The zodiac is a celestial coordinate system, both with conventional astronomical purposes and with symbolic, astrological meanings. From ancient times to the present day, the zodiac is intended as a sort of circular belt on the starry vault that is transversally situated in respect of the solar ecliptic (namely, the apparent path of the Sun on the celestial sphere, along its annual turn), marking the zone where the relative movements of the Moon and the solar system planets usually take place. Because of Earth’s rotation, the constellations in this area always appeared to be in circular motion: hence it came its ancient name of ζῳδιακός (zōdiakós), a compound of zòon, “animal,” or “living being,” and hodòs, “path.” In fact, the “proceeding” stars within the zodiac have been grouped into 12 consequent constellations called signs, according to a 12-fold classification that also and especially in Renaissance was maintained as based on the imaginative appearances of mythological beings in the skies and their respective astrological/astronomical significance.
Impact and Legacy
A formal definition of what was the zodiac in Renaissance times can be found in Knittel’s Cosmographia elementaris (1647), where the scholar wrote: “Zodiacus est circulus maximus, cuius poli distant a polis Mundi gradibus 23½. Secat Aequatorem oblique, ita ut super aequatorem sit inclinatus, et una zodiaci medietas vergat as Septentrionem, altera ad Austrum. Punctum vero medium utriusque; Medietatis ab Aequatore recedit gradibus 23½. Secat illius latitudinem per medium una linea, quae dicitur Ecliptica, quia in ipsa, aut prope ipsam fiunt Eclipses. Caeterum continet intra suam amplitudinem 12 constellationes, qualelibet continet 30 gradus. Eaurum autem nomina sunt: ♈ Aries; ♉ Taurus; ♊ Gemini; ♋ Cancer; ♌ Leo; ♍ Virgo; ♎ Libra; ♏ Scorpius;♐ Arcinenens [Sagittarius]; ♑ Caper; ♒ Amphora; ♓ Pisces.” He made clear that the practical functions of the zodiac for astronomy were many: it divides the heavens in their austral and boreal part; it is the region where eclipses take place; it allows to measure the proper motion of planets and calculate the longitude of the fixed stars; it is the cause of night/day inequality and of the seasonal alternance along the year. Finally, he reminded that zodiac has four main points: two of them are equinoctial, where zodiac intersects the equator, and two of them are solstitial, which are at the maximal distance from the equator.
Nonetheless such an astronomical definition of the zodiac was somehow a point of arrival, since the main role that it had for centuries, or rather for millennia, was peculiarly astrological. Planets and zodiac stars were regarded as influential or even responsible for almost all the earthly events, human matters included, and even on individual level. The zodiac planet configuration as it appeared at the time of the birth was considered to have effect on the genesis of inner predispositions, inclinations and behavioral attitudes, formation of humors and temperaments, anatomical structure, and even physical aspect. Consequently, during Renaissance times, the astrological importance of such celestial coordinate system was a decisive element for horoscopes and nativities, as well as for predictions and any sort of important decision-making, since “according to the relation of the planets among themselves to the signs of the zodiac, future events and the course of whole lives were divined and the most weighty decisions arrived at” (Burckhardt 1860).
The zodiac subject as such was never felt as a heretical field of knowledge, and it was easy to maintain an astrological faith in the stars together with a religious devotion to God (as attested, e.g., by the emblematic case of Agostino Chigi and the frescos that he commissioned, where both the elements are present).
The view of Marsilio Ficino was also hybrid and somehow ambiguous, because on one hand he condemned the astrological use of the zodiac in his Disputatio contra iudicium astrologorum (1477) and on the other hand he defended its normative utility for the medical field in his De vita (1489); and in his De Rationibus musicae (1484), he set the zodiac signs in relation with musical notes, where the positive or the negative aspect of the signs matched, respectively, with harmonic consonances and dissonances (Kristeller 1937; Garin 1976).
