Saturday, April 23, 2011

Chapter Four. Visions of Visions: Functions of the Image in Printed Prophecy

Chapter four of Printing and Prophecy is where I finally address the question of what all the woodcuts were doing in the books and pamphlets that I was looking at. In many cases, the woodcuts were not merely summarizing the textual meaning or making it more comprehensible for unskilled readers. For example, the woodcut images in the Prognosticatio of Johannes Lichtenberger tend to dampen the text’s emotional impact rather than heighten it. The combination of prophecy, reading in the vernacular, and images was potent enough to cause government officials - and therefore printers - some concern, and the Prognosticatio woodcuts take pains to keep the audience from getting overheated. But the woodcuts also permit individual participation in prophecy through viewing of the prophetic image. If readers are no longer meant to speak like prophets by copying and preaching the prophetic message (as Johannes Tortsch had foreseen readers of the Onus mundi, his Birgittine collection, doing), the images allow them to see like prophets. Between Lichtenberger and the prognostic works of Paracelsus (1493-1541) lies a continuous tradition in which prophecy becomes identified with images and visual interpretation.

A century after Gutenberg, the prophetic compilations printed by Wolfgang Egenolff in Frankfurt helped establish a prophetic canon (including Paracelsus, Lichtenberger, Carion, sibylline texts, and others) based on a visual approach to prophecy. Egenolff’s compilation represents a development in the history of the printed book where the medium becomes capable of the same kind of antiquity that had previously been the sole domain of manuscripts. Egenolff’s collection was also the means by which the seventeenth century rediscovered the prophetic authorities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

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