Prophecy, Position, and Predetermination: The World of the Nuremberg Chronicle
by Cara Bishop
The Nuremberg Chronicle, written by Hartmann Schedel with woodcut illustrations by the Michael Wolgemut workshop, represented and still maintains a monumental position in the history of the printed book as one of the most profoundly illustrated texts of its time. Thousands of years of history manifest in both Schedel’s writing and Wolgemut’s profuse imagery, helping to enrich the burgeoning scholarly community in Germany. The Nuremberg Chronicle concisely depicts and communicates to the public God’s predetermined timeline of events, beginning with Creation and concluding with end times. Through studying the patterns of semiotics and iconography held in its illustrations, this essay discusses certain issues surrounding the book clarifying how the Chronicle conveys the universe’s cosmic order and Scriptural prophecy, synthesizing cosmology with contemporary texts, in order to situate the city of Nuremberg within this order and predict the future fate of the Holy Roman Empire at large.
15th Century
Northern Renaissance
In 1493, a remarkable and monumental book entered the market,“'for the common delight’” of all its readers.1 Containing over 1,800 illustrations in its 600 pages, the Nuremberg Chronicle, known to scholars also by its Latin name Liber Chronicarum and German Die Schedelsche Weltchronik, continues to fascinate scholars in its reputation as the most profoundly illustrated printed book of its period.2 In writing about the Nuremberg Chronicle and studying in detail the unique woodcuts contained in the chapters of the Second Age and Seventh Age of the world, I hope to elucidate to modern readers how the Chronicle and its imagery incorporates and reacts to medieval perceptions of the universe through the means of the scholarly study of cosmography, and consequently, how this cosmographic knowledge reveals the apocalyptic anxieties felt by its readers during the time approaching the new millennium in 1500.
PART ONE: The Chronicle, Building Its Context, and the Nature of Its Study
The incunabulum sprouted from the collaboration between the esteemed Nuremberg humanist Sebald Schreyer and his relative Sebastian Kammermeister, who wished to sponsor a book which chronicled the entire history of the world through seven ages beginning with the Biblical Creation, expanding through the contemporary fifteenth century era, and ending with the Book of Revelations, recalling the beginning and finally foreseeing the end of days through a Western, Christian lens. For supplying the text, Schreyer and Kammermeister employed Hartmann Schedel, a well-versed humanist physician hailing from a wealthy and educated Nuremberg family, who formulated and compiled the text to be printed in Latin.3 Additionally, the patrons enlisted the workshop of Michael Wolgemut and his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff to create approximately 650 woodcuts to supplement Schedel’s writings.4 Records indicate that Schreyer and Kammermeister hired the prominent Nuremberg printer Anton Koberger in 1492 to print 1,500 copies in Latin and 1,000 copies in the vernacular German, which was to be translated by George Alt from Schedel’s Latin text.5
The Nuremberg Chronicle finds itself amongst a long tradition of works representing the world chronicle genre and the more recent tradition of illustrated printed books. In perusing the library of Hartmann Schedel, one comes across several examples of ancient and more contemporary texts from which he would have drawn inspiration in writing the Nuremberg Chronicle.6 His interests in ancient chronicles as well as Christian historiography are exemplified by his possession of mostly contemporary editions of Boccaccio’s Genealogiae deorum gentilium, the Chronicon of Bishop Eusebius, Herodotus’ Historiae, Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea, works by Thomas Aquinas, and Isidore of Seville’s Chronica maius. Worldly interests like geography and cosmography are represented in the works of Pomponius Mela and Honorius’ Imago mundi. In the library, one finds several precursors for Schedel’s work on the Chronicle in his possession of the Mainz publication of Konrad Bote’s Croneken der Sassen, a heavily illustrated history of Saxon reign; Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, a similarly illustrated compendium of pilgrimage travels visually documented in the woodcuts of Erhard Reuwich; and lastly, a publication by Anton Koberger of Stephan Fridolin’s Schatzbehalter, in which, like the Nuremberg Chronicle, the Wolgemut workshop provided multiple woodcuts which spread across full pages, separate from text.While Schedel did not own in his estate a copy of Werner Rolewinck’s Fasciculus Temporum, an illustrated world chronicle left unfinished, Schedel could have come in contact with a copy because he lived near the monastery where it was stored; it is this book and its complex layout which established the precedent for illustrated world chronicles with integrated images alongside printed text, like the Chronicle.7 Of all of these world histories to which the compiler would have had access, none go so far as to include the apocalyptic last chapter of the New Testament, a notion that sets the Nuremberg Chronicle apart from its canonical tradition and will contribute to a major discussion later in this analysis.
In previous scholarship, the discussion about the actual progenitor of the Chronicle’s premise remains disputed and grows more distorted with modern speculation8. However, what can be concluded is that the cultural blossoming of Nuremberg during this time fostered an environment for scholastic and patrician fraternity.Both Hartmann Schedel and the Chronicle’s primary financier Sebald Schreyer acted as respected civic officials in Nuremberg, and were involved in humanist scholarship and discourse. While Schedel was involved in Nuremberg’s Church of St. Sebald, Schreyer acted as the head of the church, commissioned the Shrine of St. Sebald by Peter Vischer, and judging from these actions, must have held his name saint and the patron saint of Nuremberg, Sebaldus, in high regard.9 Schreyer’s close ties to the city of Nuremberg justifies the particularly German bias represented in the Chronicle and could contribute to his desire in sharing this humanistic knowledge as an attempt to solidify his status within the city as well as Nuremberg’s participation within the Holy Roman Empire.With his financial prowess and ability to patronize art in various media, Schreyer uses the Nuremberg Chronicle as a work that represents Nuremberg, is made for the people of Nuremberg, and details the past, present, and predetermined future of the city.
