Essays - Summer 2011

In the Orbit of Copernicus

A discovery of the great astronomer's bones, and their reburial in Poland

By Owen Gingerich | June 3, 2011
Statue of Copernicus, Warsaw (Photo by Ralf Peter Reimann)
Statue of Copernicus, Warsaw (Photo by Ralf Peter Reimann)


It was the proverbial dark and chilly September evening when Jaroslaw Włodarczyk and I boarded the train for Warsaw. We had been at a historians’ conference in Cracow, where I had reported on my 30-year obsession to see all of the surviving 16th-century copies of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus (“On the Revolutions”), the book that broke centuries of tradition by declaring that the sun, not the earth, stood at rest in the center of the cosmos. A technical treatise it was, not suitable for bedtime reading unless the scholar suffered from insomnia, but over the years I had paged through nearly 600 copies looking for marginal annotations to establish whether the book had actually had serious readers.

By day Nicolaus Copernicus was an administrative officer in the northernmost Catholic diocese in Poland. Trained as a lawyer and medical doctor, he served the Church with conviction, though his passion was writing the most revolutionary astronomical treatise the world had ever seen. Yet he was extremely reluctant to publish, fearing his book would be “hissed off the stage.” (In Latin the word was explodendum, the original literal meaning of the English word explode.) Eventually persuaded to send the work to the printer, he never did know the world’s reaction, for he died on the very day the last of the printed sheets reached his hands, in May 1543.

Włodarczyk and I had settled down in our first-class seats, chatting about Copernicus, his book, and the evidence I had found for significant readership, when two Polish men and a woman joined us in the reserved compartment. Unperturbed, we continued our conversation. Then, abruptly, one of the strangers, looking straight at me, exclaimed, “You must be Professor Gingerich,” and turning to my colleague, “This must be Włodarczyk! We have been looking for you!”

The spooky days of the Polish Communist regime and its secret police had long since been replaced by Solidarity, but the unexpected identification of us reinforced the evening chill. Could they be the Polish equivalent of the KGB? In the moments that followed, the most extraordinary coincidence of my entire life unfolded.

The speaker turned out to be Krzysztof Ostrowski, vice-rector of the Pultusk Academy, a newly founded college about 50 miles north of Warsaw and near the site of a muddy but famous Napoleonic battle in 1806. His companion was the rector, Adam Koseski. Ostrowski explained that the bishop of the Frombork Cathedral, in the remote northeastern corner of Poland where Copernicus himself had worked and lived, was distressed that there was no monument for the cathedral’s most illustrious staff member. Consequently he had invited Jerzy Gąssowski, a distinguished Polish archaeologist on the faculty of the Pultusk Academy, to find the astronomer’s grave. The problem was that no one knew precisely where Copernicus was buried. Because there were more than a hundred skeletons under the floor of the cathedral, Gąssowski initially concluded that the search would be a Sisyphean task not worth the trouble.

But Bishop Jacek Jezierski did not give up so easily. Copernicus had been one of 16 canons administering the cathedral, and the bishop knew that each canon was assigned the maintenance of one of the altars flanking the nave, each attached to one of the pillars in the large brick Gothic edifice. Archival records revealed that Copernicus had had charge of the Holy Cross altar and had read the holy liturgy there. By tradition the canons were buried in graves in the vicinity of their altars, which reduced the area to be searched, so Gąssowski was persuaded to excavate after all.

Copernicus was buried as a relatively unknown churchman, for the distribution of his book had only just begun. In the decades that followed, professional astronomers found his treatise an up-to-date recipe book useful for computing the positions of planets, but the idea of a fixed sun and a spinning earth seemed too ridiculous to be taken seriously as a real physical description of the cosmos. Wouldn’t people simply be spun off into space? And how could the moon be kept in tow if the earth was in an annual revolution around the sun? But by 1574, the obscure churchman’s work had become well enough known that when the great astronomical clock in the Strasbourg Cathedral was being restored, a large image was added with the caption “a true effigy of Nicolaus Copernicus depicted from his own self-portrait.” By and by De revolutionibus itself gained traction as physical reality, due largely to the work of Kepler and Galileo several generations after its publication.

But for 21st-century Poland, Copernicus represents an international hero. Along with Chopin, Madame Curie, and John Paul II, Copernicus is someone who puts Poland on the intellectual map. And that’s why Ostrowski and Koseski were looking for us: when Copernicus’ bones were finally found, they wanted an international celebration, and I could help add an international element. What an astonishing circumstance that we had all ended up in that same railway compartment!

Ostrowski and Koseski had been in Cracow for a symposium celebrating the life and work of the late Aleksander Gieysztor, the cofounder of the Pultusk Academy, since named after him. And who was the mystery woman with them on the train? None other than Gieysztor’s daughter, and this helped me close the loop on a riddle that had been puzzling me.

