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THE MIDDLE of the 16th century was a time of great uncertainty in Germany. Substantial defeats for nascent Protestantism at the hands of the Catholics led to the 1555 treaty of Augsburg, which established a degree of parity between the two opposing religious factions.
But it didn’t allay Protestant apprehension about the future of the planet. In the absence of scientific explanation, apocalyptical premonitions and omens, interpreted as forewarnings of impending catastrophe and summons to repent as the end of the world loomed, assumed major theological significance.
The upheavals brought about by the Reformation and Martin Luther’s own brand of moral extremism had fostered a concern for signs of God’s admonition and hence the widespread moralistic tone and calls for repentance in the hundreds of pamphlets printed and circulated at the time, most notably in Sebastian Brant's seminal Ship of Fools.
The recording of geological, astronomical, meteorological, zoological and botanical phenomena for signs of divine divulgence had existed since the Old Testament and that's where where the Book of Miracles, published in the mid-16th century, begins.
The Book of Miracles appeared out of nowhere in 2007 in a German auction house and was bought by London dealer James Faber, who had it dated as published in the mid-16th century. It's now available in an excellent facsimile version from Taschen publishers.
It's not known who commissioned the book, nor for what purpose. It may be that its patron had an interest in astrology, attested to by the multitude of pictures of celestial signs among the 193 spectacular tableaux with immaculately calligraphed captions.
Many of these images were appropriated as part of the period's visual lingua franca from known artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Durer, but they are magnificent in their own right and retain much of the unsettling awe and dread they were originally imbued with.
One of the recorded portents is the appearance of a ferocious whale off the coast of Lisbon, weeks before the devastating earthquake of January 26 1531 that birthed a gigantic tsunami which killed over 30,000 as they slept.
In a curious twist, this cataclysmic event was forgotten until 1909 when an unsigned, four-page manuscript of an eyewitness account was found in a Lisbon bookshop.
If you think that contemporary minds are free from the petrifying fear of the unknown, heavenly retribution or irrational threats to humanity, think again. Orson Welles's radio broadcast of HG Wells's War of the Worlds in 1938 led to suicides and the West was gripped by UFO hysterics fuelled by US cold-warmongers in the 1950s.
And the anti-communist paranoia of Don Siegel's 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is but an updated version of the Book of Miracles.
The Book of Miracles by Till Holger-Borchert and Joshua P Waterman is published by Taschen, price £35.
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