August 30, 2005

Hepburn’s Alphabets

A post at metafilter a few weeks back about the 17th-Century Jesuit savant Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) prompted me to order the book about him published last year: Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything; a collection of essays touching on various aspects of the prolific scholar’s life and work. One of the pieces therein, by Daniel Stolzenberg, describes Kircher’s presentation of the Kabbalah, the subject of an 150-page section in Oedipus Aegypticus, his 3-part treatise on the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphs (1652-5). Kircher’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the Kabbalah is summarised, writes Stolzenberg, in an elaborate diagram displaying the seventy-two names of God.

Detail of eight alphabets from Hepburn's 'Virga Aurea,' 1616.


2nd Detail of eight alphabets from Hepburn's 'Virga Aurea,' 1616.

Among the influences behind this diagram, Stolzenberg suggests, was a curious engraving published by a Scottish scholar named James Bonaventure Hepburn, in Rome, in 1616, ‘This broadside […] contains an engraving of the Virgin Mary inside a stylized, radiating sun, beneath which are displayed seventy-two alphabets, many of a fanciful or magical nature.’ The engraving was entitled Schema Septuaginta Duorum Idiomatum, sive Virga Aurea—quia Beata Virgo dicitur tot annis in vivis fuisse; et ille numerus discipulorum est Christi, et Romanae Ecclesiae cardinalium, et tot mysteria in nominee Dei (‘The Heavenly Golden Rod of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Seventy-two Praises’), or Virga Aurea for short.

3rd Detail of eight alphabets from Hepburn's 'Virga Aurea,' 1616.


4th Detail of eight alphabets from Hepburn's 'Virga Aurea,' 1616.

Besides Latin, and several varieties each of Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, Hepburn includes such alphabets as Etruscan, Assyrian, Armenian, Gothic, Scythian, Scottish, Hibernian, Coptic and Chaldaic, although with what degree of verisimilitude, I couldn’t say. There are also some impressively unconventional character-sets such as the Mystical, the Noachic, the Adamean, the Solomonic, the Mosaic, the Seraphic, the Angelical, and the Supercelestial… The present images show a selection of these alphabets, as cut from these images of the Virga Aurea I found at this French site.

Posted by misteraitch at August 30, 2005 10:15 AM

I was searching information about kircher right now, thanks! There's a spanish book with a vast selection of images from kircher's works:

Posted by: C. Rancio on August 30, 2005 08:46 PM

congratulations for your weblog. I have a question, about the book Das Narrenschiff (Sebastian Brant); do you know something about bosch or brueghel drawings of this book?

i have linked your blog at my own

Posted by: marcio on August 31, 2005 01:14 AM

Today is BlogDay, every blogger is invited to post a note about five blogs he/she has discovered and liked. I am pleased to let you know that your blog is included in my selection.

Posted by: fuligineuse on August 31, 2005 03:40 PM

I think those drawings are atributted to Dūrer

Posted by: on August 31, 2005 08:44 PM

Thank you for this. Some of these alphabets appear in Fournier's manual of typography in the mid 18th century, and I've often wondered where they originated. Of course, Hepburn may be only one more link in a longer chain, but I was previously unaware of his existence.

Posted by: John Hudson on September 7, 2005 08:50 AM

send me the angelical alphabet please, i need it! thanks

Posted by: abel medina on June 16, 2006 01:51 AM
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