Perhaps no human being can be credited with embracing Plato’s statement “nothing is more beautiful than to know everything” to the same extent as Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit, a polymath, and a walking encyclopedia. Kircher’s vast knowledge earned him the title “master of a hundred arts.” A man fiercely loyal to the Catholic faith and Jesuit ideals yet insatiably curious about the workings of the universe, Athanasius Kircher produced a body of work (with over forty publications) as all encompassing as his store of knowledge. The Arca Noë, published in 1675 by Johann Janson, is part of the Burns Library’s Jesuitica Collection. It is one of several books Kircher published based on strict Catholic orthodoxy. In it, he describes the condition of the world before and after the great Flood, lyrically relates the actions of Noah, and goes to great lengths to depict the Ark itself. The story of Noah’s Ark offered an ideal template through which Kircher could express his curiosity as a natural philosopher and his faith as a Jesuit.
Numerous elements combine within the book’s pages to create an interior stunning to behold. The book contains elaborate, full-page illustrations, detailed maps, unique page borders, and foldout diagrams. Coenraet Decker, an Amsterdam artist, signed three of the Arca Noë‘s engravings, including Portrait of Charles II, King of Spain, Noah and His Progeny, and Submerged Mountains. Decker’s engravings share certain common elements, as evidenced by a comparison between Noah and His Progeny and Submerged Mountains. Decker included a mountain in the background of Noah and his Progeny. The mountain in the background probably represents Mount Ararat, upon which the Ark came to rest after the Flood, as shown in Submerged Mountains. The same swelling clouds billow up around Mount Ararat in both illustrations.
Decker’s clouds, in their swirling grandeur, seem to be manifestations of divine power. The clouds are ever present. They loom in the sky both in Noah and His Progeny and in the top plate of Submerged Mountains. It is as if Decker intended the clouds as a reminder of God’s hand in Noah’s story. Decker’s engravings are ideal for a book such as the Arca Noë, which aims to proclaim the glory of God through support of Catholic doctrine. As masterpieces in their own right, Decker’s illustrations seem to embody the magnificence of God and his work.
A different artist was clearly responsible for the book’s engravings of the events before, during, and after the Flood. These images show an almost medieval approach to perspective and human proportion. They detail the process by which Noah and his descendants prepared for and survived the great Flood. The artist responsible for these illustrations did not possess Decker’s skill, but his images still succeed in effectively telling Kircher’s account of Noah’s Ark. They demonstrate historical events in a manner comprehensible to average people and provide visual entertainment that would spark a reader’s imagination.
The Arca Noë contains the largest illustration in any of Kircher’s books—a massive engraving of 39 x 17 ½ inches, made from three separate plates. This is just one of the numerous diagrams and didactic images included in the Arca Noë. Along with confirming Scripture and the Catholic Church’s teachings, the Arca Noë served a secondary purpose. It provided a setting into which Kircher could introduce a detailed nomenclature that identified and classified as many animals as possible. The material, visually presented with over 100 woodcuts, would also conveniently entice twelve-year-old Charles II, the King of Spain, to whom the book was dedicated.
Fascinatingly, Kircher dedicated an entire section of his Arca Noë classifications to hybrid animals. Hybrid creatures resulted from the mating of different species, which Kircher had no doubt could successfully produce offspring together. For example, giraffes, according to Kircher, were born of camel and leopard parents. This explanation of diversity in the animal population allowed Kircher to skirt the problem of limited space in Noah’s Ark. Although his taxonomy included only about fifty pairs of animals, nowhere near the known number of unique animal species, Kircher asserted that all animals were saved by Noah’s Ark; any animals not rescued in the Ark would reappear after the Flood as a result of hybridization.
The Arca Noë eloquently tells a biblical story, utilizing marvelous illustrations that give the tale of Noah a fantastical quality and emphasize the surely divine origins of the Flood. At the same time, Kircher’s work, with its precise diagrams and pictorial documentation of the animals saved in the Ark, gives scientific credibility to Noah’s account of the Flood. Rather than describing it only in words, Kircher included pictures that made the seemingly sensational Flood story more believable. Kircher offered his readers pictorial cues that they could easily relate to and understand, regardless of social standing, religious upbringing, or educational background.
The Arca Noë transcends questions of orthodoxy with its secular importance. It is relevant to all human beings at the most basic level, since it describes and catalogues the creatures with which humankind shares the created universe and attribute of life. The true significance of Athanasius Kircher’s Arca Noë lay in the fact that it inspired readers to seek greater understanding of the world around them and, in so doing, relentlessly pursue the noble end so doggedly endorsed by Athanasius Kircher: that of exploring, learning, and, finally, knowing.
If you would like to look at the Arca Nöe or learn more about the Burns Library’s Jesuitica Collection, then contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition, several books and manuscripts from the Burns Library’s Jesuitica Collection have been digitized and are available online. Go to the Boston College Libraries Digital Collections page and then scroll down and click on Jesuitica Book Collection or Jesuitica Manuscript Collection to view these materials.
The images and content in this blog post are drawn from the exhibit “Making History Public: Books Around the World 1400 – 1800.” This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2012 HS600 class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries. From April – December 2013, the “Making History Public” exhibit is on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.
- Christine Spindler, A & S, Class of 2015
Findlen, Paula. Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Paula Findlen. “Science, History, and Erudition: Athanasius Kircher’s Museum at the Collegio Romano.” In The Great Art of Knowing: The Baroque Encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher, ed. Daniel Stolzenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Libraries and Fiesole: Cadmo, 2001.
Godwin, Joscelyn. Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009.
Godwin, Joscelyn. “Foreward.” In A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher, “Germanus Incredibilis”: With a Selection of His Unpublished Correspondence and an Annotated Translation of His Autobiography, edited by Elizabeth Fletcher. Leiden: Brill, 2011.
Rowland, Ingrid D. and University of Chicago, Library Department of Special C Collections. The Ecstatic Journey: Athanasius Kircher in Baroque Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 2000.