A 1617 painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens is providing some technology historians with new hypotheses about the early history of the telescope, reports MIT’s Technology Review. Some historians assert that the painting, titled “The Allegory of Sight,” depicts a powerful, convex-lensed (Keplerian) telescope of a type not thought to have been built until at least 15 years after the painting’s execution. These historians further hypothesize that this may be because a telescope with similar capabilities was designed prior to Kepler’s by the Dutch lensmaker Hans Lippershey (who is himself credited with being one of the earliest inventors of the telescope) and given to the Archduke Albert VII of Habsburg. (Brueghel was the Archduke’s court painter). But for some reason, Lippershey’s telescope wasn’t recognized for the powerful advancement it represented. From the MIT article:

Although various writers in the 16th century describe glasses that can “recognize a man from several miles away,” the early exploitation of this idea is credited to the Dutch lens maker Hans Lippershey, who in 1608 applied for a patent for a device “for seeing things far away as if they were nearby.” However, his application was rejected, apparently because the idea was already well known.

Molaro and Selvelli, who have studied the telescopes depicted in five paintings by Brueghel, say that Lippershey is known to have given one of his earliest instruments to Archduke Albert VII of Habsburg, who had a keen interest in natural philosophy.

That’s significant because Brueghel was Albert’s court painter. Molaro and Selvelli say that the spyglass depicted in Brueghel’s “Extensive Landscape with View of the Castle of Mariemont,” dated 1608-1612, is the first painting of a telescope ever made. They go further and speculate that this instrument is the one given to Albert by Lippershey.

The earliest telescopes consisted of a convex objective lens and a concave eyepiece. But Johannes Kepler suggested in 1611 that a better design would have a convex eyepiece. The advantage is a larger field of view and greater relief for the eye, which needn’t be placed so close to the eyepiece. The disadvantage, which astronomers eventually came to live with, is that the image is inverted.

Kepler’s design wasn’t built until much later. The first reference to such an instrument appears in 1631. But here’s a mystery: Molaro and Selvelli speculate that a telescope in “The Allegory of Sight,” a collaboration between Brueghel and Pierre Paul Rubens dating from 1617, is actually Keplerian.

(Read the full article here). Who doesn’t love a good mystery, especially when its clues are hidden in a work of art? (Brueghel died of cholera in 1625, so the anachronism can’t simply be the result of a misdated painting). Maybe it’s time for the Brueghel scholars to weigh in. (Via Boing Boing).


Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens; "The Allegory of Sight," c. 1617

Keplarian telescope

"The Allegory of Sight," detail of telescope.