Honored with gigantic titles such as:
- “Master of a Hundred Arts” (Conor Reilly, 1974)
- “The Last Man who Knew Everything” (Paula Findlen, 2004)
- “one of the last thinkers who could rightfully claim all knowledge as his domain” (Alan Cutler, 2003)
- “The Last Renaissance Man” (Edward W. Schmidt in Company Magazine, Winter 2001-2002),
Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) was a German Catholic (Jesuit) priest and scholar who worked across the areas of comparative religion, geology, technology, medicine, music, Egyptology and Sinology.
The youngest of nine children, Kircher was born in the town of Geisa (central Germany) in either 1601 or 1602 in a pious and scholarly family. He attended the Jesuit College in Fulda and later studied philosophy and theology at Paderborn. He was taught Hebrew by a rabbi as a young boy. Through his twenties, he taught Hebrew, Syriac, ethics, mathematics in the capacities of a teacher and a professor, while gradually developing interests in mechanical devices and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Science writer Michon Scott, in an article on strangescience.net, writes that:
By the time he was in his thirties, he [Kircher] had lived through storms at sea, been washed down a river, escaped the plague, narrowly avoided trampling by horses, even survived an accidental trip through the grinding wheel of a mill. He had also, he said, survived a hernia and gangrene — maladies remedied through ardent prayer. Most foolhardy of all, he had refused to disguise himself in “worldly” clothes while traveling through Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. His Jesuit robes attracted the unwelcome attention of some Protestant soldiers who nearly hanged him from a tree until one of them, moved by his courage, had a change of heart.
Ordained to the priesthood in 1628, Kircher spent some time in France in the early 1630s. In 1633, he was summoned to Vienna by the emperor to succeed Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) as Mathematician to the court of the House of Habsburg (the order was later repealed). Kircher eventually landed in Rome and in 1938, began teaching physics, mathematics and languages at the Collegio Romano (founded in 1551 by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits), where he also built a curiosity cabinet called the Kircherianum. After teaching for several years, Kircher decided to devote his time and energy to research. He died in 1680. He body was buried at the Church of the Gesù near Collegio Romano – except his heart, which was laid to rest in Mentorella, an old church outside Rome believed to have been constructed by Constantine, for the restoration of which, in the 1660s, Kircher had raised money.
1631-onwards, Kircher produced a number of books (he wrote in Latin) on a wide variety of subjects. He did not cleanly compartmentalise disciplines (as is the standard today) but used a syncretic approach to knowledge. His first book Ars Magnesia was a study of magnetism.
His most important work is Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652-55) – a work of Egyptology which included Greek myth, Chaldean astrology, Latin philology, Hebrew kabbalah, Arabia alchemy and Pythagorean mathematics. In a 2005 book on the impact of the Catholic Church on Western civilisation, the American historian and economist Thomas E. Woods especially noted Kircher’s influence on the study of ancient Egypt. He compared Kircher to the Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and to fellow Jesuit polymath Roger Boscovich (1711-1787) for his versatility, then moved on to write:
His work in chemistry helped to debunk alchemy, which had been seriously entertained even by the likes of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry…Kircher’s interests also included a fascination with ancient Egypt, where he distinguished himself in scholarship. Thus, for example, he showed that the Coptic language was actually a vestige of early Egyptian. He has been called the real founder of Egyptology, no doubt because his work was carried out before the 1799 discovery of the Rosetta stone rendered Egyptian hieroglyphics comprehensible to scholars. Indeed it was “because of Kircher’s work that scientists knew what to look for when interpretating the Rosetta stone.” Thus a modern scholar of ancient Egypt could conclude, “It is therefore Kircher’s incontestable merit that he was the first to have discovered the phonetic value of an Egyptian hieroglyph. From a humanistic as well as an intellectual point of view Egyptology may very well be proud of having Kircher as its founder.”
In 1667, Kircher published a treatise called China monumentis, qua sacris qua profanis, nec non variis naturae & artis spectaculis, aliarumque rerum memorabilium argumentis illustrata, simply known “China Illustrata”, in which he mixed fact and fiction regarding Chinese history and culture. However, the book did feature fairly accurate cartography.
His Mundus Subterraneus of 1665 was a geographical study of the earth.
Kircher recorded his views on music in Musurgia Universalis (1650). This book also contains an illustration of human, cow, horse, dog, leopard, cat, rat, pig, sheep and goose ears.
In addition to music theory, Kircher also wrote music of his own. A composition of his called “Tarantella Napoletana, Tono Hypodorico” has been performed by the European early music group L’Arpeggiata [“early music” is a term that covers Medieval (500-1400), Renaissance (1400-1600) and often Baroque (1600-1760) but excludes Classical (1730-1820) Western music]. Tarantella is a rapid dance form originating in southern Italy.
Enjoy the melodious piece below!
Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World: His Life, Work, and the Search for Universal Knowledge (2015) by Joscelyn Godwin
A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change (2013) by John Glassie
Featured: Portrait of Kircher at age 53 from Mundus Subterraneus (1664), Wikipedia [Public Domain]