3. Ferdinand Verbiest in Beijing

Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) was a Flemish Jesuit who joined the order in 1641 and travelled to Macao in 1659. After studying Chinese and the Confucian classics he moved on to Beijing, initially to assist and then to succeed Johann Adam Schall von Bell at the Imperial Board of Astronomy.

Among Verbiest's many publications in China was Xinzhi Yixiangtu ("pictures of newly-made instruments"), which was produced from 1668-1674. The book has 105 printed leaves of illustrations and diagrams, which are largely based on European books and instruments.

Verbiest's new instruments for the Beijing Observatory

The core of the whole set is the series of images showing Verbiest's new instruments for the Beijing Observatory. What is remarkable is that Verbiest, who directed their manufacture in close collaboration with Chinese craftsmen, depicted not only the finished instruments but also the way in which they were constructed. We learn more here about the process of instrument making than we do from European treatises of the period.

But Xinzhi Yixiangtu does more than simply document Verbiest's successful refurbishment of the Imperial Observatory. In addition to astronomy we see the instruments and techniques of geometry, mechanics, navigation, measurement - and indeed much more. The work represents in visual form a complete programme of the mathematical arts as understood at the end of the European Renaissance.