Living Forever?

Today, life expectancy grows higher and higher. And yet, eventually, it all still comes to an end. So, how do we deal with death? This exhibition deals with how questions and answers regarding death and the hope for eternal life have changed over time. Follow us on our journey through the centuries with books from the MoneyMuseum's library.

To the Stops
Living Forever?
Living Forever?


Ursula Kampmann

An exhibition on life, death and dealing with danger

Women born in Switzerland in 2018 have an average life expectancy of 85.4 years, corresponding to about 31,000 days or almost three quarters of a million hours. That’s impressive. In 85.4 years you can do plenty of things: you can go to school or even to university, start a family, develop your career, devote yourself to your hobbies. And yet, eventually, it all comes to an end. The many advances in medicine haven’t changed anything about the fact that people die.

So, how do we deal with that? What role does death play in our lives? Do we repress the thought of death? Do we try to delay it by any means possible? Is life per se or just a life worth living valuable? What do we need in order to believe that death has a purpose? What do we risk our lives for? And to what extent are we willing to restrict ourselves to be able to live a longer life? How much comfort are we willing to give up so that others can survive? And is it reasonable to economically ruin the entire world in order to save some ten thousands of human lives?

No, this exhibition will not answer any of these questions. Instead it deals with how questions and answers regarding death and the hope for eternal life have changed over time.

Follow us on our journey through the centuries with books from the MoneyMuseum’s library. We begin with an unknown plague…

Stop 1: We Are in the Midst of Life

The fact that the average woman reaches an age of over 85 years is a historical innovation. Of course, there have been very old people before. The point is that when a child is born in the western world today, we can assume that it will have many decades of a fulfilled life ahead of it – in the past, however, the odds of death were the same for all age groups. In other words: babies died, toddlers died, teenagers died, mothers and fathers died, incredibly old people died – there was no group particularly likely to die.

In addition, there were epidemics such as the plague, cholera and smallpox occurring at regular intervals and wiping out huge parts of the population. What impact has that had on the people of the time? That’s what we will ask Giovanni Boccaccio, a contemporary from Florence and author of The Decameron, the most famous literary testimony to the great year of the plague of 1348.

The second object of this station is the Dance of Death by Rudolf and Conrad Meyer. It gives us an idea of how ordinary and usual it was to see someone die for the people of early modern times.

The Triumph of Death. Painting by Pieter Breughel from 1562, detail. Photo: KW.

The End of the World and How to Avoid It

Contes de Boccace. Illustrés de Cinquante-Six Compositions en Couleur par Mariette Lydis.

Issued in 1935 by Le Vasseur et Companie, Paris.

We are back in 1347. A Genoese ship sails from the Black Sea towards Europe. Not only does it have wheat on board but also rats – carriers of the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which can be spread to humans by animals. The ship lands in Messina, the rats hide in the storage holds of other ships, travel with them and thus – starting from the ports – infect all of Europe.

We don’t know how many people lost their lives in the plague year of 1348/9. Historians estimate that about one third of the population perished. However, that figure is not the most important point. Those who experienced the great plague saw their world order shattered. No kind of security existed anymore. Priests could no longer use a prayer to guarantee a dying person the transition to eternal life.

People reacted differently: Some of them trembled at what was to come, they hid in their houses and gave away their possessions to be able to enter the eternal kingdom of God after all. Others celebrated life and enjoyed every day as if it were their last.

Giovanni Boccaccio became the chronicler of all those who believed in life. In his Decamerone, he opposed the horrors of the plague with the sheer joy of life.

Giovanni Boccaccio on a fresco by Andrea del Castagno, ca. 1450.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) lived in the city of Florence, which was one of the most important economic centres in Europe at that time. He was what we call a senior official today. Additionally, he extensively studied ancient literature and wrote his own stories. Being a close friend of Petrarch, he was a member of Italy’s intellectual elite.

Boccaccio witnessed the great plague year of 1348/9. It inspired him to write his masterpiece, The Decameron. The work is a collection of novellas containing 100 stories, which is often referred to as the Human Comedy – in contrast to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The Decameron’s narrative covers the entire social spectrum of the 14th century: noblemen and citizens, peasants and day labourers, clergymen and officials, Christians and Jews, men and women, all of them become protagonists of Boccaccio’s stories. The author characterizes his heroes with much love and empathy, without any prejudice: he finds people of all classes and sexes to be moral, intelligent and humorous.

There is, however, one professional group that Boccaccio describes in a rather bad light, the clergy, especially the members of mendicant orders. This is due to the fact that their intensive efforts to educate the urban population towards a Christian life were relatively new at the time. The frightening sermons of Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians vividly illustrating the horrors of hell to their listeners were not appreciated by intellectuals like Boccaccio.

While the works of most humanists are hardly ever read today, The Decameron is part of general knowledge. Countless artists were inspired by it. Among them are famous authors such as Shakespeare and Swift, Molière and Balzac, Cervantes and Goethe, composers like Vivaldi, Maler and Rossetti, and directors like Pasolini, even the religious reformer Luther used Boccaccio to illustrate his ideas.

A performance of Nathan the Wise at the Deutsches Theater Berlin in 1945.

Thanks to Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, Boccaccio’s ring parable became the most famous episode of The Decameron: A father had a ring with the miraculous power of making its bearer be a good man, whose glory was praised by the entire world. He had three sons whom he loved equally. Since he couldn’t decide to whom he should leave the ring, he had two replicas made and, on his deathbed, he gave one to each son asking him to prove through his actions that he was the one who had received the miraculous ring.

If you want to read The Decameron today, you can choose between many languages and numerous editions. And there’s a good reason for it: at Boccaccio’s time, topics such as sexuality, criticism of the Church and of the authorities were dealt with in a much more relaxed way than in later centuries. Thus, Boccaccio became a favourite author of all those who advocated sexual freedom and criticised the Church. Our edition is a good example for this. It is from 1935 and was published in three volumes by the Paris publishing house Le Vasseur. They were able to convince the Austrian artist Mariette Lydis, who was famous for her suggestive images, to create the illustrations for this edition.

Mariett Lydis, photo of 1936.

In the Golden Twenties, the artist lived a life that would not have been possible a few decades earlier. She converted from the Jewish to the Christian faith, married and got divorced, married again, started an affair and got divorced. In 1926 she moved to Paris where she married for the third time. In 1939 she fled with her female lover to Buenos Aires, where she was to spend the rest of her life.

Many important museums have works by Mariette Lydis. She is regarded as a protagonist of the “new woman”. The artist lived openly as bisexual and developed an almost aggressive form of depicting the female body.

Artists like Mariette Lydis contributed to the fact that nowadays we associate The Decameron mainly with suggestive stories. However, this exaggerates a single aspect of the human comedy that Boccaccio himself did not emphasize to that extent. For him, what happened between men and women was a part of everyday life that, due to the small, clustered houses of the 14th century, was way more public than we dare to imagine today.


