Matthew Lincoln, PhD Art History and Digital Research

Magical Vision and Occult Text in Georg Bocskay’s and Joris Hoefnagel’s ‘Mira calligraphiae monumenta’


The Mira calligraphiae monumenta is one of the most intriguing objects of the kusntkammer of Rudolf II. The creators of this layered work never met each other; Georg Bocskay, secretary for Ferdinand I, penned the manuscript’s calligraphic displays in 1561-2, while Joris Hoefnagel was commissioned by Rudolf three decades later to illuminate this treasure with brilliantly rendered flora and fauna. It has been argued that Hoefnagel’s additions establish a paragone between the painted image and the written word, his illusionistic naturalia surpassing Bocskay’s page-bound artificialia. It has been further argued that the outcome of this paragone reflects a Paracelsian philosophy shared by the Rudolfine court: that true knowledge can only come from natural investigation and not from secondary texts. However, this interpretation elides the complexities of magical and occult studies in Prague. The diverse schools of occult thought entertained at the Rudolfine court also included that of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, who believed inscribed signs had the capacity to become sigils endowed with power over the natural world. I argue that the complex formal interplay of text and image on certain pages of the MCM at times suggests that Bocskay’s scripts indeed hold sway over Hoefnagel’s natural objects. This suggests that even as Rudolf and his court appreciated the MCM for its aesthetic beauty and inventiveness, these semiotically-intelligent readers must also have related its formally-cohesive tableaus of text and nature to sixteenth-century occult notions of the physical power of the inscribed sign investigated in their own court.


(SLIDE 2) This stunning illuminated page comes from one of the most enchanting objects to survive from the collections of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II: the Mira calligraphiae monumenta (or MCM), now in the J. Paul Getty Museum.2 This curious artwork was made by two separate artists who never met each other: Georg Bocskay, who created a small wunderkammer of historical alphabets and calligraphic displays in 1561-62; and Joris Hoefnagel, who added floral and insect illuminations to the codex between 1591-1596, uniting the artificialia of man-made calligraphy with a host of naturalia precisely depicted in enticing gem tones.

The MCM is a fascinating component of the long history of Northern European manuscript illumination. It is also a beautiful example late sixteenth-century courtly interest in collecting wondrous man-made and natural artifacts. These stories have been brilliantly told by scholars like Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Lee Hendrix, and Thea Vignau-Wilberg, among many others. Today I seek to shed just a little more light on one corner of the MCM story: its intersection with Rudolf’s study of magic and the occult.3 To be clear, the purpose of the MCM was not explicitly magical. That said, I argue that its unique presentation of text and nature cannot be fully understood without reference to contemporary theories of magic. The MCM’s visual juxtapositions reverberate with early modern occult theories according to which inscribed signs were endowed with the ability transcend their status as symbolic marks, becoming magically powerful sigils with real effect in the physical universe. The MCM alludes to these occult ideas so consistently that I will argue Rudolf and other courtly viewers must have understood the codex – at least partly – in magical terms.

Describing the Mira calligraphiae monumenta

(SLIDE 3) Bocskay created the writing model book while serving as court secretary for Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1556-64. The work remained in the imperial collections in Vienna until 1591, when Ferdinand’s grandson Rudolf II commissioned Hoefnagel to illuminate the codex.4 By engaging Hoefnagel to enhance Ferdinand’s artwork, Rudolf was surely mindful of the dynastic significance of adding his own mark on one of his grandfather’s artworks. He was at once signaling both dynastic continuity as well as his unique personal identity – considerations that informed everything from his coronation celebrations to his moving the imperial seat to Prague from Vienna.

Bocskay’s calligraphy is a wonder to behold. The hands are partly elaborate historical scripts, and partly novel inventions.5 Page after page bears Bocskay’s virtuosic calligraphy: letters with ascending and descending serifs so long that they interweave into their own decorative patterns, or encrusted ornaments that all but obscure the letters they ostensibly decorate. (SLIDE 4) This is not an educational handbook, but a true display piece of extreme virtuosity.6 On some pages Bocskay even wrote in reverse, likely a particular challenge when penning Gothic blackletter.

