Musaeum Clausum  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
secret museum

Musaeum Clausum (Latin for Sealed Museum), also known as Bibliotheca abscondita, is a tract written by Sir Thomas Browne first published posthumously in 1684. The book contains short descriptions of supposed, rumoured or lost books pictures and objects. The subtitle describes the book as an inventory of remarkable books, antiquities, pictures and rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living. The tract's date is unknown: however, an event from the year 1675 is cited.

Like Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Musaeum Clausum is a catalogue of doubts and queries, only this time, in a style reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges, a 20th century Argentinian short-story writer who once declared: "To write vast books is a laborious nonsense, much better is to offer a summary as if those books actually existed."

Browne however was not the first author to engage in such fantasy. The French author Rabelais in his epic Gargantua and Pantagruel also penned a list of imaginary and often obscene book titles in his "Library of Pantagruel" an inventory which Browne himself alludes to in Religio Medici.

As the 17th century scientific revolution progressed the popularity and growth of antiquarian collections, some claiming to house highly improbable items grew. Browne was an avid collector of antiquities and natural specimens possessing a supposed unicorn's horn, presented to him by Arthur Dee . Browne's eldest son Edward visited the famous scholar Athanasius Kircher, founder of the Museo Kircherano at Rome in 1667, whose exhibits included an engine for attempting perpetual motion and a speaking head, which Kircher called his Oraculum Delphinium. He wrote to his father of his visit to the Jesuit priest's "closet of rarities".

Early museums such as Kircher's were private affairs, wooden arks or cabinets where antiquarians kept collections of curious objects. The intellectual collector of such curiosities was the forerunner of today's professional natural historian and scientist. Physicians in particular took an interest in natural history, sometimes to the neglect of their medical duties. One of the best known of early collectors was Hans Sloane. Distinguished in medicine and science, President of both the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians, the books and objects Sloane collected became the foundation of the British Museum.

The sheer volume of book-titles, pictures and objects listed in Musaeum Clausum is testimony to Browne's fertile imagination; however his major editors, Simon Wilkins in the nineteenth century (1834) and Sir Geoffrey Keynes in the twentieth (1924) summarily dismissed it. Keynes considered its humour too erudite and "not to everyone's taste." However this minor work deserves to be better known. Not only does it allude to motifs and symbols from the worlds of Classical literature, the Bible and alchemy which fascinated Browne throughout his life and therefore is a 'snap-shot' in précis of the symbols which preoccupied his unconscious psyche; but also confirms that the ideas, imagery and symbolism of esoteric thought remained of great interest to seventeenth century intellects. Upon reading it one may concur with the French art critic André Malraux that "The human imagination is a museum without walls."

Browne's miscellaneous tract can be read as a parody of the rising trend of private museum collections with their curios of doubtful origin, and perhaps also of publications such as the so-called Museum Hermeticum (1678) one of the last great anthologies of alchemical literature, with their divulgence of near common-place alchemical symbols and secrets.


Book titles

  • Some manuscripts and Rarities brought from the Libraries of Ethiopia, by Zaga Zaba, and afterward transported to Rome, and scattered by the Soldiers of the Duke of Bourbon, when they barbarously sacked that City.

The Sack of Rome distributed various art collections and libraries throughout Europe. The most notable work being the Bembine Tablet, a brass tablet owned by Cardinal Bembo and a valuable source of Egyptian hieroglyphs, one of many objects mentioned in The Garden of Cyrus.

Mithridates VI 'the Great' (120 - 63 B.C) was defeated by the Roman general Pompey. It was commonly said that he immunized himself against being poisoned by taking small doses of poison.

  • Seneca's Epistles to Saint Paul.

The correspondence between the Stoic Roman philosopher Seneca (c. 4 B.C. -A.D. 65) and Saint Paul (died Rome 67 A.D.) is reputed to have once existed.

  • The Works of Confucius, the famous philosopher of China, translated into Spanish.

A good example of Browne's interest in comparative religion.

  • An ancient British herbal, or description of divers Plants of this Island, observed by the famous Physician Scribonus Largus, when he attended the Emperor Claudius in his Expedition into Brittany.


In his Religio Medici Browne confessed, "I can looke a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an horse." This little-known late tract gives full vent to Browne's imaginative visual faculties. Never intended for publication but personal amusement it permits the reader a glimpse of his fertile imagination. Examples include-

  • A Draught of all sorts of Sistrums, Crotaloes, Cymbals, Tympans, &c. in use amongst the Ancients

An example of Sir T.B's interest in ancient music, perhaps from his perusal of Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus which contains illustrations of ancient percussion. In Religio Medici he noted: "All naturally are inclined unto Rhythm."

  • A Moon Piece, describing that notable Battel between Axalla, General of Tamberlane, and Camares the Persian, fought by the light of the Moon.

