Full Moon drawing

An engraving by the 19th-century artist Claude Mellan, based on telescope observations for an illustrated atlas of the Moon that never saw publication.


Two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to present at the Astral Poetics conference at the University of California, Irvine. The conference was sponsored by the department of visual studies, with an emphasis on “presentations from visual, material, cultural, film and media, and art historical studies, or any humanistic approach that considers stars, the sky, their representations, and practices of looking at or from the sky.”

I always enjoy attending conference sessions that are a little outside the norm, careerwise. I find that gaining a perspective on topics related (perhaps only tangentially) to my day-to-day work can help me think differently. I’ve learned a lot attending conferences on information architecture and geophysics, as well as sitting in on sessions at computer graphics conferences outside my usual bailiwick of science visualization.

(I’ll note that the conference also took as an organizing principle Walter Benjamin’s proposal that “ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars.” Which I find myself coming back to again and again over the last couple of weeks. As keynote speaker Susan Buck-Morss put it, “It’s hard to write something without it becoming a narrative.” She encouraged the audience to think beyond simply “narrative versus counternarrative.” Provocative and inspiring.)

I cannot possibly provide an exhaustive rundown on people’s presentations, but I wanted to share a few highlights—things I found interesting or provocative. And for lack of a better organizing principle, I’ll take the presentations chronologically in terms of the questions they addressed.

Venus in Chains

Going back early enough, of course, astronomy and astrology become inextricably intertwined. So the first example relates to the depiction (i.e., personification) of planets in Islamic texts and objects from the 12th to 14th centuries. This isn’t an especially alien concept—our contemporary naming scheme makes reference to the planets by the names of Roman deities, after all, so Mercury, for example, may be the planet that zips around the Sun, but it’s also the messenger god with dominion over communication, travel, commerce, trickery, and thieving.

In her presentation “Venus in Chains: Gender, Labor, and the Wandering Stars in Medieval Islamic Art,” Ava Hess from UCLA presented her analysis of how the planet Venus was represented in both elite and popular contexts during this era.

It turns out that Islamic astronomical depictions relied mostly on Greek models for constellations, but the planets (a.k.a “wandering stars”) were treated differently. For example, in more elite representations (in, say, illuminated manuscripts and more academic treatises): Saturn appears as an individual of foreign origin, often engaged in menial labor; Jupiter, typically wearing a turban, suggesting his role as judge; Mars as a warrior, sometimes carrying a severed head; Venus as a court performer, usually with a lute; and Mercury, often depicted without a beard, possibly as a eunuch.

(For a visual aid, you can take a look at this Bowl with Courtly and Astrological Motifs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Starting with the guy holding a severed head and proceeding clockwise, you can spot Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Saturn, and Jupiter encircling the image of the Sun at the center.)

These representations of the cosmos rely on the context of court structure—in which, presumably, the Sun and Moon play the roles of more aristocratic members of the court.

While we might be tempted to interpret Venus as a court performer, Hess called attention to the “jawārī-qiyān institution,” which is described quite plainly in the description that accompanies an (unrelated) academic talk: “Young girls were bought at an early age and were given a diverse education which included music, poetry, grammar, calligraphy, philosophy, astronomy as well as other arts and sciences. […] Their most outstanding artistic skills were related to music and poetry and were enjoyed in the refined milieus of the epoch among caliphs, courtiers, high-ranking officers, legendary musicians and intellectuals.”

This representation of Venus is thus entwined with forced labor. Imagery that is made even more explicit in examples of occult or folk astrology (for example, some manuscripts and small talismans carried for good luck) from the same time period, in which Venus appears as a naked woman in chains.

These depictions of “Venus in chains” and Mercury as a eunuch both depict forced labor more graphically than other planets’ representations. My astronomer brain immediately goes to the behavior of Mercury and Venus in the sky. Because their orbits are interior to Earth’s, the two planets never stray far from the Sun’s location in the sky (seen only as morning or evening “stars”), so in some sense they are in bondage to the Sun. Other planets can wander more freely, although they nonetheless follow the same zodiacal path through the sky, along with the Sun and Moon.

Regardless of the details, it is a reminder that as cultures, we imprint meaning on the sky—and the ugliness of a society can be reflected in the beauty of the heavens.


Palazzo della Ragione in Padua

In her talk, “Imaging the Heavens: Pictorial Knowledge and Astrology at the Palazzo della Ragione, Padua,” Anna Majeski from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, took us a few thousand kilometers to the west.

I honestly can’t do justice to the breadth of her presentation, which was in turn a subset of her doctoral thesis. But it focused on fresco imagery produced from 1300–1450, decorating the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua, Italy. This massive astrological cycle features 319 images broken into 12 segments (like months of the year), starting with Aries and moving clockwise around the giant chamber, under an enormous vault originally painted blue with stars. An individual cannot observe the entire image at the same time, unlike a manuscript—but just like the actual sky!

