The Lapidary of King Alfonso X The Learned

The Lapidario (Lapidary) is a book that describes the mystical powers of stones. Stones are described for each degree of the zodiac and the star or stars that mediate the power of each stone are identified. The Lapidario is a thirteenth century Castilian translation sponsored by King Alfonso X el Sabio, the Learned. The translation was done from an Arabic text which in turn is said to have been translated by the mysterious Abolays from an ancient text in the "Chaldean language" .

The first English edition of the Lapidario was published by University Press of the South (ISBN 1-889431-15-X). The editors are Ingrid Bahler and Katherine Gyékényesi Gatto. This edition contains an appendix by Jeffrey La Favre that discusses the astronomy of the Lapidario and identifies the stars by their modern names for the first time.

The Lapidario is beautifully illustrated with color renderings of the constellations. The English edition includes selected illustrations, one representative for each constellation, in black and white reproductions. Selected color reproductions can be found below.


There are thirty degrees in each sign of the zodiac and the Lapidario describes a stone for each degree. At the end of the descriptions, there is a master illustration of the zodiac sign. The sign of Aries is seen here to the left. Surrounding the figure of Aries in the center, there is a ring divided into 30 sectors. Each sector is marked at the perimeter with the degree of the sign (the numbers are not resolved in the reproduction on this web page). The inner part of each sector contains an illustration of the constellation in which the star of that degree is found (these are too small to be clearly seen on this web page).





At the end of each stone description there is a short description of the star(s) that has power over the stone. An illustration of the constellation with the star in gold is included for each description. The illustration at left is the constellation Argo Navis, which contains the star for the eighth degree of Virgo. If you look carefully at the illustration you should be able to see the gold star, which is near the bottom of the hull, just behind the rear mast (a circle embedded in the dark part of the hull).

The description for this star in the Lapidario is: " which follows the last star of the shadow of the Ship". It would be very difficult to identify the star from this description alone. However, by consulting Ptolemy's star catalog, most of the stars in the Lapidario can be identified with fair confidence. In the case of the eighth degree of Virgo, the star appears to be N Velorum.




The illustration at left depicts the constellations of Centaurus and Lupus. The star for the third degree of Libra is illustrated on the left hind leg of Centaurus. The Lapidario description for the star is: "...front one of two stars on the left leg of the figure that is half man and half horse, and which looks like it is in front of the three stars at the base of the tail." The star appears to be Delta Centauri.






The illustration at left depicts the same constellations as the illustration above. However, note that the illustrator has used a different color scheme. There are numerous variants in the constellation illustrations. In this case there is a variation only in the color scheme. But there are also other variants that are more substantial. For example, the constellation of Cancer is illustrated with 6 legs plus claws in some illustrations and with 8 legs plus claws in others.

This illustration is for the fourth degree of Libra. The star is illustrated on the right hind leg. The Lapidario description is: "...of the two stars which are on Cantoriz' right leg, the one toward the back." The star appears to be Rho Centauri.

The illustrations above are reproductions from an 1881 facsimile of the original Lapidario manuscript. The reproductions are from a copy of the fascimile housed in the Special Collections of the Kelvin Smith Library, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. My special thanks go to Case Western Reserve University for permission to copy the illustrations.

Below I have included the introductory portion of the appendix

The Astronomy of the Lapidario

Jeffrey La Favre, Ph.D.

The source of the Lapidario has not been established with certainty, but in the prologue we are told that Abolays translated the book from the Chaldean language into Arabic.  The Chaldean astronomers of Mesopotamia may have contributed to the knowledge found in the Lapidario but it is clear that the book has incorporated later knowledge from the Greeks of the Hellenistic period.  In fact, the exact meaning of the word “Chaldean”, as it is used in the Lapidario, has not been determined to my knowledge.  It may be a reference to a group of people who lived during late antiquity or the early Middle Ages and who used the Syriac language (Nunemaker, 1939).  The passage in the Lapidario “Although he (Abolays) was of the faith of the Moors, he was a man who loved the gentiles, especially those of the land of Chaldea, ...” may be a reference to those who used the Syriac language.  Our quest for the source of the Lapidario might be enhanced if we knew the identity of Abolays, but I believe his identity has not been established with any certainty (Nunemaker, 1934).

