The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories

Overview

Between 1650 and 1750, four Catholic churches were the best solar observatories in the world. Built to fix an unquestionable date for Easter, they also housed instruments that threw light on the disputed geometry of the solar system, and so, within sight of the altar, subverted Church doctrine about the order of the universe.

A tale of politically canny astronomers and cardinals with a taste for mathematics, The Sun in the Church tells how these observatories came to be, how ...

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Overview

Between 1650 and 1750, four Catholic churches were the best solar observatories in the world. Built to fix an unquestionable date for Easter, they also housed instruments that threw light on the disputed geometry of the solar system, and so, within sight of the altar, subverted Church doctrine about the order of the universe.

A tale of politically canny astronomers and cardinals with a taste for mathematics, The Sun in the Church tells how these observatories came to be, how they worked, and what they accomplished. It describes Galileo's political overreaching, his subsequent trial for heresy, and his slow and steady rehabilitation in the eyes of the Catholic Church. And it offers an enlightening perspective on astronomy, Church history, and religious architecture, as well as an analysis of measurements testing the limits of attainable accuracy, undertaken with rudimentary means and extraordinary zeal. Above all, the book illuminates the niches protected and financed by the Catholic Church in which science and mathematics thrived.

Superbly written, The Sun in the Church provides a magnificent corrective to long-standing oversimplified accounts of the hostility between science and religion.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books

The innumerate reader will learn much from Heilbron's book, and may come away with a different appreciation of the stars above us.
— Ingrid D. Rowland

ISIS

He tells his story in rich detail, reconstructing characters and circumstances with ironic verve. His theme is the meridian lines (meridiane) laid down in the marble floors of cathedrals for quantifying the sun's annual motion…Heilbron's book is a treasure trove of fascinating information.
— Curtis Wilson

Renaissance Quarterly

This excellent book adds a welcome complexity to the historiography of astronomy in the years after Galileo's abjuration allegedly brought Italian astronomy to its knees…Heilbron's book also reinterprets the relations of science and religion in the shadow of the Galileo affair. The novelty of his argument is neither that religion can stimulate astronomy…nor that ecclesiastical patronage encouraged learning…It is rather that the Church signally fertilized astronomy in an era when most historians portray the two as antagonists…[one] will appreciate the witty prose of the argument and the elegant design of this important book.
— Michael H. Shank

Science Books and Films

The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories is a historical, well-documented, scholarly book concerned both with the use of churches in Italy during the 16th and 18th centuries to obtain observations of the sun for calendric and scientific purposes and with the relationship between the Church of Rome and the heliocentric views of many of the scientists of those times.
— Arnold, M. Heiser

The Sixteenth Century Journal

Heilbron combines the history of astronomy, mathematics, architecture, patronage, and religion to tell a story that very much alters the common picture of the progress in astronomy in the early modern period and the place of the Catholic Church in that history. The story is well told, and the mathematics is given in a way that could discourage only the most innumerate.
— Sheila J. Rabin

Technology and Culture

J. L. Heilbron's remarkable book draws our attention to church users of a very different kind: early modern astronomers measuring the solar path to correct the shift of the ancient Julian calendar…The Sun in the Church tells their history in detail, alongside an exceptionally comprehensive and clear account of medieval and early modern astronomy…The Sun in the Church is an illuminous book, possibly as durable as the meridianae it celebrates.
— Sergio Sanabria

Nexus Network Journal

This book offers a different kind of travel guide for the 'mathematical tourist,' providing an itinerary of Italian cities and churches in which to find meridians, analemmas, armillary spheres and gnomons. These are good reminders of the role of the church in the history of science and testify to the fact that everything applied to the church, even the most apparently ornamental, served a didactic purpose.
— Paul A. Calter and Kim Williams

