University of Minnesota
Driven to Discover

Explore Education Iconics College of Education and Human Development

Orbis Sensualium Pictus - Lecture

Charles E. Thompson, Georgia State University

Among the special gifts of scholarship are new insights into familiar classics. Ayers Bagley has presented us with such a gift. Inviting us to look anew at John A. Comenius' extraordinary textbook, the revolutionary Orbis Pictus (1658), he enables us to see a cornucopia of meaning. His method is iconic -- a method rarely used by historians of education -- and the result is uniquely illuminating.

Comenius sought to strengthen the learning of linguistic symbols by visual means. In Orbis Pictus, sensible things are suggested by representative images, non-representative visual devices (i.e., pictorial signs), and by words (i.e., verbal symbols). Creatures and artifacts are shown and named; ideas are indicated by pictorial signs and verbal symbols. Even God has both a pictorial sign and a word. Some one hundred and thirty years before Kant, Orbis Pictus embodied the dictum that "concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind."

The Orbis Pictus exhibits the combined influence of Renaissance attention to the things of this world and the Reformation impulse to instruct. In successive translations it follows in time and space the branching of its Latin trunk into various vernaculars and thus reveals a Reformation awareness of the unity of things amid the plurality of tongues.

Comenius recognizes no radical split between nature and man. "The grasshopper chirpeth ci ci" early in the text, and later the grasshopper's improvidence, contrasted with the industry of the pismire, helps define the human virtue of diligence. Using nature as a guide to moral good is of course a practice older than Aesop. Comenius' treatment of nature and human good is, among other things, an empirical rebuke to the formalism of the is-ought distinction that makes 'proper' science value-free and hence no guide to good conduct. Perhaps more importantly, Comenius' illustration of the referents of words embodies a fundamental insight of modern science, that language can be insanely misleading unless chained to empirical phenomena, albeit his motive may have been primarily to use the senses as an aid to mastery of the arts and sciences. Nevertheless, the Orbis Pictus is an antique semiotic.

Of the many interconnecting insights that Bagley presents in his essay, perhaps the most exciting is the demonstration that here in early modern times is to be found a resolution of an issue which still vexes. Language, Comenius seems to say, is imperial. It is about nature and it is about civilization. Education is the door connecting the realm of language and the realm of things. Yet language, imperial because it is about all things from God to grasshoppers, still cannot stand alone, nor pass by itself as education. The door swings both ways; education, making key use of the iconic, connects language and things, whether those things are natural or artifactual. Knowledge of language and knowledge of things need each other and nourish each other. That is the modern insight, and here we are shown the emergence of pedagogy from its cocoon of arid grammatics and scholasticism.

An Invitation to Wisdom and Schooling
Ayers Bagley, University of Minnesota

The most famous children's textbook of the early modern era, the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658) of John Amos Comenius, is also one of the least understood iconographically.1 The fame as well as the enduring usefulness of Orbis traces to its ingenious integration of three features: encyclopedism, bi-lingualism, and visual imagery. Some later editions of the text increased the scope of its subject matter and its variety of images.2 Some editions increased the number of languages represented to three, four, and more.3 But the essential Orbis remained discernible.

Although Comenius advertised his work as a "little encyclopedia" of things and human employments obvious to the senses, the text is richly endowed with symbolism, personifications, and allegory.4 From beginning to end, it is laced with meanings not self-evident to the senses. The implicit content is not readily accessible; ambiguity attends even some of the apparently simple lessons. And at certain points it is possible to detect motifs probably outside the deliberate intentions of author and illustrator. Among the instances of special interest for iconic studies of education are the "Invitation," which begins Lesson I, the lesson on "School" (XCVII), and the "Close."5 An examination of these lessons may reveal meanings and motives helpful in explaining more of the cultural significance of Orbis Pictus.

Come boy! Learn to be wise. What doth this mean, to be wise? To understand rightly, to do rightly, and to speak out rightly, all that are necessary. Before all things, thou oughtest to learn the plain sounds,  of which mans speech consisteth;  which living creatures know how to make,  and thy tongue knoweth how to imitate,  and thy hand can picture out. Afterwards we will go into the world,  and we will view all things.
-- "Invitation" Orbis Pictus, London


Orbis opens with a modest yet perplexing woodcut of two figures, a man and a boy, standing alone in a landscape. In the distance, a city can be seen, its spires and substantial architecture are indicated sketchily. The figures are identified in the text as Magister and Puer, i.e., schoolmaster and boy (or child). Their gestures suggest communication. Nothing about their appearance indicates that they are on the way to or from agricultural labors or any determinate employment.6 They are dressed in accordance with the apparel described in the lessons on the "Taylor" (LXII) and the "Shoo-Maker" (LXIII). Consider the lad; he is no barefoot country boy. He wears shoes, stockings, wide pantaloons, a buttoned doublet, full collar and cuffs.7 He holds his hat in polite deference to the schoolmaster with whom he is in dialogue.8 The schoolmaster has a full white beard. With hat and cloak over his other apparel, and his walking stick in his right hand, which might also serve as a ferule, he is a commanding figure against the skyline. "Come Boy!" he says, "learn to be wise." And the boy consents. Is this not quite ridiculous? The whole thing appears absurd, if it is considered literally as a picturing of actual practices of the time.

