This book, based on the Almagest of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, concerns the forty‑eight constellations known as the Fixed Stars, which, according to the medieval conception of the universe, inhabited the eighth of the nine spheres surrounding the earth. The constellations each appear twice in mirror image, shown as observed from the earth and from the sky.
This manuscript is a late fifteenth-century copy of the Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabita (Book of Images of the Fixed Stars), an astronomical treatise originally composed by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (d. 986) in 946. After a preface, the book presents tables with the names of hundreds of stars as well as descriptions of forty-eight constellations; each description is accompanied by two illustrations in mirrored form showing how the constellation appears in the sky and on astronomical instruments.
The present, incomplete manuscript contains descriptions and images of only forty-three constellations, including Pegasus, the Greater Horse (al-faris al-a‘zam, fols. 117, 118), which is shown as it would have appeared on the celestial globe (al-kura). The figure of the galloping half-winged horse is marked by a series of gold dots outlined in red that identify the primary stars of the constellation. Some stars are specifically identified by Arabic words associated with parts of the horse’s body, while others are marked only by letters.
The inclusion of illustrations in the treatise was meant to aid scholars and students in identifying and memorizing the locations of the constellations in the sky and on astronomical instruments. This is probably why the iconographic program associated with this text remained standardized through time, with only small variations revealing the style of the period in which each copy was produced. In this manuscript the figural images of the constellations are depicted in typical Timurid garb. The treatise exposed its readers to the Classical tradition of astronomy, exemplified by works such as Ptolemy’s Almagest, one of the sources of al-Sufi’s text. The inclusion in the text of technical terms and names in both Greek and Arabic fostered the survival of the Greek tradition and terminology while simultaneously transmitting the Islamic one.
Francesca Leoni in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. The oldest version of this text, dated A.H. 400/1009–10 A.D., is currently in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Ms. Marsh, 144).
2. For a catalogue of extant manuscripts of this treatise, see Carey, Moya. "Painting the Stars in a Century of Change: A Thirteenth- Century Copy of al-Sufi’s Treatise on the Fixed Stars (British Library, Or. 5323)." Ph.D. diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2001, Appendix 1.
Inscription: صورة العقرب علی ما یری فی الکرة
Image of Scorpio as seen from earth
[ Léonce Rosenberg, Paris, until 1913; sold to MMA]
Mexico City. Colegio de San Ildefonso. "Arte islamico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York," September 30, 1994–January 8, 1995, no. 15.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art," February 4, 1997–August 31, 1997, no. 16.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Daniel S. Walker, Arturo Ponce Guadián, Sussan Babaie, Stefano Carboni, Aimee Froom, Marie Lukens Swietochowski, Tomoko Masuya, Annie Christine Daskalakis-Matthews, Abdallah Kahil, and Rochelle Kessler. "Colegio de San Ildefonso, Septiembre de 1994-Enero de 1995." In Arte Islámico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1994. no. 15, pp. 74-75, ill. p. 75 (b/w).
Carboni, Stefano. Following the Stars: The Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 16, pp. 38-39, ill. (b/w).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 118, pp. 176-177, ill. p. 177 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 98-99, ill. pl. 17 (color).