List of Figures

February 19, 2012

All Good Things

Exhibit A:
This is a very interesting historiated initial from a very interesting manuscript. Illustrating a small text about a comet, it comes from one of the earliest encyclopaedias in the modern sense of the word. Organized alphabetically, Omne Bonum (literally, All Good Things) was composed and written circa 1360s-1370s by James le Palmer, clerk of the Exchequer, probably for Edward III. A team of illuminators, almost certainly instructed by the author, added hundreds miniatures, making this book one of the best windows into the fourteenth-century mind we have.
Having stayed in the Royal Collection for some four and a half centuries, it was eventually donated, along with thousands of other books, to the British Museum by George IV in 1823. Now in a special section of the British Library (a section almost impossible to get access to), it is also available online: MS Royal 6 E VI, MS Royal 6 E VII (it’s actually in four volumes now, but they kept the old nomenclature).
I enjoyed browsing it immensely. Here’s a selection of some of the more curious images:
Teeth: dentist at work Age: сhildren playing with toys and catching butterflies Jews (expelled from England in 1290) Adolescence (note the convex mirror) Brain: trepanation Colour: artist mixing pigments
I found this gem thanks to the BBC’s Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings.
You can see a couple of excerpts from it on my new blog: 1, 2.

Exhibit B:
Now, this miniature is a good example of how you shouldn’t believe your intuition when interpreting old images. At least one texbook and one generally reliable photo bank tell us that this is a very early depiction of multiple waterspouts bursting from a cloud lit by lightning, from a 13th century manuscript De natura rerum by Albertus Magnus. A few places on the web repeat this very believable claim, and so, at first, did I.
But then I found the manuscript itself and a dissertation about it. The text of the manuscript and other illustrations in it are unambiguous: this is supposed to be a solar eclipse. You’d never think you could mix up those two, would you?
The circular spinning top, half-hidden behind the clouds, is in fact the Sun (compare it to the vista of the night sky from the same chapter, and to a roughly contemporary parallel — both shown below). And those wavy things are either light rays or some kind of emanating matter\energy (the very next page has a star or a comet with a similar tail, and an earlier example shows God moving primeval substances in a similar manner — ibid).
They got the author wrong, too, by the way. The text was actually written by Albert’s friend and student Thomas of Cantimpré. Full reference, for posterity:
Thomas of Cantimpré, “De natura rerum”, Valenciennes Municipal Library MS 320, folio 196v, miniature of a solar eclipse.
P.S. I would like to thank Christopher Chatfield and Chet Van Duzer for helping me to get to the bottom of this.

September 4, 2011

Gained in translation

Now, there’s a story that just cries to be retold with illustrations: the very existance of the constellation of Canes Venatici is due to not one, but two translation errors.

It all starts with the constellation of Boötes. Known since antiquity, it was usually depicted as a mighty herdsman bearing a club or a crooked staff. One famous example is Germanicus‘s 1st century AD Latin translation of famously incoherent Phenomena, 3rd century BC atronomical/astrological poem by Aratus (based in turn on two prose works by 4th century BC astronomer Eudoxus of Cnidus). Several extant medieval copies are known, including the lavishly illuminated Leiden Aratea (circa 816):

Somewhat less sophisticated, early 11th century Limoges Aratea gives the image both separately and in context:

In the great Ptolemy’s treatise Almagest some of the constellation’s stars were specifically described as representing the club (Greek, Κολλοροβος) of Boötes. 9th century Assyrian scholar Johannitius didn’t know the word, so he translated it using a similar-looking Arabic word, arriving at العصى ذات الكلاب, al-`aşā dhāt al-kullāb, meaning “spearshaft with a hook”. You can get an idea of what he meant from this illustration, from a 1010 copy of Azophi‘s 964 Book of Fixed Stars:

In the first half of the 12th century, several decades after Alfonso VI conquered Toledo and ended more than two centuries of Moorish occupation, Italian scholar Gerard of Cremona found Almagest in one of the city’s many libraries and translated it into Latin, thus bringing the text back to the Western Civilization. Not a native speaker of Arabic, he mixed up the words kullāb (hook) and kilāb (dogs), and so the mysterious “hastile habens canes” (spearshaft with dogs) was born.

Once introduced, the canines never went away. In a star chart in his 1533 Horoscopion generale, German humanist Petrus Apianus shows Boötes with an enormous club and two furry companions:

Finally, in 1687 Johannes Hevelius, best known as an early lunar cartographer, published Uranographia, proposing ten new constellations, most of them still being used today. One of them was Canes Venatici; amusingly, he also named the dogs, Asterion (Greek, “little star”) and Chara (“joy”):

April 22, 2010

Crab Nebula

Filed under: Astronomy — Tags: , , , — Pavel Voronin @ 11:49 pm

On July 4, 1054 A.D. Chinese, Japanese, Native American, and Arab astronomers noticed a new star that was about four times brighter than Venus. According to the records, it was visible in daylight for 23 days, and 653 days to the naked eye in the night sky. This was SN 1054, one of only a dozen supernovae historically observed in our own galaxy. This is how Anasazi people in Chaco Canyon (present-day New Mexico) depicted this extrodinary event[1]:

Remnant of the supernova was discovered by John Bevis in 1731. Later, he added it to his sky atlas Uranographia Britannica[2]; it’s the faintly painted nebula slightly upper-right of Zeta, at the tip of the lower horn of Taurus the Bull:

The object was named “Crab Nebula” by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, based on a drawing he made with his 36-inch telescope circa 1844:

In 1848, Lord Rosse repeated his observations with a bigger 72-inch reflector, and saw a very different picture:

No surprise there; these days we usually see Crab Nebula looking something like this[3]:


  1. Photos by Ron Lussier (left) and Mark Lansing (right).
  2. J. Bevis, Uranographia Britannica, around 1750. Full scan.
  3. Image by Hubble Space Telescope.

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