The Cathedral at Aachen is home to one of Christendom’s most impressive treasuries of relics, including four of particular distinction that were gifted to Charlemagne by the Patriarch of Jerusalem in 799: the dress worn by the Blessed Virgin Mary on the night of the Nativity, the Holy Infant’s swaddling cloth, fabric used to wrap the head of St. John the Baptist and the loincloth worn by the Crucified Christ. Since the fourteenth century, these have been displayed at septennial jubilees, unfurled from the gallery connecting the Cathedral’s belfry to its famed octagonal dome.
In the late Middle Ages, souvenir badges of pewter or silver were sold at major destinations of pilgrimage. Presumably, many badges became third-class relics after being touched to the mortal remains of the saints or to other holy objects. At destinations such as Aachen, where the relics were inaccessible to touch, pilgrims conceived a different way bearing their supernatural power home. Believing that mirrors retained some quality of the things reflected in them, they held them up to the relics and then treated the mirrors as holy objects, ones sanctified by visual rather than tactile means. Whether this practice was sound I am not qualified to say (although I do say that it is a question of theology, not of optical science); I prefer to think that God smiled on this pious presage of photography.
In anticipation of the Aachen jubilee of 1439, a clever silversmith began manufacturing great quantities of pilgrim mirrors, convex ones that could reflect a panorama. But when the jubilee was postponed due to plague, his financial backers threatened to sue. To prevent the lawsuit, he offered to share with them an even more clever idea he had been developing; they listened, increased their investments, and signed a contract binding them to the strictest secrecy. Next to their names, the silversmith signed his own: Johannes Gutenberg.
Thus was the creation of the Gutenberg printing press financed. This really was a combination of several inventions: a bookbinding press adapted to the purpose of printing, a mold for casting type and a metal alloy to fill it, a sticky ink with a linseed oil base. Some historians contend that these same ideas were developed by Laurens Janszoon in Haarlem years earlier. Whether this is true or not, it was Gutenberg’s publication of Saint Jerome’s Vulgate around 1455 that established the printed book as both a technological and artistic success. Within fifteen years, printing presses were operating throughout western Europe.
Historians identify the publication of Gutenberg’s Bible as one of the epochal events of history, one effecting radical changes in religion, philosophy, even cognition. The printing press, they tell us, destroyed the medieval Catholic order and made possible Protestantism and Modernity. There are elements of truth in this analysis. The ability to spread information rapidly and inexpensively was essential to the success of Protestantism; it is likewise impossible to imagine any aspect of Modernity that does not depend upon it. I hold cultural critics such as Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman in high esteem; both use Gutenberg’s example to warn of the unintended consequences of technological change, preaching caution and discernment to an age incautiously and undiscerningly embracing an evermore extensive use of computers.
The lesson is valuable, but the historical narrative strikes me as too simply deterministic. It also gives too little credit to the medieval worldview. A historian who is inclined to believe that the religious and philosophical bases of the medieval world were always frail and faulty will of course think that they needed nothing more than the weight of a single invention to crumble them. As someone who believes that these bases were strong and sound, I rather attribute their fracture to an extraordinary confluence of disasters, plagues, wars, schisms and scandals. In the wake of so determined a demonic barrage, it seems unfair the lay the blame upon Gutenberg, a maker of pilgrim mirrors who could hardly have been a more Catholic or medieval man. I prefer to think that if a few circumstances were different (if perhaps more 15th-century popes were concerned with safeguarding religion than with extorting money to fund megalomaniacal building projects) the Middle Ages could have welcomed the printing press, and endured.
Of course, I do not know this for a fact; there are no controlled experiments in history. What is incontestable is that the printed book was the medium for some of the greatest works of late medieval art and devotion. The books printed in the sixty years between Gutenberg’s publication of the Vulgate and the beginning of Luther’s revolt display all of the artistic beauty, vigorous traditionalism, profound symbolism and attention to detail that characterize Catholic culture at its best. Victor Hugo was wrong when he remarked that the Gothic sun set behind the colossal press at Mainz; rather, the Gothic sun shone brilliantly upon it.
My intention in this series of short articles is to draw attention to some of these treasures, and to describe my own attempts to create printed works of art using similar materials, styles and subjects.