There is a fascinating tradition of depicting solar eclipses in Western art, although these representations have changed over time. Eclipses have often been an important feature of Christian iconography, but valued as much for their biblical significance as for the splendour of the physical event. However, as Western culture passed through the Renaissance and Enlightenment the depictions of eclipses came to reflect new astronomical knowledge and a thirst for rational learning well beyond the confines of the church and other elites. Artists also played a surprisingly important role in helping scientists in the nineteenth century understand and record the full phenomena of an eclipse, even as the advent of photography also came to solve a number of scientific puzzles. In the most recent century, artists have responded to eclipses with symbolism, abstraction and playfulness.
This article is part of the themed issue ‘Atmospheric effects of solar eclipses stimulated by the 2015 UK eclipse’.
A solar eclipse is a wholly explicable feature of our galaxy, and yet to witness one is to enjoy something of extraordinarily beauty and drama. It provokes wonder in many forms and, indeed, that very range of rational and emotional responses is why Prof. Giles Harrison decided to hold an ‘eclipse festival’ at Reading University on the occasion of the last solar eclipse being visible in the UK in March 2015. In addition to explanations for the general public about the physics, he was keen to take a generous approach to the subject and lectures included contributions from Dr Rachel Mairs, looking at what the ancient world did and did not understand about eclipses, and I was also persuaded to take part.
Prof. Harrison felt that an art historian who runs the national science museum might offer a range of perspectives on how artists have responded to solar eclipses. The intriguing task was to see how this might have changed over time, especially from the profoundly Christian pre-modern Europe to a more complex appreciation as the Renaissance and Enlightenment unfolded and right through to the modern scientific era.
The story is culturally fascinating and surprising. First, much of the finest art inspired by eclipses is inhabited by both belief and rational appreciation, and there are fewer binary choices being made by artists, between a purely religious response and scientific one, than one might anticipate. Second, while much of the art cited herein can be celebrated in purely aesthetic terms, and especially the more symbolic role of eclipses in much twentieth century art, there are intriguing occasions when the artistic eye has been of real utility to the scientific process.
The volume and range of enticing material is so extensive that it is necessary to limit the scope of this review from the outset. Thus, it does not address the artistic responses of ancient civilizations and the more familiar trope of people cowering as a celestial dragon or deity consumes the Sun. Even with this restriction, the survey still stretches from the sixth to twentieth centuries and the focus is on the traditions of Western art.
While space precludes consideration of ancient cultures, one might still note that the very word eclipse derives from the ancient Greek (ekleipsis) with its notion of abandonment or failure, and a sense of portentousness certainly prevails in much of the early representations in European art.
2. The eclipse and early Christianity
The solar eclipse was afforded a significant role in much of the art of pre-modern Europe where the Catholic Church was probably the dominant patron of artistic endeavour and because the eclipse appears in a vivid episode that is central to the faith. The Gospels recall the moment of Christ’s death on the cross:
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.
—Luke 23: 44–45
This text might suggest that literal depictions of solar eclipses would thus be required in all depictions of the crucifixion. However, in approaching art of this period, one needs to suspend the default image of the Moon crossing the face of the Sun. The artistic response in this period was rather more formal, theological and counterintuitive to the modern mind. It takes unravelling too because it is heavy with symbolism and iconography.
Art of this period appeared as much in sacred ivories and illuminated manuscripts, as in the panel paintings that we now more readily associate with churches, monasteries and palaces. A firm tradition emerged of depicting the dying Christ flanked by the Sun (on his right) and a Moon. The Sun and Moon do not appear together in other scenes from the Bible and so their unique role in depictions of the final moments of Christ’s life clearly relates to the verse in Luke. Furthermore, the idea was not only to allude to both being eclipsed but also crucially to the idea of Christ as ruler of the cosmos . There is some evidence that the Sun and Moon motifs were taken over by early Christians from earlier Pagan traditions .
