Brain Pickings

The Book of Miracles: Rare Medieval Illustrations of Magical Thinking

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A visual record of humanity’s most eternal fears and our immutable longing for grace, mercy, and the miraculous.

In 1552, a curious and lavishly illustrated manuscript titled Augsburg Book of Miraculous Signs appeared in the Swabian Imperial Free City of Augsburg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, located in present-day Germany. It exorcised, in remarkable detail and wildly imaginative artwork, Medieval Europe’s growing obsession with signs sent from “God” — a testament to the basic human propensity for magical thinking, with which we often explain feelings and phenomena beyond the grasp of our logic. This unusual Roman manuscript was recently discovered and published for the first time as The Book of Miracles (public library) — a sumptuous box-sized trilingual tome in English, French, and German, produced in Taschen‘s typical fashion of pleasurable aesthetic bombast. Somewhere between Salvador Dalí’s illustrations of Montaigne, the weird and wonderful Codex Seraphinianus, and the visual history of Gotham’s imaginary apocalypse, the book is a singular shrine to some of the most eternal of human hopes and fears, and, above all, our immutable longing for grace, for mercy, for the miraculous.

What makes the book particularly notable is that its vibrant artwork, while strikingly beautiful, also illustrates religion’s heavy reliance on magical thinking. The word “religion” itself originates in the Latin for “binding together,” suggesting a sense not only of creating community but also of bridging complex things we don’t understand with simple ideas we do, via storytelling — something Carl Sagan famously explored.

The manuscript also offers a record of how word-of-mouth propagates the building blocks of belief and, eventually, the belief itself — the history of miracle-sighting is essentially a history of media, as “wonders” were first transmitted via regular letter correspondence and became a news item after the surge in broadsheets and pamphlets made possible by the invention of the Gutenberg press.

Complement the formidable Book of Miracles with other Taschen masterworks of visual delight and cultural history, including the best illustrations from 150 years of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, the life and legacy of infographics godfather Fritz Kahn, a Victorian reimagining of Euclid’s elements, and the visual history of magic.

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