Thursday, 09 September 2021 20:21

The Great Art of Light and Shadows

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moon phases

The Great Art of Light and Shadows may sound like the latest YA to hit the shelves of Barnes & Noble, but it’s actually a work about the physics of light from the 17th century. I found it yesterday among the family Bibles, collections of sermons, and other religious books. How did it get shelved there?

I have a couple of theories. First, it’s in Latin, which people tend to associate with Roman Catholicism. Second, the author is Jesuit priest named Athanasius Kircher, so earlier librarians might have assumed it was a religious work. But, remember, Copernicus was a priest, too. Kircher was a polymath of the late Renaissance who wrote about many topics including Egyptian hieroglyphs, magnetism, and yes, theology. Finally, the book is really big and really old, and most of the really big and really old books in our collection are Bibles.


The moon

Kircher was a German from Thuringia, born in 1601 or 1602. He became a Jesuit novice in his teens and was ordained in 1628. He served as a professor of ethics and mathematics in Würzberg, but he left Germany in 1634 in part to escape the Thirty Years War. He was sent to Rome and from 1634 until his death in 1680, he taught math, physics, and several languages at the Jesuit College.

moon dial

A moon dial

Now, what has this to do with Montgomery County? Nothing, yet. The book is really cool though. Here’s a Jesuit horoscope (literally “marker of the hour”) with the phrase “From East to West praiseworthy is the name of our Lord“ in 34 different languages including Scottish, Chinese, and Dalmation! It also lists all the Jesuit missions around the world and how to tell the time at each one.



The Jesuit Horoscope and a close-up showing the phrase in English

And this is actually an illustration of Saturn. According to the Wikipedia article on the book, when the first edition was published (1645), Saturn was assumed to have two close satellites that caused it to look bulged when seen in a telescope. Galileo had described them as “ears.” By the time of the second edition, Christiaan Huygens had published his theory that Saturn had rings, but Kircher didn’t update the illustration.


But, Montgomery County? Well, the book itself doesn’t have anything to do with our fair county. What’s interesting is how it came to be here. It was published in Amsterdam. There’s an inscription on the title page and a book plate that mark it as the property of a Dominican convent’s library. I did a Google image search on the bookplate and found that it comes from a convent in Augsburg. The plate itself dates to the eighteenth century, but the book could have been there earlier.


I don’t know how it crossed the ocean, but it came to the historical society in 1897. A sheet of paper tucked inside the book explains that it was found during the demolition of a house on the corner of Basin and DeKalb. But it wasn’t just in the house, it was hidden in a secret spot near the top of the chimney. This paper was written by our librarian, Rudolf Hommel, and he did some research into its likely owner. Written on the inside cover is the name George W. Allen, and a George W. Allen is in the 1867 city directory living at corner of DeKalb and Basin, but in the 1870, he appears at another address. Another man, Horatio S. Stevens, lived in the house for several decades according to the directories. So it seems Allen hid his book and moved out without retrieving it.


A chameleon in a discussion of how it changes color

“The problem,” Hommel concludes, “Is to find out who this G. W. Allen was.”

Indeed. I did my best to find some evidence of Allen. There’s a George W. Allen in Norristown in 1870 census, but that George W. Allen, a lime dealer, is listed with a wife, two children, and a servant. An 1868 deed has him buying property in Norristown, which explains the address change. He sold that property in 1874, and in the 1880 census he’s in Philadelphia and listed as a real estate agent. I don’t know for sure that it’s the same man who owned the book, but there aren’t any other George Allens in Norristown at the time.

That still doesn’t explain why he hid the book. As parent, I can’t help but wonder if it was just to keep the kids from touching it. And maybe he just forgot about it. How did he even wind up with it in the first place? I can make an educated guess that the book left its convent about 1802, when the convents were secularized (the Bavarians were inspired by the French Revolution), but it’s just a guess. There’s no other indication of where the book has been.


The world from the north pole (I made this one upside down to better show North America)

One more thing about the book, there’s another note in it. This one is handwritten by William Reid and dated 1913. The note says that the frontispiece seems “evidently” to be an illustration of the mixture of Mithraism and Christianity in the 4th century. Apparently, Reid’s Latin was even worse than mine, but that note might be why it was shelved with religious works.


The frontispiece, a Renaissance allegory for knowledge

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