­­­ A thorough examination of Schedel’s own copy of the Chronicle will show that the book should be considered to be an art object worthy of position in the art historical canon, rather than simply a cultural artifact of its day. As a whole, this particular copy exhibits the most exemplary attributes of a luxury consumer item customized for the use of one individual. Beginning with the exterior, Schedel’s Chronicle, which is a showpiece in the collection of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, is bound in pigskin and embossed with pseudo-arabesque patterning (fig. 1).10
Front Cover of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), owned by Hartmann Schedel. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Germany. Photo: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
Each hand-colored woodcut shows the intricacy and delicacy that the artist, or artists, in the workshop would have needed to enhance the quality and experience of each image. What are most notable about Schedel’s book are not these ostentatious details, but rather the supplemental materials, which have been conserved inside the book’s pages. Inside, Schedel includes an announcement, printed in Latin, advertising the Chronicle to its target audience (fig. 2).
Dedication Page of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), owned by Hartmann Schedel. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Germany. Photo: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
As translated by Adrian Wilson, the dedication states:
But nothing like this has hitherto appeared to increase and heighten the delight of men of learning and of everyone who has any education at all:the new book of chronicles with its pictures of famous men and cities which has just been printed at the expense of rich citizens of Nuremberg. Indeed, I venture to promise you, reader, so great delight in reading it that you will think you are not reading a series of stories, but looking at them with your own eyes. For you will see there not only portraits of emperors, popes, philosophers, poets, and other famous men each shown in the proper dress of his time, but also views of the most famous cities and places throughout Europe … When you look upon all these histories, deeds, and wise sayings you will think them all alive.11
Here, the artistic intention and projected interpretation of the book’s artistic and scholastic merit is made ostensibly clear through Schedel’s language. Not only does Schedel, on behalf of the patrons, anticipate the book to be an inimitable source for their immediate scholarly circle of educated Nuremberg men, but also, to reiterate, “…for the common delight,” and suggests the engagement of people who have received lower levels of education.12 Schedel found it important to include the illustrated aspect of the book in its appeal to prospective readers as well; for Schedel, the purpose of the woodcut illustrations is not merely to supplement the text, but to extrapolate from it, and in essence, to provide a visual transcript of the Chronicle which could stand alone. The images actively participate in engaging the reader and assisting in his or her understanding and construal of the text. In combining these notions, the extent to which each copy could have been individualized per its reader, the blatant explication of the purpose of the multitudinous images, and the production in Latin and the vernacular show not only that the book was for the use of the affluent, but also for the lesser educated, but by no means lower class, citizen who could gain knowledge by learning through images.
While Schedel’s own copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle ascertains in its sumptuousness the intent of the book’s reading as an art object and the extent by which a utilitarian object like a book can function as a precious object of the highest quality, this copy remains an anomaly out of the total 2,500 copies produced in the first edition of 1493; however, its excellence shall not be ignored. This is to say that, despite the Schedel Chronicle’s uniqueness, all other copies produced hold the same gravity as objects of art to be admired evidenced by the explicit preliminary contract agreed upon between Schreyer and Kammermeister and the workshop of Wolgemut and Pleydenwurff. Before progressing any further in regard to the artistic production of the illustrations, one must nuance the system of producing these woodcuts.Wolgemut and Pleydenwurff headed an expansive workshop that specialized in paintings and sculpture. Because of typical workshop practices in the late fifteenth century, it is generally accepted that Wolgemut and Pleydenwurff worked as the designers of the Chronicle woodcuts, leaving the actual cutting to other hands within the workshop; nonetheless, attribution will still be made to Wolgemut, Pleydenwurff, and workshop.13 While it is believed that an earlier contract existed dating around November of 1487, the only surviving contract between artists and patrons dates to December, 29, 1491, and describes in detail all duties for which the Wolgemut and Pleydenwurff workshop would be responsible.14 In compliance with standard printing practices during a time prior to copyright laws, Schreyer and Kammermeister required that at least one of the two leading artists would be present during the time of printing, an all-day affair, to prevent any mishaps in the printing process, and as incentive, advanced their pay of one thousand Rhenish guilders. The six hundred forty five woodcuts would be stored in the publishing house of Koberger to inhibit acts of stealing. Most importantly, before any printing by Koberger began, the artists were obligated to present two complete exemplar copies of the Chronicle, one for the Latin language and the other for the German after it was translated, which provided detailed layouts of each page, showing how the illustrations would be integrated into the text.15
These exemplars provide the key to acknowledging the extreme emphasis put upon the illustrated aspect of the book; Schedel’s text and the woodcuts had to be fully integrated amongst each other from the beginning stages of production. While many scholars debate about the hand who made the sketches in the exemplar copies, what remains for us in the quest to situate the book in its place as an object of art from Renaissance Nuremberg is how the Exemplar copies exist as a whole:the text as well as the allotted space for images coincide between the Exemplars and the finished printed versions of the Chronicle. 16 In addition, the artists must have formulated the designs to be fully legible in black and white, acknowledging that not all copies would be colored in the workshop or by another hand. Combining these notions and considering Schedel’s proclamation of the narrative property of the illustrations and the amount of preparation taken into both Latin and German editions, as proved by the extant exemplar copies complete with graphite sketches depicting the woodcut designs with great economy in line, the idea that the Chronicle was meant to be primarily driven through its illustrations seems very likely and shall now serve as the basis of this analysis.
