FEATUREDecoding the stars — an expert introduction to astrolabesRead more
‘There are more than 100 different calculations you can make with an astrolabe,’ explains James Hyslop, Head of the Travel, Science & Natural History department at Christie’s. ‘A lot of people have called them “celestial calculators”.’
Historically used by astronomers, navigators and astrologers, astrolabes can track the positions of the sun and the stars — as well as determining local time with the help of local latitude, and vice versa.
‘Astrolabes can also be used to map the position of the stars on any given day — for example, the day on which you were born. They were,’ adds Hyslop, ‘the iPhone apps of the past.’
A Maghribi astrolabe with tinned rete. 18th century. 5 ? in (13.4 cm) diameter. This lot was offered in Travel, Science and Natural History on 21 April 2016 at Christie’s in London
‘This brass astrolabe is likely to have been made in Morocco around 1800, and has six separate parts. An upper section, or rete, features hooks — each of their tips representing a different star. Underneath, brass plates show “sky grids” corresponding to different latitudes, which users would change as they moved north or south.’
‘By the 18th century, astrolabes were no longer being made in the West, although they continued to flourish in the Islamic world, where astronomical instruments often featured lines for the times of prayer,’ Hyslop says. ‘They were not just reserved for explorers and star-gazers. In many cases, they came to be coveted status symbols in princely collections.’
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