In previous blog postings we explored the Allegorical images as well as illustrations of Social Class Structures within Jost Amman’s 1578 Kunstbüchlin. The publication also included a large selection of fanciful religious- and biblical-themed illustrations as well as illustrations of classical mythology (pagan imagery). Although there was sometimes a thin line to be walked, in the Renaissance both biblical-religious and classical-pagan themes permeated the scholastic, artistic, and even moral lives of the public. Renaissance Humanism (not known by that term at the time, but rather as a present-day historical name attributed to the fascination with classical philosophy during the Renaissance) was the burgeoning fascination with all things classical from the Greek and Roman eras. It was all academic philosophers could do to find more and more resources from those classical empires as a possible ancient source of wisdom and knowledge.
The philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and other ancient philosophers had much, it seemed, to offer in the way of ethics, politics, and moral studies. The fact that they were pagan and followed and believed in the gods of the old religions was problematic, but paled in comparison to the the potential for learning and rebuilding of the great empires that once were… What’s more, several of those ancient philosophies contained elements of morality and wisdom that the Church had conscripted or absorbed—things like the Cardinal and Theological Virtues. How to broach such distinctions between pagan and Christian theosophies? Again, not unlike today, there are some who had greater problems with crossing distinctions than others. But when it comes to entertainment value… The public’s popular choice will far and away always set the standard.
And it often comes down to this—what appeals to the mass public? For example, Christianity’s origins appealed to the Jewish and Aramaic people because they claimed that the lowly were important to God, in refutation against the actual misery they were suffering under the Romans and other persecutors. As another example, the pagan and mythical stories of Virgil (mythologized as “Virgil the sorcerer”) were much more entertaining than simply hearing from the pulpit every Sunday about suffering in this lifetime in order to attain grace in the afterlife. Thus Virgil became the most popular author of the Middle Ages.
We hear what we want to hear, and tolerate the things we are told. Our human brains crave entertainment and fantastical imaginings. And classical studies of ancient Greece and Rome provided those things. Thus they infused, and shared, the thoughts and imaginations of the people of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, including artisans, philosophers, and even theologians.
Take, for example, the dedication in Amman’s Kunstbüchlin (the 1599 edition), which, as likely written by someone hired by the publisher, Carl Sigmund Feyerabend, to write, freely crosses boundaries between love of Christian grace and adoration of Latin classic literature to which it alludes (and which for the time period in which it was published was completely fashionable):
“Noble, honorable and kindly inclined Lord and Friend: The highly renowned orator Cicero wrote, after considering how a man should spend his lifetime in a useful and praiseworthy manner, that whoever wishes to leave behind a good name must above all see to it that h leave behind something useful and profitable to the common fatherland, considering that he was not born to spend his life in laziness and inertia—which might fairly be called one of the greatest vices—but that as much as it is possible for him, he should serve the common good in some manner; just as in the past the ancients considered this to be the highest good, for which one must aim in this life with all earnestness, as such records of antiquity as still can be found testify sufficiently. Moreover, the more they benefited the common good the more honor was given to them, and many of them were even elevated to divinity by the ancient pagans and honored by them. Although this is not strictly proper, one may nonetheless deduce from it how they held in high esteem those who had done something memorable. Therefore, when the present Kunstbuch came to my attention, I could easily discern that if it were published it would result in profit and benefit, as well as in especial pleasure, to many, since not only are many varied things illustrated in it, but also a great deal of industry and art have been used in all the figures, so that we can look at the with grater delight and also imitate them. Since I am far from unaware of the pleasure my Lord finds in this art (indeed, not long ago at my Lord’s house I myself saw the profusion [of art works]), I have been strongly induced by this (on account of the many favors which he has bestowed on me and as further testimony to our friendship) to dedicate this Kunstbüchlin to my Lord, hoping without any doubt that my Lord will, as a special lover of the arts, receive and accept it in his patronage and protection, and will permit me to consider myself his friend, as before. With this I commend myself to the grace of God. Given in Frankfurt on the Main,on the last day of August, in the year 1599.”*
These particular images below come from the fourth edition Jost Amman’s Kunstbüchlin published in 1599 (after Amman’s death). Click on any image for a larger view. Within the light box, click on the “i” at the bottom of the picture to generate further commentary on each image.
*Amman, Jost. 293 Renaissance Woodcuts for Artists and Illustrators: Jost Amman’s Kunstbüchlin with a new introduction by Alfred Werner. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1968). [an unabridged and unaltered republication of Jost Amman’s Kunstbüchlin, as published by Johann Feyerabend, Frankfurt a. M., in 1599.] Introduction p. x-xi. The publication specifically indicates that reproduction of illustrations is permitted.