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Images, Institutions and Cross-Cultural Systems: Describing and Visualizing “The Double Hemisphere Star Atlas” (1634)

The Double Hemisphere Star Atlas is a stunning eight-part woodblock print of enormous scale issued in 1634 by the Imperial Grand Secretariat in the Chongzhen era of the Ming dynasty. The Atlas represents the culmination of collaborative research that Jesuit and Ming astronomers carried out between 1629-1634 in Beijing. As such, the story it recounts concerns the global history of art, religion, and science. Production was directed by the influential Chinese Christian scholar Xu Guagqi (1562-1633) who died a year before the impressive Atlas was printed, and the German Jesuit astronomer Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592-1666) who drafted the explanatory texts and coordinated the general design.

The Double Hemisphere Star Atlas employed instrument-aided vision and the rhetoric of empiricism performatively as modes of marketing and of othering, selling the idea of objective knowledge as a way to distinguish and promote European identity and the Jesuit world-view. If graphic representations of the celestial sphere like the Double Hemisphere Star Atlas challenge the limits of visibility in the optical sense, they also test the limits of mutual understanding across cultural divides. The Atlas demonstrates the many ways in which early modern technical images acted not only as containers for knowledge but also as sites for performance and persuasion that intervened in society. What makes these technical images fascinating to study is how they create a shared knowledge space within which disparate thoughts and cultural systems are negotiated?

The present research is an attempt to engage in a global art history that is not just about greater inclusion of previously marginalized works, or the documentation of intercultural contact as a byproduct of travel and trade, but about probing the manners in which visual artifacts themselves negotiated cultural distances and reshaped society. Here Adam Schall’s Double Hemisphere Star Atlas served as a vehicle to examine the inherently contradictory ways in which early modernity grappled with global consciousness; expressing on the one hand the struggle to foster common ground inclusively, while on the other hand engaging in a form of cultural imperialism.

The project’s specific question connects a variety of objects and epistemological categories, like cartography, and cosmological treaties. Accordingly, the methodological approaches will range from art history and visual studies to cultural anthropology. The project thus makes an important contribution to global art history, a highly innovative area in which only very few topics have been addressed.