Nicolaus Steno

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Nicolaus Steno, the portrait was made in Schwerin shortly before his death

Nicolaus Steno , also Nicolas Stenon ( latinization of Niels Stensen or Niels Steensen ; * January 1 July / January 11,  1638 greg. In Copenhagen , Kingdom of Denmark ; † November 25 July / December 5,  1686 greg. In Schwerin , Duchy of Mecklenburg ), was a Danish medic , anatomist and naturalist , later a Catholic priest and bishop . He is venerated as a blessed in the Roman Catholic Church . Wilhelm von Humboldt described him as the "father of geology ".

The polymath spoke eight languages. He learned the German language from friends and acquaintances of his parents . He learned the Latin , Greek , Hebrew and Arabic languages ​​in school. He later learned the Dutch , French , Italian and English languages.


Illustration of a shark's head in Stensen's treatise Canis carchariae dissectum caput (1667), in which he showed that the " tongue stones " are fossilized shark teeth

Niels Stensen, born in 1638 as the son of a goldsmith in Copenhagen and baptized Lutheran in the St. Nikolai Church , attended the Latin school at the Church of Our Lady in his hometown from 1648 to 1656 , which was then the most prestigious school in the country. This was followed by three years of medical studies at Copenhagen University at the age of 18 in 1656 . Study and lecture trips took him 1660–1665 a. a. to Rostock , Amsterdam (meeting with Baruch Spinoza and his philosophy), Leiden , Paris , Montpellier and Pisa . There he came into contact with the leading physicians of his time. Through his own research, he discovered the duct of the parotid gland in the section of a sheep's head as early as 1660 . His lectures and anatomical demonstrations made him famous all over Europe. In 1661 he wrote and defended his dissertation on the duct of the parotid gland that he had discovered. After learning of his stepfather's death in 1663, he returned to Copenhagen, where he published the book "Observations on Muscles and Glands" in Latin script, in which he demonstrated that the heart is a muscle. When his mother died soon afterwards, he left Copenhagen and went to Paris. During this time he was awarded the title of Doctor of Medicine by the University of Leiden in absentia.

In 1666 Steno traveled to Florence via Pisa and Rome . Ferdinand II of Medici made him his personal physician and generously supported his research activities. During this time his interest expanded to geological and paleontological topics. In 1668 he was accepted into the Florentine Accademia della Crusca .

At the same time, impressions in the Netherlands (fragmentation of the Reformed churches ) and Italy (1666 Corpus Christi procession in Livorno ) triggered an intensive study of theological questions. In November 1667 , Steno converted to the Catholic Church . Since then he has regularly participated in the church liturgy and deepened his personal prayer life. From 1668 Steno undertook a three-year geological research trip through southern Europe and finally returned to Florence. There he wrote his first theological writings. In 1672 he followed a call from the Danish king and returned to Copenhagen as a royal anatomist and university teacher. The denominational difference could not be bridged despite the good will of all those involved, and at the same time the desire to put oneself in the church service grew in shorthand. In 1674 he returned to Florence as tutor to the Hereditary Prince. The following year he asked to be ordained a priest . At Easter 1675 Stensen celebrated his first St. Mass and since then has worked at the Medici court as a pastor and confessor . According to contemporary witnesses, he did this here as at all other places of activity, with amiability and modesty, but also with clear demands on the way of life.

Episcopal coat of arms of Nicolaus Steno

Duke Johann Friedrich , who had also converted to Catholicism in Italy, resided in Hanover since 1665 . After Valerio Maccioni's death, he asked Pope Innocent XI. 1677 about the posting of stenos to Hanover. On September 19, 1677, Niels Stensen received the episcopal ordination as titular bishop of Titiopolis by Cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo in Rome and was sent as apostolic vicar for the scattered remnants of Catholic communities in northern Germany and Scandinavia ( Apostolic Vicariate of the North ) based in Hanover. Here he met u. a. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz , who admired him as a scientist, but felt his religious attitude to be rigid. When Duke Johann Friedrich died in December 1679 and his brother, who was again a Lutheran, took control of Hanover, the Nordic vicariate in the city lost support. The Bishopric of Paderborn headed at that time Ferdinand von Furstenberg , who is also Bishop of Munster was. He asked Rome to send Stensen to Münster as auxiliary bishop and head of pastoral care.