The Lapidario sets the number of constellations at 48, which serves as our first clue to the origin of its astronomy.  The Greek astronomer, Ptolemy, also organized the sky into 48 constellations.  Claudius Ptolemaeus (ca. 100 - 174 AD) or Ptolemy, worked in Alexandria.  His monumental treatise on astronomy, known as the Almagest, served as the standard source of astronomical knowledge in the Middle East and Europe until it was toppled by the Copernican revolution.  Keeping this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the astronomy of the Lapidario is heavily based on knowledge gained from the Almagest.

Most of the constellations listed in the Lapidario are readily identified with Ptolemy's list.  Others require some investigation to establish their identity.  These are: Faycoz (Cepheus), Caytoz (Cetus), Gallina (Cygnus) and Tortuga (Lyra).  The identity of Caytoz is revealed in the Lapidario because a star on the bend of Rio (Eridanus) is said to touch the chest of Caytoz (Cetus).  According to Allen (1963),  "The Alfonsine Tables, in the recent Madrid edition, supposed to be a reproduction of the original, illustrate their Galina by a forlorn Hen instead of a Swan ..."  Allen also reveals the identity of Tortuga.  Under Lyra he says, "The Alfonsine illustration is of a Turtle ..."  Faycoz can be identified by the process of elimination because it is the only constellation that remains unidentified.  However,. Allen also lists some names that appear similar to Faycoz under Cepheus: "The name , compared by Brown to Khufu of Great Pyramid fame, was the source of many queer titles from errors in Arabic transcription - first into Kifaūs, Kikaūs, Kankaus; later into Fikaus, Fifaus, and Ficares or Phicares, its usual designation in Persia, and Phicarus."

The constellations of Ptolemy are listed below according to their modern names and the equivalent name(s) used in the Lapidario.







the chained woman who never knew man



the River


man who pours water down





the Eagle, also the Flying Vulture



the valiant one, man with bent knees


the Hearth








the Lion

Argo Navis

the Ship



the Hare


man who has the reins





man who cries out



the bear held by Cantoriz





the Turtle

Canis Major

the Great Dog



Alhave, hunter of snakes, man who holds the snake

Canis Minor

the Little Dog








Caballo Mayor, the Horse


woman seated on the chair





half man half horse, Cantoriz



the Fishes




Pisces Austrinus

the Fish





the Arrow

Corona Australis

Corona Meridional




Corona Borealis

Corona Septentrional





the Crow



snake which the snake charmer holds


the Jar



the Triangle


the Hen





the Dolphin


Ursa Major

the Great Bear


the Dragon


Ursa Minor

the Little Bear


piece of the horse




All of Ptolemy’s constellations, except Argo Navis, are accepted by modern astronomy.  Argo Navis was divided by Lacaille (ca. 1750) into 3 constellations: Vela, the Sail; Puppis, the Stern; and Carina, the Keel.  The exact boundaries of the constellations were not specified by Ptolemy in the Almagest.  The boundaries that were established later cut across the edges of Ptolemy’s figures in a few cases.  For example, the star on Andromeda’s right foot in Ptolemy’s figure  is presently contained within the boundaries of Perseus (Phi Persei).

Ptolemy’s famous star catalog is part of the Almagest. In the catalog he describes the location of each star on the constellation figures, in a manner similar to the Lapidario.  It would be difficult to identify most of the stars based solely on these descriptions. A positive identification is facilitated if the description is accompanied by a listing of the star coordinates.  This is the scientific approach used by Ptolemy, who lists the coordinates along with the descriptions in his catalog.  Unfortunately, the Lapidario does not list the coordinates of the stars, but assumes that the reader will be able to make a positive identification based only on the descriptions.  Such an assumption should not be made, for a star on the hand according to one astronomer may be the star on the elbow according to another.