Hoefnagel, for his part, ingeniously responded to the form and composition of Bocskay’s pre-existing scripts, stunning the viewer with a diversity of delicate, masterfully-modeled flora and fauna. On page after page he adds a blend of fruits, vegetables and vines, flowers in varying points of bloom, insects, spiders, and even the occasional small mouse or frog. With these additions, the MCM becomes an exceptional hybrid of virtuosic writing and painting, perfectly fit for the Prague wunderkammer in which Rudolf aimed to collect a representation of both the natural and man-made world through its most spectacular and wondrous products.7

Our first instinct as art historians is to identify symbolic, iconographic connections between Bocskay’s and Hoefnagel’s contributions to this codex. And yet we will find that the MCM pointedly resists this path of inquiry. Lee Hendrix and Thea Vignau-Wilberg have both noted that the particular species of flora and fauna Hoefnagel added to the codex have no systematic connection to the texts Bocskay used to demonstrate his calligraphy, which range from Biblical excerpts, prayers, and hymns, to passages of courtly correspondence.8 In fact, a great deal of the naturalia are imaginary, with no real-world counterparts.9 Let us remember that someone favored enough to be allowed access to this codex would have been thoroughly trained in the traditional Renaissance humanist language of iconography that privileged symbolic relationships. In the face of this convention, the notable absence of symbolic relationships is itself a sign that some other signifying scheme is afoot.

(SLIDE 5) Further perusal suggests our focus ought to lie not so much in symbolic relationships, but visual ones. In one of the more delightful additions, Hoefnagel paints the stem of a flower piercing the page as if it were a real bloom tucked away for safekeeping.10 Like any of the other semblances of physical volume that Hoefnagel creates, the illusion reveals itself as soon as the viewer reaches out to touch the flower, to find only the material of the page below. Yet the ersatz cut in the paper entices the viewer to visually test what they have already confirmed through touch: because this is not a real slice, the back of the page must surely be blank and unmarred. (SLIDE 6) Not so! Hoefnagel wittily continues the illusion on the verso of this folio page, giving us a painted glimpse of the flower stem running through the perforated sheet. This second illusion greets our attempted confirmation of the first, reminding us precisely how much we had come to disbelieve our own senses on account of Hoefnagel’s displays of visual wit.

(SLIDE 7) In these additions to the MCM, Hoefnagel draws on the tradition of devotional manuscript illumination, in which artists negotiated increasingly volumetric and complex images onto the “flat” text-bearing surface of the page.11 For example, in this late fifteenth-century book of hours, the illuminator depicted pilgrimage badges seemingly pinned to the vellum of the page, alluding to the real practices of well-to-do pilgrims who would collect in these devotional books badges, or even flowers, obtained from a holy site.12 Yet here any relationship to the semantic content of the text (already overwhelmed by Bocskay’s florid scripts) is abandoned.

(SLIDE 8) This visual interweaving suggests that Hoefnagel constructed his illuminations to induce sustained visual comparison with the forms of Bocskay’s calligraphy. However, a careful examination of the MCM suggests no clear victor in this artistic paragone. A painted flower stem seeming to pierce the page does, on the one hand, highlight the primacy of illustrations that can simulate three-dimensionality.13 Yet this reading co-exists with its mutually exclusive complement: the flower may flatten the script, yet Hoefnagel paints the stem of the flower passing through the page at precisely the point where one of Bocscay’s dramatic flourishes plunges into the empty page. It is as if Hoefnagel is deliberately avoiding one of Bocskay’s inviolate characters.14

At several points in the codex Hoefnagel similarly re-routes his illuminations so as if to avoid the extant lettering. At other times, his illuminations seem to interact with the letters as if they were physically present forms: (SLIDE 9) a spider spins a web that is anchored at several points of the text; an imaginary insect perches on the side of a character; (SLIDE 10) another spider hangs off the end of a word; a white butterfly alights on an illustrated capital; (SLIDE 11) a rather vicious-looking stinging insect sits on the ink border framing a block of text, nicely echoing a particularly spiny flower at left; and in one notable instance, Hoefnagel even invests Bocskay’s scripts with architectonic power, adding his own frame to make a volumetric receding ceiling out of the wedge of text. Rather than subverting Bocskay’s scripts, Hoefnagel invests the written forms with apparent influence on his illuminated naturalia.

