Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

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O: Modern Western Constellations

31: The eclipse (Late Middle Ages) and restoration (Late Renaissance) of Aratea

The replacement of Aratea by Michael Scotus

The constellation figures Eridanus and Orion illustrated by Michael Scotus. Both figures show influence by Romanesque and Germanic (Gothic) forms.

The constellation figure Orion illustrated in the Leiden Aratea. This figure shows the Aratean tradition of constellation illustration. In the Leiden Aratea, a 9th-century Latin version of the Phaenomena, some constellations are depicted as they are seen in the sky, and others as seen on a globe, apparently at random. In many of the more symmetrical constellations (such as Cancer, the crab), it is not possible to tell whether the globe or sky view is being presented, as the random distribution of stars offers no indication. The term Aratea (or Aratea carmina/Carmina Aratea) basically refers to 3 classical Latin translations; those of Cicero, Germanicus, and Avienus. In their use of Latin vocabulary and references to Roman life all 3 were distinctly Roman Phaenomena. (See: Lewis, Anne-Marie. (1983, unpublished PhD thesis). From Aratus to the Aratus Latinus: A Comparative Study of Latin Translation.) These surviving Aratea were gradually joined by multiple medieval renderings of Aratus' Phaenomena. The term Aratea now applies to a body of texts that comprise more than 60 manuscripts (and ilustrations). The Aratea was almost the only source for medieval readers to gain information about stellar astronomy.

During the 13th-century a new tradition of constellation imagery was introduced based on Latin translations/knowledge of Arabic texts describing the Ptolemaic constellations.

The works of Michael Scotus (Scot) on the constellations, and his manner of illustrating them, caused a lengthy eclipse of Aratea during the latter Middle Ages. Michael Scotus' popular handbook for lay-people, Liber introductorius (circa mid 13th-century) formed the basis of one of the most popular traditions of constellation iconography of the 14th and 15th centuries, particularly in Italy and German lands. Scot also introduced some new constellations, perhaps taken from Arabic sources.

During the 13th-century the revival of European interest in astrology saw new images of the planets devised. The most influential of these were the illustrations devised by Michael Scotus and included in his astrological treatise Liber introductorius. These were based on Arabic interpretations of the classical gods. Scotus' planet iconography was used by the painter Giotto in his frescoes in the Salone in Padua. (Also, the constellation iconography was not closely aligned to Aratean tradition.)

In the 15th-century, the majority of the manuscripts referring to the constellations are astrological in content and included mostly the constellation illustrations devised by Michael Scotus. The constellation illustrations had little astronomical reality and were being used to show the details that were supposed to be important for their astrological interpretation.

Prior to the mid 15th-century star maps tended to be used to illustrate text in books. Free-standing celestial images were quite rare (and accuracy was usually sacrificed for art). During the Middle Ages pictures appeared illustrating the individual constellations. In these illustrations the classical constellations were separated from the celestial globe and also the individual constellation stars were often omitted. (The astrologer Michael Scot (Scotus), a contemporary of Peter of Abano (circa 1250-1310), included constellation figures in the margins of his 2-volume book on astronomy/astrology.) In the high Middle Ages, unlike the previous periods, the ancient constellation figures were transformed by illuminators to an almost unrecognisable degree. Traditional (classical) constellation representation (per the pseudo-classical Carolingian forms) was influenced by Romanesque and Germanic (Gothic) forms (and also Graeco-Arabic forms). (The end result was the classical subject matter was divorced from its classical form.) The height of this transformation of classical constellation representation occurred during the 13th-century.

In England the school of astrology under the leadership of the mathematician, philosopher, and scholar Michael Scotus (Scot) (born circa 1175 - died circa 1234/5) replaced the Aratean tradition almost completely. His book Liber de signis (containing a section on the constellations) set out a new set of constellations that differed from the set of 48 Ptolemaic constellations. Others imitated his new scheme of constellations. For example he was followed by Bartholomew of Parma in his Breviloquium de fructu tocius astronomie. (Bartholomew of Parma flourished circa late 13th-century and early 14th-century. Parma is a city in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.) This new constellation set appears to have originated from 12th-century CE elaborations of literal translations of Islamic-Arabic texts (on astrology).

