Seeing Stars: A Middle Eastern Zodiac Plate in the UWM Art Collection

Zodiac Plate

1991.002.16. Zodiac Plate. Unrecorded Middle Eastern artist. Early 20th century. Engraved silver.

Morgan Moore

This object, an engraved silver plate from the early 20th century, reflects the significance of astrology in Middle Eastern cultures. The plate measures 6 inches in diameter and was acquired by the UWM Art Collection in 1991. It was created by a Middle Eastern artist who engraved an angel and the twelve symbols of the Western zodiac, which are surrounded by concentric registers containing Arabic inscriptions.

Beginning in the medieval Islamic world, astrology was considered a branch of astronomy. The knowledge from ancient Greek astronomers was passed on to Middle Eastern populations who critiqued and built upon their work. In particular, it was during the Abbasid caliphate beginning in 750 CE that the previous Persian dynasty’s high regard for ancient learning was revived [1]. This dynasty saw to the translation of astronomical and astrological lore from Greece, Persia, and India into Arabic. Like Aristotle, Islamic astronomers believed that the earth was the center of the universe, and the sun, moon, stars, and planets rotate around it. Ancient Greek astronomers had also developed representations of the constellations, which influenced the appearance of the twelve zodiac signs.

Astrology studies the movement of the planets and assumes that they influence the life of every individual on earth. As a scientific discipline, astrology became so popular in the Islamic world that it informed artistic representations. There was already a tradition of integrating zodiac and planetary symbols into the decoration of art objects before the emergence of Islam, which began in the year 610 CE. The twelfth century is when astrological representations became popular in Islamic artistic traditions. It developed in Anatolia and Iran and appeared most commonly in metalworks and stone reliefs.

In researching this plate, I began by searching for similar objects held by other institutions. While this plate dates to the early 20th century, most of the pieces I found were created significantly earlier, especially between the 12th and 15th centuries. These objects were primarily commissioned for elite ownership and were possessed by rulers, princes, and affluent citizens. Objects engraved with zodiac symbols have the power to protect the owner from illness and bad luck. In this way, the visual representation of the zodiac on Islamic works functions simultaneously as a decorative device and powerful talisman. An Islamic talisman is an object inscribed with written prayer that grants its owner good luck and protection. It is believed that having the prayers written rather than spoken prolongs their effectiveness. It was important to me that I gain a general understanding of the inscriptions on the plate. A community of translators agree that it contains a mix of prayers, talismanic inscriptions that ask for intercession from God, verses from the Qur’an (which is the holy text of Islam), and angel names. Most of the angels named in the Qur’an are the same ones found in the Christian Bible, of which two of the most prominent are Michael and Gabriel. It is likely that the figure in the center is one of these two angels and that an inscription names him specifically.

The central image of an angel on this object is not commonly found on other comparable pieces. Instead, they are likely to feature human personifications of the seven planets alongside the twelve zodiac symbols. These personifications have specific features that make them identifiable — and in the case of this object, make it clear that it is not a planet that is represented. For example, the moon is recognizable for the crescent that surrounds her head, and Venus is depicted as a female musician. The planets are also not usually depicted with wings. The Reddit translation community also noted that the inscriptions contain random letters. I learned that on Islamic talismans, words are often written with disconnected letters to allow each letter to express the full extent of its intrinsic power, which adds power to the talisman itself [2]. As someone who does not practice Islam or understand Arabic, the full scale of this concept is hard for me to grasp — but it does explain the presence of individual engraved letters throughout this plate, which serve to amplify the efficacy of the object.

From this research, there are a few things that can be determined about the original use of this silver plate. Firstly, it is possible that it was commissioned for an affluent owner. A more detailed reading of the inscriptions would provide that information. If the blessings and prayers are for an anonymous owner, then this plate was likely sold at a market rather than specially commissioned. This is the case for many Middle Eastern metalworks and ceramics with similar inscriptions. Additionally, most objects commissioned for elite ownership are highly decorated with imagery, especially scrollwork with vegetation and exotic animals. In some cases, elite activities or scenes from life in court are depicted — as inscribed figures often consist of musicians, polo players, or men practicing falconry.

