Kircher, Athanasius

views updated May 23 2018


(b. Geisa at the Ulster, Germany, 2 May 1602 [or 1601]; d. Rome, Italy, 27 November 1680).

For the original article on Kircher see DSB, vol. 7.

Scholarly work since the 1980s on Kircher has considerably enriched people’s understanding of the life and work of this seventeenth-century polymath. While an earlier literature primarily sifted through Kircher’s encyclopedic publications to find individual instances in which he offered new information, provided the occasional insight regarding some unexplored aspect of the natural world, or introduced a novel machine, more recent scholarship has tried to assess the goals of Kircher’s numerous projects to harmonize and synthesize knowledge. Rather than dismissing Kircher as an intellectual dilettante who wrote about the wonders of nature and the mysteries of science simply to amuse a baroque audience, historians in the early twenty-first century see Kircher as an exemplary figure in understanding the transition from ancient to modern ways of thinking about the world. He was a man who immersed himself in the currents of scholarship at the height of the seventeenth century while publicly proclaiming the value of traditional learning and faith. Most importantly, he was a fascinating by-product of the Society of Jesus: a Catholic natural philosopher in the age of Galileo, Descartes, and a young Newton, a Jesuit priest whose goal was to incorporate aspects of the new natural and experimental philosophy and a fuller understanding of ancient (especially Neoplatonic and Hermetic) philosophies of knowledge into the traditional Aristotelian-Ptolemaic worldview upheld by the Catholic Church following its condemnation of heliocentrism in 1616 and the trial of Galileo in 1633.

The results of Kircher’s speculations were often far from orthodox. It is now known that Jesuit censors critiqued important works such as the Oedipus Aegyptiacus, Mundus subterraneus, and Itinerarium exstaticum prior to their publication on precisely these grounds. The Itinerarium exstaticum, in particular, continued to be criticized and revised after its initial appearance in 1656 for being too favorable toward Copernicanism and too willing to embrace other controversial ideas such as the infinity of space in the way in which it presented the truth of Tychonic astronomy, the official cosmology of the Society of Jesus since 1620. As has been recently argued by Carlos Ziller Camenietski, Ingrid Rowland, and Harald Siebert, Kircher was a man trying to invent a new cosmology— one that incorporated the findings of early-seventeenth-century astronomy and physics into a philosophy deeply indebted to antiquity but also to philosophers such as Nicolas Cusanus and Giordano Bruno.

Research on Kircher since the 1980s has made greater use of unpublished manuscripts and his correspondence (with more than 760 patrons, natural philosophers, experimenters, Jesuit missionaries, and curious admirers) while also offering fresh readings of his published works. The foundational work of John Fletcher and other scholars helped to identify the importance of his letters in understanding his relationship to such important figures as Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, Cassiano dal Pozzo, Marin Mersenne, Pierre Gassendi, Francesco Redi, Evangelista Torricelli, Johannes Marcus Marci, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Subsequent work has tried to assess his place in the seventeenth-century republic of letters as a purveyor of interesting information, collector of curious artifacts, and disseminator of new ideas and discoveries in his numerous, highly illustrated encyclopedias. Modern facsimiles and translations of a number of Kircher’s most important books have been published, and the nucleus of his manuscripts (fourteen folio volumes housed in the archive of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana in Rome, MSS 555–568) is available in a digital edition as The Athanasius Kircher Correspondence Project. Several museum exhibits (most notably, a temporary one in Rome at Palazzo Venezia in 2001 and a permanent one at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California) have attempted to reconstruct some of Kircher’s machines and even to re-create his entire gallery in the Roman College. Rather than being perceived as a secondary figure of the Scientific Revolution—a man who amused many but enlightened few—Kircher might now be described as a scholar-impresario who sought to reveal the hidden connections among different kinds of learning in order to provide a grand, unified scheme of knowledge. Kircher’s unbridled egoism, his failure to fulfill his vast ambitions, and his inability to see the shortcomings of his intellectual program infuriated his critics. At the same time, he also inspired many readers of his books and many visitors to his museum to consider the important scientific and antiquarian questions of his day. In short, Kircher is a fascinating reflection of why and how science mattered in the mid-seventeenth century.

Early Years . Admitted as a student at the Jesuit college in Paderborn on 2 October 1618, Kircher completed his novitiate in 1620. His early reputation as a scholar of ancient languages was soon coupled with a growing interest in mathematics and astronomy. A chance encounter in the Jesuit college library of Speyer with a book on Egyptian hieroglyphics, probably Johann Georg Herwath von Hohenburg’s Thesaurus hieroglyphicorum, inspired Kircher to request a missionary posting in the Near East in 1628. He would repeat this request again in 1637 (earlier Kircher scholarship frequently stated that he had wanted to go to China, misunderstanding the Orient of his dreams because of his subsequent publication China monumentis illustrata in 1667). Both times the Society of Jesus refused to send him, considering Kircher to be better suited to a professorial career and more valuable as a publisher of missionary reports on the natural and human wonders of Asia, America, and the Near East than as an apostle in the field.

While teaching in Koblenz in 1623 Kircher built the first of many sundials. In 1630, during his tenure as a professor at the Jesuit college in Würzburg, he completed his first book: his unpublished mathematics textbook, Institutiones mathematicae. A year later the Ars magnesia, a slim pamphlet outlining the basic principles of universal magnetism as the underlying force in Kircher’s natural philosophy, became his first publication. By the time Kircher arrived in Avignon, France, in 1632, where he was appointed professor of mathematics and Oriental languages at the Jesuit college and quickly befriended the Aix savant Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, he had a strong sense of how to realize his ambitions. He built an even more elaborate sundial that demonstrated his skills in the science of optics as well as astronomy and mathematics and began demonstrating his fabled sunflower clock, a heliotropic plant whose ability to tell time allegedly demonstrated the inherent properties of magnetism in all parts of the natural world. Kircher also promised to show Peiresc a mysterious Arabic manuscript in his possession, attributed to the Babylonian rabbi Barachias Nephi and containing knowledge, according to Kircher, that would help him interpret the proper meaning of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and all the ancient secrets of Christianity.

Although Peiresc never did see the manuscript and began to express reservations about Kircher’s abilities as a linguistic and experimental philosopher, he was nonetheless intrigued enough to persuade the Jesuit general Muzio Vitelleschi and Cardinal Francesco Barberini to have Kircher appointed as professor of mathematics and Oriental languages at the Roman College in November 1633, succeeding Christoph Scheiner in the chair made famous by the Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius. Peiresc certainly was fascinated with the new astronomy ushered in by Galileo’s telescope, as was Kircher. However, he considered his Jesuit protègè’s primary function in Rome to be antiquarian and Christian: Peiresc wanted Kircher to edit and translate Pietro della Valle’s Coptic grammar and dictionary, considered the linguistic key to the interpretation of the hieroglyphs. Kircher eventually published it in his Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta (1643), one of many books advertising his ability to decode the hieroglyphs and, more generally, to penetrate the mysteries of Egyptian wisdom throughout his lengthy career. Once in Rome, however, he did not neglect to cultivate his reputation on all fronts, presenting himself as a natural philosopher, inventor, linguist, and antiquarian. News of the sunflower clock even reached the ears of Galileo, now under house imprisonment in Arcetri, whose advocacy of heliocentrism Kircher had discussed sympathetically with Peiresc and Pierre Gassendi in Aix, before Galileo’s condemnation in June 1633.

