These two celestial maps are the oldest printed star charts published in Europe and represent two thousand years of scientific and intellectual thought, brought to life with Dürer's aesthetic mastery. The charts were produced in circa 1515 in Nuremberg under the patronage of the Emperor Maximilian I. They were the product of an innovative collaboration between Dürer and the eminent mathematician and astronomer Johannes Stabius (after 1460-1522) and Conrad Heinfogel (d. 1517).
The woodcuts depict the northern and southern skies known to European astronomers at the time. They skilfully combine accuracy of the stars with constellation figures as visualised by the Greeks and Romans. Distilling iconography influenced by Antiquity, Greek geometrical studies and Islamic scholarship, the woodcuts display Dürer's virtuosity and interest in science and mathematics. The maps show the stars of the forty-eight constellations based on Ptolemy's second century star catalogue, the Almagest. While early western maps of the skies showing both stars and constellation figures appeared since circa 1440, the present maps were the first to chart a coordinate system with accurate placement of the stars. They attest to the role that Nuremberg played as a centre of printing as well as for the manufacture of scientific instruments.
The map of the northern hemisphere is richly decorated with the twelve signs of the Zodiac, to be read counter-clockwise. Four ancient authorities appear at each corner of the northern chart, each in their national dress, holding a celestial globe: Aratus representing the Greek, Ptolemy the Egyptian, Al-Sufi the Islamic and Marcus Manilius the Roman tradition of astronomy. The map of the southern hemisphere displays distinctly fewer stars and constellations. At the time, Europeans had not yet charted the southern sky; this is reflected in the pared down composition of the map, with its areas of vacant constellations. This companion piece reveals information about the map's collaborators and patrons, including a dedication to Cardinal Mattheus Lang von Wellenberg and his coat of arms at the upper corners and Stabius' privilege for publication, granted by Maximilian I at the lower right corner. The acknowledgement that the works were a collaborative effort is reflected in the coats of arms of the three authors with a cartouche noting their names and tasks, at lower left: "Johann Stabius ordered (and edited), Conradus Heinfogel positioned the stars, Albertus Durer drew the images".
In both maps dynamic celestial figures are represented moving in three-dimensional space and the clear, strong impressions, with their vivid hand-colouring, add to the works' attractiveness. There exist only ten other examples of the 1515 star charts in institutions worldwide; this chart is one of only three recorded with contemporary hand-colouring. Aided by Dürer's reputation, these star maps were highly influential and became a source of inspiration for successive mapmakers.
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