For his new constellations Michael Scotus borrowed from Arab-Islamic sources images of the constellations that had their origins in the Sphaera Barbarica. (Especially the decans and paranatellons.) The art historian Fritz Saxl, under the influence of Aby Warburg, believed he had shown that the representations of the planetary gods in the works of Michael Scotus can be traced back through Arab-Islamic sources to ancient Babylonian sources. Basically, Saxl argued that the Arab-Islamic figures of the planets reflect the Babylonian gods: Nebo (= Mercury), Ishtar (= Venus), Ninib (= Mars), Marduk (= Jupiter), and Nergal (= Saturn). The transmission of an uninterrupted textual transmission was made possible by the survival, in certain isolated districts of Mesopotamia, of groups that invoked the Babylonian planetary gods and venerated their images, such as the Harranite Sabeans. Planetary illustrations in Arab-Islamic manuscripts match the planetary effigies which adorned Harranite sanctuaries. (The Harran region encompassed southeastern Anatolia and northern Syria.) The Arab-Islamic book the Picatrix, which was an essential intermediary in the transmission of Babylonian planetary figures, was a translation of the 11th-century CE book on magic, the Ghâya. The Picatrix, likely written circa 1200 CE, was translated in to Latin and was well known in Western Europe. The book had a major influence on magical thinking in Western Europe, especially from circa 1400 to circa 1600.

The illustrations introduced by Michael Scotus were an attempt at adaptation and fusion; an effort to make European forms out of the astral gods/goddesses of ancient Babylon. In this they shown the influence of Romanesque and Germanic (Gothic) forms.

Michael Scotus was both a translator (Toledo) and an original writer (court of Frederick II). The investigation of his life and scholarly achievements remains in its early stages yet. Scotus' life was divided between translations and original works. During the mid 1220s Scotus enjoyed the patronage of the popes Honorius III and Gregory IX. Beginning no later than 1228 and until his death circa1234/5, he was active in the court of Frederick II.

Michael Scotus, who (as the surname signifies) was born in Scotland, lived mostly in France, Spain, and Sicily. In 1230 he visited Oxford, England where he had spent time studying as a young student. In his illustrations of the constellations he combined Graeco-Arabic and mythological imagery with Latin Aratean tradition. His illustrations of constellations supplanted the classical types of the Carolingian tradition. His work on the illustration of the constellation figures was very influential until the Renaissance period. Also, Michael Scotus undoubtedly had access to earlier, popular star lore. (During the Middle Ages in Western Europe classical mythological subjects were not usually represented within the limits of the classical style. The artistic forms under which classical concepts were continued during the Middle Ages were utterly different from the classical style.) During the Gothic period in Europe (circa 1100-1450 CE) there was a disinterest in illuminated astrological manuscripts.

It is probable that Michael Scotus (a polymath) was the finest intellect at the court of Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) in Palermo, Sicily. He was a dominant figure among the scholars at Emperor Frederick II's court even though his career there lasted for only about 4 years. He had gone there circa 1200 in the role of "court astrologer" after being enticed by the Norman king Frederick II to join his court in Sicily. (There is little evidence for Fredrick II having an interest in astrology. The title of Imperial Astrologer was given to Michael Scotus in the colophon to his Astronomia. Emperor Frederic II and his court in Southern Italy were renowned for promoting the sciences. In the Medieval period of Western Europe royal courts were the centre of literary production.) Michael Scotus then left (circa 1209) to work at the great Arab translation centre in Toledo (Spain) and then returned again to Sicily circa 1220. He came there as a translator of Arabic texts, doctor, astronomer, alchemist, and astrologer. On his return he gave his attention to science and medicine. He remained there until his death. (He died when some church masonry fell on him.) Though Frederick II was the ruler of both Germany and Sicily he preferred to live in Sicily. In 1220 he acquired the title of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It was in Sicily at this period that tolerance enabled the coexistence of European and Arab scholars. Arab scholars worked in Sicily.

The astrological text written by Michael Scotus (and containing his illustrations of the constellations) was widely copied throughout the late medieval period. In the 15th-century most manuscripts referring to the constellations are astrological. The constellation illustrations in these mostly follow those devised by Michael Scot. Also, the constellation illustrations show details that are important for their astrological interpretation. However, by 1500 this text seems to have become somewhat forgotten. (But, it appears that in the early 1500s the most readily available pictorial source for constellation illustration was Michael Scotus-based illustrations.) His texts include: Liber introductorius, Liber particularis, Liber phisionomie [the short title of this medical treatise is: Physionomia], and Liber de signis. In his two later books which followed Astronomia, the Liber introductorius (written at the request of Frederick II) and the Liber particularis, he set out a popular exposition of both astrology and astronomy. (In the Liber introductorius he included pictures of the signs of the zodiac of the Sphaera Barbarica.) The extraordinary increase in the prestige of astrology in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages was due to the introduction of Arab-Islamic philosophy and science into Sicily and Spain.

