Signs of the Zodiac at the Radcliffe Observatory

Below the level of the balcony at the Radcliffe Observatory are the signs of the zodiac modelled for the Coade factory by sculptor J C F Rossi (1762-1839).

He took his designs from the Farnese Globe, a celestial globe (now in the Museo Nationale, Naples) which has survived from Roman times and is thought to be a Roman copy of a Greek original.

A map of an ‘Ancient Globe of the Heavens’ taken from the Farnese Globe had been published in Spence’s Polymetis in 1747, and it was this map that Rossi used as a model for the Observatory’s zodiac signs.

The number of zodiac panels is not 12 but 11 – the signs for Scorpio (the scorpion) and Libra (the scales) are combined both on the Farnese Globe and on the Observatory.

It has long been recognised that the names given by both Greeks and Romans to the signs of the zodiac derive from Greek mythology. For example, Aries is the ram whose golden fleece was recovered by Jason, Taurus the bull whose form Zeus assumed when he abducted Europa, and Leo the lion slain by Herakles (Hercules) as the first of his 12 labours.

The curious form of Capricornus, the goat with a fish-tail, derives from the myth in which the god Pan jumped into the water just as he was changing shape in an attempt to escape from the monster Typhon. While the half of him above the water assumed the shape of a goat, the lower half became a fish.

The Morning, Noon and Evening panels

In between the signs of the zodiac are the three rectangular panels representing Morning, Noon and Evening, also in Coade stone. These panels were the work of a third sculptor, Robert Smirke (1752-1825).

On the Morning and Noon panels, the quadriga (four-horse chariot) of Helios (the sun) is seen riding across the sky. The Evening panel depicts Nyx (the night) with Artemis (goddess of the moon) setting off for the night’s journey.

In the Morning Panel,the figure of Eos, representing Dawn, can be seen carrying a jug and a lamp, which is lit by a star. The four-horse chariot of her brother Helios, the sun, can be seen following her. The figure on the right represents Cybele, the earth-mother, who is waiting to be refreshed by the day.

In the Noon Panel, the four-horse chariot of Helios (the sun) is again seen.

The Evening Panel depicts Nyx (the night) with Artemis (Goddess of the moon) setting off for the night’s journey.