Celestial spheres  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The celestial spheres, or celestial orbs, were the fundamental entities of the cosmological models developed by Plato, Eudoxus, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus and others. In these celestial models the stars and planets are carried around by being embedded in rotating spheres made of an aetherial transparent fifth element (quintessence), like jewels set in orbs.

In the geocentric model adopted in the Middle Ages, the planetary spheres (i.e. those that contained planets) were arranged outwards from the spherical, stationary Earth at the centre of the universe in this order: the spheres of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. In more detailed models the seven planetary spheres contained other secondary spheres within them. The planetary spheres were followed by the stellar sphere containing the fixed stars; other scholars added a ninth sphere to account for the precession of the equinoxes, a tenth to account for the supposed trepidation of the equinoxes, and even an eleventh to account for the changing obliquity of the ecliptic. In antiquity the order of the lower planets was not universally agreed. Plato and his followers ordered them Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, and then followed the standard model for the upper spheres. Others disagreed about the relative place of the spheres of Mercury and Venus: Ptolemy placed both of them beneath the Sun and with Venus beneath Mercury, but noted others placed them both above the Sun; some, such as al-Bitruji, placed the sphere of Venus above the Sun and that of Mercury below it.

In modern science, the orbits of the planets are simply the paths of those planets through mostly empty space. For medieval scholars, on the other hand, celestial spheres were actually thick spheres of rarefied matter nested one within the other, each one in complete contact with the sphere above it and the sphere below. When scholars applied Ptolemy's epicycles, they presumed that each planetary sphere was exactly thick enough to accommodate them.

In the heliocentric celestial orbs model introduced by Copernicus, the ascending order of the planets and their spheres going outwards from the Sun at the centre was Mercury, Venus, Earth-Moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

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