Some thoughts on hierarchy

Following the meeting with Clive and Eddie the other day, I started thinking about the relevance of hierarchy in my project. I realised how miniatures and medieval paintings in general are potentially an example of deliberate use of visual and narrative hierarchy.

I also started thinking how the conflict of hierarchic vs a-hierarchic systems can be the narrative fuel that my project needs at the moment, because it can regard very visual aspects, while at the same time commenting on some contemporary topics.

In a way I think architecture is most fascinating when it is a direct expression of hierarchical systems.

Hierarchical institutions such as the catholic church, sovereign states and banks are often the clients for some of the most exciting pieces of architecture.

One can think of the triangle, the dome, the canopy, the number 3  as direct expressions of the power of the catholic church. In the same way the triumphal arch and the amphitheater are expressions of political/military power, and the tower and column are expressions of the banking institutions.

This is of course simplified to the max, but the idea is to find the formal expression of hierarchies and make it one of the protagonists of the narrative within my miniatures.

The other protagonist, or the opponent would be the a-hierarchic systems, which enter the compositions and start to challenge the previous formal schemes. The a-hierarchic forms would be something like the circle, the network, the fluid and so on. These are way less defined for now.


following is an analysis of formal hierarchies in some medieval paintings, which can help to understand the arbitrary-ness of these in the pre-perspective world.



Miniatures and in general paintings and works of art that precede the invention of perspective are an example of deliberate use of visual hierarchies.

At the same time these works seem to defy hierarchical disposition of spaces and architectural frameworks, because of the presence of multiple instances of a story at the same time.

The stories represented by artists in the middle ages were usually well known by the observers, who only needed some elements as reminders of the narrative.

This is the reason why many paintings are a depiction of a collapsed story, where all the characters and elements of it are present at the same time, laid out next to each other. The temporal hierarchy of the story is therefore disregarded, and the compositions become a flat collection of figures and architectural elements, which the viewer connects by their own means.


This is the case for Berlinghieri’s representation of the miracle of the kid with the broken neck (1235), in which the mother and child are present twice, first begging st. Francis (who is dead in the wooden sarcophagus) for the miracle, and second happily leaving the church.

In this example the temporal collapsing of the story is reflected also in the a-hierarchic way spaces are depicted.
Before the invention of perspective, and therefore in most examples of medieval visual arts, there is a visual principle that was widespread across Europe, that is the equation

in front = inside.

Whoever occupies the foreground of the picture is inhabiting the interior space of any architecture depicted in the composition.

This is very clear in the previous example, where the church is represented by the artist from the outside in the background, while figures and other architectural elements, such as the canopy, are in the foreground. The viewer of course knows that this scene takes place inside the church even though the scene is represented in an arbitrary way.

The same goes for some later and more refined examples, such as Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, where he painted the scene of the marriage of Mary and Joseph.


The couple is getting married inside and outside of the church at the same time, and it is not clear wether the other characters in the scene are within or outside of the space.

Two hundred years later the scene is again painted by Raphael, who works in a completely different world, where perspective has been discovered and a more rational depiction of space is the habit. His sposalizio, however correct and proportioned it might seem at first, is still referring to the same concept of in front = inside, which was used hundreds of years before him.


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3 Responses to Some thoughts on hierarchy

  1. Maxime Monin says:

    Ale ! I enjoyed reading this.

    Two things for you which I hope will help.

    In term of a-hierarchical representations, you should look at chinese perspectives, like this :
    I saw a similar scroll once in a exhibition in the Louvres. What is interesting is that the format (‘endless’ scroll) complement the subject depicted (‘endless’ army); in that sense everyone is represented as ‘equal’ in size, even the emperor (searching on the scroll is quite a “where is waldo” type of thing … :-) ). Although of course important figures would be better surrounded.

    Another example I know from Pascal Schoning’s manifesto is this fantastic painting “Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus” :,_The_Battle_of_Alexander_at_Issus.jpg
    This painting as the particularity to be extremely playful with hierarchy and scale. In one image you can see a progression from close sight of the battle with Alexander the Great and Darius III highlighted – passing by the army from afar, the Greek and Persian cities, the landscape – up to the sun arising and the moon appearing.

    • Alessandro Magliani says:

      Thanks Maxime! I knew about the chinese example, its completely insane! The one with the battle is also amazing, so much hierarchy in one painting :)