The German-born Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (c. 1601–1680) was, in the words of an article reprinted on the website of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, an "inventor, composer, geographer, geologist, Egyptologist, historian, adventurer, philosopher, proprietor of one of the first public museums, physicist, mathematician, naturalist, astronomer, archaeologist, [and] author of more than 40 published works." It might be easiest to call him, as did Paula Findlen, the editor of a book of articles about Kircher, "the last man who knew everything."
Kircher's erudition was vast, but it was dwarfed by his curiosity. He investigated volcanoes (by having himself lowered into one while it was erupting), hieroglyphics, infectious organisms, magnetism, the relationships between languages, astronomy, and biblical scholarship. He
Kircher, named after the saint whose feast day marked Kircher's birthday, was born on May 2, 1601 or 1602, in the village of Geisa, near Fulda in what is now central Germany. His father was a teacher and lecturer who had studied religion and philosophy. Kircher experienced the first of several brushes with death when he was accidentally run through part of a mill apparatus. He attended Jesuit schools, and in 1618 he made plans to study at the Society of Jesus in the city of Paderborn, a religious institution with an educational component. Kircher injured one of his legs in an ice-skating accident prior to his admission, and it turned gangrenous. He was examined when he arrived at the school, and doctors told him his condition was incurable. Kircher, however, retired to a chapel containing a statue of Mary that was reputed to have curative powers. The next morning, his leg was once again whole.
The chaos of the Thirty Years' War, which tore Germany apart along religious lines, left its mark on the rest of Kircher's education. Forced to flee Paderborn along with his teachers, Kircher was stranded on an ice floe while trying to cross the frozen Rhine River. He swam to shore and eventually made his way to a Catholic university in Cologne, where he continued his studies of philosophy, science, and classical languages. He learned to speak Hebrew and Syriac on his way to mastery of some ten languages, possibly including Chinese. Kircher was sent to teach mathematics and languages at Jesuit schools in the cities of Heiligenstadt and Koblenz, encountering new hazards as he crossed Protestant-held territory. Captured and nearly hanged at one point, he was spared by a soldier who was struck by his calmness in the face of death.
Kircher's first influential patron was the Elector of Mainz, who brought him to that city after hearing reports of Kircher's skill in mounting a fireworks display. At the Elector's court Kircher wrote a book, Ars magnesia , about magnetism. After the Elector's death Kircher began studying for the priesthood, making astronomical observations on the side; he was one of the first astronomers to view sunspots through a telescope. Kircher was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1628. He embarked on a period of study and reflection at a Jesuit college in Speyer, finding a book of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in the college's library and applying himself to the age-old problem of deciphering them. His guesses at the meaning of the hieroglyphics were wrong but wildly original—he thought they constituted a set of religious symbols rather than a writing system.
Kircher began teaching mathematics, ethics, and ancient languages at the University of Würzburg. In 1630 he was fascinated by reports of the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano in Italy. Apparently wanting to explore the world, he petitioned his superior to be allowed to travel to China as a missionary, but his application was refused. Kircher was forced to flee the outbreak of war once again in 1631 as Swedish Protestant troops invaded the Würzburg region, and this time he had to leave Germany for good. Arriving in the eastern French city of Avignon, a center of Catholic learning in France, he began teaching and attracted the attention of an influential patron, the French nobleman Sicolas Peiresc. Peiresc had a large collection of Egyptian artifacts and had heard of Kircher's investigations into their meaning.
In Avignon Kircher penned another wide-ranging study covering the hieroglyphics as well as astronomy and geography. His growing renown had reached Vienna, Austria, and in 1633 he was summoned there to replace Johannes Kepler as court mathematician to the Hapsburg dynasty. Peiresc, distressed by this turn of events, wrote a letter to Pope Urban VIII asking that the summons be revoked, but Kircher was already en route. This time he traveled by sea in order to avoid German war zones, but he was once again plagued by near-fatal bad luck: his ship foundered in high winds, and he was forced to take refuge in the small Italian seaport of Cività Vecchia, near Rome. Making his way into the eternal city, his luck improved. Peiresc's letter had reached the Vatican, and he was appointed to teach and to continue his research at the Jesuits' Roman College (now the Pontifical Gregorian University). He learned the Coptic language of ancient African Christianity and identified it as a relative of ancient Egyptian.