Rudolf II and Courtly Magic

(SLIDE 12) How would Rudolf and his court have situated this hybrid artwork in their intellectual universe? Looking to contemporary occult study in Prague suggests an intriguing avenue. Like many European rulers of the 16th century, Rudolf devoted no small amount of resources to occult study. Patronage of occult sciences, much like patronage of the visual arts, was very much an exercise in self-fashioning. Astrologers, alchemists, and engineers granted patrons a dual social boon: the appearance of both wisdom as well as power, genuine social currency for the early modern ruler who was expected to posses sapientia and potentia as crucial elements of princely virtù. William Eamon has suggested that magical study was an ideal courtly practice, as magic promised rare and wondrous feats accomplished through mysterious forces not obvious to the viewer. This seeming effortlessness attracted princes eager to pursue Castiglione’s image of the ideal courtier.15

Rudolf’s sponsorship of occult study was uniquely wide-ranging among the European courts, genuinely promoting the formulation of correspondences across disciplines and between schools of occult thought, much like the associations he promoted between wondrous objects filling the Prague kunstkammer. This collection of wonders both natural and man-made modeled the structure of Creation through it’s most exceptional constituents.16 A vibrant program of occult study aimed at discerning the hidden structures of the world naturally dovetailed with the mission of the kunstkammer in both representing and effecting Rudolf’s control over the world.

Over the years of his rule, many researchers of the Paracelsian bent of Hermeticism worked in his court, such as Michael Maier, Heinrich Kunrath, and Oswald Croll.17 Paracelsian occultism rejected scholastic canonical authorities as a source of hidden truth, saying that secret knowledge of the world cannot come from reading human books (i.e. secondary sources) but only from reading directly from the greatest primary source of all: the “Book of Nature”.18 Lee Hendrix has argued that the MCM visualizes Paracelsian philosophy by making literal the idea that nature transcended mere written words. Hoefnagel’s illuminations, she asserts, “confront the viewer” with the remoteness of text compared to the rich immediacy of nature.19

(SLIDE 13) However the Cabbalist tradition also had a strong presence at the court. We know Rudolf had his horoscope not only cast, but illustrated by Hoefnagel himself. Rudolf studied Hebrew extensively, and was associated with Rabbi Judah Loew, the Supreme Chief Rabbi of Bohemia and a figure of legend down to today for animating the Golem of Prague from lifeless mud using a parchment talisman inscribed with Hebrew and inserted in the creature’s mouth.20 Rudolf’s own chancellors owned copies of Pico della Mirandola’s Cabalistarum dogmata, and Rudolf’s private confessor, Johannes Pistorius, was himself a Christian Cabbalist.21As part of this occult project, Rudolf also had printed the quasi-cabbalist manuscripts by Johannes Trithemius that had gone unpublished for almost a century. The early sixteenth-century occult works of Trithemius’ protégé Cornelius Agrippa also circulated, and it is his occult theories in particular that may have provided a magical lens through which Rudolf and others may have viewed MCM.

Text and Nature

(SLIDE 14) Agrippa wrote De occulta philosophia in 1533. Despite its initial controversial reception, copies of the book existed in Rudolf’s library in the late sixteenth-century.22 In this book Agrippa presented methods for constructing powerful sigils. You can see some of the process on the page to the right: starting from a grid of select Hebrew characters, converted by gematria into a table of numbers, the occultist may then follow a set of calculations to trace lines between a series of numbers, lines that produce a character mathematically embedded, or occluded, within a significant Hebrew word. Inscribed on the proper materials and deployed in the correct manner, these sigils could effect changes in the weather, in animals, and even influence the thoughts and behavior of humans.23

Most interesting for our understanding of the MCM is Agrippa’s underlying theory of signification (and here I borrow extensively from Christopher Lehrich’s recent close reading of De Occulta Philosophia through our modern-day semiotic triad of symbolic, iconic, and indexical signs). Agrippa’s sigils were powerful because precisly they were not simply arbitrary symbolic representations of objects. Being systematically constructed from Hebrew – a divinely-inspired language unlike man’s modern, arbitrary tongues – these sigils had an indexical relationship to Creation, their form being a functional result of a mathematical process. Moreover, in Agrippa’s view, these sigils had an iconic relationship to nature as well: they visually reflected the geometries of the heavenly spheres that had powerful influence over earthly creation. Perhaps most importantly, these sigils’ power was transitive, not only reflecting creation but potentially able to affect it as well. The original sign, the logos of God, had this power: God spoke, therefore the cosmos was created. Because Agrippa’s sigils were constructed from Hebrew, they were close enough to the logos to have real influence on the natural elements that both signified and were signified by these sigils.24 Yet theoretically, even the distant children of Hebrew still had a tenuous connection to this divine originating power. For Agrippa and related theorists, language need not be a pale, arbitrary representation of the natural world, but could rather be inextricably embedded within it. Magical characters were not powerful because of their syllogistic relationships to objects or concepts; they were powerful because they were, in essence, images.25