Perhaps the Invitation and its imagery should be summarily dismissed as an artifice. Schoolmasters did not in fact roam the countryside gleaning unlettered boys from vacant fields. In the 1650's in Northern Europe, the country side was not a place for pleasant strolls. The economic devastation and moral degradation of the Thirty Years War made it ill advised for the unprotected, young or old, to wander far afield.9 The lesson on the "Traveller" (LXXXII) warns of robbers, cites the need for a traveling companion, and cautions against departures from the "Highroad."

Schoolmasters did their teaching in schoolrooms. That was the traditional fact. That was also the fact of iconographic convention.10 It is true that school iconography of the early modern era includes some open-air teaching scenes. They are exceptional. The best known is by Albrecht Dürer. But Dürer's class and master sit beside a wall, and the presence of the master's large pillow and the schoolboys' benches suggest that shelter is nearby.11 Some other examples of open air teaching include more elaborate furniture, which casts doubt on the degree to which the imagery was intended as naturalistic.12 Spatial ambiguity sometimes results from juxtapositions of naturalistic representations and things of the mind. Consider Geiler von Keiserberg's master and students: Where are they? In or out? The tree suggests open-air, but it is an alphabet tree, a botanical specimen that flowers only in the imagination.13 A similar kind of example occurs in other textbooks, especially in images that have reference to astronomy which may be emblematic of the macrocosmos.14 Stars are shown on high and no lines define walls or windows, yet the master or student is seated on a chair or stool, again suggesting either imaginary space or nearness of an architectural interior.

Just as viewers today can be counted on to recognize that alphabet trees are imaginary, so early modern viewers would understand that the Invitation and its imagery were not to be taken literally. Lesson I becomes more meaningful--indeed, it can be seen to set the main assumptions of the text--when it is approached as metaphor rather than in terms of the work-a-day world. That the Lesson mixes metaphors will become apparent in due course.

Concentrating first on what is not in doubt concerning Lesson I, this much can be noted. A model student, a model teacher, and an ideal relationship between them have been introduced to the reader. What characteristics are evident in the models and the ideal? First, the boy: As a puer, he is someone who has passed from the speechlessness of infancy to the second stage of life.15 His experience to this point has rendered him mannerly, curious, and docible. Note that when he does not understand a term, he asks for its meaning. ("What doth this mean, to be wise?") And when he perceives the need for additional help in overcoming his ignorance, he expresses his readiness to learn: "See, here I am; lead me in the name of God."

Whereas the student must be ready to learn, he also needs a qualified teacher. The master of Lesson I immediately reveals his qualifications. He is an elderly male in the sixth age of life approaching the seventh and last. He is an initiator of dialogue, challenging a potential student with ideas and goals that are intelligible but not yet fully comprehensible. He is gentle, God-fearing, and identifies himself as a guide. He knows the way that leads to wisdom:

M. Before all things, thou oughtest to learn the plain sounds, 
of which man's speech consisteth; 
which living creatures know how to make, 
and thy tongue knoweth how to imitate, 
and thy hand can picture out.
Afterwards we will go into the world, 
and we will view all things.
Here thou hast a lively and vocal alphabet.

In sum, the competent teacher states the long range purpose of education ("wisdom") and the related goals of learning (true understanding, right action, and correct speech concerning what is necessary), specifies the tasks of learning and their order, and then provides a method for accomplishing them. The ideal relationship between teacher and student is clear in some respects. It is one in which age guides youth. More specifically, the sixth age of life before declining to disability bestows its legacy on the rising generation; newly awakened aspirations are given direction by judgment most mature.16 Must the relationship be limited to males? Orbis indicates nothing otherwise, although Comenius elsewhere in his writings insists on education for girls.17

II . Genesis

The Invitation welcomes interpretations that range beyond moral meanings to allegory. The teacher and the boy in the fields call to mind God and Adam and the beginnings of language. Comenius selected the pertinent passage from Genesis to establish the theme of nomenclature:

The Lord God brought unto Adam every Beast of the Field, and every Fowl of the air, to see what he would call them. And Adam gave names to all Cattell, and to the Fowl of the air, and to every Beast of the Field. ( II Genesis 19,20)

The roles of the teacher and boy in the field are not identical to those of God and Adam. After all, the teacher and the boy are inheritors, as are Everyboy and Everyteacher. Yet their location in the natural landscape, far from architecture, associates them with the primeval condition of Genesis. Close to nature, the boy is to learn an alphabet evocative of the animals named by Adam. The heritage of Genesis is carried forward.

