The unusual image of a "wax nose" has been used in a few different ways, to describe some sort of "twisting" of the meaning of Scripture. It appears to have been used by both Protestants and Catholics, with different intent. For example, John Calvin attributes the phrase to (unnamed) Catholics apparently describing their own method of exegesis,

Against opposing arguments they will set up this brazen wall: Who are you to question the interpretation of the Church? This, no doubt, is what they mean by a saying common among them, in that Scripture is a nose of wax, because it can be formed into all shapes. 1

Was this really a common saying? What did they mean by it - and is it the same as what Calvin wants them to mean?

1. John Calvin. Acta synodi Tridentinae cum antidoto (Geneva, 1547). Antidote to the fourth session. "Adversus contrarios rationes hic oppositus erit muris aheneus: Tu quis es, qui ecclesiae interpretationi obstrepis? Hoc scilicet est, quod vulgari proverbio inter se praedicant: Scripturam esse nasum caereum; quia converti possit in omnes formas." English translation by Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851).


This was a common image from at least the eleventh century onwards, but it did not always mean the same thing. In particular, Calvin is taking the least favourable possible meaning, out of all those ever used by his opponents. I will now explain everything in tediously footnoted detail.

The root image of the wax nose comes from the use of wax to make prostheses. Wax is cheap, malleable, and is not too different from the typical range of European skin colours. This had been common since the classical era, and Petrarch (1303-1374) includes wax noses among the common prosthetic devices of his time1.

In connection to the earliest usages of the wax nose simile, it can be noted that a wax nose is a pretty low-class sort of prosthesis. Although skin diseases were abundant in all strata of society, rich people might make use of precious metals (as with the golden nose of Justinian II, the original having been amputated after his deposition in 695). Even the less wealthy might have noses of leather or wood. Loss of the nose might also be the result of punishment for crime, including adultery. All of these factors suggest that the possessor of the proverbial wax nose is likely to be of low status2.

We may distinguish two cases of wax-nose-twisting language:

  1. Your wax nose is tweaked by somebody else - invariably a bad thing.
  2. You twist your own nose however you want - which may be good or bad.

The earliest sense is the former, where the nose is meant to represent the law. Our oldest citation is from the Chronica Boemorum by Cosmas of Prague (c.1045-1125), which describes how Henry III (1017-1056) in the year 1040 tried to collect more tax from the Bohemians than the law seemed to permit; when they protested, he apparently said:

He who rules the laws is not ruled by them: for the law, as the common people say, has a nose of wax, while the king has an iron hand and a long one, so that he can twist it however he likes3.

In later Germanic usage, the wax nose of the law was a common image5. An example is a Middle High German poem by Oswald von Wolkenstein (1376-1445), comparing the law to a wax nose that may be twisted about just as freely as a hound runs to and fro7. But the most famous and influential occurrence was in the Ship of Fools (Das Narrenschiff or Stultifera Navis) of Sebastian Brandt (1457-1521), a political-religious satire; the law is compared to a wax nose in chapter 71 8. We will shortly return to the commentary by Johann Geiler von Keysersberg (1445-1510), which develops the theme and was an influence on Martin Luther and other key figures of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

The second sense above - you get to reshape your own nose - is first attested in the philosophical writing of Alain of Lille (1116-1202). His De Fide Catholica includes two defenses of the immortality of the soul, the first of which draws from the authority of Greek philosophers. In the linking passage, he asserts that such authority has a nose of wax, and can be made to mean whatever we want, it must be strengthened by the use of reason 9. It is possible that the wax, for him, is meant to be analogous to the Platonic primordial matter of the Timaeus, called ἐκμαγεῖον (a substance that can receive an image) and μαλακῶν (a soft material) in 50c2, 50e8 respectively10. The idea that wax can take any image is analogous to the way that anything can be written on paper; these images were combined in a poem of Bruno von Schönebeck (fl. 1275). The poem explicitly references Scripture, comparing it to a wax nose because of the whitish-yellow colour of paper, and the fact that either one can take on any image ("etslich bilde") one cares to impose11. Boccaccio (1313-1375) also compares the many possible sense of Scripture to the proverbial wax nose, in his commentary on the many senses of Dante's Divine Comedy 12. There are many other contemporary uses of the proverb, across Europe13, 14.

The usage of Boccaccio is an example of the "good" kind of twisting your own nose. The so-called "four senses" of Scripture (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical) were greatly in vogue in popular preaching, and the Bible was presented as a sort of miraculous treasure chest. A related metaphor is the egg, which may be cooked in many ways; or the sheath which can contain any sword15. There is some suspicion about whether theologians are justified in their wax-twisting, for example from Erasmus (1466-1536) 16. Geiler's commentary on the Ship of Fools contains a defense of his preaching against the charge that he can twist too many meanings out of a single passage, as if he were twisting a wax nose to suit himself 17. In another sermon, he endorses the "four senses" to which Scripture may be turned, like a wax nose, whereas other writings are less fruitful 18. But some of Geiler's sermons use the metaphor in a different way, to emphasize the danger of private interpretation, absent the authority of the Church. This is the provocative usage for the Reformers.

