Martin Meurisse's Theater of Natural Philosophy

Article excerpt

The Hungarian travel writer Márton Szepsi Csombor (15941623) arrived in Paris in May 1618 and immediately went in search of the Franciscan philosopher Martin Meurisse (15841644). Csombor, whose 1620 book Europica varietas chronicles his voyages throughout Europe, wrote, "I was anxious before all else to become acquainted with the famous, renowned, and greatly intelligent monk, who with great mastery brought to an engraving plate the entire philosophy course."1 Csombor was alluding to the four illustrated thesis prints, or pedagogical broadsides incorporating texts and images, that Meurisse had designed for his philosophy students at the Grand Couvent des Cordeliers to use at academic exercises called disputations.2 These broadsides interpret the disciplines of logic, natural philosophy, metaphysics, and moral philosophy, the four branches of philosophy taught at the colleges and convent schools associated with the University of Paris in this period. The prints, annotated with quotations of the writings of Classical and Scholastic philosophers, depict natural entities, landscapes, and architectural structures adorned with figures, animals, and objects. As Csombor noted, Meurisse's broadsides brought him international attention throughout the seventeenth century for their innovative method of organizing and representing the field of philosophy.

Meurisse was born to a family of little wealth in Roye, in the French region of Picardy, where he entered the Franciscan order.4 After his superiors transferred him to the Grand Couvent in Paris, Meurisse studied theology at the Sorbonne, receiving his doctorate in 1620. In 1623, he wrote a book on the metaphysics of the Franciscan theologian and philosopher John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1 308). 5 Meurisse's obituary emphasizes his fame as a teacher: "He taught philosophy in the Grand Couvent and then theology for several years, with such great subdety, clarity, and doctrine that people looked at him with admiration."6 His scholarly and pedagogical achievements were ultimately rewarded when he was promoted in 1628 to the position of suffragan bishop of Metz. He was also made bishop of Madaure. While in Metz, he wrote histories of the diocese.7 Meurisse developed a reputation as an important personality in the Counter-Reformation and a virulent challenger of the Huguenots in Metz. In addition to his influential activity as a philosophy teacher and outspoken public figure, Meurisse's work as an artist - his four intricately detailed philosophical thesis prints - was to have an impact on printmaking and the teaching of philosophy in France and beyond.

Historians of art, philosophy, and science have not fully recognized the extent to which art was used in philosophy education in seventeenth-century France. Meurisse's thesis print dedicated to the field of natural philosophy, the Clara totius physiologiae synopsis ( Clear Synopsis of Physics in Its Entirety, hereafter Synopsis), exemplifies the significant, widespread, but also largely overlooked uses of imagery in philosophy education in early modern Paris (Fig. 1). The Synopsis met with broad approval, appearing in at least four editions (see App. 1), yet it has never been the subject of an in-depth analysis.9 The first edition was engraved in 1615 by Léonard Gaultier (1560/61-1635-40) and published by Jean Messager (1572-1649). It combines philosophical annotations (transcribed in App. 2) with representations of humans, animals, objects, natural phenomena, and geometric shapes to stage a theater of nature, in which characters seem to act out the discipline of natural philosophy. This metaphor, which was common in early modern philosophy, relied on an understanding of the theater in two different but overlapping senses: first, as a space combining instruction and entertainment; and second, as an encyclopedic collection of all of nature's manifestations and artifacts. Meurisse makes explicit his adoption of the metaphor in the dedication to King Louis XIII (1601-1643-40) with the words, "We show this theater of nature. …