Ptolemy Ptolémée


2nd Century A.D. - IIe siècle après J.C.

Iconography of Ptolemy's Portrait
Iconographie du portrait de Ptolémée

 16th century? France? Tapestry

France?, Astronomy, tapestry, 16th century?, ? x ? cm, Göteborg, Röhsska Museet för Konsthantverk och Design [Röhss Museum of Applied Arts and Design].

France?, L'astronomie, tapisserie, XVIe siècle?, ? x ? cm, Göteborg, Röhsska Museet för Konsthantverk och Design [Musée Röhss des arts appliqués et du design].


Collaboration from Robert H. van Gent

January 29, 2001

For some time I have been puzzling over a very colourful portrayal of the muse Astronomia with an astronomer and several bystanders on an early 16th-century French tapestry. You can find scans herewith.

The original is in the Röhsska Konstslöjdmuseet [Röhss Museum of Applied Arts and Design, Göteborg] and is depicted on the dust jacket of Patrick Moore, Watchers of the Stars: The Scientific Revolution, London, Michael Joseph, 1974. Apart from its probable date and French origin, Patrick Moore gives no further information. It is not mentioned anywhere in the text and was probably just chosen for its nice looks.

The tapestry depicts the muse Astronomia, an astronomer (Ptolemy?) looking at the starry sky with the Moon and a comet (or an exploding meteor?) with an armillary sphere in his hand. Several more figures looking at the night sky are also shown, one of whom is seated behind a desk with a strange dial and making notes.

Although the lady is clearly identified as the muse Astronomia, I have not yet been able to link the letters on the astronomer's garments to the name of Ptolemy. The astronomer's pose is very similar to the Ptolemy portraits in your collection but I am not completely sure. It may be an idea to include this one in your collection of Ptolemy portraits for the time being - perhaps someone else can either confirm the identification or suggest a better one.

January 30, 2001

The suggestion that the astronomer is Arab appears to be very plausible on account of the 'IBN' but note that it appears to be preceded by an 'E', so perhaps it should be read as 'EIBN'. The letters following 'IBN' appear to be 'SI'.


Why was this tapestry attributed to France 16th century? Sound documentation is still missing on the history, provenance, title and signification of this marvelous artefact. Identification and meaning of several medieval latin inscriptions would certainly help deciphering this rebus. Though costumes and furniture look late Medieval, there is a touch of Renaissance in the very fashionable garments and hat of the Astronomer. Could the tapestry be dated earlier than the 16th century? Could it be an "historical" representation, made in the 15th-16th century, of an earlier historical figure who lived in the Middle Ages and made famous astronomical observations?



The Astronomer in front of Astronomy is holding an armillary sphere in his left hand and a scrolled paper in his right hand.

On his right sleeve the following letters can be read: "S IBN SI". Some letters seem to be missing between the S and the I, blinded by the fold in the fabric which partially recovers the right part of the S as well.

On the Astronomer's skirt the letters are much more difficult to decipher since they are curved or missing in the abundant folds in the material: "[I or E or F] V? AT M P? I ME?".


The Lady on the right is clearly identified with the label "Astronomie" in her left hand.

She is pointing with her right index to the Sun, the Moon and the Stars.

On the sleeve of the Astronomer the three letters "IBN" are very clearly readable. This could identify an Arab astronomer. A quick research on the web gives the following names of possible candidates. 

"IBN al HAYTHAM, abu Ali al-Hassan (965-1039) Arab astronomer, mathematician, author - Jordan 682; Qatar 235." Biographies - Iacocca to Iqbal.

