Llull the contemporary

June 30th, 2016 No Comments

If Ramon Llull were alive today he would be at the top of the best sellers’ list. He would be one of the stars at Barcelona’s Comic Fair where he would have been invited as a pioneer in the genre. He would be taking part in discussions about multiculturalism alongside Arabic and Jewish thinkers. He would be giving poetry readings and a travel agency would have been named after him. If Ramon Llull were still alive he would remark, with pride, that 700 years after his death, his work is not only valid but has taken on truly global proportions thanks precisely to the web, a technology he can be considered the forerunner of.

Breviculum’s animation, Ramon Llull life’s illustrated work. Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, Cod. St. Peter perg. 92

Ramon Llull is a fascinating character but he is still surrounded by an aura of incomprehensibility and unfathomability. We have a somewhat biased image of Llull, of a man trapped in the dark and terrible Middle Ages, when, in fact, the reality was quite different: Llull lived in an age that saw the building of the first cathedrals which sought out light and colour, and he travelled around some of the foremost cultural hubs in Europe and the Mediterranean.

One thing is true however: the fact that we are devoting an exhibition to Llull today, seven centuries after his death, at a centre for contemporary culture, is because his thinking remains relevant today. Because, beyond his obsession with God, what he endeavoured to explain throughout his life (a new way of thinking) is still valid across many disciplines. That’s why, in order to gain a greater insight into Ramon Llull and his thinking, we have chosen a number of ideas to undo this image.

Ramon Llull lived a courtly and elitist life until the age of 30

Ramon Llull was from a well-to-do family and, as such, he lived a comfortable life and had connections with the court of King Jaume II of Mallorca. He married Blanca Picany when he was about 25 and they had two children, Domènec and Magdalena. It would appear that Blanca wasn´t the only woman in his life as, at the time, Ramon Llull was writing troubadour poetry and some people say that he lived quite a rakish life. All this changed when Ramon was 30 years old and, while he was writing one of these poems, Christ appeared to him on the cross. The vision, which reoccurred up to four times, changed his life.

Ramon Llull wrote the same book throughout his life

From this moment on, Ramon Llull lived the life of an enlightened person. He left his wife and children and withdrew to live as a hermit for four months at Puig de Randa (Mallorca), where he received the divine appointment to write “the most beautiful book in the world”. And he devoted himself to this task for the rest of his life. In fact he wrote more than 250 books that are just variations on the same book. The word of God is the book.

Ramon Llull wrote true bestsellers

The Book of Contemplation is a thousand words long and four times longer than Tirant lo Blanc. Llull is the medieval author of the largest surviving number of medieval manuscripts, many of them written during his lifetime; there are more copies of his works than by Thomas Aquinas, and Giordano Bruno wrote up to six treatises inspired by Lullian thought. The Ars Brevis, a summary of his philosophy, was copied more times than Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Ramon Llull is the main character in the first comic of all time

The Breviculum is an extraordinary work: a true medieval comic that tells the story of Ramon Llull’s life in 12 miniatures. It was made around 1321 by Tomàs Le Myésier, a follower of Llull’s who was associated with the French court, and includes the characteristic balloons with the words of the people depicted inside. It is kept at the Badische Landesbibliothek in Karlsruhe, and you can see an animated version at the exhibition.

Ramon Llull was a tireless traveller

Our central figure was also a travel pioneer and undertook journeys that would have had a worldwide impact today. In the 13th century the world was very small, and Ramon Llull travelled its length and breadth: from the time of his first trip to Montpellier to his last voyage to Tunis, the word of God guided Llull from Santiago de Compostela to the Vienna of the Dauphinate, from Rome to Paris, from Pisa to Lyon, Genoa, Barcelona, Bougie and Jerusalem… To Ramon Llull there were no borders to hinder the dissemination of his message.

Ramon Llull has a special connection with the number three

Ramon Llull lived in a world where three religions converged: the Christian, Jewish and Muslim. He wrote in three languages: Catalan, Latin and Arabic (although no manuscripts survive in the latter). He used three symbols: the tree, the ladder and geometric figures. He asked for his works to be kept in three places: Paris, Genoa and Mallorca. He wrote a book that had three sages as its central figures, The Book of the Gentile and the Three Sages. It defines the three virtues of the soul: memory, understanding and will. In medieval culture, three is a perfect number that symbolises continuous movement and is also the symbol of the Trinity. To Llull, God was pure movement and the reason why things combined. Three is God.

Ramon Llull worked in every literary genre

Spending one’s entire life writing the “best book in the world”, as he defined it, may have been a little boring. That’s why Llull chose to put across his message in every possible way. He wrote a book on mysticism (Book of Contemplation), a novel (Felix or the Book of Wonders) and a chivalresque novel (Book of the Order of Chivalry), poetry (Song of Ramon), a book of grammar (New Rhetoric), a book of aphorisms, the Book of the Lover and the Beloved, a treatise on astronomy and, first and foremost, works on philosophy, such as the Ars Magna. And not forgetting his troubadour poems, none of which survive.

Unbeknown to him, Ramon Llull invented the calculator (and, in passing, the web)

Throughout his life, Ramon Llull was obsessed with one subject: disseminating the word of God and converting sinners (that is, the Jews and Muslims) into Christians. That’s why he invented an Ars combinatoria, a thinking machine, which enabled people to attain divine thinking. Three centuries later (the number three crops up again), Leibniz created a calculating machine based on Llull’s philosophy. This machine can also be seen at the exhibition. Lull’s combinatorial system is also the basis for the system of networks, meaning that, for Llull, “being means being connected”.

Ramon Llull is an influencer

Ramon Llull’s dream has reached us today through literature and art. For instance, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story entitled Ramon Llull’s Thinking Machine. Umberto Eco devoted many pages to Llull in The Search for the Perfect Language. Juan Eduardo Cirlot explored the permutations of language, and the poetry collective Oulipo published One Hundred Billion Poems, based on the combinatorial system. Salvador Dalí staged a performance “following Ramon Llull’s archangelic doctrine”…

Ramon Llull, is, therefore, a multifaceted, complex and fascinating person. The creator of a new way of thinking who was ahead of his time and has become our contemporary. We can’t think of any better reason to come and see The thinking machine. Ramon Llull and the Ars combinatoria, open from July 14 to September 11.


				

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