Living by the Stars: Astronomy and Astrology in Islamic Art
by: Jess Downie
Astronomy, “the science of the stars”, and astrology, “the science of the judgment of the stars” were introduced to the Arabs by Greek sources and translated into Arabic during the 8th and 9th centuries. Medieval Islamic astrology continued to develop further with the introduction of new observations, astronomical instruments, and mathematical calculations.
The general understanding of the cosmos at the time of the medieval period was that surrounding the Earth was a series of concentric circles or spheres in which the seven known planets traveled in. The moon was considered the “planet” closest to the Earth, then Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The study of the rotation of the moon was an original contribution of Islamic astronomers. Scientists linked the moon’s movement through the sky and its phases with the passing of time and formed a basis for the lunar calendar. In Islam the year is measured by the lunar cycle and eventually the crescent moon shape became the symbol of Islam. The importance of the moon to the religion of Islam most likely sparked the continued observations and experiments of Medieval Islamic scientists.
There was also the belief in an eighth sphere that held the collection of 48 constellations in the sky, including the twelve constellations of the zodiac. In a more religious context, outside the eighth sphere, “The Greatest Sphere” or al-falak al-a’zam, exists, which was understood to regulate the orbits of the planets and stars and was where the Throne of God, Allah, was situated.
Along with the introduction of Astronomy from the Greeks, the Arabs also inherited the traditional names and imagery of the different constellations in the zodiac. The constellations of the zodiac include, Aquarius the water pourer, Aries the ram, Virgo, the virgin, Gemini, the twins, Libra, the scale, Taurus, the bull, Sagittarius, the archer, Cancer, the crab, Leo, the lion, Capricorn, the kid, Pisces, the fish, and Scorpio, the scorpion. Islamic astrologers believed that a planetary lord controlled the zodiac constellations, for example the planet Mercury was the planetary lord of Gemini and Virgo.
Astrologists read the stars in the sky in their relations to the planets and made predictions about people and events. With the birth of a new baby, a horoscope would be cast based on the current position of the planets within the constellations. A person’s zodiac sign is determined by the position of the sun within one of the constellations. An astrologist read the positions of the planets amongst the stars and would define particular aspects of someone’s personality and character. Different planets had different effects on people’s lives. Venus and Jupiter were considered beneficial planets, Mars and Saturn were considered detrimental or negative planets, and Mercury was considered a neutral planet, one that could take on the attributes of both negative and positive planets. These positive or negative characteristics of the planets were reflected in people and events on earth.
Astrology was often linked to the belief that certain objects and talismans possessed cosmic powers that could protect against illness, bad luck and other evils. Events such as earthquakes, eclipses, comets and epidemics caused people to live in fear. This fear along with socio-economic challenges and the insecurity of life in general contributed to the need of personal security and therefore fueling people’s attraction to magical talismans and predictions made by reading the stars.
The Islamic people’s fascination and understanding of the universe and the study of astrology is reflected in various mediums of Islamic works of art. In this essay I will examine how Islamic metalwork and ceramics, particularly of 11th to 14th centuries, indicate the importance of the zodiac, the planets and the stars, and how the personification of the constellations and planets is indicative of an understanding by both artisan and owner that stars and planets had both positive and negative effects on daily life.
The works of art I have chosen for this exhibit exemplify common representations and personifications of the zodiac constellations and the planets. The diverse forms of the works suggest that astronomical motifs were not only popular for one type of object or occasion. However the intricacy of the designs and skilled craftsmanship imply that these works were made for a wealthy elite class.
The first work of art is a ceramic bowl decorated with personifications of the planets and medieval courtly activities such as hunting and musical entertainment. Looking at the Bowl with Courtly and Astronomical Motifs, it is as if you are entering into another exotic world. This bowl was most likely created in Central or Northern Iran during the late 12th or early 13th century. The decoration on the bowl is divided into 6 bands that wrap around the inside of the bowl, combining the realm of the universe with the realm of humanity.
The center of the bowl is filled by a sun motif with red and blue colored rays against a gold background that expand outwards to the edges of the roundel. The sun is personified. It has eyes, a nose, a mouth and eyebrows that create a relatively flat expression, and the face is turned slightly to the left. Surrounding the face is a radiating geometric design of circles and spikes representing rays. Surrounding the sun in the next layer of decoration are six medallions with images representing the Moon and the planets, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. The planets are represented by human figures holding different objects, arranged clockwise, from the farthest to the closest to the Earth. Each medallion is framed in a white circle. Around those circles is another large blue circle with eighteen smaller gold dots and six white and gold circles that filled in the gaps between each medallion, most likely representing the stars that you see in the night sky.