Campanella thought that zodiac signs were the expression of minor “dignities,” the last supernatural powers of the celestial hierarchy, whose influence was very hard to decipher for the sky observer. According to him, it was essential to know the “ascendant” of the event that was under interpretation, even if getting the right ascendant was almost impossible and always correctable. Interestingly, he observed that adopting the geocentrical or the heliocentrical astronomical model was non-influential for astrology, since it was interested just in the relative positions of the sun, planets, and zodiac stars from the earthly point of view (Tester 1987).
However there was no shortage of attacks against the zodiac and the astrological doctrines that it was accompanied with. Savonarola’s Tractato contra li astrologi (1497) and Pico’s posthumous Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem (1496) represented two of the strongest threats against the astrological zodiac and its mundane understanding. Pico, in particular, criticized the arbitrary division of zodiac sectors in the heavens (“where the stars are turned into animals and the sky is full of fairytales”), as artificial, questionable, and disagreeable, also because of the phenomenon called “precession of the equinoxes,” that the astronomers of his time wrongly did not take account of.
According to A. Kircher’s Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (1646; 1671), zodiac is the place where the blessed and the saints found their afterlife rest, and its 12 signs correspond to the 12 emanations of divine virtues. Among many others, he held to the ancient Hermetic doctrine that the human being, as a microcosm, reflected the macrocosm so that every part of the body was dependent on a sign of the zodiac, from Aries at the head to Pisces at the feet (a doctrine known as melothesia). In fact, as Stegman wrote: “in the Renaissance…the Zodiac [as symbolic set] provides an explanation of the celestial system as well as of temperaments and humors from which even pure scientists, who ignored or condemned legal astrology, deducted psycological correspondances and clinical diagnosis. It was, in fact, also through the symbolic sciences that natural sciences, physical and psychosomatic medicine progressed” (Stegman 1972, 10–11).
The Jesuit Jeremias Drexel wrote a popular Zodiacus Christianus (1618; 1622), where he tried to christianize the 12-fold pattern of the zodiac into a new one, with moral intent. Also William Lilly’s Christian Astrology (1647) was an attempt of making use of the zodiac for Christian purposes.
In his De Stella nova (1606), Kepler argued that the 12-fold division of the zodiac is just a historical, made-up device and so also the nomenclature of the signs is anything but the result of human imagination, so without any natural significance (Field 1984, 201). On the other hand, the astrologer J.-B. Morin still maintained that zodiac’s celestial sectors (or “houses” of the signs) are not arbitrary nor conventional divisions but rather that they are real marks always present in the nature of the heavens, as he wrote in the seventeenth book of his posthumous work Astrologia Gallica (1661).
Both Islamic and Jewish cultures were also very acquainted with the astrological and iconographic power of the zodiac. The zodiac pattern emerged as a decorative theme in Jewish art, from synagogal mosaics to frontispieces of Hebrew manuscripts, with concealed meaning of messianic expectation (Sonne 1953). The Arab Middle East made a precise and stylized use of the zodiac on detailed stellar maps, although there it was deprived of almost all its mythological background (Saxl 1985 [1925–1926]).
In Renaissance times, the zodiac set of constellations was a widespread iconographic motive and favored symbol of adornment, both in private and in public sphere, making its appearance even on tapestries, miniatures of codices, tarots, and playing cards (Zuffi-Novellone 2009). Along the time, it appeared on stellar circular maps, as on the famous Dürer’s engravings, and on celestial globes of the starry vault, with decorative and didactic purposes (Bodnár 2007).
It had also a recognizable civic and urban character, as it appeared in courthouses and on many tower clocks of some European central squares, but it was on the walls of noble halls that zodiac imaginary dominated the scene. In fact magnificent representations of the zodiac can be found not only on the ceilings of many court palaces of the main royal houses but even in shrines and chapels in the Vatican, with astrological and heraldic valences.
The mythological images of the zodiac struggled for a long time to be always updated in consideration of the new astral discoveries, trying to maintain their long-standing role among the sciences, until the roads of astronomy and astrology started to tear irremediably apart.
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