New York Times Book Review - D. Graham Burnett
[The] improbable tale [of an astrological instrument saving a church] is just one of the gems recovered by Heilbron in a book that lingers lovingly over these forgotten instruments. Once big science, now architectural curios not infrequently buried under flagstones and pews, gnomons (or meridian lines, as they are more properly called) lie at the luminous conjunction of mathematics, philosophy, architecture, astronomy and church politics. Dusted off in this idiosyncratic history of astronomy during the scientific revolution, they provide an occasion to revisit perennial questions about the relationship between science and religion, reason and faith...[Readers] will be surprised to discover what Heilbron shows: that the Catholic Church served as perhaps the largest patron of sophisticated astronomical research throughout the controversies over Copernicus and his sun-centered scheme.
New York Times - William J. Broad
Dr. Heilbron reveals the ubiquity of the solar observatories, which heretofore were little known among scholars. And he shows that the church was not necessarily seeking knowledge for knowledge's sake, a traditional aim of pure science. Rather, like many patrons, it wanted something practical in return for its investments: mainly the improvement of the calendar so church officials could more accurately establish the date of Easter.
Time - Kate Noble
Heilbron's book tells of the struggle to determine dates more accurately, including a little-known aspect of the history of the calendar--the use of churches as giant sundials to make astronomical measurements.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Allan Chapman
The historical perception of post-Renaissance Italian astronomy has become so over-charged with the Roman Catholic Church's condemnation of Galileo in 1633 that it is commonly assumed that no significant science took place south of the Alps until the 19th century. But, as John Heilbron's learned, elegant and finely phrased book reminds us, this was not the case...Though Heilbron supplies all the necessary geometry to demonstrate how the meridianae [(a solar measuring instrument)] were constructed and used within the great architectural masterpieces into which they were incorporated, his book is arranged and illustrated in such a way that non-mathematical persons can enjoy it.
Nature - George V. Coyne
John Heilbron's book does tell a gripping story and with a splendid literary flair...By subtly inserting critical comments, the author evaluates the interactions of science in its gestation with the culture of those centuries and the repercussions that these interactions have has down to our own times. And so it becomes a story about people, and Heilbron tells it in a masterfully human way.
Science - Albert Van Helden
In The Sun in the Church, historian John Heilbron argues convincingly that long-held interpretations [in astronomy] are too simplistic and must be revised...Heilbron tells an important story, one that is not so much neglected as unknown among historians of science. Even in histories of astronomy, there is usually only a passing reference to it.
Choice - D. E. Hogg
The spectacle of the image of the sun projected on meridian lines in several of the great Italian cathedrals is captured in the beautiful color plates highlighting this book...This excellent book explains the difficulties posed by the inconvenient lengths of the lunar month and solar year, and discusses how observations of the solar image crossing a precisely aligned mark could solve the problem...The book is well written.
Owen Gingerich
A fascinating history of astronomy that shows, as no other work has done so well, what happened to Italian science after Galileo's trial. An astonishing display of erudition and linguistic control, with a wealth of fine details, this is a major history that carves out a unique territory.
New York Review of Books - Ingrid D. Rowland
The innumerate reader will learn much from Heilbron's book, and may come away with a different appreciation of the stars above us.
ISIS - Curtis Wilson
He tells his story in rich detail, reconstructing characters and circumstances with ironic verve. His theme is the meridian lines (meridiane) laid down in the marble floors of cathedrals for quantifying the sun's annual motion…Heilbron's book is a treasure trove of fascinating information.
Renaissance Quarterly - Michael H. Shank
This excellent book adds a welcome complexity to the historiography of astronomy in the years after Galileo's abjuration allegedly brought Italian astronomy to its knees…Heilbron's book also reinterprets the relations of science and religion in the shadow of the Galileo affair. The novelty of his argument is neither that religion can stimulate astronomy…nor that ecclesiastical patronage encouraged learning…It is rather that the Church signally fertilized astronomy in an era when most historians portray the two as antagonists…[one] will appreciate the witty prose of the argument and the elegant design of this important book.
Science Books and Films - M. Heiser Arnold
The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories is a historical, well-documented, scholarly book concerned both with the use of churches in Italy during the 16th and 18th centuries to obtain observations of the sun for calendric and scientific purposes and with the relationship between the Church of Rome and the heliocentric views of many of the scientists of those times.
The Sixteenth Century Journal - Sheila J. Rabin
Heilbron combines the history of astronomy, mathematics, architecture, patronage, and religion to tell a story that very much alters the common picture of the progress in astronomy in the early modern period and the place of the Catholic Church in that history. The story is well told, and the mathematics is given in a way that could discourage only the most innumerate.
Technology and Culture - Sergio Sanabria
J. L. Heilbron's remarkable book draws our attention to church users of a very different kind: early modern astronomers measuring the solar path to correct the shift of the ancient Julian calendar…The Sun in the Church tells their history in detail, alongside an exceptionally comprehensive and clear account of medieval and early modern astronomy…The Sun in the Church is an illuminous book, possibly as durable as the meridianae it celebrates.
Nexus Network Journal - Paul A. Calter And Kim Williams
This book offers a different kind of travel guide for the 'mathematical tourist,' providing an itinerary of Italian cities and churches in which to find meridians, analemmas, armillary spheres and gnomons. These are good reminders of the role of the church in the history of science and testify to the fact that everything applied to the church, even the most apparently ornamental, served a didactic purpose.
New York Times Book Review
A book both elegant and learned, exploring the installation of vast (but often easily overlooked) astronomical instruments in major churches by authorities sometimes thought, wrongly, to have opposed astronomical research.
New York Times

Dr. Heilbron reveals the ubiquity of the solar observatories, which heretofore were little known among scholars. And he shows that the church was not necessarily seeking knowledge for knowledge's sake, a traditional aim of pure science. Rather, like many patrons, it wanted something practical in return for its investments: mainly the improvement of the calendar so church officials could more accurately establish the date of Easter.
— William J. Broad

