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Cetus (The Sea-monster or Whale), in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

Cetus (The Sea-monster or Whale), in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 830

Shelfmark: Harley MS 647

Item number: f.10r

Length: 32

Width: 27.5

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Illuminated manuscript

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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. In Greek myth, the sea-monster Cetus ravaged the coasts of Ethiopia to punish Queen Cassiopeia's vanity over the beauty of her daughter, Andromeda. The hero Perseus killed Cetus before it devoured the girl. In the picture, the sea-monster's constellation is defined by red discs for its stars while its body is formed of the words of the 'scholia', a later addition to the poem's illustrations which is always written within the figures. As in other pictures in the manuscript, head, tail, and fins are painted in a style that imitates the naturalistic art of the ancient Romans. In the verses of the 'Aratea' below, an Anglo-Saxon reader has made some corrections between the lines.

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