Dance of Death

Salomon Wolf (verse), Rudolf and Conrad Meyer (engravings), Sterbensspiegel, das ist sonnenklare Vorstellung menschlicher Nichtigkeit durch alle Ständ und Geschlechter.

First printed in Zurich in 1650, re-published in Hamburg and Leipzig in 1759.

Dance of Death in the St. Nicholas Church, Tallinn, 2nd half of the 15th century.

Even in times when no plague raged, life was uncertain in the early modern period. The Dance of the Death became the most important symbol of this awareness of life. Art historians use this term to describe the depiction of both dead and living figures next to each other.

The first Dances of Death were created around 1400, i.e. at about the same time as what we call “ars moriendi” was developed. This term describes the technique of preparing yourself for a good death while still being alive: by living on Earth in a manner pleasing to God, the believer earns a secure place in the hereafter.

The Dance of Death became a popular motif. Our example is from Zurich. The brothers Rudolf and Conrad Meyer created it during the last years of the Thirty Years’ War. The subject remained relevant for many years. This is proven by the fact that this copy is not the first edition from 1650 but was printed more than a century later.

Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa. Photo: Bernd Thaller / CC BY 2.0

Originally, Dances of Death decorated the walls of cemeteries. To be able to imagine that, we have to forget what we believe to know about cemeteries today: back then, a cemetery was a walled area located right next to a church. Those who had enough money to afford a tomb were either buried in the church or under the arcades of the cemetery wall. Everybody else was buried in a mass grave in the middle of the cemetery. When it was full, they dug the next one. Bones and skulls that came to light during the process were placed in the ossuary.

You think that’s creepy? Well, it wasn’t back then. The cemetery was a place of public life where people traded, held conversations and took walks. While funerals took place, urban life was in full swing at the same time – only a few metres away. The Dance of Death was thus an actual memento mori reminding everyone of the fact that death could occur at any time, depriving them of the possibility to make arrangements for eternal life.

In Zurich, there was such a walled cemetery with an ossuary. According to our edition of the Dance of Death, the ossuary represents the transience of every form of earthly life. That’s why death crushes underfoot all the precious objects that people spend their time with. Money, even the ruler’s insignia were thrown carelessly on the ground. Death triumphs with sickle and hourglass. They symbolise that he will reap his harvest when time runs out.

Pay attention to the ossuary. At the bottom, there is a depiction of the fall of man, which caused death to enter the earthly world. Christ sits enthroned at the top: for believers, the Last Judgement is the gate leading to eternal life.

The Dance of Death does not only reflect the attitude Zurich people had towards death, it also gives insight into their lives. This image shows a Zurich official responsible for the maintenance payments to widows and orphans. The luxurious room, his splendid clothes, the full purses and chests, the poor people in their torn clothes – all this demonstrates how poorly the man fulfilled his duties. However, he has to face the Last Judgement, too. Death beats him to death with his certificate of appointment.

In this image, a rich merchant is fighting death. He was one of the traders that haggled at the bank of the Limmat river. We can see the ships’ sails, the carts and the crane. And yet, despite all his money – his purse is lying useless on a box – the reluctant merchant must follow death.

The relationship between the old hawker and death is very different. Death appears to him as a loving companion liberating him from the heavy load on his back.

And, of course, there was also propaganda in all this. After all, the artists lived in reformed Zurich, which had experienced a brutal religious war at its border. They used their Dances of Death to state their position: while a (Catholic) abbot is depicted as a fatso worshipping splendour and wealth, death is almost tenderly bringing home a (Reformed) modest priest.



This is some text inside of a div block.
Catalogus Gloriae Mundi
Barthélemy de Chasseneuz
Printed by the Frankfurt printer and publisher Sigmund Feyerabend in 1579
Vitae Sanctorum
Franciscus Haraeus
Published by Johannes Gymnich in 1593 in Cologne; German translation by Valentin Leucht; the original text was written in Latin by Franciscus Haraeus (+1632) and uses the work of Laurentius Surius (+1578).

Stop 2: Life Is Eternal

Those who are aware that life can suddenly end at any time, live more intensely and set different priorities. For the people of early modern times, this priority was eternal, heavenly life, which wasn’t a possibility but a reality for them. By leading a certain lifestyle, every single person decided for themselves whether they would eventually ascend to heaven or burn in hell. The Purgatory, kind of a purification station for souls that weren’t impeccable, had the purpose of giving a chance to all those who had neither been really good nor really bad in life.

At our second station, we will show you how real heaven was for the people of early modern times. To do that, we use a book by Barthélemy de Chasseneuz. It illustrates that there was no border between this life and the hereafter. Those who lived saintly ascended to heaven. There was no doubt about that.

In Valentin Leucht’s “Heiligenleben” (Biographies of Saints), we can see what this mindset resulted in. He collected the biographies of people whose way of life was exemplary, even though – from our perspective – they seem to be appalling and incompatible with actually living your life. Aspiring to behave just like them was considered the ideal way to obtain eternal life. How that made you feel during this life was of no importance.

Life After Death: A Matter of Course

Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, Catalogus Gloriae Mundi

Printed by the Frankfurt printer and publisher Sigmund Feyerabend in 1579

Barthélemy de Chasseneuz (1480-1541), the author of this book, was anything but a theologian firmly believing in the Catholic Church. He was an excellent lawyer, who had studied at the best universities of his time. After some years in the service of the Duke of Milan and the Pope, he returned to France in 1506.

Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, engraving by Jacques Cundier

Chasseneuz, to whom the BBC dedicated a film in 1993, is today considered one of the most enlightened lawyers of his time. He wrote a treatise on ending the then extremely common animal trials. He even defended the Waldensians against the accusation of heresy – although he was a devout Catholic himself. Hence, his book is above any suspicion of merely reproducing the propaganda of the Church. Quite the opposite: in his work, Chasseneuz summarises what an enlightened Catholic of his time considered to be a matter of fact.

On a diplomatic mission: Johann Heinrich Waser leading the delegation of the Confederation at the court of Louis XIV, 1663. Adam Frans van der Meulen.

With his Catalogus Gloriae Mundi (= Catalogue of the Glory of the World), Chasseneuz wrote a piece of core literature of diplomacy comprising more than 1000 pages, which was repeatedly re-published. For his book, he studied all theological, philosophical and legal sources available to him.
The first edition was published in 1529. Our version was printed exactly 50 years later. The industrious Frankfurt publisher had hired one of the best illustrators of his time, Jost Amman from Zurich, to create copper engravings for the purpose of boosting sales.

