How to Look at Eclipses Without Being Blinded

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HOW TO LOOK AT ECLIPSES WITHOUT BEING BLINDED SUSAN JAROSI Occult. For most of us, the word occult is understood predominantly as a noun used to identify dark magic, supernatural forces, or mysterious practices often associated with cults themselves. For astronomers, on the other hand, occult is employed as a verb to describe the phenomenon of eclipses: when one celestial body – whether sun, moon, or stars – obscures, or occults, another from view. These two meanings of occult – the secret and the scientific – reflect the most common ways in which eclipses have figured in the history of art. When we see eclipses in artworks, in other words, they tend to stand in for something else as metaphorical representations – for example, the demise of an enemy or the end of the world – or they function as formal models showing us the mechanics of occultation as a means to draw parallels to how other things might work. Keep metaphors and models in mind while looking at eclipses in art, and you’ll be covered for nearly 99% of the examples you’ll see. Consider metaphors and models your eclipse-viewing glasses, if you will. For starters, although the cause of solar eclipses was understood by Greek and Chinese astronomers as early as the first century BCE, occultations have been almost universally interpreted, and equally exploited, as visual omens orchestrated by sacred beings. In the Christian West, they were seen as signs of divine displeasure or portents of the impending apocalypse: God’s way of expressing dissatisfaction through “or else” warnings and passing judgment in “I told you so” cataclysms. The Old Testament abounds with narratives of meteorological intervention, including a flood (Genesis), a tsunami (Book of Exodus), and showers of thunderbolts (2 Maccabees). The New Testament expands the celestial repertoire to include comets, eclipses, a woman clothed with the sun with

opposite top: Figure 1, opposite bottom: Figure 2

the moon under her feet. (Figure 1) One of the best-known representations of this type is Peter Paul Rubens’ altarpiece Elevation of the Cross (1610) in Antwerp Cathedral. (Figure 2) As Roman soldiers hoist the crucifix aloft, Rubens depicts a solar eclipse in the upper right panel, an iconographic reference to New Testament scripture that darkness fell over the whole land upon Jesus’ death. A sign, in turn, that was deemed to presage the second coming of Christ and the apocalypse that would ensue. As is true of all signs, when eclipses perform a metaphorical function – joining astronomy and religion, in this case – they depend upon interpretation: What does this heavenly event mean? Perhaps not surprisingly, interpretations of eclipses have more often than not been politically motivated, which is to say, someone (usually in search of power) imposed a particular meaning on an eclipse to serve a particular agenda. During the Reformation, a veritable industry of meteorological interpretation developed involving the collaboration of religious leaders, publishers, and artists, who exploited the mass production of cheap pamphlets and broadsheets of the type known as “warnings.” These illustrated prints described ominous or unnatural events, such as eclipses, meteors, misbirths, and floods, trading upon superstitious beliefs in order to fuel the incidents’ supernatural significance in the popular imagination. Nature was believed to reflect God’s will; therefore, aberrations of all sorts were manifestations of sin on earth. An example of a broadsheet from 1492 of the “Meteor of Ensisheim,” published by the Swiss humanist Sebastian Brant, documents the meteor’s falling and assigns it a political interpretation of divine reprimand against imperial policies in Germany. (Figure 3) Another, from 1523, participated in the prophecies of a doomsday

opposite: Figure 3

flood that was predicted to occur in the year 1524, a retribution understood to be analogous to the biblical flood unleashed in response to humanity’s corruption. (Figure 4) The popularity of omens combined with the irrational fears they tended to elicit made them especially effective vehicles for political propaganda. No less than Martin Luther contributed to the mass production of polemical prints that traded upon the equation: abnormality of nature = sign of spiritual corruption. In the hands of Luther, the “logic” of this equation became the central facet of Protestant propaganda designed to expose the immoral practices of the Catholic papacy and clergy. Luther’s famous pamphlet of 1523, accompanied by woodcuts from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, set the standard. It’s comprised of polemical interpretations of two alleged misbirths: the so-called “Monk Calf,” born in Freiberg in 1522, and the “Papal Ass,” purportedly discovered in the Tiber River in Rome in 1496. (Figure 5) The physical fact of each of these creatures (verified through eye-witness accounts) and the attributes of their monstrous appearance are offered as divine proof of the soundness of Reformers’ theological arguments. The particular omens cited in this last example utilize misbirths rather than eclipses, but the point to be made is that, beginning in the early sixteenth century, eclipses were part of a typology of images that began to be exploited for distinctly human ends. In effect, whereas the production of celestial omens were once restricted to the province of the divine, their manipulation expanded in ways which were nakedly anthropocentric. The consequences of this expansion are exemplified in the exploitation of eclipse prediction in the service of colonial conquest. In 1504, when Christopher Columbus and crew were stranded on the northern coast opposite: Figure 4

