Of all astronomical manuscripts in the period of the Carolingian Renaissance, the Aratea from the Leiden library is the most famous. In the first half of the 9th century, at the time of Louis the Pious (814-840), the Aratea was commissioned from an unknown artist who copied a manuscript from late Antiquity. The scribe’s work was based on extracts of the Phaenomena. In respect of the high standard required, the back sides of the illustrations were left blank.
The finely equilibrated script, so-called Capitalis Rustica, is still very readable even today. As this script was rather uncommon during the 13th century, the text was later copied in Gothic script, thus underlining the popularity which the Aratea enjoyed throughout the centuries.
Age-old Wishes Come True
The mystery surrounding the secrets of the starfilled heavens is as old as mankind. In the Occident, the idea of the heavens being organised in a well thought system goes back to the ancient Greeks who themselves had named the signs of the zodiac after Oriental examples.
The ancient Greeks saw their mythology reflected in the stars, as was sung by Homer, the poet laureate of the Occidental culture. The Greek poet Aratus of Soli (around 310 to 245 BC) later wrote the famous Phaenomena, a didactic poem on celestial phenomena and weather signs.
Callimachus considered this work as the most delightful epic of the world. The work was later brought into the Roman culture by Claudius Caesar Germanicus who translated it into Latin. From there it spread through to medieval Christianity at the time of Charlemagne, and remained a fundamental source of knowledge for the western view of the heavens until the advent of Arabian astronomy.
A Book for an Empress?
According to art historians and palaeographic studies, the magnificent manuscript was created in the region which was to become Lorraine in France. In the Early Middle Ages the preservation of antique sciences and of the classical cultural heritage was considered one of the most noble tasks of scholarship.
It is thus assumed that the manuscript was made to the order of Empress Judith, second wife of Emperor Louis the Pious, a great patron of sciences and the arts. Posterity remembers her for her fight for the rights of her son, Charles the Bald. It seems that the manuscript was later kept in the abbey of Saint Bertin in the North of France.
In the 16th century it changed hands and became the property of the humanist and patrician Jakob Susius of Ghent before being rediscovered by Hugo Grotius. After that the fabulous manuscript belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden who donated the Aratea to her librarian Isaac Vossius before her departure to Rome. In 1690, the Leiden University acquired the book.
A Great Moment in the History of Book Illumination
The manuscript is decorated with 39 full-page illustrations, whose format, an almost perfect square, keeps in line with the antique tradition. For the grounds, the extremely gifted artist chose a mysterious shade of blue, obviously inspired by the nightly sky, which is framed by a flaming red ribbon.
The stars are embellished in gold so that they shine, according to the incidence of light, like their real examples on the firmament in a beautiful, cloudless night. The work presents select depictions of the constellations, traditionally symbolised as mythological characters and figures, which were often esteemed by ancient Greeks as the signs of the zodiac that their learned astronomers had observed in the sky.
Since the early centuries of our time, they had guided travellers over land and sea and were also used as weather signs. It is above all the living creatures of the Aratea which radiate such power and plasticity as we know from ancient examples.
The artist’s idea to dissociate the picture from the written word and to present each miniature on an individual page, is in fact a revolutionary concept. It would take centuries before the best painters rediscovered the art of enlivening a figure with such modest pictorial means as our unknown illuminator has succeeded to do.