by Klemens Ludwig
It’s helpful to understand what astrology is exactly before we dive into the beginner’s guide to astrology. Human beings have been measuring the stars and planets since the dawn of civilization. But astrology has evolved over eons. As astrologer Kevin Burk puts it in Astrology: Understanding the Birth Chart: “Astrology is the study of. Cosmic Astrology: An East-West Guide to Your Internal Energy Persona Chia, Mantak, Wei, William U. on Amazon.com.FREE. shipping on qualifying offers. Cosmic Astrology: An East-West Guide to Your Internal Energy Persona.
Astrological symbolism has inspired many great artists. Inthis panoramic survey, the President of the German Astrologers’Association takes us on a journey from prehistoric cave art to the 21stcentury via Titian, da Vinci, Dali, Warhol, Hilma af Klint,Hundertwasser and many more
Nebra Sky Disc,
Bronze disc depicting the Sun, Moonand stars, c. 1600 BCE
Source: Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0
Astrological symbolism is a central theme throughout the history ofart. This is to be expected because art expresses current and timelessideas in a visual form. Astrology gives a broader understanding of thesenotions, expressing the vision that we are not isolated but connected totradition. It helps people searching for orientation. Both art andastrology share the desire for cosmic harmony and aesthetics.
Taking this background into consideration, it is not surprising that the greatest artists (such as Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Raphael orAlbrecht Dürer) used the symbols of astrology. Likewise, modern masterssuch as Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, and the unknown architects of thegreat cathedrals. This is true not only of creators of work exhibited inmuseums or documented in old books but also of castles,palaces,town halls, cathedrals,baptisteries, bell towers and middleclass houses (which wereoften, in all epochs, adorned with zodiac art).
The hidden beginning
We can go back thousands of years, long before the ‘ChristianAge’, to find early traces of architecture inspired by astrology orplaces where a star cult was practised. Some historians assert that thateven the cave paintings in northern Spain and southern France (going backabout 25,000 years) depict symbols of early worship of a star cult. Hereyou will find, for instance, images of a bull that resembles thecontemporary zodiac sign of Taurus.
Of course, this is speculation. Probably, we shall never learn what those prehistoric people saw in the sky and how they integrated what theysaw into their cult. Just as we will never find out who built places suchas Stonehenge in England, Newgrange in Ireland or the Nebra Sky Disc inGermany. But we can be sure that these locations were important placesfor ceremonies of winter and summer solstices, two key moments inastrology. And it is also obvious that humankind has always looked atnatural phenomena such as the sun, moon, stars, trees, rocks, springs andlakes as an expression of the Divine, often using each as an inspirationfor cult worship and the creation of works of art.
The oldest examples of art which can still be admired today, inspired by our familiar zodiac, date back to the ancient Roman era. The ancientworld was most probably the first era in which astrology and the artswere not limited to celebrating spiritual and secular leaders. Wallpaintings and mosaics in the villas of high-status individuals provethat. Unfortunately, only a few examples survive. Among them is a fineone which can be viewed in the Rhenish Museum in the former Germancapital Bonn. It is a mosaic showing the zodiac and the Sun God at itscentre, dating back to the 2nd century AD. It was found in the Rhineriver area 200 km south of Bonn at the end of the 19th century. Along theriver, altars of the Mithra cult have been discovered. Mithraism, apopular cult throughout the Roman Empire, originated from Persia andextensively employed astrological symbolism.
Many ancient zodiacs are to be found in Israel. Although some prophets strongly opposed astrology, the Jewish tradition is full of its symbols.For instance, the Menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum: it representsthe seven classical planets. The candle in the middle symbolises thezodiacal Sun. The planets are so arranged that ruling signs are in theirnatural opposition: Venus (Taurus) on the left, Mars (Scorpio) on theright, followed by Mercury (Gemini) on the left and Jupiter (Sagittarius)on the right. And finally, the Moon (Cancer) on the left and Saturn(Capricorn) on the right.
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The most complete examples of the ancient zodiac can be seen close to Lake Galilee, in the northern part of Israel. Amazingly, they are insynagogues such as those in Hammat Tiberias which became a centre ofJewish culture after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. The 12 signs fromthe 3rd century AD still look vivid. The zodiac can also be seen in thesynagogues of Beth Alpha, Naaran, Susiya, Huseifa and Sepphoris, allclose by.
