Pittem, Flanders, Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium)
BiographyFerdinand Verbiest was the son of Judocus Verbiest (known as Just or Joos) and Ann Van Hecke. Just Verbiest had been born in Bruges in 1593/94 and studied at the Bogaardenschool there. After obtaining the degree of Master of Arts from the University of Douai in 1611, he taught at the Bogaardenschool where he had himself studied, then in 1615 at a school in Tielt, where he also served as sexton of the church. Valerie Arickx writes :-
Just Verbiest had much to do in Tielt in the church and in the school. ... [He] got a good name and reputation in the town as an intelligent and learned man with a good pen and very nice writing! ... Verbiest found, in this manner, his way into the administration, and the municipal government asked him many times to draw up and write official papers and letters for the municipality, the church and the public assistance committee.In 1617 he married Ann Van Hecke whose family were important people in Bruges. While in Tielt, three of Just and Ann's seven children were born: Judoca Verbiest (1618-1634); Katherin Verbiest (born 1620); and John Baptist Verbiest (1622-1659). In late 1622, the Verbiest family moved to Pittem, which is only about 4 km west of Tielt, and lived in a large house in the market square near the church. Just Verbiest now took on the role of bailiff and was a tax collector for the lord of Pittem, Don Ferdinando de Zuniga, a nobleman from Madrid. Four of Just and Ann's seven children were born after the family moved to Pittem: Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688), the subject of this biography; Jemina Verbiest (1626-1678); Albert Verbiest (1628-1694); and Ann Verbiest (1630-1681).
Before continuing with Ferdinand's biography, let us say a little about his siblings. Judoca Verbiest died aged 16 from the plague. Katherin Verbiest married the merchant R Van de Vinck in Kortrijk in 1658. John Baptist Verbiest had the same occupations as his father, bailiff, tax collector and judge, but did not have his father's administrative abilities and ended up as tax collector for the Hospital of Our Lady in Kortrijk where he died a poor man. Jemina Verbiest married John Lust in 1650. He was secretary and later mayor of Pittem. She died in the house owned her parents in the market square of Pittem in 1678. Albert Verbiest was awarded a law degree, then was bailiff in Pittem in 1651. He married Katherine Isenbaert in Bruges in 1658 and died from the plague in 1694. Ann Verbiest became a nun at the Hospital of Our Lady in Kortrijk.
Let us return to the biography of Ferdinand Verbiest who lived in his home town of Pittem until 1635 when he was twelve years old. These were not easy times in the Spanish Netherlands with fighting continuing throughout these years as the Thirty Years War saw the French and Dutch trying to defeat the Spanish rulers. Verbiest went to a school in Pittem where he was taught by the parish priest and the sexton. During these years his father, who was an important man in the village, went on many business trips to Bruges, Brussels, Ghent and Kortrijk. In the autumn of 1635 Verbiest went to secondary school in Bruges which is about 25 km north of Pittem :-
When Ferdinand Verbiest went to secondary school in Bruges in 1635, he was not a mere peasant. He knew what a book and a map were, he had seen Bruges, and he had heard about far-away countries.The year 1635 saw the French and Dutch call on those living in the Spanish Netherlands to rise against their rulers. A Dutch-French army entered the country in June 1635 and there was a siege of Leuven. The fighting did not end until 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia when the Spanish Netherlands came under Dutch control. Verbiest studied at Bruges for the year 1635-36, then moved to attend school in Kortrijk.
Verbiest spent four years studying at the Jesuit College in Kortrijk. This college, founded in 1587 as a Latin school with four classes, had a Greek course added in 1587. Beginning in 1630, teacher training also took place in the Jesuit College. He completed his studies at the Jesuit College in Kortrijk in 1640 and, on 7 January 1641, he matriculated in Lily College of the University of Leuven. This College, founded in 1431 only a few years after the university was founded, was one of four colleges of the University of Leuven which, when Verbiest studied there, were specifically teaching colleges for undergraduates in the Liberal Arts. He took examinations for entry into the Society of Jesus and, after showing his brilliance, was accepted into the Society on 2 September 1641. He then left for the Jesuit novitiate in Mechelen where he remained for two years. After successfully completing the necessary examinations, he took his vows on 4 September 1643.
