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Perseus, in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

Perseus, in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 830

Shelfmark: Harley MS 647

Item number: f.4r

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. Perseus, a hero of Greek mythology, killed the horrible, snake-haired Medusa, the sight of whose face would turn a human to stone. Athena (Minerva) loaned him her shield to use as a mirror so that he could avoid looking at her face, and Hermes (Mercury) his winged shoes and magic cloak, rendering him swift and invisible. After cutting the monster's head off, Perseus made a spectacular get-away on the winged horse, Pegasus. Here, he holds Medusa's head. The text written within the figure, called the 'scholia', gives further information about Perseus. It was a later addition to Cicero's translation and was always written within the figures.

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