Work in Earth Science . During a trip to Malta as the confessor of the recently converted Landgraf Friedrich of Hesse-Darmstadt, Kircher created his most spectacular instrument yet: the Specula Melitensis (1638), which contained a planisphere, kept track of the Julian and Gregorian calendars, told universal time, charted horoscopes, and condensed all important medical, botanical, alchemical, Hermetic, and magical knowledge into a single cube known as the “cabalistic mirror.” Returning to Rome, he witnessed the eruptions of Etna and Stromboli and observed the crater of Vesuvius in 1638. His observations of nature’s spectacle in southern Italy inspired a lifelong fascination with those aspects of nature that he would aptly call the “subterranean world.” The Mundus subterraneus (1665) was the first encyclopedia to systematically explore the forces that shaped the world below the surface, including the nature and location of volcanoes, earthquakes, ocean currents, and the formation of fossils. Written from the reports of Jesuit missionaries throughout the world, it was a truly global natural history.

As Kircher developed a nascent interest in what is now called geology and paleontology, he was also bringing to fruition his work on universal magnetism and optics. The publication of his Magnes sive de arte magnetica (1641) cemented Kircher’s reputation as the foremost “magnetic philosopher” since William Gilbert at the beginning of the century. Mersenne provided observations for the table of magnetic declination, forwarding data from his English correspondents. Gassendi, Jesuit mathematicians and natural philosophers such as Christoph Scheiner and Niccolò Cabeo, and Jesuit missionaries in Goa, Macao, Canton, and the West Indies also contributed to Kircher’s project. The Magnes was the first work in which Kircher demonstrated his ability to create a global network of informants, using the combined resources of the Society of Jesus and the European republic of letters to gather information. It also contained his first report—an account he received from the Italian province of Puglia—of the use of music to cure a tarantula’s bite. While highly criticized by some readers for its speculative leaps in attempting to create a full unified account of the forces of nature, it was sufficiently well read to warrant two further editions in 1643 and 1654.

On Light . Kircher’s Ars magna lucis et umbrae, a fascinating encyclopedia on the subject of light and shadow, appeared in 1646, the year in which he ceased to have any regular teaching duties at the Roman College, which allowed him to pursue his publications and inventions without impediment. Filled with descriptions of optical and catoptrical devices such as Archimedes’s burning mirror and the magic lantern that continues to be associated with Kircher more than almost any other invention, it enjoyed a similarly mixed reputation. While many readers lingered on the lavish illustrations, fantasizing about how they might re-create Kircher’s machines, others, such as Torricelli and Mersenne, laughed themselves silly over the Jesuit’s claim to have squared the circle through a demonstrably imprecise mathematical proof, which confirmed their suspicions that Kircher did not exactly represent the cutting edge of mathematics.

Understanding the nature of light was one of the central questions of natural philosophy in the mid-seventeenth century, as was the phenomenon of magnetism, which would ultimately interest Isaac Newton in his student days at Cambridge before he rejected its universality in favor of something less tangible and more universal: the idea of universal gravitation. Kircher’s virtue was to recognize the significance of these questions. He attempted to collect all the relevant information and began to analyze it. While his conclusions often seemed flawed to the most critical and knowledgeable readers at the time, they nonetheless mined his books for useful data and specific insights that they might incorporate into their own natural philosophies. A similar tendency can be seen in Kircher’s Musurgia universalis (1650), which attempted to build on the work of such well-known scholars as Kepler and Mersenne in exploring the idea of universal harmony. Like many of Kircher’s other works, it was a book filled with fascinating descriptions and illustrations, in this case of sound-making machines and automata, including the hydraulic organ he helped to restore at the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome. The machines made a much greater impression on readers than his theories.

Museum Curator and Antiquarian . One year after the publication of this book Kircher was offered the opportunity to become the custodian of the newly created Roman College museum. In 1651 Alfonso Donnino donated his collection of art and antiquities to the Society of Jesus, requesting that it be displayed in the Roman College. Kircher already had a collection of manuscripts, curiosities, and inventions which he had been showing to visitors in his private quarters at the college since the mid-1630s. The creation of an official Jesuit museum allowed him the opportunity to put his own things on display in the new exhibit space. Visitors had virtually nothing to say about Donnino’s collection, since it was far less spectacular than the experience of meeting Father Athanasius in a gallery filled with miniature replicas of the obelisks he had deciphered for the popes; a rubbing of the Nestorian monument and numerous other antiquities; globes, clocks, and magnetic, optical, musical, and perpetual motion machines; his famous speaking tube and magic lantern; and numerous artifacts either gathered by Kircher or donated by Jesuits, patrons, and admirers throughout the world. Posthumously the collection would be known as the Kircherian Museum. It helped to cement Kircher’s image as a kind of baroque Leonardo da Vinci who did not simply sketch his fantasies but attempted to realize them in three-dimensional form.

Although the previous DSB entry did not discuss the Oedipus Aegyptiacus (printed in several parts in 1652–1654 and published in final form in 1655) as part of Kircher’s scientific corpus, subsequent research has persuasively argued that Kircher’s science cannot be separated from his antiquarian pursuits. The most ambitious of Kircher’s numerous books on Egypt, the Oedipus was a vast study of hieroglyphic wisdom made manifest across time and space. Filled with Kircher’s research on such subjects as Jewish Kabbalah, Persian magic, Islamic alchemy, Chaldean astrology, Zoroastrian mysteries, and many other ancient sciences, it reflected his ongoing desire to identify the commonalities between ancient wisdom and modern knowledge. In the Oedipus, for example, Kircher upheld the fundamental importance of the Corpus Hermeticum as a document that demonstrated the essential connection between pagan Egypt and early Christianity (despite having been discredited by Isaac Casaubon as a late antique forgery in 1614). He demonstrated the Egyptian origins of John Dee’s enigmatic Monas hieroglyphica (Hieroglyphic monad) and, more generally, offered an extensive critique of the flourishing of occult philosophy since the early Renaissance, dismissing philosophers who by his standards had abused this science and praising scholars such as Pico della Mirandola who had helped to lay its foundations as a pious pursuit. Kircher’s quest for universal wisdom was also an exploration of the universality of Roman Catholicism. Jesuit censors critiqued the Oedipus for being far too admiring of its pagan sources—which it surely was. But they nonetheless let it appear, allowing readers to enjoy the fruits of Kircher’s lengthy reflection on the ways in which Egyptian wisdom had shaped the nature of human knowledge across the centuries and how Jesuit missionaries in Asia and America had rediscovered the message of Christianity in the “hieroglyphic” writings of the Chinese and the Aztecs.

Publications . In 1652 Kircher renewed his acquaintance with his most important disciple, Kaspar Schott. Called to Rome by the Society of Jesus to assist Kircher with his numerous projects, Schott temporarily became the curator of machines at the Roman College museum. He ultimately published a series of important works that advertised the virtues of Kircher’s inventions. Schott not only helped Kircher with the publication of the Oedipus but played an especially important role in the appearance of the Itinerarium exstaticum (1656), editing the manuscript substantially in the second edition of 1660 to tone down its favorable allusions to aspects of heliocentrism. Schott returned to his position as professor of mathematics at the Jesuit college in Würzburg in 1655, where he continued to edit and publicize Kircher’s work for the rest of his career. He was the most important of several loyal disciples committed to promulgating Kircherian experimental and natural philosophy in the mid-seventeenth century.

