15.11.16, Blume, Haffner, and Metzger, Sternbilder des Mittelalters

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Eric Ramirez-Weaver

The Medieval Review 15.11.16

Blume, Dieter, Mechthild Haffner, and Wolfgang Metzger. Sternbilder des Mittelalters: Der gemalte Himmel zwischen Wissenschaft und Phantasie, Band 1: 800-1200 (2 vols.: Teilband 1.1: Text und Katalog der Handschriften and Teilband 1.2: Abbildungen). Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2012. pp. 651 and 403. ISBN: 9783050056647 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Eric Ramirez-Weaver
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and University of Virginia

The medieval study of the heavens was more than an antiquarian project, transmitting classical literary treatments of the stars, constellations, and planets to future generations. As the authors of this magisterial collaborative effort aver repeatedly throughout the two volumes of this first installment treating early medieval, Anglo-Saxon, and Romanesque astronomical manuscript illumination, one resonance with the past is the joyful wonder that contemporary stargazers and researchers share with our forebears. This curiosity has long invited creative literary or visual interventions that sought to examine and explain the cosmic phenomena that surround earthly viewers. The passage of the celestial bodies, whether fixed stars or wandering planets, according to the medieval geocentric model of the heavens, bore practical utility for agrarian, navigational, civic, and liturgical purposes, not the least of which was the need for Christian communities to reckon accurately the floating feast of Easter (32). The deceitful regularity of the images or forms of the star clusters and constellations discussed in Sternbilder des Mittelalters, and the complex nature of the textual traditions intrinsically intertwined with the history of science that such miniatures illustrate, are all carefully explained in 176 pages of concise and superlative erudition.

This synthetic overview is complemented by an invaluable 68 catalog entries (179-566) that will supply an enduring resource for researchers and neophytes alike. The microanalyses in the catalog offer local histories for the individual manuscripts that are helpfully treated with greater remove in the series of contextual essays that offer a collaborative survey and appreciation of the voluminous bibliography (581-640) coupled with novel insights or conjectures that were the result of decades of assiduous research. These detailed catalogue entries--modeled after the pioneering work of Fritz Saxl in his Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer illustrierter Handschriften des lateinischen Mittelalters (17)--update earlier treatments and supply an excellent entry point for researchers to consult. In sum, this first set of twin volumes supplies a welcome contribution to a growing literature on the history of astronomical illustration and its uses or roles in discrete, especially early, medieval cultures. Notable resources that should always be consulted in conjunction with Sternbilder remain: Arno Borst's treatment of the Carolingian calendrical debates in Die karolingische Kalenderreform (1998), Bruce Eastwood's discussion of diagrams in Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance (2007), and the invaluable exegetical value of Barbara Obrist's own first installment of a two-part series La cosmologie médiévale: Textes et images, I. Les fondements antiques (2004).

It is important to recall that the joint histories of art and science play a vital role in iconographic analyses of the star pictures. Neither is truly superior and neither should be treated preferentially. To do so ignores the historic implications of philological textual transmissions, local library holdings, painterly styles, or the modalities of cultural production in discrete sites at specific moments with their attending spatio-temporally contingent goals, ideals, political structures, and courtly agendas. These cultural environments supply the context in which individual painterly expression of the relatively standard set of Ptolemaic constellations could take place. The authors navigate successively through the key aspects of literary and conceptual traditions, offering a succinct history of astronomical ideas current in European contexts, roughly 800-1100 (even if the title claims a bit more). It is the legacy of the early medieval pictorial cycles that is clearly the focus of this history of the star pictures. As the authors argue throughout the book, there are "three fundamental functions" of celestial imagery in this "reception history" (16): there are mnemotechnic benefits for instructional use; pictorial imagery had the potential to preserve a visual scientific knowledge that texts elided in their presentations; the star pictures participated in communities of learning and exchange to encourage novel discovery or invoke reverie (repeated at 174).

