The most famous and elaborate account of the Ark produced in the seventeenth century was by the Jesuit polymath of the Collegio Romano, Athanasius Kircher. Not only was he concerned to reconstruct the story of the Ark in every detail, but he came to personify the impulse for collecting natural history – given sacred purpose through Noah – as he brought together and accommodated the extraordinary Museum Kircherianum in Rome. The connection was evident for Kircher: he described Noah’s Ark as the first museum.
For Kircher the authority of the Ark as a blueprint derives from its divine origin: unlike other memorable creations of the ancient world, such as the pyramids of Memphis, the walls of Babylon, the statue of Jupiter at Olympus or the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, the Ark was designed by God. Since God was the architect, the design embodies the divine laws of symmetry and proportion, qualities the Ark shares with the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple of Solomon.
But God also made man, and in his own image. Thus the proportions of man are reflected in the Ark. The length of 300 cubits to the width of 50, for example, is in the same proportion as the height of a well-proportioned man to his width. Such relationships are illustrated by Kircher’s diagram, ‘Proportio humani corporis ad Arcam comparata’.
As for the shape of the Ark, Kircher says this is controversial, and he relates some of the conclusions of other commentators. His proposal, which had benefited from experimental reconstructions of scale models, is a three-storied box with a double-pitched roof. Kircher owes much to Buteo (catalogue no. 27 ), but every aspect is elaborated into a detailed description supported by an engaging narrative. In one dramatic illustration of the progress of the Flood, the general arrangement of the scene and the disposition of the condemned people are clearly related to those in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as Kircher would have known it in Rome, but he has replaced Michaelangelo’s Ark with his own design.
Kircher comes into his own when enumerating, describing and illustrating the animals. Just as Noah had learnt the science of geometrical proportion from God, so had he also learnt the divine science of animals. Organization and taxonomy were critical to the management of a successful Ark, which had to be divided up into quarters proper for all the animals and their provisions. This Kircher does with obsessive thoroughness and loving detail. Birds and humans were on the top storey, quadrupeds on the bottom, and food and water stored in the middle. Serpents were left to languish in the bilge, while there was no need to provide space for creatures that generated spontaneously, such as the insects and frogs.
A further natural philosophical aspect of the story of Noah’s Ark, more evident in Kircher’s account than in earlier ones, is the set of meteorological, cosmological and perhaps astrological issues surrounding the phenomenon of the Flood – issues that come together in the discipline later named by Thomas Burnet the ‘Theory of the Earth’. Kircher’s interest in the subterranean world gave him a rich resource for speculation on the origins of the diluvial water.
After the Flood, Noah lived a further 350 years and died at the age of 950, and Kircher continues his story to the end. He himself had only five years after the publication of Arca Noë to pursue his mission to recover and display Noah’s divine science in his museum in Rome.