Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What Did Noah's Ark Really Look Like?

When I have trouble falling asleep, I count animals marching into Noah’s ark. After three hours, I still have beasts to account for, long after sheep have schelepped into the cargo hold.

I have no idea what Athanasius Kircher, the 17th century polymath, did when he needed to inspire the sandman; it appears that he was kept up all night speculating about everything concerning Noah.

The procession of life into the Ark.
He published the results of his obsession with Noah in 1675. Arca Noe was and remains the most detailed account of Noah and his ark from that period in scientific inquiry, an era when rationalism was struggling to assert itself over superstition, the illogical, and incredible.

Men like Kircher, a Jesuit who was the webmaster for Europe’s network of scientific scholars, collecting and disseminating their work, endeavored to bring order, clarity and discipline to the study of the natural world. But they remained tied to the world they were born into and, particularly if you were a Jesuit priest, tried vainly to square religious belief with what they were observing in the natural world.

Steerage accommodations on the Deluge Hotel for the four-legged set.

The story of Noah and the ark provided Kircher with a huge framework within which he could study nature, its creatures and flora, as well as engineering. The pursuit of science in this manner endowed it with “sacred purpose.” The ark had been designed by God; a perfect, then, design. Kircher was also an obsessive collector of natural world curiosities, establishing a celebrated museum for such in Rome; Noah’s ark held the ultimate collection, and Kircher made it his mission to recover the lost “divine” science of Noah and display it in his museum.

Birds and humans travel First-Class.

“For Kircher the authority of the Ark as a blueprint derives from its divine origin: unlike other memorable creations of the ancient world... the Ark was designed by God. Since God was the architect, the design embodies the divine laws of symmetry and proportion, qualities the Ark shares with the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple of Solomon. But God also made man, and in his own image. Thus the proportions of man are reflected in the Ark. The length of 300 cubits to the width of 50, for example, is in the same proportion as the height of a well-proportioned man to his width...

Fowl play in the dormitories.
“Kircher comes into his own when enumerating, describing and illustrating the animals. Just as Noah had learnt the science of geometrical proportion from God, so had he also learnt the divine science of animals. Organization and taxonomy were critical to the management of a successful Ark, which had to be divided up into quarters proper for all the animals and their provisions. This Kircher does with obsessive thoroughness and loving detail. Birds and humans were on the top story, quadrupeds on the bottom, and food and water stored in the middle. Serpents were left to languish in the bilge, while there was no need to provide space for creatures that generated spontaneously, such as the insects and frogs” (Bennett and Mandelbrote).

The beginning of the Flood.

Note that scientific inquiry at this time still embraced spontaneous generation as a viable theory of reproduction, as well as other strange (to the modern mind) ideas. Kircher, trying so hard to be precise in his observations and rational in his conclusions, still thought certain stones held power.

The drowning of all life in the Great Deluge, everything underwater, including mortgages.
For those who don’t read Latin, or don’t read it fluently enough to be able to fully comprehend Kircher’s text, the enduring fascination of Arca Noe lies with its elaborate and detailed engraved plates depicting the design of the ark, and the consequences of the flood. They are magnificent.


BENNETT, Jim and Scott Mandelbrote. The Garden, The Ark, The Tower, The Temple. Bodleian Library, 1998.

FINDLEN, Paula. The Last Man Who Knew Everything (Routledge, 2004).

MERRILL, Brian L. Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), Jesuit Scholar. Brigham Young University Library, 1989.


KIRCHER, Athanasius. Arca Noë, In Tres Libros Digesta, Quorum I. De rebus quae ante Diluvium, II. De iis, quae ipso Diluvio eiusque duratione, III. De iis, quae post Diluvium a Noemo gesta sunt, Quae omnia nova Methodo, Nec Non Summa Argumentorum varietate, explicantur, & demonstrantur. Amsterdam: Johannes Janssonius van Waesberge, 1675.

First and only edition. Folio (14 x 9 1/8 in; 355 x 232 mm). *, **, A4 - Z4, Aa4 - Gg4, Hh4 - Ii4 (Index + list of Kircher's Works); [16], 240, [14]. [2]pp. Engraved title-page, engraved portrait of the dedicatee Charles ll, 2 maps (1 double-page), topographic plan (double-page), large folding plate of the ark, 10 double-page plates, 4 full-page plates, 2 small plates, 9 engraved text cuts, & 102 text woodcuts. 5 tables, tailpieces, decorated initials. Complete.

STCN 167502. Dunnhaupt 2346:29. Merrill 26. Adelung III, 379. Caillet, ll, 360.5768. Graesse IV,20. Nissen, Z 2195. De Backer I, 430.26. Sommervogel, IV, 1068-69.33. BMCC CXXIII,711. Bennett /Mandelbrote 37. Mustain/Hinman 157. Brunet, lll, 666.


Images courtesy of David Brass.

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