Wandering through the Mughal Empire exhibit at the British Library, I found myself transfixed by the beautiful calligraphy, artwork, and even weaponry on display there. However, the object that really grabbed my attention did not fall into any of these categories. In the portion of the exhibit devoted to science and medicine, I found myself transfixed by a brass and silver orb dating from the seventeenth century, about five inches in diameter, finely engraved with astrological signs and small notes written in Persian. This “celestial sphere” was used to obtain the positioning of stars and constellations.
The sphere is attributed to an astrolabist named Ziya al-Din, whose name is inlaid on the sphere. He came from a family of astrolabists and astronomers who were closely associated with the ruling Mughal court. He was the grandson of Shaikh Allah-dad [Sheykh Ilhadad], the official astronomer to Emperor Humayan (c. 1508-1556), who had his own observatory and was heavily influenced by astrological predictions. This orb serves to demonstrate the Mughal dynasty’s patronage of scientific fields and the emphasis they placed on astronomy.
What I find fascinating about this piece is that it served a practical function while still being mesmerizingly beautiful. This celestial orb could be treasured as a piece of art in and of itself. That it served as an instrument that helped to make sense of the stars, the movement of which had a significant influence on affairs of state because of the emphasis the Mughals placed on astronomical predictions, makes it all the more precious. I find the orb to be as brilliant as the stars which it charts—at least, almost.
Link to the V&A’s page on this item: