See the Augsburg Book of Miracles, a brilliantly illuminated manuscript of supernatural phenomena from the German Renaissance

When we talk about a ‘lost art’, we don’t always mean that people have forgotten about certain production methods. Modern craftsmen can restore or reasonably approximate ancient techniques and materials, producing artifacts that can be labeled as authentic by unscrupulous people. However, the spirit of the matter can never be recovered. Try as they may, scholars and restorers will never be able to penetrate the mind of a medieval writer or manuscript illuminator. Their social world has disappeared in a distant fog; we can only vaguely guess what their lives were like.

For example, for years the reception of Jheronimus Bosch – the bizarre fantasist from the Netherlands whose visions of earth, heaven and hell have amused and frightened viewers – emphasized the proto-surrealism of his work, assuming that he must have had other intentions than to convert.

However, the most recent interpretation has gone the other way, focusing on the extent to which Bosch and his contemporaries believed in a universe that was exactly as weird as he portrayed it, no exaggeration needed; emphasized how Bosch felt an urgent need to save viewers of his work from the fate 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 found a name—artist and graphic artist 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 newspaper. In the video at the top of Hochelaga, you can learn more about the “bizarre lyrics” and the “meaning behind the unique content” and “scenes of disaster and chaos”.

The odd book presents “in remarkable detail and immensely imaginative works of art, medieval Europe’s growing obsession with signs sent by ‘God,'” Popova writes, “evidence of the fundamental human propensity for magical thinking.” More specific, The Book of Miracles tells a myriad 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 accounts of classical and contemporary celestial phenomena,” writes Tim Smith-Laing: Apollo† “The manuscript contains nothing less than a pictorial chronicle of the world’s past, present and future, in 192 wonders.”

While Protestant Christianity condemned medieval magic, “the repetition of miracles in the Bible meant that the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century could not reject such miracles as superstitions in the way they scorned Catholic beliefs,” writes Marina Warner. The New York Review of Books† German reformers were very alert to the miraculous and ominous: “The sixteenth-century Zwinglian clergyman Johann Jakob Wick filled twenty-four albums with accounts of such miracles in broadsheets and pamphlets,” and saw signs in the birth of a two-headed calf or “an unfortunate, flipper-handed baby.”

All this is to say that we have little reason to doubt that the maker of The Book of Miracles intended the work as a stern warning to readers, though the wondrous images may seem to us like proto-fantasy or sci-fi illustrations. The book illustrates 1533 records of flying dragons in Bohemia, an event, notes the guard, which “went on for several days, with more than four hundred of them, both great and small, flying together.” It shows a comet that appears in 1506, one that stayed for several days and nights “and turned its tail towards Spain”. Then followed “a lot of fruit”, which was then “completely destroyed by caterpillars or rats”, and then a violent earthquake in Constantinople.

The very weak connection between disparate natural phenomena, the rumors of magical events, you can read about all these signs and wonders in a republished version by Taschen, in English, French and German. It is, Popova writes, “a unique sanctuary to some of the most eternal human hopes and anxieties, and above all our unchanging desire for grace, for mercy, for the miraculous.” View more images from The Book of Miracles Bee the guard

Related content:

A digital archive of the complete works of Hieronymus Bosch: zoom in and discover 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

160,000+ Medieval Manuscripts Online: Where To Find Them

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. follow him @jdmagness

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