College. This is entirely appropriate given that it was at Ushaw that the piece was conceived and took shape. It formed part of the Dante exhibition at Palace Green Library (2017-18), and responds to medieval cosmology, geometry and optics. Inspiring a wonderful feeling of serenity and calm, Empyrean will be available to public view for a year. So, to see it in situ, and to find out more about the fusion of academic research and creative spark, come over to Ushaw, which is well worth the visit.

The installation process was lengthy, but we’re very pleased to see Empyrean in Ushaw, who hosted Alexandra throughout her Leverhulme residency. It is a fitting project for the college, and part of a development plan to develop Ushaw as an artistic hub. Alexandra’s website has more details of the process of installation and the scheme and design of the sculpture.

Although taking inspiration, not least for its name, from the Dante’s Divine ComedyEmpyrean draws on a wide variety of ancient and medieval cosmology. Of particular significance, however, is Grosseteste’s treatise De luce – On Light in which he lays out an explanation for how the physical world came into being. It is this process, the sequence by which the spheres of the ancient and medieval  universe were formed which Empyrean works to visualise and reveal. In its technical mastery the sculpture also reflects the nature of the structures Grosseteste describes, from the simplest form to the most complex, and all based on the theory of embodied light.

Grosseteste’s De luce

So light, which is the first form in created first matter, by its nature infinitely multiplying itself everywhere and stretching uniformly in every direction, at the beginning of time, extended matter (which it could not leave), drawing it out along with itself into a mass the size of the world-machine. [ll.28-31]

So, by extending first matter in the aforementioned way into a spherical form, and by rarefying the outermost parts as much as possible, light completed the possibility of matter in the outermost part of the sphere and did not leave it capable of further impression. In this way, the first body – which is called the firmament – was perfected at the extremity of the sphere, being composed of nothing but first matter and first form…[ll.91-102].

Now, just as the luminosity begotten from the first body completed the second sphere and left a denser mass below the second sphere, so the luminosity begotten from the second sphere perfected the third sphere and by its concentration left an even denser mass below this third sphere. This concentration resulting in dispersal went on in this order until the nine celestial spheres were completed and a condensed mass, the matter of the four elements, was concentrated below the ninth and lowest sphere. [ll. 127-33].

Neil Lewis, ‘Robert Grosseteste’s On Light: An English Translation’ in John Flood, James Ginther and Joseph W. Goering (eds), Robert Grosseteste and His Intellectual Milieu (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013), pp. 239-47.

Come and see it instantiated in Ushaw!

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