A band shows a row of mounted horsemen on grey, brown, black and red colored horses, wearing elegant robes decorated with slightly different geometric designs with dark red halos behind their heads. Between every horseman but one, it has a still bird that appears to be in mid air but not flying. Each of the birds is unique as well with different colors, like blue, gold, red and brown, and different shapes of the tails and feet.
The next layer is a thin band of geometric ornament. The pattern is made out of ovals and diamonds in different colors like blue, red, tan-gray, and gold. The next row shows seated courtiers and musicians. Across from each other are two enthroned figures with crowns. Like the mounted horsemen, each figure has a red circle around their head and everyone is in a position that is slightly different. There is also an Arabic inscription in the Kufic script that translates to “good wishes” and “And blessing and merciful and good fortune … and winner victory … and happiness … and grace … and power and happiness … and grace … and power”. This inscription allows the bowl to serve as a talisman. It bestows upon the user positive wishes and protection.
Focusing mainly on the center portion of the ceramic bowl, the personified extraterrestrial world of planets and stars stands out against the dark blue background of the inner roundel. The Sun at the very center of the bowl is personified to look like the face of a man. This is because the Sun is often associated with male qualities and masculine characteristics such as power, energy, light, and heat. Arabic astronomers and artists differed in their interpretation and representation of the Sun, astronomers saw the Sun as yet another planet that revolved around the earth, placing it in line with the other planets. Artists on the other hand would place the Sun in the center encircled by the planets. By placing the Sun in the center with golden radiating rays, it connotes a sense of warmth, importance, power and energy.
Unlike the Sun, the planets and the Moon are depicted as full human beings. Like the Sun, Arabic astronomers believed that the Moon was the closest planet to the Earth. Similar to how the Sun is masculine, the Moon is feminine. The artist depicts the Moon as a woman with long braids wearing a large gown with an oversized crescent circling her pale face. The crescent around her face is a symbol of the Moon in the sky. Although the gown she wears hides her female features, her long braided hair makes it evident that she is indeed a female.
Next to the Moon is Venus, shown as a woman playing a musical instrument. Venus is also a feminine planet, whose name originates from the Roman Goddess Venus. Mercury is shown as a bearded scribe writing on a scroll with a pen. Mercury was understood to be a neutral planet that was fairly weak in nature. These ideas are shown through the nature of the imagery, Mercury is more subdued in comparison to the representations of Mars, who is fearsome, and Jupiter who looks wise and powerful.
In contrast to the neutral nature of Mercury, Mars is depicted as the lord of war. In his hands are a sword and a bloody severed head, to emphasize the warlike characteristics. Jupiter is shown as a mature man dressed in a large turban and a flowing multicolored robe like a judge or sage whose wisdom, fairness and experience are indicated through his long graying beard. The last planet is Saturn, portrayed as a standing man wearing long pants and an open jacket. In his hands are two pickaxes. This personification is different from the other figures because the face of Saturn doesn’t have thin almond eyes, small, pursed mouth, and long thin eyebrows of the other figures. Saturn was the most disliked planet and perhaps that is why it looks more like a foreigner, which in turn might suggest a possible dislike or distrust of real foreigners. The two pickaxes in his hands might be representative of Saturn being associated with labor, such as mining.
The planets are shown in conjunction with the hunting and courtly scenes included on the rest of the bowl because they are a reminder to the user of the bowl that the planets and the stars have daily effects on human life. By including the temporal world, it is understood that the universe and mankind are linked together. The inscription also shows the correlation between the everyday lives of people and the influential powers of the cosmos.
The Vaso Vescovali is an extravagantly decorated lidded bowl made out of tin bronze and inlaid with silver. The bowl and lid were made somewhere in Iran, most likely in the Khurasan province, around 1200. The decoration is arranged in a series of bands and roundels with the extensive use of horror vacui, with decoration filling the entirety of the work. The subject matter of the Vaso Vescovali includes images of the sun and the moon, the zodiac, and personifications of the planets, and figures of musicians.
The eight roundels on the lid represent personifications of the planets Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Mars, the Sun and the Moon. The eighth roundel depicts a personification of the lunar eclipse, a dragon ‘lawzahr’. The lunar eclipse was viewed as a pseudo-planet but believed by astrologers to affect the stars as much as the other planets. The roundels around the bowl contain the personification of a planet and its corresponding zodiac containing its day or night house. This means it shows the constellation map, as it would be on a zodiac chart. For example the planet Mars is shown in its night house of Aries depicted by a figure riding a ram holding a severed head, a common iconographical symbol of the planet. Another example is the Sun in its day house of the constellation Leo depicted by a sun disk with three faces above a large lion.
The band around the top of the bowl shows numerous figures, some playing the harp, and some extending their hands out to each other. The decoration between the roundels consists of ribbon interlace designs, zoomorphic interlace, small dogs, and larger figures of shirtless men on horses. Similar to the Bowl with Courtly and Astronomical Motifs, these temporal decorations serve as a connection between the cosmos and the mortal world and indicate the importance of one over the other.
