Highlights From The Vault: Stars Above You

ArticleCheck out these highlights from May’s From The Vault: Stars Above You

May 20, 2024
626 words / 3 minutes

On May 17, we hosted From The Vault: Stars Above You!

From The Vault is a biweekly event series showing collections objects selected by Leventhal Center staff. This week, lucky visitors were able to view a special selection of celestial maps, partially inspired by the lovely celestial map featured in Heaven & Earth: The Blue Maps of China, our newest exhibit. With the help of these maps, visitors could stargaze with generations of cartographers from around the world and across centuries and cultures.

Xingye dingxiang fang yangzhitu (ca. 1730–1770)

This map from the MacLean collection reminds us of the importance of the “heavens” for maritime navigation. This map is divided into 12 sections. Each section is labeled with the directions of the Chinese compass, constellations associated with each direction, and names of ports accessible in that direction. 

William Crosswell A Mercator map of the starry heavens, comprehending the whole equinoctial, and terminated by the polar circles (1810)

In the lower left corner of this map, you will notice a sculpture bust of a bearded man with a large feather in his cap. The cartographer, William Croswell, attempted through this map and other efforts to refer to a grouping of stars of the Reticulum (a fainter constellation) as the Marmor Sculptile or the “Bust of Columbus”. Unfortunately, this did not catch on.

Matthaeus Seutter Tabula anemographica seu pyxis nautica vulgo compass charte : quâ ventorum noia septem linguis græca scil. latina, italica, hispanica, gallica, hollandica et germanica repræsentantur succinctè elaborata (1740)

Thirty-two wind heads appear on this 1760 chart of the heavens by German mapmaker Matthaeus Seutter. Corresponding with each of the thirty-two points on the compass, these winds range in age from young to old, with the largest wind heads representing the four principal winds Boreas (North), Eurus (East), Notus (South) and Zephyrus (West). Figures representing the four seasons appear in each corner of the map, and their placement near the four groups of winds symbolizes the weather and natural phenomena each wind was said to bring.

John Speed A new and accurat map of the world : drawne according to ye truest descriptions latest discoveries & best observations yt have beene made by English or strangers, 1651 (1652)

This is a “new and accurat map of the world” from 1651. Beyond the earth, the cartographer has included in the upper right hand corner the ‘Heavens and Elements’ organized in concentric centers with the earth at the center. Radiating out from the earth is the air, fire, the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Leo, the Christian and finally, the first moveable heaven. 

The first moveable heaven, or the primum mobile, was understood through the Renaissance as the outermost part of the universe where the stars and planets were fixed.

Andreas Cellarius Planisphaerium Ptolemaicum siue machina orbium mundi ex hypothesi Ptolemaica in plano disposita (1661)

This plate depicts the Earth-centered universe theorized by Claudius Ptolemy, the 2nd century A.D. geographer who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. This colorful illustration comes from a lavish celestial atlas compiled by Andreas Cellarius, a Dutch mathematician and geographer. 

Look closely at the center of this diagram and you will discover a small map of the Earth’s northern hemisphere. Revolving around the Earth in separate orbits are the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The outer circle is reserved for the stars, represented as the constellations of the zodiac. This was the prevailing theory of the universe until the mid-16th century when Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a solar system centered around the Sun.

John Seller Novissima totius terrarum orbis tabula (1672)

This 17th century map includes seemingly a little bit of everything: the signs of the zodiac, mythological figures, the phases of the moon, map monsters, and bunnies!

Our articles are always free

You’ll never hit a paywall or be asked to subscribe to read our free articles. No matter who you are, our articles are free to read—in class, at home, on the train, or wherever you like. In fact, you can even reuse them under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0 license.