The Aratea of Germanicus

Medieval Astronomy from around 1000 AD

This more than 1000-year-old manuscript of the Aratea take the viewer into the fascinating world of the major monasteries of the Post-Carolingian Kingdom of West Francia, where the knowledge of astrology and the science of astronomy were kept alive.
Today guarded in the National Library of Wales, the didactic manuscript attests to the monks and clerics having a keen interest in studying the great cosmos, combining the century-old knowledge of the constellations with their own observation of the movements of the stars. The constellation pictures, the planet orbits and the signs of the zodiac are represented with elegantly flowing pen strokes, full of vibrant life and dynamism. With the positions of the individual stars marked in red, mysterious celestial creatures illustrate the constellations moving across the heavens at night.

The Aratea of Germanicus

Aratea: The Manuscript

Sternbilder der Antike, fol. 13v mit dem Sternbild des Herkules

The Aratea of Germanicus

The Aratea represents a compendium of texts on astronomy. It mainly contains the Latin translation of the Phainomena composed by the Greek poet Aratus of Soloi in the version written by Claudius Germanicus († 19 AD). In his “Appearances” Aratus determines the position of the fixed stars in the cosmos, describes the constellations, the circles of the sphere and the Milky Way. He distinguishes between the fixed stars and the planets having a motion of their own. Until the end of the 12th century, the Aratea were the only source for any Western treatise on the constellations. The sections of the didactic poem reproduced here are supplemented by explanatory comments on mythological tales about the stars and constellations and completed by a number of short texts.

Constellations Infused with Life

The pages have a consistent layout. Each section of the Aratea of Germanicus and the Late Antique comments is followed by a pen drawing of the respective constellation washed in green, orange-red or brown. The figures are frequently shown from the back, thereby suggesting that they were conceived as representations of the celestial globe. Within the constellations, the positions of the stars are marked by point rosettes. Moreover, the book illuminator clearly made an effort to depict the mythological narrative associated with the constellations. Thus, Hercules is swinging his club against the serpent, while his left arm is protected by the skin and head of the lion he had slain before.

A Medieval Monastic University

A major monastery already in the Carolingian period, Fleury Abbey counted among Europe’s leading educational institutions in the 10th and 11th century, attracting monks and clerics from everywhere. Especially around the turn of the millennium, Fleury was the most important centre of astronomical studies, sustained, among other things, by a comprehensive library housed in a separate building. A great number of manuscripts can either be directly linked to Fleury or at least appear to be influenced by it. In addition, the abbey maintained an intensive exchange with other monasteries in France and Latin Europe in general. Hence, as to the place of origin of the Aratea manuscript, Limoges has also been taken into consideration.

Abtei Fleury (Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire)

Germanicus: Aratea

Under the Magnifying Glass: Mapping the Stars and Constellations

The manuscript begins with a unique sequence of celestial maps preceding the text of the Aratea. As apparent from their diverging iconography, they were made by a different illustrator than the one responsible for the constellation pictures. While attesting to a strong cosmological interest in the structure of the universe as a whole, the maps represent an effort to advance astronomy as an exact science. Thus, the sequence of the maps begins with an illustration of the two hemispheres showing a largely uniform distribution of the constellations. On the following folio the constellations are traced again in outline, here sketched more in accordance with their proper astronomical distribution. Inserted on fol. 4v, we find a (first) representation of the planisphere.

The planetary orbits are placed in the centre of the circle of the zodiac, while the actual planets appear as busts in small medallions. There are no marked differences between the planets (except for the head of “Luna”, the Moon, covered with a veil), so that their names have to be gleaned from the inscriptions added. The positions of the planets indicated here do not add up to any conceivable planet configuration. However, since the zodiacal band is aligned with the four cardinal points, the constellation of Aries appears in the East. The constellations are arranged anticlockwise. This planet diagram is notable for the inserted orbits of the Sun, Venus and Mercury intersecting with one another. Thus the design allows for an indefinitely varying sequence of these planets.

Germanicus: Aratea

The Aratea: The Edition

Sternbilder der Antike, Faksimile-Edition, Band stehend und aufgeschlagen

The Manuscript and the Facsimile at a Glance

The Aratea represent a wonderfully illustrated compendium of the Western knowledge of astronomy and astrology in the Early Medieval Period. The facsimile true to the original allows the viewer to experience the special aura of this one-thousand-year-old didactic manuscript

Manuscript: Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Ms. 735C
Date of Origin: c. 1000
Place of Origin: Fleury (or Limoges?)
Dimensions: c. 23,5 x 16,5 cm
Extent: 52 pages (26 folios)
Artists: unknown, at least two monastic illuminators
Patron: unknown
Illumination: 23 delicately coloured pen-drawings of the constellations and 7 celestial charts (hemi- and planispheres, planet orbits, zodiac)
Binding: decorative brown leather binding with rich blind-tooling
Commentary Volume for the Facsimile Edition by Kristen Lippincott / Pedr ap Llwyd; preface by Ben Moore
Limited edition: 680 copies

This facsimile edition has been published under the patronage of Dr Ben Moore, Director Centre for Theoretical Astrophysics and Cosmology, University of Zurich.

Medieval Astronomy

Enjoy Viewing 10 Sample Pages:

A Glance at the Facsimile

The section from the Aratea reproduced here shows fols. 10v-14r.
The  sequence opens with a planisphere, a map drawn in the plane representing the distribution of the constellations. On fol. 11v there is an illustration of the author and his muse: framed by two Corinthian columns, seated on a folding chair, the poet Aratus of Soloi discusses with his muse Urania the celestial globe placed between them. Subsequently, we see the representations of the following constellations: Jupiter on Aquila, Latin for ‘eagle’ (fol. 12r), the Serpent between Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, Latin for the two ‘bears’ (fol. 13r), Hercules (fol. 13v), and the Northern Crown (fol. 14r).

Medieval Astronomy

A Challenging Production: fac simile

Sternbilder der Antike, Begutachtung des Originals vor Ort in Aberystwyth

On-site Appraisal

Many production steps are needed, before the 1000-year-old original manuscript can be transformed into a faithful reproduction of the Aratea.
The final decision to make a facsimile of a particular manuscript must be preceded by verifying the feasibility of the project and assessing the original on site. All stages of the facsimile production, starting with photographing the original manuscript page by page and including repeated print runs being checked and corrected, likewise require a number of actions that can only be carried out in the library that owns the medieval manuscript.

Bite Marks and Holes

A facsimile made by Quaternio Editions Lucerne is the authentic reproduction of a medieval manuscript, exact in all details. Naturally, these high quality standards also apply to the manuscript of the Aratea, which has been surprisingly well preserved for more than ten centuries. Throughout its long history, it has only been affected by a few bite marks. While we do not know which insect might have had an appetite for knowledge here, these bite marks will be faithfully reproduced in the facsimile. Likewise, each hole in the parchment that a thousand years ago caused the scribe to write the text around this defect, will be reproduced by laser punching.

Sternbilder der Antike, Bissspuren am Rand von fol. 11v
Sternbilder der Antike, Loch im Pergament auf fol. 13v

Sternbilder der Antike

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