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Poetic Thinking 2016 | October 18, 2019

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The Book of Miracles

The Book of Miracles
Andrew McLeod

Bergman’s invocation of the seemingly apocalyptic Middle Ages prompted me to revisit an illuminated manuscript that I came across earlier this year, which (to my understanding) was only recently re-discovered. A better description than I could have offered is given in this blog post by Maria Popova, so let me just quote from there:

In 1552, a curious and lavishly illustrated manuscript titled Augsburg Book of Miraculous Signs appeared in the Swabian Imperial Free City of Augsburg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, located in present-day Germany. It exorcised, in remarkable detail and wildly imaginative artwork, Medieval Europe’s growing obsession with signs sent from “God” — a testament to the basic human propensity for magical thinking, with which we often explain feelings and phenomena beyond the grasp of our logic…  the book is a singular shrine to some of the most eternal of human hopes and fears, and, above all, our immutable longing for grace, for mercy, for the miraculous.

And from Taschen, who recently published a facsimile of the manuscript:

The surprisingly modern-looking, sometimes hallucinatory illustrations and the cursory descriptions of the Book of Miracles strikingly convey a unique view of the concerns and anxieties of the 16th century, of apocalyptic thinking and eschatological expectation.

A number of pages from the book—which chronicles a set of miracles from the creation of the world through those depicted in Revelations—can be found here. But one of the things that is not made clear by looking at these disconnected images (and that I find fascinating about the book) is how little it editorializes. For instance, the above painting reads (translation Rebekka Elsäßer):

In the year 1533 a horse in the air was seen in Bohemia, and a horseman, as if he wanted to mount it, just as is painted here.

Moreover, these paintings and descriptions comprise the entire book—no introduction is given (at least in the document we now have), and very little attempt is made to fit the miracles into a Judeo-Christian framework (except those taken directly out of passages from the bible). Thus, the imaginative power of each fantastical image is left to speak for itself—allowing us to try and see the world through the lens of the pre-scientific medieval mind, or to appropriate the images into our contemporary worldview as we best see fit.

Comments

  1. These are beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing. The Middle Ages are such a daunting task for me to think about: their worldview was so different, their conception of selfhood in relation to a cosmos ruled by an angry God so far away from our own it baffles my mind.

    And yet.

    There seems to be something that bridges this enormous gap. The mere fact that we still find these paintings beautiful, or interesting. I know I am more drawn to look at these then I am at ancient cave paintings, for example.

    It also makes me think about the frontier of magical thinking today. How does magical thinking (thinking of Joan Didion now) interact with poetic thinking? They seem to move in opposite directions–magical thinking creates illogical answers for questions beyond one’s comprehension; perhaps poetic thinking can be said to create those very same questions? Or at the very least, it causes such “impossible questions” to surface…

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