Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer regarded as the first individual to hold that the Earth revolves around the Sun, was reburied by Polish priests as a hero on Saturday, nearly 470 years after he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.
The ceremonial reburial of Copernicus in a tomb in the medieval cathedral at Frombork on Poland’s Baltic coast is seen as a final sign of the Church’s repentance for its treatment of the scientist over his theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun, declared heretical by the Vatican in 1616, according to the Times of London.
Copernicus (1473-1543) died as a little-known astronomer working in a remote part of northern Poland, far from Europe’s centers of learning. He had spent years laboring in his free time developing his theory, which was later condemned as heretical by the Catholic Church because it removed Earth and humanity from their central position in the universe.
Copernicus had postulated that the Earth rotated on its axis once a day and travelled around the sun once a year, opposing the Church-backed Ptolemaic theory that the Earth was fixed at the centre of the universe, with the sun and stars revolving around it, wrote Agence-France Presse.
His revolutionary model was based on complex mathematical calculations and his naked-eye observations of the heavens because the telescope had not yet been invented, according to The Associated Press.
After his death, his remains rested in an unmarked grave beneath the floor of the cathedral in Frombork, the exact location unknown.
“On Saturday, his remains were blessed with holy water by some of Poland’s highest-ranking clerics before an honor guard ceremoniously carried his coffin through the imposing red brick cathedral and lowered it back into the same spot where part of his skull and other bones were found in 2005,” The Associated Press reported.
A tombstone now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory, but also a church canon, a cleric ranking below a priest. The tombstone is decorated with a model of the solar system, a golden sun encircled by six of the planets, The AP added.
Scientists began searching for the astronomer’s remains in 2004 and eventually turned up a skull and bones of a 70-year-old man – the age Copernicus was when he died. A computer reconstruction made by forensic police based on the skull showed a broken nose and other features that resemble a self-portrait of Copernicus.
In a later stage of the investigation, DNA taken from teeth and bones matched that from hairs found in one of his books, leading the scientists to conclude with great probability that they had finally found Copernicus.
In recent weeks, a wooden casket holding those remains has lain in state in the nearby city of Olsztyn, and on Friday they were toured around the region to towns linked to his life.
Wojciech Ziemba, the archbishop of the region surrounding Frombork, said the Catholic Church is proud that Copernicus left the region a legacy of “his hard work, devotion and above all of his scientific genius.”
Saturday’s Mass was led by Jozef Kowalczyk, the papal nuncio and newly named Primate of Poland, the highest church authority in this deeply Catholic country.
Jacek Jezierski, a local bishop who encouraged the search for Copernicus, said that he considers Copernicus’ burial as part of the church’s broader embrace of science as being compatible with Biblical belief.
Copernicus’ burial in an anonymous grave in the 16th century was not linked to suspicions of heresy, according to The Associated Press report.
When he died, his ideas were just starting to be discussed by a small group of European astronomers, astrologers and mathematicians, and the church was not yet forcefully condemning the heliocentric world view as heresy, according to Jack Repcheck, author of “Copernicus’ Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began.”
The full attack on those ideas came decades later when the Vatican was waging a massive defense against Martin Luther’s Reformation.
“There is no indication that Copernicus was worried about being declared a heretic and being kicked out of the church for his astronomical views,” Repcheck said.
“Why was he just buried along with everyone else, like every other canon in Frombork? Because at the time of his death he was just any other canon in Frombork. He was not the iconic hero that he has become.”
Copernicus’ major treatise – “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” – was published at the very end of his life, and he only received a copy of the printed book on the day he died – May 21, 1543.