Constellations of the northern and southern skies, engraved by Albrecht Dürer and published in 1515 in Nuremberg, Germany. These particular charts sold at auction at Sotheby’s in March 2011 for £361,250 ($578,542).
These two celestial maps are the oldest printed star charts published in Europe. Dated circa 1515, they were produced in Nuremberg under the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, and were the product of an innovative collaboration between Dürer, the eminent Viennese mathematician, cartographer and astronomer Johannes Stabius and German astronomer Conrad Heinfogel. The woodcuts depict the northern and southern skies known to European astronomers at the time, and combine with great skill the accuracy of the stars with constellation figures as visualised by the Greeks and Romans.
There are only ten other examples of the 1515 star charts extant in institutions worldwide, and the present set 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. 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. Early western maps of the skies showing both stars and constellation figures appeared circa 1440; however, 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.