Moving Shadows, Moving Sun

Early Modern Sundials Restaging Miracles

in Nuncius
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Irrespective of geo- or heliocentric presuppositions, the functioning of sundials is based on the observation of moving shadows or light spots. Even though the cast shadow was often simply used to indicate the time, it could also remind the users of the ephemerality of earthly things or function as an index of planetary movements. This article examines the various ways in which early modern sundials visually interpret the moving shadow or light spot. The instruments address the shadow in inscriptions, integrate it into their design (e.g. in cruciform dials) or even manipulate its course (as in the so-called Horologium Ahaz). Both the crucifix and the Ahaz dials not only refer to astronomical miracles but actually restage them. Even though by means of the horologium it was not possible to explain the Old Testament miracle of the shadow moving backward, adepts were able to recreate it on a terrestrial scale.

Moving Shadows, Moving Sun

Early Modern Sundials Restaging Miracles

in Nuncius




Cf. Galileo Galilei“Dialogo intorno ai due massimi sistemi del mondo tolemaico e copernicano,” in Le Opere di Galileo GalileiVol. VII edited by Antonio Favaro (Florence: G. Barbera 1897) p. 141: “… stimerei che colui che reputasse più ragionevole il far muover tutto l’universo per ritener ferma la Terra fusse più irragionevole di quello che sendo salito in cima della vostra Cupola non per altro che per dare una vista alla città e al suo contado domandasse che se gli facesse girare intorno tutto il paese acciò non avesse egli ad aver la fatica di volger la testa …”


Emmanuel MaignanPerspectiva Horaria sive de Horographia gnomonica tum theoretica tum practica libri quatuor (Rome: Typis, & expensis Philippi Rubei1648).


Athanasius KircherArs Magna Lucis et Umbrae (Rome: Hermann Scheus1646) p. 232.


Jacques OzanamRecréations Mathématiques (Paris: Jean Jombert1694) p. 256: “Mais au lieu d’un Arbre une personne pourra se servir de sa propre hauteur pour stile en se plaçant bien droit au pied du stile …”


Cf. Patrick James Stigant WhitmoreThe Order of Minims in Seventeenth-Century France (Den Haag: Nijhoff1967) pp. 163–186.


Michel Serres“Gnomon: The Beginnings of Geometry in Greece,” in A History of Scientific Thought: Elements of a History of Scienceedited by Michel Serres Michel Authier et al. (Oxford and Cambridge MA: Blackwell 1995) p. 9.


Steffen Bogen“Schattenriss und Sonnenuhr: Überlegungen zu einer kunsthistorischen Diagrammatik,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte2005 682: 153–176 p. 160.


Cf. Thomas da Costa Kaufmann“The Perspective of Shadows: The History of the Theory of Shadow Projection,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes1975 38: 258–287; George Bauer “Experimental Shadow Casting and the Early History of Perspective” Art Bulletin 1987 692: 211–219.


Cf. Erwin Panofsky“Father Time,” in Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press 1939) pp. 69–93. According to Sara Schechner “… sundials reflected the new attitude toward time”; cf. id. “The Material Culture of Astronomy in Daily Life: Sundials Science and Social Change” Journal of the History of Astronomy 2001 32: 189–222 p. 207.


E.g. Paul Reinmann ivory diptych dial 1599Chicago Adler Planetarium M-246. Cf. Schechner “Material Culture” (cit. note 16) p. 196 fig. 196. Christoph Clavius recommends cruciform dials in his Gnomonices libri octo (Rome 1581) p. 636. For further references cf. Sara Schechner who also mentions cruciform sundials used as reliquaries e.g. the exemplar made in Ulrich Schniep’s workshop around 1560 in the Adler Planetarium M-253 (Ibid. p. 198 and n. 24).


Cf. Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen“Miracle ou phénomène scientifique? L’éclipse e la mort du Christ, de Gaddi à Rubens,” in L’art de la Renaissance entre science et magieedited by Philippe Morel (Rome and Paris: Académie de France à Rome/Somogy éditions d’art 2006) pp. 129–146.


Georg Philipp HarsdörfferDeliciae mathematicae et physicae: Der mathematischen und philosophischen Erquickstunden Zweyter Theil (Nuremberg: Jeremias Dümler1651) p. 318: “Was unterstehet sich aber die frevele Kunst die Aeffin aller natürlichen Wunderwercke? Ja was unterstehet sie sich nicht? Sie ist so vermessen dass sie einen Stab in die Erde pflanzet wohin sie will und solchen mit etlichen Zahlen umbesetzend Gebotsweiß Reichenschafft heischet von der Sonnen Weltweiten Tagraisen …”


Cf. Gabriel RollenhagenSelectorum Emblematum centuria secunda (Utrecht: Passaeus/Janssonius1613) II.24.