We must turn to the Almagest for help in order to establish the identity of the Lapidario stars.  It would be an easy task if the descriptions matched perfectly, but they do not in many cases.  Apparently, astronomers after Ptolemy’s time preferred different descriptions for some of the stars.  These could have been of their own design or those set forth by other astronomers of antiquity.  Upon gazing at the imaginary figures at night, each astronomer must judge how well the stars fit the proportions of the constellation.  Ptolemy himself made some adjustments to the constellations set down by his predecessor, Hipparchus.  For example, the entry in the Almagest for the star Alpha Arietis is described as follows: “The star over the head, which Hipparchus [calls] the one on the muzzle.”  

Soon after I began the task of comparing the Almagest and Lapidario descriptions, I realized that the Lapidario does list the coordinates of a star in a fashion, but only the longitude, not the latitude.  The implied longitude can be used along with the description in an effort to match the Lapidario stars to Ptolemy’s catalog.  The longitude of the star in the Lapidario is approximated by using the degree of the sign in which the description is found.  Of course, the Lapidario author(s) could have selected stars at random to fit the degrees of the signs.  But a thorough analysis reveals that most of the stars in the Lapidario fall into the degree of the sign in which they are described if the data for longitude in the Almagest are used.  Thus, it is clear that the Lapidario has assigned the stars to the degrees of the signs by using the longitudes listed in Ptolemy’s star catalog. 

Perhaps it would be helpful to discuss celestial coordinate systems.  The modern astronomer maps stellar positions in space by treating the celestial sphere as a two-dimensional surface.  In this case, we can imagine ourselves residing on Earth, in the middle of a crystalline sphere, just as the Greeks imagined the Universe in classical times.  The stars are assigned to the surface of this transparent sphere using a two-dimensional coordinate system, similar to the way location is specified on the surface of the Earth by using a grid with lines of latitude and longitude.  The modern astronomer’s coordinate system is based on the celestial equator and the celestial poles.  The North Celestial Pole is the place in space that coincides with the extension of the Earth’s axis of rotation from the northern pole.  The celestial equator is the extension of the Earth’s equator into space.  Then there are lines of right ascension (like longitude) and declination (like latitude).  But the Lapidario and the Almagest use a different coordinate system.  Their system is based on the ecliptic, which is the path across the constellations of the zodiac that the Sun marks throughout the course of the year.   The ecliptic is the extension of the Earth’s plane of orbit into space.

In the classical coordinate system, the ecliptic is analogous to the modern celestial equator.  However, they are not the same thing.  The equator and the ecliptic mark different great circles across the celestial sphere.  And the ecliptic system has its own unique poles, the north and south ecliptic poles.  In the classical system, position is specified by a grid with lines of longitude and latitude.  In the old tradition, the 360 degrees of longitude are divided into the 12 signs of the zodiac, with 30 degrees in each sign.  The “prime meridian” so to speak, is the location on the ecliptic where the Sun is located at the moment of the vernal (spring) equinox.  This position is also the place where the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator.  The two also intersect at the position of the autumnal equinox.  The position of the vernal equinox marks the zero point of longitude.  It is also the beginning point of the first degree of Aries.  Then the degrees of the zodiac progress around the ecliptic in an easterly direction.  A star that falls between zero and one degree on the ecliptic is then said to fall into the first degree of Aries.  A star at 1 1/2 degrees longitude falls into the second degree of Aries.  After the first 30 degrees of the ecliptic, we come to the second sign of the zodiac, Taurus.  A star with a longitude of 30 1/2 degrees falls into the first degree of Taurus.  And Ptolemy would list such a star at a longitude of 0 1/2 degree in Taurus. 