Despite the controversies over the Itinerarium exstaticum, by the 1660s Kircher was at the height of his career as one of the best-known authors of his time. In 1661 he signed a contract with Joannes Jansson van Waesberghe of Amsterdam, who received the exclusive rights to publish Kircher’s work in the Holy Roman Empire, England, and the Low Countries in the winter of that year in return for paying Kircher the princely sum of 2,200 scudi. In addition to his many and diverse publications on natural philosophy, Kircher began to publicize another dimension of his research: his ability to create universal and artificial languages. Publications such as his Polygraphia nova et universalis (1663) demonstrated numerous ciphers and codes but also explored the uses of machines in the creation and translation of language. His work in this area not only complemented the research of John Wilkins but also inspired a young Leibniz, who was equally intrigued by Kircher’s writings on Egypt and China.

By the 1670s Kircher’s findings and his philosophy were increasingly under attack and his health was failing, forcing others to step in to defend him. Kircher’s disciple, Gioseffo Petrucci, countered the Tuscan physician and naturalist Francesco Redi’s trenchant criticisms of the miraculous curative powers of the snakestone (a missionary artifact from Asia described in Kircher’s China monumentis illustrata) in his Prodomo apologetico alli studi Chircheriani (1677). One year later his assistant Giorgio de Sepi published the Romani Collegii Societatis Jesu Musaeum celeberrimum (1678), as much a monument to Kircher as to his museum. In the final year of Kircher’s life Johann Koestler produced a well-illustrated digest of Kircher’s best experiments in his Physiologia Kircheriana experimentalis (1680). Two years after Kircher’s death the Prague Jesuit Caspar Knittel offered a final tribute to Father Athanasius, especially to his highly criticized Ars magna sciendi (1669), by publishing the Via Regia ad omnes scientias et artes. Hoc est: Ars universalis, scientiarum omnium artiumque arcana facilius penetrandi (1682). Described in the subtitle as a “Universal Lullian-Kircherian Art of Knowing and Examining,” it was the last treatise to openly advocate Kircherian natural philosophy as the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe. In the age of Newton—who, like Leibniz, was fascinated with many of the questions that animated Kircher’s work while ultimately arriving at completely different conclusions—the age of the universal baroque polymath had passed.


Since 2000, the number of modern facsimile editions of Kircher’s works, published primarily in Italy and Germany, has increased considerably. See especially the Editiones Neolatinae series published by A. W. F. Sommer in Vienna, which has printed many of these volumes since 2004. The only modern English translation of Kircher’s work is the China Illustrata, translated by Charles D. Van Tuyl (Muskogee, OK: Indian University Press, Bacone College, 1987), which should be used with caution in relation to the Latin original. For an introduction to Kircher’s manuscripts in the archive of the Gregorian University in Rome, see “A Brief Survey of the Unpublished Correspondence of Athanasius Kircher S.J. (1602–80),” by John E. Fletcher ( Manuscripta 13 (1969): 150–160).


“Juan Caramuel: Su epistolario con Atanasio Kircher, S.J.” Transcribed by Ramón Ceñal. Revista de Filosofia 44 (1953): 101–148.

“Drei unbekannte Briefe Athanasius Kirchers an Fürstabt Joachim von Gravenegg.” Transcribed by John E. Fletcher. Fuldaer Geschichtsblätter 58 (1982): 92–104.

Astronomia e tecniche di ricerca nelle lettere di G. B. Riccioli ad A. Kircher. Transcribed by Ivana Gambaro. Genoa: Quaderni Centro di Studio sulla Storia della Tecnica del Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche 15, 1989.

“Le Lettere di Athanasius Kircher della Biblioteca Nazionale di Firenze.” Transcribed by Alfonso Mirto. Atti e Memorie dell’Accademia Toscana di Scienze e Lettere La Colombaria 54, n.s. 40 (1989): 129–165.

La luz imaginaria: Epistolario de Atanasio Kircher con los Novohispanos. Edited and translated by Ignacio Osorio Romero. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autonóma de Mèxico, 1993.

“Lettere di Athanasius Kircher dell’Archivio di Stato di Firenze.” Transcribed by Alfonso Mirto. Atti e Memorie dell’Accademia Toscana di Scienze e Lettere La Colombaria 65, n.s. 51 (2000): 217–240.

Athanasius Kircher an Herzog August der Jünger: Lateinische Briefe der Jahre 1650–1666 aus den Sammlungen der Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel—Transkription und Übersetzung. Edited by Thomas Stäcker. Available from

The Athanasius Kircher Correspondence Project. Edited by Michael John Gorman and Nick Wilding. Available from (earlier version at


Arecco, Davide. Sogno di Minerva: La scienza fantastica di Athanasius Kircher. Padua: Cooperativa Libraria Editrece Università di Padova (CLEUP), 2002.

Athanasius Kircher y la ciencia del siglo XVII. Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2001.

Bach, Josè Alfredo. “Athanasius Kircher and His Method: A Study in the Relations of the Arts and Sciences in the Seventeenth Century.” PhD diss., University of Oklahoma, 1985.

Baldwin, Martha. Athanasius Kircher and the Magnetic Philosophy. PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1987.

———. “The Snakestone Experiments: An Early Modern Medical Debate.” Isis 86 (1995): 394–418.

Bartòla, Alberto. “Alessandro VII e Athanasius Kircher S.I. Ricerche e appunti sulla loro corrispondenza erudita e sulla storia di alcuni codici chigiani.” Miscellanea Bibliothecae Apostolicae Vaticanae 3 (1989): 7–105.

Belloni, Luigi. “Athansius Kircher: Seine Mikroscopie, die Animalcula und die Pestwürmer.” Medizinhistorisches Journal 20 (1985): 58–65.

Camenietzki, Carlos Ziller. “L’Extase interplanetaire d’Athanasius Kircher: Philosophie, cosmologie et discipline dans la Compagnie de Jèsus au XVIIe siècle.” Nuncius 10 (1995): 3–32.

———. L’harmonie du monde au XVIIe siècle: Essai sur la pensée scientifique d’Athanasius Kircher. PhD diss., Universitède Paris IV–Sorbonne, 1995.

Casciato, Maristella, Maria Grazia Ianniello, and Maria Vitale, eds. Enciclopedismo in Roma barocca: Athanasius Kircher e il Museo del Collegio Romano tra Wunderkammer e museo scientifico. Venice: Marsilio, 1986.

Chevalley, Catherine. “L’Ars magna lucis et umbrae d’Athanase Kircher: NØoplatonisme, hermètisme et ‘nouvelle philosophie.’” Baroque 12 (1987): 95–109.

Corradino, Saverio. “Athanasius Kircher: ‘Damnatio memoriae’ e revisione in atto.” Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu 59 (1990): 3–26.

———. “L’Ars magna lucis et umbrae di Athanasius Kircher.” Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu 62 (1993): 249–279.

———. “Athanasius Kircher matematico.” Studi secenteschi 37 (1996): 159–180.

