February 8, 2011

The Flammarion Wood Engraving

        This is a very cool image, which, understandably, has shown up as an illustration of many a work on the history of science or the search for knowledge.  (I think I first encountered it on the cover of my paperback copy of Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers.)  It makes a great illustration for the entire concept of fantasy - looking through the limits of our world, beyond the familiar, into the very heavens…  So I was curious about the provenance of the image and did a little research.
        What I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, is that this print dates to 1888, and was made to illustrate The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology, by Camille Flammarion.  The part of the text it illustrates is a discussion of how people used to think the heavens were a solid crystalline vault.  Flammarion goes on to recount a story that he seems to have made up himself from a combination of sources, about a Medieval traveller who claimed that he reached the point where the earth and sky met, and found a place where they were not joined and he could stoop his shoulders and crawl between.
        Besides the fact that the picture is not attested before 1888, its late date is evident in its non-medieval border, and also in its carving style.  Not that I could tell this myself, but according to Wikipedia, one who knows such things can see that it was carved with a  tool that wasn't used for wood engraving until the late eighteenth century.   The artist is anonymous, but there's some likelihood that the design was drawn by Flammarion himself, as he had been apprenticed to an engraver and apparently drew and supervised the carving of many illustrations for his books.
        In any case, the image itself is a beautiful one.  (And of course I like the black and white version better than the colored ones you might see.)  I love the tiny little villages in the distance, and the exotic plants in the foreground.  I also like that the glimpse of heaven beyond the firmament looks like machinery made of cloud.  The little puffs of cloud have a look of cogs along the edges of vast airy gears, and there's even that strange wheel shape way at the upper left.
        Whether or not this is an accurate depiction of actual Medieval attitudes, it's a wonderful concept.  Just imagine that place where the sky and the earth meet.  Imagine how the edge of the sky might be drawn thin and ragged there.  Imagine coming to that place where the sky stoops lower and lower like the corner of a tent, and you crouch down and push against the gauzy fabric of heaven.  And imagine that it parts to let you through…

[Picture: wood engraving from p 163 of L'Atmosphere: Météorologie Populaire by Camille Flammarion, 1888.  (Thank you, Wikimedia Commons!)]


  1. It's a wonderful image, and it brought to mind Robinson Jeffers:

    "Through rifts in the screen of the world pale gold gleams, and the evening
    Star suddenly glides like a flying torch.
    As if we had not been meant to see her; rehearsing behind
    The screen of the world for another audience."

  2. Could that wheel in the upper left corner refer to Ezekiel? The sky definitely does not look medieval to me, but the concept and design are cool.

  3. Nan, I had to go look up the poem you quoted since I wasn't familiar with it. Really lovely - thanks for introducing me!

    Pax, I suppose it could be Ezekiel's wheel up there, although I don't know of any particular evidence one way or the other.

  4. Does this wood cut really exist or all we have is just the image ?

  5. Are you asking whether the carved block from which it was printed still exists? If so, not that I know of. There are copies of the original edition of the book with the illustration in it.

  6. Thank you so much, Ann Nydam. I have the same doubt. In my opinion it would be more appropriate to call it the Flammarion drawing rather than Flammarion wood cut.

  7. Satya, a woodcut is not just the block itself but the image printed from a carved block, and there's no doubt that the Flammarion woodcut exists. It is not simply a drawing, because the image in the book was created by printing a carved block. (The blocks for most older woodcuts no longer exist or are lost, and in the nineteenth century some artists began deliberately destroying their blocks after a limited edition had been printed.)