Nuremberg Chronicle 1493 comet woodcut

Hartmann Schedel,
Liber Chronicarum
or Nuremberg Chronicle
(1493), woodcut
of comet

Folio CLXVII from the
Nuremberg Chronicle


Few academics venture outside their chosen field of expertise, in this case astronomy; Jay M. Pasachoff is one of the rare exceptions. During a career in which he has also published widely in his field, Jay Pasachoff has written about topics that have at least one foot in the humanities, co-authoring with me many articles and a book involving art history, intellectual history, and the history of astronomy. A fair number of these studies have pioneered novel methodologies. Like many astronomers – I have subsequently discovered through our professional association – Professor Pasachoff is visually acute. This innate ability, honed through decades of gazing at the heavens, has been further enhanced by his knowledge and interest in works of art.

Years after our first meeting Jay Pasachoff acquired this leaf from the Nuremberg Chronicle to accompany his growing collection of landmark books in the history of astronomy. In fact, Professor Pasachoff had raised the topic of the Nuremberg Chronicle at our first encounter, at Williams College on April 30, 1986, as Comet P/1 Halley hung in the sky. After I had delivered the 1960s Scholars’ Lecture on comets in art, in which I had shown the Chronicle’s woodcut ostensibly depicting the 684 apparition of Halley’s Comet, Professor Pasachoff informed me that the Chapin Library had among the many jewels in its crown two copies of the first Latin edition.

In fact, the first widely distributed printed comet images are found in the Nuremberg Chronicle, whose Latin edition (Liber cronicarum cum figuris et ymaginibus ab inicio mundi) was published by Anton Koberger in 1493, followed within five months by a German edition with a more popularized text (Das Buch der Croniken und Geschichten). The Chronicle is an incunable, the term for books produced before 1501. While was published at the end of a period of great experimentation in the technology, it reflects the aesthetics of book illustration arrived at in the manuscript tradition.

The volume is a succinct record of noteworthy events and phenomena, both natural and cultural, arranged in a roughly chronological order with little commentary or interpretation. It covers a period stretching back six millennia and is one of the best-known early printed books. Moreover, the Nuremberg Chronicle’s large format is lavishly embellished with 1809 illustrations printed from 645 woodblocks. Although there had been other printed chronicles, some of which were used for source material by the writer of its text, Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514) – a Nuremberg humanist, bibliophile, and physician – they were not as copiously illustrated. It was only after the signing of the contract that Schedel was selected to write the commentary, suggesting that the illustrations took precedence over the text. The artist Michael Wolgemut (to whom Albrecht Dürer was at one time apprenticed) and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff were responsible for supervising the production of its illustrations.

By the later 15th century, Nuremberg was already a center of astronomy. Regiomontanus had come there in 1471 and his pupil Bernhard Walther built an observing aperture onto his own house, which he later sold to the artist Dürer, who also had an abiding interest in astronomy. The remains of Walther’s observatory are still visible on the upper gable of the Dürer house, restored after the Second World War’s devastation. From this very aperture, Regiomontanus and Walther observed the comet of 1472. Thanks to the fame of Regiomontanus, who observed in Nuremberg until 1475 when the Pope called him to Rome (where he died), the city remained a center of mathematical and astronomical studies for fifty years and was noted for the production of celestial and terrestrial globes during the 15th and 16th centuries. It is, therefore, not surprising that several astronomical instruments – including an astrolabe – and a portrait of Regiomontanus are illustrated in the Chronicle.

Most often cited in the literature on the Chronicle are the twenty-six two-page panoramas of cities, marking a noteworthy moment in the history of topographical illustration. On the other hand, Jay Pasachoff and I were most interested in its comet images, which are all quite small by comparison. There are actually thirteen comet illustrations dating from 471 to 1472. They were meant to attract the reader’s attention, like the initials in manuscripts, rather than as accurate representations of celestial events. One comet woodcut even signals two separate apparitions. Only four woodblocks were used for these thirteen illustrations in both editions, demonstrating that the images were stylized and generic rather than representing historical comets, a conclusion underlined by the fact that different woodblocks were frequently used to illustrate the same historical comet in the Latin and German editions. Thus, no astronomical data can be obtained from these illustrations, which are sometimes rotated ninety degrees from their original orientation in order to facilitate page layouts.

