Medical Astrology: Science, Art, and Influence in early-modern Europe

The Zodiac Man

Explore: The Zodiac Man | Celestial and Terrestrial Anatomy, Physiology | A Zodiac-Man Flap Print

The Zodiac Man

Detail from a Calendar for the Year 1541. Click the image for more information.  

The Zodiac Man is an image type unique to the history of medicine. First documented in the eleventh century, this curious figure originally flourished in folding almanacs and medical manuscripts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By the start of the sixteenth century, it had become a hallmark of medical astrology, appearing in a variety of popular print publications: such as, wall calendars, almanacs, planet books, etc. A century later, however, its scientific repute began to decline. Anatomical illustrations drawn from direct observation, like those by the Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), increasingly superseded The Zodiac Man in scientific publications and popular imagination. Today, this figure represents the margins of medical history, though its “rejection by modern science is irrelevant…to an historical appreciation” of its meaning. These are the words of art historian Harry Bober, who further wrote that The Zodiac Man “represented the epitome of an exact science” for its time. That science—though derided as “irrational” at various points since its peak—was, in the eyes of its late-medieval and early-modern practitioners, built upon a “rational” substrate: the precisely calculable and predictable order of the heavens. That celestial order, in turn, influenced terrestrial events—like weather and humoral health—was widely admitted, as well as widely expressed by The Zodiac Man. This figure conveys interrelation between celestial events and humoral health by mapping the signs of the Zodiac onto the human body. There are, however, a few different approaches to this mapping among images of this type. Some figures, like the one above, were inscribed within a zodiacal wheel, while others were framed within boxes or portrayed without enclosure entirely. The latter, which mapped The Twelve Signs of the Zodiac directly onto the human body, was specifically known as Homo Signorum (Man of the Signs). This particular zodiac-man type was first documented in the thirteenth century and is sometimes alternatively called Dominium Signorum (Lord of the Signs). Unlike its wheel-inscribed counterparts, Homo Signorum exclusively cited zones of zodiacal influence within the body; it made no explicit reference to the cosmographic ideology underlying its correlational imagery. Examples of Homo Signorum are featured in the gallery below, which offers a sampling of the pictorial variety within The Zodiac Man type.

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Celestial and Terrestrial Anatomy, Physiology

Fasciculus medicinae, 1493-94: Zodiac Man (detail). Click image for more information.

The Zodiac Man, in its many iterations, was a reference figure for one of the most common operations in early-modern medicine: phlebotomy or bloodletting. Physicians, barber surgeons, and other lay practitioners used The Zodiac Man to assess the best times to bleed or medicate certain body parts, depending on patients’ needs. Although time of year, month, and day were important considerations, the key factor in these assessments was the position of the Moon. Art historian Harry Bober explains that “the relation of the Moon to the sign governing the affected part had to be ascertained for it was said to be dangerous, if not fatal, to treat that member if the Moon was in the sign at the time.” To this, Bober adds: “the ever-present slogan accompanying texts of phlebotomy warns that neither knife nor medication may be applied to the afflicted member if the Moon is in the sign governing said organ.” Over the course of the fifteenth century, a number of local and national statutes were enacted across Europe to ensure the safety of phlebotomy procedures. Some of these statutes permitted treatment only under favorable Moon phases, while others required practitioners to own and consult the most current almanac for the year before offering patients treatment. A common feature of these almanacs, The Zodiac Man typically appeared alongside planetary timing tables. Some tables were pre-calculated, simply communicating good and bad times for treatment with alphabetic or imagistic symbols. Others were proper ephemerides—i.e., tables listing the day-to-day mathematical and zodiacal positions of the Moon, and other planetary bodies, for a particular location and period of time. Either way, The Zodiac Man was a supplement to—not a replacement for—lunar, solar, or other planetary tables.

Fasciculus medicinae, 1493-94: Pregnant Female Anatomy (detail). Click image for more information.

The Zodiac Man, in other words, was not a stand-alone figure. Whether pictured beside planetary tables or venipuncture diagrams, it was always part of a larger informational or imagistic context. Two editions of the Fasciculus medicinae, from 1491 and 1493–94, at the Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library illustrate this point spectacularly. The Fasciculus medicinae—or “little bundle of medicine”—was a collection of several, independently authored late-medieval medical treatises. After circulating for a century in manuscript form, this book was printed for the first time in Venice in 1491 by the brothers Giovanni and Gregorio De’Gregori, also known as Johannes and Gregorius de Gregoriis. Although the content of their publication was not new, its images were. Their Fasciculus medicinae holds the distinction of being the first printed medical work in which a series of didactic anatomical illustrations appear. These illustrations, however, point to an earlier precedent. They are kin to a group of figures from medieval manuscripts, collectively known as the “Five Figure Series” (Fünfbilderserie). First defined by the early-twentieth-century historian of medicine Karl Sudhoff in 1907, the “Five Figure Series” was a pictorial tradition that emerged out of Galen’s influential writings on anatomy, in spite of the ancient physician’s stated aversion to medical illustration. Its images depicted various systems of the body, which, according to Galen, were five in number: (1) the Osseus, (2) Nervous, (3) Muscular, (4) Venous, and (5) Arterial systems. The Fasciculus medicinae, however, completely transformed this series. In addition to a sixth image, its illustrations offered a new array of iconographic types, all of which were rendered with remarkable naturalism. These realistic representations included the following subjects: (1) A Urine Wheel, (2) The Vein Man, (3) The Zodiac Man, (4) The Pregnant Female Anatomy, (5) The Wound Man, and (6) The Disease Man. Collectively, these images conveyed correlation between the celestial and terrestrial spheres as a primary factor in human, humoral health. The gallery below features two versions of this six-figure series: the first is from the 1493-94 edition of the Fasciculus medicinae; the second is from the 1491 printing—the first edition of the text.

