Tuesday, September 20, 2005

St. Eustace, Athanasius Kircher, and wonder

Today is the feast day for St. Eustace, the patron saint for hunters and those in difficult situations; he plays a small role in the literature of wonder, primarily for the lasting fascination of Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher with the Roman-general-turned-martyr.

Eustace hart
Detail, The Conversion of St. Eustace
at Mentorella; from Historia
Eustachio-Mariana (1655)

(For those of you who make it to Los Angeles, a very good exhibition on the Baroque polymath—“The World is Bound With Secret Knots: The Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher”—may be found at the exceptional Museum of Jurassic Technology, a stop that should be on any Southland itinerary.) Eustace, then known as Placidus, was tracking a hart when he was confronted by a vision of a crucifix in the stag’s antlers. From Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints (c. 1260),

Christ then spoke to Placidus through the stag’s mouth, as once he had spoken through the mouth of Balaam’s ass. The Lord said: “O Placidus, why are you pursuing me? For your sake I have appeared to you as this animal. I am the Christ, whom you worship without knowing it. Your alms have risen before me, and for this purpose I have come, that through this deer which you hunted, I myself might hunt you!”

In the autumn of his career, Kircher stepped down from his post at the Collegio Romano, an imposing complex built atop the ruins of the Roman temple of Isis, and began to walk the countryside in support of a “speculative reconstruction of Roman prehistory and physical survey of the contemporaneous landscape,” according to MJT. “It was on one of these walks, in the countryside surrounding Marino, that Kircher stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient church. An inscription near the moldering altar identified the shrine as the site of St. Eustachius’s conversion to Christianity.” [“Eustachius” is an alternate name.]


Often, Kircher is popularly represented as the “last man who knew everything” or the “first postmodern thinker,” but this doesn’t quite capture what was special about him. A mathematician, he was in the business of finding the essence of systems, and forever chasing things like universal language and magnetism, which he saw as a grand unifying force of the physical and emotional spheres (the latter concerned with attraction and repulsion, for instance). Not a genius in the sense the word is usually understood, Kircher was able to see underlying connections between nearly anything, the source of his brilliance (and also his Achilles heel—most of his scholarship would come to be wrong). His most enduring legacy was his museum, a “theatre of nature and art,” and one of the first recognizably modern such institutions: showcased were natural collections and taxonomies and “miraculous objects” intermingled with works of fine art. It is his ethos of wonder, his openness to wonder, that marks his remarkable output.

Eustace hart
Eustace brazen bull

Details from The Legend of St.
, from Golden Legend
(courtesy Institute for Research on
the History of Texts)

Kircher eventually restored the chapel commemorating Eustace’s conversion to its original splendor—the saint enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the late Middle Ages, where his story was written, illustrated, and represented (some details are pictured to the right, and a number of Eustace-related reliquaries may be seen here and here. His legend has elements of the story of Job and something of Oedipus, too—Eustace loses his wealth, his status, and his family, is eventually reunited with them after many years of suffering but is rebuked by Hadrian, and martyred, with his family, in a brazen bull. (There is also the trial of being fed to the lions, where the beasts demur in his presence.)

St. Eustace roof detail
Detail, roof of Il Gesu, the cathedral of
St. Eustace, Rome (photo by the
author; additional photos here and

Rome’s Sant’Eustachio district is the home to Kircher’s grave, a site I was thrilled to visit this past January: in 1680, Kircher was buried at Il Gesu, a chapel near the Roman College [detail, inset left]. Towards the end of his life, Kircher spent more and more time—including most of his last decade, and all of his last two years—at the chapel in Mentorella, caring for pilgrims and engaging in spiritual exercises. Upon his interment, the man’s heart was transported to the rejuvenated shrine—the site of at least two rebirths—and buried beneath the altar of Kircher’s beloved Church of St. Eustace.

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Blogger Anonymous said...

Wow. Thanks for a really great post.

2:15 AM  
Anonymous uhjim said...

ecellent post.
museum of jurassic
technology! Thanks.

4:11 AM  

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