As 2013 promises to be an interesting year astronomically and we take to gazing at the stars again, I thought it would be good to turn our focus for this week’s blog to the heavens as well. I began my search for the subject of this week’s post by looking at the late 17th century list of books bought by James Gregory for the establishment of an observatory here at St Andrews. Gregory is an important figure in the development of astronomy and our 1687 catalogue lists the titles of books that he thought important to have on-hand for astronomical observations and the construction of astronomical instruments. Many of these books are still in our 17th century collections, and as I browsed these one author’s work particularly stuck out as beautiful and inspirational.
We have in our collections two very beautiful volumes by Johannes Hevelius, an astronomer from Gdańsk who produced several astronomical works in the mid-17th century. The first of which, the first volume of his Machina coelestis (1673), was most probably the copy that Gregory had on-hand here in St Andrews. This volume is full of wonderful plates depicting the various instruments that Hevelius used and designed for his observations. Hevelius was a self-funded and enjoyed the patronage of the Polish royalty, and his observatory at its pinnacle spanned across the roofs of three houses (all owned by him) and included a focal-length telescope over 150 feet (45m) long. Hevelius was certainly proud of his work: the engraved title pages found on this and other works are full of scenes of Hevelius presenting his work to Urania and other great astronomers and in this work he is depicted in almost every plate either operating his equipment or showing it off. This volume was surely used by Gregory at St Andrews to refine his designs for his reflecting telescope.
I came across another of Hevelius’s books a shelf-up from Machina coelestis, one which truly shows his academic rigour and the awe in which Hevelius held the heavens. This volume (spine pictured left) begins with his posthumously published Prodromus astronomiae and Firmamentum Sobiescianum (1690). These works were edited and published by his wife, Elisabeth Hevelius, and include unpublished observations, a catalogue of 1564 stars recorded up to 1687, and a collection of 56 plates depicting the constellations of the heavens. Also included in this volume is Hevelius’s tract on Saturn and the 1656 solar eclipse and his short epistle on a comet observed in March and April of 1672.
These works are filled with plates of technical illustrations which are very detailed and help to illustrate the astronomer’s observations; however the more decorative plates are simply stunning. For Firmamentum Sobiescianum Hevelius produced a fold-out map of the constellations with each set illustrated beautifully (above). After this plate follows a detail of each constellation identified, including seven new constellations delineated by Hevelius.
The most inspirational of these plates, to me, can be found in his Epistola de cometa, which only includes one plate (below). This plate was designed by Hevelius himself and traces the transit of a comet observed first in Andromeda and ending in Orion. This plate is not only packed with information, but Hevelius’s incorporation of his designs of the constellations gives an ethereal element to the whole thing which still resonates today.
P.S. I came across a wonderful project online while researching this blog post. If these illustrations catch your eye, I suggest you check out Mark Crossley’s work incorporating the Hevelius constellation art (scroll down to ‘Stellarium Hevelius Constellation art) into the free planetarium software Stellarium. Once I got these 17th century constellations loaded into this 3D environment my jaw dropped.