PART TWO: The Chronicle, Organizing the Universe, and Locating Germany
Before using cosmography and cosmology as a method of determining meaning in the Chronicle’s imagery, it is required to preface that this topic is vastly complex, spans several centuries of historiography and cultural consciousness, and in this essay, will be utilized to serve the purpose of my limited study in contextualizing the book’s imagery exclusively within the setting of Renaissance Nuremberg. Therefore, certain themes in cosmological thought will be examined, but other aspects should be acknowledged in further exploration of this subject.
To begin, it remains commonplace knowledge that the late fifteenth century marked the beginning of a new age of discovery17. As a way of concisely displaying this newly found information, scholars turned to the study of cosmography, that is to say in general terms, the logistical mapping of the universe in an attempt to comprehend its enormity as well as the earthly realm’s physical relation to the heavenly realm. Cosmographer Peter Apian, of the generation following the Nuremberg Chronicle, described the discipline as such:
'Cosmography … is of the world: which consists of the four elements … as well as the sun, moon, and all the stars, and the description of all that is covered by the vault of the sky… It proves according to mathematical demonstrations. And it differs from geography because it divides the land through the circles of the sky, not through mountains, seas, and rivers, etc.’18
For these humanist scientists, like Apian and Schedel, and patrician enthusiasts like Schreyer, the mathematics and precision of cosmography allowed scholars to pinpoint their positions in the universe as well as the position of Nuremberg relative to the known and unknown worlds. More appropriately for the Renaissance era, motifs within the cosmographic study were applied to map-making as these new worlds were discovered, updating the previously accepted Ptolemaic model.Consequently, maps and map-making offered a visual component to the people in power of riches yet to be obtained.19 Thus, cosmography also served as an empirical study because for Renaissance minds, the cosmos stayed constant while the earth remained unpredictable and subject to permutation in its inherently imperfect nature. This knowledge and calculation of the universe, “… was valuable because it provided specific information about the relationship (past, present, and future) between terrestrial and celestial positions.”20 Cosmography encompassed geography, astronomy, space, and time, which is why it appealed to writers of world chronicles, like Schedel and his collaborative contemporaries who helped to compose the Nuremberg Chronicle.
As one would expect, Schedel, with his Christian mindset, begins his narrative of cosmogony, or the creation of the cosmos, with the Old Testament account of Creation itself, dedicating the preface to describing and illustrating the day by day process of how the world came to be, establishing a Biblical basis for the whole historical narrative. However, Schedel also makes it apparent how ancient, and some pagan, sources have influenced the text; he accrues his chronicle by compiling works of ancient authors like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Pliny to fit his humanist agenda. The construction of the cosmos as detailed in the Book of Genesis thoroughly lays the groundwork in its heptameral account for the study of cosmography by providing a narrative component to universal organization. Of the images included in the Creation series of the Nuremberg Chronicle, the Seventh Day is represented by the Wolgemut workshop with the most detail and intricacy (fig. 3).
Michael Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, and workshop, The Seventh Day of Creation, The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), woodcut. Baayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Germany. Photo: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
It shows, in a nearly full-page woodcut, the Seventh Day of Creation where, according to the text of the Chronicle,
… having been accomplished by the divine wisdom in six days, and heaven and earth having been finished, ordered and adorned, the glorious God fulfilled his task; and on the seventh day he rested from his labors… not because he was wearied by his labors, but to make a new and immortal creature or likeness out of matter; for he never ceased in his own work of creation. And the lord blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, and called it the Sabbath, which according to the Hebrew tongue means rest…21
In all its components, the Seventh Day woodcut illustrates the sum of the Christian universe according to these Scriptural delineations set forth in Genesis, and are preceded by six other woodcuts which gradually order the spheres of the cosmos, including the Platonic theory of the four elements which combine to form, “… the heavenly bodies, earth, sun, moon and stars, as well as all animals and plants…”22 The image begins with the central circle of the earth itself, surrounded then in concentric circles of the other elements (water, air, and fire, respectively), continuing with circles representing the planets, then finally the fixed stars and the “'cristalline heavens,’” equaling ten surrounding circles. The world continues in its complexity by including a heavenly choir of angels who turn to God the Father enthroned at the center, directly above the circles of the cosmos. In the four corners, the four cardinal winds are depicted as personifications with delicately designed lines displaying their directions.23 The woodcut attests to be all encompassing, serves as the culmination of the six steps in God’s Creation, and relays the earth’s location at the center in relation to the surrounding heavenly bodies. From this woodcut, one concludes the continuation of ancient and medieval thought into the Renaissance period that time and space had been predetermined and ordered by God to unfold in a certain pattern, which was non-existent prior to God’s forming of the universe.24
Rather than attempting to identify and deconstruct over one thousand years of accumulated Christian doctrine in the woodcut, there lies more importance in situating the woodcut within the context in which it was made and interpreted in Renaissance Nuremberg. The Seventh Day of Creation woodcut shows a generalized and Christianized world-view that posits Earth in the center according to Ptolemy and is typical of earlier conventions in depicting the subject. The earth’s circle, while smaller in scale, still remains in the center and serves as the only known and feasibly explorable region within the cosmographic scope that this map describes. By combining multiple sources, it also serves to describe the mind-set of the Nuremberg humanist interested in cosmography.
The cosmographic motif continues through the Second Age with Schedel’s discussion of Noah and the illustrations complementing the text (fig. 4).