Initiation. Without denying the allusion to Genesis, is there any way to explain the fact that the encounter between the boy and the teacher occurs far from their community and in vague circumstances? Why is the boy not presented to the teacher? Parents, at least one parent or a guardian, would normally do this. The oldest education imagery in Western civilization depicts such a presentation scene. King Peleus hands over Achilles, his son, to Chiron who is to become the boy's teacher.18 Similarly, Jesus is introduced to his would-be teachers by Joseph or Mary or by both of them.19 It was an enduring theme still vital when Orbis was composed.20 The absence of the parents at the point of encounter, the isolation of the teacher and boy in the countryside, and all that subsequently transpires, tends to support the idea of initiation. The Invitation corresponds strikingly in several respects to a rite of passage.

The historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, has written helpfully on the subject of puberty rites and traces of them in the modern world.

The tribal initiation introduces the novice into the world of spiritual and cultural values and makes him a responsible member of the society. The young man learns not only the behavior patterns, the techniques, and the institutions of adults, but also the myths and the sacred traditions of the tribe, the names of the gods and the history of their works; above all, he learns the mystical relations between the tribe and supernatural beings as those relations were established at the beginning of time. . . . In short, through initiation, the candidate passes beyond the "natural" mode of being--that of the child-and gains access to the cultural mode; that is, he is introduced to spiritual values.21

The author goes on to identify additional features of such rites. "Any age-grading initiation requires a certain number of more or less dramatic tests and trials: separation from the mother, isolation in the bush under the supervision of an instructor...The sudden revelation of sacred objects...22 Other practices are also cited which may or may not be part of puberty rites, varying from culture to culture.

If the Invitation is less than a paradigmatic example of an initiation rite, the resemblances are impressive. The Invitation prepares the boy for the "sudden revelation" of a sacred object, in this case a sign of God, which is introduced in Lesson II. "Through puberty rites," Eliade observes, "the novice gains access to the sacred world, that is to say, to what is considered real and meaningful in his culture..."23 That is a reasonable summary of the basic purpose of Orbis Pictus.

It is not only the Orbis Invitation that reveals traces of the theme of initiation. The whole process of Latin language study in the modern era can be viewed as a puberty rite.24When Latin ceased to be a living language, that is, when it was no longer the language of families, the learning of Latin became increasingly a "rite de passage."25 In this connection, it is fitting that Comenius should have described his first highly successful textbook as a "door" to languages, namely, the Janua Linguarum.26 The point is not that Comenius or other early modern educators thought of Latin study as a puberty rite. It is rather that key features in the process might be understood as survivals or echoes of something anthropologically primitive, albeit in forms "devious and vague."27

The Janua and Orbis, which is an illustrated condensation of the Janua, comprise doorways different from the medieval curriculum. The latter can be seen at Chartres. In the middle of the 12th century, personifications of the Seven Liberal Arts were sculpted into the fabric over the right-most western portal of the cathedral.28 The allegorically-minded would have had no difficulty in seeing the results as a confirmation of the religious importance of the school curriculum, that the trivium (three ways) and the quadrivium (four ways) formed a legitimate archway into sacred space. But that space was within the cathedral. Comenius' textbooks, in the spirit of the Reformation, were gateways to the world at large, all of which was to be recognized as infused with religious significance.

This brings us back to the boy and his preceptor in the fields. The boy, we know, will be led to the sign of God after passing through the alphabet, and then he will be shown progressively the whole of God's creation, first in its totality, and then analytically, passing on through a series of classifications of existence.29 He will learn, too, of the future, which reveals God in final judgment, the Lord of his creation. It is a chastening vision accompanied by a promise and a threat. Orbis at its Close finds the teacher and the boy physically where they began, but the boy is now prepared for the great world, having been imbued with true impressions and the very structure of knowledge.

