Islamic Brass Astrolabe with Five Celestial Globes

SKU SF.223

19th Century AD to 20th Century AD


19″ (48.3cm) high x 13.5″ (34.3cm) wide





Gallery Location



“From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed…for himself it was who set the signs in the heavens, and marked out the constellations, and for the year devised what stars chiefly should give to men right signs of the seasons, to the end that all things might grow unfailingly” Phaenomena, Aratus (ca. 315-240 BCE) Sizeable circular plate of rectangular-sectioned brass with five celestial globes and scalloped finial with suspension loop at head; cast and chased decoration over whole. Four of the globes are arranged radially around a central, larger globe; each has astrological symbols incised over whole and border of … bar central globe, which has a measured border; four chased globes to the main plate occupy the interstices, against an arabesque ground; all contained with “ruler” border; the finial is similarly filled with arabesque. The reverse is similar but for visible hinges for globes. If we are to believe the ancient sources then it was the ancient Greeks who first made an attempt to construct a physical model to represent certain celestial phenomena during 7th century BCE. Ptolemy (ACE 127-148), the great astronomer of Alexandria made two important contributions to the history of celestial globes- quite simply, globes, which fix the position of the stars, as seen from outside the sphere – in his treatise, The Almagest, which formed the basis for all star catalogues used by globe makers thereafter. An armillary sphere is a model of objects in the celestial sphere. In this case, five celestial globes have been mounted into a planispheric plate, which differs from the conventional structure whereby a framework of rings, centred on earth, represent the lines of celestial longitude and latitude and other astronomically important features. As per Ptolemy’s treatise, each globe is dark in colour so to represent the night sky and cast by cire perdue process of making seamless globes; much like a terrestial globe, two antipodal points are marked and the surface of the globe divided into meridians; two great circles mark the north and south ecliptic polar circles. Even though The Almagest was translated into Arabic and widely circulated throughout the Islamic world, Islamicate celestial globes actually mark a break away from preceding Greco-Roman and Byzantine globes. Important treatises written by Islamic sources during 9th and 10th centuries further refined concepts and the design of astronomical instruments. Rather than constellation outlines we have the zodiac signs shown as emblematic designs. The classical constellations, such as the Great Bear, Pegasus, Orion and the twelve signs of the zodiac are depicted. The human figure at the equator is also shown fully frontally as opposed to behind, breaking from earlier praxis. The arabesque and lack of animate representation – bar the signs of the zodiac, which were permitted in iconoclastic strictures of Islam – suggest this intimated Islamicate examples. This piece heralds from India during a period of British occupation and is likely to have been produced in one of the northern Indian workshops that are known to have produced Islamicate style globes as early as 16th- 17th centuries and continued well into 20th century. The tradition was most likely brought to India by the Mughals that ruled large parts of India and subcontinent from ACE 1526. While, they abided to the governing principles at large, the emphasis was not necessarily on technical function but aesthetic appeal.

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