In the case of ivories, the full effect of these depictions is sometimes lost because significant elements would originally have been painted. However, it would have been selective polychromy because to paint the whole scene would have negated the point of using such a beautiful material. In some examples, the key factor is simply the very presence of the Sun and Moon (figure 1) as witnesses to the solemn event , although in some depictions there remains a potential carved allusion to an eclipse (figure 2) and unfortunately we do not know if paint might have once been applied to enhance the light and shade .
As crucial as these ivories were the depictions in illuminated gospels and sacramentaries (liturgies). One touching interpretation of eclipses can be found in the Echternach Gospels (c.1050) in which the Sun and Moon are personified and the eclipse takes the form of figures shrouding their faces in grief as the Gospel story proceeds (figure 3). Similar ideas also appear in the Metz Sacramentary (figure 4) created for the Bishop of Metz around 850 and here the mourning Moon is thought to represent the grief of the whole Church [2, p. 136 (footnote 38)].
It could be said that in these early depictions the solar eclipse is part of the artist’s iconographic toolkit rather than treated as a precise physical event. However, it has been argued by Olson & Pasachoff , in their seminal essay on eclipses in art, that in due course the nascent science of astronomy came to influence artists. They cite the example of Giotto’s painting of the Star of Bethlehem in his Adoration of the Magi, being one of the key frescoes in Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (figure 5). Their proposition is that the artist is really showing the stella cometa (what we now know at Halley’s Comet), revealing the influence of the new thinking at prestigious Padua university. Certainly, this ‘star’ has a tail, unlike the more conventional static image radiating heavenly power.
Nevertheless, although we are now considering images more than two centuries later than the earlier manuscripts, the orthodox approach remains the dominant one. For example, in 1376–1378, Giusto de Menabuoi decorated the interior of the Paduan Baptistry and here we see the conventional formula of a Sun and Moon (figure 6). However, this painting has the advantage of colour and we can see the artist attempted to allude to reality with the Moon exhibiting the red glow of a lunar eclipse and the Sun appearing cool and pale. Slightly more puzzling is the great Jan Van Eyck Crucifixion of 1422 in which the central panel shows a waning Moon to the left of Christ but makes no reference to a solar eclipse at all (figure 7).
Finally, one interesting proposition is that artists in the period might reveal the personal meaning of an eclipse even when that specific event is not per se the subject of the painting. It has been argued that Giotto passed on his interest in natural phenomena to his pupil Taddeo Gaddi. He was partially blinded by observing an eclipse in Florence in July 1330. The suggestion is that Gaddi expressed his physical trauma in his nocturnal Annunciation to the Shepherds in Sante Croce . The shepherd shields his eyes from dazzling light and the angel almost looks as if it is eclipsing the Sun (figure 8).
3. The eclipse in the Renaissance
As the Renaissance gathered pace from the end of the fifteenth century onwards, so traces of new knowledge can be identified, especially if taking a generous view of what counts as artistic. For example, important astronomical texts started to include impressive illustrations. A fine example is the Regiomontanus Kalendarium of 1476 with depictions of the phases of a solar eclipse (figure 9). Similarly, the Theorica Novae Planetarium (1553) by Georg von Peuerbach includes some excellent diagrams and explanations (figure 10). In both case, as alas for most comparable work at this date, we do not know who the illustrator/artist was. However, the artist is clear in the case of the humanist-inspired frescoes created by Giorgione in his hometown of Castelfranco. They include a diagram of a solar and lunar eclipse (figure 11), which may have been sourced by the artist or patron from the Kalendarium .
Artists could still have a real appreciation of the realistic features of a solar eclipse, but savour their use in a highly religious context. A fine example of this is a fresco created by Raphael and his workshop Isaac, Rebecca and Abimelech (1518–19) for the Vatican (figure 12) and some have suggested that it was no coincidence that the workshop may well have witnessed an annular eclipse that passed over Italy in June 1518 . It is certainly plausible as that is precisely what is painted.
