While we all (safely!) witness this surreal and spectral time, stars in the sky have stayed in isolation for billions of light-years, just to twinkle at you from a very safe distance in space and time. If you are existentially musing about the deep, dark Infinite and your place in the vastness of it all… Don’t worry! You’re not alone.
A virtual glance at the Getty Research Institute’s rare book collections on the intersection between art, science, and spirituality reveals how others around the world expressed through art what came to mind as they gazed at the stars, contemplated the cosmos, or meditated on how to envision the invisible—some of them during their own unsettling times.
Kosmos means “order” in ancient Greek. It also means “ornament” and “adornment” (as in “cosmetics”). The ordered cosmos of medieval Islamic stargazers was also adorned, as were the books used to aid in teaching celestial science. In an Ottoman version of The Wonders of Creation by Zakarīyā al-Qazwīnī, the cycle of lunar phases is depicted as an ornamental ring, golden as the moon waxes, pearlescent as it wanes. Al-niẓām, an Arabic word for systematic order, particularly of the celestial kind, is derived from the verb naẓama—“to string pearls.”
Al-Qazwīnī was born in Iran, but moved to Baghdad, then the scientific and cultural capital of the Islamic world. In 1258 he was witness to the siege and reputedly horrific sack of Baghdad by the Mongols. He composed his Wonders of Creation during the ensuing occupation.
Diego Valadès has been described as the first American to publish a book in Europe. Born in Mexico in 1533, apparently to a Nahua mother and a Spanish conquistador, scholars claim that he was the first mestizo to join the Franciscan order and receive a thoroughly Catholic education. In his illustrated Christian rhetoric, Valadès argues that a Christian orator can only move souls by first comprehending how God employs the Divine Spirit (i.e. Holy Ghost) to animate the motion of the cosmos (“anima” is Latin for “soul”). The author designed and apparently engraved most of the illustrations for this book.
Valadès became the Franciscan missionary to the Chichimeca in northern New Spain perhaps as early as 1555, the year that a devastating pandemic—symptoms comprised those of smallpox, measles, and influenza—ravaged the population of Mexico City. In 1570, he was sent to Rome as a Franciscan emissary—and perhaps a prop for the “civilizing process” of a Franciscan education—and composed his Rhetorica Christiana. He never returned to Mexico, and so never witnessed a 1576 pandemic outbreak there.
Born in 1574, Robert Fludd became physician to the English King James I, and envisioned the divine decorative arrangement of the universe in collaboration with printer-publisher Johann Theodor De Bry and artist Matthäus Merian the Elder (father of the botanical artist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian). All three were radical religious reformers who sought to reconcile Christian theological doctrine with pagan Greek thought and the blending of science and spirituality advanced by Islamic natural philosophers.
Fludd’s encyclopedia On the History of the Macro- and Microcosm, i.e., our physical world and the metaphysical one beyond was undertaken at the outset of the Thirty Years’ War. Otherwise known as the Wars of Religion, this theological dispute may have claimed the highest body count in the history of European violent conflicts.
Appearing from a cloud labeled “Yahweh” in Hebrew (i.e., “Jehovah”), a celestial arm holds Mother Nature handcuffed to a chain as she showers milk onto the world, nourishing its growth. Chained to her is a monkey perched on the Earth and grasping a globe—a simian symbol for humanity, the species that grasps how to “ape” nature. The cosmos wheels around them, ordered in ascending hierarchy from earthly elements to planets to the ethereal spheres of heaven, where cherubic angels embody stars.
In 1616, a year before Fludd’s mammoth work began to go to press, Pope Paul V summoned Galileo Galilei to Rome, accusing him of heretically supporting the heliocentric theory of the universe. In Fludd’s cosmological vision, Earth still appears at the center.
Ferdinand Verbiest was a Netherlandish Jesuit missionary, first stationed in Macau, and then summoned to Beijing in 1660 primarily as a teaching assistant in astronomy at the Jesuit mission. Four years later, a wave of hostility toward Christian teachings led to the imprisonment of Jesuit scientists, Verbiest among them. Famed in Jesuit annals is the account of Father Verbiest, weighed down by chains, earning the scientists’ freedom by delivering an impassioned and eloquent defense in Chinese of Jesuit science and its imprisoned practitioners. In 1668, the young Kangxi Emperor held a public event, in which European astronomy and mathematics were pitted against traditional Chinese teaching of those fields. European science, represented by Verbiest as its champion, emerged as the victor.
Having earned the trust of the young Emperor, Verbiest was commanded by him to construct a series of modern European astronomical instruments and to produce a book illustrating and explicating them in Chinese. A copy of that two-volume woodblock-printed set is preserved in the Getty Research Institute’s rare book vaults. Among its woodcuts is one showing the Earth (still!) at the center, with cardinal directions indicating the position of stars and planets in the surrounding celestial sphere. The Kangxi emperor became Verbiest’s student. The Jesuit, however, never succeeding in converting him to worship the Christian God, called in Chinese by Verbiest, “Lord of the Stars.”
Guillaume Le Gentil de la Galaisière, a respected astronomer in the French Academy of Sciences, was part of an international consortium of scientists who attempted to realize an idea first suggested by Edmund Halley (of comet fame): What if we measured the distance of the Sun from Earth by observing the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun from different parts of the world on 6 June 1761? The mandate of the French contingent was to take measurements from a region in the Indian Ocean. Le Gentil set out for Pondicherry, a French-held port city on the South East coast of India. On June 6, the sky was clear, but the vessel was caught at sea, unable to land, and accurate findings could not be recorded. Venus would transit across the sun again in eight years, and then not again for at least another 105. Le Gentil determined to remain for those eight, in the meantime charting coasts, researching the history of Hindu astronomy and related mythology, and recording observations of various stellar phenomena.
On June 3, 1769, the sky was overcast, and the opportunity for measurement was lost. His return trip was laborious, first beset by dysentery and then a storm at sea. He returned to Paris after eleven years away, only to find that storms, shipwrecks, and pirate attacks had resulted in none of his correspondence ever reaching Paris. He had been declared legally dead, his wife had remarried, and his coveted position at the Royal Academy was filled by someone else. His relatives had also bankrupted his estate “avec une grande enthousiasme.”
An astronomer, architect, and garden designer, Thomas Wright was the first to correctly postulate that clusters of starry nebulae were in fact galaxies too distant for us to discern clearly, and that the luminous blur of the Milky Way was simply an optical effect caused by our immersion in it.
He had an unidentified artist employ engraving, etching, and mezzotint to express through inkiness a sublime and impenetrably dark depth of infinite clusters of galaxies. Wright describes this plate as “a finite view of Infinity.”