The Sciences

Copernicus Gets a New Grave, Belated Respect From the Catholic Church

DiscoblogBy Joseph CalamiaMay 24, 2010 3:01 PM


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Over four hundred years after his death, the man known for moving the sun to the center of the solar system made a move himself. On Saturday, at a medieval cathedral at Frombork on Poland’s Baltic coast, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus—whose ideas were once declared heresy by the Vatican—was reburied with full religious honors. After a stint in city of Olsztyn, Copernicus's remains returned to his original resting location (under the cathedral’s floor), but his grave got an upgrade. After his death in 1543 he lay for centuries in an unmarked grave, but his new plot has a black tombstone with six planets orbiting a golden sun. The ceremony concluded a several week tour of a wooden casket with the astronomer’s remains.The ceremony included shows of respect from the Catholic Church, which eventually had to admit that Copernicus was right about the whole planets-moving-around-the-sun thing. According to The Times, a local archbishop praised Copernicus for his hard work and scientific genius, while Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, the Primate of Poland, said that he regretted the “excesses of zeal” that led the Church to brand Copernicus a heretic. But Copernicus didn’t dig himself into his former grave with his treatise De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres)on a heliocentric solar system; he didn’t publish it until right before his death. Relative obscurity likely resulted in the previous lack of tombstone. Still, as The New York Times reports, Copernicus was known in other ways as a 16th century bad boy:

He was repeatedly reprimanded for keeping a mistress, which violated his vow of celibacy, and was eventually forced to give her up. He also was suspected of harboring sympathies for Lutheranism, which was spreading like wildfire in northern Europe at the time, [Jack] Repcheck said.

Scientists found what they believed to be Copernicus’s body in 2005, and confirmed in 2008 that it was his by matching DNA from bones found at the cathedral with genetic data from hair tucked into one of the astronomer's books. The New York Times again reports that many came to see Saturday's reburial:

One of the world's leading Copernicus scholars, Owen Gingerich, traveled from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend the ceremony. ''I missed the first funeral back in 1543 and thought this was an occasion not to be missed.”

Related content: Discoblog: DNA Test Solves the Mystery of Copernicus’s Remains Cosmic Variance: Copernicus: Still Dead Bad Astronomy: Copernicus needs to join the Boy Scouts DISCOVER: 20 Things You Didn't Know About... Galileo

Image: Wikimedia / Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Thorn/Toruń - 1580)

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