Pictures in the Sky

The night sky has always excited the human imagination, and constellations testify to how different mindsets and cultural sensibilities have been projected onto the stars.

Neuester Himmels-Atlas : zum Gebrauche für Schul- und akademischen Unterricht, nach Flamsteed, Bradley, Tob. Mayer, De La Caille, Le Français de La Lande und v. Zach, in einer neuen Manier, mit doppelten schwarzen Stern-Charten bearbeitet / durchgehends verbessert und mit den neuesten astronomischen Entdeckungen vermehrt von C.F. Goldbach ; revidirt auf der Sternwarte Seeberg bey Gotha und mit einer Einleitung begleitet von Hrn. Obristwachtmstr. von Zach.Adler Planetarium

What do you see?

This late 18th century star map depicts the area of the sky which, in Western astronomy, has been normally associated with the constellation of Leo the Lion. Can you see any pattern suggesting a lion? Or do you see something else? Constellations are just products of human imagination and culture. Some have acquired a seal of scientific authority, but not only can they be represented in varied ways, the different patterns to be found among the stars are endless.

Astronomicum caesareum.Adler Planetarium

The Roots of Western Constellations

This star map from 1540 represents the forty-eighty Ptolemaic constellations, so called because they were listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his influential treatise, the Almagest. They have their roots in Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece, and form the core of the Western canon of constellations. But different sets of constellations were formed independently all over the world reflecting the cultural tenets of the places where they emerged.

Heitengi zukai.Adler Planetarium

An Empire in the Stars 

This star map from an astronomy book published in early 19th-century Japan depicts constellations originating in China. Chinese constellations had a direct connection with varied aspects of daily life in the Chinese empire, ranging from the Emperor and his court to something as mundane as a toilet. They were adopted in other areas of Eastern Asia, as exemplified by this Japanese book.  

Globe: Celestial, EasternAdler Planetarium

Same Constellations, Different Styles 

This celestial globe was likely produced in Lahore (present-day Pakistan) in the 17th century. By then the region was part of the Mughal Empire, which brought the influence of Persian culture to the region. The globe presents the core constellations of the Western canon inherited from the Greeks and adopted by Islamic astronomers, depicted in a style that shows the influence of Mughal aesthetics. During the Middle Ages, Arab and Persian astronomers played a pivotal role in preserving and expanding on astronomical knowledge originating in Ancient Greece, thus helping to set the scene for the rise of modern astronomy.

Ioannis Bayeri Rhainani I.C. vranometria : omnivm asterismorvm continens schemata, nova methodo delineata, aereis laminis expressa / Ioannis Bayeri.Adler Planetarium

Colonizing the Southern Skies 

The maritime undertakings that took off by the late 15th century allowed Europeans to see areas of the southern skies that were not visible from their homeland. The southern constellations shown in this star map were created in the late 16th century on the basis of observations made by the Dutch navigators P. Kayser and F. de Houtman. The colonialist mentality of the period is evinced by the inclusion of Indus (the Indian) and animals perceived as exotic such as Apus (the Bird of Paradise) and Tucana (the Tucan).

Coelum stellatum Christianum : ad maiorem dei omnipotentis, sanctaeq, eius obductis gentilium simulachris, eidem domino et creatori suo, postliminio quasi restitutum / humili conatu et voto Julii Schilleri Augustani Vindel V.I.D. ; sociali opera Joannis Bayeri IC Uranometriam novam, priore accuratorem, locupletioremq suppenditantis Matthiae Kageri, picturam primo concinnantis ; scalpello, qua imagines Lucae Kiliani, qua stellas Casparis Schecksii.Adler Planetarium

Christianizing the Heavens

Not all Westerners accepted the constellations inherited from antiquity. Such was the case of Julius Schiller, who considered these constellations to be reminiscent of paganism. In 1627, he published a star atlas replacing them with Christian figures and biblical references. In this example, the constellation of Cygnus the Swan (often associated with Zeus/Jupiter in classic mythology) becomes Saint Helena, who allegedly found the True Cross. Tradition proved stronger though, and Schiller’s constellations never gained footing. 