Englmann, Felicia. Sphärenharmonie und Mikrokosmos: Das politische Denken des Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680). Cologne, Germany: Böhlau, 2006.

Evans, R. J. W. The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1550–1700: An Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

Feingold, Mordechai, ed. Jesuit Science and the Republic of Letters. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

Findlen, Paula. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California, 1994.

———. “Scientific Spectacle in Baroque Rome: Athanasius Kircher and the Roman College Museum.” Roma Moderna e Contemporanea 3 (1995): 625–665.

———. “The Janus Faces of Science in the Seventeenth Century: Athanasius Kircher and Isaac Newton.” In Rethinking the Scientific Revolution, edited by Margaret J. Osler. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

———, ed. The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Athanasius Kircher. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Fletcher, John E. “Claude Fabri de Peiresc and the Other French Correspondents of Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680).” Australian Journal of French Studies 9 (1972): 250–273.

———. “Johann Marcus Marci Writes to Athanasius Kircher.” Janus 59 (1972): 95–118.

———, ed. Athanasius Kircher und seine Beziehungen zum gelehrten Europa seiner Zeit. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1988.

Godwin, Joscelyn. Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.

Gómez de Liaño, Josè Ignacio. Athanasius Kircher: Itinerario del éxtasis o las imagines de un saber universal. 2 vols. Madrid: Ediciones Siruela, 1986.

Gorman, Michael John. The Scientific Counter-Revolution: Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Experimentalism in Jesuit Culture 1580–ca. 1670. PhD diss., European University Institute, 1998.

———, and Nick Wilding. La technica curiosa di Kaspar Schott. Rome: Edizioni dell’Elefante, 2000.

Hankins, Thomas L., and Robert J. Silverman. Instruments and the Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Hein, Olaf. Die Drucker und Verleger der Werke des Polyhistors Athanasius Kircher S.J. Cologne, Germany: Böhlau, 1993.

Hellyer, Marcus. “‘Because the Authority of My Superiors Commands’: Censorship, Physics, and the German Jesuits.” Early Science and Medicine 1 (1996): 319–354.

Kramer, Roswitha. “‘ … ex ultimo angulo orbis’: Atanasio Kircher y el Nuevo Mundo.” In Pensamiento europeo y cultura colonial, edited by Karl Kohut and Sonia V. Rose. Frankfurt: Vervuert, 1997.

Leinkauf, Thomas. Mundus combinatus: Studien zur Struktur der barocken Universalwissenschaft am Beispiel Athanasius Kirchers SJ (1602–1680). Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1993.

Lo Sardo, Eugenio, ed. Iconismi e mirabilia da Athanasius Kircher. Rome: Edizioni dell’Elefante, 1999.

———, ed. Athanasius Kircher: Il Museo del Mondo. Rome: Edizioni de Luca, 2001.

Lugli, Aldagisa. “Inquiry as Collection: The Athanasius Kircher Museum in Rome.” RES 12 (1986): 109–124.

Magie des Wissens: Athanasius Kircher (1602–80) Jesuit und Universalgelehrter. Fulda, Germany: Michael Imhof, 2003.

Marrone, Caterina. I geroglifici fantastici di Athanasius Kircher. Viterbo, Italy: Stampa Alternativa & Graffitti, 2002.

McCracken, George E. “Athanasius Kircher’s Universal Polygraphy.” Isis 39: 215–227.

Merrill, Brian L., ed. Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680): Jesuit Scholar. Provo, UT: Friends of the Brigham Young University Library, 1989.

Nocenti, Luca. “Vedere mirabilia: Kircher, Redi, anatre settentrionali, rarità orientali e mosche nel miele.” Rivista di estetica n.s. 19 (2002): 36–60.

Pastine, Dino. La nascita dell’idolatria: L’oriente religioso di Athanasius Kircher. Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1978.

Rivosecchi, Valerio. Esotismo in Roma Barocca: Studi sul Padre Kircher. Rome: Bulzoni, 1982.

Rowland, Ingrid. The Ecstatic Journey: Athanasius Kircher in Baroque Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Scharlau, Ulf. Athanasius Kircher (1601–1680) als Musikschriftsteller: Ein Beitrag zur Musikanschauung des Barock. Kassel: Bärenreiter-Antiquariat, 1969.

Siebert, Harald. Die grosse kosmologische Kontroverse: Rekonstruktionsversuche anhand des Itinerarium exstaticum von Athanasius Kircher SJ (1602–1680). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006.

Stolzenberg, Daniel, ed. The Great Art of Knowing: The Baroque Encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Libraries, 2001.

———. “Lectio Idealis: Theory and Practice in Athanasius Kircher’s Translations of the Hieroglyphs.” In Philosophers and Hieroglyphs, edited by Lucia Morra and Carla Bazzanella. Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier, 2003.

———. Egyptian Oedipus: Antiquarianism, Oriental Studies, and Occult Philosophy in the Work of Athanasius Kircher. PhD diss., Stanford University, 2004.

———. “Oedipus Censored: Censurae of Athanasius Kircher’s Works in the Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu.” Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu 73 (2004): 3–52.

———. “Utility, Edification, and Superstition: Jesuit Censorship and Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus.” In The Jesuits II: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts, 1540–1773, edited by John O’Malley et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

Strasser, Gerhard F. “‘Spectaculum Vesuvii’: Zu zwei neuentdeckten Handschriften von Athanasius Kircher mit seinen Illustrationsvorlagen.” In Theatrum Europaeum: Festschrift für Elida Maria Szarota, edited by Richard Brinkmann et al. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1982.

———.“La contribution d’Athanase Kircher à la tradition humaniste hiØroglyphique.” XVIIe SiØcle 40 (1988): 79–92.

———. “Science and Pseudoscience: Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus and His Scrutinum … Pestis.” In Knowledge, Science, and Literature in Early Modern Germany, edited by Gerhild Scholz Williams and Stephan K. Schindler. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

———. “Athanasius Kircher: Genie und Wagnis eines barocken Universalgelehrten.” In Fuldaer Geschichtsblätter: Zeitschrift des Fuldaer Geschichtsvereins 79 (2003): 85–108.

Szczesniak, Boleslaw. “Athanasius Kircher’s China Illustrata.” Osiris 10 (1952): 385–411.

Wicki, Josef, S.J. “Die Miscellanea Epistolarum des P. Athanasius Kircher, S.J., in Missionarischer Sicht.” Euntes Docete 21 (1968): 221–254.

Paula Findlen

Kircher, Athanasius (1602–1680)

views updated Jun 27 2018


KIRCHER, ATHANASIUS (16021680), German Jesuit polymath and collector. Considered by many to be the greatest polymath in an encyclopedia age, Athanasius Kircher was a scholar who aspired to expertise in many different domains of knowledge and sought connections among them in a quest to recover ancient pansophia (universal wisdom). He corresponded with scholars, princes, popes, and missionaries, and his books traveled to virtually every corner of the globe.