Michael Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, and workshop, Noah's Ark, The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), woodcut. Baayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Germany. Photo: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
The Genesis story accompanying Noah’s Ark reads as such:
Noah, the son of Lamech, and a lover of divine honor and of justice, and possessed of ingenuity and perfection, found favor with the Lord; for while men’s minds were bent upon evil, he always sought to influence them to the pursuit of righteousness. And as the end of all flesh approached, the Lord commanded Noah to build an ark of gopher wood… And although the flood came, and the Lord destroyed all flesh, Noah and his people were saved… When they came out of the ark they thanked God and made an altar and sacrificed to him. (And God said) “This is the token of the covenant I give between me and you, and to every creature.” The rainbow has two principal colors; some say six or four. The watery one denotes the bygone flood; the fiery one, the future judgment of fire. With the first, one should no longer concern himself, but certainly wait for the other.25
In viewing the folio, the reader finds the rainbow woodcut, which arches over the twelve zodiac symbols reminiscent of the firmament level in the Seventh Day of Creation woodcut, distinctively inserted within the text prior to God’s quotation, signifying to the reader that the arc is synonymous with Noah’s own ark and embraces an affixed position in God’s presupposition and future unraveling of the world.26 Because time is pre-constructed, the history of events stands as predetermined as well, and these symbols work to both foreshadow and recall events.
In her chapter “Centering the Self: Mapping the Nuremberg Chronicle and the Limits of the World,” Stephanie Leitch discusses the Ptolemaic model of the world map on folios XII verso and XIII recto as Schedel’s ingenious reconciliation of Judeo-Christian Scriptures with ancient cosmographical text in its simultaneous conveyance of contemporary geographic knowledge and the Genesis narrative of the distribution of Noah’s sons (figs. 5-6).27 While both strands of thought make efforts to display the expanse of the known world, the map and how it would have applied to the fifteenth century reader must be more closely observed and nuanced with Ptolemaic theory. The map cut by the Wolgemut workshop closely resembles the world map present in a copy of Ptolemy’s Geographia, which was printed in the 1480s in the German city of Ulm, the edition that Schedel kept in his own library and may have circulated in the artists’ workshop.28 However, in a different text, Ptolemy more thoroughly integrates the inherent relationship of astrology and geography in an entirely cosmographic approach. In Book Two of Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos, the astronomer relates individual countries of his known world to astrological concepts, ultimately placing them within the boundaries of Aristotelian humoral theory. The map, which in Wolgemut’s depiction is displayed by the sons of Noah, is coincidentally divided by the book’s binding so as to further isolate, “… the four triangular formations recognized in the zodiac… north-western… south-eastern… north-eastern… [and] south-western…” and dictate how the earth is divided into four hemispheres, each with their own governing astrological signs and planets which then describe the general countenance of their inhabitants.29
For Ptolemy, the north-western sector, containing Europe (notably Germany) and drawing its line at the modern conceptual border of the Orient, subsides under the rule of Jupiter and Mars and fixed under Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, making these nations’ inhabitants, “… independent, liberty-loving, fond of arms, industrious, very warlike, with qualities of leadership, cleanly, and magnanimous.”30 Regarding the other areas of the map, their inhabitants retain less desirable qualities like femininity, lasciviousness, and engage in bestiality and incest, all which are an effect of their positioning and governance under the fixed stars of the universe’s firmament level.31 Not coincidentally would a reader find on the previous page fourteen illustrations made from two blocks of various monstrum. The monsters flank a center column of text that speaks of the marginalized peoples living at the outer-most ends of the world, places which are uninhabitable for persons of balanced humor (fig. 7).
Michael Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, and workshop, Monstrous Races The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), woodcut. Baayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Germany. Photo: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
In the beginning of the passage, Schedel specifically cites the works of Pliny, Augustine, and Isidore of Seville in describing these races; however, it is just to say that these so-called “monstrous races” have older origins and their medieval revival by European scholars has served as a sort of impetus in creating the larger “Western versus Other” narrative apparent in all aspects of cross-cultural relations, and more prevalent during times of Western exploration, the exact environment in which the Nuremberg Chronicle itself was produced.
Recalling the First Age, Schedel writes about the Creation of Man, and exalts Adam as the first son of God:
For God wonderfully ordered all things and determined to build an eternal empire of countless and deathless beings. And so he created a sensitive and understanding likeness, in his own image, a being that could not be more perfect… This animal we call Man is a circumspect, many-sided, keen being, full of understanding and judgment, and born of the highest God alone. Among all species of life in nature, he alone is endowed with that intelligence and reason which the lower creatures lack… The earth, the elements, and the irrational animals willingly serve him.32
A close reading of this text would acknowledge Schedel’s inherent bias as a product of his own culture against those races, like the monstrum, which do not adhere to the image of (the Western and Christian) Man’s perfection. Therefore, the mindset that any being who does not necessarily resemble the European, whether it be through their humors or their ancestral lineage from the Father of Europe Japheth, could be a derivative of these monstrum residing in the inhabitable quarters of the world which, during the fifteenth century, are becoming more reachable by German travelers.33
The ancient Roman author Pliny wrote in his encyclopedic and ethnographic work Natural History that,
These and similar varieties of the human race have been made by the ingenuity of Nature as toys for herself and marvels for us.And indeed who could possibly recount the various things she does every day and almost every hour? Let it suffice for the disclosure of her power to have included whole races of mankind among her marvels.34
Just as Pliny explained these races as characters in Nature’s grand scene, Augustine adapted them into the Noahic discourse, showing them as God’s playthings descended from Adam and scattered across the world.35 Not only is their inclusion as an excerpt on natural history and nature’s wonders important, but it is also the images’ proximity to the Ptolemaic map after Noah’s flood that assists in the full construction of the Christianized world history narrative.