This is how the longitude system of the Lapidario and Almagest works.  We are only left to decide exactly where one degree of a sign starts and ends (i.e., is 30.0 degrees in the 30th degree of Aries or the first degree of Taurus).  For our purposes here, I will use an overlapping system, which allows more of the Lapidario stars to fall into the proper sign and degree.  If I am trying to fit a star into the first degree of Aries, I will consider it in if it has a longitude between 0.0 and 1.0 degree.  If I am trying to fit it into the second degree, I will consider it in if it has a longitude between 1.0 and 2.0 degrees.  Now in the strict sense, this is not a proper system because a star with a whole number for longitude can be placed in two adjacent degrees of a sign.  However, I have settled on this procedure because it appears to be one that was acceptable to the Lapidario astronomer  (I define the Lapidario astronomer as any person who contributed to the Lapidario astronomy in some direct way). 

There are a number of cases where a star falls just outside the degree to which it is assigned when the longitudes listed in the Almagest are used.  For example, Tau1 Eridani is listed at a longitude of 55 degrees in Aries according to the Almagest, which places it in the sixth degree of Aries.  However, the descriptions in the Lapidario and Almagest clearly match if Tau1 Eridani is assigned to the 5th degree of Aries. There are many other cases in the Lapidario where a star falls slightly out of position by longitude when the descriptions in the Lapidario and Almagest match.  As in the 5th degree, the good matches between the descriptions suggest that a slight error in longitude should be accepted.            What are the causes of slight mismatches in longitude between the Almagest and Lapidario?  In a number of cases it appears that the Lapidario astronomer may have moved a star into an adjacent degree of a sign to fit his needs.  I suspect that in a few cases, the astronomer may have moved a star across several degrees of a sign.  Certain sections of the sky have few prominent stars and it can be difficult to find stars in a particular degree.  Perhaps the Lapidario astronomer cheated a little by borrowing a star from a nearby location!  Ptolemy did not have to find a star to fit each degree of each sign of the zodiac.  He just reported the locations of the stars with the best information available to him.  The Lapidario astronomer/astrologer had a different agenda.  He needed to place a star in each degree, meaning that he had to find at least 360 stars, one for each degree.  Thus, when position errors appear in the Lapidario, we are left to ponder whether the Lapidario astronomer moved a star across the zodiac or whether there is some type of error.

If the stars were not moved intentionally, what errors could account for the longitude mismatches?  It is necessary to keep in mind that the Almagest was transmitted by numerous copies and translations.  The duplication efforts that were carried out by scribes and translators gave rise to manuscript variants.  Extant manuscripts of the Almagest can be classified into two groups according to their heritage: Greek and Arabic.  The Almagest was transmitted in the Greek language by scholars of the Byzantine Empire. Islamic astronomers working in Baghdad possessed Arabic versions of the Almagest who’s transmission history is poorly known, but apparently there was one route of transmission through a Syriac version which is now lost.  Some values for longitudes of stars in the Almagest have variants between extant manuscripts.  We do not know which manuscript version of the Almagest the Lapidario astronomer possessed but it seems reasonable to suggest that it had a common heritage with Arabic versions (perhaps a Syriac version?). 

The version of the Almagest that I have adopted is that of Toomer (1984), which is based on extant Greek manuscripts, the oldest of which date to the 9th century.  However, Toomer also notes some variants in longitude that are known in Arabic versions.  All of the extant manuscripts are considerably removed in time from the original and probably represent copies that have passed through several hands.  Scholars agree that none of the extant manuscripts of the Almagest are perfect copies of the original, which must be kept in mind when analyzing the Lapidario astronomy. Therefore, we should not demand that the longitudes of Toomer’s Almagest match perfectly with those in the Lapidario

