Art Matters is the podcast that brings together popular culture and art history, hosted by Ferren Gipson.
What's your sign? Are you a believer in astrology? These days you may think of astrology as the horoscope you find in the back of a magazine, but it dates back millennia, and different cultures around the world have developed their own systems. This story will discuss popular Western astrology, but it's worth noting that there are Chinese, Mayan, Indian and other systems as well. In an examination of the relationship between astrology and art, we can see some of the interesting ways that mythology, religion and astrology intersect and gain deeper insight into each.
The iconology of this field has been used in a multitude of surprising ways. In the above image of The Zodiac Man, parts of the body correspond to astrological signs. The arms are Gemini, the feet are Pisces, the heart is Cancer, and so on. These charts would have been used as a medical aid to treat the body, and examples of similar illustrations have been found in Welsh and Persian medieval manuscripts.
'The oldest evidence that people were following the planets was about 4,000 years ago in the Mesopotamian area, which is today Iraq,' says Klemens Ludwig, astrologer and author of the book Astrology in Art. 'This comes together with the mathematical science of the old Greeks, especially Pythagoras and Thales of Miletus. These people were not only great scientists, they were also great spiritual seekers and they brought together a system to create the kind of zodiac we have today.'
The Greek influence in astrology becomes more apparent when you think about the names of celestial bodies and dig into the iconography of some of the signs. For example, the Sagittarius constellation and zodiac sign is symbolised by a centaur. This is based on the half-horse, half-man figure of Chiron from Greek mythology who was a tutor to the warrior Achilles.
Many of the planet's names correspond to the Roman names of mythological gods. For one example, Jupiter is the Roman equivalent to Zeus, the king of the gods. This is relevant because, according to astrology, these planets and figures bear a relationship to astrological signs.
'There is a correspondence between the planets and the signs,' says Klemens. 'There's Aries combined with Mars, there is Taurus combined with Venus, there is Gemini combined with Mercury, and so on. And this means when these planets are in their own signs, they are very strong.'
Greek and Roman mythology is a huge subject in the history of art, and with such an overlap between astrology and mythology, it seems plausible that some works with mythological subject matter may be able to be interpreted in alternative ways.
While it may seem hard to imagine now, there was a time when powerful figures like kings and even popes would look to astrological methods for guidance. These leaders would look to astrologers to help make decisions, ranging from when to go to battle, how to construct buildings, or when to hold important events. If astrology once held this level of influence amongst powerful figures, it follows that there must be some visual evidence of this traceable in art history.
'It goes back to the antique and pre-antique time. At that time, not only astrology, but also art was very much limited for the priests and for the rulers. So it came together that we find the zodiac in old Jewish synagogues which go back to the Hellenistic era or even Roman nobles' places,' says Klemens.
Despite the two seeming to occupy opposite ends of a spiritual spectrum today, there was once a more intimate relationship between astrology and religion. While there have always been religious figures who took issue with astrology, examples of zodiac symbols can be found in religious buildings.
'In the medieval ages in many churches, we see astrology or zodiac signs in the tympanum... which is a very important place [in] these old cathedrals when you enter the sacred area,' says Klemens. 'It is obvious how important astrology was as a part of the world created by God to talk to the people.'
Staying on the topic of religion, let's look at a possible astrological interpretation for Leonardo da Vinci's famous fresco The Last Supper. Jesus is sat at the centre of a dinner table with six apostles on either side of him, and it is in this scene that Jesus informs the group that one of them will betray him.
Klemens provided an explanation for this scene in which each disciple represents an astrological sign. They're grouped in threes by season, and are represented in order, beginning with Pisces and ending with Aries. For a detailed explanation of how each sign is characterised, please listen to the full podcast episode.
Now it may be useful to go over some of the iconography that is often used to represent each of the signs. There is a stunning painting by Ernest Proctor in the Tate collection that shows all of the signs together in a swirling composition peppered with stars and moons. In it, we see Virgo in the centre, represented by a woman. In her hand is a set of scales, symbolising Libra. Starting from her feet and moving clockwise, we see Scorpio the scorpion, Sagittarius the archer, Capricorn the goat with a fish tail, Pisces the fish, Aquarius pouring water over the fish, Aries the ram, Gemini the twins, Taurus the bull, Cancer the crab, and Leo the Lion.
This iconography is handy to know as we look at an engraving by Albrecht Dürer called Sol Justitiae – 'sol' meaning sun in Latin, and 'justitiae' meaning justice. In the engraving, a figure whose face shines like the sun sits atop a lion, which we know can be a symbol for Leo. In his right hand is a sword and in his left are scales.
'Art historians say Dürer made a portrait of the goddess of Justice, but the goddess of Justice always has her eyes blindfolded,' says Klemens. 'When you look deeper into it, there's a combination of the sun, and the Leo.'
It's possible that this piece has a double meaning, with astrological symbols being used to reinforce religious imagery. It was inspired by a religious text by Petrus Berchoius given to Dürer by his godfather. The reference to summertime as the lion may allude to the fact that Leo largely takes place in August, one of the hottest months of the year, so the lion visual carries two meanings.
After the Enlightenment period, there was a decline in astrology as it was seen to be pseudoscientific. 'In the late eighteenth century, astrology had declined. It was kicked out the universities – before, it was a very common part of university studies,' says Klemens.
After an age of industrialisation, the pendulum swung the other way towards the end of the nineteenth century and artists became increasingly interested in esoteric ideas like astrology.
'We have – in the twentieth century – Salvador Dalí, and even Andy Warhol had astrology symbols in their work. Andy Warhol – the master of Pop Art – created the twelve signs of the zodiac with handwritten interpretations,' says Klemens.
For a bit of fun, I asked Klemens if there are any signs that are known to be particularly good at art. He tells me that an artist will certainly have influences from Libra, which is a sign associated with aesthetics. This doesn't mean that the birth sign must be Libra, it may appear in other significant places in a person's birth chart. For good artistic combination in a birth chart, Klemens suggests Libra for aesthetics, Aquarius for new ideas and Capricorn for good discipline.
There are art historians who have discussed the relationship between art and astrology, and Klemens cites the German art historian Aby Warburg as being particularly adept in this area. Warburg stated that a basic knowledge of astrology was essential for a good art historian. There's much to dig into on this subject and if you're of a mind to explore further, I suggest starting with Hilma af Klint's astrological diagrams or the work of John Varley, who was a nineteenth-century painter and astrologer.
Listen to the full episode at the top of this page or on your favourite podcast service to hear about the relationship between art and astrology in even greater detail.
Listen to our other Art Matters podcast episodes