Another work of art that exemplifies the importance of astrology in the lives of Islamic people is an intricately decorated pen-box. The decoration encompasses the entire surface area of the slender rectangular pen-box from Mosul, Iraq. The copper, brass and silver inlay pen-box was made around 1230-1250. Lifting up the small latch that holds the lid shut reveals multiple compartments. A large compartment with scalloped edges was meant for the pens to be kept, and smaller containers for ink, sand, which was used for blotting the ink, and threads for cleaning the pens. The inside lid is inscribed with an Arabic verse from the Qur’an and framed by a copper and brass rectangle.
The decoration theme of the outside of the pen-box is a series of twelve roundels with the personifications of the planets. The planets are shown in either their day or night houses as they would appear in the sky in the different astrological constellations. They are shown in these different houses most likely because of whom the pen-box was crafted for. The positions of the planets within each of the constellations indicate something different for each person. In the front from right to left the roundels include Mars in Aries, shown as a warrior carrying a sword and a severed head, Venus in Taurus, depicted as a lute player riding a bull, Mercury in Gemini, two figures holding a staff, the Moon in Cancer, shown as a seated figure holding a crescent around its face, the Sun in Leon, a figure with a sun-shaped face riding a lion, and lastly Mercury in Virgo, two figures holding corn. Two more roundels on either side and four more on the front also are personifications of the planets, but not as easily identifiable. The iconography of the planets is comparative to the other works of art that have been examined thus far. These similarities imply that there was a general and mutual understanding of what each of the planets represented.
The small cylindrical inkwell from 13th century Eastern Iraq or Afghanistan is decorated with a thick band of figural and interlaces decoration, made out of bronze and copper with inlaid silver. There is a rim around the opening of the inkwell where the pen would be dipped in. On this rim is engraved decoration, possibly an Arabic verse from the Qur’an.
The main decoration that catches the eye is the intricate weaving of interlace and the roundels. The roundels that depict the twelve zodiac signs personified by their related planets show the same symbolic motifs as other works. For example the inkwell shows the zodiac, Leo, representing the Sun. This is shown with a lion and a sun over its head. Libra personified by Venus shows a figure holding up a scale with two basket-like objects on either side. The faces and the features of the figures depicted on the inkwell are very abstract. The faces have simple open eyes, a long line for a nose and two flat or curved eyebrows. The figures also have no hands, instead just little curved stumps at the end of each arm. Surrounding each roundel is a mix of ribbon and zoomorphic interlace. At the ends of the interlace design are the heads of birds with large beaks, some even biting down on other parts of the weaving interlace. Like other works examined, the elements of the natural world are there to show the connection and the importance of the zodiac and the planets on the human world.
The last work of art I will examine in this essay is a uniquely shaped pilgrim flask featuring the twelve zodiac signs, modeled in relatively large medallions and glazed with dark blue. The shape of the flask is a flattened sphere with two cylindrical spikes at the top near the neck of the flask that stick up vertically, and two cylindrical spikes near the bottom foot that stick out horizontally, these would have held the straps of the flask so that it could be carried. In the center medallion is the zodiac sign of Gemini represented by two very abstract figures holding a staff. Above the center is a depiction of the zodiac Sagittarius, represented by a centaur with a drawn bow and arrow. We can also make out Libra represented by a figure holding a scale seen in the medallion to the right of Sagittarius. There are four more zodiac medallions on the front of the flask and five more on the back to make a total of twelve zodiac medallions. The signs of the zodiac are of the same iconography as the other works of art.
Round continuous frames connect each of the medallions. Between the center medallion and the outer medallions there are six ducks. Painted over the dark blue glaze there are also small white dots and semi circles that create a splatter effect all over the pilgrim flask. The arrangement of the zodiac on the flask indicates that it may have been made for a celebration during of birth of someone born under the sign Gemini or Sagittarius because of their central location, an unusual placement for most zodiacs.
The obvious similarities of these five works of art are evidence that the Greek astronomers passed on a set of symbolic iconography. The medieval Muslim astronomers used what they learned and observed from the stars and translated that into another science, astrology. The abundance of astrological motifs in Islamic art indicates the vast understanding of the people that the cosmos existed in its own set of concentric spheres but had a direct correlation to how people live and act on Earth.
Canby, Sheila R., Deniz Beyazit, Martina Rugiadi, A. C. S. Peacock, and Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). 2016. Court and Cosmos : The Great Age of the Seljuqs. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Canby, Sheila R. 2005. Islamic Art in Detail. [Art in detail]; Art in detail. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Carboni, Stefano, and Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). 2013. Following the Stars : Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. POD edition. New York:
Ghouchani, A. Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/451379
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 A. Ghouchani. Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/451379
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