After taking his vows, Verbiest was sent back to the College in Leuven where he studied mathematics and philosophy for two years. He was fortunate that André Tacquet spent the year 1644-45 teaching at the college in Leuven and Verbiest benefitted from being taught by one of the finest mathematicians. Astronomy was taught from Ptolemy's description, still using the Sphaera Mundi of Johannes de Sacrobosco, but there was some mention of the ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus and Tycho Brahe. For example, Tacquet seems to have taken the position that scientifically he approved the heliocentric system but had to reject it to follow the beliefs of his Church.
After his studies in Leuven, Verbiest was sent to teach at the Jesuit College in Kortrijk. At this stage he was keen for missionary work and he had applied to in January 1645 to be sent to America as a missionary. His request was refused but he did not give up and he applied again in February 1647. Again his request was refused. In May 1647 his third request was approved and he was assigned to a mission to New Biscay in Mexico. He went to Spain to sail to Mexico but the Spanish authorities did not allow him to embark on the grounds that there were already too many missionaries in Mexico. He then taught Greek and Latin in Brussels from 1648 to 1652, when he was sent to study in Rome at the Pontifical Georgian College. In Rome he studied theology, mathematics and astronomy. There he met the famous mathematician and scientist Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) and his assistant Gaspar Schott (1608-1666). After a year in Rome he was approved for a mission to the New Kingdom of Granada (present day Colombia) but told first to go the Colégio San Hermenegildo in Seville to continue his studies of theology. He was ordained as a priest and finished his studies in Seville in 1655 with the award of a doctorate (in April of that year) but again the Spanish authorities did not allow him to embark. He knew that two fellow Belgium Jesuits, Philippe Couplet and François de Rougemont, were hoping to be missionaries in China so Verbiest applied to go to China.
While waiting to go to China, Verbiest went to Genoa where he continued his study of mathematics, probably with Giacomo Bonvicini (1619-1657). He remained in Genoa until 8 January 1656 when he left and travelled back to Lisbon. The Dutch ship the missionaries were to sail on, the De Griet, was hijacked by French pirates. While waiting for another ship, Verbiest was sent to the Jesuit College in Coimbra to teach mathematics. Returning to Lisbon, on 4 April 1657 Verbiest sailed with 37 missionaries, 17 of whom were heading for China under the leadership of Martino Martini (1614-1661). Of the two mentioned above, Philippe Couplet was already in China and François de Rougemont was on the same ship as Verbiest. In October, the ship reached Goa in India and the Chinese group waited there until 30 January 1658 when they sailed to Macao which they reached on 17 June. In Macao, Verbiest lived in the Colégio Madre de Deus and met up with Philippe Couplet who was waiting for permission to enter China. Finally, in the spring of 1659 Verbiest was one of fourteen missionaries allowed to enter China from Macao. Many of the missionaries had died on the voyage which explains the relatively small number entering China.
Verbiest's first assignment was to be a preacher in the Shaanxi province. In 1660, however, the Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666), who headed the Beijing Imperial Observatory and the Mathematical Tribunal, called Verbiest to come to Beijing and act as his assistant. Verbiest arrived in Beijing to take up this position on 6 June 1660. At this time Schall was very much in favour with the Shunzhi Emperor and had considerable authority. This began to change in 1661, however, when the Emperor died and four regents took power to run the country until the Emperor's seven year old son who succeeded him became old enough to rule. Yang Guangxian (1597-1669), a Chinese Muslim official, brought charges against Schall in a pamphlet in 1664. As well as accusing Schall, who had suffered a stroke a few months earlier, of using his position to promote Christianity, he claimed that Schall had made mathematical errors in certain astronomical predictions.
