The death of Tycho Brahe, the astrologer to Rudolf II

The man behind the silver nose was only in Bohemia for a short time

While the court of Emperor Rudolf II was filled with astrologers and alchemists, the most famous and the most colorful is certainly Tycho Brahe. He is most remembered for his strange death.

He only lived in Bohemia from 1597 to 1601 and is buried in the Church of Our Lady before Týn in Old Town Square. His tombstone is on the church floor near the altar.

Rumors that jealous rivals had murdered him with poison in 1601 when he was 54 years old circulated for centuries. He was exhumed and reburied in 1901, and in the 1990s, some scientists who had tested old samples concluded he was given a fatal dose of mercury.

Etching of Tycho Brahe

1586 portrait of Tycho Brahe with the coats of arms of his noble ancestors, by Jacques de Gheyn. Public domain

Suspects in the alleged murder included fellow astronomer / astrologer Johannes Kepler, who wanted his research notes, and agents of Denmark’s King Christian IV, over rumors Brahe slept with the king’s mother, Queen Sophie of Mecklenburg-Güstrow. Brahe had been caught up in a plagiarism dispute with a rival named Nicolaus Reimers Bär, who died in 1600. At the time, friends of Reimers Bär were widely suspected to have had a hand in Brahe’s revenge death.

Improvements in science led to him being exhumed again in 2010, at the urging of Danish authorities. A tin box containing bones and a skull was removed and the bones were subjected to computer tomography and other tests.

The results of the new high-tech autopsy, released in 2012, finally concluded he died of complications of a burst bladder. Kidney stones were also ruled out as a cause of death.

There were traces of mercury found, but not enough to be fatal. Likely, the mercury was due to being around alchemical experiments, including his own.

Brahe is said to have stayed through a banquet in Prague on Oct. 13, 1601, even though he was in great stomach pain, without getting up to go to the bathroom, as this would have been against protocol. The banquet was given by Petr Vok of Rožmberk, a nobleman who was also interested in alchemy and astrology, although Rudolf II is also often wrongly named as the host. Brahe went to the banquet with Imperial Councilor Einfried Minkawitz.

Tomb of Tycho Brahe from 1901

Tomb of Tycho Brahe from 1901 in Týn Church.

Alternately, Brahe’s bladder is said to have burst while he was making observations of an eclipse, but no eclipses fall into the right time frame.

He died 11 days after the banquet on Oct. 24, 1601, at a house that is no longer standing near Loretánské náměstí. Reportedly he was delirious for much of the time and refused to keep to a prescribed diet. He often called out that he hoped he had not lived in vain. On his last day, he regained his senses and begged Kepler to finish his work and prove that his theory of planetary movement was correct. From his family, only his younger son was present. He arranged to send some messages back to Denmark, and then died.

Tycho Brahe's original tomb

Tycho Brahe’s original tomb in Týn Church

His funeral, an Ultraquist service, was Nov. 4 at Týn Church. The funeral procession included candles with his coat of arms, two horses, a dozen imperial guards, black and gold banners with coats of arms, a velvet covered casket and much pageantry. The oration was given by a Dr. Jessinky of Wittenberg, who lauded him for his fine points like being charitable and not a hypocrite, but he did not fail to tactfully remind people of Brahe’s false nose. He also praised Brahe for educating his sons and making sure his daughters knew how to spin and sew. Dr. Jessinky had apparently lived with Brahe for two years.

The speech was not universally well-received. The King of Denmark wrote to the Elector of Saxony to complain of the nasal reference, saying the duel that led to the injury had been a fair one. He demanded that Dr. Jessinky, a resident of Saxony, be forced to retract his comments.

At the time of his death, Brahe was in the process of finally buying an estate of his own in Bohemia, but he seems not to have completed the deal.

His sons put up a marble monument with a relief of Brahe in armor. A plaque above his original tombstone reads “Non fasces nec opes sola artis sceptra perennant,” meaning “Neither power nor wealth, only Art and Science will endure.” A black stone with gold writing is on the church floor near the altar. That stone dates to 1901.

Brahe is revered by modern scientists for his contributions to astronomy, notably observations that led his colleague Johannes Kepler to come up with the laws of planetary motion, with the planets following elliptical orbits around the sun.

Kepler's home in Prague

Kepler’s home in Prague on Karlova Street

But at the time Brahe and Kepler lived, there was no distinction between astrology and astronomy, and both scientists are known to have looked to the stars for predictions of the future. Brahe even wrote a treatise on a new way of dividing the heavens into astrological houses, but the paper is now lost.

