Although ambivalent toward astrology, Hevelius thought the new constellation’s celestial location seemed appropriate: It lies between Leo the Lion (a fire sign) and Hydra the Water Snake (also associated with fire). And it turns out a fire, at least of the creative kind, might have resulted in a famed historical mystery associated with the constellation Sextans’ stars.
In April 1643, European observer Antonius Maria Schyrleus de Rheita claimed to have seen among the stars of Leo (those which Hevelius later turned into Sextans) the holy Sudarium Veronicae — the handkerchief Saint Veronica used to wipe the face of Jesus on his way to Calvary. As depicted in the Sixth Station of the Cross, the cloth then took on the impression of Christ’s face. Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, the Catholic Church’s Capuchin Order, of which de Rheita was a friar, has claimed possession of this cloth since the 16th century.
Is it surprising, then, that de Rheita envisioned the cloth among the stars of Leo, the “King” of the zodiac, near the point where the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator? This is the point of the autumnal equinox, when, spiritually, the Sun begins a descent toward its own Calvary.
De Rheita avidly pursued astronomy and optics throughout the 1640s. In 1645, he published his most famous work, Oculus Enoch et Eliae, in which he introduced new telescope and eyepiece designs. The work not only gave us the words ocular and objective but also the first drawing of the Moon as seen through a telescope that inverts the image. A lunar crater (Rheita) and valley (Vallis Rheita) are named in his honor.
Got the time?
If you’d like to search for this lost and forgotten asterism, Admiral William Henry Smyth said, in his 1844 work, A Cycle of Celestial Objects, that it lies about 9° southeast of Regulus (Alpha [α] Leonis). Later editions also included a representation of the figure, but gave no apparent size or orientation. Clearly, seeing the pattern (if it exists) won’t require a “powerful telescope,” but perhaps only binoculars … and your imagination.
As always, let me know what you do or don’t see at firstname.lastname@example.org.