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The Pliades, in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

The Pliades, in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 830

Shelfmark: Harley MS 647

Item number: f.4v

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. The Pliades were seven beautiful sisters who lived in the heavens as stars--in Greek and Roman belief extraordinary beings like gods and heroes were stars. Nightly, the sisters descended to earth in a basket, but one evening a young man fell in love with one, whom he eventually married. After a honeymoon in the skies, they returned to earth. This explains, of course, why just six of the Pliades stars can be seen easily, the seventh only faintly. In the picture, the faces of the girls are shown with their names inscribed around them. Verses of the Aratea are written below the picture, which is the standard arrangement in copies of the poem.

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