Allegedly, two definitive pictorial archetypes supply the models for all early medieval star pictures. First, a copy of an illustrated Greek text of the Phaenomena (ca. 276-74 BCE) by Aratus of Soli at Corbie resulted in two Carolingian Latin translation efforts during the eighth century (19, 42-43). This is presented as fact, but is in reality a contested point that nevertheless has been supported by the important work of Hubert Le Bourdellès in L'Aratus Latinus: Étude sur la culture et la langue latines dans le Nord de la France au VIIIe siècle (1985), as explained in Sternbilder with helpful commentary (23-36). These Latin translations are known to philologists as the Aratus Latinus and the Recensio Interpolata or Revised Aratus, executed ca. 735 and ca. 790, respectively. A second archetypal program accompanied the Germanicus Latin translation of the same Aratean poem, executed by Tiberius' nephew, ca. 14-19 CE (30). Students of the star pictures will nevertheless find the detailed summaries and analyses of the textual transmission of these Aratean treatises immensely helpful.

Be that as it may, a richer model for manuscript production and illumination during the early medieval period could have been supplied than to posit two isolated archetypes in keeping with a now rather outdated methodological paradigm associated, sometimes unfairly, with Kurt Weitzmann. Alternatively, the authors repeatedly note the protean and mutable nature of astronomical forms and cycles that could be recombined in the interest of accuracy, in order to supply a comprehensive view of the heavens, or as a fantastic product of the artistic imagination (78 and 175). These positions are hard to reconcile. Without suitable justification, the authors also argue that the pictorial program found within the astronomical and computistical anthology commonly referred to as the Libri computi was unnecessarily contained within the Aachen original of 810-12, developed after Charlemagne convened an official synod in 809 to assess concerns related to its contents (34-35, 44-47, 67). This image cycle did however experience a wide distribution, and the illustrated portion of that text, the De ordine ac positione stellarum in signis, is contained within one-fourth of the manuscripts studied in this comprehensive catalogue (cats. 3, 7, 13, 17, 31, 33, 35, 36, 45, 46, 49, 54, 56, 61, 64, 65, 66). This raises an important point. Occasionally, ideological or art historical presuppositions are presented as bases for the arguments in Sternbilder, when in fact such bald assertions are themselves in need of far more clarification. Why, for example, did the early medieval painters in Aachen experience "disgust" and "fear" (44) when deciding whether to include star pictures in the Libri computi in ca. 812, but had no qualms whatsoever about illustrating the star pictures four years later in the exquisite Leiden Aratea ca. 816 (46-65, 292-98)? Rather than hypothesize a Christian anathema against the ubiquitous star pictures, an apposite model has been supplied by Paul Edward Dutton in his essay "Of Carolingian Kings and Their Stars" from Charlemagne's Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (2004). The authors' tendentious conclusion in Sternbilder is that the pictorial program contained within the lavishly illustrated copy of the Libri computi from Madrid (Biblioteca Nacional, MS 3307) was probably manufactured in Aachen, ca. 820 (67). At present, this contentious, doubtful position demands far more support than has been supplied. It certainly reveals that there is happily much more to be written on the subject.

To their credit, the authors ground their discussion of the Leiden Aratea in the concrete date supplied by the planetary configuration, located at the end of the manuscript on folio 93v that refers directly to the paschal full moon of 816 (65). They repeatedly underscore the Carolingian creativity on display that was not the result of a straightforward copying project (55), but instead demonstrated intelligent design and observational acumen, correctly recording the information from classical star catalogs (59), as argued by Elly Dekker. This is the supreme achievement of Sternbilder. Medieval artists are recognized for their ability to engage in sophisticated yet lavish courtly and monastic manuscripts, worthy of appreciation for both the quality of their illumination and their erudition. This creativity results in a diversification of forms, such as the pictorial programs associated with the Recensio interpolata and the De signis coeli, derived from the scholia annotating book eight of the Aratus Latinus, mentioned above (33-34, 70-79).

