Hevelius, Uranographia

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The Uranographia of Hevelius, the most detailed and influential celestial atlas of the 17th century, contains 54 beautiful double-page engraved plates of 73 constellations, and 2 oversized folding plates of planispheres.

The frontispiece of Hevelius’ star atlas shows Hevelius bringing his modest gifts before a tribunal of great figures in the history of astronomy. These gifts are his proposed new constellations: the shield and sextant he carries, and the animals trailing behind him. Of the 12 constellations Hevelius created, 7 are still recognized today. One is the Lynx, in recognition of the far-seeing eyes of astronomers. He named Scutum the Shield in honor of the Polish king.

The new Sextant constellation represented a large instrument which he and his astronomer wife Elisabeth used to determine star positions.

Unique among the major star atlases, Hevelius depicted the star patterns as if from the outside looking in, not as seen when looking up into the night-time sky. Consequently, Hevelius’ constellation figures provided an influential model for the production of artfully-designed celestial globes.

The full title of the Uranographia pays tribute to the Polish king, John III Sobiesci. Hevelius created a new constellation, Scutum, the “Shield of Sobiesci,” representing the king’s defense of Europe against the Turks.

In the Prodromus, Hevelius explained the instruments and methods used to produce the star catalog. Their Gdansk observatory, “Stellaburg,” was the best in Europe until the later national observatories of France and Britain. Inspired by Tycho Brahe, Hevelius constructed large precision observing instruments, including a great sextant for measuring the angular distance of any star from nearby reference stars.

In the frontispiece to the Prodromus, Hevelius joins the table of Urania, the Muse of astronomy, around which are seated a select number of great figures in the history of astronomy: Ptolemy; Tycho Brahe; Ulugh Beg; Henry of Langenstein (Landgrave of Hesse); and Giambattista Riccioli.

The star catalog includes ecliptic and equatorial coordinates for 1,564 stars, about 600 of which were new. Hevelius based their positions on his own observations, supplemented by Edmond Halley’s catalog of southern stars. 

Tragically, in 1679 their observatory burned (as recounted in the book, Annus Climacteris). Fire destroyed manuscripts, books and instruments, including the sextant. Johann was 67 years old, and passed away six years later. Later, Elisabeth published the star catalog and celestial star atlas.