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Putaendo Patrick

The Constellations in Illuminated Manuscripts

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The entire sky is now divided into 88 Constellations defined by the IAU in 1922. But their history goes way back to prehistory. The Ancient Greeks combined the legends of Chaldea, Babylon and Egypt with their own and began to formalise a complete iconography of the sky as viewed from the Mediterranean. The stars were associated with mythological characters in a series of popular stories generally related to sex and/or violence. Perhaps the idea was to create a mental map of the sky, or in an age of primarily oral tradition, perhaps to use the stars as an aid in remembering the stories.


One of the first Greek astronomers to compile a catalogue of the visible stars was Eudoxus of Cnidus. Unfortunately his original work has not been preserved, but Aratus (apparently born in Solis in modern Turkey ca. 315 BC/310 BC – 240 BC) used this list to write a didactic poem, the Phaenomena, telling the stories. There's an on-line English translation at:



By all accounts the poem was tremendously popular. A century later, Hipparchus (whose own star catalogue was used by Ptolomy) criticised its accuracy, but praised it as a literary work. It was translated into Latin by several distinguished Roman authors, including Cicero, and survived as one of the few astronomical texts in Western Europe during the Dark Ages. Early on, the poem was illustrated – and, although the original Greek and Roman examples have been lost, there are apparently more or less faithful later copies dating from the early 9th Century AD which are associated with the church and court of Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious.


Three of the best these manuscripts survive respectively at the University Library in Leiden, the British Library in London and the National Library in Madrid.



Hercules from the Leiden Aratus



The Madrid Aratus showing Eridanus, Pisces and Ara



Centaurus from the London Aratus


Although all are based on Aratus, the three are in fact very different, presumably copied from three distinct Late Roman sources. The Leiden Aratus is essentially a picture book in a small format, probably commissioned by a wealthy and important patron for personal enjoyment. The Madrid manuscript on the other hand is a collection of different works intended to aid “computus” or the astronomical calculation of the calendar and was probably produced as a result of a conference of clerics on the theme in Aachen in 809. The London manuscript ingeniously incorporates the pictures of the Constellations into calligrams, images made from words.


The Leiden Aratus was exhibited at the Getty Museum in Malibu. The catalogue with photos of most of the Constellations is available at:



The London Aratus is available as very detailed zoom-able scans at:



Black and white photos of the Madrid Aratus are available at the Warburg Institute Iconagraphic Database:


The complete manuscript is digitally scanned at:



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Lovely. Another are of cross contamination between art and science and the world around us.

We have a copy of Delimitation Scientifique Des Constellations (Tables et Cartes) by Delporte, in the Society for the History of Astronomy library, I discovered it a month or so ago. It's on my list of things to go back to have a better look at.


I'm always amazed that the patterns in the sky were so clearly seen in times when light pollution was much less. Every time I sit under a really dark sky (and this is usually in North Wales so still not utterly dark) any patterns are lost amongst a myriad of much fainter stars, and I honestly can't see how the modern day patterns could be depicted. Though maybe sitting around a fire with only partially light adjusted retinas the ancient people could also only see the much brighter stars too.



Edited by jambouk
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The nicest star map I have seen in person was housed at the Royal Institute of Cornwall's library in Truro. 

It is a collection of 6 circular maps which fold into quarters to fit in a beautiful leather gilded sleeve.  It was published by Society for the Diffusion of useful knowledge around the 1840's.  I can't find a copy of the exact one here on the net.  Next time I'm over there I'll get some photo's.  A similar but non circular and later edition is here http://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~252500~5518504:-Stars--

I get the feeling this map probably found its way to Cornwall through Edwin Dunkin whom was president of the Royal Institute here for a few years later in the century.  

I agree with you James, there is always a little bit of disorientation when you first look at the night sky at a completely dark sky location.  

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Reefshark - I'm looking forward to seeing photos of your Cornish copy of the SDUK atlas. Not only was the atlas very beautifully produced, it was also surprisingly up-to-date for its day, incorporating a lot of recent investigations. There's an interesting review published in page 202, volume IX of the Philosophical Magazine (London 1831) which comments on the sources.


The drawings of the Constellations are based on John Flamstead. The artist, W Clarke Archt, is presumably William Barnard Clarke. According to Wikipaedia, Clarke, 1807–1894, "was an English physician, architect, archaeologist and polymath. Born to a family of a senior portman and bailiff of Ipswich, William Barnard Clarke obtained a M.D. at the University of Edinburgh, but his main interest was architecture. A gifted sketch artist, he published a collection of maps of European cities. He was also an active member of the SDUK and Architects' Institute of London. Late in his life he moved to Germany, where he was one of the first translators of Goethe's Faust to English."

Mary Somerville's 1831 translation of  Lapace's Mechanism of the Heavens with her own influential 70 page Preliminary Dissertation was originally intended to have been published by the SDUK but proved to be to long!

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Putaendo, many thanks for the link and information.  I knew very little about the maps and that has filled in a great amount of detail.  It certainly seems like they were cutting edge maps for that period.  I'm so pleased the artist is recognised for his work, they are quite beautifully produced.

I will definitely get some pictures when next at the institute and share them here.

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Thank you James yes it could be a print of one of them, although the ones I saw had a circular shape overall.  But the constellations seem to be drawn in the same style.

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Great post Patrick :happy11: very interesting, I will have a dive into some of the links later on tonight.....Keep them coming.

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James, thanks for the link to Eugene Delporte's IAU publication. Very interesting! There's an English translation of the Introduction at:


So Johann Elert Bode (1747 - 1826) was the first person to give boundaries to the Constellations. Below is a detail of Orion from his 1801 Uranographia star atlas:


Bode, it seems, must be held personally responsible for all smutty jokes related to our sixth planet, Uranus. When Herschel discovered, or perhaps recognised it for what it was, he called the planet Georgium Sidus in homage to the current English king George III. The name did not catch on elsewhere, and Bode coined the name Uranus, following the logic that as Saturn was the father of Jupiter, so Uranus was the father of Saturn in classical mythology. The new name was only officially adopted in England in 1850.

In his Uranographia, Bode incorporated several Constellations of his own invention including the Printing Press, the Hot Air Balloon and the Cat; none of these have survived! There's a useful biography of Bode at:


According to Deporte, Karl Ludwig Harding (1765 - 1834) was the first person to drop the images of the Constellations but retain the boundaries in his Atlas Novus Coelestis first printed between 1808 and 1823, which catalogued more than 120,000 stars. This is a plate from the second edition of 1822:


Apparently the decision of the IAU to formalise the boundaries of the Constellations was based in part on the work of F W A Argelander in his 1843 Uranometria Nova, and on part in the work of B A Gould who defined the Southern Hemisphere in 1877.

Edited by Putaendo Patrick
Spelin & Grama
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