There are seven stars listed in the Lapidario that appear to have longitude variants that may hold clues to the version of the Almagest adopted by the Lapidario.  These are: the 17th and 24th degrees of Gemini (Epsilon Ursae Majoris and 58 Geminorum), the 11th and 15th degrees of Virgo (Theta Draconis and Delta Virginis), the 3rd degree of Sagittarius (Theta Arae), and the 6th and 25th degrees of Capricorn (Xi1 + Xi2 Capricorni and Gamma Capricorni).  The implied longitude for Epsilon Ursae Majoris in the Lapidario fits with most of the Greek and later Arabic versions of the Almagest, not the Syriac, early Arabic or Greek manuscript “B” versions.  The implied longitude of 58 Geminorum fits with all Arabic versions and Greek manuscript “D”.  The implied longitude of Theta Draconis fits with the Greek versions, not the Arabic ones.  The implied longitude of Delta Virginis fits with the Greek and later Arabic versions, not with the early Arabic versions.  The implied longitude of Theta Arae fits with the Greek versions and a minority of the Arabic versions, most Arabic versions don’t match.  The implied longitude of Xi1 + Xi2 Capricorni fits with most of the Arabic versions and only one of the Greek manuscripts (D).  The implied longitude of Gamma Capricorni fits with all Arabic versions and only one Greek manuscript (A).  On balance, this analysis does not seem to indicate which group of manuscripts have a common heritage with the Lapidario astronomy.  I suspect that the Lapidario is based on a manuscript version that predates the extant versions because it does not seem to align with either of the two major groups.  Toomer (1984) mentions the Syriac version only once as a variant (this manuscript no longer exists) and unfortunately, it does not match with the Lapidario, which does not support my theory that the Lapidario astronomy follows a Syriac source.  Nevertheless, there could easily have been another Syriac version of the Almagest that is totally unknown.

Up to this point we have been concerned primarily with stellar longitude.  But a complete description of location requires a number for the latitude as well.  In the ecliptic system, this is specified as degrees north of the ecliptic (+) or south of the ecliptic (-).  The Almagest provides the latitudes of the stars, the Lapidario does not.  However, the Lapidario does make qualitative statements regarding latitude, such as “the northern star of two”, which means the star with a more northern latitude.

The lack of complete coordinates in the Lapidario necessitates a reliance on the descriptions for identification purposes.  In many cases, when a star is suggested by its longitude in the Almagest, the descriptions of  the figure position differ between the Lapidario and the Almagest.  For example,  a star on the “right hand of Hercules” that fits a particular degree in the Lapidario may have the same longitude as a star on the “right elbow of Hercules” according to the Almagest.  Then we must decide whether the hand of the Lapidario figure is equivalent to the elbow of the Almagest figure or whether the Lapidario astronomer has moved the star in longitude or is in error.  Sometimes  it is not possible to decide, so I have provided two or more candidate stars.

It is important to keep in mind that the coordinates of the ecliptic system are not the same as those specified on modern star atlases.  The lines of right ascension do not run in the same direction as lines of longitude.  If a person attempts to understand the descriptions found in the Lapidario or Almagest on the basis of modern coordinates on a star atlas, confusion is sure to develop.  It is possible for star X, of a pair, to be north of star Y using  the equatorial (modern) coordinates and be south of star Y using the ecliptic (classical) coordinates.

The Lapidario stars of the first degree of Aries are actually stars in Pisces.  This is a source of confusion for those who are unfamiliar with astronomical precession.  The Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who was productive during the time span of 150 to 125 BC, is credited with the discovery of precession.  Precession is caused by the rotation of the Earth’s axis around the ecliptic poles, with a period just under 26,000 years.  As a result of precession, the stars drift in longitude with time, crossing one sign of the zodiac in about 2,000 years.  The signs of the zodiac were developed by Babylonian astronomers around 500 BC  At that time, the Earth’s axis was positioned such that the vernal equinox occurred in Aires.  Thus, the term “the first degree of Aries.”  And at that time the signs of the zodiac coincided closely with the constellations of the zodiac.  But by the time of Ptolemy, the axis had shifted enough to place the vernal equinox in Pisces.  This is why the “first degree of Aries” fell in Pisces during Ptolemy’s lifetime.  The vernal equinox is currently in Pisces as well and will move into Aquarius around 2700 AD, marking the so-called “age of Aquarius”.  Thus, over a 26,000 year period, the first degree of Aries will visit every constellation of the zodiac!

