Tapestry of the Astrolabes (Tapiz de los Astrolabios)
The iconography of this tapestry shows the medieval conception of the Universe, in which a scientific knowledge marked by religion meets mythology and science. This is a truly unique work, since such representations are infrequent in the art of tapestry. The documentation of the cathedral of Toledo mentions three tapestries of astrological theme in 1503, which were bought by Diego López de Ayala in public auction from the Marquis de Pliego. This one on astrolabes is the only tapestry in the series surviving to date. It is also known as ‘The motion of the Universe’ or ‘The signs of Zodiac’.
Three scenes related to each other are explained in a Latin banner on the top.
On the left, God as creator, ‘primi motoris’, commands two feminine figures of angelical nature to start the mechanism for the motion of the Universe. The banner tells how the angels set the Universe in motion acting under the power of the Creator. In the lower part of the same scene, Atlas bears the celestial spheres.
This sphere, in the shape of an astrolabe, is located in the middle of the tapestry and displays constellations and the signs of the Zodiac, with the Pole star in the centre. The text explains how the Sky revolves under the pole, while its stars take the shape of different characters, animals, zodiac signs and planets. For instance, a whale, a crow, an eagle, and a dolphin can be distinguished next to their caption, along with Andromeda, Perseus and Pegasus among other figures. These representations of the constellations and the zodiac, of a mythical origin, have been connected to some publications spread throughout the Middle Ages, such as the well-known Astronomica by Gaius Julius Hyginus, which was systematically copied over the period.
On the right side of the tapestry, the scene illustrates the text of the banner, showing how knowledge of Astronomy is reached through Philosophy, as explained by Geometry and Arithmetic. These sciences are represented flanking an enthroned Philosophy. The poet Virgil and a character called Abrachis — at times identified as Abraham and at times as Hipparchus, an astronomer providing the basis for Ptolemy’s cosmogony — appear next to them.
In Tournai’s style
The constellations appear over a bluish, star-studded background and, on the lower part, over a flower field similar to other pieces manufactured in Tournai’s workshops.
S. Cortes Hernández, Tapices flamencos en Toledo. Catedral y Museo de Santa Cruz, Madrid, 2002, pp. 80-107.
J. Michele Massing, “The movement of the Universe”, in Circa 1492. Art in the age of exploration (exhibition catalogue.), Washington, 1991, pp. 214-215.
Manufacture Netherlands, probably Tournai’s workshops, c. 1450-1500
Fabric Wool and silk
Size 415 x 800 cm
Location Santa Cruz Museum
Origin A deposit from the cathedral of Toledo
On display Santa Cruz Museum
MAZ and JPM