Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

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S: Pioneer Western Constellation Studies

41: Title page of Georg Thiele's Antike Himmelsbilder


Title page of Thiele's important study of constellation art.

George Thiele (1866-1917) was a highly regarded German Professor of Classical Philology. (In 1910 his academic details were: Prof. Dr. Georg Thiele, Privatdozent der klassische Philologie an der Universitšt Marburg.) Thiele was a pupil of Ernst Maass ((1856-1929), German classical philologist, Philipps-Universitšt Marburg (Privatdocenten. a. d. Universitiit Marburg)). In later life Thiele was a Professor at the universities of Marburg and Greifswald. (In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, the chair in classical philology at the University of Greifswald was given to Georg Thiele.)

Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; as such it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. Classical philology is the study of the so-called "classical" Indo-European language systems, including ancient Greek, classical Latin, and Sanskrit.

Thiele's book Antike Himmelsbilder (1898) has been described as a work of amazing erudition and also a pioneering and masterful study. (This important study was inspired by Ernst Maass.) It is still regarded by some persons as the definitive study of classical star maps. Antike Himmelsbilder still has value. It is certainly the classic study of the representation of the constellation figures in Greco-Roman antiquity. The 4 chapters comprising the book have been criticised as uneven. Regardless, they became the basis for all further studies on the astronomical and meteorological poem of Aratus. The early chapters deal with the origin of the constellations. The 4th (and last) chapter is entirely devoted to the zodiacal iconography of early Aratos MSS. Thiele's book was considered reactionary scholarship because Thiele contested the view that the zodiac originated in Babylonia. Thiele held (mistakenly) that the development of the Zodiac was the work of the Asiatic Greeks. (Erich Bethe, in his article "Das Alter der griechischen Sternbilder" (1900), proposed that the constellation of Engonasin 'The Kneeler' originated amongst the Ionian Greeks circa 6th-century BCE as an anonymous man.) The arguments of Fritz Hommel, at this time, for a Babylonian origin of the zodiacal constellations were considered absolutely convincing by most scholars. The focus of the book is the constellations depicted on the Farnese Globe. (Also, Thiele was mainly interested in the "Bilderklasse" (category of images. Thiele was one of a number of scholars, Ernst Maass and Erich Bethe amongst them, who dealt with those illustrated codices that they considered to be copies of lost archetypes of the classical period.) The book Antike Himmelsbilder contains an excellent series of photographs of the Farnese Globe.

A great deal of discussion is given to the Germanicus MS in Leiden, the illustrated Codex Vossianus (saec. IX), which is one of the important monuments of Carolingian Period pictorial art (and an important specimen of the antique method of illustrating books). The highly problematical, illuminated Carolingian MS. of the classical astronomical work called the Aratea or the Syntagma Arateorum, once owned by Isaac Vossius, has long been a prized possession of Leiden's University Library. The Codex Vossianus is illustrated with framed paintings of the constellation figures. These illustrations are a source of lost (Aratea) archetypes of the Classical Period. (There are very few surviving sets of illustrations of the mythological figures associated with the constellations. It needs to be kept in mind the constellation figures of the Aratea are not true star maps.) As a consequence, as well as detailed description of Codex Vossianus (saec. IX), Antike Himmelsbilder is profusely illustrated with constellation figures from Codex Vossianus (saec. IX). (They were fully reproduced by Thiele.) It is believed the Codex Vossianus is a fairly accurate copy of a 4th-century original. According to Thiele the illustrations in Codex Vossianus are copied after illustrations of the poem of Aratus from a 4th-century CE manuscript. Other scholars have contested this date.

The earliest illustrated Latin Aratus manuscripts extant today date to the Carolingian period. (The 2 classical revivals of the Christian era are the Carolingian renovatio and the Italian Renaissance.)

The Leiden Aratea, a small squarish parchment manuscript comprising 99 leaves, is a 9th-century CE copy of an astronomical and meteorological manuscript based on the Phaenomena written by the Greek poet Aratus (circa 315-240/39 BCE). The Leiden Aratea is a faithful copy of an earlier manuscript that was probably made in the 4th- or 5th-century CE and offers unique evidence of the form and content of illustrated books in the ancient world. The existing manuscript was created by an unknown artist during the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) in the second quarter of the 9th century. (The evidence suggests it was probably produced in the royal scriptorium, possibly in 816 CE.) The ultimate source that formed the basis of the Leiden Aratea was the Latin version of Aratus' Phaenomena by Germanicus Caesar (15 BCE - 19 CE). The manuscript contains 39 full-page miniatures. Of all the manuscripts on astronomy from the Carolingian Renaissance, the Aratea of Leiden is undoubtedly the most famous.

For a brief synthesis of what is known about all the illustrated versions of the Aratea see pages 1-16 of Antike Himmelbilder.