However, an abundance of imagery has been swapped for an abundance of text on this plate. Even in places where negative space might be expected, like the body of the angel and of the twelve zodiac symbols, inscriptions completely fill the space. For talismanic objects, the most effective and powerful are those inscribed with prayers that invoke religious figures. This suggests that the main interest of the artist or patron was ensuring that the owner received good fortune through the many talismanic elements of the plate. The Qur’an itself is considered the strongest protective object for a person to carry with them. Inscribing verses of the Qur’an on an item like this imbues it with that protective quality. An owner would also be able to consult the verses on the plate for guidance in place of the Qur’an itself.

The way that this plate was used is unclear. Its condition does not show significant signs of wear, despite silver being prone to scratching. It may have functioned as an art object that was hung on a wall. Its small size is also suggestive of its being an art object, as similar Islamic plates that are used as wall hangings tend to be between 6 and 12 inches in diameter. The lack of wear may alternatively indicate that it was used for serving food, but in a ceremonial context that did not require frequent usage. There are many metal trays held in museum collections that are decorated like this plate and were used for carrying food, but those trays are much larger with a diameter of around 2 feet. Other, smaller plates were sometimes part of a set and were used as a base for an incense burner.

Disc-like brass divination plaque engraved with signs of the zodiac Divination bowl with signs of the zodiac on exterior

Left: Disc-like brass divination plaque engraved with signs of the zodiac. Science Museum Group © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

Right: Divination bowl with signs of the zodiac on exterior. Featured in Pearls of Wisdom: The Arts of Islam at the University of Michigan.

In my research, I questioned whether this object may have been used for divination. Divination is condemned in the Qur’an, but many followers consider it to be a divine gift and type of prophecy. Considering how widespread Islam is, there are many regions where the religion dominates but is predated by traditional divination practices. Divination incorporates astrological and magical methods and is considered a systematic art and science. One object I found that has decorations similar to those on this plate is a divination plaque from the 19th or 20th century. Zodiac decorations are also found on divination bowls from the 20th century. Like this plate, every surface of these objects is incised with inscriptions and symbols of the zodiac. It was believed that the blessings and power of these decorations would transfer to the material it holds. Drinking water from a divination bowl was intended to heal the sick or discern the future. While divination bowls appeared frequently in my research, plates did not at all — and even the exact use of the plaque is unknown.

I think that this plate was most likely intended to be an art object that ensured good fortune for its owner and protected them from harm through its talismanic properties. If it was not commissioned for a specific owner, it was likely sold in a market and contains inscriptions that would benefit whoever purchased it. This piece is notable for the inclusion of the angel in the center, which diverges from the most common examples of Islamic works featuring the zodiac. Islamic talismans inscribed with the name or representation of a holy figure functions as a conduit between them and the owner. Historically, the stars and the Qur’an were consulted in tandem before important decisions were made. This object serves to not only shield its owner from harm, but also to guide them. Works like this silver plate blend the cultural significance of astrology with the text of the Qur’an, resulting in an object that offers its owner guidance and protection.

[1.] Nicholas Campion, “Islam: Faith and Reasons,” 175.

[2.] Tewfik Canaan, “The Decipherment of Arabic Talismans,” in Magic and Divination in Early Islam, 152.


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Campion, Nicholas. “Islam: Faith and Reason.” In Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions, 173-187. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

Canaan, Tefwik. “The Decipherment of Arabic Talismans.” In Magic and Divination in Early Islam, edited by Emilie Savage-Smith, 125-177. Aldershot: Ashgate/Variorum, 2004.

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Gruber, Christiane. “The Arts of Protection and Healing in Islam: Water Infused with Blessing.” Ajam Media Collective. April 30, 2021.

Gruber, Christiane and Ashley Dimmig. Pearls of Wisdom: The Arts of Islam at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 2014.

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