The Sanctity of Reason

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768, Joseph Wright of Derby – Science now revered as the newest deity

This is a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby — A natural philosopher (scientist) demonstrates a vacuum pump, from which all the air has been removed. The bird is struggling to stay alive and flutters breathlessly. The scientist with his hand over the stop-cock on the glass bowl seems about to choose whether the bird should survive or die. The scientist’s ingenuity is represented as a divine omnipotence, able to exert control over nature. This was a time when a shift in focus was in progress. The sanctity originally reserved for religious ideologies was now being transferred to science and reason. People were turning away from religious faith and superstition to logic and rational thought. The scientists, or natural philosophers as they were known at the time, were now possessing the miraculous powers originally attributed to religious figures.


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