Art History Mystery: Breughel and the Telescope

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Could Flemish Baroque painter Jan Brueghel the Elder be the missing link in the mystery of the telescope? The electromagnetically powered magnifying device isn’t attributed to any one person, rather three inventors with ties to refracting telescopes first seen in the Netherlands around 1608. Examination of several large-scale paintings by Breughel, the court painter for the Belgian Habsburg monarch, have revealed the first artistic depiction of a telescope. The catch is, the spyglasses in the Brughel works, assumed to be part of Albert VII’s personal collection, are actually Keplerian telescopes which weren’t invented until two decades later. Or were they?

Earlier this year, Italian astronomer Paolo Molaro presented findings on four Brueghel works at a symposium on astronomy and the arts. Below, the facts of the telescope and the artistic and scientific implications of Brueghel and the telescope.

Fact: Brueghel’s patron Albert obtained spyglasses very early on from Hans Lipperhey, whose patent for a device “for seeing things far away as if they were nearby” was rejected.

Fact: The earliest telescopes, like Lippershey’s, consisted of a convex objective lens and a concave eyepiece.

Fact: In 1611, inventor Johannes Kepler suggested that a better design would have a convex eyepiece. The disadvantage, which astronomers eventually came to live with, is that the image is inverted. The production of his designs wasn’t recorded until years later, in 1631.

Supposition: The long, silver telescope featured in the three paintings below, dating from 1617 and 1618, have a style and dimension similar to Kepler’s instrument (where the eyepiece as well as the objective lens is convex). The researchers “estimate that the extended instrument would be some 180 cm or so long. Keplerian designs are longer than the earlier Galilean designs – a misnomer, since Galileo did not invent them. Second is the size of the eyepiece, which appears to limit how close the eye can get to the eyepiece lens. That would only make sense in a Keplerian design.”

The Mystery Remains: If Albert VII, and his court, and his court painter, were in possession of a Keplerian telescope that had a significant advantage over others pointing toward the skies, why didn’t they adopt it as the norm until years later? Because in failing to do so, the Belgian court and Kepler himself “missed a chance at the kind of scientific immortality that Galileo was later to achieve.”

One of five Brueghel paintings in the “Allegory of Sight” series dated 1608-1612. The telescope in question is seen in the left foreground between the two figures.

The Allegory of Sight and Smell by Breughel from 1618. A Keplerian style spyglass is protracted on the floor in the center foreground.

Brueghel’s An Allegory of the Five Senses also from 1618. Can you spot the telescope?

[via MIT Technology Review]