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.
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p.183, al-Adhra, the Virgin, Virgo
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Title:Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabita (Book of the Images of the Fixed Stars) of al-Sufi
Author:`Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (Iranian, Rey 903–986 Shiraz)
Date:late 15th century
Geography:Attributed to Iran
Medium:Ink and gold on paper; leather binding
Dimensions:H. 10 3/16 in. (25.8 cm) W. 7 1/8 in. (18.1 cm)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1913
The Constellation of Scorpio
The tenth-century astronomer 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (A.D. 903–986) is credited with the authorship of several important Arabic texts on the stars; he can be considered as the greatest scholar in this field from the Islamic lands. His works, based on a knowledge of the stars as transmitted by the Greek astronomers, improved on Ptolemy's Almagest. His most important text, represented here, is the Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabita ("The Book of the Images of the Fixed Stars"), an illustrated compendium of the forty-eight constellations observed both from the earth and, theoretically, from outside the celestial globe. The outlines of each constellation and the stars belonging to it are therefore drawn twice, their image mirrored in the second drawing.
The earliest manuscript of this text, now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, is also the earliest surviving illustrated codex in Arabic and is dated A.D. 1009, less than a quarter of a century after its author died. The present manuscript of one hundred and fifty folios, one of the few extant copies predating the sixteenth century, is slightly damaged at the beginning and the end, so that only forty-three out of the original forty-eight constellations survive. As a rule, the drawings that illustrate this text are extremely traditional and do not change considerably through the centuries. Often, only details of the garments worn by some of the figures provide clues as to the date and place of production of a manuscript when the colophon is missing. The present example is no exception; probably copied from a fourteenth-century codex, it seems, nonetheless, to be a product of fifteenth-century Iran for a number of reasons.
The constellation reproduced here (folio 43), one of the twelve that make up the Zodiac, is "the image of Scorpio as it is observed from the earth," as explained in the title that appears between the nippers of the scorpion. The scorpion is imaginatively drawn in black ink and the stars forming the constellation are indicated with large dots outlined in red and filled in with gold. Letters identify the single stars, while three groups of stars, which correspond to the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth stations of the astronomical system of the twenty-eight Lunar Mansions (see the brief explanation in the Introduction of this volume), are named in full as al-iklil ("the Crown"), qalb al-'aqrab ("the Heart of the Scorpion"), and al-shawla ("the Sting").
In al-Sufi's treatise, the images of the twelve constellations of the Zodiac, placed between the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres, are strictly scientific, and are devoid of astrological significance; therefore, they are never depicted in association with their Planetary Lords. However, with the exception of Virgo and of Gemini, their iconography corresponds to that of the signs of the Zodiac, as demonstrated by the depiction of Scorpio shown here.
Two Folios from a Manuscript of the Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabita
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] Alexandre Rosenberg, Paris, until 1913; sold to MMA]
Mexico City. Colegio de San Ildefonso. "Arte Islámico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York," September 30, 1994–January 8, 1995, no. 15.
New York. The Hagop Kevorkian Special Exhibitions Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art," February 4–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. (b/w).
Carboni, Stefano. Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 16, pp. 38–39, ill. (b/w).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Haidar, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 118, pp. 176–77, ill. (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).
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