Sundials in the Renaissance

Sundials in the Renaissance

Image 1. Nicholas Kratzer (1486/7-1550), Mathematician and instrument maker. 

After Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 or 1498-1543, original now in the Louvre, Paris). Description: oil on panel, late 16th century (1528); 32 1/4 in. x 25 1/2 in. (819 mm x 648 mm). Source: National Portrait Gallery no. 5245, purchased, 1979. Licence: CC by-nc-nd 3.0. Further information:  David Saywell and Jacob Simon, eds., National Portrait Gallery: Complete Illustrated Catalogue (2004), p. 359.

Image 2. Polyhedral Dial

Attributed to Nicolaus Kratzer. Description: circa 1525; London; Gilt brass; 100 mm in height. Copyright: Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford, Inventory No. 54054. Further details by Jim Bennett on Epact. See also L. Evans, "On a Portable Sundial of Gilt Brass made for Cardinal Wolsey", Archaeologia, 57 (1901).

Commentary. Kratzer is a classic instance of the transmission of technical knowledge from Germany to England and from artisans to academics.  Probably the son of a saw smith and trained in his father’s craft, he studied in the universities of Cologne and Wittenberg before coming to England  in 1517 or 1518 and by 1520 was ‘‘deviser of horologes’ to Henry VIII.  The frequently repeated claim that he was amongst the first fellows of Corpus Christ College at its foundation in 1517 is undocumented; but he was incorporated BA and MA in Oxford in 1523 and was probably one of Cardinal Wolsey's lecturers residing at Corpus and lecturing by royal command on astronomy, the astrolabe, and Ptolemy's geography. He constructed dials for St Mary’s Church and the orchard of Corpus which survived into the eighteenth century, the latter similar in shape and function to the gilt brass dial made for Wolsey, now in the MHS (Image 2).    

Description. ‘Kratzer is portrayed holding a pair of dividers and an unfinished polyhedral dial, the gnomons of which lie on the table, with a pivoting rule, ruling knife, burin, scissors and another dialling instrument. The piece of paper is inscribed in Latin: “The portrait of Nicolaus Kratzer of Munich, a Bavarian, taken from life when he was completing his forty-first year”’ (quoting NPG).  The portrait reflects Holbein’s keen interest in gnomonics: he also relied on Kratzer for the depiction of scientific instruments in his famous painting in the National Gallery: The Ambassadors.

Further information:  P. I. Drinkwater, The Sundials of Nicholas Kratzer (1993); J. D. North, The Ambassadors' Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance (2001); Günther Oestmann, ‘Kratzer, Nicolaus (b. 1486/7, d. after 1550)’, ODNB, online edn, May 2014.

Credits: Howard Hotson (October 2016)