Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, Portrait Gallery


(19th February, 1473 – 24th May, 1543)

THE illustrious discoverer of the true planetary motions, whose features are represented on the accompanying plate, lived during the latter part of the fifteenth century, and the first half of the following one. Notwithstanding the success and celebrity of the theory which still bears his name, the materials are very scanty for personal details regarding his life and character. This ignorance is not the result of recent neglect. A century had scarcely elapsed from the time of his death, when Gas-. sendi, who, at the request of the poet Chapelain, undertook to compile an account of him, was forced to preface it by a similar declaration.

Whilst Europe rang from one end to the other with the fierce dispute to which the new views of the relation and motions of the heavenly bodies gave rise, the character, the situation and manner of life, almost the country, of the great author of the controversy, remained unknown to the greater number of his admirers and opponents. Even the name of the discoverer of the Copernican system now appears strange, except in the Latinised form of Copernicus, in which alone it occurs in his own writings and in those of his commentators.

Early Years

Nicolas Copernik*, to use his genuine appellation, was a native of Thorn, a city of Polish Prussia, situated on the river Weichsel or Vistula. He was born in the year 1473. Little is known of his parents, except that his father, whose name also was Nicolas, was a surgeon, and, as it is believed, of German extraction. The elder Copernik was undoubtedly a stranger at Thorn, where he was naturalized in 1462: he married Barbara, of the noble Polish family of Watzelrode. Luke, one of her brothers, attained the high dignity of Bishop of Ermeland in the year 1489, and the prospects of advancement which this connection held out to young Copernik, probably induced his father to destine him to the ecclesiastical profession.

He acquired at home the first elements of a liberal education, and afterwards graduated at Cracow, where he remained till he received the diploma of Doctor in Arts and Medicine from that university. He is said to have made considerable proficiency in the latter branch of study ; and possessed, even in more advanced life, so high a reputation for skill and knowledge, as to produce an erroneous belief that he had once followed medicine.

John Muller

He also exhibited at an early age a very decided taste for mathematical studies, especially for astronomy ; and attended the lectures, both public and private, of Albert Brudzewski, then mathematical professor at Cracow. Under his tuition, Copernicus, as we shall hereafter call him, became acquainted with the works of the astronomer, John Muller, (now more commonly known by his assumed appellation of Regiomontanus,) and the reputation of this celebrated man is said to have exercised a marked influence in deciding the bent of his future studies.

Muller died at Rome a few years after the birth of Copernicus, and when the latter had reached an age capable of appreciating excellence and nourishing emulation, he found Muller's works disseminated through every civilized country of Europe, his genius and acquirements the subject of universal admiration, and his premature death still regretted as a public calamity. The feelings to which the contemplation of Muller's success gave rise, were still more excited by a journey into Italy, which Copernicus undertook about the year 1495. One of his brothers and his maternal uncle were already settled in Rome, which was therefore the point to which his steps eventually tended. He quitted home in his twenty-third year ; when his diligence in cultivating the practical part of astronomy had already procured for him some reputation as a skilful observer. It seems to have been in contemplation of this journey that he began to study painting, in which he afterwards became a tolerable proficient.

Bologna was the first place at which he made any stay, being drawn thither by the reputation of the astronomical professor, Dominic Maria Novarra. Copernicus was not more delighted with this able instructor than Novarra with his intelligent pupil. He soon became an assistant and companion of Novarra in his observations, and in this capacity acquired considerable distinction, so that on his departure from Bologna and arrival at Rome, he found that his reputation had preceded him.

He was appointed to a professorship in that city, where he continued to teach mathematics for some years with considerable success.

It does not appear at what time Copernicus entered into holy orders : probably it may have been during his residence at Rome ; for on his return home he was named to the superintendence of the principal church in his native city Thorn. Not long afterwards his uncle Luke, who, in 1489, succeeded Nicolas von Thungen in the bishopric of Ermeland, enrolled him as one of the canons of his chapter.

