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Eridanus (The River), in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

Eridanus (The River), in a late Roman version of Cicero's 'Aratea'

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 830

Shelfmark: Harley MS 647

Item number: f.10v

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 longest constellation in the sky, Eridanus has from ancient times been 'the river', but which river can vary. It was seen as the Nile, the Po, the Rhine, or the Euphrates, among others. Its illustration in the 'Aratea' manuscript shows it as a classical river god who rests upon a flowing vase--the conventional accessory indicating a personified river. The god's head, hands, legs and tunic skirt are painted with shading in dull colours, to give them an appearance of having solid mass, in the style of classical art. His body is formed of the words of the 'scholia', a later addition to the poem's illustrations which is always written within the figures. An Anglo-Saxon reader has made several corrections to the verses of the 'Aratea' below.

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