ALBRECHT Dürer may not be the name most people would think of as producing the earliest printed star charts, but his will be the name that counts when Sotheby's offer a very rare pair of charts in a March 30 print sale.
In fact, the artist and master printmaker was one of a team of
three men who produced the first woodcut guides to the night skies
of the northern and southern hemispheres in 1515.
The charts, like much of the exceptional work that marks this
period of his life in Nuremburg, were produced under the patronage
of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, and, more significantly,
were made in collaboration with the Viennese mathematician,
astronomer and cartographer, Johann Stabius, or Stöbern, with whom
Dürer had also worked on a woodcut world map in that same year.
Dürer, as the author of two important treatises on art - on
mensuration and human proportion - was no stranger to science and
mathematics, but it was Stabius who designed the projection seen
The celestial equator is shown around the rim of each chart,
with the celestial pole at the centre, and as the skies of the
southern hemisphere were at this time little charted by Europeans,
few constellations are seen in the Southern Sky chart.
Each measuring roughly 18 x 17in (46 x 43cm), the charts are
based on the stars of the constellations as catalogued in his
Almagest by the Greek astronomer, Ptolemy in the 2nd
century AD, and updated to 1500 by the third man to work on the
charts, German astronomer Conrad Heinfogel. Radial lines appear at
30° intervals - corresponding to the 12 signs of the zodiac - and a
scale around the rim allows the positions of stars to be accurately
In the world map he had worked on with Stabius, Dürer's
contribution was principally in the design of the elaborate
windheads that surround the Ptolemaic world, and in these two star
charts, it is his imaginative, dynamic and influential depictions
of the constellations that are the real attraction.
The constellation figures themselves will be reasonably
familiar, but in his 'Star Tales' website (www.ianridpath.com/startales)
the writer on astronomy, Ian Ridpath, helpfully identifies the
figures seen in the corners of the Northern Sky chart - the four
authorities of the ancient Mediterranean world on whose
descriptions they are based:
At top left is Aratus of Soli in Cilicia, author of the
astronomical poem, Phaenomena, while at top right is
Ptolemy. At bottom left, we see Marcus Manilius, a Roman astrologer
of the 1st century AD and author of a book of constellation lore
called Astronomica, and at bottom right, Azophi Arabus, or
al-Sufi, the Arab astronomer who revised and updated Ptolemy's
In the lower left corner of the Southern Sky chart, Dürer
records his own contributions and those of Stabius and Heinfogel by
depicting their individual coats of arms, while at top left appear
the much larger arms of the Archbishop of Salzburg, Cardinal
Matthäus Lang. On the righthand side are dedications to Lang and to
For those wishing to pursue a much more in-depth discussion of
the charts, Ridpath's website also provides a link to The
Visualization of Perspective Systems and Iconology in Dürer's
Cartographic Works by Adèle Lorraine Wörz.
Clear, strong early impressions with original and vivid
colouring, these rare copies of the charts are identified as a
first state (of two) of his Map of the Northern Sky and a second
state (of four) of the Map of the Southern Sky, but what is more
commercially significant is the fact that just ten other examples
are now recorded in institutional collections - only two of which
show period colour. The charts carry an estimate of
• The world map is even rarer in original form. No 16th century
copies are recorded, but in 1781, Adam von Bartsch took pulls from
the woodblocks, which still survive in the Albertina in Vienna.
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