Islamic Art

Reach for the Stars – Astronomical Objects from Arts of the Islamic World

By Chiara de Nicolais

The upcoming Arts of the Islamic World sale (London, 25 April) includes several outstanding items related to astronomy. Part of the Medieval Islamic scientific Renaissance, which expanded from Umayyad Spain to the very eastern borders of Persia, astronomy was one of the sciences that progressed most during this period. From the 8th century onwards, and based on the Greek tradition, Arab scholars worked and developed earlier literary sources, translating and commenting on major works on mathematics and astronomy.

Among the highlights is an important unrecorded translation of Euclid’s Elements, which bears extensive commentaries and notes on the original text in the margins. Composed in the 13th century in North Africa, it is a rare and courtly edition, full of finely executed diagrams and written in an elegant naskh script.

The sale also includes an early abridgment of Ptolemy’s Almagest – a 2nd-century work describing the apparent movements of the planets and stars – which comments on the original Hellenistic text, expanding and adding to the original.

One of the greatest scholars and polymaths of the period between the 8th and 10th centuries was Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-74 AD). He was responsible for editions of most of the Greek astronomical and mathematical works that were translated into Arabic – one of his commentaries on astronomy is featured in the sale.

Interestingly, al-Tusi worked on translations of both Ptolemy and Euclid’s works during his career, highlighting how important they were for the development of the medieval Arab sciences.

Alongside texts on astronomy, the Islamic lands also produced probably the finest and most accurate astrolabes used in the Mediterranean. These instruments – used by astronomers and navigators from antiquity to the Renaissance – were produced across the Islamic World, from Spain to India, and became models for those produced in Europe. They were so popular that decorative copies were also produced, not practical but just used as accessories.

The sale includes three Qajar examples of decorative astrolabes probably produced in the late 19th century in Persia. Each of them is finely engraved and with more than one plate, constructed exactly like a working one. Being a very complicated object to both construct and use, several treatises and manuals for their use were written.

The sale includes one such text, a volume containing three treatises on astronomy and the astrolabe, written by Karim Khan Kirmani in the 19th century. The fine lacquer binding of this manuscript is also decorated with an astrolabe quadrant.

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