Airship and Submarine in the Medieval Imagination

Airship and Submarine in the Medieval Imagination

By Aby Warburg

Originally published as “Luftschiff und Tauchboot in der mittelalterlichen Vorstellungswelt,” Illustrierte Rundschau, No.52 (1913)

Translated in The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance, by Aby Warburg (Translated by David Britt) (Getty Research Institute, 1999)

Excerpt: These two Burgundian tapestries depict the life of Alexander the Great. One shows the exploits of his early youth; the other his fabled deeds as the conqueror of the world. Two scenes from the latter are reproduced here. The king is seen flying aloft, to the amazement of the bystanders, in a metal cage drawn by four griffins; nearby, we see him lowered into the sea in a glass tub. We recognize him again, by his face and his crown, as he is welcomed after his landing. To the right he reappears in full armor, vanquishing fearful monsters in the depths of a virgin forest.

This imagery – which is as naive, to our eyes, as a page from some huge book of fairy tales – was then regarded by the educated society of Western Europe as accurate and well-documented history. It precisely corresponds to the facts as given in teh Romance of Alexander, a Greek text, replete with fantastic accretions, that long preserved Alexander’s memory in East and West alike, through countless manuscripts in something like twenty-four languages.

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