Saturday, 3 February 2018

Astronomy and Art, Welsh Myths and Legends

Cusop Church was packed for the talk, by Martin Griffiths. He's one of the astronomers behind Dark Skies Wales, former senior lecturer in Astronomy at the University of South Wales, and he was a founder member of the NASA Astrobiology Science Communication Team.
And here he was, in a small church near Hay.
The talk took us through 30,000 years of art associated with astronomy, starting with a cave painting from Lascaux of a bull. The reason this particular bull is associated with astronomy is that six dots were added to the picture just behind the bull's shoulder, exactly where the Pleiades is found - and six stars of that cluster are visible with the naked eye. So the bull is the constellation of Taurus, and here is proof that this group of stars has been known as the Bull from the beginning of human history.
There were lots of slides with the talk - but he was standing just a bit too far from the projector (propped up on a pile of hymn books on a table in the aisle) so he had to keep leaping forward and waving the remote around.
We moved through the Egyptian Book of the Dead (where the sky goddess Nut was supposed to swallow the planets as they disappeared, until they appeared again when they passed through her birth canal!), Greek myth - the Milky Way was supposed to be the breast milk of the goddess Hera, which spurted out when she was trying to feed baby Hercules - and the Welsh myth was the story of Ceridwen, the moon goddess, who wanted to make a potion to make her ugly son beautiful.
Unfortunately, the recipe said that the cauldron had to be stirred for a year, so she hired a boy, Gwion, to stir it for her and, right at the last minute, he knocked the cauldron over by mistake, tried to stop the last of the potion from pouring away, burned his hand so put it in his mouth - and drank the potion. Because it wasn't quite ready, it didn't make him beautiful, but it did allow him to change shape to attempt to escape the furious Ceridwen - until he changed himself into a grain of wheat, and Ceridwen became a hen, and ate him. Then Ceridwen became pregnant, and nine months later produced a baby boy named Taliesin, Shining Brow, who became one of the greatest Welsh bards.
Moving on to the Renaissance, Martin Griffiths talked about Galileo, and how he examined the moon through a telescope, and discovered the four moons of Jupiter - and even worked out the heights of the mountains on the moon from the lengths of the shadows they cast. And then he told a funny story about the first Welsh astronomers to use a telescope to look at the moon, which they borrowed from a friend in London - but they were not so artistically gifted as Galileo, so could only say that the surface of the moon looked like a tart the cook had made the week before, with some parts dark and some parts bright. When the London friend asked to see the tart, they replied they had eaten it....
He also showed a picture he took of a rather gorgeous church in Rome, where Galileo had been forced to repent of his views on astronomy by the Pope. And there was a picture of the Virgin Mary which a friend of Galileo had painted, using Galileo's drawings of the moon as the basis for the moon that Mary was standing on - up to date science right there in the church.
And there was Leonardo da Vinci's first drawing of the moon, on a scrap of paper which had also been used as a shopping list - written in backwards Italian, because Leonardo couldn't just write an ordinary shopping list!
There was Van Eyck's painting of the Crucifiction with the moon - but he got it all wrong! It should have been a full moon when Jesus was crucified.
The part of the talk on Renaissance art was fascinating - there were so many connections between the artists and other famous people - like the painting that was commissioned by Amerigo Vespucci's dad (who also sat for it), and the Vermeer picture called The Astronomer, where the sitter was the man who invented the microscope, van Leeuwenhoek, and it's even possible to see which book of astronomy is open on the table.
So books on astronomy became more widely available, and some of them were beautifully illustrated (though he did show one very strange picture of Orion, who is facing the wrong way).
And then there was the art that was used to popularise science in the 19th century, like the tea cards that used to be collected, including The Race Into Space from Brooke Bond, which I collected - and so did Martin Griffiths, though it had a bit more of an influence on his future career than it did on mine!
And coming up to date with modern artists' renditions of planets, including some beautiful (though not entirely accurate) pictures by Chesley Bonestell, as well as some more recent ones - there's a whole school of artists out there doing what they call descriptive realism - or Space Art - and he mentioned David Hardy as one of the artists.
It was a fascinating talk - and he also had copies of his book there, Dark Land, Dark Skies: The Mabinogion in the Night Sky. I didn't have a chance to buy one last night, as I was offered a lift home and had to leave when she did, but I've sent off for it now, from Seren Books. I hope it'll encourage me to get out there and look at the night sky a bit more!

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