In the Stars: Art and the Western Astrological Zodiac
East of the Greek harbour of Analipsi, at a site known as Tallaras, lies the remains of a bathhouse dating from the late 4th century AD. Designed and constructed for public or private bathing in ancient Greece, bathhouses were used for both hygiene maintenance and leisure, outfitted with decorations to reflect the opulence of the bath owner and to enhance the experience of the user.
Within the Tallaras site, in what was the central thermal chamber, a well-preserved mosaic flooring was uncovered by archeologists, revealing an elaborate depiction of seasonal cycles as well as Helios, the Greek personification of the sun. Furthermore, encircling Helios is a wheel divided into 12 equal parts, each housing a strikingly familiar series of motifs - the astrological characterization of the Western zodiac.
The Tallaras zodiac is only one example of astrology in art. From ancient times until the present day, the stars have been an influence in countless artworks. Seen as a tool for guidance, or a manifestation of a god's will, astrology is recorded visually as a way to convey meaning and evoke an empyrean authority.
Founded in ancient Babylonia, the Babylonians are believed to be the first people to systematically assign myths to constellations and delineate the twelve signs of the zodiac in the 2nd-millennium bc. The Egyptians, inspired by the Babylonian system, sculpted the Dendera Zodiac on the ceiling of a shrine dedicated to Osiris in the Hathor temple at Dendera. The relief, which contains a depiction of Taurus and Libra, is the first known depiction of the classical zodiac, the planet alignment allowing astrophysicists to pinpoint the date of the depicted sky as having occurred between June 15 and August 15, 50 BCE.
Western astrology as we know it today comes from Alexandrian scholar Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos, written in the 2nd century AD. Ptolemy's Almagest was an authoritative text on astronomy for over a thousand years, and its companion volume Tetrabiblos was equally as influential in the field of astrology.
It is in Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos that the planets, houses, and signs of the zodiac were first explained in great detail. Houses represent different fields of experience where the zodiacal signs and planets operate. Furthermore, Ptolemy's efforts to defend astrology as a spiritually beneficial study garnered theological tolerance in Western Europe during the Medieval era. With the translation of the Tetrabiblos into Latin in the 12th century, Ptolemaic astrology became incorporated into medieval Christian doctrine. This means that numerous examples of Christian art feature the zodiac itself.
Other significant astrologers that contributed to the evolution of western astrology include Dorotheus of Sidon and Antiochus of Athens. During the first century AD, Dorotheus was a Greek astrologer who, like Ptolemy, worked in Alexandria. He is remembered for his didactic poem known as the Pentateuch, providing one of the best insights into Hellenistic Astrology and a key influence on later Arab, Persian, Christian and medieval astrologers. Antiochus of Athens is credited with writing Thesaurus, Eisagogika, and compiling a key astrological calendar.
During the first century BC, many prominent Romans consulted astrologers. This belief in astrology fed into the Roman Empire, with the first emperor Augustus using his sign (Capricorn) on coins and claiming that his assertion was predicted in his horoscope. Later, emperor Septimius Severus had his own horoscope rendered on the ceiling of his palace, but with critical details left blank so that his own death could not be anticipated.
By the 13th century, astrology had become a key aspect of medical practice in Europe. Many medieval Europeans believed that the movements of the cosmos affected their lives on Earth and astronomy and horoscopes were frequently depicted in medieval imagery and medieval texts, providing information on astronomical and astrological influences.
Visual art was an integral way to convey the inner workings of the astrological landscape. For example, the Microcosmic Man appears in diagrams in England from the 15th century. Consulting complex drawing charts, the signs of the zodiac, the cosmos and corresponding parts of the human body, Medieval physicians would determine the ideal time or window to perform a treatment on patients. The most famous medieval representation of the Zodiacal Man appears in the French manuscript known as the Très Riches Heures de Jean de Berry, illustrated by the Limbourg Brothers (above, right).
Some of the most elaborate depictions of the zodiac can be found across cathedrals, basilicas, abbeys and churches constructed during the European medieval period. Chartres Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church in Chartres, France. Mostly constructed between 1194 and 1220, the Cathedral is comprised of High Gothic and Romanesque styles. While much of the cathedral exhibits painstakingly carved renderings of more conventional Christian iconography, the astrological zodiac is also featured in several instances. The central tympanum of the west portal, for example, sees Christ on a cloud surrounded by signs of the zodiac. The south portal, which was constructed later in the 13th century, depicts sculptures representing signs of the zodiac and vices and virtues. Inside, stained glass windows also feature symbolic images, including signs of the zodiac. Churches like the Waltham Abbey Church were also decorated with signs of the zodiac by Edward Poynter in 1860.
When ideas and teachings from antiquity experienced a revival during the European Renaissance, ancient concepts were re-contextualized and the human being was centred as the key visual motif. Astrology saw a new life at the hands of European artists, an intermediary between the elemental world and a Platonic way of thinking. Planetary symbolism took precedence in many examples of the visual arts, including architecture, landscape design and mapmaking.