Jost Amman summarised in images what Chasseneuz had formulated in Latin on the subject of privileges and rankings: this copper engraving depicts princes and their privileges. In the foreground we can see worldly princes with their swords. The dog and the falcon indicate that they were entitled to the privilege of hunting. In the background, there are the ecclesiastical princes, and to their left the foreign princes.

This illustration is important for the topic of our exhibition. It depicts the divine hierarchy, that is, who will take which place in heaven. There isn’t anything indicating a difference or boundary between the living and the dead.

The Holy Trinity sits enthroned at the very top. As we know it from depictions of the Last Judgement, God the Father and the Son of God sit on a rainbow. Mary kneels between them. As a human being and the mother of Jesus, she is the connection between humanity and the divine.

To her right, the superior position diplomatically speaking:

  • Level 1 the heroes of the Old Testament (John the Baptist is clearly recognisable by the lamb)
  • Level 2 the apostles (Peter with the oversized key, James with the pilgrim’s hat)
  • Level 3 the saints (in front Stephen, the first martyr with the stone; behind him Lawrence with the gridiron and Saint Barbara with the tower)

To her left, the inferior position diplomatically speaking:

  • Level 1 popes and emperors (obviously the emperors behind the popes)
  • Level 2 cardinals and kings
  • Level 3 bishops and Electors

At the very bottom we can see “ordinary” people, among whom there are also differences in rank: virgins are at the top, children and babies at the bottom. By the way, the fact that the youngest children occupy the lowest position did also have consequences after their death: even the wealthiest families buried their deceased infants in low-cost mass graves.

Baroque church of “Santa Maria de Victoria” in Ingolstadt. Photo: KW.

Those who want to experience the natural fusion of heaven and earth should visit a Catholic baroque church: these buildings gather the earthly parishioners in the nave, and the heavenly parishioners in the ceiling painting. Humans and saints jointly worship the Holy Trinity, in most cases together with Mary. She often has the function of a connecting element between humanity and the Trinity.

Death of the Virgin. Cathedral of Überlingen. Photo: KW.

The many depictions of Mary on her deathbed are to be understood in this context. This scene became the epitome of a “good” death, one that takes you directly from this life to eternal life: the dying person lies calmly on his deathbed, a burning candle in his hand; around him, family members, friends and strangers – yes, they were also allowed there – have gathered and listen to the pious reading of the Holy Scriptures.

Just as the happy ending of a romantic film tells us that a carefree life is ahead of them once the hero and the heroine have found each other, the believer looks at the depiction of Mary’s death with the certainty that his earthly life will be followed by a life in heaven.


Living and Dying in a State of Certainty

Franciscus Haraeus, Vitae Sanctorum Das ist, Leben der fürnembsten Heiligen Gottes: Auff die zwölff Monat deß gantzen Jahrs ordentlich gerichtet: Auß den aller bewehrtesten Authorn und Kirchenlehreen, sonderlich aber Herren Surio

Published by Johannes Gymnich in 1593 in Cologne; German translation by Valentin Leucht; the original text was written in Latin by Franciscus Haraeus (+1632) and uses the work of Laurentius Surius (+1578).

Martyrdom of Saint Vincent. Burgos Cathedral. Photo: KW.

Those who know that their earthly life is only a temporary arrangement leading to eternal life, can confidently devote their life on Earth to serving a “great” cause, even though the question of what “great” means is obviously one of changing attitudes.

The Catholic Church collected the biographies of people who had done this so they could serve as an example for others. Martyrdom as the ultimate form of sacrificing one’s life was only one of many possibilities of giving your life to the service of God.

Neither the idea of martyrdom nor giving up one’s civic life remained theoretical considerations. In the past, many people endured torture and death in order to follow what they believed to be the right path to paradise. And the Catholic Church is not the only institution with a list of martyrs. They can be found in all religions. Today, we are particularly moved by the fate of the people who were dismissed as heretics by the official Church, for example the Cathars, the Waldensians and the Anabaptists.

Pilgrims on the Way of St. James at rest: The appearance of his pilgrims influenced the iconography of the apostle St. James. Statues depict him wearing the clothes of the pilgrims who flock to him. Photo: KW.

Even back then, most people’s faith was not strong enough to renounce the comforts of earthly life. They needed saints as their patrons, who – due to their privileged position among the heavenly host – were so close to God that they could convey to Him the wishes of the people they protected.

A praying person especially liked to choose a saint of whom he could assume that he was perfectly familiar with the hardships of earthly life from his own experience. Believers preferred saints who, like themselves, had made their living as carpenters, maidservants, blacksmiths or soldiers. Statues depicting such saints exercising their profession and wearing the typical clothes made it easier for believers to identify with them.

The Catholic Church promoted the worship of saints. Thanks to colourful pilgrimages and elaborately staged celebrations, saints were a popular element of the Catholic faith and had the power to inspire especially the non-intellectual masses.

What people hoped for regarding paradise is described very precisely in a verse from Psalm 67. We translated it into modern English: the righteous may eat and be happy in the presence of God and rejoice in bliss. For the contemporaries of this publication, especially the word “eat” must have sounded like paradise: at the end of the 16th century, the peak of the Little Ice Age resulted in numerous crop failures and famines.

The depiction at the centre illustrates how we can imagine the heavenly court to look like. Just as earthly courts, it has a strict hierarchical order. In this structure, holy virgins and clerics have a position of honour, as do the martyrs, who can be recognised by their palms.

In analogy to the kingdom on Earth, most believers imagined the heavenly kingdom as a hierarchically structured court society, in which it depended on one’s rank whether a petitioner was allowed to speak and whether his request would be granted. The patron’s birthday was traditionally the best day for such purposes because anyone was received on that day and you could expect to get something valuable in return for your congratulations and your gift.

Therefore, the anniversary of a saint’s death – the birthday of their life in heaven – was considered an ideal occasion to ask them for something. Thus, most collections of biographies of saints were structured as a kind of calendar, which – as in our case – could also contain movable feasts of the following years.

In these works, the biographies of the saints were arranged according to the date of their death. On January 4, for example, the feast of Saint Rigobert of Reims (+743) was celebrated. In early Carolingian times, he had been a high-ranking member of the clergy, fell out of favour and, despite his rehabilitation, he decided to spend his life far from court as a hermit.

For centuries, hagiographies were among the most popular Christian literature works. Our book was once in the possession of the Cistercian nunnery in Olsberg, Aargau. The members of the Cistercian Order were not allowed to talk during meals. To prevent religious brothers and sisters from being tempted, someone read during the meal from a pious book like the one shown here.



This is some text inside of a div block.
Das newe Testament
Martin Luther
Published in 1565 in Wittenberg.
Newer Bäpstischer Ablaß
Jakob Heerbrand
Printed in 1580 by Alexander Hock in Tübingen

Stop 3: Could You Tell Me the Way to Eternal Life, Please?

