Inspired by… Astrolabes (part 1/2)

As the featured artist in the MIA Library’s Inspired by Books series, there is now a display of some of my work in the library. It includes the original drawings The Astronomer Under and Mycelium Sun, as well as the notebook marginalia (surrounded by various quotations and thoughts about astrolabes) below. (ETA: Here is the other half of the two-page spread.) If you’re in Qatar, go check it out!

Part of my weekly Marginalia series.

Images and Stars

Drawn under my notes during a lecture about the Al-Sufi star manual (one manuscript of which is in the MIA’s collection), given last Wednesday by Harvard University’s David Roxburgh. It helped me to better understand some of the links between star manuals and celestial globes and the way that images lend functionality to both. There wasn’t much about how this links up with astrolabes, but it did give me some more context for thinking about astronomical practices of the time.

Part of my weekly Marginalia series.

Images from ‘Rumi & Astrolabes’

For those who attended my Rumi and Astrolabes talk, here are most of the images I used. The photos I took myself are posted directly, and I’ve provided links to the photos that don’t belong to me. (For a few images, I’m afraid I couldn’t find versions to link to that weren’t behind paywalls. But most of them are here.)

Let’s start with the photos I took at the MIA Qatar. Most of these were chosen to demonstrate design features of the rete and mater, but I also included the splayed out astrolabe so you could see the separate parts – and the wooden astrolabe simply because it’s a rare example of one:

About a third of my images came from the online astrolabe catalogue of Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science. (To find the Islamic astrolabes quickly, sort the list by language and look for the Arabic and Persian ones.) I encourage you to explore the database; there are many wonderful pieces in there.

Here are a few particular astrolabes I highlighed during the talk because they were special in one way or another:

Here is an astrolabe with attached prayer beads.

This is an unusual calligraphic rete with a dedication to a noble patron. Here is a more typical calligraphic rete with a religious inscription (there is a similar one at the MIA).

This astrolabe has a rather wonderful Persian poem inscribed around the edge of the rete, and the instrument as a whole includes a celestial map plate. (This is possibly my favourite astrolabe out of all the ones I’ve seen – be assured I intend to write more about it!)

Finally, here is the (fake, as we discussed) astrolabe I passed around:

my astrolabe

The White Vizier’s Astrolabe

Revisiting the Kings & Pawns exhibition today, I discovered this delightful little cartoon of a chess game.

And it made my day that, at 4:15, the white vizier pulls out what looks like an astrolabe!
The white vizier's astrolabe from the short film 'The Rook'.Its rete seems to be made up of astrological symbols(?), and he only uses it as a surface for casting his dice. But still!

EDIT: The object he is holding may not be an astrolabe after all, but an astrological geomantic plate (such as this one from the Khalili collections).

Astrolabe with “eye”

The day after posting my little “eye of the astrolabe” sketch, I found this at the UCL Qatar library. Doesn’t that decorated pin look like an eye in the middle!

Safavid astrolabe with "eye" on central pin.
Safavid astrolabe dated 1666 AD. Bernard O’Kane, The World of Islamic Art (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2008), p.41.).

EDIT: Looking at it now, I think this is this astrolabe in the V&A collection – just assembled with the alidade in front, the horse at the back, and with a different plate right behind the rete.

Eye of the Astrolabe

Astrolabe-related sketches in a notebook sitting on Morrison's 'The Astrolabe' book.
Here is one of my notebooks sitting on a modern astrolabe treatise. The top section of the page has notes and sketches of details from the retes of two astrolabes at the Museum of Islamic Art. The bottom half is all marginalia, both the sketches and the writing.

The title of this post comes from this little detail, where I happened to draw the hole in the centre of the rete as an eye:
Eye of the Astrolabe

…and this goes to show that I’ve been reviving my astrolabe work recently. I will be posting more about it on the blog, so keep an eye out!

This is part of my weekly Marginalia series, explained here.

MIA Symposium

MIA lecture sketch
This page is from 2011, drawn over several of the talks given at a 2011 symposium held at Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art. It’s unusual among my sketches (especially the smaller ones; this is a page of an A6 notebook) for having some very thick lines of ink – although that happened because the first pen I tried to draw with broke! I rather like the effect, and hope to play with it again in some later work by incorporating sumi ink.

This is also the first instance of the starry sky motif that appears quite a bit in my later work. I believe that particular touch was inspired by Emilie Savage-Smith’s lecture on Al-Sufi’s Book of Fixed Stars, the oldest manuscript of which (she argues) is in the MIA collection.

This is part of my weekly Marginalia series, explained here.

Challenge Accepted

So I decided to enter the Damien Hirst Challenge. I don’t know the judging criteria nor what the other entries are like, so we’ll find out in 2 weeks if I even came close to winning. But the one stated criterion was that your entry was supposed to engage themes of life and death, and I felt inspired by another thematic inversion that came out the day I visited the Hirst exhibtion and the Museum of Islamic Art. Namely, that where Hirst puts death on display to make people think about life, a lot of Islamic art invokes contemplations of death (via the afterlife) by depicting life (in the form of arabesque plant motifs that symbolise Paradise the Garden).

My entry, The Astronomer Under, depicts a dead astronomer whose corpse is locked into its heavenward gaze by cordyceps fungi. It involves visual motifs common to both Hirst (butterfly parts, dots, longitudinal sections of preserved dead things) and Islamic art (plant imagery; curving ‘organic’ composition; nature/night sky association).