Once again, Stephanie Leitch remarks upon the ability of the Wolgemut workshop to create visually descriptive, naturalistic, and most importantly, dignified images of imagined monsters that had been rampant in natural history texts, situating them in a believable space comfortably on their own, and again geographically on the map, ultimately reducing their character to pseudo-marginalia with no ethnographic motive.36 However, Leitch fails in this argument to insert the Renaissance German man’s Eurocentric bias, which would impede their view of these images as being merely descriptive. Additionally, they are not received within a Noahic context in this analysis either.While Augustine himself rejected the idea that these portentous beings were descended from Noah, he did confront the idea that they, like all men, are descended from Adam and have been subject to the Second Age events, thus dispersed and decentralized; their ancestry from Adam would explain their Man-like qualities in the images. But by continuing them on the edge of the map, folio XII verso, these monstrous races are firstly placed near a Christian context, and secondly, illustrated in their cosmographic place on the page. As acknowledged before by the extent to which the Exemplar copies plan the placement of each image with the text, their placement on the left side of the folio physically forces the repositioning of the map, which could have been extended to a full double page woodcut, into the position where the binding reflects Ptolemy’s astrologic structural corners. Without the monsters’ existence on this page, Europe would not be so clearly defined.Ptolemy’s ordering of the countries according to the stars, the diaspora of Noah’s sons, and the designation of “us versus other” by these monstrous races all coherently combine on these two pages to address the desire of the Renaissance German man to not only situate his present state within the world, but to trace his ancestry through the Noahic narrative. According to Tacitus’ Germania, Noah’s mythical son Tuyscon (Tuisco) was responsible for naming the Germans, “Deutsch” being derived from “Teutsch,” so justly in this way, the German humanists associated themselves with the Noahic narrative. 37 On the map, the perfectly balanced European Germans do not exist on the same ground as Adam’s imperfect children.
Probably not coincidentally, Schedel had kept inside his own copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle a woodcut map designed by Erhard Etzlaub showing Nuremberg centrally positioned within a circle and surrounded by neighboring cities, reminiscent of the spherical motifs found in the Creation cycle of the Chronicle (fig. 8).
Erhard Etzlaub, Map of Nuremberg (1493), The Nuremberg Chronicle, woodcut. Baayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Germany. Photo: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
On its paired page, Schedel had written, “Mistaken is the man who thinks that growth of countries could be best achieved by more buildings and people.”38 During the late fifteenth century, Nuremberg, as mentioned before, became a hub of intellectual and cultural exchange, and was home to notable cosmographers such as Johannes Regiomontanus, Martin Behaim, and Hieronymus Münzer.39 In connection to this, Schedel’s quote and the Nuremberg map reveals his, and the intellectual community within the city’s, mentality of Nuremberg as the nexus of culture and knowledge by ultimately being able to produce and distribute in the portable form of a book the most complete collection of historical events and cultural developments, illustrated for the most diverse audience.Finally, to close this discussion, the elements of cosmography, Scripture, chorography and humanist thought are carefully constructed within the pages of the Ptolemy map and the Second Age chapter in order to justify the German existence within God’s prefigured string of events.
PART THREE: The Chronicle, Sanctifying Time, and Apocalyptic Anxieties of the New Millennium
In the beginning of the chapter of the Seventh Age of the World, Schedel begins by conflating the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Scripture by stating,
… that which has a concrete and physical body must necessarily have an end, just as it had a beginning… All things are considered mortal, whose parts or members are mortal; and that which is born may perish.Everything that may be seen is corporeal, and (as Plato says) is subject to dissolution.40
As previously stated, humans have postulated eschatological thought since the birth of civilization, and the Scriptures, as the one of the most complex texts in existence, does not make easier the task of reducing the matter nor discussing it concisely. Therefore, certain aspects of the subject will be utilized for the purpose of explaining the Nuremberg Chronicle’s subject matter specifically within the chapters of Creation, the Second Age, and the Seventh Age. However, it shall be discussed not only through certain passages in Schedel’s text, but also mostly through the book’s imagery relative to cosmological interpretations of Noahic prophecy reflected in the final chapter of the Chronicle.
In order to divulge the cosmological connotations of the Book of Revelation, it is necessary to understand the importance of numbers, and in particular, the number seven.Throughout the Book of Revelation, almost each chapter contains a reference to the perfect number, for instance the seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc.; coincidentally, the number also represents the Seven Days of Creation and the days of the week (the last one being the Sabbath), the Seven Ages of the World, and the cosmologically ordered seven fixed planets, seven heavens, and most importantly, seven years until the millennium.41 Stemming from ancient astronomical theories, the number seven was perfect because it was the sum of the first odd and even numbers, three and four. 42
As examined previously, Noah’s story serves as a precursor to the eschaton of the Book of Revelation. Throughout the Gospels, the story of the Great Flood is consistently referred to as a symbol of rebirth, of humanity destroyed and replenished by the grace of God himself, as if by pressing a cosmic reset button. Very generally speaking, time, and consequently history (the two are inextricably connected and interchangeable), would resume for an undetermined period until Judgment.43 Therefore, catastrophic events like the Deluge and the Apocalypse are fixed in God’s pre-figured wordly order, justifying their cosmological interpretation and representation in the Second Age chapter.
