Opicinus de Canistris  

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Opicinus de Canistris was an Italian priest, writer and artist. He was born on 24 December 1296 in Lomello (close to Pavia) and died in Avignon around 1353. His work, which for many years remained undiscovered because most of it had been produced whilst he was psychotic, was recently deciphered making him an important figure in psychopathological art.



It is mostly known through the writings and drawings of Opicinus himself because his work constitutes a vast delirious autobiography which is worth decoding.

I - NORTHERN ITALY (1296-1329)

Opicinus de Canistris was born in Lomello (Lombardy, close to Pavia) on 24 December 1296. His family, which was well known in Pavia, actively supported the Guelphs against the Ghibellines.

He went to school from the age of six. He then studied liberal arts and progressively received an eclectic encyclopaedical training. From a very early age he was interested in drawing. He had several temporary jobs to materially help his family.

The storming of Pavia by the Ghibellines on 8 October 1315 forced Canistris' family to take exile in Genoa for three years. Opicinus then distanced himself from the Guelph part of his family, especially following the death of his father and one of his younger brothers.

In Genoa he studied theology and the bible in greater depth and developed his talent for drawing. During this period he was able to see the first "sea maps" (incorrectly known as "portolans"). When he returned to Pavia (1318) Opicinus studied to become a priest. From 1319 he drew up religious treaties. He was ordained in Parma on 27 February 1320 and in 1323 obtained a modest parish in Pavia (Santa Maria Capella). His obsessive disorders began to appear in 1321.

Between 1325 and 1328 he committed a simoniac crime and was excommunicated by the Bishop of Pavia. He fled and roamed for several months, living from begging and suffered a depression punctuated with anxiety attacks.

II – AVIGNON (1329 – circa 1353)

When he arrived in Avignon (April 1329), where the Papal Court was located, Opicinus regained his strength and once again pursued his ambitions. He was noticed by Pope John XXII and wrote several treaties, including two of an opportunist nature (De preeminentia spiritualis imperii and De laudibus).

He obtained a position as scribe at the Apostolic Penitentiary on 4 December 1330. However soon after, he was found by those who had been pursuing him since the events in Pavia and who brought a suit against him before the Rota. Suffering from extreme tensions, Opicinus tried to defend himself, continuing to write, but his psychological problems grew worse between 1331 and 1334.

On 31 March 1334 Opicinus began to suffer a delirious and hallucinatory episode. When he emerged after a fortnight, he entered psychosis, now considering himself to be Christ resurrected.

He returned to his position as scribe in May 1334 taking advantage of his tolerant circle of closest friends. His psychosis developed: the crowning of Pope Benedict XII (20 December 1334) gave his madness a persecutive taint because Opicinus believed that he should have been elected Pope. In 1335 he began to draw, mostly circles and cards where he expressed his madness, which developed into a "fantastic paraphrenia".

On 24 January 1337, he won his trial before the Rota. Several months later, suffering from a state of excitement, he secretly wrote Vaticanus latinus 6435

He spent the remainder of his life in Avignon, creating and refining the great parchment plates of Palatinus latinus 1993, relentlessly devoting himself to his monumental and enigmatic work.

He died after the election of Pope Innocent VI, certainly in 1353.


Writings prior to 1334

• 1319: Liber metricus de parabolis Christi

• 1320: De decalogo mandatorum

• 1322: religious treaties

• 1324: Libellus dominice Passionis secundum concordantiam IIII evangelistarum

• 1329: De paupertate Christi, De virtutibus Christi, Lamentationes virginis Marie, De preeminentia spiritualis imperii

• 1330: Tractatus dominice orationis, Libellus confessionis, De laudibus Papie

• 1331: Tabula ecclesiastice hierarchie

• 1332: De septiloquio virginis Marie

• 1333: De promotionibus virginis Marie

These are treaties without drawings and known by the authors friends. Only De preeminentia spiritualis imperii (The primacy of spiritual power) and De laudibus Papie (Pavia eulogy) have survived to date in the form of copies (1). Their content is classical.

Work after 1334

This consists of two manuscripts without any title, with writings and drawings without the knowledge of those closest to him, where he noted and illustrated his delirious ideas. The originals are today kept at the Vatican Apostolic Library. There are no copies.

the Vaticanus latinus 6435 manuscript

Opicinus wrote this between June and November 1337 and subsequently inserted addita (the last in December 1352). This manuscript, which was only identified on the eve of the 2nd World War, was recently fully published and translated by the medievalist Muriel Laharie as well as several studies by the psychiatrist Guy Roux – a multi-disciplinary collaboration essential to examining this singular work.

