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Celestial Images to Shine in Payne Gallery at Moravian College

Exhibit of Astronomical Charts and Maps Celebrates Golden Age of Discovery

Bethlehem, Pa., February 10, 2005— In the age of MapQuest, Moravian College’s Payne Gallery will look at maps and star charts from the Age of Discovery in its exhibit “Celestial Images: Antiquarian Astronomical Charts and Maps from the Mendillo Collection,” February 13 through April 10. An opening reception will be held on February 17th from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. The public is invited and admission is free.

The Mendillo Collection is part of the holdings of Boston University, whose art gallery organized the exhibit.

As human beings sought to gain control over the world around and above them, maps and astronomical charts of intricate detail, painted or printed in finely wrought artistic detail, represented the first stage of ascension over the natural world: understanding it and reproducing it.

For the four centuries in which European navigators sailed the seas and mapped the continents, the science of geography, its auxiliary sciences of astronomy and optics and its handmaid disciplines of trigonometry and calculus, walked in step with the art of cartography, assisted by calligraphy, mythology, and creative design.

“Celestial Images” celebrates this golden age, which reached its height during the Renaissance and remained a vibrant mix of art and science well into the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. Some of the world's earliest surviving artistic images are illustrations of cosmologies and heavenly phenomena, and the reason for their survival is that they were indispensable as well as beautiful. They celebrated knowledge. And a great contrast they make with the computer printouts and web pages that constitute today’s astronomical charts.

Splendid remnants of that bygone era are tucked away in libraries, museums and private collections. The Payne Gallery exhibit has assembled 82 examples of antiquarian astronomical maps and charts—some of the finest celestial cartography created. They include star charts (maps of the constellations and the full celestial sphere), charts of planetary systems (cosmologies), and charts of celestial phenomena (nebulae, comets, and eclipses). They were often by well-known artists.

Star charts are maps of the stellar universe, often accompanying star catalogues that list star locations and magnitude. The earliest authoritative star catalogue in Western history was compiled by Ptolemy of Alexandria around 150 AD, which listed 1,028 stars. Today's computers track millions of stars.

Constellations are shapes of known objects, including mythological beings, that astronomers projected onto the star maps as a way to memorize the look of the heavens. They also supported myths and religious rituals, making the heavens into tales of gods and heroes that domesticated them for earthly observers.

Planetary system charts or cosmologies, by their very nature, are more philosophical than star charts. The choice of the central object (in our system, earth or sun) defined the view of the world as geocentric or heliocentric, centered on man or on an abstraction called nature or sometimes God. When Copernicus displayed the Sun as the center of the universe, his revolutionary view affected attitudes about the importance of humankind relative to the rest of creation.

Charts of planetary systems tended to separate the scientific from the artistic function of the sky map. Ornament took on an expressive role: that of celebrating the theories and new information as well as the intellect and imagination of the discoverer.

The third part of “Celestial Images” includes more imaginative illustrations of astronomical information, often found in the backs of old atlases. Such drawings conveyed relationships between earth and sky in charts of, for instance, wind directions, or depictions of the surface of the Sun or Moon as real places with their own geography.

They were also found in 18th and 19th-century magazines—the first instances of the sciences trying "public outreach" to interest patrons, governments, and the church in their work. Though much of this information was of mixed quality and questionable accuracy, new printing techniques (such as lithography) were used to convey visual texture with greater accuracy and aesthetic dimension.

Payne Gallery is located on the Priscilla Payne Hurd Campus of Moravian College, in Historic Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Gallery is open 11:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The gallery is closed Mondays, major holidays and during school breaks. Admission and parking are free, and the Gallery is wheelchair accessible. For more information, please contact the Moravian College Art Department at 610-861-1680.