A total solar eclipse is one of the most otherworldly experiences a person can have on Earth.
By an almost incredible coincidence, the the tiny, humdrum moon and the gigantic, raging sun are arranged in such a way so that the former can blot out the latter.
Although the moon is about 400 times smaller, it covers the sun’s disc because it’s about 400 times closer to the Earth.
A small group of dedicated travelers follow eclipses around the world, chasing the spectacle of the blackened sun’s corona and the umbra, the conical shadow the moon casts over Earth. The community is tightly knit, bonded over the life-altering experience of losing the sun.
Many “umbraphiles” are self-described eclipse addicts, having witnessed a dozen or more eclipses.
Several gathered this week in equatorial Africa for an annular eclipse, and are already planning their itineraries for what they’ve dubbed the Great American Eclipse of 2017.
Next August will be the first time the path of a solar eclipse will cross the nation since the year of its founding.
For thousands of years, people in cultures around the world have depicted eclipses in art, imbuing them with fear and dread and a heavy dose of the supernatural.
A Chinese myth held that eclipses happened when a sky dragon dined on our star. In the Americas, the Inca had a similar tale, only the hungry beast was a jaguar.
In Western Europe during the Middle Ages, eclipses took on a dual meaning, and became a means for expressing varieties of both religious and scientific experience.
“In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, astronomy and solar eclipses were a huge craze. Virtually anyone who considered himself an educated person then took an interest in art and science, in a way that doesn’t really happen anymore,” says Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum in London.
The popularization of telescopes and printing presses brought astronomical knowledge into middle class homes, he says. It was also a time of discovery, with new planets like Uranus and Neptune brought into the celestial fold, as well as new moons around distant worlds.
By the time of the Enlightenment, eclipse artwork played a surprisingly important role in science, he says: “There are intriguing occasions when the artistic eye has been of real utility to the scientific process.”
In early Christian art, eclipses appeared in scenes of the crucifixion to signify the anger of God and to represent the collective grief of the universe, Blatchford says.
The Gospels tell of a darkened sky at the time of Christ’s death, which some scholars have interpreted as an eclipse. From Luke 23: 44-45: “It was now about the sixth hour and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured and the veil of the temple was torn in two.”
By the Italian Renaissance, paintings still held religious meaning, but their depictions of the sky and stars were drawn from early modern astronomy, Blatchford says.
Of all Blatchford’s finds, my favorite is a 1735 painting by German painter Cosmas Damian Asam. It depicts St. Benedict, who is said to have experienced a vision of the whole world “gathered together under a sunbeam.”
Jay Pasachoff, an astronomer at Williams College, has written that this painting may be the first accurate depiction of a total solar eclipse.
He thinks Asam himself might have witnessed at least one, or maybe each, of the total solar eclipses that took place in 1706, 1724 and 1733. “In one picture, you’ve got a lot of religion and a lot of science,” says Blatchford.
Even after the advent of photography, artists played a role in capturing eclipses, he says. He points to this lithograph of a total eclipse in Wyoming in 1878, produced by a French artist named Etienne Trouvelot. It is less detailed than modern photographs, but arguably more beautiful.
In 1918, the US Naval Observatory invited the American portrait painter Howard Russell Butler to paint a solar eclipse. His work depicted the corona, the glowing, wispy ring visible beyond the dark circle of the moon.
The painting’s perspective work supported the hypothesis that the corona was the sun’s atmosphere, and not the moon’s.
In the latter half of the 20th century, artists’ depictions of eclipses were less important to scientific discovery and more important as a means of interpretation.
For a cosmic event of such rarity and strangeness, an artist’s eye seems like a useful tool indeed. Though eclipses are well-understood physical phenomena, they are still imbued with mystery, and that’s something an artist can capture better than any camera.
“Even though rationally we understand an eclipse, I would say most people still find it, in a way, a sign of some kind of providence. They still can’t quite believe it’s happening,” says Blatchford .
“Even if you know what is happening, why it’s happening is a different question, isn’t it? I think some of my colleagues get annoyed when I make that distinction.”
“But I think most of our fellow human beings do make a distinction between understanding a technical explanation and wanting to look at even deeper explanations behind it.”
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