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Southern stars

The first printed European southern star chart joins the Library’s cartography collection.


Albrecht Dürer — arguably the most important engraver and printmaker of the Renaissance — drew his famous image of a rhinoceros in 1515. In the same year he collaborated with cartographer and mathematician Johannes Stabius and astronomer Conrad Heinfogel to produce the first printed European star charts of the northern and southern hemispheres.

The Library recently acquired a rare example of Images coeli Meridionales, the southern star chart, printed in 1781 from the original plate engraved by Dürer in 1515. It features the circular chart without the decorative corner inscriptions seen in some copies. There are only 10 known examples of the original printings of the 1515 chart, and the 1781 printing is equally rare.

Imagines coeli meridionales, printed 1781 from blocks created in 1515, by Johannes Stabius, cartographer, Albrecht Dürer, engraver

Imagines coeli meridionales, printed 1781 from blocks created in 1515, by Johannes Stabius, cartographer, Albrecht Dürer, engraver, M2 000/1515/1

This was the first time a star chart — having been hand-drawn for centuries — had been engraved for easier distribution via the new medium of printing. It was also the first attempt to devise a primitive coordination system to locate the stars in the sky, which can be seen around the outer edge of the circle. Dürer chose to depict the stars from the heavens rather than looking up from the earth, reversing their familiar positions.

While Dürer’s role in producing these charts was as an illustrator, he was also interested in astronomy. In 1504 he purchased the Nuremberg home of astronomer Bernard Walther, which included a rooftop observatory and scientific library.

The chart features many familiar constellations drawn from Greek mythology: the half man, half horse creature Centaurus, the hunter Orion, and the sea monster Cetus. Just above Piscis Notius, the smaller southern fish, Dürer has inserted his famous monogram. Some constellations in the chart are now obsolete, like Argo Navis, the Greek ship of Jason and the Argonauts sailing across the Southern Hemisphere, which has been replaced by three smaller constellations.

The southern star chart is sparsely illustrated, reflecting the lack of European knowledge of the southern skies at the time. The Southern Cross wouldn’t appear in print until 1516, and can be seen in a copy of Italian explorer Andrea Corsali’s letter acquired by the Library in 2018.

The Library holds significant examples of celestial charts and early works on science, navigation and astronomy, and the Dürer star chart is the opening chapter in the printed history of European knowledge of the southern stars.

Maggie Patton, Manager, Research & Discovery