The fall of the Roman Empire led to cultural decline that includedthe fading of astrology. Only after Charlemagne established a new empirenorth of the Alps in the 9th century (which stretched his power to the Mediterranean) did culture revive in all its forms. UnderCharlemagne’s third son, Louis the Pious, the zodiac handwriting ofLeiden was created in 820. It contains 35 miniatures of the zodiac signsand the planets. At the same time, the Utrecht Psalter was created, oneof the masterpieces of book art in the age of the Carolingians. It showsChrist atop a mountain, encircled by the zodiac.
Hunterian Psalter, Gemini, c. 1170 AD
Source: Photo taken by Klemens Ludwig
Other important examples of book art during this period featuring astrological symbols include the Hunterian Psalter, today exhibited at the University of Glasgow, and Liber Astrologiae by GeorgiusFendulus, a philosopher of the 12th century.
In the Early Middle Ages, during the Romanesque period, cathedralsand churches commonly added astrological symbols to architecture andiconography. And bear in mind that art was largely limited to‘sacred art’ at this time. The zodiac is often to be seen onthe tympanum above the portal that leads into a cathedral. This entrywayis the border between the sinful world and the sacral, the divine area ofGod. Entering the area of the Divine was a kind of initiation riteperformed in full awareness of the passage from profane to sacred. When the believers enter the divine place under the zodiac, it is obvious thatthe stars are part of the signs through which God speaks to humanity.
Of course, Christ is the most frequent figure in tympanums; the zodiac often placed around him demonstrates that the ruler of the universe makes use of the stars as his tools. We find tympanums in many cathedralssuch as of Burgundy, Autun, Vézelay, Avallon (France) andLeón (Spain).
In the ancient Basilica of San Savino of Piacenza, northern Italy, we find the zodiac in two places. The same is true of the famous Maria LaachAbbey in Germany, founded in 1093: zodiacs are to be viewed at theentrance door and in the apsis above the altar. In addition to thetympanum, the zodiac often appears as a mosaic on the floor, such as inSt. Gereon’s Basilica in Cologne and San Miniato al Monte, one ofoldest and the most impressive churches of Florence. The SaintMark’s Basilica in Venice shows a zodiac clock.
An amazing phenomenon is the zodiac in baptisteries, such as in Florence and Parma. Baptism marks the admission into the Christian Church.It is also the admission into the cosmic order. And the zodiac was asymbol of that order.
Astrology as part of communal self-expression
In the transition from the 12th to 13th centuries, societies inEurope changed fundamentally with far-reaching consequences for the artsand astrology. Farming became more and more efficient due to newtechniques and a better climate. The population grew as did trade andurban areas. Merchants became increasingly important. The very successful ones like the Medici or Fugger family gained more influence than the old nobles. Ancestry alone no longer determined the fate of people.
Society opened up and likewise the arts, and especially architecture. We enter the Gothic period with its famous cathedrals which seem to touchthe sky. What remained an important part of society was astrology. Thezodiac appears in the tympanums of the most famous Gothic cathedrals suchas Chartres, Amiens and Notre-Dame de Paris. A typical characteristic ofthe Gothic cathedrals is the richly decorated window, a techniquehitherto unknown. Zodiacal signs and planets are the stock decoration ofchurch windows (Chartres or Lausanne).
Societal changes and the growing influence of the towns and merchants gave artists – for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire – the opportunity to find sponsors beyond the clergy and nobility. It also gavethem the chance to present astrological symbolism in a broader context.The city republics in northern Italy were especially keen to decoratetheir town halls and other representative buildings with signs of thezodiac. The art historian Dieter Blume says of this period, “astrology was part of communal self-expression”.
Prominent examples are the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua, created by the famous Giotto, and the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. Salon de Mesi ofPalazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara followed a little later in the era of theRenaissance.
