Scientific revolution, Did you know?
Astronomer by nght, canon by day
When Nicolaus Copernicus wasn’t redrawing the celestial map, he held down a day job as a Catholic canon (ecclesiastical administrator). As the Reformation grew rapidly and extended its influence in Poland, Copernicus and his respected friend Tiedemann Giese, later bishop of Varmia, remained open to some of the new ideas.
Copernicus did not leave a written record of his views, but he authorized Giese to quote him in a book supportive of a mediating position he hoped would avoid disruption in the church. He also consorted openly with at least two Lutherans—his first and only disciple, Georg Joachim Rheticus, and the well-known Lutheran clergyman, Andreas Osiander (also recognized for competence in mathematics and astronomy).
This might have sunk the career of most Catholic functionaries, but friends in high places kept Copernicus’s job for him.
When, decades later, Galileo was attacked for promoting Copernicus’s heliocentric cosmology, he defended himself by reminding his opponents that the Polish astronomer had been “not only a Catholic, but a priest and a canon.” Galileo got two out of three right—although Copernicus did serve his church faithfully for 40 years, like many other canons of his day he never pursued ordination.
“Bodying up” to modern science
We often associate the birth of modern science with Galileo Galilei, who sought to prove Copernicus’s cosmology empirically with his telescopes. However, the scientific revolution did not begin at the outer frontier of space, but rather at the inner frontier of the human body. The 1543 publication of De Humani Corporis Fabrica by the Flemish scientist and churchman Andreas Vesalius not only created anatomical science as we know it, but was arguably the coming-out party of modern observational science and research.
More, it epitomized Renaissance advances in engraving and printing: The woodcut for the title page of De Fabrica, with its precise lines, fine shadings, and skillful rendering of perspective, is recognized as one of the finest engravings of the sixteenth century. And the plates within the book were likely created in the workshop of the great Venetian painter Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, ca. 1485–1576), after sketches by Vesalius.
Dads of science
Many of the innovators during the scientific revolution seem to have been—though such things are notoriously difficult to determine—more than nominal Christians. Consider these “fathers” featured in this issue:
Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) “Father of modern anatomy”
Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) “Father of modern astronomy”
William Harvey (1578–1630) “Father of modern medicine”
Robert Boyle (1627–1691) “Father of modern chemistry”
Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) “Father of microbiology”
Isaac Newton (1642–1727) “Father of modern mechanistic physics” (and, with Leibnitz, of calculus).
Music of the spheres
In 1616, astronomer Johannes Kepler pursued a longstanding interest in music in an unusual direction. He developed a system of musical notation to represent the variations in the speed of each planet when nearest to and furthest from the sun. The harmonies produced by the planets' notes, he felt, proclaimed the glory of God. He used just two notes to represent the relatively small change in the earth’s speed, lamenting, “The Earth sings Mi-Fa-Mi, so we can gather even from this that Misery and Famine reign on our habitat.” He published this research as Harmonies of the World (1618).
Seemingly a quirky diversion, these musical investigations led Kepler to the discovery of the principles of planetary motion, which, 40 years later, would spur Isaac Newton to develop his theory of universal gravitation.
Kepler was not the only early modern scientist to make his mark in music. Famed physicist and chemist Robert Boyle wrote romances (fictional works) on moral and religious subjects. One of these, The Martyrdom of Theodora, And of Didymus, became the basis for Handel’s opera Theodora. Isaac Watts based a four-line hymn upon one section of Boyle’s Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects, a work highly popular among the Puritans, which remained in print for two centuries. The Watts hymn was later set to music by the great colonial American composer William Billings as part of his anthem, Creation.
Fighting meltdowns and clippers
Copernicus and Newton shared more than an interest in the heavens. Both labored against abuses of their respective nations’ currencies.
Copernicus became deeply concerned at corruptions in the use of the local currency in his town of Olsztyn. The percentage of silver in the coins was being reduced. Unaware of that fact, the peasants continued to pay for their purchases with the older, more valuable coins, which were then melted down. Copernicus wrote an “Essay on the Coinage of Money” in 1517, which he circulated among trusted friends. In 1528, he presented to the legislature recommendations for the minting of new coins, which sank under special-interest lobbying.
Newton was even more famously involved in protecting his national currency. In his day, the economy of England suffered due to the immoral practice of clipping—that is, cutting slivers off the edges of the coins to be melted down and sold, leaving the central part of the coin sufficiently intact to serve, albeit suspiciously, as currency. Newton was appointed warden (1696–1699) and master (1699–1727) of the Royal Mint, and he set out to save England’s economy with his usual hyperfocus. He worked 16 hours a day at the stupendous task of overhauling production at the mint and recalling and re-minting all the realm’s coins. His zeal carried him into the back alleys of London, where he roamed in disguise, befriending the unsuspecting counterfeiters and coin clippers, drawing out their confessions, and then prosecuting them and sending them to the gallows for treason.
The real Christian face of the scientific revolution?
Our cover image is The Astronomer, painted by the Dutch master Vermeer Van Delft (1632–1675), ca. 1668. After Raymond Whitlock, our art director, chose the image, he was delighted to discover a probable connection with one of the scientists featured in this issue.
Both this painting and its companion, The Geographer, show a sophisticated awareness of scientific books and instruments. Thus art historians believe Vermeer conferred with a scientist—probably the young man who modeled for both paintings—as he painted.
The most likely candidate is Dutch microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723; see pp. 42–43). Leeuwenhoek was born in Delft the same year as Vermeer. They shared a fascination with science and optics, and their families were both in the textile trade. In 1668, Leeuwenhoek would have been 36 years old—plausibly the age of the sitter. The physical features of the sitter resemble those of a portrait of Leeuwenhoek made in 1686 by the Delft artist Jan Verkolje (1650–1693). In 1676, the scientist was named trustee for Vermeer’s estate.
Two details further suggest a Christian connection. The first is the painting on the wall, depicting the finding of Moses. This suggests a spiritual interpretation of a second detail, the stance of the astronomer, who, in reaching for his celestial globe, may be thought to search for spiritual guidance.
By the editors
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #76 in 2002]
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