The descriptions in the Lapidario may hold some important information regarding the character and past history of a star.  In this regard, historians of astronomy have been interested in color descriptions of stars in old astronomy works.  Ptolemy notes the color of six stars in his catalog, all described with a “reddish” color.  These are Alpha Canis Majoris (Sirius), Alpha Tauri (Aldebaran), Alpha Boötis (Arcturus), Alpha Orionis (Betelgeuse), Alpha Scorpii (Antares) and Beta Geminorum (Pollux).  All of these except Sirius still have a distinct color today, although they appear more yellow to my eye than red (color assessment will vary between individuals).  Ptolemy’s color description of Sirius is a mystery because it is distinctly white in color today and there is no clear explanation why it would have had a reddish color in Ptolemy’s time.  The Lapidario includes five of these stars in its list as well (Beta Geminorum is not included).  However, there is no mention of color in any of these descriptions.  The Lapidario mentions the color of a star only twice: a red star for the 27th degree of Aries and a blue star for the 16th degree of Sagittarius. 

The silence of the Lapidario regarding Ptolemy’s color assessments and the inclusion of two colored stars that Ptolemy does not mention are examples of differing descriptions between the two sources.  It is clear that the Lapidario descriptions are not strictly copied from the Almagest.  There appears to be astronomical knowledge from sources other than Ptolemy in the Lapidario, although the Almagest is clearly the main source.

There certainly is an Arabic influence of some degree in the Lapidario astronomy, although this may have been added in during the translation into Arabic or at some other time after the work was first written.  There are a number of stars in the descriptions that are named specifically with a proper Arabic name, actually the corrupted form of an Arabic name.  Examples are Aldebaran (Al Debarān), Azubene (Al Zubanāh) and Elfeca (Al Nā’ir al Fakkah).

Ptolemy did not illustrate the constellations in the Almagest but he had a clear vision of each figure in his mind.  His concept of each constellation is revealed via the star catalog contained within the Almagest.    In my efforts to understand Ptolemy’s vision of the constellations, I found it very helpful to reconstruct the figures from his catalog.  This was done by generating star maps with grids of longitude and latitude. The stars were labeled with Ptolemy’s descriptions, which allowed me to visualize the constellations.  The maps were used to determine the orientation of each constellation figure.  They were also used as a reference to reconcile differences between the Almagest and Lapidario (e.g., in many instances it appears that the Lapidario astronomer preferred to describe a star on a different part of the figure than Ptolemy and the star maps helped me visualize each astronomers concept of the figure).

The Lapidario does contain a rich set of constellation illustrations, one illustration for each degree, which depicts the position of the star(s) on the constellation figure. Unfortunately, the illustrations are fraught with errors, so they are not very useful in aiding the reader regarding identification of the star.  However, there are a few cases where the illustration is useful in the interpretation of the Lapidario star description.

In addition to the illustrations that accompany the text for each degree, there is a master illustration at the end of each sign of the zodiac.  In the center of these master illustrations, the figure of the zodiac constellation appears, covered with many stars.  These stars appear to be randomly positioned because they do not completely match the stars in the other illustrations of the zodiac constellation.  Surrounding the central illustration of the zodiac figure, there is a ring divided into 30 sections.  Inside the sections there are illustrations of the constellations and stars that are assigned to each of the 30 degrees.

