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  • Holy Gunpowder October 3, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

    ***Thanks to Chris***

    Beach was recently sent a link to Io9 and a remarkable couple of late renaissance images of devils and angels using gunpowder. As the Io9 writer notes – a writer who deserves most of the credit for what follows – the devil ‘packing heat’ is particularly delicious. We include below the wood cut and then a close up of the same. The reader interested in dates is advised to follow the link to the original article. But we are late fifteenth, early sixteenth century.

    The middle ages generally (and this would be true for 1500-1700 as well) had no sense of anachronism. So why not put a shooter in the hands of one of the heavenly or devilish hosts fighting their battles at the beginning of time? Nor was the new science just restricted to the visual arts. Mystery plays quickly adopted gunpowder for their depictions of hell. Today most of us no longer believed in hell and are, deadened by technological wonder on technological wonder, beyond surprise. Imagine the delicious horror though of a few shepherd boys down from the hills to see ‘the show’ hearing, for the first time, the crackle of powder and smelling the sulphur as the clouds of smoke drifted towards them. Beach suspects that they were GOOD for at least a couple of months after that. Hell must never have seemed so real.

    Beach was so intrigued by this divine use of gunpowder that he went in search of other instances. His absolute favourite was this image of Death (or actually one of Death’s assistants) aiming a harquebus from the church of the Disciplini at Clusone in Bergamo (Italy) an image that dates to 1485. The writing above the shooter states (very early morning loose translation): ‘And I am death lover of equality, I love you not your wealth, and I should be the one with a crown, as I am the lord of all’. Who’s going to argue with that?

    Finally, another way of bringing the holy and gunpowder together. A cabinet magazine article from about four years ago, included some illustrations from late sixteenth century German books  (the second from Friedrich Mayer, Bichssenmeistery auch/ von allerley schimpfflichen und ernst- /lichen Feuerwerkchen, Strasbourg, 1594.) Any idea what is going on in these two images?

    Well, these are artificial constructs that have been filled with fireworks for the delectation of kings. We are seeing here an aristocratic version of the mystery plays. Any other holy gunpowder? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    4 October 2012: GW writes in with this consideration: There are precedents in Asia. I don’t have the reference handy, but in Needham’s volume on gunpowder technology in China, some of the evidence he adduces for the Chinese invention of proto-guns includes illustrations from a Buddhist temple cave before 1100. Wikimedia has an illustration of one of them online: . As I recall, these illustrations represent demons tempting the Buddha. One demon at the upper right holds a grenade of some type, while to his right, another holds a fire-lance (an early gunpowder-based flamethrower that evolved into the gun after higher-nitrate powders became common). [Picture excerpted here!]

    PCB writes: Paradise Lost — as I recall, there is a description of Lucifer’s forces using cannon in their war on Heaven in Book VI. They were outgunned. Invisible writes in (though KR also made this point) As a fan of colonial Hispanic art, I’ve always been intrigued by the armed angels, usually found in South American paintings. They’re so top-heavy with lace and plumes and bottom heavy with rosettes and shoe and knee, one wonders how they manage to fight the Powers of Darkness, but, of course, they ARE angels…   Musketeers of the Heavenly Court. Here’s the quick n’ dirty from Wikipedia

    ‘And something more reputable’ writes Invisible.  Southern Man includes Emperor Shah Jahan with his bejewelled rifle and a halo.

    On a lighter note JCE: Well, I can’t vouch for the historicity of it, but I have seen before today a reference to holy gunpowder, lo, these many years ago in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, in the scene about “the holy hand grenade of Antioch” (pic attached). You’ll note it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Sovereign’s Orb of the Crown Jewels.