Big Bear and Little Bear, in a Collection of Astronomical Treatises and Tables
Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum
Believed to have been made for presentation to Henry VII, this manuscript contains astrological tables and treatises along with some other texts. A team of three artists created its decoration, varying with first- and second-rate renditions of later 15th century English painting and highly skilled work in Flemish style. An inscription on one of the pages gives the date of completion (30 June 1490) and the name Johannes Wellys, thought to be the scribe. Henry VII was the earliest English king known to have a library. A luxury illustrated book on astrology would have been desirable for a king because the stars were believed to exert powerful influences upon human character and affairs.
A beautifully illustrated copy of the astronomical tables of King Alphonso X of Spain (1221-1284) has depictions of the constellations, the stars indicated in gold. The tables give latitude and longitude of their positions at different times of the year. Beginning with the constellations at the top of the sky, Ursa minor (Little Bear) and Ursa major (Big Bear), the tables have paintings of the bears over their columns. Alphonso X was well-known for his interest in astrology and knowledge of the treatise by Ptolemy (the 'Almagest') which he knew of from the Arabs in Spain.