Back in 1984 a book dealer asked me if I had ever heard of a library called Aed Maria Magdal—“the house of Mary Magdalene”—but I had not. Why did he ask? Because there were three extremely uncommon Copernicus-related books on the Paris rare-book market, bearing this stamp. One of these was the first printed report of Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmology, the Narratio prima, which had preceded De revolutionibus by three years and which had helped persuade the aging astronomer that he could publish his treatise without ridicule. (The thin Narratio is 10 times rarer than De rev, and the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City recently paid $1.5 million to add one to its early-science collection.)

Some weeks afterward, I took a research trip to Poland, where two unexpected events took place. The first happened in the Old Town in Warsaw following a lunch with Paweł Czartoryski, the editor of the multivolume Complete Works of Nicolaus Copernicus. Czartoryski suggested that I might like to see the Royal Castle, which had been blown up in 1945 by the retreating Germans and was now being completely reconstructed. As we approached, he recognized Aleksander Gieysztor, the castle’s director, standing outside.  Gieysztor was genuinely cordial—people like Czartoryski, a scion of the nobility and hereditary prince, didn’t drop by just every day—and he invited us to the opening of the newly refurbished second floor that very evening. At the appointed hour Paweł and I showed up, along with one of his cousins, a princess visiting from Switzerland. Gieysztor soon found us and provided, in English, a remarkably detailed guided tour of the castle. In particular, he explained how to identify the original decorative pieces, which had a slightly duller gilt than the many facsimile replacements.

The second unexpected event took place a few days later in the library at Wrocław University. I started out searching for books that might have belonged to Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German astronomer who had played a key role in establishing the Copernican system as physical reality. Only one book from his personal library was known, his copy of De revolutionibus now at Leipzig University. However, I suspected that the Wroclaw University Library might be a good place to hunt for others, so I called for over a hundred early astronomy books that he might have owned. I hit the jackpot on just one, a book of planetary positions where Kepler had filled one blank page with speculations about why the year 1530 had been so cold. But something curious caught my attention: many of the books were stamped with the words Aed Maria Magdal—clearly an obsolete library that had been taken over by the university. And there was something else: the copy of Narratio prima that I had requested was not with the trove of books on the cart. As I left for lunch, I alerted the librarian that one volume was missing.

Returning from lunch, I found a very agitated librarian with an ashen countenance. The volume that contained the Narratio was a so-called Sammelband, that is, a collection of smaller tracts bound together. The volume had in fact been fetched for me, but someone had very cleverly removed the Narratio and pressed the other works tightly together to conceal the loss. The librarian had immediately searched the records to see what else had been requested the last time a reader had called for the Sammelband, and had found two other collected volumes with missing titles. “Let me guess what they are,” I said, and then mentioned the other two rare works on the Parisian book market.

The librarian’s astonishment was palpable. How could I have known? “Easy,” I replied. “Those are two other books along with the Narratio prima being offered in Paris. You had better get in touch with Interpol right away.”

The advice was easier to give than receive. The first reaction of librarians the world over is to keep thefts secret. After all, is not the librarian responsible for the security of his collection? He could be in a deeply vulnerable situation. And so, to my frustration, nothing happened.

A couple of months later, when I was back home and crossing Harvard Yard, I recognized a visitor. I couldn’t recall his name, but somehow I knew he was the president of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Serendipity was on my side. I introduced myself, told him about the missing Wrocław titles, and expressed my concern that no action seemed afoot.

Precisely how I recognized him puzzled me for years afterward until I met Ewa Gieysztor on the train from Cracow. She told me that her parents had spent some time in America with their friend Ihor Sevcenko, Harvard’s professor of Ukrainian Studies. Then it all fell in place, and I realized that it was Aleksander Gieysztor himself who had heard my story that October day in Cambridge.

Gieysztor obviously took prompt action. Less than a fortnight later an FBI agent was at my door. I told him what I knew about the rare Copernican books on offer in Paris. Some weeks passed before the sequel came from my contacts in Poland. At the Polish embassy in Paris an anonymous visitor had come in, tossed a package on the receptionist’s desk saying, “My client doesn’t need this any longer,” and then quickly turned and departed. Baffled by the package with two antique books, the embassy staff sent them to the History of Science Institute in Warsaw. Since I had shared the story with my colleagues there, they immediately recognized the missing books from Wrocław. Included were the two most valuable books, but not the third. Alas, the story does not have a perfect ending: the third book, actually a small pamphlet, passed through a series of dealers to a collection in Feldkirch, the Austrian hometown of Copernicus’ only disciple, Georg Joachim Rheticus. At least one of the dealers stonewalled, and the pamphlet, two orations by Rheticus himself, has not come home.

In the late summer of 2005, a year after we had met on the train from Cracow, Ostrowski inquired whether I might be able to come to Copernicus’ cathedral early in November for the inauguration of the Frombork Declaration, a manifesto extolling the Copernican vision and the challenge to strengthen the European traditions of culture, education and science, a document to be signed by a group of Polish intellectuals as well as international supporters. I suspected something further might be in store, but Ostrowski played his cards close to his chest.