Brahe also took a stab at making a system to predict the weather based on the positions of the stars, and in particular the moon, but was not satisfied with the results — he kept at it, though, making weather notes and trying to find the correlation.

Two of his astrological predictions stand out. At the time of a supernova in 1572 and again at the comet of 1577, Brahe predicted a prince born in Finland would lay waste to Germany and vanish in 1632. This fits in loosely with Gustavus Adolphus, a king of Sweden who was involved in the Thirty Years’ War and died in 1632. Finland was part of the kingdom of Sweden, but Gustavus Adolphus was born in Stockholm, so the prediction is close but not exact. Also, Gustavus Adolphus wasn’t born until 1594, some 20 years after the initial prediction.

Emperor Rudolf II byJoseph Heintz the Elder

Emperor Rudolf in 1594 by Joseph Heintz the Elder

During his life, Brahe was highly regarded for his horoscopes, or nativity charts. People he did charts for included Emperor Rudolf II, and the Danish kings Frederick II and Christian IV.

Rudolf connected Brahe’s first name, Tycho, with Tyche, the Greek goddess of fortune. As a result, Rudolf put a lot of stock in Brahe’s astrology, even though Brahe himself at the end of his life was more interested in the purely mathematical aspects of planetary and stellar motion.

Brahe predicted that Rudolf’s fate was tied to that of an African lion that lived at Prague Castle in a wooden pavilion near the Powder Bridge. A fancy restaurant called Lví Dvůr (Lion Courtyard) now stands where this mini zoo was.

The name of the lion is given as either Oskar or Mohamed, and it was perhaps a gift from a Turkish sultan. Rudolf is said to have died a few days after the lion did.

Discussions of Tycho Brahe would not be complete without reference to his metallic prosthetic nose. He lost his nose in a duel and had a fake one that was held in place by a sticky ointment. Most sources refer to it as silver or gold, but the 1901 and 2010 autopsies found traces of copper around his nose, indicating it may have been brass. The actual fake nose was not in his tomb, and its location is likely to be an unsolved mystery. Some people conjecture that he may have had two noses, one for everyday use and one for special occasions. But who knows the truth behind the nose?


Background

Tycho Brahe was the last great astronomer to make all of his observations without a telescope.

He had an observatory called Uraniborg, on the island of Scania in what was then Denmark. He had financial support from King Frederick II of Denmark, but the next king, Christian IV, was not so inclined.

Benátky Castle in Bohemia

Benátky Castle in Benátky nad Jizerou, Central Bohemia. Source: Wikimedia commons

At the invitation of Emperor Rudolf II, Brahe moved to Prague in 1597 to continue his work in decoding the movement of the planets. In 1599, Rudolf gave Brahe a new observatory in a castle in Benátky nad Jizerou, some 50 kilometers from Prague. He was only there for a year before Rudolf called him back to Prague, as he was wanted to do predictions and interpret charts.

Tycho Brahe's house in Prague

Tycho Brahe’s house in Nový Svět Street in Prague

On his return to Prague in 1600, he lived at the house called At the Golden Griffin (U Zlatého noha) at Nový Svět street N° 1. The street was a popular address for alchemists.

A statue of Brahe and Kepler is at Pohořelec, next to a tram stop on the 22 line. It is between Prague Castle and Nový Svět. At the site of the statue there was the Kurz Summer Palace, where the two made stellar observations. The statue was erected in 1984. The palace is no longer there, as a fire occurred in the area.

Plaque at Tycho Brahe's house in Prague

Plaque at Tycho Brahe’s house in Nový Svět Steet in Prague

 

Statue of Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe in Prague

Statue of Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe in Prague

Among Brahe’s contributions to astronomy are determining that comets moved beyond the orbit of the moon and that the tail faces away from the sun. He also determined a comet is solid, and not merely an optical effect.

He also made incredibly detailed observations of the supernova of 1572.

His interpretation of his data wasn’t always accurate. He came up with a complex system placing the earth at the center, with the sun and moon orbiting it, and the rest of the planets orbiting the sun. Kepler was the one to bring sense to the data, and the Tychonic system, as Brahe’s was called, was ultimately discarded.

The Church of Our Lady before Týn can be seen on the Knight of Pentacles in The Tarot of Prague. The two towers of the church are sometimes called Adam and Eve, and are not the same height. The difference was designed to avoid the vanity of trying to create perfection.


An article by Baba Studio with Raymond Johnston. Copyright Baba Studio, all rights reserved. Please contact us if you would like to syndicate or otherwise use this article.

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