Majeski described astrology as “a form of pictorial thinking,” and she pointed out that this collaboration between architects and artists created a space in which one can “contemplate the contingency of human knowledge.”

She also inspired me to add Padua to my itinerary if and when I ever make it to Italy.


Engraving the Moon

The 19th-century engraving of the Moon that accompanies this article comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The artist, Claude Mellan, was a remarkably talented engraver, perhaps most famous for his rendering of Christ with a single, spiraling line.

Elizabeth Carleton from UC Riverside described three of Mellan’s moon engravings in “La Face Lunaire: Reexamining Claude Mellan’s Selenographia,” in which she lauded his “elegant solutions to challenges of scientific representation.”

On the one hand, Mellan was best known as a portraitist, and it might have seemed a little odd for the astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc to invite him to collaborate on a proposed atlas of the Moon. But as Carleton pointed out, perhaps the astronomer wanted a portrait of the Moon.

The project was also intended to improve ability to judge distance on the lunar surface, and Mellan’s “obsessive interest in geometry” (cf. that single spiral line, varying in width to create a portrait) probably made him an appealing candidate as well.

I also found it interesting that, in lieu of a lone spiral, Mellan chose to render the Moon using a series of horizontal lines (again varying in width) to create the image of the lunar surface. It is even more intriguing when compared to 20th-century transmissions from the Voyager spacecraft and other remote-sensing satellites—sent back home as lines of varying intensity to create an image. Before there were individual pixels, there were waves of changing brightness stacked like virtual logs to create pictures. Mellan was ahead of his time—or perhaps an inspiration.


Broken Earth

Which segues neatly into my final topic.

One of the organizers of the conference, Zachary Korol-Gold, presented his reactions to images from the ATS-3 satellite. (The most famous of these images was used as the cover of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, back in 1968.) In “Broken World Pictures of the Applications Technology Satellite 3,” Karol-Gold shared images ripped from an exposed directory that forms part of an archive of digitized images based at the University of Wisconsin.

Randomly sampling from this collection of images reveals far more failures than successes. The images of Earth appear distorted, misshapen, even torn apart

The ATS-3 satellite used an innovative “spin-scan camera,” which used the spin of the satellite to capture imagery of Earth. As described on the archive website: “Mounted aboard the spin-stabilized satellite, the camera scanned a small strip of the Earth with each rotation. By tilting the camera slightly for the next rotation (the next line of the picture), an image of Earth could be created in about 20 minutes.” This creates images built up scanline by scanline, more than a bit like Mellan’s engraving of the Moon. It also creates the opportunity for errors like those mentioned above.

Korol-Gold described his reaction to seeing these images, which he evidently found quite distressing. As he noted, the philosopher Martin Heidegger described worldviews as a product of the scientific mindset, in which “science seeks to represent the world in its own terms,” and if so, what do these images mean? What does it mean for the Whole Earth Catalog to select one of the few images that wasn’t distorted or mangled by technical artifacts?

What I found compelling about his presentation (over and above his engaged and entertaining speaking style) was the contrast to my own experience of the images. I would look at these images and see them as simple defects—technical problems manifested as imagery, devoid of any larger meeting. My brain, trained in a certain way and habituated to “seeing” through a well-developed set of interpretive filters, characterizes the images according to my expectations. And by presenting an alternative perspective, Korol-Gold allowed me to perceive the violence of these images, visually destroying the planet they were intended to study and to represent. Especially when taken in contrast to the holistic view of our planet cultivated by the Whole Earth Catalog, this is quite jarring.


Closing Thoughts

From medieval Islamic representations of planets in the sky to NASA’s representations of our home planet, the presentations at Astral Poetics reinforced in my mind the idea that (in the words of the conference website) “the stars continue to manifest a final frontier of liberatory possibilities.” I look forward to discovering how I continue to think differently about these topics moving forward…


About the Planetarian

Ryan Wyatt throwing Mars up in the air.

Ryan Wyatt assumed his role as Senior Director of Morrison Planetarium and Science Visualization at the California Academy of Sciences in April 2007. He has written and directed the Academy’s six award-winning fulldome video planetarium programs: Fragile Planet (2008), Life: A Cosmic Story (2010), Earthquake (2012), Habitat Earth (2015), Incoming! (2016), and Expedition Reef (2018). All six shows are science documentaries that rely on visualization to tell their stories, but topics range from astronomy to geology, ecosystem science, and conservation. Trained as an astronomer, Wyatt has worked in the planetarium field since 1991; prior to arriving in San Francisco, he worked for six years as Science Visualizer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Wyatt is cofounder and vice president of Immersive Media Entertainment, Research, Science, and Art (IMERSA), a professional organization dedicated to advancing the art and technology of immersive digital experiences. He served as co-chair of the 2019 Gordon Research Conference on Visualization in Science and Education (GRC/VSE), and served as the vice co-chair of the 2017 GRC/VSE.


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