fol 73v: Past conversations…(starting from scratch #12d/1)

Summary: revisiting insights from the first mailing list. Block-book imagery. Was the figure at the centre of f.73v meant to be read as Sagittarius?

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The old mailing list’s atmosphere was exploratory; new information was freely shared and just as willingly taken on board or discarded when it was found wanting. The now-prevalent ‘German’ paradigm hadn’t the following it  has now; the website “” had yet to be built into the enormous block it is today, and individuals had to rely much more on their own research for their opinions.  The general tenor of exploration in 2000 saw ideas ranging widely through the medieval and renaissance centuries, though the ‘authorial’ assumption was still general. We haven’t come so very far in the meantime, but neither has the study advanced overall, so it is worth revisiting some of the fresh ideas and new questions raised by members of the old mailing list, even if we cannot suppose they still hold the same ideas today.

On July 4th., 2000, Raphal Prinke drew attention to fol.73v’s unusual central figure. The conversation ultimately led nowhere but the comments remain interesting. Prinke wrote:

I must say that I have never seen anything like that …. I have seen several instances of Sagittarius represented by a human archer – in medieval and renaissance … images – but still holding a bow, never a crossbow. As it seems to be so rare… (4 Jul 2000).

Jorge Stolfi responded, including a remark that:

It seems that Sagittarius’s name in medieval Turkish (and/or in Arabic) was literally “the bow”. (4 July 2000).

Brian Eric Farnell then made a couple of extremely acute observations, making me wish I’d read these posts before I did –  the day before yesterday.

… I would assume whoever chose to draw a crossbow in the hands of the archer thought it quite a normal type of bow. Maybe the MS originated in the Holy land…. That might explain the Middle Eastern flavor to the script .. (4 July 2000)

[“Middle eastern flavour to the script”?  Whose insight was that, and what did they mean?]

Jim Gillogly’s response, entirely reasonable, nonetheless saw the conversation begin sliding back into the usual routine. He said:

It seems to me one doesn’t need to go to the Middle East to find Islam in that era..

– forgetting that in the middle east you had communities such as Copts, Nestorians, Kurds, Karaites, people from India and from Thailand – among others – most of whom had no presence in mainland Europe.

Stolfi replying that,

Varying parts of Spain and Portugal were under Islamic rule from 711 to 1492.

On July 5th, Rene Zandbergen agreed that it was rare, referred members to an image of Leo which was on his website (the link no longer works), and then, integrating the observations made previously by other members, suddenly announced that:

The MS originates from king Alfonso X (unless I am much mistaken), and it used to belong to Queen Christina of Sweden. I wouldn’t make too much of the latter…(5 July 2000)

.. in offering one important insight accidentally redirecting attention from another – namely, that the figure might have been gained from eastern origins in general.  As we’ve seen already, the origin of the standing human Sagittarius, and of the ‘bird-killer’ as human Sagittarius are believed to have originated in the Holy Land.

Raphal Prinke’s reponse seemed about to bring the critical question back into focus:

This [‘Leo’ image] is interesting – even though rather far from depicting the sign of the Zodiac as a man with a crossbow. …  it is … impossible for a star in Sagittarius to either rise or culminate when Leo is rising – at least in the plane of the ecliptic (but I must admit I do not know what “paranatellonta” are and thus may be wrong).

On July 6th, Rene turned again to astrology from within the European corpus, referring to a tenth-century text, the ‘Thousands..’ of Abu Ma’shar al Balkhi [1] to elaborate his reference to parantellonta, though his post gives no details of the manuscript/s containing those diagrams to which he refers. (I give details in footnote 2.) Among his following musings and speculations, a couple sound intriguing, though not about the crossbow bearing Sagittarius:

[or] they may refer to obscure mini-constellations no longer used, or be the result of a translation error

and so the line of investigation ceased – or rather paused, because in December of the same year Stolfi raised it again. This time the conversation went no-where, circling again through two variant forms for the ‘all-Latin-European’ idea.

For the second round of conversations I will refer you to a post on Nick Pelling’s site, ‘German zodiac woodcuts?‘ (Jan 17th., 2009) – which also includes Prinke’s translation of a strangely dismissive and off-the-top-of-the-head sounding commentary by Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, a specialist in the cultural history of European Christian art and author of[European] Astrological Iconography in the middle Ages: the decanal planets” (2003).

Her comment on the posited Sagittarius figure on folio 73v rationalises it, rather than providing its lineage and cultural context, or any instances of comparative imagery – but I suppose there’s a limit to what can be included in a single letter:

As I wrote in my books, because of linguistic mistakes and changes in artistic styles, human figures were represented in contemporary garments (viz. Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius). Attributes were changed in the same way, eg. Sagittarius’ bow developed into a crossbow in the 15thC.

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The point on which I would differ from Professor Sniezynska-Stolot is the idea of the image’s “development” of which I can find no sign at all.  A point which has escaped notice is that the crossbow does not appear immediately, or even certainly ever in our period, as figure for the constellation.

What we find in the European works is that a crossbow is given the “Sagittarian”  person – who lives and breathes on earth, taking up his crossbow to pursue the inclination supposedly infused in him by the constellation, though the constellation itself is depicted still happily shooting its timeless simple bow until at least the end of the fifteenth century –  a couple of generations after the time to which our manuscript is reasonably dated.