The question of how to secure one’s place in heaven is one of faith, not of knowledge. And for all those whose earthly life is constantly in danger, choosing the right path was crucial.

Doing that was quite simple when there was only one widely accepted option. However, when Reformation opened up a multitude of possible ways, every single believer felt the responsibility of having to choose the right path. If you want to understand the energetic passion that was present in the debates on the contents of faith during the Counter-Reformation, you have to keep in mind that these discussions were about all or nothing, literally about going to heaven or hell.

At this station, we will present two testimonies to the epoch. Firstly, we will see a copy of the Luther Bible, the texts of which were carefully chosen to support the Protestant worldview. Our second example is a Protestant polemic that attacks the Catholic opinion according to which believers can expect that their time in the Purgatory will be reduced by a precisely calculated amount of time in return for their good deeds.

The Word of God?

Martin Luther, Das newe Testament.

Published in 1565 in Wittenberg.

When Luther published his German translation of the New Testament in 1522, he wasn’t the first to do something like that. There were many translations of individual books of the Old and the New Testament. A Gothic version, for example, had already been written in the 4th century AD. Once the printing press had reduced production costs, the number of Bible translations increased. This was a lucrative business. In Augsburg, to mention but one example, a total of nine translations were produced in 1475, 1477, 1480, 1487, 1490, 1507 and 1518.

Therefore, Luther could draw on extensive preliminary work when he wrote his translation at Wartburg castle. He used the original Greek text published by Erasmus of Rotterdam and his Latin translation as well as the Latin Vulgate translation used by the Catholic Church.

From this material, he compiled “his” New Testament. In Wittenberg, he revised it together with Melanchthon, who had outstanding linguistic knowledge. Just in time for the Leipzig book fair in the September of 1522, the book was launched on the market. With a first edition of 3,000 copies, which was an incredibly high figure by the standards of the time, it became a huge financial success. Depending on its features, the price of a book ranged between half a gulden and one and a half gulden. Within three months the edition was sold out.

Encouraged by this success, a team coordinated by Luther started working on the translation of the Old Testament and thus the first complete Protestant Bible was available in 1534.

Page from the Codex Argenteus, a copy of the Gothic Wulfila Bible, which is nowadays at the Uppsala University Library. Original text from the 4th century, copy from ca. 500.

When Luther published his German translation of the New Testament in 1522, he wasn’t the first to do something like that. There were many translations of individual books of the Old and the New Testament. A Gothic version, for example, had already been written in the 4th century AD. Once the printing press had reduced production costs, the number of Bible translations increased. This was a lucrative business. In Augsburg, to mention but one example, a total of nine translations were produced in 1475, 1477, 1480, 1487, 1490, 1507 and 1518.

Therefore, Luther could draw on extensive preliminary work when he wrote his translation at Wartburg castle. He used the original Greek text published by Erasmus of Rotterdam and his Latin translation as well as the Latin Vulgate translation used by the Catholic Church.

From this material, he compiled “his” New Testament. In Wittenberg, he revised it together with Melanchthon, who had outstanding linguistic knowledge. Just in time for the Leipzig book fair in the September of 1522, the book was launched on the market. With a first edition of 3,000 copies, which was an incredibly high figure by the standards of the time, it became a huge financial success. Depending on its features, the price of a book ranged between half a gulden and one and a half gulden. Within three months the edition was sold out.

Encouraged by this success, a team coordinated by Luther started working on the translation of the Old Testament and thus the first complete Protestant Bible was available in 1534.

James Tissot: Das Scherflein der Witwe (Le denier de la veuve), between 1886 and 1894.

Luther’s text wasn’t the only translation written in that time. In the sphere of the Reformed branch of Protestantism, people consulted the Zurich Bible on matters of faith. Ulrich Zwingli had carried out the translation, and it was published from 1524 to 1529 by Christoph Froschauer.

The Luther Bible played a key role in the everyday life of Protestants. Reading it was just as much part of a pious Protestant’s daily routine as saying prayers. The Bible was read from the first to the last page, individual parts were learned by heart. The number of times a believer had read the entire Bible was considered a special sign of Protestant piety. The record is said to be 53 times.

The Bible for domestic use was almost a piece of furniture, just like a bed, chair or table. It was passed on to the next generation and used to record births, deaths and significant events.

The Luther Bible seemed to give their users the possibility of reading the “authentic” Word of God in their native language. In fact, it was rather the Word of God as interpreted by Luther with the help of the selected underlying text versions and his interpretative translation, an effect that he reinforced by means of numerous introductions.

On the first page of this edition, Luther warns his readers about pirated copies and other versions of the Bible: “And everyone should be warned about other copies, for I have seen several times by now how slovenly and incorrectly others reprint our work.”

Not only the “prefaces” but also the glosses that were added carefully at the margins steer the interpretation of the events in the direction desired by Luther.

Luther’s Bible was the first book read by broad sections of the population. Therefore, many of his idioms found their way into the German language. The German term “sein Scherflein beitragen” (= contribute your scherf, i.e. a fractional coin of low value) originates in a parable (Mark 12:42): A poor widow donates a “Scherflein”, the smallest coin of that time. However, God understands what this coin means to her, and that is more than the fortune given by a rich man from his wealth means to him.

This example demonstrates very clearly that the translation was actually a team effort: Since 1998 we know about a correspondence between Melanchthon and the then very renowned numismatist Wilhelm Reiffenstein. In these letters, the two discussed how the names of Greek and Roman coins could accurately be translated into German.


Does God Decide Who Goes to Heaven, or Can a Person Do Something About It?

Jakob Heerbrand, Newer Bäpstischer Ablaß.

Printed in 1580 by Alexander Hock in Tübingen

Dass so viele protestantische, reformierte und calvinistische Positionen in unseren Köpfen immer noch als historische „Wahrheit“ herumgeistern, liegt an der phantastischen Propaganda, mit der die Anhänger der neuen Bekenntnisse ihre Meinung verbreiteten. Erstmals wurde das neue Medium des Buchdrucks systematisch genutzt, um in volkstümlich-eingänglicher Form die zentralen Aussagen werbewirksam umzusetzen.

Spanish mercenaries plunder Antwerp in 1576. Detail from an anonymous painting. Photo: KW.

The fact that so many Protestant, Reformed and Calvinist positions still haunt our minds as historical “truths” is due to the fantastic propaganda used by the followers of the new confessions of faith to spread their opinions. For the first time in history, the new possibilities of the printing press were systematically used to convey key messages in a popular and catchy form that was promotionally effective.

Just as everybody today imagines a successful person necessarily to be slim, dynamic, well-groomed and well-dressed because of omnipresent advertisements, the PR work of Protestant theologians had a lasting impact on our view of history. For their distorted version of Spanish history – Spaniards were portrayed constantly and by all media as fanatical, brutal, inhuman, lazy and backward – historians coined the term Leyenda Negra, the Black Legend.

