A Celestial Map of the Sky, commissioned by The Manchester Grammar School on the occasion of its quincentenary, takes its cue from two woodcuts engraved by the German polymath Albrecht Dürer in 1515, the same year in which school was founded. These two ground-breaking polar projections of the northern and southern celestial hemispheres are the oldest printed European star charts.
Dürer’s designs for the woodcuts were influenced by the writings of contemporaneous German and Italian Humanists, as well as by earlier hand-drawn star charts. Whereas prior celestial projections sometimes depicted allegorical figures looking over the skies (such as the Roman gods Venus and Mars), Dürer instead honoured four ancient astronomers - Ptolemy, Aratus, Marcus Manilius and Al-Sufi – by depicting them at their work, overseeing his maps. The rare inclusion of the Persian astronomer Al-Sufi (903-986 CE, whose full name was Abd al-Rahman al-Suf, and who is represented on the map as Azophi Arabus) forms a tribute to work undertaken by precedent Persian and Arab astronomers prior to the arrival of modern European astronomy. The result was that Dürer sought to place humankind at the centre of his imagery of science.
The various texts I have chosen (mostly extractions from larger works) reflect the changing worldview hinted at in Dürer’s charts. His inclusion of the four astronomers was a signal that the universe could be comprehended through human intervention rather than solely through spiritual or symbolic means. Repeated iterations of Walt Whitman’s words “I see the cities of the earth, and make myself at random a part of them,” for example, are interspersed with Francis William Bourdillon’s “the night has a thousand eyes, and the day but one.” Scientists and artists had begun looking not only up at the stars, but also back down at earth from the perspective of its celestial layer.
The primary objective of the then new Manchester Grammar School, as expressed in its founding charter with its echoes of Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus, was to advance knowledge through the “liberal science or art of grammar.” However, as Dürer’s 1515 print shows, this was a period when interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and inter-territorial learning was held up as a new ideal. With this came an altogether higher goal, expressed eloquently in the charter, that “all be learned and known in diversity of tongues and speeches.”
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