Paintings which depicted unusual lighting, such as moonlight, Alpine scenery and exotic locations were popular settings for Dutch genre scenes of the period. It was during Browne's era that the 'golden age' of Dutch painting occurred, Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer relied upon dramatic forms of lighting while other Dutch artists found the depiction of exotic locations to be of particular popularity with their patrons and purchasers.

  • A Snow Piece, of Land and Trees covered with Snow and Ice, and Mountains of Ice floating in the Sea, with Bears, Seals, Foxes, and variety of rare Fowls upon them.

Browne corresponded with the Lutheran minister Theodor Jonas of Iceland for over twenty years who upon request, provided him with natural history notes upon the flora and fauna of Greenland and Iceland.

  • Sosia, or a Draught of three persons notably resembling each other. Of King Henry the Fourth of France, and a Miller of Languedock; of Sforza Duke of Milan and a Soldier; of Malatesta Duke of Rimini and Marchchesinus the Jester.
  • An Elephant dancing upon the Ropes with a Negro Dwarf upon his Back.
  • Another describing the mighty Stone falling from the Clouds into Aegospotamos or the Goats River in Greece, which Antiquity could believe that Anaxagoras was able to foretell half a year before.

Early written evidence suggests that the destructive power of Asteroids to life on Earth were known long before 1908 when an Asteroid about 60 metres across impacted in Tunguska, Siberia flattening trees for 13 miles. More recently an asteroid of some 500 metres width named 2000 QW7 passed within 2.4 million miles of Earth, a mere twelve times further away from the moon - a close shave in cosmic terms. (The Times September 5, 2000).

Browne's cosmological speculations led him to declare: "to make an end of all things on Earth, and our Planetary System of the World, he (God) needs but puts out the Sun" .

His eschatological meditations also apprehended that; "The created World is but a small Parenthesis in Eternity." Christian Morals Part III:29.

  • A fair English Lady drawn Al Negro, or in the Ethiopian hue excelling the original White and Red Beauty, with this Subscription: Sed quandom volo nocte Nigriorem.

In Pseudodoxia Epidemica Browne devoted two chapters upon the colour black in which he considered why a considerable proportion of humanity are coloured black and debated at length upon makes human beauty. He concluded that beauty has no specific ethnic group and that what is considered beautiful by one proportion of society is not necessarily appealing to another. Browne's early defence that "black is beautiful" cites the Bible, specifically the Song of Solomon in which one reads "I am black, but comely" (Song of songs Chapter 1 verse 5).

Amongst the many "honoured and worthy" Norfolk gentry whom Browne was acquainted with were the Pastons of Oxnead Hall, Sir William (1610-62) and Sir Robert Paston (1631-83). The wealthy landowning family were the owners of one "world of curiosities and some very rich ones, as cabinets and juells" and it's possible that Browne visiting the Pastons would have viewed the canvas known as The Yaremouth Collection. Commissioned by Sir Robert circa 1665, the large painting records the family treasures and is believed to be the work of a travelling Dutch master named Franciscus Gysbrech.

The Yaremouth Collection depicts a black servant and a blonde girl holding a bloom of roses, a strombus shell, a silver-gilt flagon, a shell-flask and two nautilus cups. The painting also shows many musical instruments including a lute, bass viol and a cornett. The Yaremouth Collection is a good example of symbolism in Dutch and Flemish still-life painting. The theme of Vanitas and the passing of time are represented in the painting by an hour glass, a watch, a clock, and a guttering candle.

With its crowded inventory of material possessions and moralistic symbolism of mortality, the Yaremouth Collection would have appealed to Browne's artistic sensibility. It may indeed have the inspiration for him to visualise a painting in which notions of skin colour and beauty are challenged and reversed.

  • Pictures and Draughts in Caricatura, of Princes, Cardinals and famous men; wherein among others, the Painter hath singularly hit the signatures of a Lion and a Fox in the face of Pope Leo X.

This first recorded usage of the word caricatura, according to the Oxford Dictionary is helpfully defined by Browne as:

"When Men's faces are drawn with resemblance to some other Animals, the Italians call it, to be drawn in Caricatura."

Modern caricature however reverses this definition and most modern cartoons are of animals which resemble human faces.

  • Some pieces A la ventura or Rare Chance Pieces, either drawn at random, and happening to be like some person, or drawn for some and happening to be more like another; while the Face, mistaken by the painter, proves a tolerable Picture of the one he never saw.

Throughout his life Browne studied physiognomy, the pseudo-science which claimed that from the judgement of a person's external appearances the inner person could be discerned; a subjective factor which many continue to make upon first encountering another individual. What however physiognomists such as Browne and Della Porta were truly interested in was the discernment of an individual's inner qualities, not their appearance. As a Doctor he would have relied upon the face as a diagnostic clue. In Religio Medici he stated that:

"there is surely a Physiognomy, which those experienced and Master Mendicants observe,...for there are mystically in our faces certain characters which carry in them the motto of our souls."

