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The Earliest Known Printed Illustrations of the Greek Constellations

A rare first edition of the Poeticon Astronomicon, printed in Germany in 1492, is headed to auction at Swann.

Caius Julius Hyginus, spread from first edition of “Poeticon Astronomicon” (1482) (all photos courtesy Swann Auction Galleries)

Constellations have captivated artists for millennia, but it wasn’t until the advent of the printing press that their interpretations of distant star patterns could be easily shared with the masses. In Europe, the earliest known printed illustrations of the Greek constellations appeared in Poeticon Astronomicon, a Latin text first published in 1482 that relays myths associated with the cosmos. It features dynamic woodcuts of 47 constellations, including Hercules, Pegasus, and Scorpio; each is overlaid with images according to the Greek cosmological and mythological tradition.

Caius Julius Hyginus, page from first edition of “Poeticon Astronomicon” (1482)

A rare, first-edition copy of the book will go to auction at Swann Auction Galleries on March 8, with a pre-sale estimate of $15,000 to $20,000Its listing notes that its author was Caius Julius Hyginus, a Roman scholar and historian who lived during the 1st century BCE and was in charge of the Palatine Library, founded by Augustus Caesar. Scholars have long debated this authorship: the book is attributed to one “Hyginus,” but the order of constellations echoes that of Ptolemy’s 48 constellations, as listed in his landmark treatise Almagest. That was written in the 2nd century CE, which suggests that Poeticon Astronomicon was perhaps penned by a different Hyginus, born after the time of Caius Julius.

Regardless of its author, the astronomical text circulated in handwritten, manuscript form during the Middle Ages. Its first known — and unillustrated — printing was in 1475, but it wasn’t until 1482 that it was formally published and became widely available. The German printer Erhard Ratdolt, often credited as the first publisher of scientific and mathematical material, clearly understood the power of visuals to boost public appeal: he spruced up Hyginus’s texts — printed in beautiful Gothic type — by commissioning an artist to create woodcuts of each constellation. The text proved popular, as over 25 editions had been printed by the end of the 16th century, according to Tobias Abeloff, Swann Auction Galleries’s early printed books specialist.

The resulting images have some resemblance to the text’s descriptions of star arrangements, but it’s clear that the unknown artist illustrated with great creative freedom. Poeticon Astronomicon would have served, at most, “as a rough guide,” Abeloff told Hyperallergic.

Despite their imprecision, the illustrations served as a foundational source for the constellation figures that appeared in future Renaissance star maps that incorporated detailed scientific knowledge. And it’s interesting to compare them now to subsequent renderings. One notable woodcut is that of Orion: usually shown as a hunter, the figure in Ratdolt’s text is a knight in armor, clutching a club in one hand and a personified shield in the other — a valiant guide to the heavens indeed.

Caius Julius Hyginus, page from first edition of “Poeticon Astronomicon” (1482)
Caius Julius Hyginus, spread from first edition of “Poeticon Astronomicon” (1482)
Caius Julius Hyginus, spread from first edition of “Poeticon Astronomicon” (1482)
Caius Julius Hyginus, spread from first edition of “Poeticon Astronomicon” (1482)
Caius Julius Hyginus, page from first edition of “Poeticon Astronomicon” (1482)
Caius Julius Hyginus, spread from first edition of “Poeticon Astronomicon” (1482)

The “Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books” sale takes place at Swann Auction Galleries on March 8.

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