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Astronomical Images : Atlas bearing the heavens

William Cuningham

Astronomical Images

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This image of Atlas as <i>Coelifer</i>, or 'bearer of the heavens', functions both as a representation of the celestial sphere and an allusion to mythic astronomical history. Since Antiquity, the legend of the Titan Atlas had been interpreted in various ways - as well as the giant turned into Mount Atlas of classical myth, he was represented as an ancient King of the Moors and an early teacher of spherical astronomy. These various accounts of Atlas help to explain his conventional attributes - such as the crown - and his inclusion in disciplinary histories of astronomy which promoted the antiquity and nobility of the art. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, comparisons of astronomers with Atlas and the description of their labours as Atlantic (that is, Atlas-like) were commonplace: Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel and Tycho Brahe were among the individuals flattered in this way. Earlier representations of Atlas bearing the heavens appeared in works such as Gregor Reisch's <i>Margarita philosophica</i> (1503) and Johannes Schoener's <i>Opusculum geographicum</i> (1533). In several cases, as in Cuningham's version, the representation of the celestial sphere 'borne' by Atlas is an illusionistic portrayal of an armillary sphere. The degree scale on the outermost edge of the drawn sphere, the unmarked wide band suggestive of a horizon ring, and the fleur-de-lis finial of the north celestial pole are the elements which seem to indicate that such an instrument was - whether immediately or at some remove - one of the models for the image. Spheres, globes and other instruments were indeed produced with Atlas mounts in the early modern period, so the inspiration could have been direct. However, this example also incorporates a version of the traditional nested-sphere cosmological diagram representing the spherical heavens and Elements of the sublunary region. Such a combination was appropriate for Cuningham's text which, as a work of cosmography, was particularly concerned with spherical astronomy and its application to the surface of the Earth.</p>

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