The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts – new exhibition begins at The Getty

The J. Paul Getty Museum will be exploring how the celestial realm was viewed in the Middle Ages as part of its new exhibition The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts. The Los Angeles-based museum will be showcasing a wide variety of illuminated manuscripts and printed books from April 30 to July 28, 2019.

“In the Middle Ages, people knew a considerable amount about the cosmos,” says Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts. “Manuscripts produced in Western Europe, for example, reveal a wealth of information about the ancient Classical and Near Eastern origins of astrology, based on a sophisticated knowledge of the solar system and constellations that was inherited by Islamic scholars and transmitted to Europe in medieval and Renaissance times.”


A medieval timepiece called a volvelle was used to calculate the positions of the sun, moon, and stars of the zodiac at various times during the year. By rotating layered parchment discs, one could indicate the phases of the moon, the number of days in each month, and the sign that governs each hour of the day. With this information calendars were made as a guide to days of religious observance and activities that suit the season, such as riding in springtime and preparing wine in the summer.

Astronomical Table with Vovelle, late 14th century – The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XII 7, fol. 51

Students of medicine carefully observed the relationship between the celestial luminaries and the twelve signs of the zodiac and divined the effect on one’s physical well-being. Medieval doctors developed the ancient technique of bloodletting, or withdrawing blood, a preventative and curative practice intended to balance bodily fluids, or humors, to keep an individual in good health. They made diagrams to show which of the major bodily veins should be selected for bloodletting based on the appropriate phase of the moon, time of year, or auspicious astral portents. Many people – astrologers, rulers, priests, and individuals of all classes – believed that each zodiac symbol had a power over a part of the body (Aries governed the head and Pisces the feet, for instance).


In writings about the celestial realm of heaven, theologians discussed the nature of angels, saints, and ultimately God. Peoples of various religions believed that the radiant sun, full moon, twinkling stars, and distant planets held great power over their lives, the seasons, and daily activities, or that God, spirits, demonic forces, and deceased souls could traverse the veil between heaven and earth. The belief in angels, demons, and spirits in turn inspired wondrous works of art, especially on the pages of illuminated manuscripts.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, about 1480 – 1490 – The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 48, fol. 54v

“The exhibition demonstrates the close relationship between astronomy—the study of the physics of cosmic phenomena—and astrology, which seeks to correlate these celestial events with happenings on earth,” said Bryan C. Keene, associate curator of manuscripts. “Although we might now separate faith from science—or the sciences from the humanities and art—these categories were more closely aligned in the Middle Ages, as seen on the pages of illuminated manuscripts.”

Click here to learn more about the exhibition from The Getty

16th century print by Joannes de Sacro Bosco – Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (1379-362)

Top Image: Comet depicted in a 15th century manuscript from Germany. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XII 8, fol. 63