When considering the importance of the number seven with maintaining cosmic order, one observes that the twelve astrological zodiac symbols found in the firmament sphere in the Seventh Day of Creation woodcut correspond with the same zodiac symbols shown under the Rainbow Covenant woodcut found on the same folio as the building of Noah’s Ark in the Second Age. These astrological symbols of the zodiac are related to the fixed stars’ constellations and the seven known planets and can be connected to the Seventh Age apocalyptic chapter. In the Neo-Platonic translation by Marsilio Ficino of the Corpus Hermeticum, a revivalist recount of mystical hermetic thought produced in 1463, Ficino relays the concept of the soul’s ascension.44 In general terms, the planets are representative of the greater entity’s (God’s) system of rule and are determinant of the world’s fate. Before ascending into Heaven to join the heavenly choir led by God as seen in the Seventh Day, the soul must pass through the seven spiritual levels of the planetary spheres to obtain the level of God, then through the firmament level containing the whole of planet and stars.46 Even more notably, the reappearance of the rainbow motif in the Book of Revelation, where John envisioned God seated on a throne surrounded by a rainbow, connects the promise of God preventing another catastrophic destruction of the world with the vision of God in Heaven during the end of days after the apocalyptic events.47 In essence, these woodcut illustrations use the astrological symbols of the zodiac and planets to guide the reader through Schedel’s text, thus creating and illustrating a predetermined metahistory of human fate which culminates in the transformation into an inhuman entity; additionally, this corresponds with the typical model of the seven day week and proving the, “… Christian view that mankind was passing through a series of pedagogical stages under Divine guidance…,” just as the celestial bodies of the universe move in fixed cosmic orbits.48 At this period, hermetic texts regained popularity and were widely distributed, as was the case with Johannes Lichtenberger’s Prognosticatio, which combined hermeticism, astrology, and sibyllic prophecy in a collection of prognostications published with permission in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III.49
The beginning of the Seventh Age chapter, Schedel specifically notes the book’s publication in 1493 during the seventh year of the reign of Maximilian I. The work of Jeffrey Ashcroft relays best my own postulations that given the brevity and size of the images in this chapter and the reference to Maximilian’s reign as Holy Roman Emperor rather than King of the Romans, the title he held while ruling jointly with his father Frederick III, the Seventh Age could have been written closer to the time of publication.50 Indeed, Maximilian assumed the title of Emperor upon his father’s death in 1493.Ashcroft proposes that Schedel had conjectured Frederick’s eminent death and formulated his text in a way that illustrates his son Maximilian in the guise of the medieval Last Emperor trope, whom in Revelation, rules alongside Jesus during Satan’s imprisonment and assists in restoring Christendom to its former glory.51 Additionally, the approaching Turkish armies produced an anxiety within the empire of the imposing threat of Islam on Christianity.52 For the Germans, Maximilian was the only hope for restoring the empire back to the glory of the Romans and leading the populace into the age of the end of days.
The element of time is even further prophesied in the Book of Revelation in the verse which describes the period after the persecution of the Antichrist. In Revelation 20, the archangel Michael in Hell chains Satan for one thousand years, during which Christ rules peacefully over the world. After the one thousand years comes to an end, Satan is released and defeated by Christ in a cosmic battle, ushering in the Day of Judgment, where God separates the souls and determines their fate.53 Drawn from the text, popular belief held that apocalyptic events would occur in intervals of one thousand years, where either before or after the thousand years, the Second Coming of Christ would restore order to the universe, overturning history; such is a very general basis for millennialist thinking.54 Prior to the fifteenth century, inauspicious events led to the belief that Europeans were living in the period of the Antichrist, symbolized in the form of the bubonic plague which erased nearly half of the population, the Hundred Years’ War, and widespread famine which devastated the continent well into the fifteenth century.55 As if replaying the events of the Great Flood, the Black Death nearly eliminated the population of Europe and finds itself referenced in the narrative of Revelation, further contributing to millennial anxieties of a cataclysmic end.
Schedel’s analysis of the Seventh Age of the World does not adhere stringently to the Book of Revelation, but more laconically reduces the material to the most important events, and his construction of this last chapter begins with the Coming of the Antichrist, followed by Death, and finally ends with the Last Judgment. Therefore, the last chapter of the Nuremberg Chronicle should not be considered a transposition of the Book of Revelation itself because the exact events are not described, but rather a paraphrase of the eschatological prophecies held in the Revelation text. Therefore, it should more correctly be referred to as having millennialist tendencies rather than apocalyptic.
While the text prepares the reader with an outline of events without allusions to any specific points within the Revelations text admitting millenarian anxieties, the images of the Seventh Age chapter speak much more to the viewers’ perceptions of the present cosmic order and future of things. For the Seventh Age, the Wolgemut workshop completed three full-page woodcuts depicting The Coming of the Antichrist (fig. 9),
Michael Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, and workshop, The Coming of the Antichrist, The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), woodcut. Baayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Germany. Photo: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
the Dance of Death, and the Last Judgment. Unlike the images discussed previously which deal with Creation and the Second Age events, these images bear no distinct or discernible signs of astrological thought; however, it is with their scale and conventionally depicted subject matter which offer a glimpse into a larger , universal realm.
In the Coming of the Antichrist woodcut, Wolgemut depicts three different narratives: the Antichrist entering the earthly realm, the False Prophet preaching, and Christ preaching to the public. In the image, a period of four and a half years has unfolded and the emphasis on earthly notions of time give way to understanding God’s prefiguration of the end of days, according to Schedel’s text. The Dance of Death woodcut seems out of place; however, when synthesized with the cultural climate leading to fifteenth century millennial thought, the image of four skeletal beings dancing around another skeleton rests into a grave is an allegory of the bubonic plague and a blatant image of mortality, that death is preeminent, predetermined by God, and looming over the entire population who awaits for the Revelatory events to unfold as history has dictated (fig. 10).
