Disharmony of the Spheres

The Europe of Holbeins Ambassadors

By (author) Jennifer Nelson

Paperback - £27.95

Publication date:

01 December 2020

Length of book:

216 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271083414

Anxious about the threat of Ottoman invasion and a religious schism that threatened Christianity from within, sixteenth-century northern Europeans increasingly saw their world as disharmonious and full of mutual contradictions. Examining the work of four unusual but influential northern Europeans as they faced Europe’s changing identity, Jennifer Nelson reveals the ways in which these early modern thinkers and artists grappled with the problem of cultural, religious, and cosmological difference in relation to notions of universals and the divine.

Focusing on northern Europe during the first half of the sixteenth century, this book proposes a complementary account of a Renaissance and Reformation for which epistemology is not so much destabilized as pluralized. Addressing a wide range of media—including paintings, etchings and woodcuts, university curriculum regulations, clocks, sundials, anthologies of proverbs, and astrolabes—Nelson argues that inconsistency, discrepancy, and contingency were viewed as fundamental features of worldly existence. Taking as its starting point Hans Holbein’s famously complex double portrait The Ambassadors, and then examining Philipp Melanchthon’s measurement-minded theology of science, Georg Hartmann’s modular sundials, and Desiderius Erasmus’s eclectic Adages, Disharmony of the Spheres is a sophisticated and challenging reconsideration of sixteenth-century northern European culture and its discomforts.

Carefully researched and engagingly written, Disharmony of the Spheres will be of vital interest to historians of early modern European art, religion, science, and culture.

Disharmony of the Spheres exemplifies a genuinely new kind of early modern cultural studies. Each of Nelson’s readings displays the same ‘technical mastery’ of the protocols of the several disciplines across which the book works—art history, history of science and technology, institutional history, early modern philology, and diplomacy too—that she so admires in Holbein’s work.”

—Jane O. Newman, author of Benjamin's Library: Modernity, Nation, and the Baroque