Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493, effectively marks the watershed between medieval scholarship and Renaissance speculation. It is the manifestation of a desire for completeness, amalgamating the principal accounts of the Creation (Genesis, Plato’s Timaeus, Hesiod’s Theogony, Ovid’s Metamorphoses) into a single, all-embracing narrative.
Heptaplus (1490), by the Italian philosopher Pico Della Mirandola, is a scholarly exercise in seven volumes, each of seven chapters, which attempts to synthesise the various traditions deriving from the Creation myth: that of the Platonists and the Peripatetic School, that of the Evangelists, Church Fathers and Cabbalists, and that of the Islamic philosophers such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd). In particular Mirandola tries to find a hidden meaning to the first two words of Genesis, “In principio”, using the Cabbalist method of making anagrams.
In 1578 Guillaume de Saluste, known as Du Bartas, published an epic poem based on Genesis and inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses entitled La Sepmaine (The Week). In “The First Day” Du Bartas attempts to describe chaos by using words in a confused way, using puns and antonyms:
This primordial world was form without form,
A confused heap, a shapeless melange,
A void of voids, an uncontrolled mass,
A Chaos of Chaos, a random mound
Where all the elements were heaped together,
Where liquid quarrelled with solid,
Blunt with sharp, cold with hot,
Hard with soft, low with high,
Bitter with sweet: in short a war
In which the earth was one with the sky. [i] “
Between 1617 and 1619 the English physician and occult philosopher Robert Fludd compiled an encyclopaedia of human knowledge in four volumes entitled The Technical, Physical and Metaphysical History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm, the first volume of which is headed “The Macrocosm Metaphysics & Cosmic Origins”. The diagram in fig. 241 is an example of the curious mixture of science and occultism to be found in Fludd’s account of the Creation.
Even more extravagant is the “harmony of the world’s birth” described by the German Jesuit and encyclopaedist Athanasius Kircher, who wrote books on a variety of subjects (see fig. 244). His Musurgia Universalis, published in 1650, is in many ways reminiscent of Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi and Kepler’s Harmony of the World and its ambitious title, The Universal Book of the Muses, immediately declares Kircher’s completist intentions. In a lengthy chapter he gives his own version of the Creation story in musical terms, comparing the world to an organ operated by God and thereby placing himself in the tradition deriving from Pythagoras and Plato, who saw the cosmos as a harmonious whole consisting of “discordant components”.
[i] Guillaume de Saluste, seigneur Du Bartas. La Sepmaine, Société des textes français modernes, 1994, pp. 12-13.
I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe. Jorge luis Borges, The Aleph (1949)