When we speak of a “lost art”, we do not always mean that man has forgotten certain production methods. Modern craftsmen can salvage or come reasonably close to ancient techniques and materials, and produce artifacts that may be considered authentic by unscrupulous people. The spirit of the thing, however, can never be recovered. No matter how hard they try, scholars and restorers will never be able to enter the mind of a medieval scribe or manuscript illuminator. Their social world has disappeared into a distant mist; we can only vaguely guess what their life was like.
Thus, for many years, the reception of Hieronymus Bosch—the quirky Dutch fantasist whose visions of Earth, Heaven, and Hell amuse and terrify viewers—underscored the proto-surrealism of his work, assuming that he must have had other intentions than proselytism.
The most recent interpretation, however, pulled the other way, underscoring how much Bosch and his contemporaries believed in a universe that was exactly as strange as he described it, no exaggeration necessary; emphasizing how Bosch felt an urgent need to spare viewers of his work the fates he showed in his art.
What went through the mind of the illuminator of the manuscript shown here, the Augsburg book of miraculous signs? We can never know. At best, scholars have agreed on one name – the artist and printmaker Hans Burgkmair the Younger – although little is known about him. then part of the Holy Roman Empire, located in present-day Germany,” Maria Popova wrote to the Marginalian. In the video at the top of Hochelaga, you can learn about the “bizarre text” and the “meaning behind its unique content” and “scenes of calamity and chaos.”
The strange book presents “in remarkable detail and wildly imaginative artwork, medieval Europe’s growing obsessions with signs sent by ‘God,'” writes Popova, “a testament to the fundamental human propensity for magical thinking”. More precisely, The Book of Miracles recounts a host of biblical signs and wonders in chronological order: from the first book of the Old Testament to the spectacular end of the New. In between are “hallucinatory tales of classic and contemporary celestial phenomena,” writes Tim Smith-Laing on Apollo. “The manuscript comprises nothing less than a pictorial chronicle of the world’s past, present and future, in 192 miracles.”
While Protestant Christianity condemned medieval magic, “the recurrence of miracles in the Bible meant that 16th-century Protestant reformers could not dismiss these wonders as superstitions in the way they despised Catholic beliefs,” writes Marina Warner at The New York Book Review. German reformers were on high alert for the miraculous and ominous: “The sixteenth-century Zwinglian pastor Johann Jakob Wick filled twenty-four albums with reports of such marvels in broadsheets and pamphlets”, seeing signs in the birth of a two-headed calf or “unhappy child with webbed hands.”
Suffice to say that we have little reason to doubt that the creator of The Book of Miracles meant the work as a serious warning to its readers, though its wondrous images may look like proto-fantasy or science-fiction illustration to us. The book illustrates 1533 reports of flying dragons in Bohemia, an event, note The Guardian, which “lasted several days, with more than four hundred of them, young and old, flying together”. It shows a comet which appeared in 1506, which remained several days and several nights “and turned its tail towards Spain”. There followed “many fruits”, which were then “completely destroyed by caterpillars or rats”, and then a violent earthquake in Constantinople.
The very tenuous connection between disparate natural phenomena, the hearsay reports of magical happenings, you can read about all these signs and wonders in a version republished by Taschen, in English, French and German. It is, writes Popova, “a singular sanctuary for some of the most eternal human hopes and fears, and, above all, our unchanging desire for grace, for mercy, for the miraculous”. See more pictures of The Book of Miracles at The Guardian.
A digital archive of the complete works of Hieronymus Bosch: zoom in and explore his surrealist art
The medieval masterpiece, the Book of Kells, has been digitized and put online
The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe: A Free Online Course from the University of Colorado
Over 160,000 Medieval Manuscripts Online: Where to Find Them
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, North Carolina. Follow him on @jdmagness