A total solar eclipse is one of the most otherworldly experiences a person can have on Earth. By an almost incredible coincidence, the the tiny, humdrum moon and the gigantic, raging sun are arranged in such a way so that the former can blot out the latter. Although the moon is about 400 times smaller, it covers the sun’s disc because it’s about 400 times closer to the Earth.
A small group of dedicated travelers follow eclipses around the world, chasing the spectacle of the blackened sun's corona and the umbra, the conical shadow the moon casts over Earth. The community is tightly knit, bonded over the life-altering experience of losing the sun. Many “umbraphiles” are self-described eclipse addicts, having witnessed a dozen or more eclipses. Several gathered this week in equatorial Africa for an annular eclipse, and are already planning their itineraries for what they've dubbed the Great American Eclipse of 2017. Next August will be the first time the path of a solar eclipse will cross the nation since the year of its founding.
Midday on August 21, those fortunate enough to have a clear sky will see the sun slowly but inexorably consumed. A dark circle will slide over it, and the air will turn colder in an instant, as though someone had opened an Earth-sized freezer door. Warm air will stop rising from the ground and the wind will change direction, all while the umbra sweeps the land, making the sky so dark that stars emerge. Birds will hasten back to their roosts. At the moment of total eclipse, the sun will darken entirely, leaving only a halo of fire.
Of course, there is another, less literal way to experience the mystery of an eclipse. For thousands of years, people in cultures around the world have depicted eclipses in art, imbuing them with fear and dread and a heavy dose of the supernatural. A Chinese myth held that eclipses happened when a sky dragon dined on our star. In the Americas, the Inca had a similar tale, only the hungry beast was a jaguar.
In Western Europe during the Middle Ages, eclipses took on a dual meaning, and became a means for expressing varieties of both religious and scientific experience.
“In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, astronomy and solar eclipses were a huge craze. Virtually anyone who considered himself an educated person then took an interest in art and science, in a way that doesn’t really happen anymore,” says Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum in London. The popularization of telescopes and printing presses brought astronomical knowledge into middle class homes, he says. It was also a time of discovery, with new planets like Uranus and Neptune brought into the celestial fold, as well as new moons around distant worlds.
By the time of the Enlightenment, eclipse artwork played a surprisingly important role in science, he says: “There are intriguing occasions when the artistic eye has been of real utility to the scientific process.”
An art historian who runs the UK’s national science museum, Blatchford recently searched the museum’s collections for representations of eclipses, for a paper on their role in the history of astronomy. He says he was especially struck by artists’ ability to capture the ethereal nature of an eclipse in a way that even photographs can’t.
“When an eclipse happens, you only have a tiny amount of time to observe what’s going on. But of course artists have a great skill of absorbing everything,” he says.
In early Christian art, eclipses appeared in scenes of the crucifixion to signify the anger of God and to represent the collective grief of the universe, Blatchford says. The Gospels tell of a darkened sky at the time of Christ’s death, which some scholars have interpreted as an eclipse. From Luke 23: 44-45: “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.”
By the Italian Renaissance, paintings still held religious meaning, but their depictions of the sky and stars were drawn from early modern astronomy, Blatchford says.
Of all Blatchford’s finds, my favorite is a 1735 painting by German painter Cosmas Damian Asam. It depicts St. Benedict, who is said to have experienced a vision of the whole world “gathered together under a sunbeam.” This is a fitting analogy for a solar eclipse, but what astonishes me about this painting is its rich detail. You can see not only the eclipse, but the solar corona, and the so-called “diamond ring effect,” which occurs when sunlight streams through lunar mountains. Here it falls right on the saint’s head.
Jay Pasachoff, an astronomer at Williams College, has written that this painting may be the first accurate depiction of a total solar eclipse. He thinks Asam himself might have witnessed at least one, or maybe each, of the total solar eclipses that took place in 1706, 1724 and 1733. “In one picture, you’ve got a lot of religion and a lot of science,” says Blatchford.
Even after the advent of photography, artists played a role in capturing eclipses, he says. He points to this lithograph of a total eclipse in Wyoming in 1878, produced by a French artist named Etienne Trouvelot. It is less detailed than modern photographs, but arguably more beautiful. The lithograph leaves some room for interpretation, letting your eye and brain do the work. A photograph is more passive, simply collecting light through a lens.
“Even in the 20th century, as photography improved, scientists still asked artists to accompany them on eclipse expeditions. They felt photography was still a bit crude in capturing the full magnificence,” Blatchford says. “It’s about the atmospherics you get. Really a long time after the first official photograph of an eclipse in 1851, artists were still valued for their insights.”
In 1918, the US Naval Observatory invited the American portrait painter Howard Russell Butler to paint a solar eclipse. His work depicted the corona, the glowing, wispy ring visible beyond the dark circle of the moon. The painting’s perspective work supported the hypothesis that the corona was the sun’s atmosphere, and not the moon’s.
In the latter half of the 20th century, artists’ depictions of eclipses were less important to scientific discovery and more important as a means of interpretation. For a cosmic event of such rarity and strangeness, an artist’s eye seems like a useful tool indeed. Though eclipses are well-understood physical phenomena, they are still imbued with mystery, and that’s something an artist can capture better than any camera.
Blatchford told me he visited an installation by the artist Michael Benson, who produces planetary landscape images from spacecraft data. A picture at his exhibition, “Otherworlds: Visions of Our Solar System,” featured a view of a solar eclipse taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Blatchford said from that perspective, it seemed impossible that the wee moon should blot out the sun.
“Even though rationally we understand an eclipse, I would say most people still find it, in a way, a sign of some kind of providence. They still can’t quite believe it’s happening,” he says. “Even if you know what is happening, why it’s happening is a different question, isn’t it? I think some of my colleagues get annoyed when I make that distinction. But I think most of our fellow human beings do make a distinction between understanding a technical explanation and wanting to look at even deeper explanations behind it.”