"IBN SINA, Abu 'Ali al-Husayn ibn 'Abd Allah (980-1073) Arab author, philosopher, physician, astronomer, mathematician - Afghanistan 390-1; Algeria 650; Comoro Isl. 240; Dubai C58; Egypt 741; Germany DDR 106; Hungary 3061; Iran 1226-7; 2057; 2141; B32-3; Jordan 678; Kuwait 452-3; Lebanon 223-4; Libya 871; Mali 373-4; Pakistan 229; Poland 558; Qatar 237; Russia 4852; Syria 932; C340; Tunisia 761; Turkey 2158-9; Yemen A. R. (M)494; 497-8." Biographies - Iacocca to Iqbal

IBN TAIMIYYAH "[...] the emigre from Baghdad, Ibn Taimiyyah, who was both a well-known physician and an astronomer". Science in Al-Andlalus.

"IBN TUFAYL, Abu Bakr Muhammad (1110?-1185) Arab physician, author, philosopher, astronomer, poet - Jordan 681." Biographies - Iacocca to Iqbal

"IBN YÛNUS ('Ali ibn 'Abd al-Rahmân), astronome arabe (Le Caire, v.979-1009). Auteur d'observations sur le Soleil, la Lune et les planètes, il prépara des Tables hakimites (1007) demeurées très longtemps en usage et qui servirent pour l'établissement des grandes Tables alphonsines (1252)." Petit Robert 2. 

"It was around this time, too [later in the ninth century], that the Arab astronomers Ibn Yunus and al-Battani - or Albategnius, as he was known in Europe - improved the ancient astrolabe, the quadrant, the sextant and the compass to the point that, for hundreds of years afterward, no long-distance traveler could venture forth without them. [...] His [Columbus] quadrant was an early invention of the great Arab astronomer Ibn Yunus of Cairo." Columbus: What if?

The most probable candidate could be Ibn Yûnus. He had an important influence in Europe. We still have to document more his life, and the ones of the other Arab astronomers, to understand if there are links with this French tapestry. As for the costumes shown, they might as well be earlier than the 16th century. Ibn Yûnus is shown like an european aristocrat.



The seated Scribe

The seated scribe, with an instrument on the lectern in front of him, is pointing his left index to the sky. He is writing with his right hand in a book on a portrable desk. There is another book closed on the table.

The stool and the lectern appear to be late medieval in style.

He wears three labels: some of the letters are not only almost unreadable, but the meaning is even more difficult to understand...

On his shoulder: "IEVITE IBH".

On his sleeve: "II ????? E D? BIFC ^ H".

On the fringe of his robe: "F BNAIO ???? AC BNORI".



The instrument

Collaboration from Robert H. van Gent, February 4, 2001

This mystery instrument does not appear to be a compass, as these are commonly used in a horizontal position. It looks more like some kind of sundial. Notice the display of solar rays that appear to be shooting forth from the centre, a feature that you often find engraved on 16th & 17th-century sundials: Some Early Dutch-German Altitude Dials. [Dating more precisely this instrument would help dating the whole tapestry ! RD]



The peasants and the Sky

At the extreme left two peasants are also taking part im the astronomical observation. The one seated on the ground is pointing his right index to the sky. The standing one, with a stick in his right hand, is also staring at the skies. On the background farm houses and a village completes the life settings and surrroundings for these peasants.

Quite obviously, all the figures in this tapestry are clearly pointing and staring at the sky. Are they observing a normal sky or a stange phenomon? Stars of different sizes glazes through the whole horizon. The Sun, with a human face, is linked with a Moon crescent, both in gold color.

But next to the Sun-Moon couple a very strange star looks like a pink six branches flower. What could be the identification and the meaning of this very peculiar star or system? Is it a normal star enhanced so that the viewer will recognize it? Could it be the Polar Star? Or a rare phenomenon that could be identified and dated in the late Medieval Times?



 VAN GENT Robert H., Utrecht.



Biographies - Iacocca to Iqbal
VINCENT-BARWOOD Aileen, Columbus: What if?
LUNDE Paul, Science in Al-Andlalus.
Röhsska Museet för Konsthantverk och Design


page créée le 29 janvier 2001
mise à jour le 30 janvier 2001

Ptolemy Ptolémée


web Robert DEROME