From 1680–1683 Stensen tried to organize the spiritual life of clergy and lay people in Münster and to overcome lack of discipline and purchase of offices. The office of monastery dean at St. Ludgeri , whose income was supposed to secure his livelihood, he gave back after a year because he believed he could not do it justice. Personally, Stensen now became even more ascetic . What he demanded of clerical officials, he showed by way of example through his own way of life. This contradicted the lifestyle of the higher clergy, who often came from the nobility, and became a living reproach.

When, after the death of Ferdinand von Fürstenberg, Maximilian Heinrich von Bayern took his fifth bishopric instead of a pastor bishop for Münster , after 60,000 Reichstaler bribes to the cathedral chapter had secured him this election, Stensen protested publicly and left Münster on September 1, 1683. He left to Hamburg , where he was accepted in the house of the Dutch anatomist Theodor Kerckring to serve the local Catholic community. There, too, he encountered strong tensions and fierce resistance against the foreign admonisher and arbitrator.

In 1685 he was finally called to Schwerin . As a simple priest without episcopal insignia, he looked after the small community. Here too there were disappointments.

Altar with tomb of Nicolas Steno in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence

After a five-week biliary illness associated with severe colic , Niels Stensen died at the age of 48 in Schwerin. The prayer has been handed down as his last word: Jesus, sis mihi Jesus - "Jesus, be me savior". His Hamburg friend Kerckring had his body embalmed on behalf of the Tuscan Grand Duke and transported by ship to Livorno . He was buried in a chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence.

Three hundred years later, on October 23, 1988, Nicolaus Steno was beatified by Pope John Paul II at the decisive instigation of Bishop Heinrich Theissing , the Apostolic Administrator of Schwerin . His ecclesiastical feast day is November 25th.

Stensen's veneration, which continues to this day, is based on his lack of scientific prejudice and sharpness of observation as well as on the great patience and perseverance with which he fulfilled his religious mission under internal and external church difficulties and in increasing loneliness.

Scientific work

Steno became known for his independent study of nature and the renunciation of the appeal to traditional authorities. The contemporary scientific works published in Latin always bore his Latinized name Nicolaus Stenonis ( Gen. Nicolai ). The error that in later times the surname Stenonis was also regarded as the genitive of Steno was explained by John G. Winter in an introduction to the English edition of Steno's main work De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus (1669). Instead, the genitive appears through the Latinization of the Danish name Stensen; because this means something like "son of Sten", in Latin filius Stenonis or shortened Stenonis . Stensen signed Nicolaus Stenonis in the traditional manuscripts . The shortening of the name to “Steno” can only be traced back to later editions of the work in various languages, but is now in common use.


Title page of De solido

Steno was the first to examine and describe the lacrimal and salivary glands of the human body and differentiate glands from lymph nodes . He described the duct system of the parotid gland , the parotid duct . This is also referred to by clinicians as the “ductus stenonianus” (“Stensen's duct”, “Stenon's duct”).


In the study of quartz Steno discovered the law of the angle Konstanz , so the fact that the surfaces of the crystals are always at the same angle to each other, regardless of their size or shape. He then suggested that this is a property of all mineral crystals and thus laid the groundbreaking foundation for modern crystallography .

Geology and paleontology

The insight into the biological origin of the fossils as the remains of living beings goes back to Steno , which until then had been considered natural rock outgrowths ( Lusus naturae ). With his work Canis carchariae dissectum caput , published in 1667 , he proved that the so-called "tongue stones" are in fact fossilized shark teeth .

