Monday, 19 December 2016

Capricorn: the goat with a tail

This month sees Capricorn the goat usher in the winter, although unlike this image from a medieval manuscript, the true sign is a sea-goat, with coiled serpent-like hindquarters.  As a goat, it is linked in classical myth with the god Pan (who leapt into a river and grew a fishtail, to escape the giant Typhon), and with the forest satyrs, or is shown drawing Bacchus' chariot, and is a symbol of lust to be overcome in christian art.

Capricornus, from a medieval calendar book

Capricorn appears with serpent tail in Henry VIII's great clock at Hampton Court Palace ( seen just above Sagittarius with his arrow). With its many dials, the clock shows the phases of the moon and the times of high tide at London Bridge - essential knowledge for river transport to and from the Palace.

Hampton Court Palace astronomical clock, by Nicholas Oursian, 1540

The zodiacal Capricorn image with coiling tail was also chosen by the Florentine ruler, Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, as his impresa, or personal device, together with his motto, "Fidem fati virtute sequemer" : I shall pursue with valour the promise of Destiny.  He believed the influence of the stars had brought him victory against Siena under the sign of Capricorn.

Cosimo's capricorn impresa in the Laurentian Library, Florence 

Designed by Michelangelo, the library was opened by Cosimo in 1571.  The stained glass windows, after drawings by Vasari, were added later.  Here the Capricorn figures act as supporters to the central Medici coat of arms.

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