Isaak Vossius, sometimes anglicised Isaac Voss (Leiden, 1618–London, 1689) was a Dutch scholar and manuscript collector. He was the son of the humanist Gerhard Vossius. (He was the seventh child of Gerard Vossius (1577–1649), the famous Dutch scholar, by his second wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Francis du Jon (Junius).) Isaak formed what was believed to be the best private library in the world. It included 762 manuscripts which his enemies described as 'spoils.' Most of his books were included in the 'Index librorum prohibitorum.' From late 1649 Isaac Vossius and Nicolaas Heinsius were occupied as librarians and searched for rare manuscripts and books in foreign countries. In 1650 Vossius bought the famous library of Paul Petau (1568-1614) an avid collector of manuscripts, who lived in Paris. After his death, his heirs sold his library of books and manuscripts to the University of Leiden for thirty-six thousand florins.

Whether the Phaenomena of Aratus was actually illustrated with pictures of the constellation figures is uncertain. It is considered there is greater likelihood that there were already pictures in the Katastarismoi of Eratosthenes of Cyrene (circa 275-195 BCE) which were then later taken over into the commentaries and translations of Latin writers such as Germanicus, Cicero, Hyginus, and others. The American art historian Kurt Weitzmann held the view that the so-called Aratea (after Aratus) were in all likelihood illustrated with mythological figures for the constellations for the first time by Eratosthenes of Cyrene in the late 3rd-century BCE. There are very few sets of of early illustrations of the mythological figures associated with the Aratean constellation set. The presently known illustrations (sets) include: the Farnese globe (Roman), the Kugel globe (Roman), the Mainz globe (Roman), the Qusayr 'Amra lodge and bath house (Arab-Islamic), and Codex Vossianus (saec. IX) (Carolingian). The constellation figures are shown from the rear. (This was also the case for most Carolingian illustrated copies of the Aratea.)

It was Thiele (1898) who first identified the 12th-century CE manuscript Madrid 19 (Manuscript Madrid Biblioteca Nacional 19) as the direct source for Michael Scotus' Liber de signis.

The medieval historian George Keidel expressed the opinion that until Thiele's death in 1917 Thiele was the leader in discussions concerning the art of portraying fable situations in the Middle Ages in manuscripts, in the Bayeux tapestry, and on buildings.

In Antike Himmelsbilder Thiele discussed his research on the descriptions of the constellations by Hipparchus and the illustrations in Aratean manuscripts, and their relationship. Also presented is an art historical analysis of the constellation depictions on the Farnese globe, and the descriptions given in Aratus' poem Phainomena. Georg Thiele determined an estimate of the date for the Farnese globe based on artistic styles related to the epoch of the Roman Emperor Hadrian prior to 150 BCE. (Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire from 117 CE to 138 CE.)

Thiele set out a detailed demonstration that the constellation positions on the Farnese globe are consistent with the time of Hipparchus. Thiele held that because the constellations on the globe are rather detailed and scientifically accurate (given the date of the creation of the Farnese Globe circa 2nd-century BCE) that this implied the globe was modelled after a scholarly work on the constellations. Thiele then set out a detailed argument that the constellations depicted on the globe followed the astronomy of Hipparchus (and are based on his fixed-star register). Georg Thiele concluded that the descriptions of the constellations given by Aratus (in his poem Phainomena) were not based on an earlier version of the Farnese globe. He showed a connection between the two is not possible simply because of large differences in star positions and also was evidently not aware of the colures that appear on the Farnese globe.

However, the Farnese Globe is the archetypal model for the constellation illustrations. Georg Thiele, Antike Himmelsbilder (1898), demonstrated a direct link the constellations depicted on the Farnese Globe and those found in the earliest surviving Aratean manuscripts. As example: The 9th-century Germanicus translation in the Leiden manuscript, and the 2 early 9th-century Aratus latinus manuscripts.

Recently Bradley Schafer believed he had demonstrated the basis for the relationship of the Farnese globe with the star catalogue of Hipparchus. In 2005, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, Bradley Schaefer, a professor of physics at Louisiana State University, presented his analysis concluding that the text of Hipparchus' long lost star catalog may have been the inspiration for the representation of the constellations on the Farnese globe, thereby reviving and expanding the earlier (original) proposal by Georg Thiele (Antike Himmelsbilder,1898). The same had been proposed in 1987 by Vladimiro Valerio in his forgotten article "Histographic and numerical notes on the Atlante Farnese and its celestial sphere." in Der Globusfreund, Number 35/37, 1987/1989, Pages 97-127. Schafer's study was fully independent - he had no awareness of the earlier study. The analysis of these scholars was based on stylistic considerations and star-positional evidence. Schaefer's conclusions have been vigorously criticised/contested by the astronomer Dennis Duke (Journal for the History of Astronomy, February, 2006), most particularly on the ground that regardless of the date for the globe the constellation figures on it show large disagreement with the only existing work by Hipparchus. But, importantly, see Bradley Schaefer's detailed posting to Hastro-L Monday, 24 July 2017 in which he rebuts Dennis Duke's criticisms.


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