Today, it can take a major cosmic event like a total solar eclipse to get people to pay attention to the sky, but centuries ago, the positions of the sun, moon, stars, and planets played a major role in day-to-day life. Celestial observations were used to measure time, to consider one’s place in the cosmos—astrologically, theologically, or otherwise—and to navigate, though in this case, one needed to master the planispheric astrolabe.
This sophisticated device, which originated in ancient Greece, was embraced and refined around the 8th century by the Islamic world, who then introduced it to Europe in the 12th century. Typically made of brass, the astrolabe consisted of a disk engraved with the positions of the celestial bodies, a circular frame marked with degrees of latitude and the hours of the day, and a rotating framework with pointers, all produced with as much artistry as skill. In the hands of a knowledgeable user, the astrolabe could be used to make astronomical predictions as well as to determine the individual’s exact location and the correct time—night or day. This was particularly important to Muslim travelers as it allowed them fulfill their duty to pray towards Mecca five times a day. Though the need for the astrolabe started to decline with the invention of more accurate tools, it was widely used into the mid-17th century, thriving as an astronomical device that beautifully blended art and science with heaven and earth.
See Planispheric Astrolabe and other highlights from our Islamic collection in Gallery 50.
Planispheric Astrolabe, 18th century (with later additions). Iran. Gift of Mrs. Emily Crane Chadbourne.