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Navigating between abstraction and observation: using astrolabes, globes and mirrors in the medieval Mediterranean

Divna Manolova (Centre for Medieval Literature, University of York and University of Southern Denmark)

Divna Manolova is a Postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Medieval Literature (University of York and University of Southern Denmark, where she is working on theories of space and dimensionality in Byzantine cosmological and astronomical texts and diagrams. She obtained her PhD in Medieval Studies at Central European University (2014) and was a Marie Skłodowska-Curie/POLONEZ 1 fellow at the University of Silesia in Katowice (2016–2018).

Respondent: Karen ní Mheallaigh (Johns Hopkins University)

24 June 2021, 16:00 p.m. (UK time)

This paper forms part of my ongoing research on the role representation, both abstract and illustrative, and imagination (phantasia) play in the design and use of diagrammatic and technological devices during the Middle Ages in the Eastern Mediterranean for the purposes of understanding, mapping, preserving and transmitting knowledge concerning the kosmos and the natural world. Thus, in this paper I discuss various ways, through which medieval scholars constructed models of the universe and used them to visualize what was otherwise impossible to observe, e.g. the planetary spheres or the entirety of the Earth’s body. Diagrams, astrolabes, and globes are the usual suspects in this story, while the role of mirrors in the study of the heavens is less conspicuous. After surveying what scarce evidence there is concerning the use of astronomical instruments in Byzantium, I will focus on one case study in particular, namely on Demetrios Triklinios’ Selenography and his proposal for an experiment in lunar observation involving the use of a large mirror. The paper is part of a work in progress and does not aim to offer any definitive answers, but rather to engage the audience in a process of collaborative thinking concerning astronomical observation, representation, and imagination in the medieval Mediterranean.

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