Pilgrimage. The closing speech of the teacher reminds the boy of a promise fulfilled. The teacher had said at the outset of the text that he would take the boy into the world and show him all. And so he did. As soon as the necessary preparations had been made--learning the alphabet and establishing theological bearings--the journey began from on high. The god's eye view has its advantages. The world can be seen as a whole; it can also be seen taxonomically. When entire categories meet the eye, the vista is indeed divine. There are the heavens and the earth, the world, the elements, terrain, minerals, birds and beasts, and many other forms of life. Europe commands the largest interest. Its several kingdoms are noted, and then attention comes to focus on a city, the most complex form of human association analyzed in Orbis. The boy was enabled to view it outside and in, to study its institutions, e.g., family, church, governmental bodies, market, theaters, prison. As the teacher said in summary: "Thus, thou hast seen in short all the things that can be shewed, and hast learned the chief words..." It was a trip to remember. It was, in a sense, the first phase of the pilgrimage of life, but only the first. "Go on now," bade the teacher, "and read other good books diligently, and thou shalt become learned, wise, and Godly."

The notion of pilgrimage may have occurred to the copyist who produced the images for the English/Latin editions of Orbis. This speculation is warranted by a small detail. Although the copyist faithfully reproduced most of the original illustrations, he took away the hat the teacher had worn in the German edition of 1658 and replaced it with one in a style long associated with St. James in his role as pilgrim.30 The teacher now has an appearance reminiscent of the Saint whose church in Santiago de Compostela was for centuries a destination of pilgrims from all over Europe.31

Hinting at pilgrimage, the copyist offered a sensible means of interpreting the otherwise puzzling imagery of the Invitation. There is sufficient text to recommend the interpretation. Besides the passages in the Invitation and the Close, there is also the lesson on Ethics (CIX) which describes life as a "way" and "path," and shows a youth imitating Hercules on the road of life, halted temporarily at the crossroads of moral choice.32

Looking outside the text, it may be noted that there was a revival of interest in pilgrimage during the second half of the 17th century.33 One of the more lasting expressions of this interest is John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (Part I, 1678; Part II, 1684).

Orbis personified. Might the teacher in the Invitation be a personification of Orbis itself? This would help explain why the teacher and the boy are not depicted as observers in the illustrations. Only in the Lesson on the school is it possible to detect a vague resemblance between the figures of the Invitation and the schoolmaster and reciting boy. But the cut is insufficiently detailed to permit a positive identification. A second reason for construing the Invitation teacher as Orbis personified proceeds from Comenius' prefatory statement. He proposes that Orbis be introduced to the child at home.34 Thus, Orbis would begin to teach the child before he went to school. Comenius also likensOrbis to "a man clad in a double garment," as he explains that the dual columns of textA Latin and vernacular, are synonymous.35 This is not proof that the Invitation teacher was intended as Orbis, only that Comenius was prepared to use the book/ man simile. Even if the Invitation teacher were intended as Orbis personified, this would not erase the allusion to God and Adam nomenclating (Genesis II :19,20) or the correspondences with the themes of initiation and pilgrimage.

The Preface to Orbis makes clear that Comenius intended a continuity between home and school as well as between levels of schooling. Why then the discontinuity of the Invitation with both the family and the school? Comenius does not address the point. In fact, he says very little about the iconography of Orbis. He claims that the book represents "all visible things" (a gross exaggeration, of course), that some of the images reduce the invisible to the visible "after their fashion," and that the textual descriptions and their ordering follow the Janua; he adds that the Orbis alphabet employs "the Image of that Creature, whose voyce the letter goeth about to imitate..."36 He says no more about the imagery.


From 1666 and through the eighteenth century, continental editions of Orbis, following a revised Nuremberg edition, replaced the original image of the Invitation with one that emphasizes book learning.37 The teacher and the boy are again far from the city, and again they appear unaccompanied. But the teacher is shown seated in a fine chair on a platform or unenclosed porch. Beside him is a table with several open books; behind him is tall shelving filled with hefty volumes. The setting and accoutrements suggest that the teacher is an enshrined sage to whom the boy has made a pilgrimage. As in the earlier seventeenth century illustrations, the figures are given gestures to indicate communication. The shelvesfull of volumes are consistent with the teacher's closing adjuration to read more books. Although the circumstances depicted do not exclude the idea of initiation, the nomenclature theme of Genesis is overwhelmed by the immediate presence of furniture and library. A modest counterpoint is formed by the small animal--a fox or dog--racing across the field in the middle ground. The illustrator's attempt at a visual integration of manufactured objects within a pastoral ambience brings forward the idea that nature and culture may comprise an harmonious whole rather than a conflict of opposites.38

IV. Teacher and student symbolism.

The Invitation and the Close idealize the teacher and the student along lines of tutor and pupil, sage and disciple. The teacher becomes a preceptor, a guide to life, a way-shower. In connection with the notion of pilgrimage, he takes on the attributes of a tutelary saint and guardian. The relations are all one to one, such as might be found in those palaces where princes are invested with resources at the disposal of royalty. When the tutor/student configuration of values is developed to its ultimate, the role of teacher becomes a form of parenting. It might even be seen as more valuable than the role of biological parent. So, in the opinion of John Clarke, Headmaster of Lincoln School in 1624, "Alexander was right in claiming that he had owed more to Aristotle his teacher than to Philip his father."39 Families give birth to children; teachers birth their minds.