Certificate of indulgence dating from 1309-1312 promising pilgrims, who came to the Church of the Mother of God in Valencia, a remission of the punishment due to their sins. Photo: KW.

The most effective means of Protestant propaganda was the continuous repetition of the same statements. To this end, theologians published texts, in which they explained in detail to every priest and every layman how they should defend Protestant opinions. We are exhibiting such a work; it was written in 1580 by the chancellor of the University of Tübingen, Jakob Heerbrand.

The book focuses on an issue that had already been attacked by Luther: indulgences. They are an instrument of the Church that determines by how many days the time spent in the Purgatory will be reduced for a remorseful (!) sinner, who has confessed and whose sins were absolved already, in return for a certain action – donation of money, prayer, pilgrimage. A believer can also transfer his indulgence to other persons who weren’t able to show their remorse by active penance.

The idea of Catholic indulgences is quite comparable with the payments made by today’s airline passengers for the purpose of improving their ecological footprint because they have a guilty conscience regarding the climate.

The Munich Citizen’s Hall was the meeting room of the Marian Congregation. Photo: Berthold Werner / CC BY-SA 3.0

In this book, Heerbrand lashes out against the Marian Congregation in Munich, which was founded in 1578 at the initiative of the Jesuits. It was a widespread association for laymen aimed at integrating spiritual practices into their common life following the instructions of saint Ignatius of Loyola. The Pope helped the Congregation regarding the recruitment of new members by granting them an indulgence. In other words: anyone who became member of this Congregation could be happy about the fact that his punishment in the Purgatory would be reduced.

The issue was particularly important to Heerbrand because it was related to a key question of the Reformation: does an individual person have the power to change something about his fate in the hereafter? For Protestants, God’s mercy was the key factor determining one’s fate. For Catholics, good deeds were also taken into account – obviously, the official Church defined what a good deed was.

In his publication, Heerbrand adheres to the important scholarly postulate that one must perfectly know an opponent’s position in order to criticise it. That’s why he, a Protestant, published in his book the Pope’s writings word for word.

Therefore, we can find out exactly by how many days one’s time in the Purgatory was reduced in return for which action in the context of the Marian Congregation: Those who became members of the fraternity received a welcome gift of 300 days that would be reduced from their punishment. Every time they received the Holy Communion, another 300 days were deducted. In the event that the Holy Communion coincided with a special feast, believers were awarded additional points.

If you aren’t already comparing this with today’s customer cards and pedometers, you don’t know the human nature that loves to accumulate large sums regardless of whether they are useful or not.

In his work, Heerbrand also condemns the invocation of Catholic saints in the litany. From the Protestant point of view, this practice was interpreted was idolatry. Catholics regarded the beloved, personal patrons as their intercessors at the throne of God.

The excellently educated Jesuits, who provided arguments for Catholic clerics and laymen, became the arch-enemies of the Protestants. In his book, Heerbrandt explicitly warns against them: May God’s much beloved son with his Holy Spirit and the bright light of his word mercifully enlighten the darkened hearts and heads of the people under the Papacy and the poor people that were seduced by their misguided teachers, especially by the Jesuits.



This is some text inside of a div block.
Neu eingeloffene bewegliche und umständliche Beschreibung des entsetzlichen Erdbebens...
Printed in 1755/6 in Strasbourg
Published in five volumes by the Paris publishing house Arc-en-Ciel in 1950 with illustrations by Paul-Émile Becat

Stop 4: Wo ist Gott und sein Himmel?

The Enlightenment deeply shook the Church’s worldview. For the first time since antiquity, people considered the possibility that there was no God and thus no life after death.

Historiography claims that this fundamental shift in mentality, which evolved over a long period of time, originated in a historical event, namely the Lisbon earthquake, which occurred on All Saints’ Day of 1755. At this station, we will illustrate the effects of this natural disaster, which became the first media event of modern times. For this purpose, we will show you a single-leaf print. These documents were used to spread the news of important events throughout Europe in a time before daily newspapers and newscasts.

Our second exhibit illustrates how the intellectual world dealt with the event. In Voltaire’s novel “Candide”, the protagonist has to endure a series of strokes of fate confronting him with the evil of the world. After reading the book, every thinking human being cannot help but question the existence of a good God that tolerates all this misery. This leads to the question of whether there is such a thing as an eternal life that can be shaped to one’s own advantage by means of prayers, donations and good deeds.

Lisbon, November 1st, 1755

Neu eingeloffene bewegliche und umständliche Beschreibung des entsetzlichen Erdbebens, welches den 1. Wintermonats 1755 die trefliche Portugiesische Haupt-Stadt Lissabon Samt umliegenden Gegenden so entsetzlicher Weise betroffen, zerstöret und fast gänzlich zernichtet hat.

Printed in 1755/6 in Strasbourg

A contemporary copper engraving depicting the devastating consequences of the earthquake: numerous fires and tsunamis.

On November 1st,1755, All Saints’ Day, a terrible earthquake followed by a tsunami destroyed the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal, Lisbon.

Survivors reported that the earth had trembled for more than three and a half hours and that roads were ripped open by five-meter wide ditches. Those who were not killed by falling debris, rushed to the harbour to take refuge on a ship. However, the crowd gathered there was to become the first victim of three tsunami waves that flooded the city 40 minutes after the earthquake. Anything that wasn’t under water fell victim to the fire: the candles lit by pious Portuguese on All Saints’ Day set fire to the wooden houses.

Lisbon wasn’t the only affected city. Many other towns at the coasts of Portugal, Africa and Spain were destroyed. The Spanish city of Cadiz, for instance, lost a third of its population during this earthquake.

These aren’t ancient ruins but the remains of the Lisbon Cathedral.

Nevertheless, this earthquake went down in history as the Lisbon earthquake. And there’s a good reason for it. At the time of the earthquake, Lisbon was the fourth largest city of the world. The city lived from trade and was therefore a hub of Europe’s postal system. Lisbon connected all trading cities by means of a regular, usually weekly chain of postal carriers.

The horsemen did not only carry letters but also news about interesting events. And what could be more interesting than an earthquake that had razed to the ground one of the world’s largest commercial cities? Thus, the Lisbon earthquake became the first media event of modern times. Only three weeks later, people in Paris and London knew about it. The news reached Hamburg and Berlin on December 2nd, 1755.

Hence, the Lisbon earthquake was not only a tragedy, it was a business, too. Numerous printers published single-leaf prints reporting on the event – and the competition ensured that the authors outdid each other with sensational details.

Our example is from the printing house of Melchior Pauschinger, who sold his products in a shop in Strasburg, where both potential readers and travelling merchants purchased single-leaf prints.