(SLIDE 15) When first considering the MCM, we struggled to locate systematic symbolic relationships between the text and the illuminations. While Hoefnagel subverted any such iconographic relationships, he reliably mimicked the calligraphic shapes of Bocskay’s script, creating pleasing visual correspondences of forms: interweaving flourishes echo the crisscrossing spines of a love-in-a-mist plant; the round peas within bulbous pods evoke the decorative baubles surrounding the text they accompany; (SLIDE 16) sinuous curves run along the page not unlike the curvaceous slug sitting in the lower margin; the curlicues of a flourish suggest the whizzing, spiraling motion of the bee pictured in flight beneath them. (SLIDE 17) Even in the instances where Hoefnagel defies the very integrity of the parchment page with his trompe l’oeil effects, the plants deliberately avoid marring the text, as if mysteriously repelled from the earlier path of Bocskay’s pen. Rather than subverting the preexisting script, Hoefnagel bonds it to his naturalia ever more strongly, constructing visual worlds on each page dominated by iconic relationships so cohesive that Bocskay’s texts cease to be knowledge-conveying language as such, becoming images like Hoefnagel’s flora and fauna.

The MCM’s “message” is thus not an iconographic one, but a formal one. It invites the viewer to contemplate the complex relationships of text and nature on the page, and it does so in a way analogous to the semiotic relationships explored by Cornelius Agrippa and other Cabbalists. Hoefnagel drives the viewer to be self-aware of their own assumptions about vision and meaning, frequently confounding our understanding of the pictorial surface. At times the page is a perspectival window one peers through as if into a space to see insects climbing up the sides of words or the edges of the page. At other times the pictorial surface is coincident with the page itself, so that the viewer feels as if they are looking down onto actual snails creeping along a very solid page. Pages like this one require the viewer to switch back and forth between both these modes. Like Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia, the MCM demanded a semiotically intelligent reader intrigued by the idea that text and nature could have a contingent relationship.

(SLIDE 18) Notably, one of the few pages of Bockscay’s calligraphy book that Hoefnagel left unillustrated is this one. Bocskay inscribed the Hebrew alphabet here in its entirety, copying the letters as well as the banner motif wholesale from Giambattista Palatino’s 1541 Libro Nuovo.26 Only the most virtuosically-inscribed passages of Latin, German, and Italian have the potency in the MCM to nudge small insects or errant leaves to one side or the other. By contrast, in its simplicity and totality, the Hebrew alphabet stands utterly apart from the encrusting illuminations in the in the MCM, privileged by Bocskay and Hoefnagel much as it was by Agrippa and other Cabbalists for being the only human language directly originating from god.


(SLIDE 19) At the start of this paper I proposed that the MCM was not explicitly magical. It is not itself a potent talisman or amulet. It does not contain diagrams of magical theories or procedures. It does not even depict the alchemist, astrologer, or magician in the midst of occult practice. Yet all the same I argue that it is enmeshed in the magical universe of Rudolfine Prague, for its unique visual idioms mirror so well the theories of signification offered by Agrippa, and other occult theorists read by the court. However by acknowledging the resonances between its visual explorations and the full spectrum of contemporary occult theory, we can better fit the MCM into our understanding of magical and artistic culture in Prague. In doing so, I hope this may spur the investigation of the intersection of Rudolfine art and Rudolfine magic with renewed purpose. (SLIDE 20)


Eamon, William. Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Ebeling, Florian. The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Evans, Robert John Weston. Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History 1576-1612. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.

Fučiková, Elišká. “The Fate of Rudolf II’s Collections in Light of the History of the Thirty Years’ War.” In 1648: War and Peace in Europe, edited by Klaus Bussmann and Heinz Schilling, 2:173–180. Münster: Osnabrück, 1999.

Gouk, Penelope. “Natural Philosophy and Natural Magic.” In Rudolf II and Prague: The Court and the City, edited by Eliska Fuciková, 231–237. Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1997.

Hendrix, Marjorie Lee, and Thea Vignau-Wilberg. “Mira calligraphiae monumenta”: A Sixteenth-Century Calligraphic Manuscript Inscribed by Georg Bocskay and Illuminated by Joris Hoefnagel. Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1992.

Kaufmann, Thomas DaCosta. “Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II: The Kunstkammer as a Form of Representation.” Art Journal 38, no. 1 (oct 1978): 22–28. doi:10.2307/776251.

