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St. Benedict Sees the Light: Asam's Solar Eclipses as Metaphor

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During the Baroque period, artists worked in a style—encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church and the Council of Trent—that revealed the divine in natural forms and made religious experiences more accessible. Cosmas Damian Asam, painter and architect, and his brother Egid (Aegid) Quirin Asam, sculptor and stuccatore, were the principal exponents of eighteenth-century, southern-German religious decoration and architecture in the grand manner, the Gesamtkunstwerk. Cosmas Damian's visionary and ecstatic art utilized light, both physical and illusionistic, together with images of meteorological and astronomical phenomena, such as solar and lunar eclipses. This paper focuses on his representations of eclipses and demonstrates how Asam was galvanized by their visual, as well as metaphorical, power and that he studied a number of them. He subsequently applied his observations in a series of paintings for the Benedictine order that become increasingly astronomically accurate and spiritually profound. From the evidence presented, especially in three depictions of St. Benedict's vision, the artist harnessed his observations to visualize the literary description of the miraculous event in the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, traditionally a difficult scene to illustrate, even for Albrecht Dürer. Asam painted the trio at Einsiedeln, Switzerland (1724–27); Kladruby, the Czech Republic (1725–27), where he captured the solar corona and the "diamond-ring effect"; and Weltenburg, Germany (1735), where he also depicted the diamond-ring effect at a total solar eclipse. We conclude that his visualizations were informed by his personal observations of the solar eclipses on 12 May 1706, 22 May 1724, and 13 May 1733. Asam may have also known the eclipse maps of Edmond Halley and William Whiston that were issued in advance. Astronomers did not start studying eclipses scientifically until the nineteenth century, making Asam's depictions all the more fascinating. So powerful was the image that Asam invented to visualize St. Benedict's vision that it found reflection in the subsequent Bavarian Benedictine visual tradition. Total solar eclipses are among the most spectacular sights in Nature. Therefore, in an age obsessed with revealing the divine through natural idioms and making religious experiences direct—not to mention that light had long functioned as a symbol of divinity in the Christian tradition—it seems fitting that solar eclipses would be interpreted as a metaphor of a divine presence or a miracle.

Affiliations: 1: The New-York Historical Society and Williams College

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