Apocalyptic prophecies in the Middle Ages and Renaissance Europe often involved Saturn-Jupiter conjunctions, says historian Laura Ackerman Smoller.
Astronomers and amateur star gazers alike are training their telescopes on the evening sky for a heavenly spectacle when the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is more visible from Earth than it’s been in nearly 800 years.
The celestial event will play out on Monday—this year’s winter solstice—when our solar system’s two largest planets appear side by side above the horizon soon after sunset.
It’s been nearly eight centuries since the pair of planets appeared in conjunction this close to Earth. In 1623, a similar conjunction of the planets occurred, but on the same side of the sky as the sun, which meant it wasn’t visible from the Blue Planet. Monday’s conjunction will be the first visible occurrence since before the time of Marco Polo.
In the distant past, Europeans saw such alignments of the planets as signs of things to come, from famines, earthquakes, and floods, to the birth of Christ and the ultimate collapse of civilization.
“Of course, predictions about individuals were dicier than large general predictions. That’s why, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Saturn-Jupiter conjunctions were frequently grafted onto apocalyptic prophecies,” says Smoller, a professor of history and chair of the history department at the University of Rochester.
The author of History, Prophecy, and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre d’Ailly, 1350-1420 (Princeton University Press, 1994), Smoller researches the intersection between magic, science, and religion in medieval and Renaissance Europe, centering around the two themes of astrology and apocalyptic prophecy, and saints and miracles.
Her second book, The Saint and the Chopped-Up Baby: The Cult of Vincent Ferrer in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cornell University Press, 2014), delves into the canonization and cult of the Valencian friar Vincent Ferrer, a fiery apocalyptic preacher who died in 1419 and was canonized in 1455.
For her current project, Smoller has returned to the stars—so to speak—where she’s tracing the relationship between astrology and prophecy for a third book, tentatively titled Astrology and the Sibyls—an investigation of ways of knowing the future ranging from around 1100 to around 1600.
Here, she explains what conjunctions meant to medieval and Renaissance Europe:
Source: University of Rochester