The Allegory of the Orrery

Thursday 1st June. 10 AM – The Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral. Continuing the banquet from yesterday. Today we see an allegorical scene – an acting out of the motions of the planets by actors, similar to the mechanical solar system models, or orreries, of later centuries.

Elizabethans had a great love of allegory, filling their paintings, plays and pageants with classical and astrological references which might seem obtuse today but which were readily understood by the audience then. In our banquet this takes the form of a masque of the planets. Although this scene post-dates Copernicus, his ideas of a sun centred solar system took well over a century to gain any currency so our system is centred on the earth as in the old Ptolemaic model.
So why an orrery? The allegory works, I hope, on several levels. Firstly it represents the prevailing view of the Solar System at the time as a perfect mechanical system ordained by God. Secondly it represents the motions and characteristics of the planets which were believed to affect human lives. Elizabeth frequently consulted John Dee on matters of astrology (such as choosing an auspicious day for her Coronation) and the position of the planets was deemed to be an important factor determining the outcome of events on Earth.
Finally it’s an allegory of the Court. A court is like the Solar System – at the centre is the queen, and her courtiers and people all circle around her, each in their ordained place. This reflects one of the main themes of the film, the position of anointed monarchs in relation to God and their subjects. Just as God had ordained the eternal orbits of the Solar System so He had created an order amongst people – each with their own station in life. And at the top of this Great Chain of Being stood the Queen.

8 thoughts on “The Allegory of the Orrery

  1. I like the title of this post almost as much as I like the info in the post. Thanks Justin, for continuing to share with us here.
    May we have some photos of sets and shoot here?
    love, Heather

  2. Justin,
    Your “Allegory of the Orrery” is reminiscent of Chaucer. Thomas Aquinas also believed that God worked through the planets to influence mortal lives. “The idea that the universe is bound together by harmony or concord is fundamental in Elizabethan cosmology. The music of the spheres orders the heavens, and music alike orders and tempers human passions and social forces.” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol 1., p.1049)
    I thought the Orrery, also, was an interesting juxtaposition to the sensuality of the “earthly” banquet, the food, the animals: the sensual world, if you like, which Elizabeth could only look upon but not physically engage herself as she was deprived of the deep privacy of a sensual life (unlike Bess Throckmorton). The realm of the senses juxtaposed to the realm of planets. Split as Elizabeth I was – to be an immortal mortal among mortals – makes me wonder if she occasionally forgot where she was: living, it seems, in the silence of the night sky, the Orrery. She wasn’t always “a creature of the world,” or, she wasn’t a creature in a body. Unlike Walsingham – Fannie Ardent asks Geoffrey Rush in “Elizabeth”, “Sir Francis, you are a creature of the world, like me?” – Elizabeth had a rift in her human soul (or heart) which was not constructed to belong entirely to life, being one of the “princes”.

  3. Fascinating, Bill. Elizabeth’s divided personality is also touched upon in this scene when she tells the Archduke Charles that at formal occassions she imagines there is glass between her and the rest of the room, so people can see her but not touch. She leads a life divided, a divsion she is active in maintaining for her own emotional protection even though she knows it is what causes her the most pain.

  4. Dear Justin,
    Who is composing the music for the film? From your writings, I see courtiers singing Madrigals in the background to all of this marvelous action as since I know The Elizabethan era pre-dates Bach.
    Your descriptions of the day’s scenes are dantalizing!
    Thank you,

  5. This post and the comments remind me of the supposed connection of European nobility and the Merovingians. Will there be any references to this, subtle or otherwise?

  6. Heather – not sure about photos as there’s np photography allowed on set (other than by the official photographer). I’ll ask the publicist if there are any we can use however.

  7. Could the box with the ptaenls that isn’t an orrery be a planetarium? It sort of fits.Either way, these are highly desired, beautiful objects Pat and your brain is, as ever, so very very clever.

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