Born in the German town of Geisa, Kircher entered the Society of Jesus in 1616; he completed his novitiate in 1620 and was ordained in Würzburg in 1628. That same year he requested to be sent as a missionary to China (he would make the same request in 1637). The Superior General turned down his request because he felt that Kircher's unique talents would best serve the society closer to home. After teaching mathematics, philosophy, and Syrian at the Jesuit college in Würzburg for several years and developing a reputation as an inventor of sundials, Kircher found himself caught in the vicissitudes of the Thirty Years' War (16181648) and fled Germany. He spent almost two years in Avignon, teaching at the Jesuit college there and cultivating a relationship with the French savant and antiquarian Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc. During this period, he convinced Peiresc that he was the person most capable of deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs through the study of Coptic. Peiresc urged his Roman acquaintances, principally the pope's nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, to find a position for Kircher in the Eternal City in order to realize this project.

Kircher arrived in Rome in November 1633, only months after the condemnation of Galileo for his advocacy of heliocentrism. He succeeded Christoph Scheiner in the prestigious chair of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, the leading educational institution of the Society of Jesus. Save for a brief excursion to Malta and Sicily in 16371638 to accompany a recently converted German prince on his travels, Kircher remained in Rome for the rest of his life. During his long and productive career, he published over thirty encyclopedic works on virtually every imaginable subject, not including the works of disciples such as Kaspar Schott, Giuseffo Petrucci, Johann Kestler, and Francesco Lana Terzi, who published his ideasand often his exact wordsunder their own names. By 1646 his intellectual work had become so valuable and his fame so great the Jesuits relieved him of his teaching duties at the Collegio Romano, allowing him to devote himself fully to his research.

Kircher began his intellectual career with two principal interests: physico-mathematics and ancient Eastern languages and cultures. His earliest publications concerned various mathematical instruments such as the sundial he created in the Jesuit college in Avignon and a multipurpose measuring, calculating, and observational device that he invented during his trip to Malta. By 1636 his first work on Egypt, the Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus (Coptic or Egyptian forerunner), appeared. During the next two decades, Kircher published a series of works on Egyptian language, philosophy, history, and religion, culminating in his massive Oedipus Aegyptiacus (Egyptian Oedipus) of 16521655. In such works, he demonstrated his mastery of hieroglyphsbased on his Neoplatonic understanding of Egyptian as a symbolic and divine language, which bore little resemblance to the early-nineteenth-century decipherment of the Rosetta Stoneand argued strongly that Egypt was a universal source of culture and civilization that had anticipated Christianity with its strong Trinitarian symbolism. Kircher parlayed his expertise into a series of famous interpretations of the principal obelisks of Rome, namely the obelisk erected at the center of the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini's famous fountain in Piazza Navona and the one atop Bernini's elephant in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Kircher assisted Bernini in devising the words beneath each obelisk and published his interpretations of them in 1650 and 1666 respectively.

In addition to his work on Egypt, Kircher was equally prolific and bold in his account of the natural world. In 1641, his popular Magnes sive de Arte Magnetica (The magnet or the magnetic art) appeared, one of several publications in which Kircher argued that magnetism was the principal force organizing and controlling nature. At the same time, he began to develop his ideas on optics, leading to his Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (Great art of light and shadow) of 1646a work filled with numerous optical demonstrations such as Kircher's famous magic lantern. Kircher complemented his work on optics with similarly intensive studies of acoustics in such works as his Musurgia Universalis (Universal music making) of 1650. The hydraulic organ in the Quirinale in Rome still today bears traces of his skills at designing ingenious musical machines that created sound without regular human intervention. Finally, Kircher spent over twenty years developing an explanation of earthquakes, after witnessing the eruption of Mount Etna in his youth. His Mundus Subterraneus (Subterranean world) of 16641665 attempted a comprehensive portrait of all the natural forces that organized the earth, just as his controversial Iter Ecstaticum (Ecstatic journey) of 1656 sought to explain what the cosmos looked like in an imaginative dialogue between an angel and a philosopher who discussed its composition while traveling throughout the heavens.

Kircher's reputation as a man who knew almost everything emanated not only from his publications but from his role as custodian of one of the most famous museums in Europe. Founded in 1651, the museum of the Collegio Romano flourished under his guidance. Kircher filled it with natural objects, machines, antiquities, paintings, and curiosities brought back by missionaries from all over the world. Visitors were enthralled by dancing demons, talking automata, sunflower clocks, Japanese scrolls, Chinese stone rubbings, Greco-Roman and Egyptian fragments, and a seemingly endless series of demonstrations of the powers of the magnet. Kircher parlayed his ability to gather objects and information into expertise on subjects about which he otherwise knew very little. His popular China Illustrata (China illustrated) of 1667, for example, was written without once traveling to Asia or knowing much about its languages, customs, and religions.

Kircher relied upon his ability to command the resources of the entire Jesuit order in the service of a universal account of the presence of Christianity in every corner of the world. His boundless curiosity and energy, a source of wonder in his own lifetime, made him a figure of fun in a later age when scholars such as Leibniz declared that Kircher had written much but known nothing about virtually every interesting subject of his age. He was one of the last great humanistic scholars of the seventeenth century, a man of faith whose vision of the world was as global as the missionary networks of his religious order.

See also Dictionaries and Encyclopedias ; Galileo Galilei ; Jesuits ; Leibniz, Gottried Wilhelm ; Museums ; Peiresc, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de.


Benlich, Horst, et al. Spurensuche. Wege zu Athanasius Kircher. Dettelbach, Germany, 2002.

Findlen, Paula. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley, 1994.

Findlen, Paula, ed. Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. New York, 2003.

Godwin, Joscelyn. Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge. London, 1979.

Leinkauf, Thomas. Mundus Combinatus: Studien zur Struktur der barocken Universalwissenschaft am Beispeil Athanasius Kircher SJ (16021680). Berlin, 1993.

Lo Sardo, Eugenio, ed. Athanasius Kircher S. J. Il Museo del Mondo. Rome, 2001.

Marrone, Caterina. I geroglifici fantastici di Athanasius Kircher. Viterbo, Italy, 2002.

Rowland, Ingrid. The Ecstatic Journey: Athanasius Kircher in Baroque Rome. Chicago, 2000.

Stolzenberg, Daniel, ed. The Great Art of Knowing: The Baroque Encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher. Stanford, 2002.

Paula Findlen

Kircher, Athanasius

views updated May 23 2018

Kircher, Athanasius

(b Geisa at the Ulster, Germany, 2 May 1602 [or 1601]; d. Rome, Italy, 28 November 1680)

polymathy, dissemination of knowledge.

Kircher was the youngest of six sons (there were also three daughters) of Johannes Kircher of Mainz, D.D. and bailiff of the abbey of Fulda, and Anna Gansek of Fulda. He was educated at the Jesuit Gymnasium in Fulda (1614-1618), where he learned Greek and Hebrew, and entered the Society of Jesus in 1616.

He soon afterwards was at Paderborn, where, until 1622, he studied humanities, natural science, and the various disciplines of seventeenth-century mathematics. After fleeing to Münster and Neuss from the volunteer corps of Christian of Brunswick, he continued his studies at Cologne, where he completed his education in philosophy. At Koblenz (1623), he took up humanities and languages and taught Greek. The following year he taught grammar at Heiligenstadt in Saxony, also studying languages and, especially, physical curiosities.