In 1637 Kircher made another unsuccessful attempt to be posted to China. Instead he began to travel through southern Italy, studying the volcanoes of the region and, in 1638, he climbed Mount Vesuvius near Naples and had himself lowered into its fiery maw. "The whole area was lit up by the fires," he wrote, as quoted in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, "and the glowing sulphur and bitumen [coal] produced an intolerable vapor. It was just like hell, only lacking the demons to complete the picture." Kircher eventually synthesized his investigations of geology into a book called Mundus subterraneus , (The Subterranean World, 1665).
As a result of his growing reputation, Kircher was allowed to stop teaching and devote all his time to pure research. During the 1650s and 1660s he wrote most of his books and made his most noteworthy and unusual discoveries. They covered an enormous variety of subjects. In 1646 his Ars magna lucis et umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadows) described the magic lantern, a forerunner of the slide projector, in detail. The idea of projecting drawings on glass onto a wall existed before Kircher, but he was the first to treat the phenomenon rationally. Kircher experimented with clocks and constructed new musical instruments. He teamed with the sculptor and designer Gian Lorenzo Bernini in installing the Egyptian obelisk that still stands at the center of the Piazza Navona in Rome.
He owned a microscope and used it, when plague ravaged Rome in 1656, to examine the bodily fluids of some of the many plague sufferers under his care. He saw small organisms in the blood that he thought caused the disease—an unheard-of idea at the time, but one that evolved into the modern germ theory of infection (it is not clear exactly what he saw). Kircher was an early advocate of such measures as quarantine in combating the plague. He immersed himself in biblical history and devoted one book (in 1675) to a massive attempt to understand Noah's Ark and the question of how all the species of animals in the world could have fit on one boat, however large. His treatise, festooned with diagrams, involved ingenious speculations as to how some animals, such as insects, might have arisen spontaneously in the epochs since biblical times.
Indeed, Kircher's varied researches might be seen as part of a wider effort to understand the entire history of the world according to a literal biblical viewpoint. However, Kircher may have worked to subvert that viewpoint as well. His research into the ancient world likely suggested to him that the biblical account of creation was not literally true; at one point he wrote out a list of Egyptian kings indicating, as Sarah Boxer noted in the New York Times , "that Egypt existed long before the world was even supposed to have been created." Yet Kircher was careful not to go too far in questioning religious orthodoxy. Although he likely realized the truth of the discovery by Nicolas Copernicus and Galileo Galilei that the earth revolved around the sun, he did not publicly back the idea.
That restraint formed part of the reason Kircher's work eventually fell out of favor. In his day he was an internationally famous figure, his books in demand all over the Christian world, even in the Western Hemisphere. The self-taught and erudite Mexican nun and writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was one of his admirers. Kircher's lavishly illustrated volumes, Paula Findlen told Boxer, were "the first great coffee-table books," prized by educated readers everywhere. But by the end of his lifetime new intellectual trends were taking hold, as the foundation of the individual modern arts and sciences appeared to make Kircher's "Renaissance man" approach obsolete. Rationalist figures such as the French philosopher René Descartes questioned Kircher's ideas.
In his later years Kircher continued to write and to break new ground. In an age when maps often bore little resemblance to terrestrial reality, he created a map of China whose shape came close to the actual boundaries of Chinese dominions. In one book he attempted to create a universal language. Yet he also seemed to deploy his vast knowledge in playful ways. In the 1670s he opened the Museum Kircherianum, one of the first public museums, in which he displayed many of the fruits of his inventiveness. He made robot-like models, equipping them with speaking tubes so that an automaton would seem to greet visitors from another room. He built a box of mirrors that would create a cascade of optical illusions and hopelessly confuse an unfortunate cat that he would place inside the container.
Kircher died in Rome on November 27, 1680. His heart was buried separately from the rest of his body. For most of the next three centuries he was almost unknown except to specialists and Jesuit historians, but the late twentieth century saw a sharp revival of his reputation. To use Boxer's words, "His subversiveness, his celebrity, his technomania, and his bizarre eclecticism" all echoed traits of contemporary culture. The Museum of Jurassic Culture in Culver City, California, devoted a large permanent exhibit to Kircher, and a variety of new books and scholarly conferences have investigated his remarkable legacy.
Findlen, Paula, ed., Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything , Routledge, 2004.
Godwin, Joscelyn, Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge , Thames and Hudson, 1979.
Chronicle of Higher Education , May 28, 2002.
International Herald Tribune , March 17, 2001.
New York Times , July 4, 1999; May 25, 2002.
"Athanasius Kircher," Catholic Encyclopedia , http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08661a.htm (January 22, 2007).
"Athanasius Kircher, S.J.," Contributions from the Museum of Jurassic Technology: Collections and Exhibitions, http://www.mjt.org/exhibits/kircher.html (January 22, 2007).