Art, Design

The Sky At Night

When I was a kid, I believed that clouds – particularly the big fluffy ones – formed in the shape of your shadow. I distinctly remember cycling  around the garden at the block of apartments where I grew up (with stabilisers, which I had until I was seven: balance and coordination was not my strong point), staring at the sky (it was flat, there were no obstacles, I still fell off) and  convincing myself that there was a cloud above that was the precise outline of me on my bike.

When you’re five or so, the idea that regional meteorology depends on what you might be doing in the garden is entirely plausible, and looking back, I guess it was quite a sweet way of looking at the world – a means of solving my six-year-old self’s existential crisis when I tried to understand the concept of the sky, and other planets, and whole other solar systems (it’s a big idea, when you still aren’t allowed to brush your teeth unsupervised) by finding a correlation between my tiny world of Lego and  and pasta-based artistic pursuits and learning how to put my leggings on the right way round, and the infinitely larger world above.

Even more lovely, I think, are constellations: twinkling join-the-dot jewels in a vast expanse of blue. Of these, it’s those defined by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD that are the most famous: Orion’s belt, Ursa Major (and Minor), the star signs. Below are maps drawn up by John Flamsteed (d. 1719) the First Royal Astronomer in Greenwich for his Celestial Atlas, with Ptolemy’s original constellations illustrated. Imprinted in Paris in 1795, these maps have been put online by the Smithsonian Institute, which is slowly opening it’s archives of manuscripts and printed books.

For something so traditionally ‘scientific’ and mathematical (see: StarTrek, astrophysics) , Flamsteed’s visions of the heavens condense the huge notion of the ‘sky’, transforming the distant stars into a celestial world inhabited by the heroes and villains and creatures of Greek mythology. Magic.

{All images: The Smithsonian Institution Libraries}

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