With the " Stratigraphic Basic Law " (also "Storage Law"), Steno made a central contribution to the development of geology . In his most important work, De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus (forerunner of a treatise on solids that are enclosed in solids in nature), he was the first to develop a scientifically based theory on the formation of sedimentary rocks . According to Steno, the rocks formed as horizontally stored layers of material deposited in the water. The layers are deposited on top of one another ( superposition principle ). Steno thus recognized that the age of a sediment layer decreases towards the top, as younger layers are always deposited on older ones. The existence of sedimentary rocks with up to vertically extending layering and great upheavals Steno stated correctly by deformations , which after having been the formation of the rock had.

Church aftermath

In the north German Catholic diaspora , Niels Stensen was rediscovered after a long oblivion in the 20th century. The "Niels-Stensen-Kloster" was built in Worphausen near Bremen in the 1960s. However, it was never used as such, but served for decades as a Catholic educational institution under the name “Niels-Stensen-Haus”. When the Diocese of Hildesheim gave up the educational facility in 2007, the anthroposophical foundation “Living and Working”, which specializes in educational and social therapy , took over most of the facility. Other educational and recreational facilities also bear his name. The Catholic Youth Hamburg runs the Niels-Stensen-Haus in Wentorf near Hamburg . The first parish that was named after Stensen is the parish of Niels Stensen in Grevesmühlen (Mecklenburg). In the 1980s, a street in Schwerin - at that time the GDR district capital - was named after Niels Stensen.

In the diocese of Münster , a stele on the Alt-St.-Clemens-Kirche in Münster-Hiltrup has been reminding of shorthand since 1988 . A parish in the diocese has been named after him since 2006. It emerged from the merger of the parishes of Lengerich , Ladbergen , Lienen and Tecklenburg and with 8,700 Christians and 300 square kilometers is the largest parish in the diocese of Münster. In addition, in the west of Münster, Niels-Stensen-Strasse near the university hospital was named after Steno.

Since 2008, a network of church hospitals and affiliated facilities in the Osnabrück region has been called Niels-Stensen-Kliniken . He is also the namesake of the Niels Stensen care center in Ankum .


Steno Museum

A museum in Aarhus is dedicated to the life and work of the polymath and "father of geology" . It was founded in 1993 by Olaf Pedersen , professor of the history of science at Aarhus University .


  • Observationes anatomicae (1662)
  • De musculis et glandis (1664)
  • Discours sur l'anatomie du cerveau (1665)
  • Canis carchariae dissectum caput (1667)
  • Elementorum Myologiae Specimen, seu musculi descriptio geometrica. Cui accedunt canis carchariae dissectum caput, et dissectus piscis ex canum genere (Florence 1667)
  • De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus (1669)
    • The feast within the feast: precursor to a treatise on feasts that are naturally included in other feasts. Edited by Gustav Scherz, Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft 1967 (in the Ostwalds Klassiker series )
  • Prodromus (1671)