The master illustrations for 11 of the signs of the zodiac are extant in the manuscript (Aquarius is missing).  The availability of the master illustrations for Leo and Pisces provides the opportunity to attempt a recovery of the stars who’s descriptions are missing from the manuscript.  With the intention of making such a recovery, I first compared the master illustrations to the individual illustrations and descriptions in sections of the manuscript that are complete. Unfortunately, the comparisons revealed many mismatches, which indicates that the master illustrations cannot be relied upon to recover the missing stars.  In any case, without the Lapidario description for a star, an accurate illustration is not always sufficient to choose a star from a short list of candidates.  All considered then, a star list derived from the master illustrations could only be considered an approximation at best.

The constellation figures in the Lapidario illustrations are oriented like those on a celestial globe.  This orientation can lead to a great deal of confusion because it is different than the orientation of the constellations as seen from Earth.  It is apparent that even the Lapidario illustrator was confused regarding the rules of star placement on a figure that is illustrated with the celestial globe view.  That is why there are so many errors in the illustrations.

During Ptolemy’s time and the Middle Ages, the constellation figures were commonly illustrated on celestial globes.   The oldest extant celestial globe and only surviving celestial map of Greek and Roman antiquity is known as the Farnese atlas, which is part of a second century AD sculpture.  There are also a number of extant celestial globes produced by Islamic astronomers. 

The celestial globe was the preferred medium of illustration because it did not require the complicated projection necessary for maps on flat paper.  Ideally, a celestial globe should be hollow with the constellations drawn on the inside surface.  Then the constellations could be viewed from the interior of the globe, as we view the constellations from Earth.  This type of globe would have to be large enough for a person to sit inside and would have been very difficult to construct.  Thus, the celestial globes that were produced were not of this type, but were small globes with the constellations illustrated on the outside surface. 

When we view the constellations on a celestial globe, our view point is not the same as our view point on Earth.  It is this change in viewing location that causes the confusion.  On a celestial globe the constellations are viewed from a fictitious location deep in space, far removed from the Earth and on the other side of the stars.  On Earth the constellations are viewed from inside the celestial sphere.  On a celestial globe the constellations are viewed from outside the celestial sphere.  The change in viewing location results in a different view of the constellation.  What the viewer sees on his right side from Earth, he will see on his left side on a celestial globe.  Therefore, if a star is located on the viewer’s right in a constellation, as seen on Earth, the same star must be on the viewer’s left if the constellation is viewed on a celestial globe.  It is this reversal of left and right that caused the Lapidario illustrator to be confused as is clearly evident by a thorough analysis of his illustrations.

I would like to suggest a scenario that explains many of the illustration errors in the Lapidario.  The illustrator set out first to orient the constellations as they appear on a celestial globe.  In fact, it is likely that the illustrator used a celestial globe as a source for developing the drawings.  On a celestial globe the backs of human figures should be seen if their front sides are seen from Earth.  However, the illustrator preferred to show the front sides of human figures while  maintaining certain aspects of celestial globe orientation.  By turning the figures around, the illustrator created an orientation conflict, i.e., with turned figures it is not possible to illustrate the star on the correct side of the figure (left or right) and maintain the correct coordinates of the star (relative position with respect to the cardinal directions, north, south, west and east).  For example, if a star is on the left hand which is on the west side of a figure according to Ptolemy, and the Lapidario figure is turned around with the star still illustrated on the left hand, then the star will also be on the east side, which conflicts with the original position on the west side.  In many cases the Lapidario describes a star on the left side of a human figure but illustrates it on the right side or vice versa.  This illustration method preserves the correct coordinates of the star but creates a conflict between the illustration and the description.  However, this is the proper method for illustrating the star and the conflict between the illustration and description should be understood as the acceptable condition.  There are also many cases where a star is described on a right or left part of a human figure and illustrated there as well, which does not preserve the true star coordinates.  This is not the acceptable condition.  The failure to conform to a standard of illustration that preserves the coordinates of a star reveals that the illustrator was not very knowledgeable in matters of astronomy.  And the inconsistency of star placement in the illustrations makes it difficult for the reader to identify the correct star, even if they are familiar with the constellations.

