The Imitation of Christ
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Imitation of Christ (or De imitatione Christi), by Thomas à Kempis, is a widely read Christian book. It was first published anonymously, in Latin, ca. 1418; several other authors have been proposed, but Kempis' authorship is now generally accepted.
Imitation of Christ is a writing of the mysticist German-Dutch school of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and is widely considered one of the greatest manuals of devotion in Christianity. Protestants and Roman Catholics alike join in giving it praise. The Jesuits give it an official place among their "exercises". John Wesley and John Newton listed it among the works that influenced them at their conversion. General Gordon carried it with him to the battlefield. It is said Pope John Paul I was reading a copy when he died.
The number of counted editions exceeds 2000; 1000 different editions are preserved in the British Museum. The Bullingen collection, donated to the city of Cologne in 1838, contained at the time 400 different editions. De Backer enumerates 545 Latin and about 900 French editions. A critical edition was published in 1982.
The book was written in Latin. A manuscript from 1441 survives and there is a French translation from 1447. The first printed edition is a Catalan edition from 1482 (Barcelona, Pere Posa), translated into Catalan by Miquel Peres. The first printed French copies appeared at Toulouse in 1488. The earliest German translation was made in 1434 by J. de Bellorivo and is preserved in Cologne. The editions in German began at Augsburg in 1486. The first English translation (1502) was by William Atkinson and Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, who did the fourth book. Translations appeared in Italian (Venice, 1488; Milan 1489), Spanish (Seville, 1536), Arabic (Rome, 1663), Armenian (Rome, 1674), Hebrew (Frankfort, 1837), and other languages. Pierre Corneille produced a poetical paraphrase in French in 1651.
The Imitation of Christ derives its title from the heading of the first of four books, De imitatione Christi et contemptu omnium vanitatum mundi. The four books are not found in all the manuscripts, nor are they arranged invariably in the same order. Some parts seem to have been written in meter and rhyme, an observation credited on the Web to K. Hirsche in 1874. However, though some passages give evidence of this pattern, most are straightforward prose.
The work is a manual of devotion intended to assist the soul with its pursuit of holiness and communion with God. Its sentences are statements, not arguments, and are pitched in the highest key of Christian experience. It was meant for monastics and ascetics. Behind and within all its reflections runs the counsel of self-renunciation.
The life of Christ is presented as the highest study possible to a mortal, as Jesus' teachings far excel all the teachings of the saints. The book gives counsel to read the scriptures, statements about the uses of adversity, advice for submission to authority, warnings against temptation and how to resist it, reflections about death and the judgment, meditations upon the oblation of Christ, and admonitions to flee the vanities of the world.
It was written by a monk and intended for the convent. It lays stress on the passive qualities and does not advocate active service in the world. What makes it acceptable to most Christians is the supreme emphasis it lays upon Christ and the possibility of immediate communion with him and God.