The Great Stemma is a Latin diagram of history and biblical genealogy. [*]Before 2012 it had no standard title. The Beuron directory of early Christian authors (Gryson, Roger. Répertoire général des auteurs ecclésiastiques latins de l’antiquité et du haut moyen âge (Freiburg: Herder, 2007), formerly Fischer's Verzeichnis der Sigel: Kirchenschriftsteller) gives it the code PROL gen. The Great Stemma is not listed in Stegmüller’s Repertorium or the Clavis Patrum Latinorum. An anonymous Christian scholar drew it before 427 CE. It is the only large visualization of an abstract topic known to us from western antiquity and fills a canvas ten times wider than tall. The original no longer exists, but with some 25 medieval copies of varying richness, we can reconstruct the original drawing’s appearance with near certainty.

The diagram consists almost entirely of roundels and connecting lines. Each of the approximately 550 roundels contains a name of a biblical or historical character, usually with the father also identified. These were laid out on an invisible grid which was ten roundels high and at least 117 columns wide. In its original state the chart contained very few glosses, only one decorative element and no figural representations.

The biblical creation of the world, at the chart’s upper left, is represented by a roundel containing the name of the first man, Adam. A chain of roundels leads along the full length of the upper edge to a large knot at the far right. This contains the name Emmanuel, representing Jesus of Nazareth as the culmination and convergence of history. The interior space of the chart is filled with timelines based on the historical books of the Tanakh and branching diagrams of the descendants of the patriarchs.

In content and style, the Great Stemma belongs to that period of late antiquity when intellectual figures such as Augustine of Hippo and Jerome of Stridon were blending their classical learning with the 400-year-old teachings of the messianic preacher Jesus to synthesize a new, systematic Christian theology. That urge to rationalize and harmonize is evident in the careful timeline from Creation to the Incarnation, using biblical persons to mark the intervals. The author was at the same time asserting the integrity of the Christian scriptures as true and free of contradiction.

Until now, no edition of the Great Stemma had ever been ventured. The work remained all but unknown to most patristics specialists. Its uncertain periodization put many off the scent. Scholars were doubtless also deterred by the novelty and complexity of collating and reconstructing a graphic, an editorial project without any precedent in classical or patristic studies.[*]The only comparable project is the publication of the Tabula Peutingeriana. Given that only one manuscript of that work exists, no collation was required. The only extensive reconstruction work on it before the present was undertaken a century ago by Konrad Miller and his predecessors.

Another disincentive may perhaps have been the faint odor of contempt which many humanities scholars feel toward visualization as compared to textual expression. The visual is perceived as juvenile, whereas text is regarded as hard to understand and therefore worthier of attention from maturer minds. What is overlooked here is that it required protean intellectual powers to translate intricate ideas into visual form and succeed in making them understandable at a glance.

Before the fourth or fifth century, visualizations of information are largely unknown. Only the crude geometrical diagrams utilized in Greek-style mathematics had any wide circulation. The creation in this one period of the Great Stemma, the Tabula Peutingeriana (a chorography of the Roman Empire), the arbor-juris schemes and the 23 diagrams accompanying Calcidius’s Commentary on the Timaeus indicate the emergence, perhaps the very invention, of a new, visually based method of education.

In the early days of infographics there were no models to imitate. Methods for representing ideas graphically had to be invented from scratch. The Great Stemma affords us an insight into these pioneering centuries when many of the conventions which rule graphics in our own highly visual age— for example, the left-to-right progress of timelines or the branching pattern of stemmatic “trees”— were established for the first time.

Of the author of the Great Stemma, dubbed Expositor in the book Mind’s Eye, we can deduce the opinions, but little else. He (if he was not a she) was focused on the economy of salvation and clearly set much store by study of the Old Testament. He adhered to a minority tradition in Christianity which held Mary the mother of Jesus to be the daughter of one Joachim, a person not mentioned in the canonical gospels.

Modern research into the Great Stemma was principally advanced by the art historian Yolanta Załuska, who established in the 1980s the path of its medieval transmission through Spain and identified recensions, but never published her collation of the text, untangled the many graphic and textual corruptions which piled up during the manuscript tradition or ventured her view of the work’s date. The editio princeps (Piggin) appeared in 2013, a year after a terminus ante quem for the work of 427 CE was finally established in a conference presentation in Oxford.

That edition was continually enhanced and updated in the years following, with more corruptions emended and many glosses and alterations found in the manuscript record demonstrated to be post-authorial additions, culminating in the present edition which is structured according to scholarly conventions and delineates the Great Stemma’s historical and theological context clearly. The edition thus serves as the sober sibling to Mind’s Eye, which describes the Great Stemma in a more narrative and popular fashion.

Since an extensive critical apparatus and textual notes cannot be integrated with a single-sheet graphic in any practicable fashion, a completely new publishing method had to be invented for the edition. The temptation to simply publish a database was resisted, because this would have required the challenged reader to hop from text to note to comparison without any sense of context or the comfort of an orientating page.

Instead, a zoomable, scrollable digital edition has been created, furnished with thematic overlays which provide key interpretation to the graphic – an English translation, the course of the timeline, a female quota, pointers to the graphic mechanisms, and so on – to exploit the best of scalable vector graphics (SVG) technology. For the reader with textual criticism in mind, a paper solution has been adopted: the reconstructed graphic and the table-form apparatus are kept separate and are provided as twin PDF files which can be easily printed ad hoc, enabling the scholar at the desk to compare and annotate the layout, the best text and the apparatus, entry by entry, in the two stacks of sheets.

Next: The Date of the Great Stemma

Back to Table of Contents

Creative Commons License The Great Stemma: A Graphic History in the Fifth Century by Jean-Baptiste Piggin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.