Long before Galileo invented the telescope, antagonising the church, humanity had been busy cataloging the heavens through millennia of imaginative speculative maps of the cosmos. Mankind has always sought to make visible the invisible forces to understand the mercy and miracle of existence, and nothing was more attractive than the majesty and mystery of universe.
Journalist, photographer and astrovisualization scholar Michael Benson in his book Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time turns his attention to the history of the visual description and mapping of the universe. This is a story that begins inmyth and ends with science. Selecting the most artful and profound examples of cosmic imagery, Benson chronicles successive cosmological models that capture our growing awareness of humanity’s place in nature.
Excavated illegally in 1999 in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, the extraordinary Nebra Sky Disc is considered both the first known portable astronomical instrument and the oldest-known graphic depiction of celestial objects in human history.
Made of a blue-green copper inset with lustrous gold, the twelve-inch-wide disc contains an arrangement of seven stars probably representing the Pleiades. They’re in between a crescent moon on the right and either the full moon or sun in the center. Two golden bands at the disc’s edge (one is missing) span eighty-two degrees, corresponding to the angle between sunset at the winter and summer solstices at the latitude where it was found.
In this foldout image from the medieval encyclopedia Liber floridus (Book of Flowers), Earth is depicted surrounded by the orbits of the planets, which cut into an early example of a graph depicting planetary motion through time (the red diagonal, seen at an oblique angle). At the bottom, Venus, the sun, and the moon move from their respective spheres into the graph.
Compiled and written in his own hand between 1090 and 1120 by Lambert, the canon of St. Omer, in northern France, the encyclopedia encompasses astronomical, biblical, geographical, and natural history subjects. India is visible at the top of the map of the Earth, following medieval convention, in which Asia was frequently at the top, thus “Orienting” the globe. Liber floridus is considered the first encyclopedia of the High Middle Ages; this is from the original manuscript.
Mapping the Moon
Circa 1600 A.D.
The oldest-known map of the moon from naked eye observations, drawn by English physician and physicist William Gilbert and not published until 1651 in his De mundo nostro sublunari philosophia nova (New Sublunary Philosophy of the World).
Gilbert believed that the lighter areas of the moon were water, and the darker, land—the exact opposite of the prevailing views of the time. Here, what we still call the lunar mare, or “seas,” are depicted as islands. The moon is of course utterly dry.
Spots on the Sun
The sun does in fact occasionally exhibit dark spots. These form in areas where magnetic field lines converge, producing cooler regions of “only” about 3,000–4,000 degrees Celsius (by contrast with their surroundings of 5,000 degrees Celsius or higher).
Sunspots have been observed for more than two thousand years, but in the seventeenth century, astronomers devised new ways to view them, including a telescope-based projection device known as a helioscope. If this etching from Galileo’s 1613 book, Istoria e dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari (History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots), is practically photographic in its precision, it’s because it is in fact the result of directly tracing the projected image of the sun.
The geocentric Ptolemaic cosmos, from Andreas Cellarius’s lavish Baroque Harmonia macrocosmica (Cosmic Harmony), one of the high points among seventeenth-century celestial atlases. Orbiting a large central Earth, the planets are depicted as star-like shapes, each identified with its traditional symbol. The zodiac, divided into twelve thirty-degree divisions of celestial longitude, defines the apparent path of the sun through the constellations as seen from Earth.
The axis of the universe is defined by the terrestrial poles, and the Earth’s equator is projected outward, creating a celestial equator as well. Ptolemy himself might be represented by one of the figures on the lower right, in a crumbling Alexandria, possibly also symbolic of the decline of his cosmological design, following the revolutionary findings of Copernicus.
Shrouded in Smog
Another plate from Andreas Cellarius’s Harmonia macrocosmica, one of the greatest celestial atlases. The moon has been used to mark time and determine when to plant and harvest since before recorded history. Here Cellarius depicts lunar phases, which are due to its varying orientation in relation to the sun when viewed from Earth.
The sun’s apparent path is defined by a ring around what appears to be a smog-shrouded Earth. That cloud represents the Aristotelian idea that all the elements are circumscribed by the moon’s sphere, with everything beyond uncorruptible and unchanging, even in movement. The two smaller flanking diagrams are copied almost unchanged from Hevelius’s Selenographia, a common practice of the time.
Veins of Fire
Depiction of a subterranean network of molten lava from German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher’s book Mundus subterraneus (Subterranean World). Kircher, who reportedly had himself lowered into the crater of a restive Mount Vesuvius in 1638, has been described as “one of the last thinkers who could rightfully claim all knowledge as his domain.” He developed a theory involving intertwined ducts of water and fire reaching down to the core of the planet.
By attempting to understand the subterranean structures of the planet and how they modify its surface features, Kircher could be said to have exhibited a “planetary” consciousness three centuries before the Gaia hypothesis proposed that we look at Earth as a giant self-regulating system.
This map of the solar system by one Hall Colby is notable for one absence and several presences. While Colby’s map does portray planet Uranus and five of its moons, that’s not particularly notable, because Uranus had been discovered by John Herschel sixty-five years earlier.
Flat Earth Theory
Professor Orlando Ferguson refutes the “globe theory” in this broadsheet bulletin from Hot Springs, South Dakota, proposing instead a kind of four-cornered, roulette-wheel world. Note the sun, moon, and north star all suspended on wands projecting from the pole.
Ferguson’s cosmology didn’t catch on.
This is a geological map of the south polar region of the moon. The Orientale basin continues to dominate the left side of the projection, with all the blue shadings there associated with it. The irregular oblong patch with denim diagonal lines near the center represents terrain still unsurveyed at the time this map was released.
Supercomputer simulation of a sunspot. In this striking image created by researcher Matthias Rempel and collaborators, the highly complex filaments that flow between a sunspot’s dark center and lighter outer region have been produced in exquisite detail by simulating the magnetic forces at play using a supercomputer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).