Magic lantern

The old photographs saved from the past belong to the favorite topics of Poemas del Río Wang. It is no wonder, as pictures are probably the most efficient mediators of information.

Viewing photographs, however, is basically an individual activity. People pass them around, they browse albums. To share pictures with several people, a whole audience, you need slides, movies or projectors. Their conservation over time, however, has been minimal, even if the production and presentation of slides precedes by centuries the invention of photography.

The predecessor of slides is the magic lantern, which is the combination of a projecting equipment and a series of images painted on glass. It is an exceptional luck when such glasses and equipments turn up after disappearing from society parlors and classrooms where they were used for entertainment and educational demonstrations.

The subject of this post is such a series of well preserved glass-slides dating from the mid-19th century, which were used as a demonstration tool, possibly in the science lab of the Benedictine Boarding School in Pannonhalma, Hungary.

This series cannot be summed up with a short title such as the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World”. These pictures illustrate the gradual evolution of the Earth and of life. The Bible’s influence is clearly visible, especially on the first few slides; they can be linked to the first verses of the Book of Genesis (see the respective verses by moving the mouse over the pictures). The next slides are based on the achievements of scientific research, and are adjusted to the dominant theories of the period.

The two dominant theories of the time, Plutonism vs. Neptunism, as well as the theories of catastrophes are clearly reflected in the images. Plutonism is based on the theory of the Earth’s igneous origin. It was opposed by Neptunism, a theory which supposed even magmatic and volcanic formations having been deposited from water, and which traced back volcanic activities to the descending and self-igniting of carbonized swamps.

On the images you can thus recognize the palaeozoic period with its carbonatetd seal trees and the animals conquering the mainland. The “breeched” and winged animal could well be an Archeopteryx. After the tertiary catastrophe brought along with the volcanos vomiting fire, ash and lava, soon the time of the mammals will come. The monkey perched on a tree is already indicative to the appearance of the anthropoids.

The jumps observed in the evolution trends of fossils were assumed to be results of global catastrophes similar to the Flood. The strong violet colors on the pictures indicate the magmatic catastrophes. Every such catastrophe leads to the extinction of earlier species, as well as to the creation of new and more complex forms.

But Eden or the Flood wedges itself into the evolutionary timeline. We can recognize in the picture the deer (Unicorn sp.?) and a lion, which are characteristic both of the peaceful paradisiacal conditions, and of the period of the Flood (in the period called Diluvium). Let us present here, as a parallel, two renowned paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder.

Jan Brueghel the Elder: The Garden of Eden. London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Jan Brueghel the Elder: The entry of the animals into Noah’s Ark, 1613. Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

Our time is represented by the presence of a bay and a boat on it, and by a smoking volcano in the foreground, which could be even the Vesuvius. The last slide closes the series with the fireball of a future catastrophe, thus visually framing, together with the first ones, a complete picture of the history of the Earth

In accordance with today’s scientific knowledge, this catastrophe, accompanied by the distension of the Sun and by the total annihilation of the Earth and any earthly life, would follow after three milliard years. It would be good if mankind could live to see that.

This post is dedicated to the late Farkas Mayer OSB who passed away two years ago and rests in the Benedictine order’s crypt in Pannonhalma, a professor in the order’s high school and winner of the “Professor Rácz” Life Achievement Award. It was his merit not to let this curiosity of technical and scientific history completely disappear, and he also helped to interpret the series of its pictures.

And who was Professor Rácz? A professor of the Lutheran High School in Budapest, who helped to start several Nobel winner physicians as well as the mathematician János Neumann on their career.