The Vaticanus comes in the form of a paper codex with 87 folios, with only written text in the first half, text and drawings (often map based) in the second half. It is a very dense document.

This codex looks similar to a journal written in chronological order. However its polymorphous content which is difficult to decipher bears witness to the encyclopaedic culture of its author. Indeed, Opicinus used all his knowledge to support his megalomaniac pretentions, with many different identities favoured by a wild imagination: he is God, the Sun, the Pope, Europe, Avignon, etc. Its colour anthropomorphic maps of the Mediterranean area, precise and curiously organised, illustrate "good" and "bad" characters and animals on which he projects himself and his enemies, in relation to his persecutive and Manichean madness. The use of symbols, his taste for dissimulating and manipulating (words, numbers, space), and his attraction to the obscene and scatological are omnipresent.

the Palatinus latinus 1993 manuscript

Opicinus began this in 1336, but mostly worked on it after having done the codex Vaticanus and continued until his death. Identified in 1913 (therefore before the codex), this manuscript was the subject of a study by Richard Salomon in 1939, with a partial edition of the document and comments. Unfortunately R. Salomon was unable to be assisted by a psychiatrist and therefore did not understand Opicinus' madness. Guy Roux corrected this document's approach and Muriel Laharie is preparing an exhaustive edition and translation.

With 52 large colour drawings on parchment (often used on both sides) and covered with notes, Palatinus used and developed the subjects of madness which Opicinus had expressed in Vaticanus, in a more majestic and solemn way but also less spontaneously. The drawings are extremely complex, including mostly circles and ellipses with biblical quotations, calendars and varied series (signs of the zodiac, planets, prophets, apostles, metals, etc); a map, full or embryonic, frequently underlies the drawing; characters, which sometimes fit into each other, complete the system. The mystic and Manichean madness, spatial thought, sovereign imagination and hermetic style are comparable to those of Vaticanus.

Opicinus' two manuscripts enable us to discover a medieval case of psychosis and appreciate the exceptional creativity of its author. This unique work shows that "madmen" can be "singular" artists who, through the strangeness of their productions, allow the collective subconscious to speak. On this account, Opicinus proves to be both an ambassador of his time, of which he echoes the concerns and means of expression, and a witness of the universal aspects of psychosis.

Selective bibliography

• LAHARIE (M.), Le journal singulier d’Opicinus de Canistris (1337 - circa. 1341), Vatican City, Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, 2008, 2 volumes, LXXXVIII + 944 p., 47 ill.

• LAHARIE (M.), "Une cartographie ‘à la folie’ : le journal d’Opicinus de Canistris", in Mélanges de l’Ecole française de Rome (Moyen Âge), Ecole française de Rome, 119, 2, 2007, p. 361-399.

• ROUX (G.), Opicinus de Canistris (1296–1352), prêtre, pape et Christ ressuscité, Paris, Le Léopard d’Or, 2005, 484 p.

• ROUX (G.), Opicinus de Canistris (1296–1352), Dieu fait homme et homme-Dieu, Paris, Le Léopard d’Or, 2009, 310 p.

• ROUX (G.) & LAHARIE (M.), Art et Folie au Moyen Âge. Aventures et Énigmes d’Opicinus de Canistris (1296-1351 ?), Paris, Le Léopard d’Or, 1997, 364 p., 94 ill.

• SALOMON (R.G.), Opicinus de Canistris. Weltbild und Bekenntnisse eines Avignonesichen Klerikers des 14. Jahrunderts, London, The Warburg Institute, 1936, 2 volumes; reprint. Lichtenstein, Kraus Reprints, 1969, 292 p. + 89 ill.

• TOZZI (P.), Opicino e Pavia, Pavia, Libreria d’Arte Cardano, 1990, 76 p.

(1) De preeminentia spiritualis imperii (1329). Cf. SCHOLZ (R.), Unbekannte Kirchenpolitische Streischriften aus der Zeit Ludwig des Bayern (1327–1354), Rome, Verlag von Loescher & Cie, vol. 1, 1911, p. 37-43, and vol. 2, 1914, p. 89-104. De laudibus civitatis ticinensis (1330). Cf. GIANANI (F.), in Opicino de Canistris, l’Anonimo Ticinese, Pavia, EMI, 1996, p. 73-121; and AMBAGLIO (D.), Il libro delle lodi della città di Pavia, Pavia, 1984.

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