Nicolas Steno

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Nicolas Steno bigraphy, stories - Pioneer in anatomy and geology, bishop

Nicolas Steno : biography

01 January 1638 – 25 November 1686

Nicolas Steno (1 January 1638 – 25 November 1686 – Aber, James S. 2007. Retrieved 11 January 2012. ) was a Danish Catholic bishop and scientist and a pioneer in both anatomy and geology. Steno was trained in the classical texts on science; however, by 1659 he seriously questioned accepted knowledge of the natural world. Importantly he questioned explanations for tear production, the idea that fossils grew in the ground and explanations of rock formation. His investigations and his subsequent conclusions on fossils and rock formation have led scholars to consider him one of the founders of modern stratigraphy and modern geology.

Born to a Lutheran family, Steno converted to Catholicism in 1667. After his conversion, his interest for natural sciences rapidly waned giving way to his interest in theology. At the beginning of 1675, he decided to become a priest. Four months after, he was ordained in the Catholic clergy in Easter 1675. As a clergyman, he was later appointed by Pope Innocent XI Vicar Apostolic of Nordic Missions and Titular Bishop of Titopolis. Steno played an active role in the Counter-Reformation in Northern Germany. He was venerated as a saint after his death and the Roman Catholic canonization process was begun in 1938. Pope John Paul II beatified Steno in 1988.

Religious studies

Steno’s questioning mind also influenced his religious views. Having been brought up in the Lutheran faith, he nevertheless questioned its teachings, something which became a burning issue when confronted with Roman Catholicism while studying in Florence. After making comparative theological studies, including reading the Church Fathers and by using his natural observational skills, he decided that Catholicism, rather than Lutheranism, provided more sustenance for his constant inquisitiveness. In 1667, Steno converted to Catholicism on All Souls’ Day when Lavinia Cenami Arnolfini, a noblewoman of Lucca, insisted.

Steno traveled to Hungary, Austria and in Spring 1670 he arrived in Amsterdam. There he met with old friends Jan Swammerdam and Reinier de Graaf. With Anna Maria van Schurman and Antoinette Bourignon he discussed scientific and religious topics. The following quote is from a 1673 speech:

Fair is what we see, Fairer what we have perceived, Fairest what is still in veil.

It is not clear if he met Nicolaes Witsen, but he did read Witsen’s book on shipbuilding. In 1671 he accepted the post of professor of anatomy in the University of Copenhagen, but promised Cosimo III de’ Medici he would return when he was appointed tutor to Ferdinando III de’ Medici.

At the beginning of 1675, Steno decided to continue his theological studies, which he had begun even before his conversion, toward his ordination to the priesthood. After only 4 months, he was ordained priest and celebrated his first mass on 13 April 1675 in the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence at the age of 37. Athanasius Kircher expressly asked what were the reasons why he decided to become priest. Steno had left natural sciences for education and theology and became one of the leading figures in the Counter-Reformation. Upon request of Duke Johann Friedrich of Hanover, Pope Innocent XI made him Vicar Apostolic for the Nordic Missions on 21 August 1677. He was consecrated titular bishop of Titiopolis on 19 September by Cardinal Barbarigo and moved to the Lutheran North.

In the year after he was made bishop, he was probably involved in the banning of publications by Spinoza, There he had talks with Gottfried Leibniz, the librarian; the two argued about Spinoza and his letter to Albert Burgh, then Steno’s pupil. Leibniz recommended a reunification of the churches. Steno worked at the city of Hannover until 1680.

After John Frederick death’s, Prince-Bishop of Paderborn Ferdinand of Fürstenberg appointed him as Auxiliary Bishop of Münster (Church Saint Liudger) on 7 October 1680. The new prince-elector Ernest Augustus, Elector of Hanover was a Protestant. Earlier, Augustus’ wife, Sophia of Hanover, had made fun of Steno’s piousness; he had sold his bishop’s ring and cross to help the needy. He continued zealously the work of counter reform begun by Bernhard von Galen.