Verbiest’s Ecliptic Armillary Sphere: Much More Than Just a Sculpture

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By now, many USF students have likely walked by the new Lo Schiavo Science building and noticed the large dragon sculpture adorning the outside lawn. Featuring classic cues of Chinese art, the piece is surely impressive from an aesthetic perspective, but becomes truly fascinating when one understands its origins. The dragon sculpture is actually a finely tuned astronomical instrument — an armillary sphere — and embodies a fusion of culture, theology, and academia USF’s mission continues to forward.

Father Tom Lucas, S.J., former USF professor in the Department of Art + Architecture and Thatcher Gallery Director, took two separate trips to China to research the piece and negotiate the construction of a replica with the Chinese government. Instrumental in bringing the sphere to San Francisco, Father Lucas provided some history of its creator, Father Ferdinand Verbiest.

Father Ferdinand Verbiest was a Jesuit missionary who lived during the 17th century. A skilled mathematician and astronomer, he embarked on a journey to China in 1658. During this era, China was ruled by the Qing dynasty, and many important aspects of their culture and religion were determined by astrology and astronomy.

The Qing calendar was based on the movement of the stars. In 1669, however, it was determined that the calendar for 1670 contained critical miscalculations. Realizing the importance of accuracy, Qing Emperor Kangxi decreed that a public competition between Verbiest and Yang Guangxian, a Chinese astronomer, would be held in order to rectify these errors. Father Lucas explained that by solving three difficult calculations, including accurately predicting the exact time of a lunar eclipse, Verbiest corrected the calendar. He was subsequently appointed to direct the Imperial Court’s official observatory.

According to Mark Mir of the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History on Lone Mountain, an armillary sphere is a device that can be used to map stars and constellations in the night sky. “By using the moving rings that comprise the sphere,” Mir described, “an astronomer can calculate the movement of celestial bodies.” Upon Verbiest’s appointment to the head position of the Imperial Observatory, he realized that the original calendar errors arose from the institution’s outdated equipment. With the blessing of the Emperor, Verbiest set out to design entirely new instruments for the Observatory, including the armillary sphere. Based on the sun, Verbiest’s bronze device could be utilized to calculate the time of day accurately, as well as to measure trajectories of distant stars and planets. Although Verbiest used knowledge gained in Europe to tune the sphere precisely, its intricate design pays tribute to the art and culture of the Qing Dynasty that appointed him to his important role.

A look at Google Maps shows that the original sphere (and the Observatory it sits atop) still exist today, near central Beijing. The piece we see on campus is an exact replica of the original, recreated with permission from the Chinese government. “I first saw the original piece in Beijing in 1998, and instantly fell in love with it,” Father Lucas reminisced. “It’s a perfect emblem of what USF is all about: we have East meeting West, science meeting the arts, [and] religion meeting technology.” He continued: “This is a piece of European technology, but it’s not mounted on the back of Italian furniture. No, it is carried by a Chinese dragon, so it demonstrates inculturation.”

This fusion of culture, religion, and academics – with the intention of bettering the community – is a concept that USF attempts to instill in all its students.

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