From 1625 to 1628 Kircher studied theology at Mainz; he was ordained a priest in 1628. His surveying work for the elector during this time contributed to his later interest in geography. At Mainz he first used the telescope for his observations, chiefly of sunspots. He then spent the year of probation at Speyer, where he became interested in hieroglyphics after reading a book on obelisks of Rome. In 1628 Kircher was appointed professor of philosophy and mathematics, as well as of Hebrew and Syriac, at the University of Würzburg. Here he had his first exposure to professional medicine. He also wrote and edited his first book, Ars magnesia, which was based on his own experiments.

In 1631, because of the Thirty Years’ War, Kircher fled Würzburg and took his disciple, Caspar Schott, with him. Kircher reached Lyons and was appointed to lecture at Avignon, on papal territory. At Avignon he was engaged in different fields, including astronomy, deciphering hieroglyphics, and surveying. His efforts to design a planetarium, using mirrors to direct the light of the sun and moon into the De La Motte tower of the Jesuit college, resulted in a book on astronomical observations by reflected light and another one on catoptrics.

In Avignon, Kircher met the young J. Höwelcke (Hevelius) and corresponded with Christoph Scheiner. In 1633 he was introduced by N. C. Fabri to Gassendi in Aix. It was also Fabri who advised Kircher to attempt an interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Kircher later edited an improved Coptic grammar (Rome, 1643), recognizing the importance of Coptic in deciphering hieroglyphics.

In 1633 Kircher was appointed by Ferdinand II to a professorship of mathematics in Vienna. But after several shipwrecks, he arrived by chance at Rome, only to learn that he had in the meanwhile been called there—with the intercession of Fabri—by Pope Urban VIII and Cardinal Barberini. In his first years in Rome he worked independently. Later, perhaps in 1638, he was appointed professor of mathematics at the College of Rome. He resigned this post after some eight years. On the whole, he devoted himself to independent studies in this cultural center for some forty-six years until his death.

Some forty-four books and more than 2,000 extant letters and manuscripts attest to the extraordinary variety of his interests and to his intellectual endowments. His studies covered practically all fields both in the humanities and the sciences. This is in harmony with the style of the period, in which polymathy was highly praised. A tendency to deal with curious questions led him to study orientology, including the culture of the Far East. Kircher enjoyed the privilege of living in Rome, the center of a worldwide network of Jesuit missionaries and others who reported on their journeys. Kircher sought to disseminate the knowledge that was at his disposal. His printed works, comprehensive and illustrative, became very popular. Guericke, for example, was greatly indebted to Kircher’s Magnes, sive de arte magnetica (1643), Ars magna lucis et umbrae (1646), Itinerarius exstaticum (1656), and Mundus subterraneus (1665). Schott exchanged letters with Kircher about Guericke’s discoveries, and Jungius and Leibniz quoted from Kircher’s works.

Like Manfredo Settala at Milan, Kircher collected various objects and rarities of nature, art, and superstition. In 1663 Martin Fogel of Hamburg visited “Kircher’s Museum,” as he called it (although it had been founded by Alfonso Donmines in 1650). He recorded his amazement at, for example, a rare piece of wood dug out of the earth; an Antomatum musicum organum; a “Daimunculus in a liquid, ascending, descending, or remaining in the middle of it depending on man’s direction”; and a supposed rib and tail from one of the legendary Sirens. In 1913, relics of Kircher’s museum were divided between the Museo Nazionale Romano, Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo, and Museo Paleoetnografico del Collegio Romano.

Kircher’s diverse studies—including magnetism, optics, astronomy, philology, music theory, acoustics, physics, geology, chemistry, geography, archeology, arithmetic, geometry, theology, philosophy, and medicine—have been only partially explored by specialists as they exist only today, in terms of their own respective sciences.

Certain specific studies by Kircher, however, are worthy of mention. In Ars magnesia he described a device for measuring magnetic power by means of a balance. Later, he carefully compiled measurements of magnetic declination from several places around the world, as reported by Jesuit scholars, and particularly by his disciple Martin Martini (1638), who in a letter suggested the possibility of determining longitudes by the declination of a magnetic needle. Recognizing the importance of this method, Kircher brought it to the attention of the scientific world. Kircher also drew lines from the pole of a terella to the magnetic needle moved around it. In short, magnetism, on which Kircher published five books, was for him an omnibus of scientific and also fantastic theories.

Equally interested in optical phenomena, Kircher was one of the first to report on the fluorescence produced by a tincture of wooden pieces called by the Mexicans “Tlapazalli”; that is, lignum nephriticum. The tincture was used for curing nephritis. Related to the fluorescence was Kircher’s artificial production of the phosphorescent substance first described as Lapis Bononiensis (stone of Bologna) by J.C. La Galla in 1612; its basic material was heavy spar. It was Kircher, too, who first reported on sea phosphorescense of organic origin and on afterimages.

In Ars magna lucis et umbrae, Kircher applied “magna” to “magnes” of his first work. He argued that light—the “attracting magnes of all things” and connected with the heavens by an unknown chain—behaves exactly like the magnes. He discussed the projecting of sunlight or candlelight on plane mirrors, which were painted with colored pictures, or through an illustrated glass sphere. Only Thomas Rasmussen Walgensten (to whom Kircher referred in the second edition in 1671) succeeded in uniting this principle of projecting translucent pictures by rays having a pointlike source with G. Porta’s projection through a hole, to the true magic lantern. Exploring the myth of Archimedes’ burning mirrors, Kircher stated that the more times light is reflected between several plane mirrors, the more burning power the rays will obtain. He thus supported the story of Archimedes’ purported device.

Optics and horology, both allied to astronomy, also interested Kircher. As a young man he had erected sundials at the Jesuit colleges in Koblenz, Heiligenstadt, and Würzburg. later he collected various kinds of clocks, including those powered by “heliotropic revolutions of the seed of the solanum plant.”

In astronomy Kircher made some progress with telescopes. For the first time he depicted Jupiter and Saturn. His chief interest lay in observations of solar and lunar eclipses and of comets. He acted as a clearinghouse, particularly for reports on eclipses, and supplied astronomers including G. B. Riccioli, G. D. Cassini, and Hevelius with valuable information. Kircher was aware of the improbability of any advance on or deviation from the theory of Copernicus but was enthusiastic about Tycho’s system, and he believed—his censors notwithstanding—in the existence of similar worlds created by an omnipotent God.

Kircher’s third scientific work worthy of mention was Mundus subterraneus. This book on the “subterranean world” is a mixture of odd, partly true speculation. Kircher pointed out a hydrologic circle of water by evaporation, geysers, creeks, cold-water springs, and oozing through the seabed back to the abyss. He assumed the existence of vast underground reservoirs. From subterranean naphtha springs, he suggested, there might be an ever-burning lamp fed on the way through channels; he traced this idea back to the Egyptians of antiquity. He saw hot springs and volcanic eruptions as the consequence of subterranean regions of fire (Kircher witnessed the eruptions in 1638 of Stromboli, Etna, and Vesuvius).

The Mundus subterraneus comprised many branches of science, including physics, geography, and chemistry. Kircher described in it a graduated aerometer, unaware that Hypatia had already used this principle around the year 400. Like Magiotti, Kircher explained in his Magnes (3rd ed., 1654) the measuring of temperatures in terms of buoyancy by immersing small glass balls in a liquid. Although his geography remained on the general level of sixteenth-century knowledge, unrelated to recent views such as those of Bernhard Varen, his description of the influence of weathering, which he ascribed to a kind of chemical process and to cold, was sound, as was that of the geological action of water and wind. He opposed fraudulent alchemy but supported the transmutation of metals, particularly of iron into copper.

