John Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus (or The World of Things Obvious to the Senses drawn in Pictures) is, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “the first children’s picture book.”
Originally published in 1658 in Latin and German, the Orbis — with its 150 pictures showing everyday activities like brewing beer, tending gardens, and slaughtering animals — is immediately familiar as an ancestor of today’s children’s literature.
This approach centered on the visual was a breakthrough in education for the young, as was the decision to teach the vernacular in addition to Latin. Unlike treatises on education and grammatical handbooks, it is aimed directly at the young and attempts to engage on their level.
The Orbis was hugely popular. At one point it was the most used textbook in Europe for elementary education, and according to one account it was translated into “most European and some of the Oriental languages.” Its author John Comenius, a Czech by birth, was also well-known throughout Europe and worked in several countries as a school reformer.
His portrait was painted by Rembrandt, and according to an 1887 edition of the Orbis, Comenius was even “once solicited to become President of Harvard College.” (Although he never came to Harvard, one can still find his name engraved on the western frieze of Teachers College at Columbia University.)
Even if he is less celebrated today by name, his innovative ideas about education are still influential. In his Didactica Magna, for example, he advocates for equal educational opportunities for all: boys and girls, rich and poor, urban and rural.
Despite his progressive aims and lasting educational influence, Comenius does not come off as a thoroughly modern schoolmaster.
When we turn to the first page of the Orbis, we find an opening sentence that would seem peculiar in today’s children’s books: “Come, boy, learn to be wise.”
We see above the text a teacher and student in dialogue, the former holding up his finger and sporting a cane and large hat, the latter listening in an emotional state somewhere between awe and anxiety.
The student asks, “What doth this mean, to be wise?” His teacher answers, “To understand rightly, to do rightly, and to speak out rightly all that are necessary.”
Kaali, on the Estonian island of Saaremaa, is the site of the last giant meteorite impact to occur in a densely populated region.
The landscape that the collision left in its aftermath has been the subject of many mythological tales and may have been home to a mysterious ancient cult.
About 7,500 years ago, a huge rock from space came hurtling toward the Earth. Several kilometers above the Earth’s surface, the meteorite broke into pieces from the pressure and heat of the atmosphere. The resulting chunks collided into Saaremaa with the force of a small nuclear bomb, wreaking havoc on the landscape and possibly claiming numerous victims.
The explosion left nine total craters, now known as the Kaali Meteorite Crater Field.
Some of these craters are quite small: one measures only twelve meters across and one meter deep.
But the most interesting of the group is the largest crater, a gently sloping bowl filled with stagnant, murky water.
Simply known as Kaali crater, the largest crater (which measures 110 meters across) is believed to have been a sacred site for many centuries, in part due to its cosmic origin.
Surrounding Kaali crater are the remains of an immense stone wall from the Late Bronze Age, stronger than any similar structures in the region and providing clues to the crater’s use by ancient peoples.
Archaeologists believe it is possible that the wall served as a stronghold for an ancient cult settlement.
As evidenced by the unusually large quantity of animal bones found within the wall’s borders, the Kaali crater lake was not only a watering place but also a place of sacrifice.
While it is known that Estonians have made live offerings in the past (for good harvests and other reasons), one curious aspect of the site’s animal remains is that some date back only to the 1600s, long after the Church forbade such rituals.
Detail from Rubens’ Tiger, Lion and the Leopard Hunt (1616). Photograph: Musee des Beaux ArtsMichael Prodger
There was, it seems, nothing that Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) couldn’t do: except, that is, find his way into British hearts. In Europe he has always been held in the highest esteem.
The 19th-century French critic and historian Hippolyte Taine said of him that “the whole of human nature is in his grasp, save the loftiest heights.
Hence it is that his creativeness is the vastest we have seen.” Among those contemporaries he influenced profoundly were Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Velázquez, and he not only left his mark on their art but set the standard for what a painter should be: a gentleman as learned as he was talented.
Rubens was not just a prolific painter though; he was also a diplomat, a spy, an antiquarian and a panEuropean figure who moved with ease between the continent’s courts – including that of Charles I.
All this failed to win over the British, though, who are not impressed by the Euro-smoothy type. The real cause of British resistance, however, was the nature of Rubens’ art itself.
As the greatest northern painter of the counter-reformation he has long been seen as the cat’s-paw of the Catholic establishment and a skilled, even shameless, propagandist. He has been accused of presiding over a painting factory that produced too many “studio” works that bear little imprint of the master’s hand.
His sensuous colour was another cause for suspicion and his highly wrought religious compositions, putto piled on putto, smack of meretriciousness – part of a centuries-long ambivalence towards the sensory and theatrical nature of European baroque art.
The British are not the only ones to have had reservations: the “Homer of painting”, as Rubens was often dubbed, was criticised by his contemporary Gian Pietro Bellori – the baroque period’s own Vasari – for his distorted forms and generalised, unindividual faces.
In the 19th century Van Gogh thought him “superficial, hollow, bombastic”. Even his supporters, many of them painters and connoisseurs, have often felt it necessary to leaven their praise with a caveat.
Delacroix believed that Rubens “carries one beyond the limit scarcely attained by the most eminent painters; he dominates one, he overpowers one, with all his liberty and boldness”, but he also likened his crowded pictures to an assembly at which everyone talks at the same time.
And Ruskin, who wrote of Rubens that “his calibre of mind was originally such that I believe the world may see another Titian and another Raffaelle, before it sees another Rubens”, nevertheless identified in him an “unfortunate want of seriousness and incapability of true passion”.