This winter and spring the Southwest Collection’s Rare Books collection is proud to display its new exhibit, “Picturing the Sky.” Our Rare Books collection is phenomenal to say the least, containing over 37,000 items, including one of (if not the) largest collection of author Joseph Conrad’s works. It also preserves texts concerning science, religion, philosophy, and a host of other topics printed from the 15th century onward. This exhibit showcases one of its little-known but unique features: over 500 years’ worth of star charts and celestial maps!
The illustration above is the constellation Ursa Major, hand-drawn and colored in 1490. It is emblematic of the end of an era in which scientific accuracy played a secondary role to artistic expression. It emphasizes the forms of the constellations rather than accurately representing the locations of individual stars. Even the seven prominent stars of the Big Dipper, the most familiar stellar pattern in the northern sky and a hallmark of the constellation, are nowhere to be found.
Only 25 years later in 1515, the German artist Albrecht Dürer produced this star chart, the first of its kind to be printed in Europe. Not only was the Big Dipper correctly represented, but twelve radiating lines at 30 degree intervals, corresponding to the twelve signs of the zodiac, helped position all 35 constellations depicted. So accurate was Dürer’s 1515 chart that it could actually be used to find the positions of stars.
Dürer’s chart was of such importance that Peter Apian (aka Petrus Apianus), a prominent 16th century mathematician, astronomer, and cartographer, copied much of it verbatim in his own star charts of 1540, shown above. While Apian added additional figures to his chart, such as a pack of three dogs to the right of Ursa Major, its chief feature was that it could be revolved to show how the sky would look at any date between 7,000 BCE to 7,000 CE. This was managed through 21 volvelles, which are a layered series of intricately produced paper discs which can be freely spun. The volvelles shown here move the North Star through roughly half of its 25,000 year precession, which is caused by a slight wobble in the earth as it spins on its axis.
Wilhelm Schickard’s star chart of 1623, above, was one of the first to employ a conical section in a celestial map. That being said, his simplistic chart lacked the zodiac and instead incorporated Biblical references for the constellations. In another chart published in 1655, he changed the Big Dipper into Elijah’s fiery chariot while transforming the constellation Perseus into King David by replacing Medusa’s severed head with the giant Goliath’s.
Lastly we have Johann Bode’s 1782 depiction of Ursa Major. Astronomy and scientific illustration had clearly advanced in 300 years. Derived from earlier charts, Bode’s detailed drawing included a classification of stellar magnitude based on the Greek alphabet. The precise system of coordinating lines that bisects the constellation located celestial objects relative to the Earth’s equator as if it were projected out to infinity.
All the images in this exhibit are facsimiles reproduced from books found in our Rare Books collection. For assistance in locating and using this material, please visit the Holden Reading Room or contact our ever-helpful Reference Staff.
– Bruce Cammack