As a “mathematician,” Kircher dealt not only with “the hidden mysteries of numbers” and geometryinventing a “pantometrum” for solving problems of practical geometry—but also, as indicated, with optics, statics, hydrostatics, astronomy, and acoustics. He suggested in 1638, in his Specula Melitensis (“a watch tower of Malta”)a machine for reading scientific data and, in 1668, a device resembling an organ for teaching methods of solving mathematical problems. Designed to teach all disciplines systematically Kircher’s Ars magna sciendi (1669) was in the mainstream of the didactic and encyclopedic movement of the century. His Polygraphia nova et universalis (1663) contains a system to reduce by the art of combination all languages into one universal tongue; Kircher built on the tradition of Lull but provoked the criticism of Leibniz, Martin Fogel, and the linguist Andreas Müller of Berlin.

It is not surprising that Kircher recorded the first—though imperfect—description of a speaking trumpet (Musurgia universalis, 1650). He also reported on remarkable echoes and on the sound of a bell in a vacuum campana ringed by a magnet but did not reach a genuine interpretation of the phenomenon. On Kircher’s alleged discovery of classical Greek music notes from Pindaric odes, see P. Friedlaender, in Herms, 70 (1935), 463-471. In biology he stated only a relative constancy of the species appealing to God and the history of creation. He frequently used the microscope in his medical investigations (Scrutinium physico-medicum, 1658).

Despite particular contributions in specific scientific fields, it should be kept in mind that by far the most of what Kircher described in his works was already known and was due rather to amusement and dissemination of news than to reasonable demonstration of knowledge.


I. Original Works. A fairly complete bibliography of Kircher’s printed works is in Carlos Sommervogel, Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, part 1, vol. 9 (Brussels-Paris, 1893), cols. 1046-1077. See also the catalogues of the Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris; Library of Congress; and the British Museum. For catalogues of printed writings listed in Kircher’s works, see Sommervogel, col. 1072.

Works by Kircher treated above are Ars magnesia, hocest disquisitio bipartita emperica seu experimentalis, physico-mathematica de natura, viribus et prodigiosis effectibus magnetis (Würzburg, 1631); Horologium Aven-astronomico-catoptricum (Avignon, 1634); Primitiae gnomonicae catoptricae (Avignon, 1635); Prodromus coptus sive aegyptiacus (Rome, 1636); Specula Melitensis encyclica, hoc est syntagma novum instrumentorum physico-mathematicorum (Naples, 1638); Magnes, sive de arte magnetica (Rome, 1641; 2nd ed., Cologne, 1643; 3rd ed., Rome, 1654); Ars magna lucis et umbrae in mundo (Rome, 1646; 2nd ed., Amsterdam, 1671); Musurgia universalis (Rome, 1650; facs. repr. Hildesheim, 1970); Itinerarium exstaticum (Rome, 1656); scrutinium physico-medicum contagiosae luis, quae pestis dicitur (Rome, 1658); Pantometrum Kircherianum, hoc est, instrumentum geometricum novum, à . . . Kircheroantehac inventum, nunc . . . explicatum . . . à Gaspare Schotto (Würzburg, 1660); and Polygraphia nova et universalis, ex combinatoria arte detecta (Rome, 1663).

Subsequent works include Mundus subterraneus (Amsterdam, 1665); Arithmologia, sive de abditis numerorum mysterijs (Rome, 1665); Magneticum naturae regnum (Rome, 1667); Organum mathematicum, libris IX. explicatum a P. Gaspare Schotto (Würzburg, 1668); Ars magna sciendi (Amsterdam, 1669); Phonurgia (Kempten, 1673; facs. repr., New York, 1966); and Tariffa Kircheriana, sive mensa Pythagorica expansa (Rome, 1679).

The main collection of Kircher’s letters and MSS is preserved in the archives of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana, Rome. On other letters, see the papers of John E. Fletcher quoted and Sommervogel, cols. 1070-1077. The Staats-und Universitätsbibliothek, Hamburg, has an original letter of kircher to C. Schott (30 May 1672); a cop0y of a letter from Kircher to Schott (12 Feb. 16750; and an extract of a letter from Kircher to Joannes Monrath (9 Apr. 1660).

A letter from Leibniz to Kircher (16 May 1670) in the Pontificia Università Gregoriana has been published by Paul Friedländer in Atti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia, 3rd ser., Rendiconti13 (1937), 229-231; Kircher’s answer (23 June 1670), in the Niedersächsische Landesbibliothek, Hannover, is in G. W. Leibniz, Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe, ser.2, 1 (Darmstadt, 1926), 48-49, and in Friedländer (see above), pp. 232-233. The Hannover library also has other MSS concerning Kircher.

An early collection of Kircher’s correspondence has been edited by H. A. Langenmantel (see below), comprising 100 separately numbered pages. A letter by Kircher to an unknown person (7 Dec. 1664) has been reprinted in facsimile in Seng (see below).

II. Secondary Literature. A nearly complete bibliography of papers edited from 1913 to 1965, is in M. Whitrow, ed., Isis Cumulative Bibliography,2 (London, 1971). 21; for a list of earlier literature on Kircher see J. Ferguson, Bibliotheca chemica, 1 (London, 1954), 466-468.

The best, although older, biographies are A. Behlau, “Athanasius Kircher, eine Lebensskizze,” in Programm des Königlichen katholischen Gymnasiums zu Heiligenstadt (Heiligenstadt, 1874), 1-18; and Karl Brischar, “P. Athanasius Kircher, ein Lebensbild,” Katholische Studien, III, no. 5 (1877). A detailed, although not faultless biography is G. J. Rosenkranz, “Aus dem Leben des Jesuiten Athanasius Kircher 1602-1680,” in Zeitschrift für vasterländische Geschichte und Alterthumskunde (Verein für Geschichte und Alterthumskunde Westfalens ed.), 13 , n.s. 9 (1852), 11-58.

Kircher’s autobiography, Vita admodum Reverendi P. A. Kircheri (to be used with some reserve) is in H. A. Langenmantel, ed., Fasciculus epistolarum (Augsburg, 1684), 1-78. There is a German trans. with a few relevant additions by Nikolaus Seng, Selbstbiographie des P. Athanasius Kircher aus der Gesellschaft Jesu, (Fulda, 1901); an account of Kircher’s life for young students is J. Leonhardt Pfaff, in Examina autumnalia in Lyceo et Gymnasio Fuldensi, DD. 20-30 M. Sept. 1831 celebranda (Fulda, n.d.), 4-39.

A study on Kircher as polymath is Conor Reilly, “Father A. Kircher, S.J., Master of an Hundred Arts,” in Studies,44 (Dublin, 1955), 357-468; it is not always accurate and is based on a distorted picture of seventeenth-century Germany.