Photo: Chris Adams, CC BY-SA 3.0

30,000 to 40,000 people died in the Lisbon earthquake. 85% of the buildings were destroyed, including the seven major churches of the city and what had been the world’s largest hospital at that time. The ruins of the Carmelite convent’s church still commemorate the event today.

The publisher of our print was a master of his business. He knew that it was difficult to feel sympathy for a number. Therefore, he invented a story about the fate of individual persons, namely the story of a bridal couple whose wedding was disrupted by the earthquake. Bride, groom and the bride’s father manage to escape the earthquake by getting on a ship, however, while they are thanking God for saving them, the tsunami destroys the ship. They all die.

No tabloid journalist of our time could create images more sensational than those in this newspaper: Mutilated corpses! Limbs spit out by the Earth! Bodies of humans and animals, which were mixed together under the rubble, crushed and horribly piled up! Babies crushed to death against their mothers’ breast! Desperate parents surrounded by the remains of dying children! Women without husbands! Married couples, their arms wrapped around each other, crying at each other!

Even back then the media loved high figures, the higher the better. Hence, the number of 30,000 to 40,000 victims was turned into 700,000 by the correspondent of our print. And since he was from England, he did not forget to mention how many English people died during the earthquake – another habit that is still common in today’s media. As if the nationality of a victim were of any importance.


Homo Homini Lupus

Voltaire, Candide

Published in five volumes by the Paris publishing house Arc-en-Ciel in 1950 with illustrations by Paul-Émile Becat

The first edition of Candide was published at Cramer in Geneva in 1759

In 1759, four years after the Lisbon earthquake, seventeen prints of the same content were published in French and English in several cities of Europe at the same time. The French edition was entitled “Candide ou l’Optimisme” and claimed to be the translation of a German original carried out by Docteur Ralph.

The story told by the work took the readers’ breath away: The novel’s protagonist is Candide, the illegitimate son of a baron from Westphalia who is introduced to the theses of the philosopher Leibniz by his teacher. Leibniz’ key message is the claim that humankind lives in the “best of all possible worlds”.

The events that follow demonstrate the absurdity of the statement. Candide has to flee because he was caught in flagrante with his lover Cunégonde. As he flees, he is conscripted into the army by Bulgarian soldiers, has to fight, deserts and becomes a witness to the Lisbon earthquake. There he meets Cunégonde, however, she had become a slave and had thus obviously been raped several times. During the turmoil that follows the event, the couple is separated again. Candide continues his journey alone, finds paradise on Earth in South America but leaves it because he wants to find Cunégonde. Then he meets a philosopher who tells him the exact opposite of what his former teacher advocated: the world is bad. It isn’t ruled by a benevolent God but by human greed and evil.

Nevertheless, Candide eventually finds Cunégonde. And yet, there’s no happy ending. The once beautiful woman is horribly mutilated and Candide no longer sees anything in her that he could love. He marries her anyway. The couple acquires an estate where ugly Cunégonde indulges her talent for cooking and Candide forgets about the horrors of the world in their banal everyday life.

This incredible book was written by Voltaire, who was already a renowned author throughout Europe at that time and whose satirical works commenting on contemporary issues were widely disseminated. In his story, he processed the horrors of his epoch in an unvarnished manner. This included, of course, the Lisbon earthquake.
Of much greater importance was the Seven Years’ War, which had been raging since 1756 and affected all continents known at that time. When Candide was published, the war hadn’t ended yet.
Ironically, the war had been instigated by a king who loved to portray himself as a philosopher, Frederick II of Prussia. He had supported Voltaire financially for many years, until a rift arose between them in 1753 and Voltaire fled in haste.

In his text, Voltaire called to account all those who – in his opinion – oppressed the common people (and he considered himself to be among the common people). He denounced the incompetent nobility of having eroded concepts of honour and attacked the insincere clergy, whose actions had nothing to do with Christian doctrine.

Voltaire especially addressed the issue of slavery and human trafficking. Taking Cunégonde as an example, he shows in detail what it means to be without rights.

The edition on display here was published some 200 years after the first edition. The Paris publishing house Arc-en-Ciel (= rainbow) was responsible for the volume. It is an expensive collector’s edition illustrated by Paul Émile Bécat, who was well-known for his erotic drawings back then.
By means of the illustrations, the erotic element of the novel is emphasized. Although one could have imagined other illustrations to be published this shortly after the end of World War II, they certainly would not have sold as well.



This is some text inside of a div block.
Kurzer Unterricht für die Hebammen auf dem platten Lande
Königliches Preußisches Ober-Collegium Medicum, printed in 1796 in Berlin
The Codicil to „My Will“ for the healthy and the sick
Sebastian Kneipp
Published in 1897 by Joseph Koesel in Kempten

Stop 5: A Life Without the Hereafter

Those who believe that there’s no afterlife must find their heaven in this world. This explains why social unrest has increased rapidly since the Enlightenment. 30 years after the first edition of Candide was published, this development culminated in the French Revolution. It turned the old system upside down and focused on the subjects’ dreams and wishes. From then on, it was no longer birth but one’s accomplishments that determined the social status of every person.

Thus, the French Revolution gave birth to the performance principle. From then on, government’s policies were expected to influence people’s lives for the better. In fact, many enlightened rulers of the 18th century had already tried to banish hunger, improve medical care and thus prolong people’s lives. And yet, this movement gained additional momentum in the 19th century because reasonable reforms increased the acceptance of the government way more effectively than any apparatus of oppression enforced by the police.

At this station, we will demonstrate by means of a Prussian example how the state tried to improve the health care system in the era of the Enlightenment. Our second example from Bavaria illustrates that not only the state but also the individual person assumed responsibility for their health and for living a long – although obviously not eternal – life.

The Obligation of the State

Königliches Preußisches Ober-Collegium Medicum, Kurzer Unterricht für die Hebammen auf dem platten Lande

Printed in 1796 in Berlin

Andrea del Verrocchio, death of Francesca Tornabuoni after childbirth, around 1478, marble, Bargello, Florence. Image: Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0

477,455 children were born in Prussia in 1819. And 83,066 children lost their lives during birth. In other words: almost one in six births was fatal for the child, and many of them for the mother as well. For comparison: today, only 10 in 100,000 children die in industrialized nations.

Despite these depressing statistics, the population of 19th century Europe increased at a rapid pace. The population of Great Britain doubled between 1800 and 1850. In Switzerland, the figure rose by 42% as the annual mortality rate of the population fell from 23–42 per thousand to 15–29 per thousand.

Theodor Billroth operates at the Vienna General Hospital. Painting by Adalbert Franz Seligmann from 1889/90. Photo: KW.

This rapid population growth was the result of many reforms. One of them was the modernisation of the health care system including setting up public hospitals, where future physicians and surgeons were trained and the poor were treated free of charge.

