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Image of the Week: Prince Iskandar’s horoscope

23 Oct, 2015

L0015229 Horoscope from the book of the birth of Iskandar

All this week we’ve been celebrating Open Access week and the 10th anniversary of the Wellcome Trust’s open access policy. Early last year Wellcome Images released an extraordinary collection of over 100,000 historical images that have been made freely available under a Creative Commons-Attribution (CC-BY 4.0) licence. With many thousands of downloads from all over the world, we were curious to know which image from our vast collection had been downloaded most often – and we were not disappointed by the result! Hannah Brown from the Wellcome Images team has the answer…

This beautiful Persian horoscope created for Prince Iskandar, of what was then Persia, in the 15th century is one of the treasures of Wellcome Library. It is a precious manuscript made in 1411 by the royal kitabkhana ‘publishing house’ or ‘workshop’ – and it is completely unique to the collection.

It is certainly not difficult to see why this lavishly illustrated horoscope is our most downloaded image. Created by hand, it is meticulously decorated in gold leaf and a beautiful blue pigment, which is prepared from the natural gem stone, Lapis lazuli. The manuscript’s creation reflects the efforts of a whole range of specialists: astronomers, illuminators, gilders, calligraphers, craftsmen, and specialists in papermaking. It is seen as a significant example of book production in the 15th century.

The horoscope shows the position of the heavens at the moment of Iskandar’s birth on 25th April 1384. Prince Iskander was the grandson of Tamerlane, the Turkman Mongol conqueror also known, through Christopher Marlowe’s play of the same name, as Tamburlaine the Great. His name is the Arabic and Persian variant of Alexander.

Iskandar was known for his patronage of the arts and sciences. In the outer corners of the painting, four angels carry gifts for the Prince made of gold, and a large circle shows twelve sections representing the astrological houses and signs of the zodiac. Mars, in the eleventh house, is personified as a warrior. As it is customary in Islamic astronomical texts, he is depicted with a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other.

The image of Prince Iskandar’s horoscope is not only used by academics and for projects of personal study, but it has also had a variety of other uses, for example, on book covers and in calendars. You will also find other historical images from our vast, rich and intriguing image collection used in TV productions, most recently in the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are featuring BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, and even in the set design for period feature films!

Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. Over 100,000 high resolution images from our historical collections are now free to use under the Creative Commons-Attribution only (CC-BY) licence.

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