3D Collection – Astronomical Cutlery from the 16th Century

This “astronomical pocket cutlery” dates from the 16th century. It was made by Johannes Krabbe in 1583 and is thus one of the oldest objects in our collection.

Sundial or astronomical (pocket) cutlery?

The object belongs to the Observatory Collection, which was created by Rudolf Wolf (1816-1893). Although the object is mentioned in his 1873 inventory, the writing is practically illegible. Thus, the manner in which the object was incorporated into Rudolf Wolf’s collection, whether as a gift or a purchase, is unfortunately unclear. However, what is clearly recognisable is that Wolf refers to this object, along with several others, as a sundial.

Auszug Inventar Rudolf Wolf, Text mit rotem Pfeil
Screenshot of Rudolf Wolfs inventory, pg. 183, editing Collection of scientific instruments and teaching aids

However, the sundial is only one of many functions of this object. In addition to the sundial on the base plate and an equatorial sundial (dial is parallel to the equatorial plane) in the cover, it also features a rotating calendar and a planisphere for recognising the stars. Thus, the astronomical pocket cutlery was an object of many uses. The two covers are either richly decorated or show a female personification of astronomy. Astronomy had been classed as one of the seven liberal arts and was customarily depicted in personified form since ancient times.

Our research led us to similar objects in other collections that were referred to as box sundials or astronomical cutlery. The term “pocket cutlery” suggests that it was an instrument that could be easily transported and carried around. However, the noble design in gilded bronze suggests that it was mainly for presentation purposes.

Johannes Krabbe, manufacturer

Despite the otherwise rather sparse information on the object, we know who the maker was: Johannes Krabbe. Krabbe’s date of birth is not known, but he is assumed to have been born in the year 1553. Krabbe was a goldsmith who was especially known for his astrolabes. He made his first one at the age of 26. In addition to his work as a goldsmith and instrument maker, he was a surveyor and cartographer. As part of his varied activities, he also carried out numerous precision works of craftsmanship and science, especially in the fields of astronomy and astrology. This includes the astronomical pocket cutlery shown here. The inscription “Faciebat Johannes Krabbius Mündensis, Anno 1583” is typical of Krabbe: his place of origin (Hannoversch-)Münden was a source of pride to him, which he imprinted on all instruments he made.

Johannes Krabbe was appointed to the court in Wolfenbüttel in 1585. He continued to play an active role there until his death on 14/11/1616. His remit at Wolfenbüttel court was in land surveying and cartography, but through his close connection to the duke he also became his personal servant and valet. His interest in astronomy and astrology grew steadily. Krabbe was also in contact with important scientists such as Johannes Keppler and well-known Swiss instrument maker and mathematician Jost Bürgi at this time. 1

3D Digitalisation

Object selection
The astronomical pocket cutlery is one of the oldest objects in our collection. Furthermore, it is of great interest in the history of astronomy and science and we are not aware of any similar object by the same maker. Thanks to 3D digitalisation, the model can be studied in great detail, regardless of location, without having to be physically picked up. Thus, in addition to accessibility, 3D digitalisation also assumes the function of (digital) conservation.

Photogrammetry and modelling
The glossy surface posed a challenge in the process of capturing images of this object. Nevertheless, the details of the object can be studied very closely in the digital copy. Capturing images in the unfolded state required the use of a specially made holder.

1. The section on Johannes Krabbe refers to: Kretscher, Dieter: Johannes Krabbe (1553-1616), ein Astronom am Wolfenbütteler Hof, in: Christian Heitzmann (Hg.): Die Sterne lügen nicht. Astrologie und Astronomie im Mittelalter und in der Frühen Neuzeit, Wolfenbüttel 2008, pg. 111-116.

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