War in Heaven


Fig. 1: Broadsheet printing of the celestial phenomenon created by Hans Glaser, containing the woodcut illustration and text from the city’s newspaper. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the early hours of April 14, 1561, the residents of Nuremberg, Germany awoke to a bizarre multicolored phenomenon illuminating the sky. Red, blue, and black spheres and disks emerged from two larger cylinders, and objects shaped like spears and crescents flew overhead. The shapes spread throughout the sky seemed to be attacking one another.1 Later that month, Hans Glaser created a woodcut print of the phenomenon that was reproduced in Nuremberg’s newspaper with his account of the event (see figure 1). Five years later, Samuel Coccius created another colored woodcut print of a similar celestial phenomenon over Basel, Switzerland. This time, the artist showed only black and red spheres in the sky and no heavenly battle. Coccius also depicted several figures on the ground reacting to the scene overhead (see figure 2). Coccius could have seen the Glaser print and been interested by the story, though there is no definitive evidence. An original Glaser print in fact resides in Zurich, Switzerland.

Fig. 2: 1566 woodcut print of the Nuremberg phenomenon created by Samuel Coccius. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The mysterious phenomenon portrayed by these artists has sparked the interests of scholars from several different disciplines. Some explanations even suggest that these works of art are evidence of UFOs visiting Earth. Less radical theories posit that the artists were depicting a natural celestial event or responding to mass hysteria due to the wars of the Reformation.

The Nuremberg phenomenon faded into obscurity until 1958 when the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung discussed it in his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. In his explanation of UFO sightings, Jung describes an archetype of perceived extraterrestrial encounters, using the Nuremberg event as an example of common reactions to such sightings.  Jung posits that the citizens in Nuremberg saw some natural phenomenon to which they attributed military and religious significance. In his analysis of the Glaser print, he notes that the various shapes are recognizable: the black shape at the bottom could be a spear, and the tube could be a cannon firing sphere-shaped cannonballs. A religious view would emphasize the significance of the cross shapes.2

Psychiatrist Otto Billig furthered the theory that the woodcut was symbolic of the widespread unrest in Europe using a historical perspective. As Billig explains, Nuremberg was a prosperous, semi-autonomous city in the Holy Roman Empire that attempted to remain neutral in the extended conflicts between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. Despite its declared neutrality, the city faced siege, mainly from Protestant forces. While Nuremberg ultimately repelled its attackers, the numerous raids, combined with an increase in taxes to rebuild the city after the violence, led to civil unrest. After an attack on the city on Good Friday, 1554, one newspaper described multiple suns appearing in the sky. Another apparition appeared in the sky in July of that year, this time depicting knights battling in the sky with fiery swords. These events were perceived as warnings of the coming judgment day. Billig notes that similar apparitions appeared throughout the Thirty Years’ War over 50 years later, and he theorizes that these visions were likely due to the suffering and apocalyptic worries during the wars.3 Overall, it seems most likely that the citizens of Nuremberg and Basel mistook bizarre weather for  a supernatural warning against terrestrial bloodshed and strife.

 Works Cited:

  1. Vallee, J. and Aubeck, C. (2010). Wonders in the sky. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. Print.
  2. Jung, C.G. Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth Of Things Seen In The Skies. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959. Print.
  3. Billig, Otto. Flying Saucers. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Pub. Co., 1982. Print.
  4. Johnson, Frank. ‘Nuremburg 1561 UFO “Battle” Debunked’. Ancientaliensdebunked.com. N.p., 2012. Web. 30 Dec. 2014.
  5. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. ‘Fallstreak – What Are They And How Do They Form?’. N.p., 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2015.

Leib Celnik is a Brevia staff writer.  He can be reached at leibcelnik@college.harvard.edu