New Yorker
In this elegant work, Heilbron recounts how in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Roman Catholic Church fashioned several of its major cathedrals into precision instruments for studying the motions of the sun. The aim was to determine the time between vernal equinoxes, so that the dates for Easter could be forecast accurately...Heilbron, upending common views of the Church's relationship to science after it condemned Galileo, shows that Rome handsomely supported astronomical studies, accepting the Copernican hypothesis as a fiction convenient for calculation.
Time

Heilbron's book tells of the struggle to determine dates more accurately, including a little-known aspect of the history of the calendar—the use of churches as giant sundials to make astronomical measurements.
— Kate Noble

Times Higher Education Supplement

The historical perception of post-Renaissance Italian astronomy has become so over-charged with the Roman Catholic Church's condemnation of Galileo in 1633 that it is commonly assumed that no significant science took place south of the Alps until the 19th century. But, as John Heilbron's learned, elegant and finely phrased book reminds us, this was not the case...Though Heilbron supplies all the necessary geometry to demonstrate how the meridianae [(a solar measuring instrument)] were constructed and used within the great architectural masterpieces into which they were incorporated, his book is arranged and illustrated in such a way that non-mathematical persons can enjoy it.
— Allan Chapman

Nature

John Heilbron's book does tell a gripping story and with a splendid literary flair...By subtly inserting critical comments, the author evaluates the interactions of science in its gestation with the culture of those centuries and the repercussions that these interactions have has down to our own times. And so it becomes a story about people, and Heilbron tells it in a masterfully human way.
— George V. Coyne

Science

In The Sun in the Church, historian John Heilbron argues convincingly that long-held interpretations [in astronomy] are too simplistic and must be revised...Heilbron tells an important story, one that is not so much neglected as unknown among historians of science. Even in histories of astronomy, there is usually only a passing reference to it.
— Albert Van Helden

Choice

The spectacle of the image of the sun projected on meridian lines in several of the great Italian cathedrals is captured in the beautiful color plates highlighting this book...This excellent book explains the difficulties posed by the inconvenient lengths of the lunar month and solar year, and discusses how observations of the solar image crossing a precisely aligned mark could solve the problem...The book is well written.
— D. E. Hogg

D. Graham Burnett
Gems [are] recovered by Heilbron in a book that lingers lovingly over forgotten instruments...[an] idiosyncratic history of astronomy during the scientific revolution...
NY Times Book Review
Library Journal
It is difficult for contemporary readers who live in an increasingly global world to comprehend the difficulty of establishing the correct date of Easter--the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the vernal equinox. Heilbron (formerly history and vice chancellor, Berkeley; currently Senior Research Fellow, Oxford) chronicles the ironic relationship between astronomy and the Catholic Church as it seeks the means to determine this date. This is the story of politically astute astronomers and cardinals who have to reconcile church doctrine with Galileo's universe. Heilbron deals specifically with four cathedrals, which, as a result of the "Easter date problem," function as both houses of worship and excellent solar observatories. The text is filled with fine detail and is richly illustrated. An erudite and scholarly work with extensive notes and bibliography, this may be a bit narrow in scope for the average reader; recommended for large public and academic libraries.--James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Heilbron (history of science, U. of California-Berkeley) weaves the history of science and the history of the Church together to show how interrelated they have been. He takes four cathedrals that measure the passage of the sun as a fulcrum from which to consider Church politics in the 16th and 17th centuries, the shifts and ramifications of its policy toward science before and in response to the Protestant Reformation, the calculation of Easter, and other matters. He includes eight color plates. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674005365
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 615,165
  • Product dimensions: 6.75 (w) x 9.72 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

J. L. Heilbron, formerly Professor of History and the Vice Chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley, is a Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. He was awarded the George Sarton Medal by the History of Science Society in 1993 for his contributions to the field.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements

Introduction

Renaissance and Astronomy

Counter-Reformation and Cosmology

Wider Uses of Meridiane

The Science of Easter

The Luminaries and the Calendar

A Scandal in the Church

A Sosigenes and His Caesars

Florence

Bologna

Rome

Bononia Docet

A New Oracle of Apollo

Astronomia Reformata

Normal Science

Perfecting the Parameters

Repairs and Improvements

The Pope's Gnomon

Calendrical and Other Politics

The Meridian in Michelangelo's Church

Meridiane and Meridians

The Accommodation of Copernicus

Heliometry and Heliocentrism

Protective Measures

Book Banning

The Last Cathedral Observations

The Things Themselves

Their Results

Their Competitors

Time Telling

Some Means of Conversion

The Equation of Time

More Light Play

Appendices

Abbreviations

Works Cited

Notes

Credits

Index

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