People have always watched the night sky. As evidenced by cave paintings and other artifacts, humans were aware of lunar cycles as long as 25,000 years ago, and the ancient Egyptians based their calendar on the rising and setting of stars and constellations.
Astrology, a divination practice based on the positions of celestial bodies (as opposed to astronomy, a scientific discipline concerned with their physical properties), proposes that the placement of constellations at the time of our birth can lend insights into our characters and even predict our futures. For those who believe in it, it can be a guide to understanding where we’re going and where we’ve been.
In Western astrology, the beginnings of which historians trace to Mesopotamia from about 1900 BCE to 1700 BCE, personalities are said to be set by the positions of the 12 constellations in the region of the sky known as the Western Zodiac. But other cultures developed their own astrological systems.
In China, for instance, astrology—which gained popularity during the Zhan Guo period (fifth century BCE)—is based on a lunar calendar and a 12-year cycle with a different animal (rat, rooster, dragon, and so on) holding sway each year; it does not rely on observations of the stars. And in India, Vedic astrology draws on the same 12 zodiac signs as in the West but includes karmic interpretations and determines the timing of the star signs on the basis of the actual, physical positions of the sky’s constellations (as opposed to a fixed date, as in Western astrology).
Artworks incorporating astrological images have been around for as long as astrology itself. Here are 13 of them.
Lascaux Cave Paintings (17,000–c. 15,000 BCE)
The roughly 17,000-year-old cave paintings in Lascaux, France, are believed to incorporate ancient star maps, including some zodiac constellations. This would make them among the oldest astrological images in the world, suggesting that the people who painted the Lascaux caves were aware of the constellations before the ancient Greeks and Babylonians.
In one of the paintings near the cave’s entrance, for example, is a painting of a bull with what looks like the Pleiades star cluster above its shoulder. Other spots on and near the bull resemble stars from the area of the sky that forms the Taurus (Latin for “bull”) constellation, suggesting that human association of that celestial region with the four-legged creature is older than originally thought.
Zodiac Ceiling at the Temple of Hathor, Egypt (c. 30 BCE–30 AD)
The ancient Egyptians were known stargazers. The King’s Chamber inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, for instance, which was completed around 2560 BCE, aligned with the Orion constellation. Egyptian scribal priests observed and recorded the skies from the time of the Pyramid Texts (dating to around 2300 BCE). And farther down the Nile, the Zodiac of Dendera—a sandstone bas-relief dating roughly to the reign of Cleopatra in the first century BCE—illustrated a night sky with the five planets known to the Egyptians at the time, 12 zodiac signs, 36 spirits, and a few constellations.
The circular relief was embedded in the ceiling of a chapel devoted to Osiris inside Dendera’s Temple of Hathor (the ancient Egyptian “Lady of the Sky”) and is among the best-conserved ancient depictions of the stars. (After being “discovered” by French explorers during a Napoleonic campaign in Egypt, an antiquities thief blasted it from the ceiling and took it to France, where it was bought by the king and later installed at the Louvre.) Decorative zodiacs were a common feature in Egyptian Late Period temples, and this one was in an area that would have been visited only by the pharaoh and his senior priests.
Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, Book of the Fixed Stars (c. 964)
In 964 CE, Persian astronomer Al-Sufi wrote a treatise on fixed stars and constellations, a major Islamic astronomical text that was reproduced for centuries. Al-Sufi’s approach fused the work of second-century Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy with a Bedouin celestial mapping system; hand-drawn illustrations showed how the same stars (which appear as red dots) were interpreted as different shapes.
Some illustrations such as this one of Ursa Major (the Great Bear), from the oldest extant copy of the book (c. 1009) show only Ptolemy’s constellations. Other images show overlapping readings of the same stars, such as an image of Andromeda that outlines the Ptolemaic reading together with Bedouin images of a camel, fish, and horse.
Limbourg Brothers, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1411–1416)
Late-medieval Europeans with means sometimes splurged on a personalized book of hours—a miniature prayer book with texts to be read at specific times. Among the most famous of these (and one of the best-known Gothic illuminated manuscripts) is the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry) by Dutch miniaturists Paul, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (aka the Limbourg Brothers). The petite book includes full-page illustrations for each month, and while most eyes dart to the detailed depictions of peasants and aristocrats, astrological signs always appear at the top in rich blue lunettes.
Astrology is also featured elsewhere in this book in back-to-back images of a nude man standing in a mandorla shape with all 12 zodiac signs covering regions of his body: Aries atop the head, Taurus cradling the neck, Gemini at the shoulders, and so on. This type of anatomical diagram was a common image in books of hours and dated all the way back to the Hellenistic era. There were various ways to represent the connection of corporeal regions to star signs—sometimes zodiac symbols were written as text and sometimes they were illustrated; the man could be standing (as he is here) or contorted into a circle with his feet nearly resting on his head, to match the zodiac circle.
Jan Brueghel the Younger, God Creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars in the Firmament (c. 1650)
There was a time when astrology and the Church harmoniously coexisted, as in the Limbourg Brothers’ book of hours and again in this landscape by Flemish Baroque painter Jan Brueghel the Younger. The painting interprets the fourth day of creation as described in Genesis, in which God created the sun, the moon, and the stars (plus the signs that could be read into them) to separate light and darkness.