of Jamaica, facing food shortages, famine, and a distrustful indigenous population, the admiral turned to his copy of the Ephemerides (1474), an 896-page book of astronomical tables by the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Müller. The Ephemerides contained detailed information on the day-to-day positions of celestial bodies, including the timing and duration of lunar eclipses. (The accurate prediction of lunar eclipses occurred long before solar eclipses, which advanced only after Johannes Kepler’s discovery of the laws of planetary motion in 1609 and Edmund Halley’s 1715 map of the predicted path of a total solar eclipse.) Columbus read that a lunar eclipse would occur on February 29 and decided to use the information to deceive the Arawak. Three days before the eclipse, Columbus went to the Arawak chief, claiming that he had conversed with God, who was angered by the Arawak’s refusal to feed Columbus’ crew and who would express that anger by making the moon appear “inflamed with wrath.” Evils would soon follow. Having delivered the prophecy, when the eclipse commenced, the Arawak were predictably terrified and ran toward Columbus’ ships with offerings of food to beg for intercession and restoration of the moon. (Figure 6) Columbus pretended to confer once again with God and, with the timing of a performer, just moments before the end of the eclipse assured the Arawak that God had accepted their repentance, would not punish them, and would restore the moon. Thus Columbus controlled the power of prediction, manipulated the meaning of the eclipse, and exploited the outcome – every aspect of which was designed to achieve the submission of colonized people to his will. As so many historical incidents show, the metaphoric connection of eclipses to divine judgment was usually orchestrated by human conductors.

opposite: Figure 5

In the twentieth century, this type of interpretive manipulation began to dissipate. One might surmise that Kepler’s laws and Halley’s maps, at least in certain circles, became a more compelling subject to explore than metaphorical meaning. In 1913, Kazimir Malevich, the Russian artist and founder of Suprematism, collaborated with the poet Velimir Khlebnikov, the writer Aleksei Kruchenykh, and the painter-composer Mikhail Matiushin on the opera Victory Over the Sun, for which Malevich designed the costumes and stage sets. The narrative of the opera consisted of two movements: in the first, the sun is torn from the sky, imprisoned in a concrete house, and given a funeral; the second takes place in the future in a fictional place called “Country Ten” that has been “liberated from the weight of universal gravity.” Here the eclipse imagery is employed not only for what it signifies – “the world will perish but there’s no end to us” – but also for how it works: even something so awesome as the sun can be defeated, under the right conditions, by a much smaller but determined body. In this case, the artist Malevich drew upon the science of solar eclipses as a model for overcoming entrenched, stifling traditions and practices in art. Malevich’s famous Black Square of 1915, one of the first fully abstract paintings in Western art history, is thought to have been inspired by his work on Victory Over the Sun. (Figure 7) The extant sketches that Malevich produced for his stage designs use a perspectival frame that is progressively filled by an expanding “shadow.” In the drawing for Act 2, Scene 5, called “The House,” the square is bisected diagonally as a means to suggest the coming eclipse. (Figure 8) Although the final sketch does not survive, scholars have surmised that it would have pictured the victory as

opposite: Figure 6

totality – a completely black square (the totality being the moment of total obscuration). This hypothesis is supported by Malevich’s own writings: his claims to have conceived the Black Square in 1913 while working on the opera; his reference to the final curtain design – “the decoration shows a black square” – in a letter to Matiushin about a second staging of the opera; and his declaration that the Black Square represented “the zero of form,” the “era of the new beginning” when Suprematism finally conquered the post-Renaissance tradition of mimesis. Malevich’s work helped open the door to artists who wished to explore the interconnections between art and science by using scientific models as the basis for their art. In this way, we might think of the Black Square as the representation of an eclipse, however simplified, that also articulates an artistic proposition: the Black Square shows or does what it purports to advocate. That is to say, this category of eclipses in art – eclipse as model – became a compelling subject for artistic investigation because of its propositional possibilities. If what’s interesting about eclipses is how they are achieved, in addition to what they signify, then in what ways can their mechanics provide a generative principle for creating artworks? This emphasis on borrowing a scientific phenomenon and foregrounding it as the conceptual and experiential center of an artwork opened up a host of possibilities that would be taken up by later artists such as James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson in works like Elliptic Ecliptic and Wall Eclipse. Seen from this perspective, the total darkness of the eclipse generates extraordinary creative growth.

opposite top: Figure 7, opposite bottom: Figure 8


Figure 1. Detail of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, from the Queen Mary Apocalypse, S.E. England or East Anglia, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 B XV, f. 20v Figure 2. Peter Paul Rubens, The Elevation of the Cross, oil on panel, 1610, Antwerp Cathedral. Figure 3. Anonymous, The Meteor of Ensisheim, broadsheet with text by Sebastian Brant, 1492. Figure 4. Anonymous, title page, Warnings, Joseph Grünback, 1523. Figure 5. Lucas Cranach the Elder, workshop, The Papal Ass, woodcut, 1523. Figure 6. Anonymous, Christopher Columbus prophesies the 1504 lunar eclipse, engraving, n.d. Figure 7. Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, oil on canvas, 1915. Figure 8. Kazimir Malevich, stage backdrop design for Victory Over the Sun, Act 2, Scene 5, 1913.

Susan Jarosi is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Louisville with faculty appointments in the Departments of Women’s & Gender Studies and Fine Arts.

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