Mapmakers of the European Renaissance and Baroque were keenly interested in mapping the heavens and theorizing about the relationship between Earth, celestial bodies and the greater universe. During the mid-17th century, Andreas Cellarius, a Dutch mathematician and geographer, compiled an elaborate celestial atlas. Cellarius combined a number of charts and maps and astrological information from a wealth of sources, creating a book that discussed the stars, lunar and solar theories, the nature of the planets, and the constellations of the astrological zodiac. These topics were paired with engraved and hand-coloured plates reflecting topics from Claudius Ptolemy's Earth-centered universe to Copernicus's mid-16th century proposition of a solar system centred around the Sun.
At the centre of one of Cellarius' maps (below), a small rendering of the Earth's northern hemisphere is encircled by the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The outer circle is reserved for the stars, represented as orbiting personifications of the zodiac.
There are many examples of Renaissance artists incorporating symbols of the zodiac to both delineate time and apply a visual symbological shorthand. Francesco del Cossa, an Italian Renaissance painter of the School of Ferrara, is best known for the frescoes he made with Cosimo Tura. Featuring the cycle of months and painted in the Palazzo Schifanoia, the series is an elaborate show of allegories based on the medieval zodiac and months of the year.
The visual tradition of the zodiac continued to be used as a means to convey seasonal changes and emotional turbulence. The Astrologer (1509) by Giulio Campagnola is an engraving featuring an astrologer at work. Beside him, gazing out of the frame is a discordant beast, perhaps associated with cosmic unrest. Frans Floris, a Flemish painter, draftsman, and etcher and his painting Astrology (1557) aligns with his traditional adoption of allegorical subject matter - a winged personification leans on a globe made up of zodiacal symbols, gesturing with a pole to the heavens as the astrology follows the angel's gaze.
In the second quarter of the 18th century, an unnamed follower of Antoine Watteau made a series of panels that likely formed a set intended for interior decoration. Each panel represents two months of the year, depicting astrological signs and occupations viewed as roles appropriate to the seasons. Here, November and December are represented by a hunting scene and a peasant woman making sausages.
Alfons Maria Mucha, known as Alphonse Mucha, was a Czech painter, illustrator and graphic artist. Living in Paris during the Art Nouveau period, Mucha is renowned for his distinctive, stylized and theatrical posters which became among the best-known artworks of the period. In 1896, Mucha designed a calendar featuring the profile of a woman aligned with a prominent zodiacal halo. The design was originally created for a company calendar for Champenois. The theme—the harmonious working of the universe—is balanced by twelve signs symbolizing each figure of the zodiac alongside other decorative motifs. Another example of zodiacal artwork made in line with the Art Nouveau style includes Hans Schulze's cover for Moderne Kunst magazine(below).
Painting in the early 20th century, Swedish artist Hilma af Klint created works based on mystical and cosmic themes. Many of Klint's paintings feature astrological symbols placed around the canvas, as seen in her The Dove series. Paul Klee and Hannah Höch soon followed in her stead. The Franco-Canadian artist François Dallegret even reimagined the twelve signs of the zodiac in the form of illustrated racing cars saying:
The cars represent a compassionate union between technological know-how and the heart's desire
At the end of the 20th century, European art was predominantly centred around symbolism and neo-romanticism. Considered to be one of the pioneers of abstract art in Europe, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis was a Lithuanian painter who sought new ideas through darkly whispy aesthetics. Working between symbolism and abstraction, Čiurlionis's series Signs of the Zodiac or Zodiac Cycle was begun in 1906.
Each zodiac sign was depicted in isolation, paired with a feature alluding to the established associations assigned to each symbol. Sagittarius sees a figure drawing a bow atop a mountain peak, while Aquarius features an architectural structure by a river. Each of the paintings also features the corresponding zodiac symbol illustrated in the sky.
The compelling nature of the western zodiac is driven by a fierce human need to understand our cosmological surroundings. Some contemporary art historians have speculated that Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fresco The Last Supper, was painted with each of the 12 apostles representing the 12 signs of the zodiac and Jesus as the sun. Considered a precursor to the Surrealist movement, J.J. Grandville made anthropomorphized figures, with one particular rendering featuring zodiacal caricatures linking hands in a round dance atop the globe. And in an equally fantastical but more austere characterization, Hans Thoma crowns a human-faced moon with a diadem of zodiacal symbols in Mond (1910).
In examining the ancient relationship between the western zodiac and art, we can see some of the fascinating and provocative ways in which astrology, mythology, and symbolism intersect, gaining a deeper insight into the question of how art meets, reflects and explores ideas, psychology, concepts and historical influences.
Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum | Astronomical Knowledge in the Sacred Architecture of the Middle Ages in Italy
The Zodiac on Church Portals: Astrology and the Medieval Cosmos | The Zodiac in Early Medieval Art: Migration of a Classical Motif Through Time and Space | Astypalea Guide Greece | Topos Text | Ancient Origins | Chartres Cathedral South Ambulatory Window | The Met | Arteria - Automobile Astrologique
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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.