Start of the Renaissance,
marked by a Neptune-Pluto conjunction, 22 June 1398, Florence, Italy
The Renaissance (in general terms) succeeded the Medieval Period and marked the embryonic beginnings of the ‘Modern Age’, althoughfundamental change had already taken place. A conjunction of Neptune andPluto in 1398/1400 represented this beginning. This conjunction occursevery 493/94 years and it is indeed a symbol of a basic global cataclysm.It took place in Gemini, for the first time on 22 June 1398, with Marsalso in this sign. Only a few years later, on 25 January 1405 we had aGreat Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius, together with theSun in this sign (chart not shown). The air signs Gemini and Aquarius intwo of the most important mundane charts indicate a kind of New Age.Mankind tilted towards individuality, freedom, science, ethics andresponsibility for oneself. Religious ideas of determinism as part of adivine plan waned in the face of an intellectual revolution.
At the same time, astrology had never been so influential insociety, as much among the clergy as lay groups. After his election in1503, Pope Julius II even asked his astrologers to set the best date forhis inauguration. Like him, many theologians were convinced that Godrevealed his will through the stars.
Beside the traditional patronage of the Church, the wealthy dynasties of Medici, Chigi and Sforza-Viconti offered artists and astrologers plentyof opportunities to spread their work and message. Leonardo da Vinci,Raphael, Titian and Dürer regarded astrology as an important source ofinspiration.
In the chapel of the Medici, San Lorenzo, a complete horoscope (dated 4 July 1442, 10.30 am) can be seen above the altar. No one knows for whomor for what this horoscope was cast. Villa Farnesina owned by the Chigifamily is another example.
Often, the symbolism is hidden. The most prominent example is daVinci’s The Last Supper which has greatly confused art historiansbecause they ignore the influence of astrology in the depiction of thetwelve disciples. The Last Supper is a cryptic portrayal of the zodiac. Starting from the right: Simon is Aries, dynamic and forward with hisarms, followed by Thaddaeus, Taurus, with a strong neck, protectinghimself and perhaps his belongings with his arms; Matthew, Gemini, isopen for everything, in contact with everyone, turning his head to oneside, his arms to the other; Philip, Cancer, is vulnerable, sensitive,with a lot of female energy; Jacob, Leo, is self-reliant, taking hisplace as a king with his arms spread wide open; and so on.
Da Vinci's Last Supper
Source: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Many works by Titian and Düreralso contain astrological principles in hidden or esoteric ways. Theseartists lived in a period when astrology was highly regarded. So, thisraises the question, why have some of the greatest artists coded theirastrological message if astrology was unquestioned?
It seems they wanted only the initiated to understand the deepermeaning. There was a significant gap between the astrology presented toordinary people and what the initiated understood. The mostly illiteratecommoners followed the stars and the Moon mainly for agriculturalpurposes. Artists and other initiates used astrology for a deeper understanding of cosmic circles/cycles and the circle of life, themes thatmost peasants and craftsmen did not have time to indulge because survivalwas their priority. Da Vinci and Titian were members of esoteric circles.Da Vinci also used mirror writing so that only a select few couldunderstand it. These artists wanted to address people whom they regardedas equals in their ambition to discover the meaning of life. The same istrue of many unknown master builders who used astrological and esotericsymbols in the great cathedrals.
Book art also became extremely popular, including the use ofastrological symbols. ‘De Sphaera’ and the Très RichesHeures du Duc de Berry are only two of the most prominent examples.
Zodiac clocks on many town halls or churches made astrology part ofeveryday life.
Decline and rise again
After this peak in astrology, a decline was unavoidable. As naturalscience became more and more influential, astrology was questioned and nolonger an indisputable part of society. Also, some political rulers werestrongly opposed to astrology and “other forms offortune-telling”. This had an influence on the arts.
There are still examples of zodiac and planet presentation in theera of the Baroque, but less frequent. It was a period of extremeambivalence. The Thirty Years' War devastated large parts of Europe andmade death part of everyday life. Being aware that every day could be thelast, people wanted to enjoy the moment. Memento mori (“rememberyou must die”) and carpe diem (“seize the day”) werethe expressions of this mindset.
Wallenstein Palais, Prag. The Sun.
Source: Photo taken by Klemens Ludwig
Baroque examples of astrology art are to be found at the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri in Rome with its impressive zodiacon the church floor. And at Wallenstein Palace in Prague, with theplanets and their rulers shown in the ceiling. Today, the hall is part ofthe Czech parliament.
