The Antediluvian

Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, Geestelyke Natuurkunde [Spiritual Physics]. Fifteen volumes bound as nine. Amsterdam: Petrus Schenk, 1735–1738. 33237

The fifteen volumes of this Dutch translation of Physica Sacra by the Swiss mathematician, physicist, naturalist, and physician Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733) reflect an intention not so much to prove the accuracy of the Bible by means of science, but to demonstrate the validity of science as a discipline useful in describing the foundational truth of Scriptures. Scheuchzer wrote and gathered text, and commissioned or restruck seven hundred sixty-one engravings, documenting specimens and phenomena of the natural world and reconceived works of humankind. The plates include remarkably objective diagrams and renderings, and also biblical scenes contained within instructive borders like the one by Jacob Andreas Fridrich (1684–1751) displayed here. The figure of Adam, a unique being in the Garden of paired animals, is surrounded by a Baroque architectural frame exhibiting anatomical portrayals that anticipate the stages of human embryonic development. Fetal skeletons holding ova and uteri, the largest weeping into an amniotic membrane, pose on plinths.

The prominence of particular topics and the proportion of book space dedicated to them reveals Scheuchzer’s vantage standing upon the scriptural narrative from Creation through the Apocalypse.  That fertile ground for scientific exposition and illustration yields so abundantly that the Book of Genesis consumes the first two volumes with its conclusion well into the third. In the first volume the planet may be seen emerging from a cloudy void printed from copper plates. Astronomical marvels are projected across pages with precision. Land and water are graphically separated in a process presaging the realization of continental drift.  The Flood also, with elaborate orthographic schemes of the ark, the diagramed progression of inundation over the globe, and the meticulous crafting of plates that record fossil evidence assumed to date from the Deluge, are the results of Scheuchzer’s enthusiasm.

Among the fossils selected from Scheuchzer’s collection for depiction were the intact skull, clavicles, ribs, spine, and impressions of softer tissues, certain to be the remains of an unfortunate witness to the cataclysmic event, Homo diluvii testis, the antediluvian human. Some doubted Scheuchzer’s ascription soon after publication. Not until 1812 in the fourth volume of Ossamens Fossiles did the French taxonomist Georges Cuvier (17691832) correctly identify the fossil after removing additional matrix to reveal the forelimbs as the partial skeleton of a giant salamander. Scheuchzer’s error, but also his progressive step toward the emergence of paleontology by his thorough descriptions and the demonstration that certain strata bear the fossilized remains of once-living organisms, were acknowledged in 1837 when the species of salamander was named Andrias scheuchzeri.

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Entry Hall Introduction