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Description of the lunar eclipse of 25 March 1671 by the Jesuit scholar at the Chinese court, Ferdinand Verbiest

Typus eclipsis lunae, Anno Christi 1671, Imperatoris Cam Hy decimo, die XVto Lunae iiae, id est, die XXVto Martij, ad Meridianum Pekinensem.
VERBIEST, Ferdinand.
  • Description

    8vo (2400 by 283mm), woodcut, printed in three colours on mulberry paper, folded into 18 sections as a leporello. Latin title, Chinese-Manchou incipit and explicit, and 18 folds for the eclipse map (complete). The diagrams are in black with the visible sections of the moon coloured in yellow, with violet for the arches of the intersection between earth and moon.

  • Notes

    This work by Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688), the famous Flemish-born Jesuit missionary, mathematician, and astronomer, is an illustrated prognostication of a lunar eclipse of March 25, 1671. Verbiest, being responsible for the calendar, needed to compute the lunar eclipses for the next year for each of the seventeen Chinese provinces. The emperor wanted to have this data six months in advance, so all regions of the empire could be notified in time. This scroll shows the phases of the lunar eclipse of March 25, 1671, in seventeen drawings, one for each province. The legend is both in Chinese and Manchu. It was also one of the ways Verbiest attempted to demonstrate the superiority of European science over traditional Chinese beliefs when it came to studying the heavens.

    Sometime after 1684 a small number of copies were brought back for distribution in Europe by another Jesuit missionary, Philippe Couplet. However, only one other copy of this scarce item appears in auction records: the one in the vast library formed in the nineteenth century by that most voracious of collectors, Sir Thomas Phillipps. In 1945, in what was then the greatest single purchase in the history of bookselling, London dealers Lionel and Philip Robinson bought the impressive remnants of the Phillipps library, and spent many years thereafter selling it off at Sotheby's in London. The Phillipps copy of Typus Eclipsis Lunae went into Philip Robinson's own Chinese library, and in his 1988 sale made £13,750 (then $26,265) at Sotheby's. His collection also included Verbiest's Typus Solis, a similarly constructed prediction of a solar eclipse of 1669, which sold for £12,650 ($24,160).

    Golvers records 17 known examples: 15 in institutional libraries, and two in private hands. To this we can add the present example. As with the copy held in Münich, the present work has the title in Chinese on a separate strip of paper and tipped on in the Chinese manner (Golvers TE 1671.11).

  • Bibliography

    Golvers, Verbiest and the Chinese heaven (2003) pp. 446-456 nr. TE 1671. Dudink, Chinese books (KBR 2006) pp. 96-97. De Backer/Sommervogel VIII c. 577-578 nr. 15. Cordier, Sinica II 1451-1452.