Johannes Hevelii Prodromus astronomiae : exhibens fundamenta, quae tam ad novum planè & correctiorem stellarum fixarum catalogum construendum, quàm ad omnium planetarum tabulas corrigendas omnimodè spectant; nec non novas & correctiores tabulas solares, aliasâque plurimas ad astronomiam pertinentes / Quibus additus est uterque Catalogus stellarum fixarum, tam major ad annum 1660, quàm minor ad annum completum 1700. Accessit corollarii loco Tabula motus lunae libratorii.Adler Planetarium

Filling the Gaps to Gain Immortality

Several European astronomers sought to leave their mark in the heavens by filling the gaps between well-established constellations with new creations. Such was the case of Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687), who added ten new constellations, many of which are still used today. They included Scutum (the Shield, a tribute to his patron the king John III Sobieski of Poland), Sextans (the Sextant, a reference to Hevelius’s own instruments), and several animals. This illustration depicts Hevelius presenting his constellations to an assembly of historic astronomers presided over by Urania, the Muse of Astronomy.  

Urania's mirror : or, A view of the heavens.Adler Planetarium

Stretches of the Imagination 

European astronomers continued to take possession of the southern skies by adding new constellations, in some cases with a great stretch of the imagination. In the mid-18th century, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille came up with no less than fourteen constellations, all of them still used today. They celebrate the arts and sciences as the key to progress and include Fornax (the Chemical Apparatus) and the Sculptor (originally the Sculptor's Workshop), shown at the bottom of this map below Cetus (the Sea Monster), respectively on left and right. Between them stands Machina Electrica (the Electric Generator), created in the same spirit by Johann Bode, which was eventually abandoned. 

A new astronomical dictionary : or, a compleat view of the heavens; containing the antient and modern astronomy, illustrated with a great number of figures, comprising all the constellations ... / by John Hill.Adler Planetarium

A Worm Among the Stars 

In the 18th-century the British writer John Hill, a satirist who also authored books on natural history, expanded on the list of Western animal constellations with contributions of dubious taste such as Hirudo (the Leech), Limax (the Slug), and Lumbricus (the Earthworm, shown here between Cancer the Crab and Gemini the Twins). Unsurprisingly, Hill’s constellations were overall ignored, but his message was clear: anyone can see anything in the stars, and astronomers themselves took that a little too far sometimes. 

Globe: CelestialAdler Planetarium

Dividing the Heavens 

In the 1920s, the recently formed International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined a standard list of 88 constellations based on the Western tradition. By 1930 the whole sky had been divided into well-delimited areas corresponding to those constellations. Their boundaries can be seen as straight, light blue lines on this celestial globe. Note also the green lines linking the stars to help viewers find patterns. Connecting the dots will always be the key to make sense of the night sky. 

David Bowie Asterism created by the MIRA Public ObservatoryAdler Planetarium

Celebrating Starman 

In 2016, an alleged new constellation, shown here, made news. A group of Belgian astronomers from the MIRA Public Observatory had created it in homage to the recently deceased David Bowie. But it was actually just an asterism, or star pattern, meant to celebrate the artist.There was no pretense of having it recognized by the International Astronomical Union, which is not likely to review its standard list of 88 constellations anytime soon. Above all, the story reminds us that, despite how constellations are scientifically defined, the night sky remains open to everyone’s imagination - something that “Starman” Bowie himself would certainly have appreciated. 

Credits: Story

Thank you to the staff of the Adler Planetarium for their assistance in creating these images of our collection and this exhibition. The Adler also thanks The MIRA Public Observatory for their permission to use their asterism in this exhibition.

To see more "Pictures in the Sky" check out the Adler's newest exhibition "Chicago's Night Sky,"

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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