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Cygnus (The Swan), in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

Cygnus (The Swan), in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 830

Shelfmark: Harley MS 647

Item number: f.5v

Length: 32

Width: 27.5

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Illuminated manuscript

Made in France, probably in Rheims, about 820-840, this manuscript has a copy of a famous poem on the constellations and planets. The result of several layers of translation and being added to, the poem is a late Roman version of a Latin translation done in the 1st century BCE by Cicero. Cicero had translated a Greek poem written in the 3rd century BCE by Aratus. Hence, it was known as the 'Aratea'. The illustrations which accompany it in medieval manuscripts follow what was probably an ancient tradition. This manuscript is known to have been at St Augustine's monastery, in Canterbury, by the end of the 10th century. By that time, Anglo-Saxon interest in natural science, which can be seen three centuries earlier in Bede's writings, had gained widespread support by Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastics in their program to elevate the level of education for clergy and monks. Natural science was understood with the framework of Christian doctrine, although it represented a secular facet of their knowledge. The Swan of the constellation Cygnus can not be identified as any one of the swans which appear in classical mythology. It could be the swan into which the lecherous Zeus transformed himself to seduce Leda, or possibly the swan into which Zeus, out of pity, transformed the friend of Phaeton, Apollo's son, who sorrowed so much, diving time after time into the water, after Phaeton drowned. The 'Aratea' verses are written below the Swan. The words written within the Swan are a later addition to the poem and are always written inside the constellation, forming the shape of the figure.

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