Monday, October 11, 2010

Of elements and an angelic sprite


Who is this young girl, painted by the Flemish master Jan Gossart about 1530, now featured in a show "Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art? Maybe the young princess Dorothea of Denmark. Or maybe Jacqueline, daughter of Adolphe de Bourgogne, one of Gossart's patrons. Clearly, her exquisite dress suggests she belongs to a family of considerable means. And the object in her hands, too, is not something you'd find in an ordinary household. (Click to enlarge.)

It is a beautifully crafted amillary sphere, a representation of the heavens, not designed for navigation or observational astronomy, but for demonstration. The tiny sphere at the center is the Earth, The horizontal rings are the Arctic and Antarctic circles, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and the Equator. The broad, engraved band sloping down from left to right is the Ecliptic, or Zodiac, representing the path of the Sun and (approximately) the Moon and planets. With her right-hand index finger she appears to be adjusting the other, thinner oppositely sloping ring, which represents the user's horizon. It appears to be set for a latitude of about 45 degrees, the latitude of Milan, say, rather than northern Europe.

How old is she? Looks about the age of my granddaughter Kate -- ten or eleven, maybe. Perhaps she has been given the armillary sphere as a birthday gift. She would be about the age a young royal of her time might begin instruction in astronomy, which was an integral part of the late medieval and early Renaissance curriculum. I can't imagine a child of her age today having a clue about tropics and ecliptic.

For the artist, the sphere is probably just a prop. The heavenly orbs and circles are echoed in the large pearl at the girl's breast, the drooping chain, the design on her sleeves and cap, even her round pre-adolescent face and eyes. What we have here is the macrocosm and the microcosm -- the cosmos and the human self -- between which Europeans of her time saw multiple correspondences. "I am a little world made cunningly," wrote John Donne, and he meant it literally. Every part of the human body had a correlate in the sky; the stars and planets ruled human affairs. There was ample reason for an educated person or the 16th century to understand things that today we pretty much leave to professional astronomers.

We no longer believe in the correspondences or astrological influence. But we are as much as always children of the stars. Our atoms were forged in stars. Our planet was whirled out of celestial dust. There is no way to understand ourselves without understanding where we came from. Reason enough for children today to learn astronomy.