In the Reformation era, we see just about everyone, on all sides, using the wax nose metaphor against their opponents. The Catholic usage follows that of Geiler (and indeed Alain of Lille) in asserting Church authority to extract the correct meanings from the Bible - anyone else can only read their own meaning into the text. Protestants were furious at this apparent disrespect to Scripture, drawing on the original Germanic tradition where the nose-twisting is due to unjust exercise of personal power over the law (sense 1 above, rather than the intended sense 2). So Martin Luther writes,

So we see how neatly the Romanists deal with the Scripture, making of it just what they want, as if it were a wax nose, that one can pull this way and that. 19

just as Calvin repeated in sermon after sermon20. On the other hand, when Willem van der Lindt (1525-1588) uses the wax nose metaphor, he accepts it as "true" that Scripture is malleable, but blames Luther, Calvin, Bugenhagen et al. for their incorrect twisting21.

But in fact, there were comparatively few on the Catholic side who endorsed Scripture as lacking any fixed structure at all. Indeed, there is really just one person who was continually quoted, Albertus Pighius (1490-1542). For example, John Jewel (1522-1571) in his Apology of the Church of England rails against those who say that Scripture is a dead letter, malleable, uncertain, useless, and worst of all, a wax nose; and it's Pighius who is cited for these opinions22 - specifically, his tract on ecclesiastical hierarchy23, though other writings repeat the assertion in broadly the same terms. This is the position against which Calvin was arguing, in the original question which by now is long forgotten. The rhetorical culture of the controversialists of the time allowed the nasal metaphor to be greatly exaggerated. In effect, even "harmless" occurrences of the wax nose metaphor were tainted by its use in more extreme writings.

To summarize: not everyone who describes Scripture as a wax nose is being disrespectful. They may only mean that many true ideas can be drawn from it. They do not necessarily mean to endorse the tyrannical reinterpretation of the Bible, but only to warn against inexpert eisegesis, abandonment of traditional wisdom, or of the Church itself (outside of which they believed there to be no guarantee of wisdom). That doesn't mean that the Church gets to do whatever it likes, with impunity. Equally, the Protestant assertion isn't that every believer can legitimately twist the Bible to suit themselves - it's that the ability to draw correct conclusions from the Bible isn't limited to those who are endorsed by the ecclesiastical establishment.

