British Museum blog

Looking for a time machine: astrolabes in medieval Jewish society


Josefina Rodríguez Arribas, researcher

Astrolabes are the medieval equivalent of the kind of handheld technology we’re all very accustomed to in the twenty-first century. They were instruments you could use to find your way, tell the time, track the movements of the sun and stars, and were – still are – complex, and incredibly impressive.

As the researcher working on a project with the British Museum and the Warburg Institute to study these fascinating objects, my recent trip to Israel was not the first time I’ve been there in search of medieval astronomy and astrology. However it was the first time I have returned with a database of about 140 Hebrew manuscripts dealing with astrolabes: a treasure trove of texts describing and explaining how to build or use these instruments in their almost two thousand years of history. In other words, texts written mostly in Hebrew and a few in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic with Hebrew script) between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries by Jews from around the world (astrolabes remained in use until the nineteenth century in Islamic countries).

These manuscripts are not all physically in Israel – most of them are in libraries and private collections around the world, as are the few surviving Jewish instruments. However, the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem hosts the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, in which we can look for and read microfilms of practically all the Hebrew manuscripts in the public and private collections of the world.

Comparing manuscripts

Comparing manuscripts

An amazing resource, and very convenient. I can sit in the manuscripts reading room, in the basement of the National Library in Jerusalem, and let my eyes go from a Sephardic script of the thirteenth century to an Askenazi of the fifteenth or a Byzantine of the sixteenth century, all of them explaining how an astrolabe works.

These texts were written and copied by Jews spread over three continents, in countries and cities so close or so distant as Vienna, Istanbul, Egypt, Yemen, Lisbon, Baghdad, Mantua, Benevento, Syracuse, Senegal, and more. Most of them were also copied many times throughout the centuries, some in years as decisive for the history of the world or the history of the Jews as the year 1453 (the fall of Constantinople into Turkish hands) or the year 1492 (edict of expulsion of Jews from Spain), when many codices and manuscripts were destroyed or lost for many reasons.

These handwritten texts are like a time machine encapsulating in their parchment, paper, ink, writing, binding, and list of owners, information about the authors and the readers, the Jewish communities where they were produced and the patrons who paid for them. So the transcription, translation, and study of these texts is going to provide us with decisive information about the degree of scientific knowledge and familiarity with certain scientific instruments of many Jewish communities from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and even later.

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Most Greek sculpture that survives from antiquity is carved from white marble, of which the Mediterranean has many natural sources. A relationship has often been assumed between the pure white of freshly cut marble and the idealism of Greek art. In fact, the opposite is true. Colour was intrinsic to ancient ideas of beauty. For centuries this has been a subject of fascination and controversy. The great Italian Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo revived the Greek idea of the human body but denied the use of colour. This was partly due to negative associations with the painted saints of the medieval period. During the European Enlightenment of the 1750s onwards, and increasingly into our own time, the preferred aesthetic was a truth to materials. Painting and gilding were seen as unnecessary and undesirable.

Sculpture in antiquity was often adorned not only with colour but also with different materials. The Greek marble statue of an archer reconstructed here was drilled and fitted with metal attachments. The figure originally held a bronze bow and arrow and a quiver was fixed to his left hip by a metal dowel. Individual locks of hair were made of lead. The colourful design of the man’s knitted all-in-one garment, often worn by peoples from the east, is clearly seen weathered into the marble surface under controlled lighting.

You can see this wonderful object in our exhibition #DefiningBeauty, until 5 July 2015.
#exhibition #BritishMuseum #ancientGreece #sculpture #art

Plaster cast of archer with reconstructed paint, based on a Greek original of about 490–480 BC, from the Temple of Aphaia at Aigina. Staatliche Antikensammlung und Glyptothek, Munich. Uta Uta Tjangala's masterpiece Yumari is a highlight of‪ #IndigenousAustralia, opening a week today
#exhibition #art #history #BritishMuseum #Australia #museum Hans Sloane's collection also ended up as the basis of the @natural_history_museum and the @britishlibrary!
To make more room for the increasing collections held by the British Museum, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington in the 1880s. This eventually became the Natural History Museum. These images show some of the natural history specimens on display, including giraffes and a mastodon!
In 1997, the library departments left the Museum to be re-housed at the new British Library in St Pancras.
#history #BritishMuseum #collection #animals #books Hans Sloane's encyclopaedic collection became the cornerstone of the British Museum.
This drawer was once part of the materia medica - a sort of pharmaceutical cabinet - in the collection of Sloane. The cabinet had several drawers, each carefully constructed to keep out destructive insects. Some drawers had small compartments like this example, others contained glazed boxes with seeds, fruit, bark, roots, gums and resins inside. Each had a label written by Sloane with a catalogue number. The botanical or medicinal name of the subtance, where it came from and who collected it were then recorded in his catalogues of his collection.
As Sloane's interest in natural history grew along with his income, he was able to widen the scope of his collection from being primarily medical to being more encyclopaedic, representing the widest possible variety of substances and artefacts for his own reference and for others to consult.
© 2003 The Natural History Museum @natural_history_museum 
#history #BritishMuseum #collection #museum Our founder, Sir Hans Sloane, was born ‪#onthisday in 1660.
This engraving after a portrait  by T Murray shows him at the age of 68. The inscription at the bottom can be translated as: 'Sir Hans Sloane, baronet / Pres[ident]. of the College of Physicians of London and the Royal Society. etc.'
Sloane was born in Ireland in 1660, and trained as a doctor of medicine. At the age of 27 he went to the West Indies as personal doctor to the Governor of Jamaica and while living there he began to form his great collection of natural history specimens. For the rest of his long life he collected plants, fossils and minerals, as well as objects from ancient Rome, Egypt and Assyria. He also amassed an impressive collection of books, manuscripts, prints and drawings.
#history #BritishMuseum Leonardo da Vinci was born #onthisday in 1452. 
This study of a warrior is drawn in metalpoint, specifically silverpoint, a popular medium with Early Renaissance artists. It is most suitable for detailed and careful drawings. Metalpoint was a good method of training young apprentice artists as it required control and discipline. 
Here, the silverpoint line, which has turned grey in the atmosphere, is thin and delicate. The detail is extraordinary: the armour, the curls in his hair and the splendid elaborate helmet are even exceeded by the modelling of the man's face and the lion on his breastplate. Endless patience must have been required of the young Leonardo to produce the very fine shadows of the man's face, each a separate line.
#art #daVinci #Leonardo #history #drawing #silverpoint
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