The early parts of his Liber introductorius, most ambitious book, are concerned with astronomy, but lead to astrology. The figures of the constellations and planets in the illustrated Munich manuscript (Munich, cod. lat. 10268, 14th-/15th-century, held in the Staatsbibliothek) and the illustrated Oxford manuscript (Oxford, MS. Bodley 266, held in the Bodleian Library), both incomplete, represent an antique tradition which is attributed by Franz Boll to the scholia of Germanicus.   

It is worth noting that a series of astrological pictures in Liber introductorius were identified by both Franz Boll and Fritz Saxl as a (further) development away from the the classical tradition of the Germanicus-Aratus manuscripts. A number of the astrological pictures are considered to be largely the work of Michael Scotus himself, or his particular alterations. (A 14th-century manuscript at Basle (F.II.33, fols. 37v-41r) carries the break by Michael Scotus with the Germanicus-Aratus tradition even further.) Michael Scotus' constellation iconography in Liber introductorius has similarities with the manuscript Madrid 19. It was Georg Thiele (Antike Himmelsbilder, 1898) who first identified the 12th-century CE manuscript Madrid 19 (Manuscript Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Ms 19) as the direct source for Michael Scotus' Liber de signis. As Thiele rightly identified, there is evidence that Michael Scotus knew at least some parts of Madrid 19, and similar manuscripts.


Ackermann, Silke. "Empirie oder Theorie? Der Fixsternkatalog des Michael Scotus." In: Convegno storico internazionale, 31st, Todi, 1994. Federico II e le nuove culture. Atti del XXXI Convegno storico internazionale, Todi, 9-12 ottobre 1994. Spoleto, Centro italiano di studi sull'Alto Medioevo, 1995, pages 287-302.

Ackermann, Silke. "Bartholomew of Parma, Michael Scot and the set of new constellations in Bartholomew's Breviloquium de fructu totius astronomie." In: Seventh Centenary of the Teaching of Astronomy in Bologna, 1297-1997. Proceedings of the meeting held in Bologna at the Accademia delle Scienze on June 21, 1997. Edited by Pierluigi Battistini, Fabrizio Bònoli, Alessandro Braccesi, and Dino Buzzetti. Published by Cooperative Libraria Universitaria Editrice, Bologna, Italy, 2001, pages 77-98.

Ackermann, Silke. (2008). "Habent sua fata libelli - Michael Scot and the transmission of knowledge between the courts of Europe." In: Grebner, Gundula. and Fried, Johannes. (Editors). Kulturtransfer und Hofgesellschaft im Mittelalter. Wissenskultur am sizilianischen und kastilischen Hof im 13. Jahrhundert. (Pages 273-284).

Ackermann, Silke. (2009). Sternstunden am Kaiserhof. Michael Scotus und sein Buch von den Bildern und Zeichen des Himmels.

Note: Silke Ackermann was (2010) a Curator at the British Museum; Department: Prehistory and Europe. She was responsible for the British Museum's European and Islamic collections of scientific instruments. She is particularly interested in the transfer of knowledge between the Islamic World and the (Jewish and Christian) West with special emphasis on science in its cultural and social context. Prior to joining the British Museum, she worked at the Institute for the History of Science at Frankfurt University after studying History, Oriental Languages and Cultures, and History of Science at Frankfurt. Currently (2013): Prof. Dr. Silke Ackermann: Professorin für Kultur, Tourismus und Marketing sowie Präsidentin des Baltic College Schwerin.

The reintroduction of Aratea by Albert Dürer

A sky map (planisphere) depiction of the northern sky by Albrecht (Albert) Dürer (printed in 1515). The constellation figures are portrayed in a classical style.

