Geaman on Mendillo, 'Saints and Sinners in the Sky: Astronomy, Religion and Art in Western Culture'

Author: 
M. Mendillo
Reviewer: 
Filip Geaman

M. Mendillo. Saints and Sinners in the Sky: Astronomy, Religion and Art in Western Culture. Cham: Springer, 2022. xiii + 252 pp. $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-3-030-84269-7

Reviewed by Filip Geaman (Johns Hopkins University) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (December, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58266

Michael Mendillo’s book explores two connections important to the history of science: that between astronomy and religion, and that between astronomy and art. The chronological limits of the work span the whole of the Western artistic tradition, from classical depictions of the Ptolemaic cosmos in the first centuries CE to modern art installations in European and North American museums. Mendillo is particularly interested in how premodern star atlases and visual arts portray constellations, providing many striking connections between the realms of aesthetics and scientific instrumentality. He shows not only that constellations were common subjects of Renaissance and modern art but also that the very act of breaking the sky into discrete, manageable images—of constellating—had an ideological component that made it susceptible to polemic.

The longest part of the book addresses the use of images in early modern printed star maps. The first two chapters introduce some astronomical preliminaries and the main sources. Chapter 2 traces a shift from the relatively bare instrumentalism offered in Alessandro Piccolomini’s De le stelle fisse (1540) to the more iconography-laden publications of Johannes Bayer, Julius Schiller, Jeremias Drexel, and Andreas Cellarius in the seventeenth century. Here, Mendillo zooms in on an ephemeral but meaningful movement in seventeenth-century Germany to replace the current set of constellations with a Christianized one, involving filling the sky with biblical figures to efface any mention of pagan heroes (the book’s titular “sinners”). In this respect, the star maps of Bayer and Drexel are considered antecedents to those of the work’s principal subject, Julius Schiller.

Schiller’s atlas, a relatively obscure work, is the centerpiece of the book. The chapters detailing this piece of history build on research Mendillo previously co-authored with Aaron Shapiro, who is also his translator for this book’s Latin sources. Chapter 3 describes the inception and preface to the Catholic Schiller’s Coelum stellatum Christianum (1627), a lavishly illustrated cartographic work that substituted angels, saints, and biblical symbols for the familiar constellations. Mendillo argues that Schiller’s proposal, especially his idea to exchange the twelve constellations of the zodiac for the twelve apostles, was an articulation of Counter-Reformation values in astronomy and reaction against Protestant injunctions against venerating the saints. The book dwells a lot on Schiller’s treatment of the zodiac. Two chapters address the signs’ mythological substrate, plus the iconographic basis for the Coelum stellatum Christianum’s depictions of Jesus’s apostles, handling first its treatment of Aries to Virgo (chapter 4), then Libra to Pisces (chapter 5).

Chapter 6, on the reception of Schiller’s atlas, considers his intervention in the context of evangelical iconoclasm, non-Ptolemaic cosmological reforms, and contemporary developments in telescopic observations. His work says nothing of heliocentrism or Johannes Kepler’s recent exposition of orbital dynamics; the author concludes from this silence that Schiller worked in “splendid isolation” from the wider astronomical community (p. 116). However, it is not clear why these matters would feature in a description of the fixed stars to begin with, nor why this disproves the existence of his ties to other scholarship. Generally, this characterization of the book’s central character contradicts what we know about seventeenth-century trends in scientific communication. More specifically, in such a close study of Schiller’s antecedents, the omission of his contemporary Wilhelm Schickard is notable. Schickard, a Hebraist and astronomer at the University of Tübingen, anticipated Schiller’s publication by a few years, publishing a brief tract known as the Astroscopium (1623) in which he also recommended Christianized analogues for existing constellations. Inspired by the work, Schiller wrote Schickard as a kindred spirit about composing his own star atlas. This book’s analysis, though, still leaves us with questions about how the broader astronomical community influenced Schiller, and Mendillo’s reliance on translations limits us to only a few valuable throughlines—including Johannes Hevelius’s retrospective opinion that Schiller’s invention, though pious, broke too much with convention to be of any practical use.

The back half of the book shifts the subject to the use of astronomical themes in fine art. Mendillo in particular looks to the degree that each artist attained scientific complexity and fidelity when interpreting a given astronomical phenomenon. Chapter 7, for instance, assesses the level of realism in depictions of the constellations and moon in religious scenes in various media. Chapter 8, also on religious art, provides a collection of a half-dozen artistic representations of comets, eclipses, and instruments.

These two chapters are followed by another five on astronomy’s portrayal in “secular” artworks. Chapter 9 considers Peter Paul Rubens’s ties to seventeenth-century astronomers and their possible role in the high degree of astronomical fidelity some of his landscapes exhibit. In chapter 10, Mendillo selects several cases of astronomical content in more atypical instances of visual art: Roman coins and medallions, sculptures in public settings, a modern art installation, decorative orreries, and tapestries. Chapter 11 shares some examples of “decorative art,” by which he means frescoes and murals, many of which prominently featured astronomical-mythological subjects. Here, he notes a shared artistic sensibility between how this material was portrayed in Renaissance interiors (the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua and Villa Farnesina in Rome), and how it decorates mostly Gilded Age public buildings in major American cities. Three specific artists are the subject of chapter 12. We are presented with a series of sketches by Pablo Picasso and a series of paintings by Joan Miró, both titled Constellation, representing abstractions of conventional stick-and-dot diagrams. The more obscure addition to this chapter, Joseph Cornell, is noted for his innovative presentations of boxed “assemblages”—arrangements of found objects—some of which incorporated twentieth-century astronomical diagrams. In the last chapter, Mendillo lists yet more instances of celestial content by other artists: Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns, and Salvador Dalí. In his sections on fine art, the author sometimes finds striking points of contact between the artistic and astronomical worlds, like his demonstration that Peter Paul Rubens may have learned about the Orion Nebula from its discoverer, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, and then incorporated it into one of his paintings.

This work is geared toward a popular audience, so the book does not reference any sources consulted other than in a bibliographic essay at the back. Mendillo has an accessible style and can easily find language that resonates with a reader who may be unfamiliar with a particular historical topic. One negative consequence, though, is that it becomes difficult to distinguish the different registers in his authorial voice when he is writing as a historian and when he is writing in an emic way, echoing the cultural outlook (misprisions and all) of some historical figure whose worldview he is inhabiting. What, for example, are we supposed to make of Mendillo’s claim that John the Apostle “was the author of the fourth gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation” (p. 76)?

Even in a popularization, the book’s stated goal of evaluating sources for evidence of scientific progress yields superficial conclusions. In attempting to link Schiller to contemporary cosmological disputes, this work missed opportunities to address the more germane instrumental aspects of early modern uranometry. For example, the author does not discuss Schiller and Bayer’s choices of mathematical projection for their atlases, nor the nomenclature they used for designating stars, both subjects of considerable concern at the time. While Mendillo’s lack of primary sources is understandable due to the language barrier, he regrettably does not lean into his expertise in astronomical imaging even when this would have lent itself to a more fruitful explanation of the star atlas’s historical significance. When it comes to explaining his actors’ scientific decision calculus, the author successfully conveys why the concerns of astronomers from Galileo’s time might resonate with our own scientific sensibilities, but the work’s narrow and occasionally unclear scope preclude any more substantive conclusions.

Citation: Filip Geaman. Review of Mendillo, M., Saints and Sinners in the Sky: Astronomy, Religion and Art in Western Culture. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. December, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58266

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