In this work, the eclipse provides great drama and suspense for the biblical story. Isaac and Rebecca are taking advantage of the muted light from the eclipsed Sun, while the king of the Philistines is spying on them (seen in dim shadow behind a balcony at the top right of the picture). Isaac has claimed that Rebecca is his sister (fearing that the King covets his beautiful wife and will kill him to attain her) and the King is suspicious.1 The viewer knows that as the eclipse passes their secret assignation will be revealed to Abimelech in a shaft of radiant sunlight.
In the same way, some works mingled real ‘scientific’ observation with deeper religiosity and superstition. A painting that has attracted much scholarly discussion and puzzlement is Dionysius Converting the Pagan Philosophers (1570–1580) by Antoine Caron, court painter to Catherine de Medici (figure 13). The image could be read as a celebration of rational thought with the Christian Dionysius calmly pointing to the sky (while most of the other figures appear panicked) and an armillary sphere and calculations at his feet. However, this might risk an unduly modern reading because the depiction of the eclipse can hardly be said to be realistic and Catherine de Medici was famous for her devotion to astrology . Thus, the charts lying on the steps could be astrological tables rather than astronomical. The best one might conclude is that the painting is a paradox.
4. Reformation, the telescope and the baroque
Depictions of the solar eclipses from the late sixteenth century and into the next reflect a number of the conflicting currents. European religious orthodoxy was shattered by the Protestant reformation and the militancy of the Catholic counter-reformation, while our scientific understanding of the heavens was to be greatly advanced by the arrival of the telescope in the early part of the new century. While telescope magnification is not necessary for observing eclipses, one might say that the bar was raised in terms of the sophistication of observations .
One serious contribution to the history of solar eclipses, and one that is both scientific and artistic, is that made by the Polish Lutheran astronomer Johannes Hevelius (1611–1689) . One claim to fame derived from his observations of the Moon, which were published in his Selenographia of 1647 and were far more detailed and nuanced than those created by Galileo in his Sidereus Nuncius of 1610. However, perhaps the most striking fact is that Hevelius realized that improved observations needed to be matched by excellence in draughtsmanship and engraving worthy of publication and, therefore, he trained himself to engrave in copper, a work of great skill . Furthermore, unlike earlier scientific manuscripts in which text was dominant and images secondary, he was pioneering in producing works in which this was stood on its head, with the verbal text dependent on the dominant and splendid images .
His works are replete with precise descriptions of the tools, machinery and methods of observation and one of his masterpieces is the engraving of a darkened room (figure 14) showing how projecting solar images allows for safe observation of the Sun and of eclipses.2
By contrast, much painting of this period was influenced by the teachings of a resurgent Catholic Church and a clear doctrine that divine power was revealed through natural forms . To some degree, this harks back to theology underpinning the ivories and manuscripts that we encountered earlier. One can see such thinking in increasingly vivid depictions of solar eclipses in paintings of the crucifixion, in which the partial eclipse seems to provide a more vivid image of a divine will in action than, for example, the annular eclipse we saw in the work of Raphael. Thus, Rubens painted a dramatic partial eclipse in the upper corner of the right hand panel of his Elevation of the Cross triptych created for Antwerp Cathedral in 1610 (figure 15). Rubens deploys considerable artistic licence in the work because the Sun appears on Christ’s left (unlike the conventional in earlier work) and the left hand panel includes an un-eclipsed Moon hidden behind trees. In a second example, one sees the degree to which solar eclipses were the perfect choice for illustrating the traumatic light described in the Gospel, as in Philippe de Champaigne’s momentous image (figure 16) of an eclipse and terrifying darkness in his Crucifixion of 1655.3
One of the most innovative depictions is the Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John (figure 17) by Hendrick Ter Brugghen from around 1625. As a leading follower of Caravaggio, he would have been fascinated by the interplay of light and shade (chiaroscuro) and hence the eclipse does not appear directly, but is implied by contrasting light. There is some evidence that the artist would have witnessed and been inspired by a total solar eclipse shortly after his arrival in Rome in 1605 and an annular eclipse that occurred in his native Netherlands in 1621 .
