This part one of a group of blogs on Kircher’s Ars magna lucis et umbrae this books covers such a broad scope I’ve picked a few subjects to focus on and today Will be the Macic Latern “De Lucerna[e] Magicae”
720G Athanasius Kircher 1602-1680
Athanasi Kircheri Fuldensis Buchonii è Soc. Jesu presbyteri ars magna lucis et umbræ, in X. libros digesta. Quibus admirandæ lucis & umbræ in mundo, atque adeò universa natura, vires effectusque uti nova, ita varia novorum reconditiorumque speciminum exhibitione, ad varios mortalium usus, panduntur. Editio altera priori multò auctior.
Amstelodami, Joannem Janssonium à Waesberge, & hæredes Elizæi Weyerstraet. 1671 .
Folio *4, **4, ***6, (*)2, A-Xxxx4 Second Enlarged edition. This copy is bound in contemporary calf with nicely gilt spine.
Kircher’s Major Scientific Work and his Principal Contribution to Optics”In Ars magna lucis et umbrae Kircher discusses the sources of light and shadow. The work deals especially with the sun, moon, stars and planets. Kircher also treats phenomena related to light, such as optical illusions, color and refraction, projection and distortion, comets, eclipses, and instruments that use light, such as sundials and mirrors. He theorizes about the type of mirror supposed to have been used by Archimedes to set Roman ships afire, drawing from notes of his own experiments performed in the harbor of Syracuse. The work includes one of the first treatises on phosphorous and fireflies. Here Kircher also published his depictions of Saturn and Jupiter as he saw them through a telescope in Bologna in 1643. On that occasion he observed that the planets were neither perfectly round nor self-luminous, contrary to the popular Aristotelian belief that they are perfect, unchanging spheres.”Kircher takes a great interest in sundials and mirrors in this book, and several interesting engravings are of fanciful sundials. He had written extensively on these subjects on his previous work, the Primitiae gnomonicae catoptricae. In Ars magna lucis et umbrae Kircher also discusses an odd ancestor of the modern projector: a device called the ‘magic lantern,’ of which he is generally, though erroneously, considered the inventor. “Before writing this work, Kircher had read Kepler’s Ad vitellionem paralipomena (1604), the first modern work on optics and was influenced to some extent by it. The Ars magna lucis et umbrae reveals Kircher’s contribution as an astute observer and cataloguer of natural phenomena” (Merrill)
Kircher and the Magic Lantern
Invented by Huygens in 1656, the magic lantern was the precursor of both the slide machine and the motion-picture projector. It was disseminated with great success to the public throughout the 1660s by the entrepreneurial Thomas Rasmussen Walgenstein who was also the one who had christened Huygens’ device the “magic lantern”. Impressed by the magical device’s growing popularity, Kircher includes the first illustrated description of the magic lantern, “De Lucerna[e] Magicae seu Thaumaturgae Constructione”, on page 768 of his second edition of Ars magna lucis et umbrae published in Amsterdam in 1671. (Devices of Wonder, p. 297).
Prominent Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, is nowadays widely accepted as the true inventor of the magic lantern. He knew Athanasius Kircher’s 1646 edition of Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae which described a primitive projection system with a focusing lens and text or pictures painted on a concave mirror reflecting sunlight. Christiaan’s father Constantijn had been acquainted with Cornelis Drebbel who used some unidentified optical techniques to transform himself and summon wonderful appearances in magical performances. Constantijn Huygens wrote very enthusiastically about a camera obscura device that he got from Drebbel in 1622.
Probably the oldest document concerning the magic lantern is a page on which Christiaan Huygens made ten small sketches of a skeleton taking off its skull, above which he wrote “for representations by means of convex glasses with the lamp” (translated from French). As this page was found between documents dated in 1659, it is believed to also have been made in 1659.
Huygens probably only constructed the lantern to amuse young family members and soon seemed to regret it, as he thought it was too frivolous. In a 1662 letter to his brother Lodewijk he claimed he thought of it as some old “bagatelle” and seemed convinced that it would harm the family’s reputation if people found out the lantern came from him. Christiaan had reluctantly sent a lantern to their father, but when he realized that Constantijn intended to show the lantern to the court of King Louis XIV of France at the Louvre, Christiaan asked Lodewijk to sabotage the lantern.
Huygens’ 1694 laterna magica sketch, showing: “speculum cavum (hollow mirror). lucerna (lamp). lens vitrea (glass lens). pictura pellucida (transparent picture). lens altera (other lens). paries (wall).” Christiaan initially referred to the magic lantern as “la lampe” and “la lanterne”, but in the last years of his life he used the then common term “laterna magica” in some notes. In 1694 he drew the principle of a “laterna magica” with two lenses.
Walgensten’s magic lantern as illustrated in Dechales Cursus seu mundus mathematicus (1674) Thomas Rasmussen Walgensten, a Danish mathematician, studied at the university of Leyden in 1657-58 and was acquainted with Christiaan Huygens. It is unclear if one was inspired by the other or if they even may have collaborated on the development of the magic lantern. At least from 1664 until 1670 Walgensten was giving magic lantern shows in Paris, Lyon, Rome and Copenhagen, and he “sold such lanterns to different Italian princes in such an amount that they now are almost everyday items in Rome” according to Athanasius Kircher in 1671. When Walgensten projected an image of Death at the court of King Frederick III of Denmark some courtiers were scared, but the king dismissed their cowardice and requested to repeat the figure three times. The king died a few days later.
One of Christiaan Huygens’ contacts imagined in how Athanasius Kircher would use the magic lantern: “If he would know about the invention of the Lantern he would surely frighten the cardinals with specters.” Athanasius Kircher would learn about the existence of the magic lantern via Thomas Walgensten and introduced it as “Lucerna Magica” in the widespread 1671 second edition of this book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae. Kircher claimed that Thomas Walgensten reworked his ideas from the previous edition of this book into a better lantern.
Kircher described this improved lantern, but it was illustrated in a confusing manner:
the pictures seem technically incorrect with both the projected image and the transparencies shown upright (while the text states that they should be drawn in an inverted position), the hollow mirror is too high in one picture and absent in the other, and the lens (I) seems to be placed at the wrong side of the slide. Experiments with a construction as illustrated in Kircher’s book proved that it could work as a point light-source projection system. The projected image in one of the illustrations shows a person in purgatory or hellfire and the other depicts Death with a scythe and an hourglass.
According to legend Kircher secretly used the lantern at night to project the image of Death on windows of apostates to scare them back into church. Kircher did suggest in his book that an audience would be more astonished by the sudden appearance of images if the lantern would be hidden in a separate room, so the audience would be ignorant of the cause of their appearance.
The earliest reports and illustrations of lantern projections suggest that they were all intended to scare the audience. French engineer Pierre Petit, who saw a show by Walgensten, called the apparatus “lanterne de peur” (lantern of fear) in a 1664 letter to Huygens. Surviving lantern plates and descriptions from the next decades prove that the new medium was not just used for horror shows, but that all kinds of subjects were projected.
De Backer Sommervogel IV, col. 1050, no.9 ; Ferguson I.466; Vagnetti EIIIb42; this edition not in Merrill or Becker; Barbara Maria Stafford & Frances Terpak, Devices of Wonder, (Getty, 2001); Linda Hall Library, Jesuit Science, 10; Kemp, Science of Art, pp. 191 (camera obscura); Harvey, Luminescence, pp. 103ff; Wheeler 169 (1671 ed.).; Caillet 5770