The Renaissance period (at its height circa 1450-1550 CE) saw the reinstatement of the Aratean tradition of constellation illustration. (This could be described as the intention to reinstate 'mythological correctness.' This saw illustrators and artists turn to the pre-gothic period - to models closer to Graeco-Roman classical antiquity.) The Renaissance period saw a search for order amongst multiple transmissions of astrological works. Many illustrators began altering the non-classical constellation figures, such as those found in the astronomical/astrological manuscripts of Michael Scotus, with representations that looked more classical. In this they were strongly influence by the constellation depictions in the early 16th-century star charts drawn by Albrecht Dürer. (During the 15th-century CE German artists once again began to copy Carolingian manuscripts. An example of a relatively pure source of classical forms were the illustrations in the Carolingian copy of the 'Roman 'Calendar of 354.') During the Renaissance astronomical manuscripts obtained from Sicily provided an absolute standard for the illustration of the constellations. The process of importing constellation figures (with classical features) from Italy to Germany had begun circa 1450 CE. These constellation figures were beginning to be incorporated into stars charts produced in Germany prior to Dürer's constellation figures being developed.

Ultimately, the depictions of the constellations of post-Renaissance Europe derive from the constellation figures of the artist and engraver Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Albrecht Dürer was a native of Nürnberg (Nuremberg), Germany. (His father was Hungarian.) In 1515, in cooperation with Johannes Stabius and Conrad Heinfogel, he produced the first (scientifically rigorous) printed star charts (and they are considered the first modern star charts). The northern star chart (planisphere) was titled Imagines Coeli Septentrionales and the southern star chart (planisphere) was titled Imagines Coeli Meridionales. These mapped the constellations and the key stars of both the northern and southern heavens quite accurately. The depictions of the constellations on the celestial map designed by Dürer were astronomically accurate and mythologically correct per the Aratean tradition. The constellation figures were portrayed in a classical style and this was followed by later European star chart makers. Dürer was an artist - not an astronomer. The constellations are depicted from the point of view of an external observer looking in towards the earth. It appears a key influence on Dürer were the depictions of constellation figures on Arab-Islamic celestial globes. (Because the Arab-Islamic constellation figures were neither Classical nor contemporary European the Latin illustrators basically ignored them and simply followed the text-descriptions of the constellations to make contemporary images.) On both of Dürer's sky maps (planispheres) the classical constellation figures appear with their classical attributes correctly drawn. The Durer planispheres were never included in a printed book.

According to Emilie Savage-Smith, the Viennese parchment map of 1440, titled De composicione spere solide, and the globe of 1480 (exhibiting Bedouin and Islamic features), probably made by Hans Dorn, a Dominican monk in Vienna, served as a source (prototype) for Albrecht Dürer's woodcut celestial maps completed in 1515. (The Viennese parchment map of 1440 and the globe of 1480 bear a striking resemblance to each other.) Dürer omitted the Latinised Arabic star names, and the polar circle and colure. Importantly, the iconography was even more Westernised by Dürer. The Lyra is rendered as a bird with a musical box over its head. (Dürer did not understand the classical iconography for Lyra.)

Located in each of the corners of the star map for the northern hemisphere is a portrait of four traditional authorities on celestial matters (including Ptolemy and al-Sūfi), each in the act of using a celestial globe.

These star maps were reprinted numerous times (and Dürer's style was copied by numerous 16th-century star map makers) and the star charts were disseminated throughout 16th-century Europe. They were innovative for the 16th-century in combining accuracy of star placement with classical constellation figures. Both star maps were produced under the patronage of Emperor Maximilian I.

The production of the star maps were the result of close cooperation between Johannes Stabius (mathematician and cartographer of Vienna in Austria), Conrad Heinfogel (astronomer), and Albrecht Dürer (artist). The accuracy of the star positions was due to Johannes Stabius and Conrad Heinfogel who plotted the star positions. The star chart projection was designed by Johannes Stabius and he also determined the stellar coordinates. The stars were placed by Conrad Heinfogel who calculated their positions on the maps. The constellations were drawn by Albrecht Dürer, who was the key influence on the constellation figures used. The star maps were ordered by Johannes Stabius who demanded they be made on the basis of a manuscript from 1503 written by Conrad Heinfogel (and others).

Located in the bottom left-hand corner of the star map for the southern hemisphere are the names and coats of arms for all three co-authors. A short description of what each of them contributed to the work appears on the opposite side of the chart. (The coat of arms for Emperor Maximilian I appears in the top left-hand corner.)

After Albrecht Durer published the first rigorous celestial charts in 1515 numerous other persons in Europe published accurate detailed star atlases.

See: Barton, S[?]. (1947). "Dürer and early star maps." (Sky and Telescope, Volume 6, Pages 6-13).

