Ho astēr tou Christou Vasilikos, or, Nuncius Christi sydereus. The star of the eastern-sages. London: D. Newman, 1681. *EC65.A100.681a10. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Ho astēr tou Christou Vasilikos, or, Nuncius Christi sydereus, ‘The star of the eastern-sages’ (London: D. Newman, 1681) (all images courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University)

When Milton was writing Paradise Lost in the 17th century, a comet grazed through the sky, inspiring the English poet to describe how Satan “stood Unterrified, and like a comet burn’d.” The simile for the awful and awe-inspiring wrath of evil is just one of many celestial events evoked in literature. In Harvard University’s Houghton Library, the interpretation of the cosmos in science and art history is explored through the library’s astronomy collection.

William Lilly, ‘The starry messenger; or, An interpretation of that strange apparition of three suns seene in London, 19. Novem. 1644. being the birth day of King Charles’ (London: J. Partridge and H. Blunden, 1645) (click to enlarge)

“The books and manuscripts we hold at Houghton are a wonderful window into the past because they’re both texts that can speak directly to us today, and historical artifacts full of evidence about how they were used at the time of their creation and in the centuries since,” John Overholt, curator of early modern books and manuscripts at Houghton Library, told Hyperallergic. “One of my goals for the exhibition was to make it broader than just great works of scientific discovery. I wanted to show works aimed at a popular audience, to show a much different understanding of the heavens that existed in parallel with the scientific one.”

Although he’d been interested in mounting an exhibition from the Houghton astronomy collection for a while, it was a Thomas Sandby print acquired a few years ago that finally initiated Starry Messengers. Sandby and scientist Tiberius Cavallo together witnessed a large meteor break up in the atmosphere from the terrace of Windsor Castle in 1783. Each interpreted it quite differently, Sandby with a moody engraving and Cavallo through a serious scientific paper. “As a curator, I really like being able to show Sandby’s lush depiction of the meteor alongside Cavallo’s sober scientific diagram,” Overholt said.

Thomas Sandby’s depiction of the 1783 meteor

Tiberius Cavallo, “Description of a Meteor,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, depicting the same 1783 meteor

We’re now better at seeing what’s beyond the atmosphere, demonstrated by the Hubble Telescope’s stunning and massive image of the Andromeda galaxy released in January, yet we’re still searching for meaning with much the same curiosity as centuries ago. The controversial astrology of William Lilly in the 17th century, even at the time derided by some as fraudulent, included a 1645 publication called The Starry Messenger on the “Interpretation of that strange Apparition of three Suns seene in London on the King’s birthday.” Exhibited in the Houghton alongside other early modern texts, Lilly’s is representative of our evolving knowledge, whether ascertained through scientific measure or more pseudoscience means (astrology, after all, still persists in popularity).

In Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, published last year, Michael Benson chronicles over a thousand years of mapping the stars, including how our understanding of them has altered technology, and how art and literature have increasingly deemphasized the divine in favor of astronomical findings. Likewise, Starry Messengers at Harvard’s Houghton Library embraces the incredible diversity of depictions of outer space over time, where no matter how fantastic or fictional, there persists a collective wonder at the worlds beyond our own.

Johannes Faulhaber, ‘Fama syderea nova. Nuremberg: S. Halbmayer’ (1618)

Johann Christoph Wagner, ‘Cometa disparens, das ist, Gründlicher Bericht von dem fernern Lauff dess Komet-Sterns, biss zu dessen völliger Verlöschung’ (1681)

Starry Messengers: Signs and Science from the Skies continues at Harvard University’s Houghton Library in the Edison and Newman Room (Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts) through May 2. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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