Opera didactica omnia, 1657

Opera didactica omnia, 1657

Image 1. Title page of Comenius, Opera didactica omniaAmsterdam, 1657.  An inscription records that it was designed by Crispijn de Passe and engraved by his pupil David Loggan. Source: Mannheim: Thesaurus eruditionis.

Description.  Comenius is depicted at work, seated at a table. A floor tile records his date of birth, 28 March 1592: in the year of publication, he is 65 years of age, an old man.  His right hand rests on a folio volume which he is in the processes of writing: the subtitle adds that he has been at work on his didactic writings for thirty years -- from 1627, the year before he was exiled from the Czech lands, to 1657, the year after he was expelled from Poland, when this work was published.  His left hand gestures to a doorway opening into an austere church interior, in which a minister is preaching to a congregation: the centrepiece of the Moravian's pedagogical enterprise is evidently religious, and his religion approximates that of the Dutch Reformed Church (or so the image implies: Comenius was a Senior of the Moravian Unity of Brethren, and was savagely attacked by leading Dutch theologians in subsequent years). On the table, together with his manuscript book and inkstand, are two books, in the small formats of Comenius's textbooks, and a globe: universal education must ultimately be provided for every human being, of every status, class, gender, and nation.  Overhead on the ceiling, the sun and moon travel along the zodiac against the backdrop of the fixed stars, circling the globe on the table and marking out years, months, and days.  The passage of hours is also suggested by the sundial depicted on the upper left: time moves on ineluctably, and Comenius's lifelong pedagogical activities are dedicated to making learning as quick and easy as possible.  

Behind him, the wall surrounding the doorway is adorned with painted panels.  The panel above the door depicts ships anchored off the shore of a pristine world, apparently untouched by human habitation (a metaphor of discovery in both Stradanus and Bacon, the latter one of the principal influences on Comenius). To the right of the doorway, practical arts are depicted which lift humankind above the state of nature: agriculture and gardening, printing, and housebuilding.  To the left, the arts of painting and sculpture are depicted below, while the upper panel may allude to astronomy and (by extension) the mathematical sciences.  This emphasis on the mechanical arts is highly unusual for a contemporary treatise on general education: the advancement of learning of a very practical kind is evidently a second objective of these pedagogical writings. All of these arts are in fact depicted in the Orbis sensualium pictus which Comenius composed in Sárospatak a few years earlier and which would be printed in Nuremberg for the first time the following year. 

This huge book, printed in two folio volumes containing dozens of separate works, contains the Moravian's Opera omnia didactica. The full title describes the contents further as follows: All the didactic works of Comenius, written on various occasions and published in different places, now not merely collected in one and the same place but also mechanically assembled into a single system.  This emphasis on mechanism reveals another dimension of Comenian pedagogy and deeper symbolism within the title page as well.

By the seventeenth century, the printing press had radically accelerated the rate at which learning could be reproduced and dissemintated. Comenius hoped that an analogous standardisation and methodisation of educational practice could accelerate the rate at which learning could be assimilated by individuals and whole communities. The fact that printing is depicted on the title page suggests that the other mechanical arts shown may also symbolise aspects of the educational process. The pristine landscape above the door may symbolise the human being at birth, basically healthy and sound but needing cultivation. Hence the field and garden depicted to the right: the garden is one of Comenius's favourite metaphors for the school. The sculptor, hewing an ever more perfect human form from a block of stone, provides yet another image of the educational process. The builders in the lower right demonstrate the capacity of educated individuals to collaborate in improving, not only themselves, but the world in which they live.  Moreover, the printing press and the trans-oceanic voyages of discovery (depicted above the door) constituted the fifth and sixth stages of the Via Lucis or Way of Light, which Comenius believed would usher in a seventh age of universal enlightenment.  But for this new age to dawn, printing and navigation needed to be complemented by the technology of universal education and reform, part of which is outlined in the Opera didactica omnia which lies open in manuscript on the desk.

Preaching is given a very special status in this educational process. The doorway is placed in the exact centre of the composition: lines drawn from one corner of the print to the diagonally opposite one pass directly through the upper corners of the doorway; and the perspectival vanishing points (most evident in the overhead beams) converge on the pulpit.  Moreover, unlike all the mudane arts and sciences, preaching is not represented as a static, two-dimensional painting: it is a live activity, involving living people, taking place in a separate space, accessible through the doorway, behind the picture plane of the wall. The education taking place in that separate, third dimension prepares the student for life, not only in this world, but also in the world to come. Locking eyes with his reader, Comenius invites them into this space. Turning the title page of the book means opening this door and entering, first and foremost, into this third, sacred dimension.

High resolution images of the entire work together with text in HTML can be found on the Thesaurus eruditionis in Mannheim. 

Credit: Howard Hotson (February 2017 / 15 November 2020)