"Show them the red tail of a comet" - Dürer and the “Thunderstone of Ensisheim”

7 November 1492, the “Thunderstone of Ensisheim”, the oldest recorded meteorite fall in Europe with surviving material, hit a wheat field in Alsace.
“Forty years among men has consistently taught me that they are not amenable to common sense. Show them the red tail of a comet, fill them with black terror, and they will all come running out of their houses and break their legs. But tell them one sensible proposition and support it with seven reasons, and they will simply laugh in your face” (Berthold Brecht, “Galileo”)

Albrecht Dürer: “Melencolia I” (1514)

Arrian relates the story of a delegation of Galatean Celts who, asked by Alexander the Great what they feared most, answered they would fear nothing except that the sky might fall on their heads. A few hobby archaeologists took it literally and postulated a major meteoric impact on the Upper Bavarian Chiemgau between 1000 and 500 BCE that annihilated the local Celtic civilization and that the skies falling down would be a historical memory. The thesis is obsolete, but the idea that impacts were the background for a lot of myths prevails. Goethe himself assumed that the legend of Phaeton, tumbling down the skies in his father Apollon’s sun chariot with a fiery tail tracing behind him, was based on prehistoric perceptions of a comet’s impact and a recent scientific analysis of the myth claims the theory to be very plausible. Meteorites found by the ancients, objects fallen from the sky, the home of many deities, usually were treated with particular reverence – like the Black Stone of Kybele, downed over Phrygia in Asia Minor around 470 CE, various objects found in cult sites as diverse as Celtic hill forts in Britain, pueblos in Arizona and Japanese Shinto shrines. The first European meteorite with surviving material came down in Bohemia in 1400.

Peter Paul Rubens "The Fall of Phaeton" (1605)

The “Thunderstone of Ensisheim” entered Earth's atmosphere on the morning of 7 November, went across the skies amidst loud thunder and a radiant tail and came down in a wheat field outside of the Alsatian village. The good people from the neighbouring town came running, saw the object from above lying in an impact crater about a yard deep and began to shave off chips from the thing as lucky charms until the chondritic stone meteorite was down to 127 kg and local authorities forbade any further scraping. Emperor Maximilian was en route to France to claim his bride Anne of Brittany, espoused by proxy and now wedded to the French King Charles VIII, a complete chaos that ended with a permanent union of Brittany and France and Maximilian leaving without having achieved anything but to bring the thunderstone personally to court in Ensisheim and condemning it to be hanged in chains in the local church for the destruction of the wheat field. Maximilian tried to use the meteorite as an omen and Sebastian Brant, the author of the “Ship of Fools” urged him on, but the emperor wouldn’t risk a war with France and married Bianca Sforza, the Duke of Milan’s daughter instead. The thunderstone who was, against the verdict of 1492, cut down to 55 kg during the following centuries, is now unchained and exhibited at the Palais de la Régence in Ensisheim as the oldest meteorite with a full history in Europe.

The Ensisheim meteorite today (by Konrad Andrä - Sternwarte Singen e.V.)

On 7 November, Albrecht Dürer was in Basel, 25 miles away. It is uncertain if he saw the thunderstone coming down in broad daylight, but it is at least possible. Dürer sketched the explosion on the back of a small wooden tablet, a year later he drew an exploding comet on the back of his painting “Büßender Heiliger Hieronymus”. The vivid depiction of the celestial orb suggests that he, just the same as Sebastian Brant, who was in Basel as well on November 7th, could see thunderstone coming down indeed. Since no other impacts are reported during Dürer’s lifetime, it is quite possible that the comet he depicted on one of his most enigmatic master prints, “Melencolia I” is indeed the Thunderstone of Ensisheim, woven into the personal myth and world of symbols of Dürer.

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