The constellation figures of animals did not cause so many problems for the illustrator because they are viewed from the side.  If the right side of the animal is seen from Earth, the left side should be seen on the celestial globe.  This was perfectly acceptable to the Lapidario illustrator and he did not need to turn the animal figures around.  In fact, it is the illustrations of the animal figures in the Lapidario that establishes the celestial globe view.  If the head of the animal is seen on the viewer’s right from Earth, it should be seen on the viewer’s left on a celestial globe and vice versa.  All of the animal constellations that are seen in side view have the left to right reversal in the Lapidario illustrations, which establishes the celestial globe view.   

In the following paragraphs, examples of the Lapidario illustration errors are discussed.  The first example is taken from the illustration for the first degree of Aries, which is of the constellation of Pisces.  The Lapidario illustration of Pisces contains two fishing lines which can be distinguished because one of them has a U-shaped bend in it.  This unique feature on one line provides an orientation marker for the constellation.  Ptolemy’s figure of Pisces is oriented as we see it here on Earth with the southern fishing line (with U-shaped bend) on the viewer’s right.  But the Lapidario illustration depicts the southern fishing line on the viewer’s left, establishing the celestial globe view.  The Lapidario illustrator placed the 3 stars of the 1st degree on the fishing line toward the left in the illustration.  The left line is the correct line if the constellation is rendered as we see it here on Earth.  But using the celestial globe view, the illustrator should have drawn the stars on the line towards the right side of the constellation.

The illustrator had difficulty positioning stars on the constellations of Eridanus, Draco and Hydra.  Draco and Hydra are serpents that have long bodies with few distinguishing features.  Eridanus is a river which also has few distinguishing features.  The stars are readily identified in the Almagest for these constellations because they are listed in a sequential fashion.  In contrast, the Lapidario does not supply a sequential list, which makes it difficult to determine the relative position of the stars on these figures.  The illustrations of Hydra for the 29th and 30th degrees of Cancer are a good example of the illustration errors found in these constellations.  In Ptolemy’s figure of Hydra, the star HR 3750 is much closer to the head than the tail and it is close to Tau1 Hydrae, the star illustrated very near the head in the Lapidario.  The Lapidario illustrator removed the star of the 30th degree (HR3750) from its true location near the head and placed it about midway between the head and tail.  If the illustrator was intimately familiar with the constellations he would not have made this illustration error.  I suspect that the illustrator relied heavily on the Lapidario descriptions when placing stars on the figures.  For the majority of the figures this method yielded stars positioned with acceptable accuracy.  But in the case of the serpents, the body is very long without any features to assist in positioning the stars.  In the 29th degree the star is described on the neck and it was relatively easy for the illustrator to position the star in the correct place because he knew it should be near the head.  But in the 30th degree, the Lapidario description does not specify where the star is located on the body.  The illustrator had to make an “educated” guess about where the star should be positioned.  And his guess was off the mark.





Allen, R. H.  1963.  Star Names; Their Lore and Meaning.  Dover Publications, New York. 
563 pp.

Lombardo, S.  1983.  Sky Signs: Aratus’ Phaenomena.  North Atlantic Books, Berkeley. 

Nunemaker, J. H.  1934.  Note on Abolays.  Hispanic Review 2: 242-246.

Nunemaker, J. H.  1939.  The Sources of the Alphonsine Lapidaries.  Speculum 14: 483-489.

Peters, C. H. F. and E. B. Knobel.  1915.  Ptolemy’s Catalogue of Stars; A Revision of the Almagest.   The Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C.  207 pp.

Robbins, F. E.  1940.  Tetrabiblos.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge.  466 pp.

Toomer, G. J.  1984.  Ptolemy’s Almagest.  Springer-Verlag, New York.  693 pp.

Whitfield, P.  1995.  The Mapping of the Heavens.  Pomegranate Artbooks, San Francisco. 
134 pp.


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Jeffrey La Favre -