Not a Centaur. Sagittarius fol 73v (starting from scratch #12)

Summary: Sagittarius as a bow.  Non-Roman forms for Sagittarius depicted in two Caroline manuscripts and in thirteenth century works.  The fully-human form is non-classical and appears late.

brief note: Nick Pelling has recently published an observation about this section of the manuscript. I’m quite enthused about it, but with the next ten posts already in the pipeline, more on that later.

spacer SpMu

I have massive doubts about Quires 10 and 11 having ever been designed to represent the twelve figures in the Roman zodiac.  The evidence is just not there in the imagery, and its only support is a set of inscriptions naming a month for each.  It would be much easier if I could accept the universal assumptions here, but I can’t – at least, not at present.

But a revisionist history is supposed to revise our angle on things, and writing it has already made me re-think a few things, so for the sake of argument we’ll agree that the archer figure was originally meant for Sagittarius, whether or not as part of the 12-figure series.  On that basis, the evidence agrees, yet again, with Panofsky’s assessment; all our evidence suggests that the idea of replacing the Romans’ centaur with a fully human, standing archer occurred among just a few Jewish communities in the north, outside the limit of the old Roman boundary for Judea.

The decision seems to have been taken in about the sixth century AD, and we have two examples preserved from that time, one better preserved than the other.  Both were set in a zodiac wheel, one certainly of the so-called ‘helios’ type. This is the better preserved example, and is inset in the floor of a synagogue called Beth Alpha in the ancient town of Beth She’an, one which was known to others from Hellenistic, though Roman and Byzantine times as ‘Scythopolis’  – a reference to the Scythians who were brought to settle here from inner Asia – first in the early centuries after Alexander and later under the Romans. One imagines that others came voluntarily.  The header to this post is the Beth Alpha figure.

(Beth She’an is also known as Beit She’an, as Beesān, Beisan or Bisan).

It is theoretically possibility that the Asian crossbow arrived here too around the turn of our era, because these Scythians came from the region adjacent to where we find an image of the crossbow, from territories of the Western Han, in 100 BC.  There is a great deal of information online about interactions between the Western Han and the Scythians, so I omit details here.

western Han. c.100 BC

western Han. c.100 BC

Neither archaeological nor documentary evidence allows certainty, either way, about whether Scythian immigrants brought the Asian crossbow, but Asian bows were certainly more powerful than the Romans, who excuse defeat at Carrhae (Harran) by referring to the Parthians’ having steel from Margan (Margiana/Merv).The steel and weapons of Margiana were so fine that the term is sometimes given as “Magian”, with implications of magical quality. Some speak of the Parthian arrows  in that battle “partially penetrating the Roman shields, and nailing the shields to the limbs of the Roman infantry”

On Trajan’s triumphal column, celebrating the fall of Jerusalem, one image of a crossbow is shown (Scene XL) but it is hardly comparable to what we see in f.73v.

Another among the Asian crossbows had reached the Black Sea by the fourth century BC. It is the asymmetrical bow which was recorded about that time by the Ionian astronomer Eudoxus, who has it the oldest representation for Sagittarius known to the Greeks.  He associates it with a ‘Pan’ figure whose name he thought was Croton or Crotus, and we know he had good reason for those views, because a Milesian colony in the Black Sea, Pantikapaeon, produced a coin showing the constellation on one side and the ‘Pan’ on the other. In about the middle of the third century BC.


So much older than it was than the Roman zodiac, the Pan and his bow survived the centuries to appear in two manuscripts of the Carolingian and Ottonian periods.  Charlemagne himself preferred the classical Roman forms, and so most copies of the Aratea show the usual Roman centaur, but I found two exceptions. The one on the left is dated to Charlemagne’s lifetime but comes from the south – an eighth century Spanish manuscript.  That on the right is much later – last quarter of the 10th century. It has clearly come from a different exemplar and was drawn by an Anglo-Saxon “working on the continent” ~ as  the catalogue entry puts it [BL MS Harley 2506 fol. 39v].  This second figure was bound in a manuscript retained at Fleury.

You can see their difference. Where the Spanish version gives the figure a bird-like nose and yet another form of  Asian bow (c.f those recovered from Miran, or from Niya, where an asymmetric bow was also recovered), the Anglo-Saxon, or ‘Fleury’ figure refers to the classical image of the Parthian as representative and messenger of Persia. This is denoted by the long, paired wings seen emerging from hat or hair. (The Greek Hermes, properly, has wings only on his sandals). His cap is of the right Parthian type, yet his bow is not the Perseo-Parthian. It is another type,  rarely attested.  The example linked is from a ‘Greek’ artefact whose imagery is again atypical.


As late as the thirteenth century, Caroline texts provided models for Latin imagery in various media.  Whether depicting Sagittarius as the usual Centaur or the much rarer Pan, the lineage  of Latins’ astronomical imagery is usually clear.

Because the ‘Pan’ type is relatively rare, we may use this pair shown below to track transmission of a specific form from early thirteenth century France to Germany. It is another instance of point-to-point transmission across distance and across media, not rare in medieval works.


In medieval Picardy, Amiens Cathedral’s new west facade had its northern portal complete by about 1225, though work on the rest of the facade continued for another twenty years.

In the north portal, within the usual ‘labours of the months’ series, the ‘Pan’ is shown for Sagittarius.  The sculptor reduced its animal aspect, limiting the animal hide until it resembled short trousers. The feet were left bare and one formed as a human foot, while the other merely hints at the cloven hoof.

These same details were soon replicated by the German manuscript artist, as well as he could, within just a few years of the work’s being carved, keeping even the proportion of the tail’s length to the leg. However, we must suppose that the artist, or the person who had seen in the original in France, had seen it from below (as one does) and from the rear or sunward side.

By reference to the manuscript, one may posit that the Amiens figure originally had its arrow and cap gilded, or made of metal, but precision is impossible now that centuries of weather and damage have taken their toll.  The German copy even suggests that the arrow might have been a piece of wire, not a form carved or cast. So that the reader was not similarly presented only with a back-view, the manuscript reinstates the proverbial Parthian ‘back-look’ – and perhaps again by reference to the Fleury figure.  Because we have so few other examples of Sagittarius as Pan in medieval Europe, the close connection between a sculpture in one region of medieval Latin Europe and a manuscript produced in another allows a more secure dating of the latter to the early decades of the thirteenth century.

Until recently, the fully human version of Sagittarius’ emblem had been thought a development from the ‘Pan’ type, but more recent research shows that it arrives later and is separately adopted, even retaining in some way a reference to the region about Beth She’an, which before the exile had marked a border of the tribal territory of Manasseh, along with Taanach, Megiddo and Dor.  These names were not unfamiliar to contemporary Latins of Europe, whose religious canon had from the earliest days of Christianity included all the texts of the Jewish Law, Prophets and writings.

With regard to fifteenth century associations for Sagittarius,  I want to consider again one example from Germany of the time, and another from France.  These show, respectively, that Sagittarius in this form was being associated with German Jews, while in France, Jews could be associated with the crossbow. The French example is from a Paris Book of Hours, the German from a manuscript calendar.  How broadly disseminated such ideas might have been we do not know.

But I see that I’m well over the thousand-word mark, so the rest can wait for now.


Below: a standard Roman style zodiac band and an east = up oriented earth.  Detail from [add link ] ‘the Creation of the World‘, Baptistry of the Duomo, Padua. Fresco c.1376.  Giusto de’Menabuoi  (1320–1391).



next post….  in fifteenth century Europe


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s