The cathedral church of the diocese of Ermeland is situated at Frauenburg, a small town built near one of the mouths of the Vistula, on the shore of the lake called Frische Haff, separated only by a narrow strip of land from the Gulf of Dantzig. In this situation, rendered unfavourable to astronomical observations by the frequent marshy exhalations rising from the river and lake, Copernicus took up his future abode, and made it the principal place of his residence during the remainder of his life. Here those astronomical, speculations were renewed and perfected, the results of which have for ever consigned to oblivion the subtle contrivances invented by, his predecessors to account for the anomalies of their own complicated theories.
But we should form a very erroneous opinion of the life and, character of Copernicus, if we considered him, as it is probable that, by most he is considered, the quiet inhabitant .of a cloister, immersed solely in speculative inquiries. His disposition did not unfit him for taking an active share in the stirring events which were occurring around him, and it was not left entirely to his choice whether he would remain a mere spectator of them.

The chapter of Ermeland, at the time when he became a member of it, was the centre of a violent political struggle, in the decision of which Copernicus himself was called on to act a considerable part. In the latter half of the fifteenth century, a bitter war was carried on between. the King of Poland and a military religious fraternity, called the Teutonic or German Knights of St. Mary of Jerusalem, who were incorporated towards the end of the twelfth. century. Having been called into Prussia, they established themselves permanently in the country, built Thorn and several other cities, and gradually acquired a considerable share of independent power. On the death .of Paulvon Segendorf, bishop of Ermeland, Casimir, king of Poland, in pursuance of a design which he was then prosecuting, to get into his own hands the nomination to all the bishoprics in his dominions, appointed his secretary, Stanislas Opporowski, to the vacant see.

The chapter of Ermeland proceeded notwithstanding to a separate nomination, and elected Nicolas von Thungen. Opporowski, backed by Casimir, entered Ermeland at the head of a powerful army. From this period the new Bishop of Ermeland necessarily made common cause with the German Knights ; they- renounced, their allegiance to the crown of Poland, and threw themselves on the protection of Matthias king of Hungary. At length, Casimir finding himself unable to master the confederacy, separated Nicolas von Thungen from it, by agreeing to recognise him as Prince-Bishop of Ermeland, on the usual condition of homage. Nicolas thus became confirmed in his dignity, but his unhappy subjects did not fare better on that account, the country being now exposed to the fury of the. German Knights, as it had suffered before from the violence of the Polish soldiery. These disturbances were continued during the life of Luke Watzelrode, and the city of Frauenburg, as well as its neighbour Braunsburg, frequently became the theatre of warlike operations.

The management of the see was often committed to the care of Copernicus during the absence of his uncle, who on political grounds resided for the most part at the Court; and his activity in maintaining the rights of the chapter rendered him especially obnoxious to the Teutonic Order. In one of the short intervals of tranquillity, they took occasion to cite him before, the meeting of the States at Posen; on account of some of his reports to his uncle concerning their encroach; ments. Gassendi, who mentions this circumstance, merely adds that at length his own and his uncle's merit secured the latter in the possession of his dignity.

In 1512 Watzelrode died, and Copernicus was chosen as administrator of the see until the appointment of the new bishop, Fabian von Losingen. In 1518 the knights under their grand master, Albert of Brandenburg, took possession of Frauenburg and burnt it to the' ground.

During the following year hostilities continued in the immediate neighbourhood of Frauenburg, but in the course' of that summer, negotiations for peace between the Teutonic Order and the King of Poland were begun, through the mediation of the bishop. At last a truce was agreed upon for four years, during which Fabian von Losingen died, and Copernicus was again chosen administrator of the bishopric.

In 1525 peace was concluded with the Teutonic Knights, Albert having consented to receive Prussia as a temporal fief from the King of Poland. It was probably on this occasion that Copernicus was selected to represent the chapter of Ermeland ""at the Diet at Graudenz, where the terms of peace were finally settled ; and by his firmness the chapter recovered great part of the possessions which had been endangered during the war. This service to his chapter was followed by another of more widely extended importance. During the struggle, which had continued with little interruption for more than half a century, the currency had become greatly debased and depreciated ; and one of the most important subjects of deliberation at the meeting at Graudenz related to the best method of restoring it. There was a great difference of opinion whether the intended new coinage should be struck according to the old value of the currency, or according to that to which it had fallen in consequence of its adulteration. To assist in the settlement of this important question, Copernicus drew up a table of the relative value of the coins, then in circulation throughout the country. He presented this to the States, accompanied by a memoir on the same subject, an extract from which may be seen in Hartknoch's History of Prussia. Throughout the troublesome period of which we have just given an outline, Copernicus seems to have displayed much political courage and talent. When tranquillity was at length restored, he resumed the astronomical studies which had been thus interrupted by more active duties.

