Monday, July 09, 2012

Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae

More evidence from the 1711 catalogue of  books once in the library of Sir Thomas Browne that the  German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher was one of the physician-philosopher's favourite authors. The subject-matter of Kircher’s many books - optics, alchemy, comparative religion, antiquities, the unusual and even down-right bizarre to modern sensibilities, reflect shared interests and a close perspective in outlook between two of the seventeenth century's greatest polymaths.

Athanasius Kircher’s books are well-represented in Thomas Browne's library, including his optical work Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (1646) whose frontispiece is above. Kircher’s The Great Art of Light and Shadow was in all probability, one of the earliest of books purchased by Browne since commencing his residency in Norwich, after the physician-philosopher's marriage in 1642. Published the same year as Browne’s encyclopedic endeavour to promote scientific understanding, Pseudodoxia Epidemica first saw light during the endgame of the English civil war in 1646. Further revised editions of Browne's major contribution to the scientific revolution appeared until the last edition in 1672. 

The frontispiece of Kircher's The Great Art of Light and Shadow depicts a personification of the sun, with the symbols of the zodiac covering his body, below him sits a double-headed eagle. On the right,  a woman as a personification of the moon and covered in stars, below her sits two peacocks. Rays of light hit various lenses which reflects Kircher's optical discoveries. The frontispiece (above) also depicts Kircher's sources of knowledge in descending order of clarity: sacred authority, reason, sense (aided by instruments) and profane authority. Browne in his Pseudodoxia lists authority, experience and reason as his primary sources of knowledge.

Kircher discovered that by placing a lens between a screen and a mirror which had been written on, a sharp but inverted image would appear on the screen. Using a spherical water-filled flask as a condenser to concentrate the light. Images and texts painted on the mirror's surface could be projected by light from a candle after dark. These optical demonstrations eventually resulted in the birth of the magic lantern, an invention which is sometimes attributed to Kircher.

A near exact contemporary of  Thomas Browne (1605-82) Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) has been described as ‘the supreme representative of Hermeticism within post-Reformation Europe’. Although now known to have been often mistaken in many of his theories, especially in comparative religion, Kircher, like Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica disseminated and popularized much new scientific knowledge, including recent discoveries confirmable to amateur scientists in the field  of optics and magneticism. Browne  devoted several chapters on his own experiments in  magneticism and static electricity  in Book 2 of Pseudodoxia Epidemica .

Kircher studied philosophy, mathematics, Greek and Hebrew, as did Browne. But above all else he shared with Browne a deep interest in comparative religion and the esoteric. Browne even respecting Kircher’s knowledge in the field of comparative religion enough to describe him as -   'that eminent example of industrious Learning, Kircherus'.

Kircher believed that Egyptian paganism was the fount of virtually all other beliefs and creeds whether Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Chaldean or even Indian, Japanese, Aztec and Inca. His  three jumbo-sized volumes of perceived syncreticism in comparative religion Oedipus Egypticus (Rome 1652-56) of over 2000 pages are a land-mark in printing and esoterica. Given the fact that many books of western esoterica are listed as once owned by Browne it’s not too surprising that Kircher’s vast work Oedipus Egypticus was once in his library. The Norwich-based physician-philosopher alluded to the Bembine Tablet of Isis which is reproduced by Athanasius Kircher in Oedipus Egypticus  in his own work of Hermetic phantasmagoria  The Garden of Cyrus (1658).

In addition to being scholars of science and esoterica Kircher and Browne were also extremely interested in  accounts of far-way lands such as China. This is reflected in fact that the latest  reports from traveller’s, mostly missionaries returning to Rome from China, were collected and compiled by Kircher in his China Illustrata  (Amsterdam 1667). Although the earliest mention of the Chinese root-vegetable ginseng occurs in the Oxford English dictionary dated 1654, Sir Thomas Browne remembered the first detailed description of the root-vegetable Ginseng from his reading of Kircher's China Illustrata in a letter dated April 2nd 1679 to Edward Browne -

Deare Sonne, -You did well to observe Ginseng. All exotick rarities, especially of the East , the East India trade having encreased, are brought in England, and the profitt made thereof. Of this plant Kircherus writeth in his China illustrata, pag. 178, cap. "De Exoticis China plantis".

Kircher also wrote descriptions of the antiquities of ancient Rome, accompanied by detailed illustrations, these too appealed to the antiquarian in Browne who not only owned  Kircher’s  Obeliscus Pamphilius (Rome 1650) an attempt to decipher the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs, but also his Mundus Subterraneus, (Amsterdam 1665) a work on fossils, geology, posionous substances and medical alchemy among other topics.

Browne even owned a copy of Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium (1660) edited by Kircher's devoted pupil and amanuensis Gaspar Schott. Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium is a recollection of a psychic inner voyage made by Kircher after hearing three lutenists while dining, and an account of an ecstatic, out-of-the-body soul-journey in which the Jesuit priest believed he'd travelled through the planetary spheres and heard the celestial 'music of the spheres'. Browne declared his own belief and understanding of 'the music of the spheres' in Part 2:9 of his psychological self-portrait Religio Medici (1643).

Throughout his long life Kircher was visited by princes, scholars and missionaries including Sir Thomas Browne’s eldest son Edward Browne (1642-1709). Edward Browne was somewhat more skeptical of Kircher’s claims than his father when viewing Kircher’s Museum of curio's in 1665. Other notable readers of Kircher in the seventeenth century include the early scientist Robert Boyle (1627-91) who once respectfully declared Edward Browne's father to be - ‘so faithful and candid a naturalist’. Another enthusiastic reader of Kircher and testimony to the wide-dissemination of the Jesuit scholar's books and fame via the printing-press, is the Mexican poet, scholar and nun, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz (1651-95). Sadly however Sor Juana’s interest in Kircher was exploited by patriarchal and chauvinistic religious authorities in Mexico who envied her enough to persecute and condemn her intellectual pursuits as heretical. 

Kircher lived in the central location of the Catholic church’s power, Rome and often walked a tight-rope of danger himself in arousing condemnation for his near heretical studies. It's been speculated that he may have had friends in high places who protected him. It’s also recorded that Kircher engaged in correspondence with the figure of the highly influential Scottish statesman and diplomat Sir Robert Moray (1608-79) who was also an enthusiastic reader of his books and one of the founding fathers of Freemasonry in Scotland. It’s interesting to note in passing that in Kircher’s book  Ars magna sciendi  or  The Great Art of Knowledge  there's a picture of an a eye contained within a triangle illumined by rays of light of the Deity. This symbol found its way into the symbolism of Freemasonry and upon the USA dollar bill.

 Books consulted

The Elixir and the Stone by Baigent and Leigh  pub. Penguin 1997

Athanasius Kircher  - ‘The Last Man who knew Everything’. Ed. Paula Findlen
A  superb collection of essays about different aspects of Kircher  pub. RKP 2004

See also my other blog entries under Kircher.

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