  • Max Bierbaum, Adolf Faller , Josef Traeger : Niels Stensen. Anatomist, geologist and bishop. 1638-1686. 3. Edition. Aschendorff, Münster 1989, ISBN 3-402-05103-6 .
  • Alan Cutler: The shell on the mountain. About Nicolaus Steno and the beginnings of geology. Albrecht Knaus Verlag, Munich 2004, ISBN 3-8135-0188-4 .
  • Christof DahmStensen, Nils. In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). Volume 10, Bautz, Herzberg 1995, ISBN 3-88309-062-X , Sp. 1343-1349.
  • Jörg Ernesti : Three bishops - one will to reform. A new look at Ferdinand von Fürstenberg (1626–1683) and his relationship with Christoph Bernhard von Galen and Niels Stensen. In: Westphalia. History, art and folklore books. 83: 49-59 (2005).
  • Franz Heinrich ReuschSteno, Nicolaus . In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB). Volume 36, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1893, pp. 51-53.
  • Troes Kardel, Paul Maquet (Ed.): Nicolaus Steno. Biography and Original Papers of a 17th century scientist. Springer, 2013.
  • Catholic Academy Hamburg (ed.): Niels Stensen. Belief + knowledge unity or contradiction? Catholic Academy Hamburg, Hamburg 1986.
  • Dagmar Röhrlich : primeval sea. The origin of life. Mare Verlag, Hamburg 2012, ISBN 978-3-866-48123-7 (with detailed descriptions of Nicolaus Steno).
  • Gustav Scherz (Ed.): Steno. Geological Papers. Odense University Press, 1969.
  • Hans Seifert: Nicolaus Steno as a pioneer of modern crystallography. In: Sudhoffs Archiv 38, 1954, pp. 29–47.
  • Frank Sobiech: Heart, God, Cross. The spirituality of the anatomist, geologist and Bishop Dr. med. Niels Stensen (1638-86) (=  Westfalia sacra. Volume 13). Münster 2004, ISBN 3-402-03842-0 .
  • Frank Sobiech: Niels Stensen (1638–1686) and mining. His journey through Tyrol, Lower Hungary, Bohemia and Central Germany 1669–1670 reflected in his theology. In: Wolfgang Ingenhaeff, Johann Bair (Hrsg.): Mining and religion. Black silver. 6th International Congress of Mining and Mining History Schwaz 2007. Proceedings. Berenkamp, ​​Innsbruck 2008, ISBN 978-3-85093-237-0 , pp. 287-304.
  • Frank Sobiech: Radius in manu Dei. Ethos and bioethics in the work and reception of the anatomist Niels Stensen (1638–1686) (=  Westfalia sacra. Volume 17). 2nd Edition. Aschendorff, Münster 2014, ISBN 978-3-402-15496-0 .
  • Frank Sobiech:  Stensen, Niels. In: New German Biography (NDB). Volume 25, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-428-11206-7 , pp. 251-253 ( digitized version ).
  • Hermann Tertsch : Niels Stensen and crystallography. In: Acta historica Scientiarum Naturalium et Medicinalium. Vol. 15 (1958), pp. 120-139.
  • Hermann Wieh: Niels Stensen - who is that? Verlag Dom Buchhandlung, Osnabrück 2009, ISBN 978-3-925164-49-1 .
  • Hermann Wieh: Niels Stensen. His life in documents and pictures. Echter, Würzburg 1988, ISBN 3-429-01165-5 .

Web links

Commons : Nicolaus Steno  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Westfälische Nachrichten : Universal scholar and auxiliary bishop: Niels Stensen (1638–1686) was born 375 years ago: His career from anatomist to medicine to the exemplary church man. On Red Earth: Homeland Papers for Münster and the Münsterland, February 2013, Otto-Ehrenfried Selle, February 15, 2013
  2. digital copy ; the illustration came from the Metallotheca Vaticana by Michele Mercati (1541–1593) ( digitized ), which was only published in 1717 .
  3. ^ Membership list of the Crusca
  4. The word refers to the derivation of the name Yehoshua from jašaʿ (“to save”), which was undisputed in Stensen's time and which is assumed by Mt 1,21  EU .
  5. ^ A b John Garrett Winter: The Prodromus of Nicolaus Steno's dissertation. Macmillan Company, New York 1916, p. 175 (Literal quote: “Niels Steensen, the Danish form of the name, in accordance with the learned custom of his day was Latinized by its bearer as Nicolaus Stenonis. The current form, Steno, is due to the mistaken idea that Stenonis was a genitive case. ")
  6. Max-Joseph Kraus: Niels Stensen in Leiden. Munich, GRIN Verlag, 1999.
  7. Peter Reuter: Springer Lexicon Medicine. Springer, Berlin a. a. 2004, ISBN 3-540-20412-1 , p. 524.
  8. Life and Work Foundation