On the Evolution of Heavenly Spheres, 2013

The Polish National Archives in Warsaw contains a small and, now, all but forgotten manuscript. This small set of loose leaves, entitled De evolutionis orbium coelestium in the Kostolewski archive, is generally believed to have been written by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543). It has no date, but Polish researchers have narrowed down the creation of the manuscript to the last decade of Copernicus’ life.

The manuscript was bought from an unknown source, in the mid-18th century, by Count Kasimir Augustus Kostolewski. He was an ardent collector of Poloniana, and had an extensive and extravagant private museum on his estate of Kostolewicz, rivalling that of the Czartoryski establishment. What remained of the Kostolewski collection after World War II was nationalised and became state property.

De evolutionis is short and terse; a set of instructions for a kind of dance, for two women, an exercise in drawing the “perfect sphere”. The women are to continue at their efforts until the drawing surface is entirely covered. Little has been written about this manuscript, and it is therefore thrilling that two artists have undertaken to perform this dance. In his On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres, Copernicus calls astronomers “artists”: and although that term had a very different meaning in 16th century Europe, in which the seven liberal arts were marked by the absence of manual labour, it is nevertheless clear that Copernicus’ dance resembles in all respects a contemporary art performance. What was Copernicus trying to say with this manuscript? Spheres and circles of course, fascinated him. He believed that out of “all the varied literary and artistic studies upon which the natural talents of man are nourished, those above all should be embraced and pursued with the most loving care which have to do with things that are very beautiful and very worthy of knowledge. Such studies are those, which deal with the godlike circular movements of the world and the course of the stars, their magnitudes, distances, risings and settings, and the causes of the other appearances in the heavens; and which finally explicate the whole form. For what could be more beautiful than the heavens which contain all beautiful things?” This statement by itself cannot convince the reader; for the attempted circles in the filmed performance are manifestly imperfect; in fact, their imperfection, repeated over and over again, serves to erase the circles and to create a void, a blackness of imperfection. Why would Copernicus pose this contradiction?

We must delve deeper into his writings. In a particularly illuminating passage, Copernicus admits that “let no one expect anything in the way of certainty from astronomy, since astronomy can offer us nothing certain, lest, if anyone take as true that which has been constructed for another use, he go away from this discipline a bigger fool that when he came to it.” This sentence is not just the frank admission of a rational scientist; Copernicus was intensely religious (being a Canon of Frauenburg), and his writings are laced with a faith-based humility. It must, finally, not be forgotten that he, in a letter to Pope Paul III, said that “my labours will be seen to contribute something to the ecclesiastical commonwealth, the principate of which Your Holiness holds.”

From this, now, a picture begins to emerge. It is more than likely that our little manuscript, with its set of instructions, was actually meant as an allegorical performance. Its meaning may have been to symbolise man’s imperfect yet laudable endeavours in trying to achieve wisdom, perfection, and grace, through flawed yet diligent effort. In augmenting and redrawing circles, in an effort to reach perfection, the opposite is achieved; the great unknowable, and the knowledge of man’s infinitesimal smallness in the universe.

For whom was this allegory penned? These kinds of performances were common in princely courts of the 16th century, at pageants and festivals. Copernicus had no strong ties to the Polish royal court, or that of the neighboring Holy Roman Empire or the realm of the Teutonic Knights. The most likely patron was, in fact, the Papal State of Rome, the greatest centre of literary and artistic activity of that time. Apart from the visual and intellectual interest of this allegory, Copernicus was probably trying to curry favour with the Pope, to soften the reception of his controversial On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres.

In collaboration with Ana Milenkovic.
Text by Miroslav Pomichal.

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