Brueghel included zodiac symbols in a dramatic arc that sweeps across the sky and is presided over by a levitating God, although much more detail can be found in the artist’s foreground depiction of earthly flora. Following in the footsteps of his painter father, Brueghel was known for leafy landscapes, which he often used as backdrops for allegories, mythological scenes, and animals.
John Singer Sargent, Pagan Gods (1895)
By the time the expat American artist John Singer Sargent was commissioned to paint murals for the Boston Public Library in 1893, the Church and astrology had parted ways. Primarily a society painter, Sargent chose to create an ambitious cycle, titled Triumph of Religion, illustrating moments in Jewish and Christian history.
As a foil, he included a panel of pagan gods at the north ceiling vault. One of these was the Egyptian deity Neith, who created the universe and mothered the sun, and Sargent adorned her with a golden zodiac neckplate. Sargent described her as “the origin of things, the Mother of gods . . . who spans the entire arch, touching the horizon with her hands and with her feet as on Egyptian ceilings and zodiacs,” suggesting that Sargent may have known of the Dendera zodiac that had also once graced a ceiling).
Neith’s head touches that of Astarte, the ancient Near Eastern goddess of sensuality, and in the lunette below her Sargent depicted Israelites being oppressed by the Egyptian pharaoh. Regardless of the message that Sargent may have been trying to deliver about the virtue of monotheism in the face of alluring ancient goddesses, the pagan seems to have won out. Bostonians favored that section of the mural.
Alphonse Mucha, Zodiac (1896)
Around the time that Sargent was painting his Boston mural, zodiacs were also trending across the Atlantic. In one of Czech-born, Paris-based Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha’s most popular posters, originally designed as a calendar for the Parisian printing and publishing house F. Champenois, zodiac signs encircle the head of a woman like a halo.
Léon Deschamps, editor of the La Plume literary magazine, saw the image and bought the rights to use it as the publication’s 1897 calendar. Variations of the lithograph (with and without logos or calendar months) were created; more than 10 have been identified.
Hilma af Klint, Group IX/UW, The Dove, No. 14 (1915)
The imagery that Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint included in her largely abstract paintings was drawn from theosophy, several different religions, alchemy, magic and, on occasion, astrology. Her “Dove” series of paintings feature orbs that look like planets with rings around them, while the 14th and final image in the series also has astrological glyphs in each corner representing Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. Abstract symbols standing in for images, these ancient glyphs meshed well with the artist’s innovative approach to nonrepresentational painting.
Ernest Procter, The Zodiac (1925)
While in Hilma af Klint’s painting the zodiac is reduced to minimalist symbols, in this work, made 10 years later by English artist Ernest Procter, the signs have been brought to life as humans and animals. Procter painted the zodiac cycle as a circle surrounding the sun, with Virgo at the center holding Libra’s scales while distancing herself from Leo.
According to the artists’ wife, artist Dod Procter, he “was much taken up with the subject [of the zodiac] and had written several poems about it.” This piece is part of a series of works Procter made based on mythology.
Joseph Cornell, Pavilion (1953)
On a summer day in 1941, assemblage artist Joseph Cornell visited the planetarium at New York’s Museum of Natural History. “The astronomical paraphernalia are intriguing,” he later wrote in his diary, “Arranged in cases in the hall around the circular hall. On the main floor a particularly fine set of murals of the zodiac, picked out in white on blue. The nicest rendition of the Gemini I’ve seen.” Fascinated by astronomy and a serious amateur skywatcher, Cornell frequently drew from both scientific astronomy and astrology in series such as his “Soap Bubble Sets” and in works such as this one, which features the constellations Cepheus, Draco, and Ursa Minor.
Betye Saar, Mystic Window for Leo (1969)
California-based artist Betye Saar credited a 1967 visit to a Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Pasadena Museum as the inspiration for her transition from printmaking to assemblages. And she, like Cornell, was interested in stars and astrology.
In one of her first three-dimensional works, Black Girl’s Window (1969), the mullions of a repurposed window frame divide the composition into ten panels, including one depicting Leo, Saar’s own astrological sign. “The upper panes feature astrological signs, because I’m interested in mysticism,” Saar told Frieze magazine about Black Girl’s Window. Leo also figures prominently in this piece, made three years earlier.
Martin Wong, Gemini (1985)
When ceramicist and painter Martin Wong moved from the West Coast to downtown New York City in 1978, he was immediately drawn to the streetscapes of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, until his death of AIDS-related complications in 1999, he documented in his paintings the neighborhood as it was then, with its run-down tenements, vacant lots, and vibrant life. These renditions often made room for stars, in works such as Everything Must Go (1983), where constellations float above a pile of debris from a demolished building, or Gemini (1985), a cityscape featuring a pair of firemen under a night sky.
Nolan Oswald Dennis, Ecliptic (Black Liberation Zodiac) (2017)
In the work of Johannesburg-based artist Nolan Oswald Dennis, the familiar symbols of the zodiac are reimagined entirely. In an ongoing series that he’s been working on since 2017, “Black Liberation Zodiac,” the artist takes symbols from the global Black liberation movement’s iconography, such as fists, guns, and books, and creates new diagrams using the International Astronomical Union’s constellation charts.
“Sometimes I map them astrologically, or place them more intuitively, in choice spots on the charts I’m creating,” Dennis explains. “Once I start mapping, new configurations emerge, allowing me to interpret the symbols anew.”