Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

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Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
The Atmosphere

Posted on Thursday 14 April 2005


This woodcut caught my eye some years ago when I first saw it gracing the cover of Daniel J. Boorstein's classic history of science book The Discoverers : A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself (1983 Vintage Books). Unfortunately I couldn't find a credit for the artist, all it said was "Cover art: after an early 16th century woodcut, courtesy of Bettman Archive" and all efforts to locate it via Google foundered over the lack a decent search string.

Then today while I was looking for something else (actually I was looking for images related to Kepler's Mysterium Cosmographicum ) with Google's Image Search, there it was. It was a crappy lowres and more frustratingly the filename was "anonymus.jpg". Then I noticed the subtitle for the German page which contained it what I thought was an artist's name: "holzstich". Alas that turned out to mean a woodcut technique but the interesting thing was that this image was famous enough amongst astronomers for it to be commonly referred to as the "Germanic woodcut".

Apparently this image has been appropriated and used in countless articles over the past century and attributed to various artists usually on the whim of the author
If this engraving appears in very many works, those are much more discrete about its origin. And, when this one is quoted, it is singularly variable and often appears to be the fruit of the imagination of the author. The explosion of the Web obviously did not change anything.

It is not possible to give here an exhaustive list of these alleged origins. Ashbrook quotes some of them. We met others in the literature of them, on the Web or even in talks made at the time of professional conferences. Here thus some illustrative examples of the variety of interpretations.

Thus the astronomer-artist Donald Menzel gives it some details in his Astronomy text of 1971: "medieval sky strewn with stars and with through which a happy traveller can pass the head and discover glories of the sky beyond; the intermingled wheels are those described by Ezekiel but, actually, are parheliacal phenomena caused by crystals of ice in the terrestrial atmosphere."

Very different is the subtitle under the same illustration in, this time, the Astrology work of Louis MacNeice (1964): "certain astrologers consider the Uranus planet as the owner of the sky [... whereas ] of others connect it with the mechanical invention; this Germanic woodcut of the 16th century shows that the two approaches were dependent already well before the discovery of the Uranus planet; curious human digs through the vault of heaven and discovers the mechanism driving stars."

In spring 1976, a beautiful exposure gathers at the University of Erlangen of the astronomical instruments, the works and other pullings to celebrate the 500th anniversary of death of the astronomer Regiomontanus in 1476. One of the documents is our engraving but without any indication of its origin, but thought to be of the cosmic model of the Cardinal Nicolas Casanus (1401-1464).

At the time of Symposium INSAP II (Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena II) in Malta in January 1999 [...], one of the speakers illustrated his talk with the same document, allotted this time to Dante Alighieri and the hell of its Divine Comedy (1307-1321).

That certainly pretty bad but seriously [...] where the devil did this woodcut really come from?

In 1957, in an article entitled "a remarkable Germanic print", the German historian of astronomy Ernst Zinner expresses his astonishment, first placing the origin of engraving between 1530 and 1550 but then being unable to find a trace of it before 1906, the year when it appeared in a popular scientific work. The author of this one, W Förster, quoted the Popular Astronomy of Camille Flammarion which was published in 1880 as source of the illustration -- but Zinner couldn't find find it there either!

In fact, thanks to independent research of the Swiss Bruno Weber and the English (but born in Germany) Arthur Beer, the track was found: the woodcut had indeed been used by Flammarion, not in his Popular Astronomy , but in another popularizing work entitled "The Atmosphere, a popular meteorology" published in 1888.

Without going into all the details, two sets of elements pushed these researchers to realize that the woodcut was definitely more recent than than Zinner estimated and than Flammarion was to be the author for it. On one hand, certain incongruities in the composition are visible with the expert eyes historians of art. They already seemed to indicate that it was a composite of several documents belonging to different eras. In addition, the engraving technique used was only introduced at the beginning of the 19th century.
Anyway, armed with all the right information I was quickly able to locate a good high resolution version of the image (above). Of course, NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day knew this already, which is why they correctly attributed the image to Flammarion in their turn of the new millennia article dated the 1st of January, 2001.