Monday, February 22, 2010

Who the Heck is Herwart von Hohenburg?

The Mensa Isiaca. Engraved plate number one
Thesaurus Hieroglyphicorum.

No copies have come to auction within the last thirty-five years. OCLC/KVK note only seven copies in institutional collections worldwide, only one of which is complete, in the Bibliothéque National - France. But another complete copy recently appeared out of nowhere and into the marketlace, unheralded, without fanfare.

The book is Thesaurus Hieroglyphicorum, published in 1610 by Johann (aka Hans) Georg Herwart von Hohenburg (1554-1622). It is one of the earliest works on Egyptology.

It is a book that profoundly influenced Athanasius Kircher, one of the most fascinating individuals of the seventeenth - or any other - century.

Come with me now to those halcyon days of yesteryear, a few thousand yesteryears ago, when the land of the pharaohs would, a few thousand yesteryears later, in 1955, inspire one of film director Howard Hawks’ few stinkers, Land of the Pharaohs, a rotten ibis notable only for Joan Collins fulfilling the wardrobe and promise she amply demonstrated in her screen debut, Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951), and as William Faulkner’s last screenplay credit, aka A Nobel Prize Don’t Pay the Rent.

Having time-caromed from 2010 all the way back to Khufu, then zipped forward to the Cold War’s worst screen crime, we now whiplash backward again, to the seventeenth century where scholars are wondering what’s up with ancient Egyptian writing, and what does it mean? What’s with the guy with a falcon where his head is supposed to be?

These questions burned in Athanasius Kircher’s mind. The most prominent scientist of his era, Kircher (1601-1680), a Jesuit priest, had to know all there was to know and made it his business to learn it. He was indeed, as Paula Findlen titled her biography of the polymath, The Last Man Who Knew Everything at a time when was possible for an individual to do so, before general science grew into the distinct branches with specialties within each that we know today and the exponential growth of knowledge precluded deposit into one brain without subsequent explosion.

"...In 1628, after [Athanasius Kircher's] ordination as a Jesuit priest in Speyer, Germany...he developed a keen interest in hieroglyphics, having seen a copy of Thesaurus hieroglyphicorum (1610) by the famed German scholar from Bavaria, Johann Georg Herwart von Hohenburg" (Alastair Hamilton. The Copts and the West, 1439-1822: The European Discovery of the Egyptian Church (New York: 2006, p. 203).

The Mensa Isiaca. Engraved plate number three
from Thesaurus hieroglyphicorum

"Another influence on the young German was Johann Georg Herwart von Hohenburg's work Thesaurus Hieroglyphicorum (which contains an illustration of the Mensa Isiaca, thought to be a major source of Egyptian images, but now known to be a Roman or Alexandrian work of the early Imperial period in the Egyptianizing style). The result was Kircher's Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus (1636), the first Coptic grammar and the foundation for all subsequent Coptic studies: in it, he argued (correctly) that Coptic was related to the language of the Ancient Egyptians" (James Curl, review of Anthanasius Kircher's Theater of the World by Joscelyn Godwin, in Times Higher Education, 7 January 2010).

The Mensa Isiaca. Engraved plate number six
Thesaurus hieroglyphicorum

The first eleven plates in the Thesaurus Hieroglyphicorum are of the Mensa Isiaca aka the Bembine table of Isis. This remarkable table was produced sometime in the first century AD, probably in Rome at the height of the Egyptomania then consuming it. The hieroglyphs are nonsense and the cult scenes are Egyptianesque, but do not depict true Egyptian rites. Some of the scenes are so bizarre that it is unclear whether the figures are gods or kings and queens; it's a hieroglyphic hash. Egyptian motifs appear helter-skelter throughout. Nevertheless, the central figure in a chapel scene is clearly recognizable as the Egyptian mother goddess Isis, suggesting that the table originated somewhere the Isis cult was celebrated. It is a testament to Kircher's keen intellect that he was able to gain valuable insights from this Egypto-gobbldy-gook.

The Mensa Isiaca. Engraved plate number four
Thesaurus hieroglyphicorum

The Thesaurus Hieroglyphicorum was "one of the richest sources for Athanasius Kircher... Kircher drew heavily on the Mensa Isiaca for his sources" (Curl, James. The Egyptian Revival, pp. 59 and 112).

