June 15, 2012

World-Bettering Example 4

    Can Block Printing Save the Earth?

        I'm faking you out here - this isn't another post about speculative fiction.  No, I'm back to block prints, but I've got a couple of block prints from Jan Amos Comenius, a seventeenth-century Czech educator who believed in the power of pictures to educate, and the power of education to make the world a better place.  Comenius is called the father of modern education for his design of a school system much like the public school system used in the US today, for his general theory of education based on principles of investigation, and for his textbooks.  His textbooks were the first to use illustrations for instruction and they were based on the ideas of teaching children in the vernacular, starting with what was familiar to them, making the acquisition of knowledge enjoyable, and universalizing education.  Comenius explained that he would try "to allure boys' attention with pictures that amusingly teach the chief things of the world."
        According to Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, Comenius's travels "led him to hope that education might mitigate enough local bigotries to unite mankind."  Art can indeed have a special place in this job of uniting people through education, because images have the ability to communicate across linguistic barriers.  Sad to say, Comenius was not entirely successful, as mankind is not yet united.  Still, he didn't give up on this dream despite having all his property and writings destroyed by bigots not once but twice.  So we shouldn't give up yet, either.
        I've picked three woodcuts from Comenius's 1657 work Orbis Sensualium Pictus, "The Visible World in Pictures."  My daughter T has recently been on an ancient Roman kick and checked out of the library a First 1000 Words in Latin book which really drove home for me the revolutionary genius of Comenius's ideas.  T had a grand time flipping through the full-page illustrations in her library book, and soon started referring to family members by their Latin names. ("Mater, can I please have a snack?"  I suppose she should be using the vocative declension, but still…)  Now try to imagine a 9-year-old having fun voluntarily learning Latin from a words-only textbook consisting purely of long vocabulary lists to be memorized.  See how clever Comenius was?
        Besides the pedagogical novelty, however, I find the illustrations pleasing, both as windows into the world of his students, and as woodcuts in their own right.  As is so often the case, I don't know who designed or carved these little vignettes, but they certainly seem more attractive to me than the line illustrations that appeared in so many textbooks of my youth in the 1970's.  I like the boy in his hat and collar as he goes stiltwalking along.  I like that the different birds are set actively in a scene instead of statically on their own.   And the bookshop?  Well, bookshops are
always cool, but I'm very much interested in the ways in which this view differs from modern bookstores - and the ways in which things are still the same.
        Finally, a couple of Fun Facts about J. A. Comenius:
1.  He believed in prophesies and revelations, and said that 1672 would begin the new millenium of Christ.  (He died in 1670, so never got to see himself proven wrong on that one.)
2.  He tried to invent a language in which it would be impossible to express a false statement.  (Which sounds good, but then what would become of all my beloved fantasy?)

[Pictures: Children's games, woodcut from Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Jan Amos Comenius, 1658 edition;
Fowl, from 1669 trilingual edition);
Bookshop, from 1658 edition.]
(Quotations from Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, 1971.)

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