Michael Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, and workshop, Dance of Death, The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), woodcut. Baayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Germany. Photo: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
The final image of the Last Judgment is represented by typical conventions where Christ hovers above a cacophony of risen souls who on his right side enter into the new Kingdom of Heaven and on his left side are pulled into Hell by demonic monsters. Christ rests on an earthly disc reminiscent of the center terra of God’s universe during Creation and is flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist (fig. 11).
Michael Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, and workshop, The Last Judgment, The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), woodcut. Baayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Germany. Photo: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
Because these images adhere to typical conventions, it is more important to discuss their placement within the book to understand their importance within the context of a world chronicle. As full-page woodcuts, the Seventh Age images take full advantage of the Chronicle’s characteristics as a book. Unlike any other form of art, books carry a potency that is derived from their portability. To be able to hold the world in one’s own hands lends the reader the power to observe and study from history as he pleases. Because of this interactivity, images within books possess an affective quality because the viewer is allowed to peruse them as closely as he desires.For the viewer of the Nuremberg Chronicle, reading the last chapter would have given the sensation of one’s own mortality when faced with the apocalyptic imagery, that what has a beginning must have an end and God’s plan as governed by the fixed cosmos is unchangeable and must be faced. By ending the chronicle with a full page woodcut of the Last Judgment, readers find in the image the unavoidable end of days and are forced into contemplation about their own eternal salvation or damnation.
It has been established in this essay that the concept of time and history are interchangeable and created only after God has rest from creating the universe, thus acknowledging the prearrangement of beginning through end in a series of linked and repetitive events. While “reading” these images so to speak, the intended audience, the educated German man interested in the development and stabilizing of the German culture and intellect, would be able to discern these patterns through the artist workshop’s intentional inclusion of cosmographic motifs, which link together Creation and Noah’s prophecy. Thus, the history held in the Scripture would have told him that another cataclysmic event was forthcoming in an effort to restore God’s cosmic order during a time of discovery and simultaneous hardship which imposed upon German, more largely European, power. In essence, these seemingly disconnected strings of events culminate in millennialist thought which sought to assign dates to the final Apocalypse, long overdue.Through the complexities of humanist thought, conflation of ancient sources with modern innovations, and growing concerns of God’s universe out of balance, the Nuremberg Chronicle and its images give viewers the opportunity to observe in their own hands the past, present, and future of humanity at large.
It has been this essay’s purpose to expand upon the scholarship of the Nuremberg Chronicle, which has grown to become significantly displaced from its context as a world chronicle of a Biblical basis. Several scholars have focused on the place that the Nuremberg Chronicle holds within early printing houses and the business of making books prior to the turn of the sixteenth century. Additionally, scholars have fixated their attention to a wide variety of issues brought about by the book: the supposed involvement of Albrecht Dürer in creating the woodcuts, the influence of geography and map-making in the cityscape woodcuts, etc.56 This essay has chosen to focus only on the unique woodcuts of the Creation cycle, Noah’s Ark, and the Seventh Age in an effort to create a visual connection between millennialist, apocalyptic thought and Noahic prophecy by synthesizing image with various texts. With further scholarship, it is my hope that these connections will be further elucidated and that through our understanding of the Nuremberg Chronicle, we will recognize it as a monument of artistic historiography.
1 Adrian Wilson and Joyce Lancaster Wilson, The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle (Amsterdam: A. Asher & Co., B.V., 1976), 43. A quote by Hartmann Schedel.
2 For the sake of this essay’s primary audience, however, the book in discussion shall henceforth be referred to as The Nuremberg Chronicle as opposed to its Latin and German monikers.
3 David Cushing Duniway, “A Study of the Nuremberg Chronicle,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 35 (1941):18-19.
4 Adrian Wilson and Joyce Lancaster Wilson, The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle, 46. Exactly 1,809 illustrations were printed from 645 woodblocks.
5 Ibid., 51-2. Two contracts survive to us, one between the patrons and the artists and the other between the patrons and the publisher, Koberger.
6 The inventory of Schedel’s library, which was largely inherited from his bibliophilic cousin Hermann, was found through a provenance search of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek catalog. From here forward, all texts used in this analysis will be those recorded in this inventory.
7 Adrian Wilson and Joyce Lancaster Wilson, The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle, 39. Records do show that Schedel owned another work by Rolewinck, a chronicle of Saxon history called the Liber de laude antiquae Saxoniae nunc Westphaliae dictae.
8 Ibid., 58.
9 David Cushing Duniway, “A Study of the Nuremberg Chronicle,” 26.
10 Adrian Wilson and Joyce Lancaster Wilson, The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle, 207. The complete facsimile of Schedel’s copy may be accessed through the online catalog of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
11 Ibid., 209.
12 Ibid., 43.
13 Alison Stewart, “Early Woodcut Workshops,” Art Journal 39, no. 3 (1980): 189-94.
14 Adrian Wilson and Joyce Lancaster Wilson, The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle, 46. Translated into English by Wilson.
15 Ibid. Paraphrased from the Agreement of December 29, 1491.
16 Ibid., 58. Quote from Hans Stegmann, 1895.
17 Christine R. Johnson, The German Discovery of the World:Renaissance Encounters With the Strange and Marvelous (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 52. Many German travelogues were published at the turn of the century such as the Newe unbekanthe landte (Nuremberg, 1508).
18 Ibid., 52.
19 Ibid., 50-52.
20 Ibid., 56.
21 Walter Schmauch, trans., First English Edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle Being the Liber Chronicarum of Dr. Hartmann Schedel, A.D. 1493 (Chicago, 1941), 113.Translation of the German edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle.