There appears to be little doubt that the philosopher began to meditate on the ideas which led him to the true knowledge of the constitution of the solar system, at least as early as 1507. Every one, who has heard the name of Copernicus mentioned, is aware that before him the general belief was, that the earth occupies the centre of the universe ; that the changes of day and night are produced by the rapid revolution of the heavens, such as our senses erroneously lead 'us to believe, until more accurate and complicated observation teaches us the contrary ; that the change of seasons and apparent motions of the planetary bodies are caused by the revolution of the sun and planets from west to east round the earth, in orbits of various complexity, subject to the common daily motion of all from east to west
Instead of the daily motion of the heavens, from east to west, Copernicus substituted the revolution of the earth itself from west to east. He explained the other phenomena of the planetary motions by supposing the sun to be fixed, and the earth and other planets to revolve about him ; not, however, in simple circular orbits, according to the popular view of the Copernican theory. It was absolutely necessary to retain much of the old machinery of deferent and epicycle so long as the prejudice existed, from which Copernicus himself was not free, that nothing but circular motion is to be found in the heavens. Another step was made by the following generation, and astronomers were taught by Kepler to believe that the circular motion which they were so anxious to preserve in their theories, has no real existence in the planetary orbits. The advantage of the new system above the old, was, that by not denying to the earth the motion which it really possesses, the author had to invent epicycles to explain only the real irregularities of the motions of the other planets, and not those apparent ones which arise out of the motion of the orb from which they are viewed.

It is commonly said that besides the two motions already mentioned, Copernicus attributed to the earth a third annual revolution on its axis. This was necessary from the idea which he had formed of its motion in its orbit. He conceived the earth to be carried round as if resting on a lever centred in the sun, which would cause the poles of the daily motion to point successively to different parts of the heavens ; the third motion was added to restore these poles to their true position in every part of the orbit. It was afterwards seen that these two annual motions might be considered as resulting from one of .a different kind, and in this simpler form they are now always considered by astronomical writers.

It would be an interesting inquiry to follow Copernicus through the train of reasoning which induced him to venture upon these changes; but it is impossible to attempt this, or to explain his system, within the limits to which this sketch is necessarily confined. In one point of view, his peculiar merit appears not to be in general sufficiently insisted upon. If he had merely suggested the principles, of his new theory, he would doubtless have acquired, as now, the glory of lighting upon the true order of the solar system, and of founding thereupon: a new school of astronomy : but his peculiar and characteristic merit, that by which he really earned his reputation, and which entitles him. to take rank by the side of Newton in the history of astronomy, was the result of his conviction, that if his principles were indeed true, they would be verified by the examination of details, and the persevering resolution with which he thereupon set himself to rebuild an astronomical theory from the foundation. This was the reason, at beast as much as the fear of incurring censure, why he delayed the publication of his system for thirty-six years. During the greater part of that time he was employed in collecting, by careful observation, the materials of which it is constructed : the opinions on which it is based, comprising the whole of what was afterwards declared to be heretical and impious, were widely known to be entertained by him long before the work itself appeared. He delayed to announce them formally, until he was able at the same time to show that they were not random guesses, taken up from a mere affectation of novelty; but that with their assistance he had compiled tables of the 'planetary motions, which Were immediately acknowledged even by those whose minds' revolted Most against the means by which they were obtained. to be far more correct than any which till then had appeared.

Copernicus's book seems to have been nearly completed in 1536. which is the date of a letter addressed to him by Cardinal Schonberg. prefixed to the work. So far at this time was the-church of Rome from having decided on the line of stubborn opposition to the new opinions, 'which, in the following century; so. much to her own disgrace, she adopted, that Copernicus was chiefly moved to complete and publish his work by the solicitations of this cardinal, and of Tindemann Giese, the bishop of Culm ; and the book itself was dedicated to Pope Paul III. It is entitled, De Revolutionibus Odium Coelestium. Libri VI.' The'dedication is written in a very different strain from that to which his followers were soon afterwards restricted.. He there boldly avows his expectation that his theory would be attacked as contrary to the Scriptures, and his contempt of such ill considered judgment.