Much less problematic are the ensuing sections of these first two volumes. An expanded interest in mathematical inquiry dovetails eventually with the manufacture of more sophisticated instruments such as astrolabes, facilitating and encouraging celestial observation (83-84). If Aachen was the focus of Carolingian courtly astronomical arts, Fleury arises in the tenth and eleventh centuries as the center of monastic erudition with Abbo (d. 1004) as its star witness (85-86). The fourth-century Calcidius commentary on the Timaeus of Plato offered information about eccentric orbits and epicycles that advanced longstanding debates about the movement of the planets (83-86). At Fleury, the De signis coeli cycle was copied into a book (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS 5543) that coupled Abbo's personal text with those of Bede, creating a definitive local record of astronomical science and temporal reckoning (87-88, 422-29). Another pictorial cycle belonged to a Latin translation of the Aratus text by Cicero, preserved beneath illusionistic calligrams (London, British Library, Harley MS 647). These visualized verses contain text culled from Book II of Hyginus' De Astronomia and were executed at the court of Louis the Pious (68-69). This manuscript found its way to Fleury in the ninth century, and supplied the model for a copy (London, British Library, Harley MS 2506) arguably linked directly to Abbo, and embellished with star pictures by an Anglo-Saxon draughtsman (89-92, 119-20). This fervor for cosmological inquiry culminates ca. 1056 with Oliva of Santa Maria de Ripoll's compendium (Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. lat. 123) that likewise documents Fleury's international renown (102-04).

One compelling observation in Sternbilder concerns the placement of the pictorial program in the Hyginus manuscripts that achieve greater circulation during the eleventh and twelfth centuries (119). Modeled upon a proposed archetypal celestial map from Fleury (123), the star pictures created at French sites were ordinarily linked to the star catalog from Hyginus' Book III. By contrast, artists at Germanic sites preferred to place images derived from the same archetypal, cartographic program within the myth laden Book II (119-24). Another important conclusion is that the spirit of scholasticism encouraged students of the liberal arts to embrace both historiographic and literary aspects of astronomical study, including the mythic narratives that could simultaneously enthrall and inform (129). A series of post-Conquest, English manuscripts attest to this nexus of motivations and intellectual pleasures. Two are closely related and housed in Oxford: Bodleian Library, Bodley 614, ca. 1130; MS Digby 83, ca. 1150 (127-34, 143-44).

At this point, the book turns to a discussion of artworks or structures that are linked meaningfully to iconographic traditions exemplified by astronomical manuscripts. This is an important authorial decision, attempting to break free from isolationist models that treat manuscripts or their symbols apart from the environments in which they were handled diachronically by actual medieval individuals (147-53). A detailed description of the Star Mantle (Sternenmantel) of Henry II (d. 1024) argues persuasively for the theatrical deployment of the object, as a vital record of the ways the traditional cycle of images associated with the Recensio interpolata could be marshalled in the service of a ceremonial coronation (Festkrönung) and imbued with novel political or religious connotations (153-57). Similarly, a sculptural program derived from the De signis coeli reminds visitors to San Isidoro (León) less about star catalogs and more about the role of the church in the Reconquista, as well as strategies of "demonization" (163) that demarcate socio-political technologies of power and delimit realms of access (161-63). It should be said that the authors do not make enough of the political implications of their arguments in this section and instead prefer to identify the references to manuscript cycles recorded in masonry and other media. Both of the monuments mentioned here (along with many others adduced in the text) permit ample opportunity for a nuanced interpretation of the Other during the medieval period.

In closing, this first set of two books ends with a brief review of the lessons learned throughout the text. Historic factors such as the synod of 809 that gave rise to the Libri computi, or the mathematical innovations, textual transmissions, and better instruments at Fleury that revolutionized astronomical study, create the parameters within which meaningful art historical analyses must take place (171-72). The courtly aspect of the Carolingian renewal is juxtaposed with the cloistered erudition at Fleury. Both permit the development of certain discourses (171). This model runs the risk of ignoring certain Christian aims or aspects of the Frankish reforms, and arguably exaggerates the degree of hopeful novelty or curiosity that accompanies monastic reform movements. On the whole, however, this first set of two volumes, constituting part one of the Sternbilder des Mittelalters, elevates the status of early medieval and Romanesque manuscript illuminators. They were not ignorant copyists but intelligent participants in complex creative environments that sought to reconcile classical learning with current advances in their science, recording their data in their miniatures (172-76). Their imaginations fired by intellect and inspired by the fantastic left memorable records of astronomical learning that clearly still merit attention. As noted throughout this review, some of the conclusions drawn are contentious, and some of the assumptions made are downright curious. That in no way diminishes the extraordinary contribution this work makes. There is still much to be learned from careful investigation of the star pictures. As Sternbilder des Mittelalters reveals with expert aplomb, they will continue to return the investment.

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