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The seventeenth century polymath Robert Hooke was immensely influential in popularizing science.  His seminal work Micrographia, published in 1665 was the first scientific book to become a best seller.  In the volume, Hooke described various plants, animals, and manufactured objects as seen through his hand crafted microscope.  Crucially, the book contained vivid and detailed engravings which allowed the public to see what Hooke had seen. Many of the illustrations folded out to become larger than the book thus further emphasizing the nature of microscopy.  Hooke was the first to coin the word “cell” because he thought that the constituent components of plant tissues resembled monk’s cells.  By changing the way that people apprehended the world Micrographia laid the foundation for the amazing microbiological discoveries of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.  In addition to biological specimens, Hooke included illustrations of objects like the sharpened ends of needles and pins (which looked blunt under his microscope’s magnified lenses).  This helped the general public to comprehend how truly different the microscope’s vantage point is from that of the naked eye.

A page from the Huntington Library's copy of Micrographia (photo by lemurdillo)

Micrographia also contains Hooke’s speculations concerning combustion, which he (correctly) believed involved combining a substance with air. Hooke further posited that respiration involved some key ingredient of air–and he was thus well on the way towards discovering oxygen.  Unfortunately these ideas were not well understood by the seventeenth century scientific community.  Hooke’s contemporaries were also challenged by his assertion that fossils (such as petrified wood and ammonites) were the remains of living creatures which had become mineralized.  Hooke reached this conclusion based on microscopic study of fossil specimens and he believed that such fossils afforded clues about the history of life on the planet—including the history of species which had died out.  Needless to say such concepts were challenging to the theological community of the time.

A fold-out engraving of a flea from Micrographia

I am writing about Hooke because I saw an original copy of Micrographia at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (I wrote about their exquisite gardens in the last post).  The book was part of a remarkable collection of original scientific books and documents, which was itself a part of a larger repository of rare books, handwritten letters and original manuscripts. The Huntington holdings include a Guttenberg bible, a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, and innumerable original printings, correspondences, and manuscripts. I chose to highlight Hooke’s work because I have always been fascinated by how different the world looks through a microscope (above is Hooke’s engraving of a flea’s features–which can be compared with an earlier post about contemporary electron microscopes) however the real epiphany I took from viewing the collection was a larger one.  Even before the internet came to act as a sort of hive mind for humankind, we had a collective memory and source of communication—the printed word.   In addition to its magnificent gardens, the Huntington reminded me of how that worldwide shared network of ideas slowly developed. Viewing the bibliophile’s treasure trove at the Huntington library demonstrated the continuing purpose of libraries as museums and places of thought and discovery– even in a world where the entire text of a rare book like Micrographia can be found online.

A visitor regards a reproduction of Hooke's microspcope next to the Huntington's copy of Micrographia (From "Case Study of an Exhibition" by Karina White)

A Hellmouth Structure from the "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

In medieval art, hell was frequently portrayed as the flaming gullet of a terrible monster.  This image of the literal mouth of hell never exactly appears as such in the bible and it has been speculated that the iconography derives from pre-Christian pagan mythology.  Perhaps the poisonous all-devouring maw of the Fenris wolf was transformed into the flames of damnation due to the words of early Christian proselytizers (who sometimes incorporated pre-existing ideas into their teachings). Since the imagery originated in England first before becoming standard throughout Western Europe, it has been posited that the hellmouth concept originated in the Danelaw—the Norse settlements of England.

Hellmouth close-up from "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

Whatever its origin, the picture of tiny naked sinners imprisoned and tormented inside of a huge merciless hellmouth is one of the most vivid images from gothic art.  The images which I have embedded in this blog post all came from a single book of hours which was created in Utrecht, around 1440.  The prayer book was once a treasured possession of Catherine of Cleves, who was the wife of Henry, Duke of Guise.  The Duke, a powerful and important nobleman was assassinated on the orders of Henry III during the War of the Three Henrys.  Catherine never forgave the French monarch and it is believed her support was instrumental to the king’s own death at the hands of a crazed assassin-monk. It is interesting to imagine her eyes running over the burning sinners as she plotted the death of kings and fed fuel into the fires of the religious wars of France.

From "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

The book was divided up in the nineteenth century, but, through good fortune (and thanks to large sums of money trading hands) it is now completely in the possession of the Morgan Library and Museum.  Going to the fine online site allows one to examine the book in great detail and gain many insights into day-to-day life in the fifteenth century (and get a taste of the larger zeitgeist).

A full page from the "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves" (illuminated manuscript)

Our Lady of the Barren Tree (Petrus Christus, ca. 1465)

Here is a tiny painting by Petrus Christus who worked in Bruges during the middle of the fifteenth century.  Painted around 1456, and measuring a mere 5 3/4 x 4 7/8 inches, the painting shows the virgin mother standing in the hollow of a darkened thorn tree holding the infant Jesus.  The imagery is unusual for Christian religious art.  The tree may stand for the long lost tree of knowledge–barren since the expulsion from paradise, but about to be brought back to life by Jesus.  Alternately the image may have an idiosyncratic meaning:  Christus belonged to “the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree” and probably painted this work as personal devotional object for a wealthy fellow member.  Whatever the exact meaning, the barren tree’s wicked thorns certainly foreshadow the crown of thorns and Christ’s execution on the Cross.  The tree is hung with lower-case letter “a”s fashioned of gold.  The symbolic meaning of the letters is somewhat obscure—the most likely possibility is that they stand for “Ave Marias” and represent the 15 mysteries of the Rosary (a widespread devotional rite which represents the life of Jesus).  However they might also allude to knowledge outright, or to some personal reference (one must avoid the urge to think they represent the grade inflation now so rampant in the academic sphere).  Whatever its meaning, this little painting is a triumph of mysterious late-gothic mood.

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