1. In De remediis utriusque fortunae, Petrarch writes in section 2.93, De tristitia et miseria: "Denique modis sese omnibus adiuvat, attollitque, quin amissis artubus, pedes ligneos, manus ferreas, nasos caereos, fabricari didicit, et fortunas casibus obstare."
2. Giorgio Sperati. Amputation of the nose throughout history. Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica 29(1):44-50, February 2009.
3. Chronica Boemorum, book 2, chapter 8; p94, lines 11-14 of Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores (Nova Series), vol. 2 (Berlin, 1923). My translation of: "Nam qui regunt leges, non reguntur legibus, quia lex, ut aiunt vulgo, cereum habet nasum et rex ferream manum et longam, ut eam flectere queat, quo sibi placet." See also references 4-6 below.
4. J. H. Burns. The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, c.350 - c.1450 (Cambridge University Press, 1988). Wax nose on p251.
5. Peter Dronke. A History of Twelfth-Century Western Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1988). Wax nose on pages 7-8 and 442, further citing Shippey (6, below) and many of the other sources I have listed.
6. Tom Shippey. London Review of Books, 27 October 1988, p16. Indicates the use by Cosmas of Prague.
7. Oswald von Wolkenstein. Mich frâgt ain Ritter ân gever. Lines 122-125 of the poem read: "Das recht hat gar ain wãxe nas / Es lât sich piegen als der has, / sô in der hund pringt in den wangk / nur hin und her stêt sein gedanck." No. 26 of the "Historische Gedichte" in Beda Weber, Die Gedichte Oswalds von Wolkenstein (Innsbruck, 1847) = No. 118 in Josef Schatz, Die Gedichte Oswalds von Wolkenstein (Göttingen, 1904).
8. Sebastian Brandt. Das Narrenschiff (Basel, 1494). The text in Johann Scheible's Das Kloster, weltlich und geistlich (Stuttgart, 1845), volume 1, reads: "Verlossend sich, das sie das recht / Wol bugen, das es nit blib schlecht, / Als ob es wer eyn wachsin naß".
9. Alain of Lille. De Fide Catholica Contra Haereticos. Book 4, chapter 30. In Migne, Patrologia Latina vol. 201, 305C-322A at 333C. "Sed quia auctoritas cereum habet nasum, id est diversum potest flecti sensum, rationibus roborandum est."
10. Nikolaus Häring. Commentaries on Boethius by Thierry of Chartres and his school (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1966), p76ff, quoting Thierry's comparison of Plato's ylem to wax, "for what exists in potentiality can be bent to this and to that".
11. Bruno von Schönebeck. Das Hohe Lied. Lines 960-967 (or 1063-1070 in the alternative numbering) read: "von der schrift ist noch me gelesen: / di schrift hat eine wechsene nesen. / daz wachs ist gel var und ouch wiz, / als daz wachs behende is mit vliz / zu nemen an sich etslich bilde, / iz si ru zam adir wilde, / also nimpt di schrift an sich / itslich bilde daz sage ich".
12. Giovanni Boccaccio. Espozioni sopra la Commedia di Dante (1373). The commentary on Inferno 7, in 2.172, says "Ora si suole interno a queste esposizioni spesse volte dire per i laici, La Scrittura avere il naso di cera."
13. Thesaurus proverbiorum medii aevi (de Gruyter, 1999). Volume 8, p414ff.
14. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. Deutsches Wörterbuch. Citations under "Wachs".
15. For example, Francis Coster (1532-1619) in his Enchiridion controversiarum praecipuarum nostri temporis de Religione (Cologne, 1585), chapter 1, compares Scripture to a sheath that can contain swords of many possible materials, but only the Church knows which one is the true sword. "Illa vero cum scripta sit Spiritu Dei vivi, in cordibus vivis Ecclesiae, truncari & torquerise non sinit, sed sui per omnia similis perseverat. Proinde hoc est instar vaginae, quae quemlibet gladium admittit, non modo chalybeum, sed etiam plumbeum, ligneum, aereum: patitur enim sequavis interpretatione trahi. Illa autem retinet in vagina verum gladium, nimirum genuinum sensum scripturae in cortice literae, quia non in solis characteribus, sed in sensu cernitur Dei verbum."
16. Erasmus of Rotterdam. Μωρίας Εγκώμιον / Laus stultitiae (1511). "Iam illud quantae felicitatis esse putatis, dum arcanas litteras, perinde quasi cereae sint, pro libidine formant ac reformant."
17. Commentary reproduced in Scheible (see reference 8). On Brandt's chapter 11, Geiler writes: "Als da sein etlich, die sprechen, lieber, was sagst mir vil von der Heiligen geschrifft, sie ist gleich als ein wächsene naß, man mag sie auff alle ding leiten unnd formieren, dann auff disen, dann auff jenen, sie nennt doch niemandt mit dem nammen: was sagst vil, die Pfaffen haben gut sagen daruon, sie haben alles was sie wöllen von der Heiligen geschrift, es wirdt ihnen dardurch kisten und keller gefült."
18. Johann Geiler von Keysersberg. Predigt von den drei Marien. "Einer spricht, die heilige geschrifft ist wie ein wechseni nas, man bügt es war man wil. Du sagst war, sie ist also fruchtbar das vier sententz in ir erlüchten, das in andern geschrifften nit ist." See C. Schmidt, Histoire littéraire de l'Alsace à la fin du XVe et au commencement du XVIe siècle (1879), vol. 1, p423.
19. Martin Luther. Werke 1.343.28 (1520). "Also sehen wir wie fein die Romanisten mit der schrifft handeln, machen drauß was sie nur wollen, als were sie ein wechsern nasen, die man hyn und her zihen mocht." My translation.
20. See many examples in Richard Stauffer, Dieu, la création et la Providence dans la prédication de Calvin (Peter Lang, 1978). Vol. 33 of Basler und Berner Studien zur historischen und systematischen Theologie.
21. William Damasus Lindanus (Willem van der Lindt). Panoplia evangelica (Cologne, 1560). "Scripturae testimoniae (quae, ut vulgo videre est, ob facilem ipsius in varias sententiarum formas flexum, recte naso fui aßilimata cereo)".
22. John Jewel. Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae (1562). "Itaque sacrosanctas scripturas, quas Servator nostra Jesus Christus non tantum in omni sermone usurpavit, sed etiam ad extremum sanguine suo consignavit, quo populum ab illis, tanquam a re periculosa et noxia, minore negotio abigant, solent literam frigidam, incertam, inutilem, mutam, occiden- tem, mortuam appellare; quod nobis quidem perinde videtur esse ac si cas omnino nullas esse dicerent. Sed addunt etiam simile quoddam non aptis- simum; eas esse quodammodo nasum cereum, posse fingi flectique in omnes modos, et omnium instituto inservire. An pontifex ista a suis dici nescit? aut tales se habere patronos non intelligit?"
23. Albertus Pighius. Hierarchica Ecclesiastica (1538), 3.3. "Sunt enim illae ut non minus vere quam festive dixit quidam, velut nasus cereus, qui se horsum, illorsum, et in quam volueris partem trahi, retrahi, fingique facile permittit, et tanquam plumbea quaedam Lesbiae aedificationis regula, quam non sit difficile accommodare ad quidvis volueris."

  • You may have found your task to be tedious (particularly the footnotes), but it did not go unnoticed. Great job! Don Sep 27 '13 at 22:34

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