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A Star Is Born: The Antinous Constellation

Antinous, the subject of our current exhibition, A Portrait of Antinous, in Two Parts, was an exceptionally beautiful Greek youth who lived from about A.D. 111 to A.D. 130. He was allegedly the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and while they were travelling together in Egypt, Antinous mysteriously drowned in the Nile River. It is said that Emperor Hadrian looked to the skies (following Antinous’s death) and identified the star that had taken his soul.

In fact, many of our modern constellations have names that originated in antiquity, such as the twelve zodiac signs. For nearly eighteen centuries, the stars of Antinous were one of those constellations. But the Romans were not the only ones who named that particular constellation of stars. Previously, these stars were identified by the ancient Greeks as Ganymede’s abduction by Zeus’s eagle, Aquila.

The first ancient author to record that the constellation included Antinous was Ptolemy, who wrote his Almagest, a catalog of stars, in A.D. 150. However, the earliest known depiction of the Antinous constellation does not appear until the 16th century, when the German mathematician and cartographer Caspar Vopel produced a star globe in 1536, which shows Antinous kneeling on a plinth, just before he fell into the Nile (seen here). A similar pose is shown on the 1551 star globe of Gerardus Mercator, pictured below.

The depictions on the globes and star maps begin to vary at the end of the 16th century with representations showing Antinous more actively engaged with Zeus’s eagle, Aquila. Tycho Brahe (a colorful character perhaps most remembered for losing part of his nose in a fight over mathematics, which forced him to wear an artificial nose likely made of brass or copper) included Antinous as a separate constellation in his list, Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata, from 1602, and it remained thus widely accepted into the 19th century.  

During the 17th and 18th centuries the Antinous constellation continued to appear in popular books and maps (see above), although opinions varied on whether Antinous and Aquila were part of the same constellation or different.

However, at the end of the 19th century Antinous started to lose popularity among astronomy texts and fewer and fewer authors gave it constellation status. Because of this, in 1922 (the very year that the Art Institute of Chicago’s portrait of Antinous came to the museum), the Antinous constellation was discarded at the first meeting of the International Astronomical Union. When the boundaries between constellations were set in 1930, the demise of the constellation was final, leaving Aquila to fly alone.

Today, there are a large number of entertaining astronomy apps that can be used on a mobile device. I selected one called Star Chart, which allows you to hold your phone up to different parts of the sky while the screen identifies specific constellations, such as Aquila (pictured below). While drawings of the constellations today often appear more abstract, if you look closely, maybe you can imagine Antinous still there among the stars.

A Portrait of Antinous, in Two Parts will be on display through August 28, 2016. Learn more about Antinous in this video in the exhibition.

—Elizabeth Hahn Benge, Collection and Exhibitions Manager, Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art

Image Credits:

Fragment of a Portrait Head of Antinous, mid-2nd century A.D. Roman. Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Hutchinson.

Detail of Antinous constellation, by Gerard Mercator (1512-1594). The Mercator Globes at Harvard Map Collection via Wikimedia Commons.

Detail of Antinous and Aquila constellations from Johannes Hevelius’ Prodromus Astronomiae (1690).

Screenshot of iPhone app Star Chart showing Aquila constellation today.