"These engravings were appropriated by Athanasius Kircher” (Oudheidkundige mededeelingen, Volumes 65-66, p. 24).

Stolzenberg discusses the Thesaurus Hieroglyphicorum in his Kircher study, The Great Art of Knowing: The Baroque Encylopedia of Athanasius Kircher (2001).

Johann Georg Herwart von Hohenburg (1553-1622) was a prominent Bavarian statesman and scholar of distinction. He was acknowledged for his accomplishments in astronomy, chronology, mathematics and philology. His work in chronology earned him the admiration of intellectuals such as Kepler's teacher, Michael Mästlin, who commended his "extraordinary industry," and his efforts in mathematics proved fundamental to the early formulation of logarithms by clockmaker Jöst Bürgi and John Napier. As a person of political prestige and intellectual prominence, Herwart stood at the center of a scholastic correspondence network that included the leading scientists of the day, amongst whom were Tycho Brahe, Johannes Praetorius, Helisaeus Röslin, and Johannes Kepler. In this last respect, he would provide a model for Kircher, who, a generation later, would fulfill the same role with 760 members of Europe's scientific and medical community, as well as the international Jesuit network; his hunger for knowledge of all kinds was insatiable.

Engraved plate number fifteen
from Thesaurus hieroglyphicorum

For most of his professional life, Athansius Kircher was one of the scientific stars of the world. His early life is highlighted by being shipwrecked and marooned. He dried off rapidly, made it back home, and soon was "the first scholar with a global reputation," writes Findlen. He combined his original experimentation and research with information learned from his correspondence - the Encyclopædia Britannica calls him a "one-man intellectual clearing house" - to publish thirty-five principal works that range from astronomy, optics, phonology, music, mathematics, natural history, geology, medicine, to Egyptology, and more; if it was interesting, he was on it. His books, illustrated with commissioned engravings, were influential and sold well; he was the first scientist to earn a living from his books. He, along with his acolyte, assistant, and fellow Jesuit, Gaspar Schott, popularized science.

Kircher's scientific career occurred during an important transition period in science, when reason, rigor, measurement, and experimentation began to overthrow superstition, harebrained hypothesis, wacko explanation, and unprovable theory. Kircher stood with a foot in each world, making recognized advances in optics while at the same time, for instance, clinging to a belief in the powers oif certain stones.

Much of Kircher's work would be forgotten in the generations that followed Isaac Newton, of the immediate generation succeeding Kircher, his contributions built upon or confirmed (or rejected) by others using a refined and wholly rational scientific method. He was wrong about so much yet right about enough that he was rediscovered by science historians in the later twentieth century and given his just due.

Herwart von Hohenburg who? He influenced Kircher and more than a few.

Vintage publicity still from Land of the Pharaohs.
Joan Collins (2d from left) as Princess Nellifer
sacrificing to Isis, a scene that would prepare her
to later portray many castrating bitches. Jack Hawkins
(far right) as Khufu: "Don't get near me with that thing.
Audience, I'm outta here. You?"

(The Mensa Isiaca. Engraved plate number eight
from Thesaurus hieroglyphicorum)

HERWART von HOHENBURG, Johannes Georgius. Thesaurus Hieroglyphicorum è Museo Joannis Georgii Herwart ab Hohenburg, utriusque juris doctoris, & ex assessore summi Tribunalia Imperatorii, atque ex Calncellario supremo serenissimi utriusque Bavariae Principis... Munich (Ausberg?): n.p., 1610.

First (only) edition, complete. Oblong folio (13 3/4 x 20 7/8 in; 350 x 530 mm). Printed title page with four small mounted engravings, and twenty-six large engravings (one folding) mounted on twenty-five leaves. Engravings cut to plate lines.

Eighteenth century quarter calf over boards. Manuscript notes in ink (17th century) and pencil (19th -20th century?) to front free endpaper.

Graesse III, p. 262. Bibliotheca Augustana p. 150.


Books about Athanasius Kircher here.
If in Los Angeles, see the permanent display devoted to Kircher at the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

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