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KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Astronomy, constellations, Greek mythology, zodiac, astrolabe, cultural exchange, China and Iran, figural painting, ink
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS UNIT
These pages from a fifteenth-century illustrated copy of the Book of the Constellations of the Fixed Stars depict the constellation Perseus. Al-Sufi, one of the most prominent astronomers in the Islamic world, originally wrote the book in 965. It describes the constellations, provides their names, and links them to the signs of the zodiac.
Illustrations like this helped scholars and students identify and remember constellations. The text contains both the Arabic and Greek names of the stars, paying homage to the Hellenistic tradition while presenting contemporary scientific knowledge as a synthesis of classical and Islamic scholarship.
The illustrations feature Perseus, the Greek mythological figure, holding Medusa's head in one hand and his sword in the other. Red dots throughout the illustrations represent the twenty-six internal and three external stars that comprise this constellation.
Illustrations like these could be used independently or in conjunction with astronomical devices. Each constellation in the book is illustrated in two versions (as shown here)—one showing how the constellation appears in the sky, and the other how it appears on astronomical instruments.
In these illustrations, Perseus is dressed in garb characteristic of fifteenth-century Iran, when this work was made. Many elements of Persian art at this time reflect the influence of Chinese imagery and motifs (see Ceramics in China and the Near East). Here, this tendency is most notable in the rendition of the faces and the loose drapery of the pants.