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The eras of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution laid thebasis for the world we know today. Scientists transferred the search forthe cosmic order to the realm of scientific positivism, detaching thisquest from ‘pure’ subjectivity and relativism. Even today,‘rationalists’ deny any broader context to the physical andmetaphysical worlds and dismiss the latter.
At the same time fundamental changes in societies occurred in briefer periods. In medieval times the basic structures of society remained stablefor centuries. With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution thefamiliar patterns changed fundamentally within just a few decades. Thishad a powerful influence on the arts and ushered in many succeeding andoverlapping epochs: Classicism, Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism,Historicism and Art Nouveau. The period also saw a decline in theinfluence of astrology. The ‘cathedrals’ of the new era werefactory buildings, railway stations, mansions for the new capitalists andhousing blocks for the growing urban population. The new ruling classeswere uninterested in metaphysical symbolism.
Yet, astrology never completely disappeared. The rational, scientificview of the world soon experienced its limits. Philosophical andspiritual needs were not served by science which tried (and tries still)to exclude these experiential realities. This reaction led to the rise ofastrology once again, and its return to the arts. Artists of Historicismand Art Nouveau liked to incorporate astrological symbols. In 1880 thespring of the Danube river, for instance, was decorated with the zodiac in the typical form of Historicism, as was the court in Bremen.
One of the most prominent artists of Art Nouveau was the Czechpainter Alphonse Mucha who spent most of his life in Paris. His famouslithography Zodiac features a portrait of a young woman with a halo madeup of the twelve signs and is one of the most impressive examples. Acentre of Art Nouveau was Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt, Germany. Althoughlarge parts of it were destroyed in World War II, one still gets animpression of what it once like. The landmark of Mathildenhöhe is theso-called Wedding Tower decorated with the zodiac in the form of a squarearound a sundial.
In the 20th century, with all its catastrophes, artists sought new,experimental ways of expression. As it became plain that technologicalprogress does not equate to ethical evolution, many people rejectedbeliefs in eternal truths and moral certainties. Artists such as Picasso,Hundertwasser and Dali reflected this disorientation and aimed to givepeople a cosmological orientation. They did so in part by usingastrology. Expressionism, Cubism, Abstract Art and Surrealism were a kindof protest against established or orthodox systems. Artists became moreopen to spiritual questions. Astrology itself became even moreinfluential as it also underwent a basic change, influenced bypsychology, especially by C. G. Jung.
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Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint, the spiritual pioneer of Abstract Art, created The Dove series with the signs of the zodiac. PaulKlee, Wassily Kandinsky and Hannah Höch followed. The Franco-Canadianartist François Dallegret illustrated the twelve signs of thezodiac in the form of racing cars.
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The master of Pop Art, Andy Warhol, also used astrological symbols.In 1959, he printed the twelve signs of the zodiac with hand-written interpretations which demonstrate his deep understanding of astrology.
It is also important to mention the master of surrealism, SalvadorDali. In 1967, he created the lithography The Twelves Signs of theZodiac. The Dutch surrealist painter JohfraBosschartcreated posters of the signs which became very popular. Astrologicalsymbols in handicraft and jewellery are now a commonplace.
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Hundertwasser House, Vienna, Zodiac fountain
Source: Photo taken by Klemens Ludwig
Finally, the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser should notbe forgotten. A zodiac fountain in the entrance area of the HundertwasserHouse in Vienna demonstrates the close connection the artist had withastrology.
Thus, astrology is back. Not only within our culture, but also in the arts. Even so, many orthodox art historians and scholars ignore or stilldeny the importance of astrological art. This limited view overlooks theadvice that Aby Warburg gave 100 years ago, that important works of artcannot be fully interpreted without some basic knowledge of astrology.Although Warburg remains among the most influential of art historians,his point is largely ignored.
Published by: The Astrological Journal, Mar/Apr 2021
KlemensLudwig is a writer and the President of the GermanAstrologers’ Association (DAV). He has been practising astrologysince the late 1980s and has published several books on the subject,including Astrologie in der Kunst (‘Astrology inArt’). His website: astrologie-ludwig.de.
© Klemens Ludwig, 2021
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