In a Mirror and an Enigma: Nicholas of Cusa’s De Visione Dei and the Milieu of Vision


Nicholas of Cusa’s deployment of an omnivoyant image in the De visione Dei has been said to deconstruct Leon Battista Alberti’s mathematical determination of space in single-point linear perspective. While there has been some debate over whether the omnivoyant functions like a medieval icon or instead like a Renaissance painting, what has been neglected is a more careful analysis of what underlies the very structure of omnivoyance, namely the milieu from which its contradictions and paradoxes emerge. In this article, I will show how thinking the milieu of vision, implicit in Cusa’s optics, lets us overcome any overly simple binaries in these debates and deepen our understanding of the meaning of omnivoyance.

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  1. 1.

    One source arguing for the acquaintance of the two Renaissance thinkers is Giovanni Santinello 1962, ‘Nicola Cusano e Leon Battista Alberti: Pensieri sul Bello e sull’Arte,’ appendix to his book Leon Battista Alberti: Una Visione Estetica del Mondo e della Vita, (Florence: Sansoni 1962), 265–96. Charles Carman goes into this relation in Alberti and Cusanus (2014), addressing Santinello’s thesis at pp. 3–6. Also see Johannes Hoff (2013), pp. 61–62 and notes 4–6 for further references.

  2. 2.

    For a more developed analysis of Biagio’s innovation, see Hoff 2013 pp. 44–50.

  3. 3.

    See Hoff, p. 52; and Harries, pp. 76–83.

  4. 4.

    Santinelli, p. 289; quoted in Carman (2014), p. 6.

  5. 5.

    Carman, p. 91n19; see also pp. 95–100.

  6. 6.

    On Painting, p. 110. Della Pictura, p. 71.

  7. 7.

    All Latin references are to the Heidelberg critical edition of Cusa’s work (Nicholas of Cusa 1932–2010). All English translations of Cusa’s work are the translations of H. Lawrence Bond, with minor modifications, in Nicholas of Cusa (1997). The chaptering, however, is that of the Heidelberg editions.

  8. 8.

    This is precisely the inverse of a mathematical determination of space in which the qualitative is grounded by, and is an epiphenomenon of, the quantitative.

  9. 9.

    Hoff, p. 163. Hoff is here referring to Cusa’s later interest in singularitas (De ludo globi; De venatione sapientiae), but the logic applies to DVD as well.

  10. 10.

    For a magisterial examination of the space created by the omnivoyant, see de Certeau (1984).

  11. 11.

    For more detail on this see Hoff 2013pp. 27–29.

  12. 12.

    See, DVD, 8 (30). I will return to this passage later.

  13. 13.

    On the infinite line, see DI, I, 13–14 (35–39).

  14. 14.

    For more on this topic, see Hoff, Ch. 8, p. 60–75.

  15. 15.

    I owe much of this exposition to a talk given by Pierre Caye at the Ecole Normale Superieure, April 28, 2017, entitled “Le De Possest ou de la Toute-puissance.” A reading of Cusa’s later treaty De Possest is indeed quite useful for clarifying what he is already doing in De visione Dei and De Docta Ignorantia. Also see Casarella (1990).

  16. 16.

    See Brient (2002), pp. 188ff for a further explication of this.

  17. 17.

    DI, II, 10 (155). Cusa uses the example of an infinitely spinning top in his De possest (1460) (§§18–22) in which each point of the circumference of the top at infinite speed would simultaneously touch each point on a still circle.

  18. 18.

    Cusa’s anthropology of the human being as the contracted maximum is exposited in DI, III, 2–3 (190–202). His theology of Christ as the one who is both absolute maximum (God) and contracted maximum (human) immediately follows in DI, III, 4 (203–207).

  19. 19.

    This is an objection Johannes Hoff put to me in comments about an earlier version of this article. I agree that Marion’s reading of the icon does have this tendency.

  20. 20.

    This is the main thesis of Part III of Hoff’s The Analogical Turn (2013).

  21. 21.

    The eschatological logic of perpetual deferment with respect to Alberti’s quasi-infinite and its analogy to Derrida came to me in reading Graham Ward’s analysis of the sado-masochistic logic of Derrida’s ‘quasi-transcendence’ (2002). Indeed, Ward’s critique of Derrida could be a Cusan critique of Alberti.


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Knight, T. In a Mirror and an Enigma: Nicholas of Cusa’s De Visione Dei and the Milieu of Vision. SOPHIA 59, 113–137 (2020).

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  • Nicholas of Cusa
  • Perspective
  • The icon
  • The image
  • Omnivoyance
  • The gaze