UFOs: Unveiling Fortuna’s Orb

Do you believe in UFOs?

If you are a history fan, there is a high chance you have watched the History Channel at least once: well, if you have, you probably know that its programming often includes aliens and documentaries about the so-called "theory of ancient astronauts". Many are the alleged depictions of aliens in ancient and medieval art, including illuminated manuscripts: Folia Magazine thus decided to look into one of the "proofs" of extraterrestrial visitors. Today, July 2, is in fact World UFO Day!

Illumination from the manuscript "Livre des bonnes moeurs de Jacques Legrand", ms. 0297 (1338), f. 129v, ca. 1490, Musée Condé, Chantilly.

 The illumination above is sourced from a late 15th-century French manuscript, a copy of Jacques Legrand's "Livre des bonnes moeurs", a book regarding good manners. An elegant lady, portrayed in the act of spinning a wheel, and... right there, in the middle, what looks like an incredibly detailed spherical UFO. The men on the nearby hill act scared, as many golden rays radiate from the sky: is this proof that the French had seen a flying object (or even many) in the Middle Ages? What may look like a hot air balloon, in fact, could never have been - as they were first used in the West during the 18th century.

Is there, however, a more skeptical and logical explanation to this illumination? Turns out, there is.

The lady on the left, in fact, is no other than the personification of luck, Fortuna. The spinning wheel is her most well-known attribute in iconography; what you may know is that, since the time of the Greeks and the Romans, the Goddess Fortuna (Tyche for the Greeks) had often been associated with an orb, sphere or ball. A globe, in fact, represented the world itself (as the oikoumene or orbis terrarum) and the power that Luck had over it and its fate. Many are the depictions of Fortuna together with a sphere, especially in sculpture: some of these statues can be found in Hofburg Palace, in Vienna, Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, or Fortunaportal in Potsdam - as well as the statue of Fortuna by Praxiteles at the Louvre Museum in Paris or that of Fortuna Nemesisat the Aquincum Museum, Budapest.

T and O map from the first printed version of the Etymologiae of Isidorus, 1472 (Kraus 13)

This golden flying object could then be identified with Fortuna's orb: there are, moreover, two more characteristics supporting the theory. The orb, in fact, is divided into three parts by its rich decoration, a reference to the mappae orbis terrae (also known as "T and O map"), a medieval type of map depicting the world as a circle of water (the oceans) with the three known continents in the center, with the Mediterranean Sea forming a T and dividing them.

Queen Elizabeth II holding the Sovereign's Orb on her Coronation day

This view of the world was very popular in the Middle Ages: united with a religious symbol, the Cross, it came to represent the Christian power held over their lands by kings, emperors, and popes alike. The symbol of the globus cruciger, in fact, became one of the main elements used in art to distinguish a figure of power - but not only: globi crucigeri were used in coats of arms (as in that of Uppland in Sweden) and actual regents alike (even today, the Sovereign's Orb of the United Kingdom is still used as a symbol during the Coronation ceremony).

The connection between the T and O map and the globus crucifer is even clearer in this Salvator Mundi by Gherardo Starnina, a Florentine painter working around the same time our manuscript was being made. Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, literally holds the globe in his left hand - the three continents clearly labeled as Africa, Europe, and Asia.

The logical, art-savvy explanation behind our "UFO" would thus be that the orb simply represents the world itself, a theory backed by its association with Fortuna. Why, then, the rays radiating from the sky? And why the scared reaction of the man observing the scene? That we don't know, but it is surely fun to speculate - and, even if just a little, to wonder whether if we truly are alone in the Universe, may proof of extraterrestrial beings actually exist or not!

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