As a result of the accusations, Schall, Verbiest and eight others were detained in prison in chains. Because of his stroke, Schall was unable to defend himself, so Verbiest took on that role. Showing that Schall had not made errors was easy for Verbiest but he admitted that Schall had shown Christian material to the Emperor. By the end of December 1664 all were found guilty. Schall was sentenced to death while Verbiest and two others were each sentenced to a hundred strokes of the cane and were banned from the Chinese court. They were saved, however, by a series of earthquakes which struck Beijing in April 1665 causing a fire at the Imperial Palace. This was seen as divine punishment for the verdicts and lighter sentences imposed. Several missionaries were exiled to Canton, but Verbiest was allowed to remain in Beijing. Schall died from his illness so his death penalty became meaningless.
Yang Guangxian now took over as Director of the Beijing Imperial Observatory and head of the Mathematical Tribunal. In 1667 Verbiest was put under house arrest but this gave him an opportunity to devote much time to working as a mathematician and astronomer. In 1668, however, he was given an opportunity to demonstrate his skills as a mathematician and astronomer at the Imperial Court. He was able to point to errors in the 1669 calendar which Yang Guangxian and his assistant had produced. Various tests were proposed all of which Verbiest passed with ease. In January 1669 he informed the court about further errors in their calendar and, after the instruments at the Beijing Imperial Observatory had been used to show he was correct, Verbiest was appointed Director of the Beijing Imperial Observatory and head of the Mathematical Tribunal. Things were now going in his favour, particularly since the regency had collapsed and in 1669 the Shunzhi Emperor's son, the fifteen year old Kangxi Emperor, was taking power.
Over the next few years Verbiest used his skills as a linguist (he spoke Manchu, Latin, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Tartar), as a mathematician, as an astronomer, and in other sciences to great effect. He became a tutor to the Kangxi Emperor teaching him geometry and, to help in this, he translated the first six books of Euclid into the Manchu language. He also taught the Kangxi Emperor philosophy and music. He explained Christian teachings to the Emperor and, as a consequence, the Emperor allowed him to preach Christianity in all regions under his rule. As Director of the Beijing Imperial Observatory he had it rebuilt in 1673 and had six new instruments built to his own design to replace the out-dated ones which were consigned to a museum. He produced a 16-volume work Disclosure on the Newly-Built Astronomical Instruments in the Observatory in 1674 describing the design, use, and function of the instruments. Joseph Brucker writes :-
The emperor requested the priest to construct instruments like those of Europe, and in May, 1674, Verbiest was able to present him with six, made under his direction: a quadrant, six feet in radius; an azimuth compass, six feet in diameter; a sextant, eight feet in radius; a celestial globe, six feet in diameter; and two armillary spheres, zodiacal and equinoctial, each six feet in diameter. These large instruments, all of brass and with decorations which made them notable works of art, were, despite their weight, very easy to manipulate, and a credit to Verbiest's mechanical skill as well as to his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. They are still in a perfect state of preservation ...Also in 1674 he produced A Map of the Whole World. Only a few copies survive, one of which is in the University of Glasgow's Hunterian Museum :-
'Kunyu Quantu' (A Map of the Whole World), by Ferdinand Verbiest, 1674, showing the two hemispheres of the world was designed for the Chinese Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) by the Jesuit Father Ferdinand Verbiest ... Printed from woodblocks, the map was part of a larger geographical work called 'Kunyu tushuo' (Illustrated Discussion of the Geography of the World), which included information on different lands as well as the physical map itself. Cartouches provide information on the size, climate, land-forms, customs and history of various parts of the world and details of natural phenomena such as eclipses and earthquakes. Columbus' discovery of America is also discussed. Images of ships, real and imaginary animals and sea creatures pepper both hemispheres, creating a visually stunning as well as historically important object.Verbiest was also an inventor with many remarkable ideas. His steam powered car was designed for the Kangxi Emperor and is described in . Here is the summary of that work:-
