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The Renaissance Night Sky?

Read Stefan Zieme’s research article “Imagining the Heavens: Adam Elsheimer’s Flight into Egypt and the Renaissance Night Sky” here.

Stefan Zieme

Humboldt University of Berlin

In November 2018, at a workshop in Munich held at the Bayrische Akademie der Wissenschaften, I talked about Albrecht Dürer’s 1526 life-size painting in oil on limewood The Four Apostles. I discussed it in relation to the astral beliefs and practices in Renaissance Nuremberg.

The day before the workshop, I went to see the original painting at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, only a few minutes away by foot from the venue. My visit was also motivated by the desire to see Adam Elsheimer’s 1609 painting in oil on copper The Flight into Egypt. A friend of mine from art history—thank you Horst—had told me about the painting and the debate about its astronomical content.

Elsheimer’s detailed depiction of the night sky, especially the rendering of the Milky Way as individual stars and the shading of the moon, initially convinced art historians and specialists at the museum that his painting was based on early telescopic observations by Galileo Galilei. These were believed to have been conducted before the publication of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius in March of 1610. However, because Elsheimer had painted the image before Galileo had even begun his telescopic observations, scholars began to suspect that Elsheimer himself had observed the night sky with one of the early telescopes.

In the context of an exhibition dedicated to Elsheimer’s painting, which took place in late 2005 and early 2006 at the Pinakothek, German media sensationalized the artwork by stating that the details of the painted night sky could be dated to a day in July 1609. This conjecture had been formulated very cautiously by a team at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Yet sensation outweighed skepticism. The dating was embraced in the exhibition catalogue and eventually taken up by the media.

At the time of my visit at the Pinakothek in 2018, I had read most of the publications concerning this topic. Admittedly, I was skeptical of the art historical dictum, for none of the authors had inquired into traditional knowledge cultures related to the Renaissance night sky, but rather focused on the historiography of scientific achievements around Galileo and the telescope.

After my close inspection of Elsheimer’s Flight into Egypt, I turned away from the painting and a group of school kids stormed into the room. They enthusiastically gathered around their teacher in front of Elsheimer’s painting. I lingered on, hoping to witness the kids’ reaction to the artwork. The teacher’s short description of the artist and his work was met with indifference and boredom. But when the teacher said the night sky could be exactly dated to a specific year, day, and time, the kids were immediately fascinated. Hearing this put me in a quite grumpy mood. In my conviction there was nothing to be dated in Elsheimer’s night sky—idiosyncrasies clearly outbalanced any astronomical evidence. However, I did not spoil the kids’ fascination for amazing tales of the history of scientific achievements. And I did not approach the group to stress the point that we should rather embrace complexity than simple narratives of ingenious historical actors. But I stood in the far corner of the room and didn’t dare ruin the kids’ fun. Yet, I thought to myself that although the painting should be observed with fascination, this seemed to be the wrong reason for it. Following the event, I decided to engage the scholarly debate related to Elsheimer’s depiction of the night sky.

The next day, I gave my talk. It was based on well-established grounds: Astral beliefs loomed large in Renaissance Europe and with it came a knowledge culture in which the heavens where perceived and imagined in a particular way. But what was this particular way? And with regard to Elsheimer’s artwork especially: How did people perceive the night sky with their bare eyes?

When we watch the nightly moon, waning, waxing, or in full, we immediately perceive its rugged surface and imagine a mountainous landscape with deep craters and high peaks. When we catch a glimpse of the galactic plane during a new moon, from an area with little light pollution, we perceive countless stars that blend their light into the Milky Way. But we do not in fact see these things; we have been taught to perceive them, but we cannot actually see them. What we see and how we perceive things is determined by the knowledge culture that surrounds us and that we grew up with.

In my article Imagining the Heavens: Adam Elsheimer’s Flight into Egypt and the Renaissance Night Sky I focus on how people in the Renaissance, Elsheimer’s contemporaries, perceived and described the night sky. What did they “see” when they looked at the Milky Way? What were the visual and textual narratives that determined such knowledge?

Illustration of the Milky Way from Hugo Grotius, Syntagma Arateorum (Leiden, 1600), Aratea Phaenomena Germanico Caesare Interprete, 85. ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Rar 3999. DOI:

Highly influential in this regard were, for example, popular didactic poems that described celestial phenomena, like Germanicus’ Aratea. In a version printed in Leiden in 1600 by Hugo Grotius, the Milky Way is unmistakably illustrated as a circle consisting of individual stars. It is accompanied by a text that reads: “When the stars render a clean light far away, its [the circle’s] color is milky.”[1] Both text and image indicate that the authors of such books believed the Milky Way was composed of stars that are too far away and thus too small to be seen distinctly with the naked eye. Thereby, the often quoted argument that Elsheimer could only know about the stellar structure of the Milky Way from Galileo’s telescopic observations loses validity.

What replaces the long sought-after scientific timeliness of the artwork, I argue in my article, is Elsheimer’s painterly practice and his biblical iconography. Although I restrained myself from commenting on the sensational account given to the group of kids at the museum, my article proposes a more nuanced, but no less captivating understanding of the night sky as shaped by interactions of different types of knowledge.

[1] Hugo Grotius, Syntagma Arateorum (Leiden, 1600), Aratea Phaenomena Germanico Caesare Interprete, 84: “Sydera cum reddunt sinceros eminus ignes, Lactis ei color est.”

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