  • A Draught of famous Dwarfs with this Inscription: Nos facimus Bruti puerum nos Lagona vivum.

Browne took an interest in all forms of the seemingly bizarre or unusual. His Commonplace notebooks contain several humorous verses upon dwarfs, while in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (4:XI) a chapter speculates upon the existence of pygmies. After debating upon the possible location for a dwarfish race of people and describing the Italian zoologist Ulissi Aldrovandi as, "a most exact zoographer" and the occultist Albertus Magnus as, "a man often too credulous," Browne queried Paracelsus stating:

"and wise men may think there is as much reality in the pygmies of Paracelsus; that is, his non-Adamical men, or middle natures betwixt men and spirits."

The Swiss alchemist-physician proposed that a particular spirit resided over each element. Nymphs ruled the water, the Salamander fire, Sylphides the air and citing Germanic folk-lore he claimed that deep in the earth there exists a race of dwarf- like Earth-spirits which he named Gnomes. The word Gnome originates from the Greek word gnome meaning knowledge and intelligence for according to Paracelsus these little people were the guardians of the earth who knew where precious metals and hidden treasure were buried.

The first ever gnome in literature was named Umbriel in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1712). An imaginative aural depiction of a gnome can be heard in the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

Browne himself in his encyclopaedia was open-minded enough to conclude his speculation upon the existence of little people stating "we shall not conclude impossibility, or that there might not be a race of Pygmies, as there is sometimes of Giants."


As if the listing of obscure books and curious pictures were not sufficient, a list of bizarre objects is also included in the imaginary inventory.

The two birds mentioned, the Vulture and the Ostrich along with their attributes, an egg and a "noble stone" have a distinct affinity to alchemical symbolism. Throughout history each and every major civilization has developed its own specific avian symbolism. Such symbolism is often of great antiquity. The ancient Egyptian god Djehuty (Thoth) was invariably portrayed Ibis-headed, while the Falcon was associated with the god Hor. The Owl was emblematic of the wisdom of Athena to the ancient Greeks while the white dove was representative of the Holy Spirit to early Christians.

There is in alchemical literature and iconography a wealth of imagery relating to birds. Birds were popular in alchemical symbolism because their ability to fly served as a symbol of the link between heaven and earth. Their song was believed to be a form of Ursprache or original language as spoken by Adam to the fowl of the air before the Biblical Fall. It was believed that Adam in his sojourn in Paradise named and could converse with every fowl of the air. After the Fall, the speech of the birds was reputedly revealed to King Solomon, and the language of the birds was said to be revealed to the neo-Pythagorean sage Apollonius of Tyana as well as to early Christian saints, notably Saint Francis of Assisi.

Because alchemists worked with volatile chemicals (Latin volatilis meaning flying) imagery of flight and ascending often occurs in their writings. In the Golden Tract of Hermes Trismegistus a black crow announces its colour transformations. Crows and Ravens often symbolize the initial nigredo black beginning of the alchemical opus.

Other birds associated with alchemy (and this list is far from exhaustive) include: the eagle, the phoenix, emblematic of death and rebirth, the cockerel, the dove and the peacock whose tail, the cauda pavonis, represents the multi-coloured success and completion of the opus; while in the alchemists' laboratory the Pelican was the name of a circulatory vat.

  • A noble Quandros or Stone taken out of a Vulture's Head.

Because it devoured corpses, the Vulture was sometimes identified with the goddess Aset (Isis) in Ancient Egypt and was often depicted to represent the cycle of death and birth. Like the Swan and Raven, the Vulture was considered sacred to the god Apollo because it provided omens and in the Graeco-Roman tradition it was seen as a bird of augury.

It is of particular interest to note that Martin Ruland's Dictionary of Alchemy (1612), defines a Quandros as:

"a Stone or Jewel which is found in the brain and head of the Vulture, and is said to be of a bright white colour. It fills the breasts with milk, and is said to be a safeguard against dangerous accidents."

The "noble stone" visualized by Browne could as easily originate from Biblical symbolism where the philosopher's stone in the form of wisdom extracted from the Book of Job. Written in the form of poetry the book of Job is one of the profoundest spiritual texts to deal with the problem of Man's suffering and was well-known to pious alchemists. Indeed the Bible itself contains alchemical imagery of refinement and dross and the 'testing' of human souls being likened to the testing of metals.

In the Biblical Book of Job one reads: "There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture's eye hath not seen," while Chapter 28 contains a description of various precious metals, including silver, gold, topaz and contrasts their material value to that of spiritual Wisdom.

  • A large Ostrich's Egg, whereon is neatly and fully wrought that famous battle of Alcazar, in which three Kings lost their lives.

