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“Conversations with God”: The faith and science of Copernicus


Photo by Lucien de Guise

Lucien de Guise - published on 05/28/21

A new exhibit features the deeply religious Catholic astronomer, the first modern scientist to posit that the earth revolves around the sun.

An exhibition has just opened at London’s National Gallery confirming the Catholic contribution to scientific progress. Titled “Conversations with God,” it doesn’t revolve around the sun or the earth, but a painting: “Astronomer Copernicus” (1873) by Jan Matejko.

The Catholicism of Copernicus

The Copernicus household, from what is now Poland, must have been very pious. Of the four siblings, three became clergy of different types. Nicolaus Copernicus was a canon for most of his life and never married. 

Despite Copernicus being deeply religious, this enormous painting only hints at his Catholicism. The closest references I could see are the wooden beams of an astronomical instrument, before which he kneels in awe, and the cruciform design on the trunk at his side. Behind him is Frombork Cathedral. 

This painting, which is more than a national treasure in Poland, addresses his realization that the earth revolves around the sun. His theory was published many decades before Galileo and was dedicated to Pope Paul III. The notorious problems that Galileo had with the Vatican had as much to do with the Italian astronomer’s arrogance as with Copernicus’ heliocentrism. Copernicus met with more resistance from other scientists than from the Church.

Faith and science draw crowds

The power of Copernicus’ name must still be strong. There are regular queues outside the exhibition, which is one of the smallest I’ve ever seen: two paintings, two scientific instruments and a powerful message. Perhaps it’s because all the information is in two languages – English and Polish – that so many visitors are reverentially turning up.

copernicus astrolabe
Detail of a 15th century astrolabe for studying the heavens.

The virtual Museum of the Cross

The Museum of the Cross, the first institution dedicated to the diversity of the most powerful and far-reaching symbol in history. After 10 years of preparation, the museum was almost ready to open; then came COVID-19. In the meantime, the virtual museum has started an Instagram account to engage with Aleteia readers and the stories of their own crucifixes: @crossXmuseum

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