Florence Museo Galileo inv. 2459painted softwood 176mm after 1587. Cf. Anthony J. Turner Catalogue of Sun-dials Nocturnals and Related Instruments (Florence: Giunti 2007) p. 120.


Cf. Lionello NeppiPalazzo Spada (Rome: Editalia1975) pp. 189–201 and Feist Sonne Mond und Venus (cit. note 42) pp. 16–73. Athanasius Kircher claims to have constructed a catoptric meridian in 1632 in Avignon (Kircher Ars Magna (cit. note 3) p. 649). Interestingly Copernicus is said to have constructed a catoptrical meridian in order to designate the date for the equinox and the irregularities of the celestial movements.


Ibid. p. 397.


Cf. Martin LutherBiblia: Das ist: Die gantze Heilige Schrifft (Wittemberg: Hans Lufft1545) 2Kings 20: “Da rieff der Prophet Jesaja den HERRN an / Und der Schatte gieng hinder sich zurücke zehen stuffen / am zeiger Ahas / die er war niderwerts gegangen.”; Iesajah 38: “Sihe / Ich wil den Schatten am Sonnenzeiger Ahas / zehen Linien zurück zihen / über welche er gelauffen ist / das die Sonne zehen Linien zu rück lauffen sol am Zeiger / über welche er gelauffen ist.” The Zürcher Bibel translates “zehen Stafflen am zeyger Ahas” (Die gantze Bibel (Zurich: Froschauer 1531) 4Kings 20 n.p.).


Cf. Ibid. p. 63. The design of the refractive dial (inv. 241) in the Museo Galileo from c. 1570 attributed to Simone Barocci presumably stems from Guidobaldo del Monte who is said to have made refractive dials in Urbino; cf. Turner Catalogue of Sun-dials (cit. note 41) cat. no. 27 pp. 64–66 and Filippo Camerota “Two new attributions: A Refractive Dial of Guidobaldo del Monte and the ‘Roverino Compass’ of Fabrizio Mordente” Nuncius 2003 181: 26–37.


Cf. Owen Gingerich Philip Sadler“Christopher Schissler’s Wonderful ‘Bowl of Ahaz’ of 1578,” Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society1989 21: 1218; Peterson “Turning Back Time” (cit. note 70) p. 91.


Cf. August WeissDas Handwerk der Goldschmiede zu Augsburg bis zum Jahre 1681 (Leipzig: E.A. Seemann1897) p. 146.


The globe was made in 1575the year of Tycho Brahe’s second stay in Augsburg and responded to Tycho’s request for an accurate transportable globe; cf. Gessner Geometricus et astronomicus faber (cit. note 82) pp. 137–138 and 145.


Christopher WrenParentalia or Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens (London: T. Osborn and R. Dodsley1750) p. 201. Scheuchzer mentions a “natural” repetition of the miracle in 1703 reported by a certain Romualdus Prior in Metz where the shadow was refracted by the condensation of air. Cf. Scheuchzer Kupffer-Bibel (cit. note 59) p. 274; Ludwig Philipp Thümmig Phaenomenon singulare solis coelo sereno pallescentis ad rationes revocatum (Halle and Magdeburg: Hilliger 1722) p. 19; Gabriel Christoph Benjamin Busch Versuch eines Handbuchs der Erfindungen Vol. 6 (Eisenach: Wittekinde 1795) p. 371.


Ibid. p. 204.


  • View in gallery
    Figure 1

    Emmanuel Maignan, Gnomon, in Perspectiva Horaria (Rome: 1648), vignette, © Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek 17 Geom. 2°

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    Figure 2

    Georg Hartmann, Crucifix Sundial, 1544, © Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, inv. WI 133

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    Figure 3

    Erasmus Habermel, Equatorial Sundial, 1589, © Frankfurt, Historisches Museum, inv. X 852

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    Figure 4

    Gabriel Rollenhagen, Selectorum Emblematum centuria secunda (Utrecht: 1613), II.24

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    Figure 5

    Emmanuel Maignan, Meridian, 1642, Rome, Santa Trinità dei Monti

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    Figure 6

    Georg Hartmann, Horologium Ahaz, 1547, © Toledo, Museo de Santa Cruz, inv. 5045

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    Figure 7A

    Christoph Schissler, Horologium Ahaz (reverse side), 1578 © Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society, inv. 58.66

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    Figure 7B

    Christoph Schissler, Horologium Ahaz (upper side), 1578 © Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society, inv. 58.66


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