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Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, by Matejko. In background: Frombork Cathedral.

Trying to Align Forbidden Love, God, and Science: The Secret Relationship of Nicolaus Copernicus and Anna Schilling

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Nicolaus Copernicus is one of the most famous astronomers in history. As a man of the Renaissance, his life and work were never focused on just one discipline. However, a secret relationship also led him to be known as one of the more scandalous priests of Central Europe during his lifetime.

Some of Copernicus’ Accomplishments

Nicolaus Copernicus was born on February 19, 1473 in Royal Prussia. He was a polyglot, lawyer, physician, class scholar, governor, diplomat, economist, and translator. During his life, he became famous as a mathematician and an astronomer who formulated a different model of the universe, one which placed the sun at the center.

Copernicus published a text called De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), which became one of the most significant works about astronomy. His research has been called the Copernican Revolution, which became an important contribution to the Scientific Revolution. He also achieved success by deriving a quantity theory of money, a key concept in economics. Furthermore, in 1519, he formulated a version of what later became known as Gresham's law. Apart from all this, Copernicus was a member of the Dominican order as well.

Heliocentric model of the solar system in Copernicus' manuscript

Heliocentric model of the solar system in Copernicus' manuscript ( Public Domain )

While his achievements are impressive, Copernicus is also known to have had a strong personality, many scientific conflicts, controversial theories, and a scandal with one of the most beautiful women near the Baltic Sea.

A Forbidden Love

Copernicus was also a man of flesh and blood, who couldn't stay cold when love came knocking. The woman who changed the life of the famous astronomer was Anna Schilling.  They met in Gdansk, Poland, where he had family. It’s thought that Nicolaus’ parents also met in Gdansk when his merchant father came to the city and fell in love with his distant cousin. So too, it is said that the city offered an opportunity for love to Nicolaus Copernicus, known in Polish as Mikołaj Kopernik .

When Anna and Nicolaus met each other, he was a priest and she was already married. Anna, who was known to be a very beautiful woman, agreed to become his housekeeper in his parish in Frombork (Northern Poland). Yet things did not go smoothly, and Anna’s employment became a source of gossip for the townspeople. Especially as Copernicus was Anna’s great uncle.

Upon her arrival at Frombork, in 1537 or 1538, she was 47 or 48 years old, so she was about 15 years younger than Nicolaus. Anna owned her own house in Frombork, and split her life between Gdansk and the parish of her beloved man, but she stayed only in Frombork from 1538 to 1539.

Frombork Cathedral, with Vistula Lagoon in background.

Frombork Cathedral, with Vistula Lagoon in background. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 DE )

Rumors spread that Anna was looking for help from her family, especially a wealthy uncle, but she didn't receive any support. The gossip surrounding Anna and Nicolaus was also strong enough that the very influential Bishop Dantyszek demanded that Copernicus dismiss his housekeeper in a letter on December 2nd, 1538.

Copernicus answered the letter saying that he took the situation seriously, but it was difficult to quickly find an honest housekeeper who was a relative. He assured the bishop that Anna was only an employee for him, but nobody believed him. Bishop Dantyszek thought it unlikely that the beautiful and 15-year younger woman was not attractive for Copernicus, and he did everything he could to end their relationship. The bishop even scolded Copernicus personally twice - in autumn 1538 and January 1539. His tactics may have been effective because in March 1539 Anna Schilling left Copernicus’ household and returned to Gdansk.

Neither Anna nor Nicolaus ever admitted that they shared a romantic relationship. They probably never even saw each other again after her move in 1539. Anna did visit Frombork once more, but it was after the astronomer’s death. The purpose of her visit was apparently to sell a house she owned during the time she spent with Copernicus. 

Frombork Cathedral mount and fortifications. In foreground: statue of Copernicus

Frombork Cathedral mount and fortifications. In foreground: statue of Copernicus ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Despite eventually following orders, Copernicus remained under the attentive watch of Bishop Dantyszek until the end of his days.  The bishop wanted to be sure that Anna and Nicolaus would never meet again. He also took great care to create a picture of the relationship between Anna and Nicolaus as a profound friendship, nothing more. However, the attention he gave to separating the two people has led many to believe that there must have been more to the relationship, if it truly deserved so much of the bishop's attention.

 Anna was known to be a rich woman, and this could also have been the cause for envy and rumors. Copernicus was successful in many fields, which also brought him as many friends as enemies. It is very likely that the person who was responsible for spreading gossip about their relationship was looking for personal benefits through damaging their good names.

After the time with Nicolaus, Anna set up home in what is now known as Gdansk’s oldest house: Kamienica Gotyk on Mariacka Street 1. A few years ago there was work on the house and an old chest inscribed with the words “1539, Anna Schilling” was discovered. This is the only artifact to be found to date that could be connected to Anna’s time with Copernicus

Identifying Copernicus

Copernicus died in Frombork on May 24, 1543. He was buried in the Cathedral Church near his workshop. In 2005, a group of Polish researchers discovered a skull and a few bones which were buried at the place where, according to the parish books, Copernicus should have been buried. An analysis of the remains showed that the bones belonged to a man who lived to be 70 years old. The researchers are 97% certain that the remains belong to Copernicus, based on DNA test results.

Casket with Copernicus' remains, St. James' Cathedral Basilica, Allenstein, March 2010.

Casket with Copernicus' remains, St. James' Cathedral Basilica, Allenstein, March 2010. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It is known that Copernicus had a damaged nose after an accident as a child, and the skull had a scar suggesting the same. The skull became the base for digital facial reconstruction, and centuries after his death, the face of Copernicus was revealed in the police laboratory in Warsaw, Poland. Following the tests and reconstruction, Copernicus was returned to rest in the same church in Frombork.

Featured image: Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, by Matejko. In background: Frombork Cathedral. ( Public Domain )

By Natalia Klimczak

References

Michał Kokowski, Różne oblicza Mikołaja Kopernika. Spotkania z historią interpretacji, 2009.
Alojzy Szorc, Mikołaj Kopernik, kanonik warmiński, 2013.
Stanisław Grzybowski, Mikołaj Kopernik, 1972.
http://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/nov/05/spaceexploration.internationalnews

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