The contract of December 29, 1491 for the Chronicle required its artists to prepare complete layouts for both editions. These manuscript dummies, are known as ”Exemplars.” Manuscripts Cent.II.98 and Cent.II.99 in the Nuremberg Stadtbibliothek were first listed in J.P. Roeder’s 1742 catalogue of the library, although between the two world wars they were almost totally forgotten. Presumed lost during the Second World War after a fire bomb demolished the Stadtbibliothek on January 2, 1945, the Exemplars were relocated in 1965 and are today housed in the rebuilt Stadtbibliothek. Some scholars believe that Dürer, who had apprenticed in the shop of Wolgemut during the late fourteen-eighties and later in his career produced many astronomical images, may have been responsible for some of the sketchy Exemplar drawings. However, it is impossible to attribute these quick sketches to any specific artist(s).

No facsimile of the Exemplars has been published, nor had their comet images ever been reproduced prior to our endeavors. Therefore, after writing an article ”Is Comet P/Halley of A.D. 684 Recorded in the Nuremberg Chronicle?”(published in the 1989 Journal for the History of Astronomy), Jay Pasachoff and I embarked on a scholarly quest to study the Exemplar comet images and to compare them with those in both editions. To finance our research pilgrimage to the Nuremberg Stadtbibliothek, we successfully applied for twin Travel to Collections Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and traveled to this renowned center of learning and early astronomy in the spring of 1988. In the subsequent year we delivered two talks on our findings. The first was presented at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts (”The Comets of the Nuremberg Chronicle”), and the second was the invited introductory lecture at the Colloquium on Comets in the Post-Halley Era in Bamberg, at the time in West Germany (”Historical Comets over Bavaria: The Nuremberg Chronicle and Broadsides,” subsequently published in 1991 in the proceedings of that conference).

Folio CLXVII, the leaf owned by Jay Pasachoff, features on its verso the initial appearance of the third of four comet woodblock images in the Nuremberg Chronicle. This block was reused five other times in the book, making it the most popular of the four, no doubt due in part to its better design and its more proficient cutting onto the block. The image is identified above with a caption in a font larger than that of the text: Cometes. Like all of the smaller woodcuts, these images of comets function more like visual headlines than illustrations, rather like the hand-lettered red ink markings in illuminated manuscripts that help the reader navigate the printed text – alerting them to an event worthy of consideration. The comet representation of this leaf probably refers to an apparition of ca. 812 recorded in a Byzantine text of 813, the Chronographia by the monk Theophanes the Confesssor.

The inclusion of comet information and images in the Nuremberg Chronicle represented an important first step in cataloguing the history of comet apparitions. By highlighting them with woodcut illustrations, Schedel’s book brought comets into the publishing limelight for the masses, even though the Nuremberg Chronicle was not the first printed chronicle to feature comet illustrations. Others are found, for example, in Werner Rolevinck’s best-selling Fasciculus Temporum (1481), the earliest printed world history, where the few comet images are a quarter of the size of those in the later book. It comes as no surprise that Schedel owned a copy of Rolevinck’s bestseller. Long after its publication, the influence of Schedel’s Chronicle was felt. Over a century and a half later, Johannes Hevelius often referred to it in his Cometographia (1668), as did even later authors such as A.G. Pingré (1783). Thus, the Chronicle was a transitional work in the history of comets, with Schedel’s dispassionate verbal and visual references to comets serving as a prelude to the scientific attitudes that would soon begin to flourish with the Renaissance just then dawning in Germany. As such the Nuremberg Chronicle merits serious mention in both the history books and astronomy, two of the passions of Professor Pasachoff celebrated in this exhibition.

Roberta J.M. Olson is Curator of Drawings at the New-York Historical Society and Professor Emerita of Art History at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts. She wrote this essay in May 2003.

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