The Garden, The Ark, The Tower, The Temple: biblical metaphors of knowledge in early modern Europe, an MHS exhibition held in the Bodleian Library from 2nd February to 2nd May, 1998, had an accompanying book (ISBN 0 – 903364 – 09 – 3). A small print run was made which soon sold out. It can occasionally be found to buy, with the price varying from a few hundred to over a thousand pounds (as I write this it is available for £1,128.75).
The stories of the Garden of Eden, Noahs Ark, the Tower of Babel, and the Temple of Solomon are among the best known in the Old Testament. They were alluded to frequently during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and were often used at that time to frame accounts of the progress of knowledge. The narrative history which could be found in the Bible presented a coherent story of the growth and decline of knowledge, in which moral and spiritual factors helped to determine natural and practical outcomes.
As metaphors of knowledge, the four stories gave information about both the acquisition and the ideal state of human understanding. But they also issued warnings about the necessary difference between human and divine knowledge and suggested ways by which knowledge might be married to piety and wisdom in order to achieve an improvement in the condition of mankind. The image that they conjured up was thus both hopeful and threatening. It demanded that human beings temper material and intellectual change with spiritual or moral development. The stories seemed to many to allow for the possibility of transforming the world through the application of human intellect and endeavour. Yet they also emphasized the contemporary belief that the earth had once been a better place, and that human ignorance and suffering were themselves the products of disobedience, error, and folly. The knowledge which was needed to change human life and the natural environment for the good depended on an understanding of the dangers of moral frailty as well as of the achievements of intellectual ingenuity. That understanding could best be developed through an awareness of biblical history and a sense of the working of providence, both of which were enhanced by acquaintance with the lessons of the Garden, the Ark, the Tower, and the Temple. …
An online version of this exhibition can be found on the MHS website; a kindle version of the book has been published, February 2013, with the same content plus useful ebook functionality. An interesting and convenient publication which will also help support the Museum’s broad range of work!