Signs and Wonders: Celestial Phenomena in 16th-Century Germany

The villagers of Strasbourg may have heard about a war in heaven while reading the Book of Revelation; in 1554, they witnessed one with their own eyes. As a broadsheet published in June of that year records, a bloody, fiery ray bisected the sun, followed by a clash between cavalry — each side bearing guidons. War raged for hours, and then, as suddenly as they appeared, the combatants trotted off into the clouds. Seven years later, this time in Nuremberg, the Bavarian horizon was blotted out by an extraterrestrial skirmish between unidentified orbs. “The globes flew back and forth among themselves and fought vehemently with each other for over an hour”, wrote the broadsheet’s author. Some of these vehicles crashed down beyond the city limits, while a terrifying, arrow-like object appeared in the air. “Whatever such signs mean, God alone knows.”

These were not isolated incidents. German broadsheets in the Holy Roman Empire conveyed all kinds of wondrous phenomena through woodcuts: “anomalies in the sun, moon, stars . . . stones and fire falling from the sky, rainbows, miraculous births, rains of blood”, tracks Daniela Wagner. Unexplainable events happened so frequently that they were christened Wunderzeichen, wonder-signs. Between 1550 and 1559 alone, there were more than four hundred broadsheets and tracts published that recorded these prognostic events. The phenomena were also preserved in news pamphlets, astrological literature, sermons, scientific treatises, correspondence, personal diaries, and “wonder books”, broadsheets bound into a single volume.

For many readers in this period, encounters with these reports and images were signs that the end was nigh. Although apocalypticism was not a novel concept, it gained newfound intensity during the Reformation. “By 1560”, writes Robin Bruce Barnes, “[clerical] attention to the unusual had become nothing less than an obsession”. New Protestant translations of the Bible rendered the Book of Revelation in particularly dramatic terms, while Luther and his acolytes encouraged followers to look upward and augur the future. “We see the Sun to be darkened and the Moon, the stars to fall, men to be distressed, all the winds and waters to make a noise”, he preached during a sermon about the Second Coming. “How many other Signs also, and unusual impressions, have we seen in the Heavens, in the Sun, Moon, Stars, Rain-bows and strange Apparitions, in these last four years?” Far from folk superstition, the belief in Wunderzeichen as portents of the Last Judgment was shot through with eschatology. Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), who systematized Luther’s theology, saw these scenes painted across the sky as communications from God:

For if these signs are not meant to be considered, why are they written and painted on the sky by divine providence? Since God has engraved these marks in the sky in order to announce great upheavals for the states, it is impiety to turn one’s mind away from their observation. What are eclipses, conjunctions, portents, meteors or comets if not oracles of God which threaten great calamities and changes for the life of men?
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Some speculate that the prophetic attention to celestial bodies was sometimes fueled by ergotism — the fungal infection that swept across cereal grains in much of northern Europe. Ingesting these crops produced delirium, hallucinations of fire and religious fervor. Drugs aside, the skies were alive with astronomical wonder, which was ripe for interpretation in even the soberest eyes. Northern lights streaked across the horizon like blood. Solar halos, sun dogs, and light pillars were frequent and mysterious. A 1556 comet was widely reported across Europe and Asia, spotted by awe-eyed observers from Britain to China. And each shooting star further unfolded a narrative of religious reformation. One broadsheet published in Nuremberg during May of that same year, for example, depicts Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia as damaged by an earthquake. It did not surprise readers that this destruction occurred alongside the appearance of a comet: eliding Islam with Catholicism, the text suggests that “the papacy—polemically identified as the Roman Antichrist—will also get its desserts”, writes Jennifer Spinks.

Just as Victorian encounters with ghosts surged after the invention of photography, media technologies also played a part in propagating these sixteenth-century visions. Most of the images below come from Einblattdruck, a form of broadsheet that consisted of a title, woodcut, and an account of wonder. These sheets could be created rapidly, disseminated widely, and purchased cheaply. News and current events were thus being printed with greater speed and reach than ever before. As such, genres evolved and hybridized with haste. In the early 1520s, so-called “siege prints” — graphic tableaux of battles — became particularly popular. And astronomical almanacs were some of the most widely consumed vernacular texts in the Holy Roman Empire. Is it any surprise, then, that battles between stars started appearing in the skies, wedding these two genres, evidenced by woodcuts of astrological siege? The art historian Aby Warburg — puzzled why, in the midst of the Reformation, a seemingly new form of paganism flourished — concluded that “astral deities . . . enjoyed a peripatetic Renaissance, in words and pictures, thanks to the new printing houses of Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Leipzig”.

The observance of celestial phenomena tapered off in the seventeenth century — as the doom foretold by the heavens finally came to Earth in the form of the Thirty Years’ War. Strangely enough, in the eighteenth century, very similar signs appeared in the skies over Riga, which deeply influenced a certain printer in Philadelphia’s views of revolution. For more on that story, see our post on A True and Wonderful Narrative (1763).

Below you can browse a selection of broadsheets containing accounts of wonders, courtesy of Zurich’s Zentralbibliothek.

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