The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford 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 1855 by Eduard Ender and shows Tycho demonstrating a celestial globe to the Emperor Rudolph II in Prague. Unfortunately, for many years it had 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 was sent for restoration, and its return in 1997 was the occasion for a modest special exhibition, of which this is the virtual incarnation.
Other images of Tycho support the 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 two hundred 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 Uraniborg 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 are included in the exhibition as examples of images associated with 'The Noble Dane' - the epithet used by Flamsteed for Tycho.
The virtual exhibition is organized around seven main sections, each accessible from the menu bar at the bottom of the screen. Rudolph II and Tycho deals with Ender's portrait itself while Is it Really Tycho? takes a sceptical look at the identity of the astronomer in the painting. Tycho Brahe examines the efforts Tycho made to project an image of himself in the eyes of others and Johannes Hevelius and John Flamsteed deal with similar issues for two of Tycho's successors. Tycho in Beijing looks at an example of the lasting power of Tycho's image outside Europe - the adoption of instruments based on Tychonic models for the Imperial Observatory in Beijing by the Flemish Jesuit missionary in China, Ferdinand Verbiest. Finally, all the illustrations in the exhibition are brought together in Images of Tycho Brahe: a Catalogue.
The exhibition was written by Jim Bennett and designed and implemented by Giles Hudson. Stephen Johnston provided the sceptical piece on the identity of Ender's subject and Lynn Norman was responsible for the photography.
Copyright ©Museum of the History of Science and Bodleian Library, Oxford, 1997. All rights reserved. No part of this exhibition may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written permission.