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A Zodiac-Man Flap Print

Another remarkable exemplar of The Zodiac Man is the flap print below, which comes from the title page of Armonia astro-medico-anotomica (1690) by Francesco Minniti. The late date of this Venetian-issued Zodiac Man is somewhat unusual, though partly explained by the figure’s form. Anatomical flap prints—also known as fugitive sheets—were first invented in Strasbourg in 1538 by a German physician and printer named Heinrich Vogtherr the Elder (1490–1556). Art historian Suzanne Karr Schmidt explains that “while anatomy flap prints originated in Strasbourg, plagiarized editions from Nuremberg soon overtook the market until the early seventeenth century.” She further notes that “from there, they exerted an international influence especially in Switzerland and the Netherlands.” The Venetian-issued Zodiac Man coincides with this timing and general geographic dispersal.

This figure also aligns with views on medical illustration espoused by the Milanese physician Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576). The use of images in medical texts was a topic of controversy among physicians in early-modern Europe. Historian of science Isabelle Pantin explains that “the Aristotelian and Galenic traditions [in medicine] endorsed the importance of first-hand, visual experience in anatomy.” They supported knowledge acquisition through animal and human dissection, not images. Accordingly, the Galenists in this debate considered two-dimensional images completely useless at best and hindering in their illusionism at worst. Representing the other side of this debate were figures like Andreas Vesalius and Cardano. Like Vesalius, Cardano supported the use of illustrations in medical texts, though his assertions on this topic remained unpublished until 1663. Moreover, like Vesalius, Cardano slightly favored “pictures with superimposed coloured flaps (foliatum)” over “two-dimensional diagrams (ichnographia).” According to Pantin, Cardano “aspired to produce accomplished illustrated books, which would unite eloquent, clear and precise text with foliata [i.e., pictures with superimposed colored flaps] alternating with ichnographia [i.e., two-dimensional diagrams].”

This seventeenth-century, Venetian-issued Zodiac Man reflects Cardano’s published comments, as well as Vesalius’s own venous flap prints. Its six separate flaps simulate dissection, revealing the body’s internal organs layer by layer. The final two layers, however, disrupt this simulation. Overwhelming the scale of The Zodiac Man figure, these sheets appear decidedly out of place. Although they appear to be later supplements, it remains unclear why or when these curious pages might have been added.

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Works Cited on this Page
Barnes, Robin Bruce. Astrology and Reformation. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Bober, Harry. “The Zodiacal Miniature of the Très Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry: Its Sources and Meaning.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 11 (1948): 1–34.
Cooper, Glen M. “Approaches to the Critical Days in Late Medieval Renaissance Thinkers.” Early Science and Medicine 18, No. 6 (2013): 536–65
Cooper, Glen. “Galen and Astrology: A Mésalliance?” Early Science and Medicine 16, No. 2 (2011): 120–146.
French, Roger. “An Origin for the Bone Text of the ‘Five-Figure Series.’” Sudhoffs Archiv 68, No. 2 (1984): 143–156.
Jensen, Phebe. Astrology, Almanacs, and the Early Modern English Calendar. London; New York: Routledge, 2021.
Hartnell, Jack. “Wording the Wound Man.” British Art Studies, Issue 6 (29 June 2017),
McCall, Taylor. “The Fasciculus Medicinae: An Introduction to the Images and Texts,” The New York Academy of Medicine Digital Collections, accessed June 27, 2021,   
O’Neill, Ynez Violé. “The Fünfbilderserie Reconsidered.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 43, No. 3 (May–June 1969): 236–245.
Pantin, Isabelle. “Analogy and Difference: A Comparative Study of Medical and Astronomical Images in Books, 1470–1550.” In Observing the World through Images: Diagrams and Figures in Early Modern Arts and Sciences, 9–44. Edited by Nicholas Jardine and Isla Fay. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2014.
Schmidt, Suzanne Kathleen Karr. “Chapter 4: Anatomies both Normal and Deformed.” In Interactive and Sculptural Printmaking in the Renaissance, 107–138. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018.