The history of what we now think of as ‘astrology’ – using the date/time of your birth to link you to a zodiac symbol which has impact on your personality and future – is a long one.
Nowadays, asking someone what their sign is, or blaming a bad spell in your life on the fact that Mercury is in retrograde, will probably result in some eyes being rolled at you. However, astrology used to be practiced and respected by scientists, religious leaders, and royalty as a way to navigate the world around them. Ronald Reagan even had an astrologer on call during his time at the White House.
Each of the signs of the zodiac is ruled by a celestial body – for Aries’ it’s Mars, for Cancers it’s the moon, Libra – Venus, etc. It was a pretty rough year for Scorpios in 2006 when their ruling planet – Pluto – was downgraded to a ‘dwarf planet’. All of the planets in our solar system (except Earth) are named after Ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, and the characteristics of these deities and their planets and constellations are linked to our beliefs about the star signs. If you’re strolling through a museum or national gallery, it’s almost impossible to not spot a painting or two showing the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses – these deities are bound to astrology.
The first artistic references to astrology are much much earlier, found in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The symbols today also have Pagan roots.
The cross-over between art and astrology isn’t a wildly new concept, either. Artists have been incorporating the night sky into their works for hundreds of years, and art historians have been analysing the astrological influence on these works for generations. Art historian Aby Warburg was a specialist in zodiac symbolism and believed that all good art historians should have a fundamental understanding of astrology. Klemens Ludwig, an astrologer and author of the book Astrology in Art, was interviewed by Ferren Gibson for the Art Matters podcast and said that Libras makes the best artists (and it doesn’t hurt to have a little Aquarius and Capricorn thrown into your chart for a bit of inspiration and discipline).
We’ve turned our heads to the sky (well – our eyes to the internet) to find some star-studded works of art capturing the zodiac, and here are some of our favourite astrological art works from history:
Horoscope from The Book of The Birth of Iskandar (1411)
The Book of the Birth of Iskandar documents the astrological chart of Iskandar – a Timurid Prince – from when he was born in 1384 (on April 25th – hello Taurus). The manuscript is lavishly illustrated with gold-detailed images (like the Pisces symbol above) and calligraphy. The work is an interesting document of Middle Eastern aesthetics being combined with a Western version of astrology.
Persian Zodiac Man (19th Century)
The concept of the Zodiac Man (where each star sign is aligned with an area of the body) has existed since the Hellenistic era in Greece, but this is a much later example. We love how this illustration is like one of those ‘tag yourself’ posts from Facebook in the early 2010s. We’re they knees 😉
Miniature of the Astronomer Richard of Wallingford (14th Century)
Next up on Tiny House Nation! This adorable image shows the astrologer, mathematician, and abbott Richard of Wallingford. Richard wrote two books about horoscopes and astrology, and is famed for an astronomical clock he designed of which there is no surviving trace.
July in Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (15th Century)
The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is a famous book of hours (a type of prayer book) from the late Gothic period. Astrology isn’t seen in any other books like this, but its patron – the Regent of France, John Duke of Berry – was obsessed with it. Each month is illustrated in the manuscript with an accompanying arc showing the transition from one zodiac sign to another as the month passes. Above, (in July) we can see Cancer turn to Leo.
Tympanum of Chartres Cathedral (13th Century)
In this tympanum above the left door of the West portal at Chartres Cathedral, we see Jesus on a cloud surrounded by the typical accompanying angels and Apostles. However, in an arch around the central design are carvings representing each of the signs of the zodiac.
Gemini in Sidney Hall Urania’s Mirror (1824)
Urania’s Mirror is a set of 32 cards depicting constellations and their associated star signs. Designed by the Reverend Richard Rouse Bloxam and engraved by Sidney Hall, the set gets its name from Urania the Ancient Greek muse of astronomy.
Zodiac Wheel in Beth Alpha Synagogue (6th Century)
This mosaic wheel on the floor of Beth Alpha synagogue in Lower Galilee was discovered in 1928 and puzzled archeologists with its inclusion of the Greek zodiac. It’s thought that the inclusion of the design was meant to remind visitors to the synagogue that the designs of God is permanently written in the stars.
Alphonse Mucha’s Zodiac (1869)
This work was originally designed for a calendar and went on to become one of Mucha’s most popular illustrations. The twelve symbols of the zodiac form a halo around a beautiful profile typical of the artist’s work.
Ernest Procter’s The Zodiac (1925)
All twelve zodiac signs feature in this swirling image. Going clockwise from top left we have: Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Capricorn. The animals and figures dance through a night sky, with the sun taking the centre, just like their namesake constellations.
Hilma af Klint’s The Dove No. 12 (1915)
Hilma af Klint has only recently had her genius appreciated, and was largely unheard of until the latter half of the 20th Century despite creating abstract work several years before the male artists who claimed to have invented it. She was interested in the occult and spirituality, and this work includes four zodiac symbols orbiting a large planet. Much of her work is less literal than this one, and she drew inspiration from many different spiritual and religious sources.
Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495)
Did you know that there’s an astrological reading of The Last Supper? Some believe that each of the twelve apostles have been assigned a zodiac sign and their body-language represents that sign’s qualities. For example, Peter who stands to Jesus’ left, is impassioned and holds a dagger (a phallic symbol) and is thought to represent Scorpio.
Warhol’s Zodiac Illustrations (1961)
Andy Warhol created a book of illustrated horoscopes called Horoscopes for the Cocktail Hour and you can see each of the beautiful pages via the Andy Warhol Museum’s Twitter page.
Author: Verity Babbs