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Spencer Collection Book of the Month: The Rain of Crosses
Did you know that The New York Public Library has an official color? I didn't either, and I've worked here since the Dark Ages (before the Internet). But we do, as I found out when I ordered new business cards recently. The color is red.
That's fine with me—I've always liked red (political considerations aside), and besides it gives me an excuse to select as the Spencer Collection Book of the Month for April a small volume containing two illustrations in vivid red. It is appropriate also because Easter falls in April this year.
The work is Uslegung vñ Betütnus der Crutz so yetzo fallen ("Interpretation and Significance of the Crosses That Are Now Falling"), probably published in Basel around 1503. It was a popular work in its day; several editions in both German and Latin are known from the years 1501 to 1503. Copies of both this German edition and a Latin edition using the same pictures have been digitized, thanks to the Bavarian State Library (German; Latin). Here are the illustrations, as they appear on pages one and two of our pamphlet:
The pamphlet is the work of Libertus, a Franciscan monk (ca. 1420-1506) who as Bishop Suffragan of Liège took the title "Episcopus Bericensis" (sometimes misspelled "Gericensis"), usually rendered in modern reference sources as "Bishop of Beirut."
Why Beirut, you may well ask? I certainly did. It has to do with the history of the territory centered on Liège in present-day Belgium. For many centuries, it was a Prince-Bishopric, a secular state ruled by a prince who was also a bishop of the church. If the reigning prince-bishop was more interested in the worldly portion of his domain, he might appoint a deputy, called a suffragan, to look after the ecclesiastical side. The suffragan's status could then be enhanced by making him bishop of a "titular see," somewhere "in partibus infidelium," in the lands that had fallen into the hands of the "infidels"—like Beirut, in far-off Lebanon. From 1470 until his death in 1506, Libertus was Bishop Suffragan under three Prince-Bishops, the last of whom was Jean de Hornes (Johan van Horne, in Dutch). I found his biography in Benjamin de Troyer's Bio-bibliographia franciscana neerlandica ante saeculum XVI.
The introductory text in our pamphlet gives us the background. On May 13, 1501, ten days after the Feast of the Holy Cross, a young woman from a village near Maastricht in the Netherlands was caught in a downpour of what seemed to be a rain of "pure blood," and it left stains on her veil or headdress in the shape of crosses (see the first picture). She washed the veil, but a week later the stains fell on it again, this time taking the form of crosses and various instruments of the Passion (second picture). Alarmed, she turned the veil over to the church, and it came into the possession of the bishop of Liège—that would be either Libertus himself, or his boss, Jean de Hornes—who was said to possess several such relics.
Libertus thereupon composed the tract in an attempt to explain this and a number of similar phenomena that had come to his attention. He came to four conclusions: that the Holy Cross must be revered; that the falling crosses were a sign of God's wrath against relapsing sinners and those who oppressed the Church; that they were a gentle admonition against vain and provocative dress in women (who were especially affected); and that, by way of a remedy, war ought to be waged against the Turks and other heathens.
Meanwhile, the Prince-Bishop, Jean de Hornes, had hastened to inform His Imperial Majesty Maximilian himself (documented here: RI XIV 15362) about the series of incidents in his diocese, again with the recommendation that war against the Turks was advised, and the news began to spread. It shortly reached Nuremberg, where the woodcutter Georg (or Jörg) Glockendon was inspired to produce a broadsheet containing the original version of the illustrations in our pamphlet (see above). Such illustrated broadsheets were the YouTube of their day, employing the relatively new technology of the woodcut to mass-produce and distribute visual impressions of current events, the more sensational, the better. Instead of being downloaded, they were sold by wandering peddlers, like the fellow from later on in the sixteenth century pictured here.
I found him in Wunderzeichen und Winkeldrucker by Bruno Weber, about a sixteenth-century collection of such publications documenting the latest wonders and prodigies (now in the Central Library of Zurich). It's named after the collector, the cleric Hans Jacob Wik (or Wick): Sammlung Wi(c)kiana. Yes, you could call it the original Wikipedia.
In the first few years of the 1500s, no doubt partly inspired by images like Glockendon's that "went viral," a myriad of similar occurrences was reported from many places in North Germany and the Netherlands and even farther afield in German-speaking Europe. Taken together, the phenomenon is known as the "Kreuzregen" (Rain of Crosses) or the "Kreuzwunder" (Miracles of the Crosses). Among contemporaries who mentioned it or described it in some detail were Albrecht Dürer, who sketched a cross that had fallen on the scarf of a neighbor's maid, reducing her to tears (see the illustration, which was published here), and Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola (nephew of the philosopher), who composed a poem on the subject, Staurostichon, digitized here). Later in the sixteenth century, John Foxe (in his Acts and Monuments, known as Foxe's Booke of Martyrs) mentioned it, too:
"Hetherto pertayneth also a strange portente and a prodigious token from heauen, in the yeare of our Lord. 1505. In the which yeare, vnder the reigne of Maximilian Emperour, there appered in Germany, vpon the vestures of men as well of Priestes, as lay men, vpon womens garmentes also, and vpon theyr rockes as they were spynning, diuerse printes and tokens of the nayles, of the spunge, of the spayre, of the Lordes, coate, and of bloudy Crosses. &c. All which were seene vpon theyr cappes and gownes, as is most certaynly testified and recorded by diuers, which both did see & also did write vpon the same."
The phenomenon is also reported from other eras and is related to the more widespread one of "blood rain." References to red precipitation falling from the heavens go back as far as the Iliad, where it's mentioned twice. In Alexander Pope's version of the Iliad, he rendered the second occurrence (book 16, lines 559–560) as "Then touch'd with grief, the weeping heav'ns distill'd / A show'r of blood o'er all the fatal field," and added a footnote:
As Pope notes, several natural phenomena have been proposed to account for "blood rain" events—microorganisms, pollen, iron oxide particles, or other organic or inorganic components of dust blown up into the atmosphere, or falling from meteor showers—and perhaps they have more than a single cause. See C.G. Ehrenberg's Passat-Staub und Blut-Regen (1849, available online through Google Books) and "Some Mediaeval Cases of Blood-Rain," by J.S.P. Tatlock, in Classical Philology, v. 9, no. 4 (1914) (available online, onsite at all NYPL locations). At any rate, blood rains continue to be reported. A recent major event in the province of Kerala, India, in 2001, gave rise to speculation about alien life forms being responsible for the color, but the official report concluded more soberly that the coloring agents were the spores of a lichen-forming alga from the genus Trentepohlia.
Similarly, though the "rain of crosses" phenomena reported from north central Europe in the early 1500s were often glossed by the learned (like Libertus) as clear evidence of God's wrath, even at the time some observers had a more mundane explanation: if anything that was dense enough to make a stain on garments fell into the elaborately folded headdresses worn by women of the era, the stains might be expected to take on a cruciate form when the cloth was smoothed out—especially if that was what people expected to see. In our day, a new word, pareidolia, has been coined to describe the (mis-)perception of a pattern or a coherent image in a random visual stimulus. There are certainly enough modern examples, some of which (think of the Rorschach inkblot test) may actually be useful, while most are fanciful or just plain weird.
(For much of the above research, I am indebted to the German Wikipedia author with the username "Kreuzwunder." Though it's not an official Wikipedia page, his "user's page" (in German) is the most extensive source I could locate on the sixteenth-century rain of crosses, and it is extremely well documented. Most of the images in this post are from Wikimedia Commons, where they were uploaded thanks to "Kreuzwunder.")