One of these hospitals was the Prussian Charité, to whom the Ober-Collegium Medicum was affiliated. The latter was an institution that corresponded roughly to what we call a health authority today. The Collegium Medicum organised and supervised the training of surgeons and pharmacists, midwifes and nurses, i.e. the training of all those whose education did not become an academic discipline until the 19th and 20th century or was to remain an apprenticeship for a long time.

The Collegium Medicum’s primary duty was to provide the army with efficient health care professionals, however, the institution was also consulted on matters of civilian life. In this context, the Collegium Medicum was responsible for an attempt to reduce infant mortality in Prussia. To this end, they published a manual for midwives in 1796.

In its preface, the book’s purpose is summarised as follows:
It is to be hoped that midwives make proper use of this manual as one may certainly assume that this will result in many more children and mothers staying alive and healthy.

People looking for illustrations search in vain. Instead, the manual explains in dull words what a midwife needs to know to help a woman to successfully give birth.

In the book, the high doctors determine what qualities a midwife needs to have. They should be healthy, and “not unshapely fat or strong” so that they could easily bend and kneel down. At the very least they must have learned how to read so that they could communicate with the physician in writing and take notes of particularly interesting cases.

What the books’ male authors expect from a midwife sounds downright offensive to us today:
“Thirdly, the noblest quality of a midwife is a good temper and honourable behaviour. Before women may dedicate themselves to this profession, they must present a certificate from the responsible judicial authority attesting their pious and respectable conduct of life; without this document they cannot be admitted to this profession. And thus they must consequently... live a Christian, honourable and well-mannered life... However, they must particularly avoid indulgence and drinking as they are the greatest vices.”


A Question of Self-Responsibility

Sebastian Kneipp, The Codicil to “My Will” for the healthy and the sick.

Published in 1897 by Joseph Koesel in Kempten.

The sanatorium of Schatzalp in Davos shortly after being opened in 1900

While sick persons in Switzerland can rely today on a health care system organised according to social principles, it wasn’t an everyday occurrence in the 19th century that a destitute man received the treatment he needed.

Thus, especially the poor fell victim to tuberculosis. The disease was one of the most frequent causes of death in the 19th century: in the1880s, one in two German deaths among the 15 to 40-year-olds was the result of tuberculosis.

The reason for this was the fact that doctors were rather helpless when it came to treating tuberculosis before antibiotics were introduced. Physicians sent patients to open-air sanatoriums, but the inmates of these facilities died like flies despite all efforts. And those who hadn’t enough money to take a break from work for months, or even years, couldn’t even try this treatment method.

Photography of Sebastian Kneipp, 1890.

Young Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897) was one of those who didn’t expect to receive any kind of medical assistance. He treated his lung disease himself by strengthening his immune system by means of ice-cold water. We don’t know whether the lung disease he suffered from was actually tuberculosis. Either way, Kneipp certainly made the point that an individual can contribute a great deal to getting old and staying healthy by leading a suitable lifestyle.
As a priest, Kneipp had the authority to disseminate his findings to a broad audience. He became so well-known that a pharmacist denounced him for damaging his business and, in 1855, the Episcopal Ordinariate sent him to the Dominican convent of Wörishofen to serve as father confessor.
With the help of the nuns, Kneipp turned the small, insignificant parish in Unterallgäu into a place of pilgrimage for all those who wanted to do something for their health. The charismatic priest developed what we still consider the foundations of a healthy life today: a sensible diet, plenty of exercise and occasional cold affusions.
Thanks to his numerous publications, which were translated into many languages, Kneipp didn’t remain a local phenomenon. Associations of Kneipp’s followers were founded all over the world, pursuing the goal of living a longer life thanks to his theories.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Kneipp was – right after Bismarck – the most famous German in North America. This success was partly due to the English translations of his books, one of which you can see here.
The book is called “The Codicil to ‘My Will’ for the healthy and the sick”. It was published in 1897 by the Catholic publishing house of Josef Kösel in the provincial town of Kempten. The work was targeted at the many foreign visitors to the health resort of Bad Wörishofen.

The Codicil – a technical term for an instruction that is added to a will – contains practical instructions on how to implement Kneipp’s methods into everyday life. In this regard, the work is no different from the masses of “how to literature” that people are buying today in the hope of prolonging their life. Thus, Kneipp describes in detail what a healthy and digestible diet consists of.

To this end, he divided his dietary recommendations into two chapters – one focusing on healthy people who want to maintain their health, and the second one dealing with sick persons who want to restore their health by means of a suitable diet. Sebastian Kneipp lists an abundance of recipes for this purpose, some of which – such as calf’s brain soup and liver soup – probably require some getting used to today.

A long chapter is dedicated to exercises that have the purpose of helping Kneipp’s followers to maintain their physical abilities. Many of these exercises are still used and taught without any alterations by physiotherapists throughout the world.

Sebastian Kneipp was convinced that most diseases could be prevented by leading the right lifestyle. Even in case of myopia, he recommended not wearing glasses so that the eyes wouldn’t get used to the luxury. An eye bath in the morning was supposed to strengthen the eyes and protect them from many evils.



This is some text inside of a div block.
Die Leiden des jungen Werther
Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Published by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson / Doves Press in 1911
Homo Faber – Ein Bericht
Max Frisch
42nd edition from 2017 of the first edition from 1962

Stop 6: Do We Want Eternal Life? What Is Life Worth to Us?

And this brings us to the present. To make sure that everyone can live the longest life possible, Swiss citizens, who assume responsibility for their health, collaborate with the state, which ensures through health care and social welfare services that nobody starves to death and that everyone has access to the necessary medical care.

But does that answer all questions? Or does it rather result in even more questions coming up?

  • Is life per se valuable? Or is only a fulfilled life worth living?
  • What about risk evaluation? What restrictions is an individual person, is the society willing to accept in order to eliminate a possible risk?
  • If there’s nothing after death, what is the purpose of living and dying?

We don’t have answers to these questions. However, we want to present three books that try to find their own answers.

My Life in My Hand

Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Die Leiden des jungen Werther

Published by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson / Doves Press in 1911

Werther enters through the door and wants to pick up Charlotte for the ball. Engraving by Daniel Chodowiecki)

In 1774, 25-year-old Johann Wolfgang Goethe published a book that caused a furore: The Sorrows of Young Werther. Presented in the emotional form of an epistolary novel, the book tells the story of a young man who fails to find his place in life. The woman he loves marries someone else; he’s bullied during his work at court and has to put on an act to gain recognition. In a nutshell, young Werther doesn’t manage to adapt to civil society. So, he kills himself.

When it was published, the book reflected the attitude towards life of many young people who no longer understood their parents’ world. The Sorrows of Young Werther thus became the first best-seller of German literature and was immediately translated into numerous languages. It is said that the book’s emotional portrayal of Werther seduced its readers to escape their fate rather than accepting it, even to commit suicide in the most radical case.