Shortly before we had left America, Ostrowski finally played his hand about what awaited us in Frombork. The excavations of just over a dozen tombs near the Holy Cross altar in the cathedral had, at the lowest level, encountered the scattered bones of a 70-year-old man, the only possible candidate for Copernicus’ relicts. The cranium—no mandible had been found—had been sent to the Police Forensics Laboratory in Warsaw for a facial reconstruction, and news of the discovery would be announced at ceremonies, including the Frombork Declaration, in the cathedral.

For those of us used to the wonderful youthful image of Copernicus that hangs in the Torun Town Hall, the Warsaw results for a septuagenarian came as a shock. Still, there was a similarity, and the circumstances seemed right. A solemn Mass at the cathedral was followed by a press conference, where I spoke briefly about Copernicus’ brave and pioneering role in proposing the heliocentric cosmology. Then came the presentation of the Frombork Declaration, and the event the press had been waiting for—unveiling the reconstructed image of the astronomer’s aged face. News media around the world carried the somewhat dour visage of the man who “stopped the sun and moved the earth.”

But this was not yet Copernicus’ funeral.

In retrospect the reconstructed image seemed less than convincing. With neither nose bones nor a mandible, the facial details derived from the cranium left much to be desired. What seemed to be a forehead wound matching a faint scar in the Torun portrait turned out to be a common arterial depression. Gąssowski, the Pultusk Academy archaeologist, felt sure he had found Copernicus’ bones, but he yearned for DNA evidence from one of the astronomer’s known relatives that he had got his man.

One candidate was Copernicus’ maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, who as bishop at Frombork arranged for the young Nicolaus to become a canon—indeed, the word nepotism derives from the Latin word for nephew. But a thorough search in and under the cathedral for the bishop’s tomb failed to find any trace. As for collateral relatives, the lines appeared to die out by 1700. In a keynote address at a conference in Sweden, Gąssowski mentioned his frustrated search for a DNA sample to compare with a tooth in the Frombork cranium. By chance, an astronomer in the audience recalled that Copernicus’ library had been captured by the Swedes in the Thirty Years’ War and was still preserved in Uppsala. Could there perhaps be a bloodstain in the margin of one of those volumes?

The answer was no, but something else unexpectedly useful turned up in the gutters of one of the books that Copernicus had annotated. In a copy of Johann Stoeffler’s Calendarium Romanum magnum (1518), where Copernicus had recorded his observations of eclipses, there were nine hairs, four of which were well enough preserved for DNA amplification. Analysis revealed that the mitochondrial DNA of two hairs matched each other and the DNA from a tooth in the cranium.

In February 2011, skeptics organized a conference in Cracow to air opinions, pro and con, about the identification. In the end, I told them that I was convinced by the evidence, but I reminded them of Einstein’s words—that scientific hypotheses “are never completely final, always subject to question and doubt.” Nevertheless, I continued, Copernicus was such an important figure, not just for the cathedral, or for Poland, but as an international hero, that it was time to get on with a suitable monument where he had worked and worshiped. Bishop Jezierski was in the hall that day and, obviously pleased by my parting comments, immediately invited me and my wife to the forthcoming reburial.

On May 22, 2010, the Frombork cathedral was packed for the occasion and full of pageantry. Soldiers in dress uniform lined the central aisle as a procession of students carrying colorful banners passed through. The papal nuncio, newly named primate of Poland, was assisted by the archbishop of the Frombork region in leading the funeral Mass. As the impressive ceremony ended, the bones were laid to rest in a small coffin in a special crypt at the base of the new monument. Truly, a suitable monument it is, polished black granite displaying the heliocentric system and Copernicus himself, an image based on the youthful portrait in Torun. It stands affixed to the pillar next to the Holy Cross altar, within a meter of where the bones were found.

In the afternoon the cathedral echoed with an inspired performance of Mozart’s Requiem given by the Torun Symphony Orchestra and Astrolabium Choir, also from Torun, Copernicus’ birthplace. Beforehand I had crossed the sunny cathedral courtyard with Bishop Jezierski. “Did you enjoy your Mennonite tourism?” he asked, taking me doubly by surprise, first because I didn’t realize he spoke English, and second, because, unexpectedly, he knew that my wife and I had been visiting the sites of some of the Dutch Anabaptists who, late in the 16th century, had brought windmills and dikes to tame the Vistula.

From the time of Copernicus until the Second World War, Poland had been a wonderfully multicultural country, and now the country has begun to rediscover that rich heritage. Copernicus, who spoke German, Latin, possibly Polish, and maybe even Italian, was part of that cultural milieu. Today Poland is attempting to reestablish its intellectual connections with greater Europe and the wider world, and Copernicus is one of the links, as the Frombork Declaration reminds us. He was the Renaissance churchman and astronomer who, daring not to be hissed off the stage, laid the foundation for a new view of the cosmos and set in motion the scientific revolution that forms such an important part of our modern world.

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