In the Library of Congress, acquired from L. Friedrichsen of Hamburg, is a fine example of the work of Caspar Vopel, a teacher of mathematics in Cologne, Germany, and a scholar of wide cosmographical interests. This six-inch armillary sphere of eleven rings, encircling a terrestrial globe three-inch/7.2 cm in diameter, is mounted on a octagonal copper base. On the circle representing the Tropic of Cancer is the inscription Caspar Vopel arti[=v] profes. hanc sphaeram faciebat Coloniae 1543 [Caspar Vopel professor of arts made this globe in Cologne in the year 1543], while on the remaining circles are engraved numerous cosmographical signs and names. The terrestrial globe is covered with a manuscript map in colors, and bears the title legend Nova ac generalis orbis descriptio, and the author legend Caspar Vopel mathe. faciebat. Most of the regional names on the map are in red, and a red dot is employed to indicate the location of certain important cities, the names in general being omitted. The globe is remarkably well preserved. Terrestrial and celestial globes and armillary spheres were important educational tools for illustrating the geographical, astronomical, and cosmographical concepts of the Renaissance and the Age of European Discovery. Terrestrial globes both reflected the spherical nature of the earth and served to document man’s changing perception and expanding knowledge of the geography of the earth. Armillary spheres were demonstration models for teaching astronomy and for illustrating the earth’s position within the universe.
Vopel skillfully drew by hand his portrayal of the earth’s surface directly on the globe ball. Of particular historical interest is his portrayal of the uncertainty still prevalent in the first half of the 16th century among cosmographers regarding Columbus’ contention that he had reached Asia. As shown on the globe, Vopel agreed with the school of thought that North America and Asia were joined as one landmass -- a misconception that continued on some maps until the late 16th century.
Vopel’s armillary sphere presents a model of the Ptolemaic, or earth-centered, cosmic system. The series of eleven interlocking and overlapping brass rings or armilla, some of which are movable, that make up the armillary sphere are adjustable for the seasons and illustrate the circles of the sun, moon, known planets, and important stars. The wide ecliptic band includes delicate engravings of the signs of the zodiac. It is interesting to note that 1543 is not only the year of the construction of Vopel’s armillary sphere, but it is also the year Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric universe was published, a theory that greatly changed the design of armillary spheres.
Last Updated: 27 December 2016