During the 1650s, Comenius composed several books which might serve as introductions to the Janua linguarum. The most successful of these was the Orbis pictus, which made explicit the Comenian belief that true philosophy should be grounded on a real, empirical language (that is, in a knowledge of things not of words). One of the consequences of the confusion of tongues at Babel had been the loss of the true, original language of mankind, in which there had been a direct correspondence between words and the things that they named. This had been the language that Adam had used to name the beasts in Eden (Genesis 2:19–20, quoted in English and Latin on the verso of the title-page of Orbis pictus). Following in the steps of a number of other teachers, Comenius sought to exploit the immediate connection made between a picture and the thing it represents in order to assist the teaching of reading in Latin and the vernacular. Thus, the Orbis pictus consisted of some 150 pictures, each containing several numbered objects which corresponded to numbered words and phrases printed on the facing page. As in the Janua linguarum, the order of the pictures, and of the presentation of words and phrases, was a philosophical one, beginning with God and the creation of the elements, and moving on through plants and animals to human beings, and thence to human activities, from farming through the various mechanical arts to social behaviour, ending with philosophical concepts and the doctrines of religion.
The technique of Orbis pictus can be seen in the pages illustrated above. These begin the section of the book discussing human beings, which moves on to topics such as the seven ages of man, human anatomy and physiology, and the nature of the human soul, before discussing human inventions in a perceived chronological order (starting with gardening and agriculture). The introduction of human beings into the book is also given a historical context, since the picture (which is clearly based on contemporary illustrations for the Bible – see catalogue nos. 6 and 8 ) refers to events described in the book of Genesis. The historical nature of the creation of man and woman is mentioned, and the events of the Fall are narrated in words and in the picture. Orbis pictus was itself a work of Comenian pansophia; it was rationally ordered, and communicated through the senses knowledge which was derived from both the book of scripture and that of nature.
Orbis pictus was first published with a Latin and German text in Nuremberg in 1658, with woodcut illustrations by Paul Kreutzberger. It was translated into English almost immediately by Charles Hoole (1609–67), a former master at Rotherham Grammar School who kept a private school at Lothbury in London. Hoole’s translation of 1659 showed a number of changes to Comenius’s original, in particular the use of copper plates for the engravings. It was reprinted several times during the seventeenth century, although, from 1672, the quality of the printing of the pictures, in particular, declined. Hoole was principally concerned with the practical problem of teaching Latin to very young children. Thus, his edition of the Orbis pictus did not always make explicit the idea of teaching through sense experience which was so essential to Comenius, and about which Samuel Hartlib had been enthusiastic (Turnbull, p.65):
The examination of those sensual objects with a plain and most familiar description of them doth properly belong for the direction of it to such bookes as Mr. Com(enius) cals Schola Materna Infantiae etc.; I long extreamly to see how hee hath handled this doctrine of the senses, which is so fundamentally requisite for all his other superstructions.
John Amos Comenius, Orbis Pictus, edited by John E. Sadler (London, 1968), pp.58–80 & 436–41; G.H.Turnbull, Hartlib, Dury and Comenius (Liverpool, 1947), pp.65&359–60.