Savage-Smith, Emilie. (1992). "Celestial Mapping." In: Harley, John. and Woodward, David. (Editors). The History of Cartography, Volume 2, Book 1: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies. ([Chapter] 2, Pages 12-70).

Note: For a critical discussion of the speculative and erroneous ideas of Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl on proposed paths of transmission of planetary iconography/iconographical tradition (uncritically re-stated by Jean Seznec in his Survival of the Pagan Gods (1940)) see the first critical analysis in Regenten des Himmels by Dieter Blume (2000). Also, Duits, Rembrandt. (2005). "Celestial Transmissions. An Iconographical Classification of Constellation Cycles in Manuscripts (8th-15th Centuries)." (Scriptorium, Volume 59, Pages 147-202); and Duits, Rembrandt. (2011). "Reading the Stars: Fritz Saxl and Astrology." (Journal of Art Historiography, Number 5, December, Pages 1?-18?). Also, Duits, Rembrandt. and Quiviger, François. (Editors). (2009). Images of the Pagan Gods: Papers of a Conference in Memory of Jean Seznec. More recently: Blume, Dieter. (2014). "Picturing the Stars: Astrological Imagery in the Latin West, 1100-1550." In: Dooley, Brendan. (Editor). A Companion to Astrology in the Renaissance. (Pages 333-398). [Note: "Research in astrological manuscripts has always been one of the strong points of the Warburg Institute (already true by the time of Aby Warburg's 1912 Rome conference): thus, it comes as no surprise that a considerable part of the publication is dedicated to it. Duits's presentation of illustrated constellation cycles revisits Saxl's thesis and, in the light of new research, concludes that instead of "a consistent set of classical constellation images . . . it appears that there were different parallel and sometimes interwining traditions" (100). In a less nuanced way, Kristen Lippincott, who studies the constellation of Eridanus, discards expediently altogether all previous work and Dieter Blume, in his paper on planetary astrology, is equally blunt: "there was in fact no survival of the [ancient] pagan gods" (136). [Extract from (English-language) book review by Natalia Agapiou (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens) in Renaissance Quarterly, Volume 64, Number 1, Spring, 2011, Pages 167-169."]

Appendix: Past and Present Warburg Institute Scholarship on Western Constellation Iconography

(1) Our knowledge of classical constellation iconography is very scant and mostly derived from reconstructions based on later copies. No illustrated manuscripts of Hipparchus' star catalogue of Aratus' Phaenomena are known to have survived. All but 1 of the early illustrated manuscripts of Aratus' Phaenomena are in Latin. In some cases - from the Carolingian period onwards - constellation images were completely redesigned without reference to preexisting iconography.

(2) There are still gaps in our knowledge of classical images of the constellations and their transmission throughout the Middle ages and Renaissance. However, the idea of the Renaissance as a revival of classical antiquity is no longer held. In regard to constellation iconography Saxl's idea of medieval deterioration followed by Renaissance restoration is incorrect. According to Dieter Blume it is no longer obvious that there once was a consistent set of classical constellation images that could be considered a standard by which subsequent deviations could be measured. It appears there were different parallel and occasional intertwining traditions.

(3) Warburg-Saxl-Panofsky at the Warburg Institute held that the classical constellation tradition/iconography changed as it passed into Arabic, Persian, and Indian civilizations. The historian Seznec relied heavily on the ideas of Warburg-Saxl at the Warburg Institute. Saxl formulated his theory about the transmission of classical constellation iconography in his introduction to Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer illustrierter Handschriften des lateinischen Mittelalters (Volume 2, 1927). However, more recent work by the science historian Kristen Lippincott establishes a reversal of this viewpoint. Lippincott holds that "the Eastern artists actually maintained the classical astronomical tradition much more faithfully than their Western counterparts."

(4) Rembrandt Duits states the Arabic constellation iconography when reintroduced into Europe from the 13th-century onwards gradually replaced the images from the existing Western Aratea tradition in astrological illustrations. The illustrations devised by Michael Scotus were an important influence. The mid 12th-century German manuscript, Vienna ÖNB 12600 (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, 12600, fol. 25r., De ordine ac positione stellarium in signis), had departed from classical prototypes. It is not an astrological manuscript but an astronomical manuscript; an illustrated catalogue of 42 constellations (traceable back to the Aratea of Hyginus).


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