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Abstract

An illustration from Joseph Grünpeck’s Speculum naturalis first published in Nuremberg in 1508 is the starting point for the analysis of the iconographic motif of the Sinking Ship of the Church in the context of German graphic arts from the end of the 15th and the first half of the 16th century. The woodcut shows a sinking ship with the representatives of the clergy on board. It follows the example of earlier illustrations in the numerous editions of the Pronosticatio – a prophetic treatise by Johannes Lichtenberger, first published in Heidelberg in 1488, where the Ship of the Church, in the form of a sacred building floating on swirling waves, struggles with the element of water, and is seriously tilting. These woodcuts, which were firmly embedded in the ecclesial pre-Reformation reflection in general, and the criticism of the Church’s activities and structures in particular, grew from the background which can be easily overlooked today, as it cannot be read from the illustrations. This is the astrological context, which this article aims to broadly outline. Some elements of the then contemporary knowledge of stars and celestial judgments are singled out, which are now considered the reason for the introduction of the iconographic variant of the Ship of the Church. Of particular importance is the connection of the motif to the so-called Sintflutdebatte, or a “debate on the deluge/flood”, which swept through German literature in the first two decades of the 16th century. The basis for the astrological forecast of the deluge, predicted for the year 1524, was the theory of the great conjunctions. The latter referred to the processes of great transformation observable in the history of mankind, such as the origins and the fall of empires, religions or cultures. A discussion on the properties attributed to some celestial bodies (primarily Saturn, Jupiter, and the constellation of Pisces), whose influence pertained to the apocalyptic nature of these prophecies, captures the more universal character of these illustrations, and are not only associated with the anti-ecclesial mood.
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