Astronomical Images : Heliocentric cosmos with Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler

John Wilkins

Astronomical Images

<p style='text-align: justify;'>John Wilkins (1614-1672) was an Anglican clergyman and one of the founding members of the Royal Society, taking a keen interest in mathematical and experimental philosophy. In 1638 he published his first book, <i>The Discovery of a World in the Moon</i>, in which he presented a world of truths ready to be uncovered by the diligent explorer. It was this text in an expanded form that comprised the first book of his <i>A Discourse Concerning a New World and another Planet in Two Books</i>, published in 1640; the second book provided a point-by-point defence of the Copernican hypothesis. In these works, Wilkins presents a variety of ideas that challenged existing natural philosophical views ' particularly his suggestion that the Moon could in fact be a world with topographical features similar to the Earth, its own atmosphere, and even its own inhabitants. Proposition fourteen, added to the expanded text of 1640, even goes as far as to suggest that future generations may find a means of travelling to this other world! This complex image forms the frontispiece to Wilkins's <i>A Discourse Concerning a New World and another Planet</i> (1640). It was engraved by William Marshall, one of the most prolific English engravers of the period. A highly composite image, it combines a more straightforward cosmological diagram with allegorical figures and symbols. Many of the pictorial elements of the composition are borrowed from earlier authors; for instance, the image of Copernicus on the left is copied directly from the title-page of Galileo's <i>Systema cosmicum</i> (1635), while the frontispiece portrait of the same work also provides the inspiration for the figure of Galileo on the right. The rather crude bird is also derived from the title-page of Gerard Longbaine's 1636 Greek and Latin edition of Dionysius Longinus, <i>On the Sublime</i> ' also engraved by William Marshall. This borrowing and adapting of earlier pictorial elements reflects a common practice in early modern printing. At the centre of the image, a banner decorated in accordance with the Moon's landscape proclaims the title of the work. Above this, and occupying the upper portion of the image, is a cosmological diagram imported from the title-page of Wilkins's earlier work, <i>The Discovery of a World in the Moon</i>. Utilising the familiar geographical line drawing typical of cosmological diagrams of the period, this figure represents a heliocentric solar system surrounded by an unbounded region of fixed stars. Each orb is accompanied by a mythological figure representing the relevant planet. In the case of the Earth, the orb is labelled '<i>Ceres et Proserpina</i>', representing the Earth and Moon respectively, recalling the mythological quest of Ceres to find her daughter, Proserpina, who had been abducted by Pluto. Wilkins interprets this myth as 'the longing desire of men, who live upon Ceres, Earth, to attain a place in Proserpina, the Moon, or heaven'. Notice also that the depiction of the Earth and Moon provides detail of the direct and indirect illumination by the Sun; a full description is provided by Wilkins in his text, accompanied by a figure very similar to the depiction in the frontispiece. The inscription accompanying the Sun in the centre, altered from the original diagram in the <i>Discovery</i>, declares: 'To all things I give light, heat, motion' [<i>Omnibus do lucem, calorem, motum</i>]. This reflects Wilkins's approval of the Keplerian view that the rotation of the magnetic Sun controls planetary motion. Below this and flanking the central banner are three figures. On the left stands Copernicus, holding a simplified model of his heliocentric system in one hand while the other points skywards towards the cosmological diagram. Through the ribbon (or 'phylactery') issuing forth from his mouth, Copernicus asks, 'What if it were thus?' [<i>Quid si sic?</i>], thereby asking the viewer to consider the truth of his heliocentric system. This is highly reminiscent of the representation of Tycho Brahe on the frontispiece to Kepler's <i>Rudolphine Tables</i>, itself derived from a portrait of Tycho in his observatory buildings on the island of Hven. On the right stands Galileo, holding his telescope and gesturing to a bird as it ascends to the heavens. Accompanied by the phrase '<i>Hic eius oculi</i>', these motifs signify the enhanced eyesight afforded to Galileo by his telescope, by which 'we are advanced nearer unto [the heavenly bodies], and the heavens are made more present to us than they were before'. However, Galileo's downcast gaze may also represent a metaphorical blindness, his refusal to consider the plurality and inhabitability of other worlds, despite his empirical observations. Indeed, while Galileo and his telescope represent the more practical aspect of astronomy, Kepler, standing behind Galileo, is invoked by Wilkins for the 'theoretical part of astronomy'. While Wilkins celebrates the contribution of Galileo's telescopic observations, he also stresses the need to supplement the senses with 'discourse and reason', in order to enhance and extend the philosophical speculation. By whispering in his ear, '<i>Utinam et alae</i>', Kepler urges both Galileo and the viewer to go beyond earthbound observations, to metaphorically fly to an inhabitable Moon like the nearby bird. In this sense, there may also be a mathematical interpretation; common in Renaissance and early modern iconography was the representation of arithmetic and geometry as the wings of astronomy. Thus the pairing of Galileo and Kepler in this image may reflect the unification of theory and practice, by which the astronomer is able to soar to the heavens.</p>

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