In the early 1670s, Ferdinand Verbiest, a Flemish Jesuit missionary in China and head of the observatory of Peking, built a small working model of a steam turbine-powered vehicle which he demonstrated at the Chinese imperial court and which may be considered as the oldest precursor of the automobile. From the design of the steam turbine and the arrangement of the power train of this vehicle, it appears that Verbiest was aware of the description of a steam turbine and a self-moving vehicle published in 1629 by the Italian architect and engineer Giovanni Branca (1571-1645).Lyman Horace Weeks writes in :-
The Verbiest model was for a four-wheeled carriage, on which an aeolipile was mounted with a pan of burning coals beneath it. A jet of steam from the aeolipile impinged upon the vanes of a wheel on a vertical axle, the lower end of the spindle being geared to the front axle. An additional wheel, larger than the supporting wheels, was mounted on an adjustable arm in a manner to adapt the vehicle to moving in a circular path. Another orifice in the aeolipile was fitted with a reed, so that the steam going through it imitated the song of a bird.In  Joseph Brucker discusses some of Verbiest's work for the Jesuit mission:-
In 1677 Father Verbiest was appointed vice provincial, i.e. superior of all the Jesuit missions of China. This nomination was a stimulus to seek new means of developing the work confided to his direction, with which object he addressed (15 August, 1678) a circular letter to all the members of his order in Europe. In it he set forth the hopes which more than ever were held out to the Faith in China, together with the impossibility for the missionaries taken in the field, with the fewness of their number and the inadequacy of their resources, to gather in all the harvest. He then urged his brethren in Europe by most touching arguments to come in as great numbers as possible to reinforce this body of overworked labourers, and also to procure for the mission the material resources necessary for founding new Christian communities, supporting catechists, establishing schools, etc. ... There is a memoir ... dated from Peking, 12 June, 1678 [in which Verbiest] energetically advocated the necessity of ordaining Chinese priests ... He desired that these Chinese priests might be allowed to say Mass and administer the sacraments in the Chinese language, which permission had been granted in principle by Paul V, as early as 1615. Among the things which Father Verbiest particularly recommend to Father Couplet, sent to Rome in 1680 as procurator of the missions of China, was a request for a confirmation of this permission. His gift to the pope of the Chinese translation of the Missal by Father Buglio was calculated to support this request, but Father Couplet's negotiations in this respect were without result.We should note that Verbiest always stressed the importance of missionaries becoming competent mathematicians and argued for improved mathematics teaching in European Jesuit colleges.
On 13 February 1687 Verbiest fell from his horse and had to spend a while in bed. This marked the start of a decline in his health. On 25 January 1688 he had a very high fever and he received the last rites on the following day. He died on 28 January 1688 and his funeral was held on 11 March. He was buried in the Zhalan Cemetery, Beijing. See THIS LINK.
His remarkable achievements have been recognised in a number of ways. The Chinese gave him the exceptional title "Learned and diligent" in an imperial decree of 19 May 1689. In more recent times a statue was erected in his home town of Pittem :-
On the market square of Pittem is a bronze statue of Ferdinand Verbiest. It represents Verbiest as a Chinese mandarin, sitting in a beautifully decorated seat. He's resting his head on his right hand while pointing with his left hand to a globe. The monument was made by sculptor Count Jacques de Lalaing and was inaugurated on 10 August 1913. It soon had to be hidden away to protect it from the "bronze hunger" of the German occupier. On 26 May 1940 the statue was slightly damaged by bomb shrapnel, and was restored in 1988 in the Sergeys bell foundry in Leuven.In 1982 the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation and the Ferdinand Verbiest Institute were founded. The Foundation:-
... promotes dialogue and cultural exchange with China. It engages in joint academic research with institutes in Chain and in Belgium. It cooperates with the Church in China in a spirit of Christian brotherhood and equality among particular Churches.The Ferdinand Verbiest Institute:-
... is a Belgium-based institute sponsored by the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation leuven and hosted by the Catholic University of Leuven and committed to the dialogue between Europe and China. The Institute was named after the Belgian Jesuit-astronomer at the Chinese court, Ferdinand Verbiest. Faithful to the inspiration of its patron, the Institute combines scholarly exchange with an active interest in the Church of China.
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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update September 2020
Last Update September 2020