Heavenly 19th-century constellation cards are out of this world

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urania's mirror

credit: Library of Congress

The exquisite 'Urania's Mirror' box set included 32 celestial chart cards with perforated stars to help map the heavens.

We’ve been pondering the stars in wonder since the dawn of civilization; and stargazers were finding patterns in the sky long before the ancient Greeks described many of the constellations as we know them in a poem called Phaenomena from 270 B.C.

In 1929, the International Astronomical Union officially defined 88 constellations, a group that includes 14 men and women, 9 birds, two insects, 19 land animals, 10 water creatures, two centaurs, one head of hair, a serpent, a dragon, a flying horse, a river and 29 inanimate objects (which adds up to more than 88 because some constellations include more than one creature).

Yet most constellations don’t exactly look like their namesakes, which act more as markers to help map the sky. Nowadays we have all kinds of tools to help the hobby astronomer identify who’s who up above; but before high technology, people relied on illustrated maps and charts.

One set of learning aids was "Urania's Mirror; or, a view of the Heavens" – a gorgeous box set 32 astronomical star chart cards, first published in 1824. Based on illustrations from Alexander Jamieson's "A Celestial Atlas," the stars making the constellations were punched out to allow the points to shine through when held against a light. Combined with the beautiful hand-colored figures, they are a lovely tribute to the heavens, as you can see on the following pages which include all of the astrological constellations as well as a few others too lovely to ignore. Urania, the muse of astronomy, would be proud.

Plate 15: Pegasus and Equuleus (above)

Index: Pegasus and Equuleus | Aries and Musca Borealis | Taurus | Gemini | Cancer | Leo Major and Leo Minor | Virgo | Libra | Scorpio | Sagittarius and Corona Australis, Microscopium, and Telescopium | Capricornus | Aquarius, Piscis Australis & Ballon Aerostatique | Pisces | Canis Major, Lepus, Columba Noachi & Cela Sculptoris | Monoceros, Canis Minor, and Atelier Typographique

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