5. Solar eclipses and the Enlightenment
The eighteenth century heralded crucial research on the Sun, not least that of Edmond Halley, who was the first to predict the path of an eclipse in 1715 and also reported the phenomenon of Baily’s Beads (later named after Francis Baily, who in 1836 observed beads of sunlight lingering along the edge of the Moon in an annular solar eclipse) .
Olson & Pasachoff  argue that ‘new knowledge’ could sometimes appear in a surprising context and cite the example of the Vision of St Benedict (figure 18) painted by Cosmas Damian Asam for the monastery church of Weltenburg in 1735. An initial viewing suggests that the picture is simply a dramatic celebration of ultra-Catholic spirituality, depicting a miraculous event recorded in the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great. This tells how St Benedict was blessed with a vision of the whole of creation in a beam of sunlight. However, on another level, the picture deploys the new awareness of the ‘diamond ring’ effect and beads of light around the Moon, and derives not only from fresh observations then circulating but from the artist’s own observations of solar eclipse.
This period also saw an exciting expansion in the breadth of the audience for solar images. So far, we have seen eclipse depictions created for churches and royal patrons and some material (such as scholarly books) available in either a very formal context or inaccessible to a wider public. However, the eighteenth century also saw the spreading of knowledge (and imagery) to a much wider public. One can cite the magnificent illustrations of the Atlas Coelestis (1742) of Johann Gabriel Dopplmayr showing eclipses in lavish formats (figure 19). But I think more important than these princely (and pricey) formats were works like Astronomy Explained (1757) by the Scottish Astronomer James Ferguson and the excellent illustrations by James Mynde (figure 20).
One sure sign that scientific concepts and ideas were permeating wider popular culture is that they started to be deployed in a humorous context . One cheerful example of this is a popular British print entitled An Eclipse Lately Discovered in the Georgium Sidus (figure 21). General Wellington is shown eclipsing the monarch George IV and casting a shadow over England but not Ireland. Wellington favoured Irish Catholic causes, although the King’s serene profile suggests that he was untroubled by such contentions. Even the reference to Georgium Sidus (the George Star) is a witty nod to the discovery of a new planet by William Herschel in 1781 and later named Uranus.
The Science Museum’s collections also show the extent to which tracking and observing eclipses was becoming something of a ‘craze’ in the early nineteenth century. Objects include the numerous guides and pamphlets advising on the techniques of observation and the more sophisticated could purchase a model from the Parisian instrument maker Robert Henri (figure 22) to illustrate the causes of lunar and solar eclipses. This view shows the Earth–Moon globes next to the Zodiac Ring and the brass Sun orb. Mounted on the brass ring, the Moon globe will rotate through string and pulleys as the wood and metal framework is turned. As the Moon globe crosses the zodiacal ring, showing the Sun’s path in the sky, an eclipse will occur if all three bodies lie in a straight line.
This passion for observation and rational enquiry sometimes provoked a rueful backlash. One such contribution came from the French artist and illustrator Jean Jacques Grandville in his publication of surreal images of 1844 Un Autre Monde.4 The book includes wild and fanciful ideas including the proposal to building a bridge between the stars, and the conceit that a rainbow does not derive from the physics of light but from the choreography of beautiful angels in the sky. Germane to eclipses (figure 23), he shows an eclipse as a kiss between two lovers, the Sun and the Moon, dressed in classical garb, and rudely intruded upon by the gaze of an array of modern observational devices and, by implication, the bustling middle classes .
6. Photography and the eclipse
Before the advent of photography, there was an important role for artists in recording the eclipses and the full visual and atmospheric effects, both for dissemination among a wider public and for the dedicated astronomer.
