Behold the Augsburg Book of Miracles, a Brilliantly-Illuminated Manuscript of Supernatural Phenomena from Renaissance Germany

When we speak of a “lost art,” we do not always mean that humans have for­got­ten cer­tain pro­duc­tion meth­ods. Mod­ern crafts­peo­ple can recov­er or rea­son­ably approx­i­mate old tech­niques and mate­ri­als, and pro­duce arti­facts that can be passed off as authen­tic by the unscrupu­lous. The spir­it of the thing, how­ev­er, can nev­er be recov­ered. Try as they might, schol­ars and con­ser­va­tors 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 dim­ly guess at what their lives were like.

Thus, for many years, the recep­tion of Hierony­mus Bosch — the bizarre fan­ta­sist from the Nether­lands whose visions of Earth, Heav­en, and Hell have amused and ter­ri­fied view­ers — stressed the pro­to-Sur­re­al­ism of his work, assum­ing he must have had oth­er inten­tions than pros­e­ly­tiz­ing.

Most recent inter­pre­ta­tion, how­ev­er, has pulled in the oth­er direc­tion, stress­ing the degree to which Bosch and his con­tem­po­raries believed in a uni­verse that was exact­ly as weird as he depict­ed it, no exag­ger­a­tion nec­es­sary; empha­siz­ing how Bosch felt an urgent need to spare view­ers of his work from the fates he showed in his art.

What passed 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 set­tled on a name — artist and print­mak­er Hans Burgk­mair the Younger — though lit­tle is known about him And we have a date, 1552, when this “curi­ous and lav­ish­ly illus­trat­ed man­u­script appeared in the Swabi­an Impe­r­i­al Free city of Augs­burg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, locat­ed in present-day Ger­many,” Maria Popo­va writes at the Mar­gin­a­lian. In the video at the top from Hochela­ga, you can learn more about the “bizarre text” and the “mean­ing behind its unique con­tents” 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 from ‘God,’ ” Popo­va writes, “a tes­ta­ment to the basic human propen­si­ty for mag­i­cal think­ing.” More specif­i­cal­ly, 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 accounts of clas­si­cal and con­tem­po­rary celes­tial phe­nom­e­na,” Tim Smith-Laing writes at Apol­lo. “The man­u­script com­pris­es noth­ing less than a pic­ture 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 the Protes­tant reform­ers of the six­teenth cen­tu­ry could not reject such won­ders as super­sti­tions in the way they scorned Catholic beliefs,” Mari­na Warn­er writes at The New York Review of Books. Ger­man reform­ers were on high alert for the mirac­u­lous and omi­nous: “The six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Zwinglian cler­gy­man Johann Jakob Wick filled twen­ty-four albums with reports of such won­ders in broad­sheets and pam­phlets,” see­ing signs in the birth of a two-head­ed calf or “an unfor­tu­nate, flip­per-hand­ed infant.”

All of which is to say that we have lit­tle rea­son to doubt that the cre­ator of The Book of Mir­a­cles meant the work as an earnest warn­ing to its read­ers, although its won­drous images might look to us like pro­to-fan­ta­sy or sci-fi illus­tra­tion. The book illus­trates 1533 reports of fly­ing drag­ons in Bohemia, an event, notes The Guardian, that “went on for sev­er­al days, with over four hun­dred of them, both big and small, fly­ing togeth­er.” It shows a comet appear­ing in 1506, one that stayed for sev­er­al days and nights “and turned its tail towards Spain.” There­by fol­lowed “a lot of fruit,” which was then “com­plete­ly destroyed by cater­pil­lars or rats,” 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 of these signs and won­ders in a repub­lished ver­sion by Taschen, in Eng­lish, French, and Ger­man. It is, Popo­va writes, “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.” See more images from The Book of Mir­a­cles at The Guardian.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Dig­i­tal Archive of Hierony­mus Bosch’s Com­plete Works: Zoom In & Explore His Sur­re­al 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 at @jdmagness

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  • D.marie;R says:

    Amaz­ing arti­cle shared here thank you for the time spent and atten­tion givin to bring this out into the open. What is even more amaz­ing. Now,in our present days. How it is rather dis­turb­ing to find the cor­rup­tions involved in efforts to keep hid­den such truth. If and not for con­trol­ling pur­pose… shame if at all to miss such accounts and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be of spec­u­la­tions and not first hand knowl­edge in record. To think of the his­to­ry that could be seem and not told being a true in fact and not of opin­ion or out­side sources with no per­son­al expe­ri­ences. Hon­est­ly not sure if this res­onate or be under­stood. Just a bit per­son­al and very much so please note.

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