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In the beginning…there were spheres of angels

In the beginning…there were spheres of angels

Canterbury Cathedral Library W/S-18-1

This is not the first time the Nuremberg Chronicle has featured in ‘Picture this…’ and given that it is a ‘monster book’ (see Diane Heath’s article – ) it is unlikely to be the last. This month the Chronicle is one of three books from the Cathedral Library to go out on loan to the Turner Contemporary art gallery in Margate; it will be on display as part of the ‘Seeing Round Corners’ exhibition (, which explores the way artists have responded to circles, discs and spheres. The opening book (chapter) of the Nuremberg Chronicle features circles or spheres to illustrate the creation of the world.

The Nuremberg Chronicle is a history of the world, divided into six books or chapters which represent the Six Ages of the world. It loosely follows the structure of the Bible with descriptions of places and historical events interspersed throughout the text. The chronicle is written in Latin, as were most books of that time, and is one of approximately 400 surviving copies. It was published in 1493 in Nuremberg, Germany, where it is known as “Liber Chronicarum” (“Book of Chronicles”). This is not a title in the way we understand titles but rather it is taken from a phrase in the introduction to the work.

When Diane wrote her fascinating article she selected an image that appears towards the end of the Sixth Age (from the birth of Christ to the time at the end of the fifteenth century); I have chosen to write about the image which is the first in a series of woodcuts illustrating the First Age of the World (from The Creation to The Deluge based on the Book of Genesis). The group of illustrations appear over eight folios (leaves or pages). The first seven woodcuts each cover half a page, while the final image in the series takes up almost three quarters of the page – showing just how luxurious this book was intended to be; paper was expensive and the use of such large images shows no expense was spared in constructing this great tome. The book is 48 centimetres tall and 31 centimetres wide which takes up a whole desk top when opened.

In the woodcut of the First Day of Creation we can see a smaller circle within a larger one, representing a sphere within a sphere. These are located inside a square frame. The inner sphere contains some text, while the outer sphere is filled with a choir of angels, topped by a crowned bird hovering over it with its wings outspread. Outside the circles we can see a disembodied hand raised in a gesture of blessing. The text at the centre of the image is the Greek word hylä (shown as yla), which means ‘primeval matter’. Greek natural philosophers believed that everything was formed from primeval matter. Spheres and circles were also an important aspect of Greek philosophy. In Plato’s famous Theory of Forms he developed the idea that existence could be divided into two realms: a world of sense experience (the ‘empirical’ world), where everything is constantly developing and changing; and a world outside of space and time (the realm of forms) where everything is constant and perfect. In the empirical world we see only shadows and copies of the true forms, which are eternal and unchanging. In this theory, the square and circle are two of the most perfect forms.

In the Nuremberg image, the ‘primeval’ sphere, inside the all-encompassing outer square, is surrounded by a lively looking celestial choir with the Holy Spirit (represented by the Dove) spreading protective wings over the scene. On close inspection we can see that the angels, while similar, have been made distinguishable from each other through expression and pose; the hands are arranged in a variety of gestures and the robes have a beautiful flowing quality about them demonstrating a high level of skill from the craftsman who created the woodcut and incorporating influences of the increasing naturalism of Renaissance art. The disembodied hand represents the Hand of God – shown outside the spheres but within the square frame – blessing the scene. The image is like a dichotomous seed (a seed of two parts) which will grow into a complete universe populated by the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars. The whole scene demonstrates the ideas of the natural philosophers nested within the Christian version of The Creation. This combining of the two sets of ideas reflects the interests of Hartmann Schedel. While not strictly the author of the Chronicle in the true sense of the word, Schedel was responsible for compiling the text. He was an educated man with a passion for learning and this can be seen through the books he owned. Much of his personal library still survives showing he had over a thousand books, (now held in Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich). The books show Schedel’s interest in natural sciences and philosophy. In compiling the text for the Chronicle he consulted many sources and selected the most authoritative texts, which included the Bible, the Church Fathers and Greek and Roman philosophers.

The Nuremberg Chronicle was an ambitious and highly successful project. The initial print run produced over 2,000 books, a significant quantity for the period. The work was so popular it was reprinted three times in the first decade after the first publication. To emphasise the luxurious quality of the book it was made on a grand scale with generously wide margins and had over 1,800 woodcut illustrations. While many of the images appeared more than once there were still a huge number of unique woodcuts created for the project – 652 in total. The printing workshop used to produce the Chronicle was vast (the building survived into the twentieth century); it had the potential to hold up to eighteen printing presses, and to employ over a hundred employees which would have included typesetters, printers and their assistants. It was only possible to produce the Chronicle in Nuremberg because Nuremberg had become a renowned centre of trade and highly skilled craftsmanship.

Karen Brayshaw: Librarian, Canterbury Cathedral

Edited: Jayne Wackett


Further reading:

Registrum huius operis libri cronicarum cum figuris et ymagionibus ab inicio mundi (also known as The Nuremberg Chronicle)
Nuremberge : Ad intuitum autem et preces Sebaldi Schreyer et Sebastiani kamermaister hunc librum Anthonius koberger Nuremberge impressit, 1493. W/S-18-1

Hartmann Schedel, Chronicle of the world the complete and annotated Nuremberg chronicle of 1493, Taschen facsimile 2001

Edward Grant, “Celestial Orbs in the Latin Middle Ages”. Isis 78 (2), 1987. [University of Chicago Press, History of Science Society]: pp. 153–73.



University of Cambridge  Search ‘Nuremberg Chronicle’ for hand-coloured copy that belonged to Matthew Parker, Elizabeth I’s Archbishop of Canterbury.

Beloit College  for a searchable English translation of the book.

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