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‘The Noble Dane: Images of Tycho Brahe’

Autumn, 1996

The Museum has a fine oil painting
in its collections of an imagined scene in the life of the sixteenth-century
Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). It was painted in 1856
by Edward Ender and shows Tycho demonstrating a celestial globe
to the Emperor Rudolph II in Prague. Unfortunately it has not
been on display because of its poor condition – obvious areas
of paint loss, discolouring of the varnish and damage to the canvas.

However, with the assistance of a grant
from the South Eastern Museums Service, the painting has now been
sent for restoration, and its return will be the occasion for
a modest special exhibition.

Other images of Tycho will support
the newly-restored painting. His noble status and royal patronage,
together with his heroic successes in founding a magnificent observatory
and carrying through an unprecedented programme of observations,
combined to make Tycho an object of both respect and emulation
for astronomers from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.
Depictions of him are found in celestial charts, as frontispieces,
and in allegorical scenes.

Many contemporary portraits and engravings
in which Tycho is pictured survive. One in the Museum’s collection
actually forms part of an instrument: a celestial globe of 1603
by Willem Blaeu, one-time assistant to Tycho at Uraniborg, the
castle on the island of Hven in the Danish Sound which Tycho constructed
as his home and observatory.

Tycho is also included as one of the
eighty-nine portraits of notables which make up the fresco that
runs around the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian Library, and
which was painted in about 1616 but only rediscovered in the 1940s.

Further images can be found in material
from later centuries. The eighteenth-century instrument maker
George Adams, for example, adopted ‘Tycho Brahe’s Head’ as his
shop sign and, consequently, as his address, so Tycho is found
portrayed on much of his trade literature.

Tycho himself, perhaps more than any
other mathematician of his time, fashioned his own image, through
the account of his observatory published in the Astronomiae
instauratae mechanica
of 1598 and 1602, through other publications
printed on his own presses, and through his instruments. The great
mural quadrant in Stjerneborg (a separate observatory on Hven)
not only framed a life-sized fresco of Tycho but was also named
the ‘Quadrans Tichonicus’ by Tycho after himself.

In turn, other astronomers fashioned
themselves in Tycho’s image. Two of them, Johannes Hevelius and
John Flamsteed, might even be described as ‘Tycho wannabees’.
Their portraits will be included in the exhibition as examples
of images associated with ‘The Noble Dane’ – the epithet used
by Flamsteed for Tycho.

The exhibition will open in the Museum on the 21st
January 1997 and will run until the 26th March.