Only when the popular printers get hold of another good idea for mass-education and entertainment does the heritage of such imagery begin to fragment. The printer himself very often had no very deep education, or any of the ability to form and interpret imagery which had informed the style of earlier manuscript art.  Let’s consider one of those block-books mentioned in the title to Nick’s post. As you see, Sagittarius itself has the simple bow, and the ‘Sagittarian’ on earth below, the crossbow.

crossbow Sagittarius German blockbookcrossbow Blockbook Jupiter detail

The image is effectively just a poor relation to those painted in Milan not long before by Cristoforo de Predis. I talked about the ‘Jupiter’ figure in an after-note to the post of  9th.July, but here it is again.

de Sphera Jupiter smaller Christoforus de Predis 15thC Estense

One might argue that the two were independently developed by reference to the painters’ manuals which Seznec – among others – has discussed in detail.[3] However, a more direct imitation seems more likely because whoever made the printer’s woodcut was rushing the job, perhaps under pressure from a printer wanting to be first to be off the press in Germany.  de Predis’ red headband has become a beret-looking thing, even if Jupiter still has the iron staff and arrows. The woodblock similarly shows Sagittarius as a standing (or kneeling?) archer but the block-maker has forgotten to reverse the archer and fishes relative to the main figure, to account for the reversal in printing. So they appear on the side opposite where they ought to be.

As far as I can see (and if you have a chance to look at the original under a magnifying glass, do correct me if I’m mistaken) the woodblock maker has not given this Sagittarius a crossbow, but the same one whose form by then had not changed much in about sixteen hundred years or so within the Roman zodiac, and before that for millenia.

The genre of “planetary children” imagery is partly informed by the painters’ manuals, partly by astronomical and astrological works, including  Manilius Astronomica, but more importantly for our subject, by matter from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, to which work in particular one may attribute the proliferation of hunting imagery in which the ‘turbaned crossbow hunter’ appears in Latin art from the late thirteenth century, but which had apparently reached Spain and France by about the twelfth.

The distinction observed between the bow given the constellation and that given the “Sagittarian person” raises the important question of whether figures with crossbows were ever meant to represent the constellation,  until the types were finally conflated and corrupted in a few very late instances. Even in calendar illustrations, such a figure may have been intended to be read not as a form for the constellation at all, but as image of the complementary figure – the  ‘Sagittarian’ – whose personality and activity were thought determined by the month in which they were born. And this raises a further, and very interesting question:

Are there any crossbow-bearing images of  Sagittarius in western astronomical texts before the end of the fifteenth century –  or are they all “Sagittarians”?

If they are then I may have to change my opinion of whether astrological texts have relevance for this study –  something for which the internal evidence has so far offered no support.

Years ago, in connection with analysis of certain early hand-painted cards, I had reason to refer to Sigismondo Fanti’s book, Trionfo di Fortuna, but since that work is too late for us, this time I might focus on others such as Lorenzo Spiritu  Libro della Ventura, whose relationship to Lorenzo Spiritu [Gualtieri]’s Il libro della sorti remains perplexing  The first is thought to have lived c.1430- 1496, and the second to have been born c.1425, though in commentaries the two titles seem to be regarded as the same work. a copy of Gualtieri’s(?) was made in 1482 and is now in the Marciana Library of Venice It.IX 87-6226. Before getting too involved with that hypothetical connection, there’s more to be done on basics here.

(If you can’t wait, I see there’s a paper by Silvia Urbini on ‘l libro delle sorti di Lorenzo Spirito’.  In Italian.)

.. continued tomorrow..


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[1] Known to the Latins as Albumasar etc. ‘The thousands…‘  is also called ‘The flowers..’.  It began influencing the Latin culture of the west only from about the mid-twelfth century, though first composed in the 9th, in Baghdad. Abu Ma’shar was from Khorasan. I illustrated his figure for Sagittarius is a post of March 23rd., 2013 ‘Persian and Stars’.

2. Perhaps because the text has become fragmented. See chiefly ‘Libro de Astromagia’, Bib. Vaticana. MS Reg. Lat.1283. Also Rome, Bib. Vaticana MS

About these there is a rather good long essay on line, with many illustrations and an excellent bibliography, by Alejandro García Avilés. Highly recommended. Available in English and the original Spanish, through the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes.( In English here and in Spanish here). Alejandro García Avilés, Imágenes mágicas. La obra astromágica de Alfonso X y su fortuna en la Europa bajomedieval’. English title: ‘Two Astromagical Manuscripts of Alfonso X the Wise’.

3. Seznec, Jean, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: Mythological Tradition in Renaissance Humanism and Art, (1953) (English translation reprinted by Princeton University Press 1972, 1995). Seznec’s work is still very helpful if the researcher is interested in the Latin works, but his overall theory – that all the deities of ‘inferior’ peoples were no more than degraded versions of Greek or Roman figures – is not supported in the least by archaeological or more recent historical evidence. Many of the figures he cites from Carolingian manuscripts, for example, are genuine and accurate representations of native deities from the eastern Mediterranean as far as Mesopotamia and Arabia, in many cases older than the Roman era and not, as he supposes, descended from them.

 Postscript: I had completely forgotten about David Jackson’s very informative post of April 19th. this year – about medieval astrology. “The-zodiac-afresh-can-we-link-it-to-known-medieval-astrology”. Now as my readers will know, unexamined repetition of some old entrenched ideas about the manuscript sets my teeth on edge, and some are in David’s post, I admit.  But given that he accepts certain “givens” which appear not to be true in the least, his way of approaching research from that point onwards, and his knowledge of medieval astrology and of the manuscript itself make the post well worth your time to read, in my opinion.  With certain reservations then – the post is here.














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