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Copernicus was convinced the planets revolved around the sun; Tycho Brahe had his own theory, that every planet except the Earth revolved around our star, then the sun orbited with all the planets around the Earth. Both offered heavily illustrated charts to accompany their visions of the universe, just two examples in a long history of human depictions of the world beyond our planet. In a new book called Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, published this month by Abrams, Michael Benson examines over a thousand years of mapping the great beyond.
A photographer and filmmaker, Benson has published his own images of the night sky and the planets of our solar system. He’s also thoroughly researched the strange, beautiful, and prescient ways in which artists, scientists, and other enthusiasts have documented the seen and unseen in space over the centuries. Drawing on libraries and collections from around the world, Cosmigraphics chronicles how our understanding of the stars has changed with technology like telescopes and satellites, and even now continues to expand. Benson wrote in the New York Times: “The book’s overarching subject is our emergence as conscious beings within an unimaginably vast and cryptic universe, one that doesn’t necessarily guard its secrets willfully, but doesn’t hand out codebooks either.”
One major change over the years is a lessening of the emphasis on the divine now that the workings of astronomy are more evident. A 1573 illustration by Portuguese artist Francisco de Holanda feels strikingly contemporary with its fusion of abstract shapes and the Holy Trinity, shown as a human figure shooting lightning from his hands; the explosion of illumination and the words “Let There Be Light” in Latin evoke the dawn of our universe. Earlier works, like Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi’s Book of Fixed Stars from 964, give the first glimpses of galaxies neighboring our Milky Way, including Andromeda and the Large Magellanic Cloud. Étienne Trouvelot’s late-19th-century pastels based on his view from the Harvard College Observatory vividly illustrated phenomena like sunspots; his depictions went unrivaled for a century after.
Of course, there are also the errors that we now know to be woefully wrong, like three suns supposedly shining over the world in 1533 (most likely a sun dog illusion), or mountain peaks on the moon in an 1874 illustration. Our knowledge of space is still incomplete, however, our visualizations still as much a science-based fiction (see NASA’s exoplanet illustrations). As Benson’s book argues, we have long been grasping at our place in the galaxy through these artistic depictions, and there’s something so compelling in this quest that it continues to join science, belief, and a compulsion to understand.