A more timid preface, in which the new theory is spoken of as a mere mathematical hypothesis, was added to this dedication- by Osiander, to whom Copernicus had entrusted the care of preparing the book for publication. It has been said that the, author was far from approving this; and if his death had not followed closely upon its publication, it is not' improbable that he would have suppressed it.

The revolution of opinion that has followed the publication of this memorable work was not immediately perceptible : even to the end of the sixteenth century, as Montucla observes, the number of 'converts to ifs doctrines might be easily reckoned. The majority contented themselves with a disdainful -sneer at the folly of introducing such ridiculous notions among the grave doctrines of astronomy but although impertinent, it was as yet considered harmless; and all those who were 'at the pains to examine the reasoning on Which the new theory Was grounded, were allowed, unmolested, to own themselves convinced by it. It was not until the spirit of philosophical inquiry was fully awakened, that 'the church of Rome-became sensible how mach 'danger "lurked in the new doctrines'; and when the struggle began in earnest between the partisans of truth and falsehood; the censures pronounced upon' the advocates Of the earth's motion; were in fact aimed through them at all who presumed, even hi' natural phenomenon , to see with Other eyes than those of their spiritual advisers.


Copernicus did not live to witness any part of the effect produced by his book. A sudden attack of dysentery and paralysis put an end to his life, within a few hours after the first printed copy had been shown to him, in his seventy-second year, on the 24th May, 1543, one century before the birth of Newton.

The house at Thorn, in which he is said to have been born, is still shown, as well as that at Frauenburg in ,which he: passed the greater part of his life. An hydraulic machine, of which only the remains now. exist, for supplying the houses of the canons with, water, and another of similar construction at Graudenz, which is still in use, are: said to have been constructed by him. An account of them may, be seen in Nanke's Travels. From the little that is, known of Copernicus's private character, his morals appear to, have been unexceptionable ; his temper good, his disposition kind, but inclining to seriousness. He was so highly esteemed in his own neighbourhood, that the attempt of a dramatic author to satirise him, by introducing his :doctrine of the earth's motion upon. the stage at Elbing, was received by, the audience with the greatest indignation.

He was buried in the cemetery of the chapter of Ermeland, and only a plain marble slab, inscribed with his name, marked the place of his interment. Until this was rediscovered in the latter half of the last century, an opinion prevailed that his remains had been transported to Thorn, and buried in the church of St John, where the portrait of him is preserved, from which most of the prints in circulation have been taken. It is engraved in Hartknoch's Prussia, and, according to that author, copies of it were frequently made. The portrait prefixed to Gassendi's life, is a copy of that given in Boissard, with the addition of a furred robe.

There is a good engraving of the same likeness, by Falck, a Polish artist, who lived about a century later than Copernicus. In the year 1584, Tycho Brae commissioned Elia Olai to visit Frauenburg, for the purpose of more accurately ,determining the latitude of Copernicus's observatory, and, on that occassion, received as a present from the chapter the Ptolemaic scales„ made by the astronomer himself, which he used, in his observatory; and also a portrait of him said to have been painted by ,his own hand. Tycho placed these memorials, with great honour in his own observatory, but, it is not known what became of them after. his death and the dispersion of his instruments.

The portrait, from which the engraving prefixed to this account is taken, belongs to the Royal Society,to which it was sent by Dr. Wolff, from Dantzig, in 1776. It was copied by Lormann, a Prussian artist, from one which had been long preserved and recognised as an original in the collection of the Dukes of Saxe Gotha.

In 1735, Prince Grabowski, bishop of Ermeland, exchanged for it the portrait of an ancestor of the reigning duke, who had been formerly bishop of that see. Grabowski left it to his chamberlain, M. Hussarzewski, in whose possession it remained when the copy was made. Dr. Wolff, in the letter accompanying his present, (inserted in the Phil. Trans. vol. lxvii.) declares that this original had been compared with the Thorn portrait, and that the resemblance of the two is perfect. It does not appear very striking in the engravings.

A colossal statue of Copernicus, executed by Thorwaldsen, was erected at Warsaw in 1830, with all the demonstrations of honour due to the memory of a man who holds so distinguished a place in the history of human discoveries.

* The authority for this manner of spelling the name is Hartknoch, Alt and Neues Preussen. The inscription, Nicolao Copernico, which appears on the plate, is a literal copy of the inscription on the original picture.