The boy of Orbis is equal to the investment in him. He perceives and values the master's teachings. Indeed, in the later Nuremberg editions, the designer of the imagery seems to have given the boy the initiative. Instead of the unexplained encounter first depicted in the seventeenth century editions, the boy now appears to present himself to the sage in his hermitage study. "See, here I am, lead me..." This has the ring of individual choice, of a person in the act of making a commitment. Seemingly premature in a boy so young as the one depicted in the Invitation, the sentiment is nonetheless in accord with early Protestant emphases on the central importance of individual conscience. Still, the Orbis boy exhibits more conscience than is likely in a pre-abecedarian. The image and the dialogue are more convincing as testimony to Comenius' pedagogical principle that the teacher should look for evidence that the student is ready to learn the kind of lessons intended.40

V. Schooling

Among the social institutions visited in Orbis is a school, presumably a Latin grammar school. It is an inner city institution. "The public buildings," according to the text, "are in the middle of the city, the church, the school, the guild-hall, the exchange.''41 The school is described as an officina, that is, a workshop or a manufactory. According to the Janua, the parent text of Orbis, the grammar school is of political significance.42 What does it signify? Not power; that is a property of other agencies: "The temple or church, the court, the armory or storehouse, the treasury and the granneries. . .are the strength of a city." The school belongs to a different category of the common good: ". . . cisterns, clockes, diales and schools, well ordered. are token of good rule and government."43 Thus, the school is classed among public utilities--timekeeping and waterworks--which, when operating smoothly, are indicators of well-managed government.

Differences between the imagery of the Invitation and the school raise questions pertinent to assumptions about optimal conditions of learning. The Invitation depicts a tutorial relationship. One student enjoys the undivided attention of a master teacher who takes him from alphabet to God and all around the world. Now consider the circumstances of the classroom teacher and his students. He is an institutional functionary. He sits in a chair facing some seventeen youths. It is not for him to show them the world. Rather, he hears their recitations, emends their written lessons, and applies the rod or scourge to their persons when they talk to one another or otherwise misbehave.44 What is the meaning of the contrasting circumstances of teaching and learning displayed in Orbis? Is the tutorial the ideal and the classroom the prosaic actuality? Is the tutorial best and the classroom a compromise, the lot that falls to children whose parents cannot afford the best?

Orbis offers no direct answer to the question of tutorial versus class instruction. (Elsewhere Comenius argues for public instruction in socially integrated schools.)45 But the question may be irrelevant to Orbis in the first place. If the Invitation teacher is Orbis personified, then every child who has an Orbis thereby has his own private tutor. Of such a tutor it might be said that he is always present, never tires, and never punishes. Whether or not the child has the best or second best teacher now becomes a question of the quality of the instructional system embodied by the text.

Comenius did not propose Orbis as a replacement for teachers living in the flesh. He spoke of it rather as a "new help for schools."46 The help was in the special method of the text: an illustrated encyclopedia with text in two languages, words and things cross-referenced throughout by numbers, and all main topics made alternatively accessible by means of a back-up system of indices, one in Latin and one in the vernacular.

Orbis can be appreciated as a special outcome of sixteenth and seventeenth century questing for the perfect method in philosophy, science, and pedagogy.47 The works of Peter Ramus on method, Francis Bacon's new method--the Novum Organon--Rene Descartes' Discourse sur la Methode are among the main expressions of the intensified interest in finding the way to certain knowledge.48 Joining in the search, Comenius brought unique qualifications. He was inspired by evangelical religious beliefs, stimulated by Baconian empiricism, and instructed in encyclopedism by Heinrich Alsted, a follower of Peter Ramus.49 Out of these elements and through direct experience as a classroom teacher, Comenius developed his own method. He called it Pansophism.50 Orbis Pictus was to be the text that would initiate children into the Pansophic way of looking at the world. It would start them on the pilgrimage of mind, tutoring them in the relationships of words and things.

| Education Iconics | 330 Wulling Hall | 86 Pleasant Street SE | Minneapolis, MN 55455 USA | Tel: 612-624-1006

© 2010 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer
Last modified on December 10, 2010.