Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer. Dutch, c. 1668. Reproduced by kind permission of The Louvre, Paris.

Natural philosophers were a favourite subject of early modern artists. The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is famous for his interior scenes; here he shows an astronomer at work in his study. Vermeer’s astronomer is not looking up at the night sky, but consulting books and instruments. Astronomical knowledge in the early modern period was often obtained through abstracted, diagrammatic representations of the physical universe. Learning about the heavens involved consulting books and models far more than gazing at the skies. Warm light from the window falls upon the globe, the book, and the astronomer’s face, and the placement of his hands reinforces this triangular focus.

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Jodocus Hondius, Hemelglobe. Amsterdam, 1600. Reproduced by kind permission of the Collection Het Scheepvaartmuseum, Amsterdam.

Celestial globes attempted to represent the locations of all the stars and their constellations in the heavenly sphere. The one which Vermeer chose to represent in his painting was made by Jodocus Hondius in 1600. An example survives in The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam to this day. The forms of the constellations and signs of the zodiac are vividly depicted as animals, figures, and objects.