When the first eclipse photography arrived, it did not instantly make the conventional artist redundant, although over a few decades the fact that the event could be recorded simultaneously from widely separate sites was to assist in resolving some of the remaining puzzles. The most obvious contribution was the revelation that the solar corona revealed during an eclipse was actually a core feature of the Sun and not, as many had thought, an atmospheric distortion during observation or part of the Moon’s atmosphere.
In 1851, Berkowski produced a photograph (daguerreotype) of an eclipse and the corona working from the Royal Observatory in Konigsberg (figure 24). The image has attracted a certain mythology over the years and several astronomy books declare confidently that it was rushed to the Great Exhibition in London to be admired. The source for the story is opaque and the records for the exhibition show no clear evidence to confirm it.
More central to the history of eclipse photography is the fact that the Science Museum collection includes the Kew Photoheliograph (figure 25). This was the first astronomical instrument specifically designed for photographing celestial objects. Designed for the Royal Society by Warren de la Rue in 1857, it was built by instrument maker Andrew Ross, London. First installed at Kew Observatory, it was used to take regular photographs of the Sun. Later, it was taken to northern Spain and here it was employed to photograph the 1860 total eclipse of the Sun. The resulting images were used to resolve the debate as to whether prominences, red flames seen at solar eclipses, were intrinsic to the Sun or atmospheric effects. It was subsequently used as a model for a whole series of photographic telescopes for recording the Sun.
One amusing tangent about the Warren de la Rue observation of 1860 concerns a time honoured way in which artists might provide a more suitable ‘record’ than the blunt reality of the photograph. The Science Museum collection includes photographs of the expedition and they rather contrast with the engravings of the same scene that appear in the commemorative special edition that the astronomer commissioned. While in the photograph (figure 26) the expedition and its followers are loosely arrayed, dusty and tired, the same cast is poised and alert in the engraving (figure 27). The artist has observed the observing and made the best of it.
Notwithstanding rapid progress in photographic techniques, the artist remained a valued part of the professional eclipse expedition right up until the early twentieth century. One fine example showing how the ‘artistic eye’ might still offer penetrating insights is the glorious chromolithographs produced by Etienne Trouvelot recording a total eclipse in Wyoming in 1878 . He was commissioned by the Harvard and US Naval Observatories and the prize examples of all his work appear in the (now very rare) Astronomical Drawingspublished in 1882. One of these images (figure 28) conveys vividly the full visual effect of the eclipse and it is all the more remarkable when compared with an ‘accurate’ modern digital photograph (figure 29). Most compelling are those composed by Prof. Miloslav Druckmuller, who combines a range of images from major eclipses to produce a ‘definitive’ composite picture.5 The second image derives from an eclipse observed in Mongolia in 2008 and the relationship with the Trouvelot print is astounding.
One final example would be the work of American portrait painter Howard Russell Butler and his Triptych: Solar Eclipses of 1918, 1923, 1925(figure 30). He had been invited to produce the first painting by the US Naval Observatory and joked that while an artist would be accorded numerous lengthy and expensive sittings for a portrait, nature only granted him 112 s to capture an eclipse . One might also wonder whether the very form of the Triptych is also an elegant provocation from Butler. We saw earlier that solar eclipses appeared as supporting actors in the great religious dramas presented in three panel paintings, but in this case all the saints and gods have gone and the eclipse itself takes the starring role. A secular view has triumphed.
7. Symbolism, abstraction and populism
In the course of the most recent century, the sheer quality of photography came to supplant the role of the artist as essential companion of the astronomer; and so the eclipse was used by artists in new guises, both symbolic and abstract.
In his Portrait of Ramon Gomez de la Serna of 1915, Diego Rivera plants a full eclipse in the eye of the poet (figure 31). This is a tribute to both the poet’s own references to eclipses (after the eclipse the Moon washes its face to clean up the soot) and that the artist was himself an aficionado, famously rushing onto the roof of the Detroit Institute of Art (while painting his famous murals) in order to witness a partial eclipse. Just as joyful is the use of eclipses as part of the cosmic imagery of key twentieth century artists such as Wassily Kandinsky .