22 Ibid., 69.Schmauch’s own interpretation of Plato.
23 S. K. Heninger, Jr., The Cosmographical Glass: Renaissance Diagrams of the Universe (Pasadena, Castle Press, 1977), 19-20.
24 Ibid., 17.
25 Schmauch, First English Translation, folio XI recto.
26 It must be noted that the symbols used in the Seventh Day woodcut and the Rainbow Covenant woodcut are not the same symbols, but carry the same denotation.
27 Stephanie Leitch, “Centering the Self: Mapping the Nuremberg Chronicle and the Limits of the World,” in Mapping Ethnography in Early Modern Germany: New Worlds in Print Culture (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 24.
28 Ibid., 24.
29 Ptolemy, trans. J.M. Ashmand, Tetrabiblos (London, David and Dickson, 1822), Book 2 Chapter 3.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid.
32 Schmauch, First English Translation, 75.
33 For texts published depicting these explorations, see Hans Tucher’s Reisebuch and Berhnard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in terram sanctum.
34 Pliny, trans. H. Rackman, Natural History (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1942), Book VII, Ch. II, Paragraph 32.
35 Saint Augustine of Hippo, trans. and ed. Marcus Dods, D.D., The City of God (New York, Hafner Publishing Company, 1948), Book XVI, Ch. 8, pg. 118.
36 Leitch, “Centering the Self,” 30.
37 Frank L. Borchardt, German Antiquity in Renaissance Myth (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1971), 17-8.
38 Adrian Wilson and Joyce Lancaster Wilson, The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle, 216.
39 Leitch, “Centering the Self," 34-5.
40 Schmauch, First English Translation, 2032. Text taken from folio CCLIX recto.
41 Adela Yarbro Collins, Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 125.
42 Ibid., 127.
43 2 Pet. 3.5-7 qtd. in John M. Court, Approaching the Apocalypse: A Short History of Christian Millenarianism (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2008), 47.
44 Valery Rees, “The Care of the Soul: States of Consciousness in the Writings of Marsilio Ficino,” Aries 8 (2008): 12.Hartmann Schedel collected several works by Ficino in his library. While none listed in the inventory of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek are the Corpus Hermeticum, it is not to say that he could not have come into contact with the work during his studies in Padua. It is known that he possessed a work by Ficino describing Platonism and Christian philosophy. He also owned a copy of Hermes Trismegistus’ work in Latin.
45 Jeffrey Ashcroft, “Black Arts: Renaissance and Printing Press in Nuremberg, 1493-1528),” Forum for Modern Language Studies 45, no. 1 (2008): 5. A direct reference to Ficino is made on folio CCLVI verso.
46 Collins, Cosmology and Eschatology, 47.
47 Book of Revelation 4: 3. The rainbow is described as emerald in Revelation.
48 Steven Rowan, “Chronicle as Cosmos: Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493,” Daphnis 15, no. 2 (1986): 380.
49 Jonathan Green, Printing and Prophecy:Prognostication and Media Change 1450-1550 (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2012), 39.
50 Ashcroft, “Black Arts," 5.Ashcroft points out blank pages between the Sixth and Seventh Age chapters, but it is my thought that the amount of text and scale of images could suggest the addendum. The amount of text, less than the previous chapters, is about five pages and the images are full-page woodcuts, easier to print and not prefigured nor integrated into text.
51 Ibid.
52 Ibid.
53 Book of Revelation 20: 1-12.
54 Court, Approaching the Apocalypse, 39.
55 Eugen Weber, Apocalypses:Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1999), 57.
56 Refer to the works of Alison Stewart, Adrian Wilson, David Cushing Duniway, and Stephanie Leitch.
Ashcroft, Jeffrey. “Black Arts: Renaissance and Printing Press in Nuremberg, 1493-1528.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 45, no. 1 (2008): 3-18.
Borchardt, Frank L. German Antiquity in Renaissance Myth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.
Court, John M. Approaching the Apocalypse: A Short History of Christian Millenarianism. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2008.
Duniway, David Cushing. “A Study of the Nuremberg Chronicle.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 35 (1941): 18-19.
Fussel, Stephan and Hartmann Schedel. Chronicle of the World 1493: The Complete and Annotated Nuremberg Chronicle. Cologne: Taschen, 2001.
Heninger, Jr., S. K. The Cosmographical Glass: Renaissance Diagrams of the Universe. Pasadena: Castle Press, 1977.
Johnson, Christine R. The German Discovery of the World: Renaissance Encounters With the Strange and Marvelous. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
Leitch, Stephanie. “Centering the Self: Mapping the Nuremberg Chronicle and the Limits of the World.” InMapping Ethnography in Early Modern Germany: New Worlds in Print Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Pliny. Natural History. Translated by H. Rackman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942.
Ptolemy. Tetrabiblos. Translated by J.M. Ashmand. London: David and Dickson, 1822.
Rees, Valery. “The Care of the Soul: States of Consciousness in the Writings of Marsilio Ficino.” Aries 8 (2008): 12.
Rowan, Steven. “Chronicle as Cosmos: Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493,” Daphnis 15, no. 2 (1986): 380.
Saint Augustine of Hippo. The City of God. Translated and edited by Marcus Dods, D.D. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1948.
Schedel, Hartmann. First English Edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle Being the Liber Chronicarum of Dr. Hartmann Schedel, A.D. 1493. Translated by Walter Schmauch. Chicago: 1941.
Stewart, Alison. “Early Woodcut Workshops.” Art Journal 39, no. 3 (1980): 189-94.
Weber, Eugen. Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Wilson, Adrian, and Joyce Lancaster Wilson. The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Amsterdam: A. Asher & Co., B.V., 1976.
Yarbro Collins, Adela. Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
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