Ulugh Beg's Book of the Constellations is a beautifully illuminated copy of the most influential Arabic-language treatise on the constellations of the northern and southern skies. The manuscript was copied around 1430-1440 for the library of the Timurid sultan, Ulugh Beg, presumably within the circle of his court at Samarqand. The ninety-three unframed illustrations of star patterns are remarkable for their delicacy and scientific accuracy.
Each constellation or group of constellations intertwined in the night sky is pictured twice, as seen on a celestial globe—as the labels have it "on the sphere"—i.e., from beyond the stars looking through them toward Earth, and again, as seen from Earth. The mirror-reversed images are equally detailed with the stars of the constellations rendered in gold and nearby associated stars in red, all labeled. The gold and red balls vary in size to indicate the relative brightness of the stars.
The Influence of Chinese Art
The illustrations are as aesthetically appealing as they are scientifically useful. The human, animal, and hybrid figures and the various objects that embody the constellations are rendered in delicate line drawings with washes of blue, red, brown, and a pinkish flesh tone on the white paper. They demonstrate the clear influence of the aesthetics of Chinese painting. The convincingly modeled figures often seem to move in a three-dimensional space. In the representation of Perseus, for example, the Greek hero is shown twisting to look at the head of Medusa (fols. 67v and 68r).
The manuscript's illuminator drew a direct association between the manuscript's patron and ancient rulership. The images for the constellation Cepheus (fols. 38r and 38v) show the Ethiopian king of Greek mythology in fifteenth-century Timurid garb and with the facial features of Ulugh Beg, his fine beard rendered with exquisite sensitivity.
Four Approaches to Each Constellation
The text of the manuscript is the Book of the Constellations by the tenth-century Persian astronomer al-Sūfī, a careful revision of the portion of the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy's Almagest devoted to the fixed stars. For each constellation, Al- Sūfī provides a general discussion with his criticism of the Ptolemaic tradition, an account of the Arabic star names, a pair of drawings, and a table giving the location and magnitude of each star in the constellation. The illustrations are integral to conveying the treatise's message.
The text of Ulugh Beg's copy of al-Sūfī's treatise is elegantly presented on pages with frame ruling and generous margins. The script—in black, red, and blue—is Naskh, the script commonly used for Arabic literary texts, with major headings marked off by frames and written in gold.
A Book Fit for a Prince
The handsome book was presumably always intended to be a showpiece. Although Ulugh Beg (d. 1449) was keenly interested in astronomy and wrote a treatise on the constellations drawing from al-Sūfī, he worked from a Persian translation of al-Sūfī's text. His copy of the Arabic text, preserved in excellent condition, was made expressly for him (as reported in the colophon on fol. 247v) and intended for his library (as stated on fol. 1r). Subsequent owners include a "Sultan Muhammad," Sādiq Hāfiz Efendi Kathudā Zādeh (by 1813), and J. Klatz (by 1891). The manuscript entered the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale (now Bibliothèque nationale de France) in April 1891.
We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Ulugh Beg's Book of the Constellations": Die Astronomie des Prinzen – Das Buch der Fixsterne (Ulugh Beg) facsimile edition, published by Mueller & Schindler, 2022Request Info / Price