A solar eclipse makes a more sombre appearance in the work of Russian symbolist painter Nicholas Roerich in his Prince Igor’s Campaign of 1942 (figure 32). Although Olson & Pasachoff  suggest that the eclipse functions as an omen, one might wonder if that is the full story here. The composition date suggests a reference to Russian armies marching east to confront a Europe eclipsed by the dark night of Nazism. Back at the playful end of the spectrum Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (figure 33) was interested in the time lapsed (successive) phases of an eclipse in his Eclipse of the Sun II (1975).
Solar eclipses have also inspired vivid responses from graphic artists. So the poster collection of the National Railway Museum (part of the Science Museum Group) includes dashing promotional material encouraging travellers to experience the eclipse of June 1927, with the poster showing a looming shadow being cast across Liverpool being especially inventive (figure 34). And one cannot avoid the temptation of mentioning too the record sleeve design for the most famous eclipse pop anthem of the modern era, Total Eclipse of the Heart.
8. Eclipses and the Moon
This article has focused on solar eclipses and a parallel essay might well be written about lunar eclipses. However, in the course of research one stumbled across a reminder that all the artistic representations are those of the artist rooted on Earth. An interesting speculation would concern the form of such work if the artists were elsewhere; and in one case this is a splendid example of how different the view might be without travelling too far from ‘home’.
In 1887, the pioneering Russian scientist Konstantin Tsilkovsky wrote On the Moon.6 This science fiction speculates about scientists who travel to the Moon and experience low gravity, but in the course of their adventure also witness a solar eclipse like no other: the Earth eclipsing the Sun. This conceit is brought to life (in the eventual publication) through a splendid illustration by Gotman (figure 35).
9. Concluding thoughts
As is so often the case, the best science fiction can foreshadow scientific reality. While Tsilkovsky proposed one fresh view of eclipses, a splendid new exhibition at the Natural History Museum (Otherworlds) also shows how a different viewpoint can have a dramatic impact.
The exhibition explores the beauty of the solar system and draws upon composite photographic images created by Michael Benson.7 These are derived from raw data provided by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) and European Space Agency (ESA). Some images remind us that a solar eclipse is momentous not just in our accustomed view of the Moon blocking out the life-giving Sun. Seen from elsewhere in the system, we are reminded (as the Moon makes its transit) of the utter and momentous vastness of the Sun. Suddenly, the long-held notion that it has been ‘eclipsed’ becomes absurd.
I declare I have no competing interests.
No funding has been received for this article.
It would have been impossible to embark on this survey without the seminal work of Roberta J. M. Olson and Jay M. Pasachoff. I am most grateful to three curatorial colleagues for their generous advice and support. Dr Paul Williamson (lately Keeper of Sculpture, Ceramics, Metalwork and Glass at the Victoria & Albert Museum) offered his considerable expertise on all the early Christian material; Alison Boyle (Curator of Modern Physics at the Science Museum) sourced key materials in the Physics collection; and Nick Wyatt (Head of Library and Archives) facilitated access to important historical scientific publications in both the Science Museum and other important collections. Finally, George Loudon kindly lent his own edition of Warren de la Rue’s publication that commemorated a solar eclipse expedition in 1860 and consented to reproducing an engraving from the same.
One contribution of 16 to a theme issue ‘Atmospheric effects of solar eclipses stimulated by the 2015 UK eclipse’.
↵1 Genesis 26:6–9.
↵4 The most readily accessible edition is in the National Art Library in a facsimile edition published by Pandora Publishers in 2011.
↵6 On the Moon was first published in 1893 in the Vokrug Sveta (Around the World) magazine and then in the same year as separate book with Gofman illustration, with the same publisher.
- Accepted March 24, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.