Even a young duke could identify with Werther and expressed this feeling by means of his clothes. This portrait depicts Duke Ernest II of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg.

Although there’s a discussion today about how many people “Werther” actually seduced to commit suicide, the bourgeois world of the time was surprised at the incredible extent to which the rebellious youth identified with the book’s protagonist. Everywhere, young men dressed in the style of Werther, wearing blue tails, yellow waistcoats and breeches made of yellow leather, in order to protest against their predestined fate.
Goethe himself is said to have moderated his book’s message in 1787 after a copy of “Werther” was found next to the corpse of a close friend of his, who had committed suicide at the age of 17.
The shocking element about the book was and remains that a human being isn’t willing to accept his fate. He rather chooses death than leading a life that he doesn’t consider worth living. When people are discussing about organisations like Exit and dignified death today, there’s always the same question behind it: is a person forced to accept the gift of life or is he free to refuse it?

However, not only the content of this book but also its print is of particular interest. It was made in 1911 by Doves Press. This was no publishing house in the usual sense of the word but one of the most important English private presses. The term private press describes small workshops that tried (and try) to create aesthetically perfect books. They only published very few copies of every work. For example, only 200 copies of this Werther edition were produced.

The Doves Type was considered the epitome of perfection by its contemporaries, perhaps this was also due to the fact that an exciting story was associated with it. The two owners of Doves Press had a terrible fight. In court they negotiated a compromise: one of them was allowed to use the famous Doves Type until his death, afterwards, the right of use was to pass to the family of the other owner. However, instead of complying with the contract, the owner of the lead sorts secretly threw them into the Thames river. Not all at once but piece by piece. It took him 170 trips to the banks of the Thames until all sorts were cast into the river in January 1917.

In 2015, a stroller found a sort that had been washed ashore. Divers then searched for the legendary type. 150 pieces were found enabling scholars to reconstruct the font.



Max Frisch, Homo Faber - Ein Bericht

42th edition from 2017 of the first edition of 1962

The author Max Frisch in 1955. Image: Hans Gerber / CC BY-SA 4.0

Be careful not to get too excited in times of the coronavirus. It’s bad for your heart. And heart diseases are by far the most common cause of death of people in western countries. In 2015 alone, 198,002 people died in Germany from heart diseases. For comparison: in the same year, 433 people became fatal victims of assaults. And as for comparing these numbers to Covid-19 figures, well, we’ll refrain from doing that.

However, statistics alone aren’t enough to get your life together or deal with your fears. This fact is described by the novel Homo Faber written by Max Frisch.

Homo Faber revolves around calculable probabilities and coincidences, around a Swiss engineer who believes to have planned every detail of his life, and who then fails due to a series of improbabilities. Or do you think that it’s likely to sit in an airplane next to the brother of your childhood friend, who married the woman you were once in love with? To meet the daughter of this childhood friend, who is actually your own daughter, on your next journey? To fall in love with this young woman?

The novel’s character constellation

All this happens to the protagonist of Homo Faber, and there’s even more. And even though he is capable of carrying out the most complicated calculations in his work as an engineer, he fails to deduce by means of a simple subtraction that the young woman cannot be the daughter of his childhood friend but has to be his own.
Then, another coincidence occurs: a snake bites the young girl. However, she does not die from the fatal bite but from a head injury she sustained as the result of a seemingly harmless fall.
The elaborately convoluted novel is written as a first-person narrative, by a man who is waiting in his hospital room to find out whether his stomach problem is actually gastric cancer or not.

The novel Homo Faber confronts us with the question of whether our life is a product of statistics or fate. Although we know that one in ten smokers will be diagnosed with lung cancer at some point in his life, every smoker believes to be one of the nine smokers that don’t. While many people are afraid of taking an airplane, almost nobody is afraid of driving by car, even though the car trip to the airport is the most dangerous part of a journey from Berlin to Rome. Whereas “only” 14 people have been killed in a terrorist attack since 2000 in Switzerland, the political debate is dominated by such attacks to an extent that cannot be explained by figures alone.
And yet: planes crash down, people die during terrorist attacks and smokers get 100 years old. Each individual case is independent of any kind of statistics.
Thus, everyone wonders: how likely does an event have to be for me to make what kind of sacrifice in order to reduce the chances of that happening?


What Is the Purpose of Living? What Is the Purpose of Dying?

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter und die Heiligtümer des Todes

Hamburg, 2018

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter und die Heiligtümer des Todes. Hamburg, 2018

What subjects should children’s literature deal with according to your opinion? Joanne K. Rowling apparently thinks that they should deal with death. The protagonist of her novel series is an 11-year-old boy fighting for his life in each of the books and who repeatedly loses people he cares for to death.

The series culminates in volume 7, which is entitled “The Deathly Hallows”. The thrilling plot might be the reason for some people not to understand that the end of this piece of popular literature copies the typical story of a Redeemer, which is the basis of numerous mystery religions. Harry Potter willingly accepts to die in order to save the world from evil. He is tortured, ridiculed, laughed at, and even thought to be dead just to rise from the dead and destroy the evil forces in a final battle.

The Lion Monument in Lucerne commemorates the hundreds of Swiss Guards that lost their lives during the French Revolution trying to defend the already abandoned royal palace from being stormed by the revolutionaries. Photo: Andrew Bossi, CC BY-SA 2.5

Although mystery religions are no longer fashionable, we follow Harry Potter’s story with excitement to the end. Countless teenagers take his courage and his selflessness as an example. That’s remarkable. After all, nobody in the western world has realistic hopes for a tangible afterlife anymore. In the case of Harry Potter, though, the willingness of risking your life for a “great” cause appears to evoke admiration instead of heads shook in disbelief.

Psychologists confirm that we don’t need heaven in order to sacrifice our life for altruistic motives. All we need is to know that there is a world that we come from and that continues to exist when we’re gone. This context gives us a responsibility towards our predecessors and our successors.

Regarding Harry Potter, many people sacrificed their lives so he could live: his parents, his godfather Sirius Black, his teacher Dumbledore. That obliges him to fulfil his mission. If Harry hadn’t known that, after his death, there was to be a world that was either ruled by evil forces or liberated from them, his sacrifice wouldn’t make any sense.

Commemorative stone for members of the organisation Doctors Without Borders that lost their lives during their work. Photo: OTFW, CC BY-SA 3.0

Of course, our life is not as dramatic as that of a juvenile hero in a novel. And yet, everyone wonders: What makes my life meaningful? For whom or what am I willing to live this life? For whom or what am I perhaps even willing to sacrifice this life?

After all, our life is unique and valuable for the very reason that it is not eternal.

And this brings us to the end of our exhibition. We hope it continues to spark your thoughts. Perhaps you have completely different questions from those we asked ourselves.