recto
Identification and Creation
Object Number
2002.50.145
Title
The Constellation Cassiopeia (painting, recto; text, verso), folio from an Arabic manuscript of the Kitab Suwar al-Kawakib of al-Sufi
Classification
Manuscripts
Work Type
manuscript folio
Date
late 15th–early 16th century
Places
Creation Place: Middle East, Iran
Period
Safavid period
Culture
Persian
Persistent Link
https://hvrd.art/o/143490
Physical Descriptions
Medium
Ink, gold, and opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions
21.3 x 14.9 cm (8 3/8 x 5 7/8 in.)
Provenance
Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood, Belmont, MA (by 1998-2002), gift; to Harvard Art Museums, 2002.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art
Accession Year
2002
Object Number
2002.50.145
Division
Asian and Mediterranean Art
Contact
am_asianmediterranean@harvard.edu
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Descriptions
Description
Gold disks scattered across this seated figure mark the major stars of the constellation Cassiopeia. Named “The Enthroned One” (dhat al-kursi) in Arabic, this constellation of the Northern Hemisphere was pictured in antiquity as the beautiful, but tragically vain, Queen Cassiopeia of Greek mythology.
The painting was part of a now-dispersed manuscript of al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars, a tenth-century astronomical manual that expanded and updated Ptolemy’s Almagest, integrating it with the rich star lore and nomenclature of the Anwa', the pre-Islamic Arabic tradition. For each of the forty-eight constellations, al-Sufi provided a description, a star chart, and two images, the first as seen on a celestial globe and the second as it appeared in the heavens.
The rubric above her states that the queen in this painting represents the constellation as viewed on a celestial globe. She wears a Persian crown topped by a fluttering plume, rather than the diadem of classical precedent. Although rendered in awkward perspective, the Western-style throne on which she perches adheres more closely to classical sources than does her crown, allowing the figure to sit “with her feet outstretched,” as the text requires.
This painting and six others that can be associated with it suggest that the manuscript from which they were removed emphasized aesthetic over scientific aims. Whereas illustrations in astronomical texts are usually line drawings with, at most, translucent touches of color, these paintings employ the opaque pigments preferred for illustrating poetic narratives. More telling, perhaps, is the fact that none of the stars are labeled.
Examined against transmitted light, this folio is revealed to be composed of two sheets of paper. The image of Cassiopeia is painted on a fragmentary sheet that has been pasted onto a larger text folio. It appears that there is a star chart on the reverse of the fragmentary sheet.

Published Catalogue Text: In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art , written 2013
64

The Constellation Cassiopeia as Seen on a Globe
Folio from a manuscript of the Kitāb ṣuwār al-kawākib al-thābita (Book of the Fixed Stars) by ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Sufi
Recto: text, with title “Image of the Enthroned One as seen in the sky and on a globe”
Verso: text and illustration, with title “Image of the Enthroned One as seen on a globe”
Iran, late 15th–early 16th century
Ink, gold, and opaque watercolor on paper
Folio: 21.3 × 14.9 cm (8 3/8 × 5 7/8 in.)
2002.50.145

Gold disks scattered across this seated figure mark the major stars of the constellation Cassiopeia. Named “The Enthroned One” (dhāt al-kursī) in Arabic, this constellation of the Northern Hemisphere was pictured in antiquity as the beautiful, but tragically vain, Queen Cassiopeia of Greek mythology.

The painting was part of a now-dispersed manuscript of al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars, a tenth-century astronomical manual that expanded and updated Ptolemy’s Almagest, integrating it with the rich star lore and nomenclature of the Anwāʿ, the pre-Islamic Arabic tradition.[1] For each of the forty-eight constellations, al-Sufi provided a description, a star chart, and two images, the first as seen on a celestial globe and the second as it appeared in the heavens.

The rubric above her states that the queen in this painting represents the constellation as viewed on a celestial globe. She wears a Persian crown topped by a fluttering plume, rather than the diadem of classical precedent.[2] Although rendered in awkward perspective, the Western-style throne on which she perches adheres more closely to classical sources than does her crown, allowing the figure to sit “with her feet outstretched,” as the text requires.

This painting and six others that can be associated with it suggest that the manuscript from which they were removed emphasized aesthetic over scientific aims.[3] Whereas illustrations in astronomical texts are usually line drawings with, at most, translucent touches of color, these paintings employ the opaque pigments preferred for illustrating poetic narratives. More telling, perhaps, is the fact that none of the stars are labeled.

Examined against transmitted light, this folio is revealed to be composed of two sheets of paper. The image of Cassiopeia is painted on a fragmentary sheet that has been pasted onto a larger text folio. It appears that there is a star chart on the reverse of the fragmentary sheet.[4]

Mary McWilliams

[1] Arguably the most popular classical text on astronomy, Mathēmatikē syntaxis was compiled about 150 in Alexandria by the Greek scholar Claudius Ptolemy. This mathematical and astronomical work is best known in English as the Almagest, a corruption of the word megistē (the greatest) as it appeared in Arabic translation (al-majisṭī). The Almagest was first translated into Arabic in the early ninth century; Al-Sufi (903–986) retranslated and expanded it around the year 964 for Adud al-Dawla, ruler of the Iranian Buyyid dynasty. Translated into Persian, Latin, and Spanish, Book of the Fixed Stars exerted considerable influence well into the seventeenth century.
[2] When this painting came to the Harvard Art Museums, Cassiopeia’s face was markedly darkened due to discoloration by the lead white component of the pigment. By using hydrogen peroxide, Sara Bisi, Craigen W. Bowen Fellow in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies from 2010 to 2011, was able to lighten the face significantly, though a slightly dark cast remains.
[3] In order of their probable appearance in the manuscript, these folios depict the following constellations: Perseus (David Collection, Copenhagen, 37/2006); Serpentarius and Ophiuchus (Harvard Art Museums, 1919.131); Andromeda and Pisces (Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, AKM00043); Gemini (David Collection, Copenhagen, 4/2000); Sagittarius the Archer (Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art, Kansas City, 35-30/1); and Capricornus the Kid Nelson-Atkins, 35-30/5). With the exception of Sagittarius in the Nelson-Atkins Gallery, which appears to have been cut down, these folios all measure approximately 21.5 × 14.5 cm. Red double-line rulings enclose images and diagrams. The rubrics are written in a rounded naskh in red or black ink; the text, in black ink, is in a distinctive and that features the letters wāw and terminal yāʾ written as straight lines slanting in the Z-direction.
[4] The fragmentary sheet measures approximately 19.3 × 11.6 cm (7 5⁄8 × 4 9⁄16 in.) and is slightly darker in color than the larger text folio on which it is pasted. The painting is also marred by a pair of brownish feet appearing in Cassiopeia’s lap; these are probably a chemical alteration to her yellow robe caused by a painting that had been on a facing page. The feet depicted on the facing page may have been painted with a copper green pigment (as are the feet of Cassiopeia); this pigment often discolors areas with which it is in direct contact. For these observations, we are grateful to Penley Knipe, Philip and Lynn Straus Conservator of Works of Art on Paper, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies.

Publication History

Mary McWilliams, ed., In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art, exh. cat., Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2013), pp. 216-217, cat. 64, ill.

Exhibition History

In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 01/31/2013 - 06/01/2013

32Q: 2550 Islamic, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/03/2015 - 04/26/2016

This record was created from historic documentation and may not have been reviewed by a curator; it may be inaccurate or incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at am_asianmediterranean@harvard.edu