When I’m in the British Library, I often visit their ‘Treasures’ room – a free exhibition of magnificent manuscripts and books, which is regularly refreshed.
Earlier this week I wandered in to look at the music section, which has a selection of manuscript scores from famous composers and other related items. The illuminated book above caught my eye. It appears to show a musician queen in two stages – playing music contentedly, and then dropping her instruments in a cartoonish fashion.
The pictures below the figure offer some clues as to what’s going on here. These are astrological signs, and the crowned woman is actually a representation of the planet Venus.
This book is a 14th-century copy of a 12th-century Libre Astrologiae by Georgius Fendulus, which is itself an abridged translation of an astrological work by a 9th-century Persian astrologer Abu Ma’shar, thought to be active at the Abbasid court in Baghdad.
From Classical times, Venus had associations with music, as did Mercury. In this book, Venus is dropping her instruments in the second picture because she is in her ‘dejection’, when her influence is in decline, as opposed to her ‘exaltation’, where her influence is strengthening.
Interestingly, the Western iconography of Venus as a musician began around the time of Fendulus, and seems to owe much to middle-eastern sources, in which Venus was often represented playing an oud.
A good selection of the subsequent Western iconography of Venus the musician can be found in this blog.