The ostrich was a nick-name of alchemical apparatus. The image of three Kings who lost their lives in a battle may perhaps be a symbol of augury, or prophecy, a common form of avian lore of the ancients. It may equally refer to the three chemical substances believed by alchemists to be the foundation of all life, namely Salt, Sulphur and Mercury being experimented upon in the acid-dissolving stomach of the alchemist's "ostrich."

In the language of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the egg represented potentiality, the seed of generation and the mystery of life. In Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus an egg signifying the hope of life hereafter, is depicted floating above a mummy. More specifically the egg in the alchemical tradition held particularly potent symbolic power; not only did it represent the philosopher's stone which slowly incubated in the Vas Hermeticum, the sealed vessel, but it was also a symbol of the Cosmos and the Creation.

Sir Thomas Browne was well-familiar with avian alchemical symbolism for in Religio Medici he utilized avian imagery to describe the Creation thus: "This is that gentle heate that brooded on the waters, and in six dayes hatched the world;" R.M.1:32.

Browne's relationship to the avian world was also practical. He was by all accounts acquainted with the gentleman's sport of falconry and amongst his miscellaneous writings there exists a short tract upon falconry. He used falconry terms in Religio Medici: "thus I teach my haggard and unreclaimed reason to stoop unto the lure of faith" R.M. 1:10.

Browne was a keen bird-fancier, at one time or another having an owl, eagle and ostrich as pets. He assisted John Ray and Francis Willughby with notes, descriptions and illustrations of various birds for the first definitive work of British ornithology and is also credited with coining the word incubation into the English language.

  • The Skin of a Snake bred out of the Spinal Marrow of a Man.

This image originates from the teachings of Pythagoras, a philosopher whom Browne displays a distinct penchant for. The Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphosis contains a brief synopsis of the life and teachings of Pythagoras which states:

"Consider Juno's bird, which wears stars on its tail, think of the eagle that carries Jove's thunderbolt, and Venus' doves, and the whole race of birds - who would believe that they could come from the inside of an egg, if he did not know that it happened. Some people also believe that when a human body is shut up in the tomb, and its backbone rots away, the marrow changes into a snake." Metamorphosis Bk. 15 lines 385-90.

Amongst the Gnostics of the early Christian era the snake was regarded as an emblem of the brain-stem and spinal cord. In Jungian psychology, because like the Spider the snake is a cold-blooded creature remote from our evolution which arouses our greatest fear, the snake is interpreted as an excellent symbol of the unconscious. The Uroboros, the alchemical symbol for the mercurial serpent and symbol of psychic transformation was termed by C. G. Jung as none other than "the basic mandala of alchemy".

Browne was well familiar with the Snake as symbol of the Uroboros for he had mentioned the symbol in his A Letter to a Friend some twenty years earlier while in his Discourse Urn-Burial of 1658 he noted that, "some speak of snakes out of the spinal marrow."

  • A transcendent Perfume made from the richest Odorates of both the Indies, kept in a Box made of the Muschie Stone of Niarenburg, with this Inscription: "Just one sniff, Fabullus, and you'd wish you could become one huge nose!" Catullus:13.

Browne's "transcendent Perfume" is an example of his usage of olfactory imagery and appreciation of humour in the Classics while in Jungian psychology the two Indies are an example of the quaternity (Cw. 9 I para 206).

  • A Glass of Spirits made of Ethereal Salt,, Hermetically sealed up, kept continually in Quick-silver; of so volatile a nature that it will scarcely endure the Light, and therefore only to be shown in the Winter, or by the light of a Carbuncle, or Bononian Stone.

According to C. G. Jung the carbuncle is a synonym for the lapis, the fabled philosopher's stone. To the alchemist Heinrich Khunrath the lapis is a "shimmering carbuncle light". In the chemist and alchemist Johann Glauber's Of Natural Salts, the carbuncle is the name for the corpus glorificatum while the highly influential work of Rosicrucian literature The Chymical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz describes the bed-chamber of Venus as lit by Carbuncles.

The image of a Glass of Spirits made of Ethereal Salt is utterly Hermetic in content, Ethereal being synonymous to the "heavenly" of the alchemists, while Salt was symbolically associated with wisdom. Browne's allusion to the "heavenly wisdom" of Hermetic philosophy is itself kept in Quick-silver, the chemical frequently associated with the Hermetic art and his allusion to the scientific term "hermetically sealed" is an early recorded reference to the technical term.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the mythic Hermes Trismegistus was credited with a magical ability to seal treasure-chests so that no-one could ever access their contents.

As ever the ambiguity of Browne's credulity of the claims of alchemists is cunningly camouflaged in his concluding jest-signing off his minor tract thus -

"He who knows where all this Treasure now is, is a great Apollo. I'm sure I am not He. However, I am, Sir, Yours &c."

See also

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