On Leibniz’ relations with Kircher see Paul Friedländer, “Athanasius Kircher und Leibniz, ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Polyhistorie im XVII. Jahrhundert,” in Atti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia, 3rd ser., Rendiconti, 13 (1937), 229-247. On letters of Joannes Marcus marci von Kronland to Kircher, see J. Marek, “Neznámé dopisy Jana Marka Marci z Kronlandu,” in Dějiny věd a techniky,3 (1970), 43-45; and Josef Smolka, “Nové pohledy na J. Marka Marci a jeho dobu,” ibid., 45-49. For works describing Kircher’s museum, see Sommervogel, col. 1076.

Single topics, apart from those listed in Isis (see above) are the following: Three worthwhile analysee by John Fletcher based on new knowledge from Kircher’s MSS are “Athanasius Kircher and the Distribution of His Books,” in The Library, 5th ser. 23 (1969), 108-117; “Medical Men and Medicine in the Correspondence of Athansius Kircher,” in Janus, 56 (1969), 259-277; and “Astronomy in the Life and Correspondence of Athanasius Kircher,” in Isis, 61 (1970), 52-67. Kircher’s thoughts on the hydrologic cycle are touched on in a short note by Asit K. Biswas, in Civil Engineering, 35 (Apr. 1965), 72.

On Kircher’s biology, see Joseph Gutmann, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) und das Schöpfungs-und Entwicklungs-problem (Fulda, 1938). For aspects of Kircher’geography see Karl Sapper, “Athanasius Kircher als Geograph,” in M. Buchner, ed., Aus der Vergangenheit der Universitä Würzburg (Berlin, 1932), 355-362 a rough sketch on Kircher as music scholar is Oskar kaul, “Athanasius Kircher als Musikgelehrter,” ibid., 363-370.

On medicine, apart from the article by Fletcher (see above), see Georg Sticker, “Die medica facultas Wirtzeburgensis im siebzehnten Jahrhundert,” in Festschrift zum 46. deutschen Ärztgetag in Würzburg (Würzburg, 1927), 75-87. A. Erman gives a critical treatment of Kircher’s deciphering of hieroglyphics in Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, XVI (Leipzig, 1882), 1-4. On Martin Fogel’s opinion of kircher’s comparison of languages and on Fogel’s travels, see Hans Kangro, “Martin Fogel aus Hamburg als Gelehrter des 17. Jahrhunderts,” in Ural Altaische Jahrbücher,41 (1969), 14-32.

On Kircher’ chemistry see J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 328-333 (the author’s emphasis on Kircher’s criticism of alchemy is more than historically justifiable). On his physics see Edmund Hoppe, Geschichte der Physik (Brunswick, 1926; repr. 1965), passim; Ernst Gerland, Geschichte der Physik (Munich—Berlin, 1913), passim; and Ferdinand Rosenberger, Die Geschichte der Physik, I (Brunswick, 1882; repr. Hildesheim, 1965), passim.

Hans Kangro

Kircher, Athanasius

views updated May 29 2018

Athanasius Kircher

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 was likely the first scientist to propose the germ theory of disease, and he invented the magic lantern or refined it from previous models. In addition to his formal publications, Kircher corresponded voluminously with learned individuals and religious figures around the world. Perhaps his posthumous reputation is the most surprising part of Kircher's saga: despite all his accomplishments, Kircher fell into obscurity after his death and was mostly forgotten until the last decades of the twentieth century.

Suffered Accidents in Youth

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.

Shipwreck Led to Residence in Rome

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.

Ideas Challenged by Rationalist Thinkers

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, (January 22, 2007).

"Athanasius Kircher, S.J.," Contributions from the Museum of Jurassic Technology: Collections and Exhibitions, (January 22, 2007).

Kircher, Athanasius

views updated May 23 2018


German archeologist; b. Geisa (Fulda), May 2, 1601;d. Rome, Oct. 30, 1690. He joined the Society of Jesus at 17 and later taught mathematics and philosophy at the Jesuit college in Würzburg. He was ordained in 1628. During the thirty years' war he was forced to go to Avignon (1632), but two years later he settled in Rome, where he taught mathematics, physics, and Oriental languages. He later devoted all his attention to archeology, especially to the interpretation of hieroglyphics found in ancient monuments and ruins. He also did some work in physics, where he is credited with the construction of convergent mirrors and projectors. The Kircher Museum that he founded in the Roman College was taken over by the state in 1870. He wrote many books about different subjects, among them: Specula melitensis encyclica (Mesina 1638); Ars magna lucis et umbrae (Rome 1645); Musurgia universalis (Rome 1650); Magnes sive de arte magnetica libri tres (1640); Itinerarium extaticum (1656); Iter extaticum II (1657); Lingua aegyptiaca restituta

(Rome 1664); Mundus subterraneus (Amsterdam 1664, 3d ed. 1671); Polygraphica seu artificium linguarum (Rome 1665); Latium, id est, nova et parallela Latii descriptio (Rome 1671).

Kircher's place in science rests primarily on his extensive writings, which give a picture of scientific understanding in the 17th century. He was a man of his time, and many of his statements have been shown to be uncritical or incorrect, but the charge of scientific falsification, which has been leveled against him, has not been substantiated.

Bibliography: k. brischar, Athanasius Kircher: Ein Lebensbild (Würzburg 1877). P. Athanasii Kircheri vita a semetipso conscripta (Augsburg 1684). l. koch, Jesuiten-Lexikon: Die Gesellschaft Jesu einst und jetzt (Paderborn 1934); photoduplicated with rev. and suppl., 2 v. (Louvain-Heverlee 1962) 2:983984.

[e. t. spain]

Kircher, Athanasius

views updated May 17 2018

Kircher, Athanasius

Kircher, Athanasius, eminent German scholar; b. Geisa, near Fulda, May 2, 1601; d. Rome, Nov. 27, 1680. He attended a Jesuit school in Fulda (1612–18) and became a novice at the Jesuit college in Paderborn in 1618. He subsequently studied physical sciences and philosophy in Cologne (1622), languages in Koblenz (1623), and theology in Mainz (ordained 1628) before completing his training as a teacher in Speyer (1628–29). From 1629 to 1631 he taught mathematics, philosophy, and oriental languages at the Univ. of Würzburg. In 1631 he went to Avignon, and in 1633 to Vienna as court mathematician to Emperor Ferdiand II; that same year he went to Rome, where he taught at the Collegio Romano. His writings are a curious mixture of scientific speculation and puerile credulity. His principal work is the Latin compendium Musurgia universalis, sive Ars magna consoni et dissoni (Rome, 1650; ed. by W. Goldhan, Leipzig, 1988), one of the most significant treatises on music, most notably for its originality. He also wrote Magnes, sive De arte magnetica (Rome, 1641; 2nd ed., rev., 1643), Ars magna lucis et umbrae (Rome, 1646), Oedipus aegiptiacus (Rome, 1652-54), Iter exstaticum coeleste (Rome, 1656), Organum mathematicum (Würzburg, 1668; in collaboration with C. Schott), Ars magna sciendi (Amsterdam, 1669), Phourgia nova, sive Conuigium mechanico-physicum artis et naturae (Kenpten, 1673), Tariffa Kircheri-ana (Rome, 1679), and Vita admodum reverendi P. Athanasii Kirchen S] viri toto orbe celebra tissimi (MS).


U. Scharlau, A. K. (1601–1680) als Musikschriftsteller (Marburg, 1969).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire