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The Sun in the Church

The Sun in the Church

Cathedrals as Solar Observatories

J. L. Heilbron

ISBN 9780674005365

Publication date: 04/02/2001

Between 1650 and 1750, four Catholic churches were the best solar observatories in the world. Built to fix an unquestionable date for Easter, they also housed instruments that threw light on the disputed geometry of the solar system, and so, within sight of the altar, subverted Church doctrine about the order of the universe.

A tale of politically canny astronomers and cardinals with a taste for mathematics, The Sun in the Church tells how these observatories came to be, how they worked, and what they accomplished. It describes Galileo's political overreaching, his subsequent trial for heresy, and his slow and steady rehabilitation in the eyes of the Catholic Church. And it offers an enlightening perspective on astronomy, Church history, and religious architecture, as well as an analysis of measurements testing the limits of attainable accuracy, undertaken with rudimentary means and extraordinary zeal. Above all, the book illuminates the niches protected and financed by the Catholic Church in which science and mathematics thrived.

Superbly written, The Sun in the Church provides a magnificent corrective to long-standing oversimplified accounts of the hostility between science and religion.


  • [The] improbable tale [of an astrological instrument saving a church] is just one of the gems recovered by Heilbron in a book that lingers lovingly over these forgotten instruments. Once big science, now architectural curios not infrequently buried under flagstones and pews, gnomons (or meridian lines, as they are more properly called) lie at the luminous conjunction of mathematics, philosophy, architecture, astronomy and church politics. Dusted off in this idiosyncratic history of astronomy during the scientific revolution, they provide an occasion to revisit perennial questions about the relationship between science and religion, reason and faith...[Readers] will be surprised to discover what Heilbron shows: that the Catholic Church served as perhaps the largest patron of sophisticated astronomical research throughout the controversies over Copernicus and his sun-centered scheme.

    —D. Graham Burnett, New York Times Book Review


  • 2001, Winner of the Pfizer Award


  • J. L. Heilbron, formerly Professor of History and the Vice Chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, is a Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, University of Oxford. He was awarded the George Sarton Medal by the History of Science Society in 1993 for his contributions to the field.

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 6-3/4 x 9-3/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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