———. The Mastery of Nature: Aspects of Art, Science, and Humanism in the Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

———. “Vistas for Rudolfine Research.” In Hans Von Aachen in Context: Proceedings of the International Conference, Prague, 22-25 September 2010, edited by Lubomir Konecny, Stepan Vacha, and Beket Bukovinska, 245–251. Prague: Artefactum, 2012.

Kaufmann, Thomas DaCosta, and Virginia Roehrig Kaufmann. “The Sanctification of Nature: Observations on the Origins of Trompe L’Oeil in Netherlandish Book Painting of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.” The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 19 (1991): 43–64.

Lehrich, Christopher I. The Language of Demons and Angels: Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy. Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Marshall, Peter H. The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague. New York: Walker & Co., 2006.

Neri, Janice L. “From Insect to Icon: Joris Hoefnagel and the ‘Screened Objects’ of the Natural World.” In Ways of Knowing: Ten Interdisciplinary Essays, edited by Mary Lindemann, 23–51. Brill Academic Publishers, 2004.

Szőnyi, György Endre. “The Powerful Image: Towards a Typology of the Occult.” In European Iconography East and West: Selected Papers of the Szeged International Conference, June 9-12, 1993, edited by György Endre Szőnyi, 250–263. Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Xerri, Steve. “Script and Image: Review of Mira Calligraphica Monumenta, by Lee Hendrix and Thea Vignau-Wilberg, Editors.” Times Literary Supplement (apr 1993): 18.

  1. This talk was developed from a 2012 seminar on Renaissance magic taught by Meredith Gill, and it is deeply indebted to her thoughtful and detailed guidance. I have also benefited from the thoughtful suggestions of Aneta Georgievska-Shine and Steven Mansbach. My participation in the 2013 Sixteenth Century Society Conference is generously supported by the University of Maryland Department of Art History’s Arthur K. Wheelock fellowship. 

  2. Hendrix and Vignau-Wilberg, “Mira calligraphiae monumenta”, vii 

  3. The need for closer study of the connections between Rudolfine art and occult study has recently been noted by Kaufmann in “Vistas for Rudolfine Research,” 249 

  4. Fučiková, “The Fate of Rudolf II’s Collections,” 177–179 

  5. Hendrix and Vignau-Wilberg, “Mira calligraphiae monumenta”, 2 

  6. Ibid., 34 

  7. Kaufmann, “Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II,” 25; Kaufmann, The Mastery of Nature, 126–127 

  8. Hendrix and Vignau-Wilberg, “Mira calligraphiae monumenta”, 34, 48 

  9. Neri, “From Insect to Icon,” 42 

  10. Hendrix and Vignau-Wilberg, “Mira calligraphiae monumenta”, 49 

  11. Ibid., 45. 

  12. Kaufmann and Kaufmann, “The Sanctification of Nature,” 54–56 

  13. Hendrix and Vignau-Wilberg, “Mira calligraphiae monumenta”, 48 

  14. This has also been pointed out in Xerri, “Script and Image,” 18 

  15. Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature, 221–229 

  16. Kaufmann, “Remarks on the Collections of Rudolf II,” 25; Gouk, “Natural Philosophy and Natural Magic,” 236 

  17. Marshall, The Magic Circle of Rudolf II, 128–137 

  18. This is not to be confused with the Cartesian scientific revolution that would come in the mid-seventeenth century; Ebeling, The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus, 101–108 

  19. Hendrix and Vignau-Wilberg, “Mira calligraphiae monumenta”, 53 

  20. Marshall, The Magic Circle of Rudolf II, 93–95 

  21. Evans, Rudolf II and His World, 236–242 

  22. Ibid., 126 

  23. Lehrich, The Language of Demons and Angels, 104–110 

  24. Ibid., 135, 141, 161 

  25. For more on contemporary investigation of the image-like quality of language, see Szőnyi, “The Powerful Image,” pt. 258 

  26. Hendrix and Vignau-Wilberg, “Mira calligraphiae monumenta”, 36; Bocskay probably did not know Hebrew himself, as there are several minor orthographic errors in his lettering (noted by Matthew Colvin, Cornell University). 

Cite this post:

Lincoln, Matthew D. "Magical Vision and Occult Text in Georg Bocskay’s and Joris Hoefnagel’s ‘Mira calligraphiae monumenta’." Matthew Lincoln, PhD (blog), 24 Oct 2013,

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