Training the intelligent eye: understanding illustrations in early modern astronomy texts

Isis. 2013 Sep;104(3):429-70. doi: 10.1086/673269.


Throughout the early modern period, the most widely read astronomical textbooks were Johannes de Sacrobosco's De sphaera and the Theorica planetarum, ultimately in the new form introduced by Georg Peurbach. This essay argues that the images in these texts were intended to develop an "intelligent eye." Students were trained to transform representations of specific heavenly phenomena into moving mental images of the structure of the cosmos. Only by learning the techniques of mental visualization and manipulation could the student "see" in the mind's eye the structure and motions of the cosmos. While anyone could look up at the heavens, only those who had acquired the intelligent eye could comprehend the divinely created order of the universe. Further, the essay demonstrates that the visual program of the Sphaera and Theorica texts played a significant and hitherto unrecognized role in later scientific work. Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler all utilized the same types of images in their own texts to explicate their ideas about the cosmos.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Astronomy / history*
  • Books, Illustrated / history*
  • Cognition*
  • History, 15th Century
  • Humans
  • Imagination
  • Knowledge
  • Motion
  • Textbooks as Topic / history*