“In AD 1119, fiery arrows or spears appeared in the sky, everywhere in the whole sky. And stars fell from the sky and when water was poured over them, they made a sound or screamed.” It doesn’t exactly have the militaristic crispness of a Patrick Moore, but in these words (or, at least, their High German equivalent) we can see the modern science of astronomy emerging from under a shroud of superstition and folklore. The words are taken from an unparalleled Wunderzeichenbuch – or “book of miracles” – recently sold by James Faber, of Bond Street fine-art dealers Day & Faber. The miracles in question, all 167 of them, are hand-painted in gouache and watercolour and arranged in chronological order, from Old Testament scenes (the Flood, the parting of the Red Sea) to the Last Judgement. The main body of the work, however, is given over to events from recorded history, apocalyptic scenes such as a rain of meat in Liguria or a plague of vipers in Hungary; it’s a Renaissance equivalent of cranks’ newsletter The Fortean Times, albeit with a distinct focus on the astronomical. Some 60 or so of the folios depict cosmic events, particularly comets, painted with inventive élan and highlighted with gold leaf.

According to Faber, who specialises in Old Master drawings, the book’s previous owner had believed that the volume dated from the 17th century. But the fact that the most recent miracle illustrated was from 1552 led Faber to suspect that here was something rarer. His instincts were correct: analysis of the book’s watermarks by Peter Bower of the British Association of Paper Historians pointed to an origin in the mid-16th century. The watermarks also suggest that the Wunderzeichenbuch was put together in the vicinity of Augsburg, a notion shored up by the text’s habit of saying “here in Augsburg” when referring to that city.

The book shows a society on the cusp between the credulous superstition of the Middle Ages and the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment. An emphasis is often placed, for example, on the reliability of the eyewitnesses, as if to indicate that these are not the witterings of the gullible, but empirical facts. (Folio CXLII is eager to stress this angle: “Truthful announcement, how on the 21st of March this 51st year, five suns were seen in Leipzig by many trustworthy persons.”) And while many of the events are firmly in the “passing strange” camp, they are recorded dispassionately – supernatural agencies are rarely invoked, though it is hard to say whether that is because the chroniclers considered it self-evident that such things betrayed a divine hand, or precisely the opposite. “It’s as if they knew these events were worthy of record, but they didn’t know exactly why they happened,” says Faber.

Certainly, not much space is given over to the long-held notion that comets heralded the death of kings. (One notable – albeit tenuous – exception is Folio LVI: “In 1347, a comet appeared in Italy. Two months afterwards, Emperor Louis IV, a monarch from Bavaria, died.”) The astronomical events are regarded as significant in themselves, rather than for what was happening on earth at the same time. It was from extensive lists such as these that astronomers including Edmond Halley later calculated that comets were not one-off apparitions, but astral bodies with definable orbits. Appropriately, the Wunderzeichenbuch’s depictions of those balls of fiery ice lie midway between scientific accuracy and the strange flaming rake that stands in for Halley’s Comet in the Bayeux Tapestry. The images are stylised, certainly, but the fiery strands that snake behind them are not too dissimilar to a comet’s ion tail; one notable exception can be seen in Folio XCV, which shows a comet with muscular arms, waving a sword about.

It is tempting to draw connections between the Wunderzeichenbuch’s meticulous structure and the principles of Lutheranism – it can be argued that the scientific method as we currently understand it emerged from the tenets of the Reformation, with its anticlerical emphasis on going back to the original source material. Augsburg was a stronghold of Lutheranism, and in the mid-16th century the city council banned the production of religious art such as altarpieces and panel paintings. “It could explain why the artists were involved in making a book like this,” suggests Faber, who believes it likely that the work was commissioned by a patron with an interest in astronomy.

But who were these painters? Examination of the artistic style suggests that the book is the work of at least four people, possibly specialising in different subjects; the 40 pictures of comets are clearly the work of the same hand. His angular skylines are particularly distinctive; whichever city they are supposed to represent, they tend to be spiky collections of spires modelled on those of Augsburg itself. (In the wake of natural disasters, these steeples are shown snapped off like broken ice-cream cornets.) There is, however, only one name in the text that gives any clue to an artist’s identity. Folio CI, an illustration of a two-headed calf, has the following explanatory text: “In the year 1529, on the 14th day of the month of January, this calf was born near Augsburg in Langweid, but came dead from the mother. And I, Hans Burgkmair, bought the skin for half a guilder…” This does not necessarily mean that Burgkmair was directly responsible for the Wunderzeichenbuch – he died in 1531, and specialised in chiaroscuro woodcuts for printed books, so it is likely that both text and illustration were copied from Burgkmair’s original, the 16th-century equivalent of a plagiarist cutting and pasting from the internet.

The analogy with the internet is an apt one, for this book is, in a sense, the last hurrah for an old way of passing on information, superseded by more advanced technology – in this case, the Gutenberg press. The Wunderzeichenbuch’s meticulous artistry was soon to be a thing of the past, but in its scholarship we can seen a portent of things to come.

First published in World of Interiors issue 337. Reproduced with permission.

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