re Rosenberg on modern geoscience and spiritual enlightment – Do the paths converge?

Painting by Tung Chi'i-ch'ang
Painting by Tung Chi’i-ch’ang
Escalante country, Colorado Plateau USA
Escalante country, Colorado Plateau
Beach bluff, Port Townsend, Washington
Beach bluff, Port Townsend, Washington
Krumholtz spruce on Porphyry Mountain, Wrangell Mountains, Alaska
Krumholtz spruce on Porphyry Mountain, Wrangell Mountains, Alaska


By the 17th Century, the century of Steno, the artistic depiction of rocks as natural objects had clearly begun to diverge from purely aesthetic illustration in Europe. Geometric perspective facilitated the illustration of form and appearance of rocks and projected a line of art towards the development of modern geosciences. No such separation took place in China, where illustration was a path towards spiritual enlightenment, even as it emulated the processes of nature along the way. The purpose here is to present a few of the milestones of illustration along both the Western and Eastern paths.

On the Western path are Bosse (1602-1676) and Desargues’ (1591-1661) three-dimensional illustrations of quarry stones drawn in 1648 that firmly connect geometric perspective to the scientific description of rocks. Other examples include Serlio’s (1475-1554) mid 16th Century drawings of theater sets that show that an awareness of the lateral continuity of strata was not confined to the early Renaissance genius of Leonardo.

At the same time, China formalized centuries of two-dimensional, calligraphic depictions of rocks in influential treatises such as The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (1679) that prescribed standard techniques of drawing rocks to illustrate Taoist principles, most notably how to paint the “three faces of a rock” in order to transmit its living quality or ch’i, rather than its surface characteristics and three dimensional structure. Similarly, Tung Chi’i-ch’ang (1555-1636) and his predecessors canonized techniques of abstraction that best conveyed the Taoist philosophy that objects do not have a form of their own but are in a constant state of flux to other, often unrelated, entities, a concept which also is manifest in China’s development of geobotanical prospecting.

For more than a millennium, Chinese geology had surpassed that of Western Europe, but by the end of the Renaissance, geometric perspective helped put Europe on a line towards preeminence in the geosciences.

ROSENBERG, G. D. “Form and formless: Seventeenth century drawings of rocks in Europe and China and the paths towards modern geoscience and spiritual enlightenment.” In Geological Society of America 2002 Denver Annual Meeting, Paper No. 56-1, 2002.

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