CANCELLED Circular Thinking: The Drawing Compass as a Tool of Premodern Creation in Europe



‘Circular Thinking’ is a series of events (lecture, study day and panel discussion) devoted to the drawing compass, an essential tool of the premodern artist that came to represent divine Creation in Jewish and Christian (both Greek and Latin) exegetical traditions. Although now associated primarily with architecture, the compass was a transmedial instrument, integral to a range of artisanal operations. According to the artists’ handbooks of Theophilus and Cennini, the instrument was ready-to-hand, yet evidence of its premodern use is relatively thin. Called circinus in Latin for the action of ‘going round’, circles and arcs were rarely its final output, but intermediary guides often lost in the making process or intentionally erased. Compass work can thus be classed as ‘invisible labour’— work that contributes to the making of an object, but remains difficult to detect in its finished form. It is also dynamic labour that defies easy description in traditional print media, a problem compounded by a general lack of familiarity with the tool and the habits of hand and mind that it engenders. In the recent past, children handled compasses in school, their deployment de rigueur in elementary education. Today, this is no longer true. Through discussion, hands-on engagement and the close study of historical evidence, ‘Circular Thinking’ seeks to impart a more precise understanding of the compass’s varied form(s) and uses — in the measurement, scaling, copying, the generation of diverse shapes in two and three dimensions — and, with this, its symbolic force.



Thursday, 26 March 2020, 6–7:30pm 

Lecture Room, Warburg Institute

Professor Robert Bork, University of Iowa

Circles Below the Surface: The Role of the Compass in Premodern Creativity



Friday, 27 March 2020, 10:00am–3:30pm (lunch on own)

Lecture Room, Warburg Institute & British Museum

Drawing upon examples from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period, the ‘Circular Thinking’ study day comprises a practical, hands-on workshop and museum visit. Participation is free and open to the public. Space, however, is limited; book early to avoid disappointment.



Friday, 27 March 2020, 4:00–5:30pm

Lecture room, Warburg Institute

Speakers will each present a case study of compass use or techniques in premodern Europe. These short presentations will be followed by a curated conversation and general Q&A.


Dr Sarah Griffin, Winchester College

Constructing the Calendars in the Diagrams of Opicinus de Canistris (1296-c. 1352)


Professor Jean-Marie Guillouët, Université de Nantes

Testimony of Construction Practices in Some Late Medieval Compass Traceries


Dr Stephen Johnston, Oxford Museum of the History of Science

Drawing and the Design Process in Mathew Baker’s Fragments of Ancient English Shipwrightry



Dr Megan C. McNamee, Warburg Institute


All events are free and open to the public but space is limited. More information and booking at

Organised by Megan C. McNamee and Sarah Griffin. Direct enquiries to