The study of the night sky can be traced back to ancient times. Greek and Chinese astronomers were collectively able to identify hundreds of stars, which they grouped into constellations, some of which are still recognised today. In medieval and early modern Europe, the distinction between astronomy and astrology remained blurred. The movement of the stars and planets were believed to have an influence upon the destiny of nations and individuals.
‘They had to study the night skies through their telescopes every Wednesday at midnight and learn the names of different stars and the movements of the planets.’
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
The Oldest Atlas of the Night Sky
In 1907, the explorer Aurel Stein stumbled upon a treasure trove of 40,000 Buddhist manuscripts and paintings in a cave in Dunhuang, China. Among them was this paper scroll, the oldest star atlas from any civilisation.
Dunhuang Star ChartOriginal Source: Or 8210/S.3326
It was made around AD 700, centuries before the invention of the telescope, and it shows more than 1,300 stars visible to the naked eye in the Northern Hemisphere. At that time, it was believed that the movement of the stars directly reflected the actions of the Chinese emperor and the court.
The British Library
Astronomers on Mount Athos
Sir John Mandeville was a celebrated, but fictitious, medieval English traveller, whose fantastical writings became popular across Western Europe. This illustration accompanied a Czech translation of Mandeville’s Travels.
It shows a group of astronomers standing on Mount Athos in Greece, known as ‘Holy Mountain’, studying the stars with their astrolabes and quadrants.
Others are shown writing strange characters in the dust with their sticks, perhaps one of the mysterious foreign alphabets described by Mandeville.
John Mandeville, TravelsOriginal Source: Add MS 24189
A Celestial Globe
Celestial globes show the position of the stars in the sky as viewed from Earth. This majestic example was designed by Vincenzo Coronelli, who is considered to be one of the world’s greatest globe makers. It was made in Paris in 1693 and is an impressive 108 cm in diameter (a larger version was made for King Louis XIV of France). Coronelli collaborated on this globe with Jean-Baptiste Nolin, who served as the engraver to the French Crown.
Vincenzo Coronelli & Jean Baptist Nolin, Orbis Coelestis TypusOriginal Source: Maps G.55.
Visitor using the Google augmented reality device at the Celestial GlobeThe British Library
'... observe the heavens. Here is written, for those who can see, the fortune of our races.'
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
An Anglo-Saxon Centaur
This 11th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript is one of the most beautiful books held at the British Library.
The constellation Sagittarius takes its name from the Latin word for ‘archer’, and is depicted on this page as a bearded centaur, with a white cloak draped round its shoulders, and drawing back its bow.
The British Library
This manuscript is a precious survival from another age, when our ancestors set great store in tracking the movements of celestial bodies.
Cicero’s Arateain an Anglo-Saxon miscellanyOriginal Source: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1
You Cannot Be Sirius
The night sky has inspired many of the character names in the Harry Potter series, among them Draco Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange and Sirius Black. This manuscript was made in England approximately 900 years ago, with this page illustrating the constellation of Canis Major.
The most famous star in that constellation — and also the brightest star in the night sky — is Sirius, known as the ‘Dog Star’. The dog’s shape is infilled here with a Latin pattern poem, which describes the star’s mythological origins.
Astronomical miscellanyOriginal Source: Cotton MS Tiberius C I
A View of the Heavens
In Greek mythology, Urania was the Muse of astronomy. She lent her name in the 19th century to a series of star charts called Urania’s Mirror; or A View of the Heavens.
Cards of the constellations, to accompany Jehoshaphat Aspin, Urania’s Mirror; or A View of the HeavensOriginal Source: Maps C.44.a.42.(2.)
Each card is hand-coloured and the constellations are depicted as fanciful creatures. The cards are designed to be held up to the light, being pierced with holes that correspond to the size of the brightest stars. Although the author was said to be ‘a Lady’, they have now been identified as Richard Bloxam, an Assistant Master at Rugby School in Warwickshire.
The British Library
Leonardo on the Moon
Leonardo da Vinci — inventor, scientist, artist — was centuries ahead of his time. These pages come from one of his notebooks, and are written in Italian, in his characteristic mirror handwriting, reading from right to left.
In common with contemporary thinking, Leonardo believed that the Earth occupied the centre of the universe, and so the shaded diagram in the centre right shows the Sun and Moon revolving round the Earth. Leonardo also believed that the Moon was covered with water, and that its surface would reflect light like a convex mirror.
Leonardo da Vinci’s notebookOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263
You Spin Me Round
Petrus Apianus, the son of a shoemaker, was an acclaimed German astronomer. This beautifully produced book is his most famous work: it contains a series of rotating paper discs, known as volvelles, mimicking the movements of the planets. This volvelle shows how to determine the Moon’s latitude. A dragon sits in the middle, which can be spun round to point at the various signs of the Zodiac. The volvelles could also be used to cast horoscopes.
The British Library
Kepler on the Stars
Before the invention of the telescope, the most accurate catalogue of the stars was made by Johannes Kepler. It describes the position of more than a thousand stars, helping its readers to locate the planets. In 1617, Kepler’s own mother was suspected of being a witch; she spent a year in prison before she was released following her son’s intervention.
The elaborate frontispiece depicts great astronomers from history...
...including Ptolemy, Copernicus...
...and Kepler himself.
Johannes Kepler, Tabulæ RudolphinæOriginal Source: 48.f.7.