Star Lore Art

The Planispheres
of Petrus Apianus

1533 - 1540

German astronomer and cartographer Petrus Apianus was the first one to follow in Albrecht Dürer's footsteps creating artistic planispheres displaying the constellations.

Two of his creations stand out:

The 1533 Planisphere, published in Horoscopion Generale is a rare combination of Ptolemaic constellations and asterisms rooted in pre-Islamic Arabic history.

The 1540 Planisphere published in Astronomicum Caesareum is one of the most elaborate and most colorful constellation charts of its time.
1533 Planisphere
1540 Planisphere
Sources: ETH-Bibliothek Zurich, Ian Ridpath: Star Tales

The 1533 Planisphere was published in Horoscopion Generale.

It should be pointed out that Horoscopion Generaledoes not refer to horoscopes but to a a particular kind of astrolabe, used to measure the positions of stars.

In the introduction part of the book, Apianus explains a method telling time by the position of the Dipper relative to Polaris (see right).

In this explanation, Ursa Minor is shown as the bear of Greek mythology while Ursa Major is presented as a chariot pulled by three horses, a picture known as the Great Wagon; most commonly used in northern Europe and Germany.

The planisphere shows 21 Ptolemaic constellation, though not all of them are depicted in the way Ptolemy described them: For four constellations, Apianus selected costellations from pre-islamic Arab astronomy.

Apianus got the inspiration for these constellations from the writings of Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, especially from his Book of Fixed Stars, published in 964.

In addition. Plancius used a very creative approach depicting the constellation Auriga: In Bedouin culture, many constellations were seen as herds, packs or flocks of animals with each star standing for one animal. Bedouin astronomers saw the constellation Auriga as a herd of goats.


Greek mythology also saw a part of Auriga as a goat. Capella (meaning little female goat) is seen as Amalthea, the goat that suckled Zeus. Thus, Apianus presented both cultures with a goat at the location of Capella.

In the location of Ptolemy's Cepheus, Apianus put the Bedouin constellation Shepherd, Dog and Sheep, Latinized Pastor Canes et Oves.

Ursa Minor is shown as the Bedouin constellation Lesser Bier. A bier is a stand on which a corpse, coffin, or casket containing a corpse is placed to lie in state or to be carried to the grave. The three stars in the "tail" of the bear were called banāt al naʽash al sughrā, the (mourning) Daughters of the Lesser Bier. Apianus mis-translated "bier" as "bear" and Latinized the constellation as Filiae Ursae Majoris (Daughters of the Great Bear).

Pastor Canes et Oves Filiae Ursae Majoris and Ursa Major Filiae Ursae Majoris
The most prominent Bedouin constellation in the chart is that of the Mother Camels, consisting of stars of Ptolemy's Draco.

In Bedouin astronomy, four mother camels, β, γ, ν and ξ Draconis form a ring around a foal, represented by the faint star HD 161693 to protect it from an attack by two wolves - ζ and η Draconis, while another camel - μ Draconis is running to join the mothers.

In Arabic, HD 161693 is called al-ruba (الربع), which specifically describes a young camel born in spring.

ζ and η Draconis are called al-dhiʼbayn (الذئبين) - the wolves.

The Bedouins called the Mother Camels alʽawaʼid (العوائذ), while Apianus used the Latin name Quinque Dromedarii - the Five Dromedaries.

Apianus placed one other asterism between the Camels and Cygnus:

Duae Alae and Quinque Dromedarii

Two unidentified stars at the border between Cygnus and Draco are surrounded by a ring of feathers and labled Duae Alae, the Two Wings.

Arab astronomie specialist Paul Kunitzsch, author of Arabic Star Names in Europe argues that there is no such constellation mentioned by al-Sufi and that this "constellation" is the result of a translation error.

Sources: John C. Barentine: The Constellations and Asterisms of Petrus Apianus,

The pictures are cutouts from a large monochrome image of the planisphere, provided by Ian Ridpath.

Apianus' masterpiece, the 1540 planisphere was first published in a monochromatic version in 1536 as Imagines syderum coelestium.

That was followed by the elaborate, hand colored version in his book Astronomicum Caesareum, meaning "The Emperor’s Astronomy”, as it was dedicated to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

This planisphere was closely based on
Dürer's 1515 chart which may explain the absence of Bedouin constellations and the fact that this chart was presented mirrored (as seen on a globe), like Dürer's maps, while his 1533 chart was face-on, as an observer on Earth would see the constellations in the sky.

(This explains, why in the pictures below, Boötes walks in one direction in 1533 and in the opposite direction in 1540).

Like his previous work, this one too had a number of unique features. Apianus named a number of stars, some in Latin, some in Arabic and added a constellation of his own. His "constellation" was short lived, but some of the star names he proposed are still in use today.
Imagines syderum coelestium
Source: Wikimedia
Apianus was the first to show and name Alcor, the fainter companion of Mizar in the handle of the Big Dipper. Although known to many cultures, it had never been shown on a European map or table. In Arabic, the star was fittingly called al-suhā (السها‎), the forgotten or neglected one. As documented by Paul Kunitzsch, Apianus made some mistakes naming the star but it remains to this day as one of the stars named by Apianus.

One feature unique to Apianus' charts is a group of dogs (two in the 1536 chart and three in the 1540 chart) associated with the constellation Boötes. Here is an explanation given by Ian Ridpath:

"The star name expert Paul Kunitzsch concluded that it resulted from the misreading of an Arabic manuscript of the Almagest when it was translated into Latin b y Gerard of Cremona in the 12th century. According to Kunitzsch, Gerard mistook the Arabic word al-kullāb, referring to the shepherd’s crook carried by Boötes, for al-kilāb, which means dogs, and wrote canes (Latin for dogs) in his translation."

Cutout from 1536 Planisphere provided by Ian Ridpath Cutout from 1540 Planisphere provided by ETH-Bibliothek Zurich
In the 1540 chart, right next to Boötes' dogs, Apianus added a feature called Rosa, the Rose.

It is located at the position of the faint Coma Star Cluster, which is now part of the constellation Coma Berenices.

As a constellation, Rosa was short lived, but as John C. Barentine pointed out: "Rosa is evidently unique among the lost constellations, in that it is the only named figure representing a star cluster."

Sources: John C. Barentine: The Constellations and Asterisms of Petrus Apianus, Ian Ridpath,

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