Zodiac Man

Zodiac Man

Images of the Zodiac Man are often found in medieval manuscripts containing astronomical, astrological, medical and time-keeping content. These images express a key aspect of the ancient conception of the relations between macrocosm and microcosm.  According to this ancient theorywhich resurfaced in the Middle Ages, similar structures and patterns were to be found in physical beings of vastly different scales, which were causally interconnected. The human body was therefore a microcosm of the universe, with each main organ aligned with its own constellation in the zodiac, and the fluctuation of human health therefore driven in large part by the movement of the celestial spheres. For instance, as Sian Witherden explains, 'the Zodiac man is typically accompanied by a text explaining that operating on any of these body parts is unwise when the moon is in that particular sign'.* More generally, the resulting idea that the movements of the stars and plants affected the health of the body was fundamental to the widespread astrological component of medicical theory and practice.

Wellcome MS 349, fol. 22r. In this late  fifteenth-century version, the zodiac signs float in bubbles surrounding the central figure and are attached to the relevant part of the body by a rope. Unlike many other depictions of the zodiac man, this figure has been dissected, presenting his organs to the viewer. 

Proposal for enhancement. A gallery of annotated images of this kind -- drawing first on the Wellcome Collection -- would reveal the remarkably cross-cultural scope of this conception of the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm. Further examples from European illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages are collected here. This could also lead to wide cross-cultural comparisons.

*Quotation from S. Witherden, ‘Balancing Form, Function and Aesthetic: A Study of Ruling Patterns for Zodiac Men in Astro-Medical Manuscripts of Late Medieval England,’ Journal of the Early Book Society 20 (2017), pp. 79–109, here p. 80.

Credit: Sarah Griffin (Oxford, March 2019)