Astronomy in early Renaissance – Raphael’s “Resurrection of Christ” and the holy grail

The art of the Renaissance is full of symbols and hidden messages. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were exciting and dangerous times for those who thought differently, especially those who challenge religious dogma. To some extent, the church did tolerate the return of the Greek and Roman pagan gods and ancient philosophy. But we must not forget that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in the year 1600. A whole century before that, the great masters had no other choice but to encode their ideas in the language of symbolism.

Raphael’s “Resurrection of Christ” (1499-1502) is a perfect example. At first glance, this painting looks similar to many other religious works of the period. But behind this Christian facade lies a whole plethora of ancient astronomical symbols, just waiting for the right observer.

Orion and the four seasons

The constellation of Orion is one of the largest constellations on the night sky. It was of paramount importance to the ancients, and most of the old Indo-European myths revolve around it. The hunter, archer or a giant; Dyonisus, Horus or Arjuna – he is always the main protagonist of the night sky – replacing the invisible Sun. His quests and journeys affect the life on Earth and determine the four seasons, the course of Yin and Yang.

I used the free astronomical software Stellarium to illustrate the four key moments – the solstices and equinoxes. In other words, these are the four seasons.

The main direction is East. In Winter, Orion appears on the horizon right after the sunset. The summer picture is the same but the opposite. This time Orion appears right before sunrise. Orion in Autumn appears only around midnight. In Spring, it is the opposite of autumn. He appears during the midday, and is therefore invisible to the naked eye.

Now, the postures of four figures around the broken tomb of Jesus match perfectly those of Orion. They represent the four seasons. This is also obvious from the color of their clothes.

The person representing spring wears orange and white. These are the colors of the Sun and day. It is a season in which Orion is completely invisible. The person representing summer wears red and blue. These are the colors of the sky during sunrise. The two other figures wear red and black, colors of sunset and night.

In fact, the representations of the four seasons around Christ, the Sun, are not new. A much older idea exists in the form of the four evangelists, representing the four cardinal zodiac signs. The “innovation” is that Raphael uses Orion as a marker, instead of the usual zodiac symbolism.

The holy grail

On an image below, we see an old representation of the seasons. In the period between 4,700-2,500 BC, the spring equinox was in Taurus, and the autumn one in Scorpio and Aquila (eagle). However, Christianity comes from a different time, and the star configuration is still the same as 2,000 years ago. The spring equinox is in Pisces, the symbol of Jesus, and the autumn one is in Virgo.

The Easter, of course, marks the Resurrection of Christ. Therefore, the spring constellations are the crucial elements for our story.

During spring, the Sun is in the zodiac of Pisces, making them invisible to the naked eye. And as the day and night are equal, the first constellation of sunrise and the last constellation of sunset is the one that is opposite to Pisces – Virgo. Moreover, Virgo stands next to the constellation Crater. The name of this constellation comes from the way the ancients saw it – as a cup or grail.

The following image shows the star configuration of sunrise/sunset 2020, during the spring equinox and Easter. I paired it with a Christian motif of the holy grail. It is a clear representation of Virgo and Crater, and the four evangelists as the zodiac/seasons, are also present between the Virgin Mary and Christ.

The goddess and the grail

Before the equinoxes moved to the region of Crater constellation, Crater marked the month after the autumn equinox. This is the period of wine making. The cup on the sky probably meant that it is time to finally relax from the agricultural work and enjoy some good wine. Such a symbol is of course, more appropriate for the Dionysian cult than Christianity, although the latter surely borrowed the whole wine symbolism.

Another evidence that the ancients saw Crater as the cup comes from the Heracles myth. His twelve labors represent the circle around the zodiac. In one of the labors, the Erymanthian Boar, the king Eurystheus hides in a jar. This episode was very popular in Greek art. And right before this labor, Heracles visits a centaur Pholus, who had only one jar of wine, a gift from Dionysus.

But as the equinox moved towards Virgo and Crater, the myth changes. The holy grail is the central element of the King Arthur myth. His knights of the round table represent the zodiac.

The Phrygian goddess Cybele was one of the main prototypes for the Virgin Mary. She too comes out of her sacred rock. The iconography is similar to the labor of Heracles. In Christianity, this very popular motif became Virgin Mary, holding baby Jesus. It is the Sun rising on the background of Virgo and Crater constellations.

But funny enough, even the Bodhisattva Guanyin – a Buddhist version of the Virgin Mary, shares the similar iconography.

Raphael’s “Resurrection of Christ” explained

Now that we have the basic vocabulary in place, we can proceed with the main topic of the article – Raphael’s “Resurrection of Christ”.

The central figure is Christ. His raised arm hints on the Orion iconography. And even though this is true of the night sky, during the day he represents the Sun. For both reasons, Raphael places him right above the horizon line – where we would expect to see the sunrise or Orion rising.

There are two angels on each side. Their body posture is identical to that of Virgo constellation. Moreover, one is light and the other one dark. This is an allusion to sunrise/sunset in Virgo, during the Easter – Christ’s resurrection.

Underneath, there are four seasons, determined by the positions of Orion. This is the spring time, and the natural cycle of life on earth starts all over again.

And finally, the tomb of the Christ resembles the iconography of the holy grail. As a constellation of the autumn, Crater marks the entrance to the cave/tomb. But in the springtime, it is rather an exit from the grail/womb.

This is the secret of the eternal life. It exists, but we need to die before being born again.

Conclusion

The messages of Raphael are hidden, but not too obscure and difficult to comprehend, at least in our modern times. Of course, if he stated publicly in the 1500’s that the Christian story is a modernized star-lore, he wouldn’t have lived very long. And yet, so much works of Renaissance hide similar messages. There were always those who knew.

And even though these ideas could be considered as heresy or blasphemy, here is the question: If all of the myths and religions tell the same story, using the similar language of symbolism – is it a proof that God does not exist… or that He does?

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