By Gabe Smedresman and Jeffrey Warren
The Tower of Wisdom is found frequently in diagram collections of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was part of a tradition of architectural mnemonic aids going back to the "memory palaces" promoted by the Roman author Cicero. It also served as an object of meditation; by internalizing its principles, a patient student (often a monk) pursued the path of moral rectitude.
Towers of wisdom in medieval manuscripts feature four columns, four windows, and a set of stairs. After that, however, each document varies, reflecting the whims, artistic sensibilities, culture, and environment of the particular artist. The Tower of Wisdom in Beinecke MS 416, probably produced at the abbey of Kamp near the German city of Duesseldorf, is unique among examples we have consulted. It follows neither the English convention of vertically ordered bricks, nor the French standard of staggered masonry. It appears to be a hybrid, featuring semi-staggered bricks that echo the French style along with the exaggerated staircase that is seen only in English design.
The Beinecke diagram features an alphabetical sequence guiding the reader from the bottom of the tower, representing the innermost soul, to the top, bordering the outside world. Elements are deliberately oriented along the visual axes according to their content. One caption indicates, "The height of the tower of wisdom is perseverance in good," while another proclaims, "The length of the tower is charity, which is common to all." Starting with humility, the mother of the virtues, the reader proceeds through the foundational principles of Christian ethics, continuing up the seven steps that a Christian must take to receive absolution: prayer, compunction, confession, penitence, satisfaction, alms, and fasting. He is then led through a main door and up the brickwork courses of the tower. Each level bears a guiding principle on the left-most brick, and then nine actions along the course of bricks, each relating to the guiding principle. The tower is surmounted by a series of triangular pinnacles labeled "guardians," which celebrate the application of the virtues in the public sphere.