By Patrick Rice, Painted Hall Ceiling Tour guide

29 March 2018

Science and astronomy are major themes of the Painted Hall. Accurately mapping the stars was vital for safe navigation at sea and Thornhill included portraits of several famous scientists including the Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed who worked at Greenwich Observatory. Inspired by a recent trip to Copenhagen, I was intrigued to learn more about the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) who appears in the north-east corner of the painting.

Tycho Brahe’s noble birth is reflected in his elaborate clothes. He wears a red feathered cap, white ruff and around his neck hangs the Order of the Elephant on a golden chain.

Brahe is regarded by the Danes as the father of modern astronomy and is proudly remembered in the capital city of Copenhagen, where the space museum is known as ‘The Tycho Brahe Planetarium’. He is reputed to be the first astronomer to prove that the night sky is not constant and is continually changing. 

He was intellectually gifted, attending university at the age of twelve to read law. Astronomy, at this stage of his life, was merely a pastime. Most of his knowledge of stellar bodies was acquired by reading and he was largely self-taught.  

In 1572 Brahe discovered what he took to be a new star in the sky. This discovery heralded the beginning of a world-class research career. On the night in question, 11 November, Brahe was looking at the constellation of Cassiopeia when, suddenly, he saw a fantastically bright new light. He called it ‘Nova Stella’ (New Star). Today, we know that what he actually saw was a supernova. This phenomenon occurs when a large star, in its final death throes, spews out gas and debris into space. It shines so brightly that the light from billions of other stars in the galaxy pales into insignificance.  

Brahe was a colourful character. In 1566 he lost part of his nose in a sword duel with a fellow student. For the rest of his life he wore a prosthetic nose, rumoured to be made of gold and silver and kept in place with a paste or glue. In 2010 his body was exhumed and Danish and Czech scientists confirmed that it was actually made of brass.

Brahe was later exiled from Denmark after falling out with King Christian IV and spent the rest of his life working in and around Prague. During the reign of the previous king, Frederick II, he was paid a large salary, mostly for producing almanacs and horoscopes. When Christian ascended to the throne he wasn’t very pleased about this arrangement. The two men argued about the nature of their future collaboration and in such circumstances there could only be one winner.  

Brahe was a highly skilled scientist. Among his many achievements was discovering errors in the way that the positions of the planets had previously been recorded. To prove the accuracy of his findings, he decided to calculate the exact location of the stars in the night sky, a task that demanded great patience and precision. King Frederick was so enamoured with Brahe’s efforts at the time that he gave him the island of Hven as a reward. Brahe built two observatories there and it became a gathering place for astronomers from all over Europe. 

Uraniborg, Tycho Brahe's observatory and research centre on the island of Hven. He named it after Urania, the muse of astronomy.

In 1601, by which time Brahe was living in Prague, he died at the age of 54 in mysterious circumstances. On the 300th anniversary of his death in 1901, his body was exhumed in an attempt to discover the nature of his untimely demise. It was found that his beard contained sizeable quantities of mercury and lead, leading the doctors of the day to conclude that he had somehow been poisoned. 

More than one hundred years later in 2010, his grave was dug up once again and new tests proved conclusively that the original prognosis was inaccurate, as the levels of mercury present were not substantial enough to have been the cause of death. The real reason for Brahe’s death remains a puzzle to this day.

This print shows Tycho Brahe’s giant mural quadrant, which helped him make more accurate observations of the night sky.

It’s fair to say that Brahe led a very different life to your average astronomer! This doesn’t diminish his many accomplishments and it’s remarkable to think that he achieved so much without the aid of a telescope. In the era when Brahe was conducting his research, the advent of this particular scientific instrument was still some years away. It is for this reason that Brahe is often afforded the moniker of ‘the last of the naked eye astronomers’.

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