Wonders in the Renaissance
“Wonder” can describe both an object as well as the emotion it elicits, and the Renaissance reaction to these stimuli demonstrates marked departure in the intellectual history of previous ages. This age was defined by an embrace and indeed appetite for the production and collection of such objects, grounded in psychological, sociological, and political constructs of the day. Wonder became less of a transgression in a realm of knowledge from which one was believed to be excluded by divine fiat (as with the essentially medieval attitude towards the mysteries of nature and man’s inclination to curiosity) and more a pursuit of learned European culture from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries onwards. Objects which elicited this wonder, whether they were naturally formed (or deformed in many cases) or man-made displays of technology and virtuosity, enjoyed a new prestige and position at the court and dedicated collections, the celebrated wunderkammern and similar encyclopedic arrangements throughout the continent.
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
The Latin mirabilia has been noted to blur sacred and secular objects of wonder from at least the twelfth or thirteenth century, yet theologians and philosophers maintained a formal boundary between the supernatural (miracles) and the preternatural (marvels) which shaped Renaissance and early-modern conceptions of what qualified as either a wonder or wonderful. The major criterion of objects so defined was its capacity to evoke the emotional experience we also call wonder in its audience. This feeling of wonder had been elevated in the spectrum of the human experience from Aristotle for its role as the gateway to contemplation of the divine and therefore the door to all philosophy. Wonder and mystery were at the center of mystery-cult worship which flourished through the early centuries of the Common Era, including those of the Neoplatonic philosophers which the Renaissance subsequently inherited. In many instances, heights of religious display were matched by some thaumaturgic display which rested upon a closely-guarded secret known only to priests and initiates. These secrets could be technological and/or related to some aspect of natural philosophy, and in the ancient world, the miraculous and the wonderful mingled freely. It was only with the advent of Christianity and the need to distance “true” Christian miracles from wonders and tricks from their pagan counterparts that distinctions between the supernatural (the agency of god, angels, demons, and other non-human forces), the merely preternatural (forces not yet understood but presumed to be natural; the cosmic rays, the world-soul, or various conceptions of spirit/aether/quintessence fall into this latter category), or manipulations of the known natural world had to be made. Whereas thirteenth- and fourteenth-century philosophers agreed on the importance of supplying natural causes for preternatural effects, the resulting analyses were subject to wide-ranging variation, especially with the expansion of Latin materials with the influx of Arabic writings’ new repertoire of causal mechanisms. There was considerable overlap (the “wonderful” moving mechanical cult statues of Alexandria and ancient Egypt anticipated Renaissance automata and this class of related wonders, yet the moving/“living” statues which one encounters in medieval Catholic worship were presented as miraculous); however, the constant factor underlying wonder-theory and its associated material associations and production was a restricted access to knowledge about the wonders’ operating principle, from late antiquity through the Renaissance. The attitude about the accessibility and transmission of this secret knowledge is its own topic charted in scholarship.
The wonder thus generated among audiences to whom this secret was denied generated its own kind of powerful social currency in the Renaissance and reinforced hierarchies of superiority and dependence among rulers as patrons and their courtly and diplomatic audiences as awed subjects. To successfully project wonder was to be perceived to wield the mystic dimension sought after in constructions of power. A king who demonstrated a vast knowledge and control of nature, and especially of forces both known and occult, was engaged in a display that was calculated to bolster his legitimacy by elevating him away from the apparent limitations of mundane experience. The passive experience of wonder, which is from the viewer’s perspective, also underwent a reevaluation between the medieval and Renaissance period. What was once considered an unseemly reaction from both a theological (it encouraged the dreaded curiosity looked down upon in Augustinian tradition) as well as social standpoint (it acknowledged ignorance), wonder began to be experienced as its own form of pleasure. The relationship of this wonder to another emotion, curiosity, can be used to demarcate what we may term a medieval mindset from its evolution in the proceeding centuries. Curiosity came to be reevaluated and transformed into a virtue; by the late sixteenth century, wonders are celebrated and promoted in treatises whose authors are conscious of the appeal of wonders to the intellect and the imagination as well as to the senses.
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