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Sagittarius (The Archer), in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

Sagittarius (The Archer), in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 830

Shelfmark: Harley MS 647

Item number: f.6r

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 constellation Sagittarius, according to Greek myth, is the centaur Chiron, tutor of Jason and Hercules. He gave up his immortality to take the place of the tormented Prometheus in the underworld. Zeus rewarded Chiron by putting him in the sky as a hero. The centaur's head, hands, feet and cloak are beautifully painted, while his body is formed of the words of a later addition to the 'Aratea', called the 'scholia', which always are written within the constellations. In this manuscript, the scholia are written in a style of handwriting that copies ancient Roman writing, while the 'Aratea' verses are in a handwriting developed by Charlemagne's scribes. In this picture, the colour of ink is changed to distinguish his human upper body from his lower horse's body.

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