Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On winged imagination


A sure test of dark skies is the ability to see with the naked eye the nucleus of the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest large spiral galaxy to our own and the most distant thing -- 2 million light-years -- you are likely to see without optical aid. On literally hundreds of nights I have stood with a group of companions (of all ages) and unfolded the story illustrated by constellations in that part of the sky. Cassiopeia. Cepheus. Andromeda. Cetus. Perseus. Pegasus. The star Algol. It's a grand story that you can find here, one that has been a theme of artists since the Renaissance.

Here is one of my favorite representations, by the Florentine artist Piero di Cosimo (1515, Uffizi, click to enlarge), not because I particularly like it as a work of art, but because it is so dense with mysterious imagery. We have two views of Perseus, with his flying sandals (other tellings invoke a flying horse). Andromeda demurely prefigures the pose of later paintings by Poynter and Dore (see link above). And -- my, my -- that wonderful sea monster, with tusks, fuzzy ears, paddle feet and corkscrew tail. (Could this creature have been based on sketchy knowledge of the walrus? The Norse had been importing walrus ivory into Europe for centuries, and by 1515 reports of the Cabot voyages may have been percolating through Italy. The North American range of the walrus at that time was apparently as far south as the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.) I have no idea who are all the folks in the foreground, although they presumably meant something to a contemporary of di Cosimo. I do like the two odd musical instruments, one of which appears to be a combination of wind and string.

Did di Cosimo take the story of Perseus and Andromeda literally? Later artists -- Poynter and Dore, for example -- might draw on mythic themes, but they knew Perseus and Andromeda had no more factual basis than did the crystalline spheres of Renaissance astronomers.

Of course, the mythic imagination is alive and well today, No one any longer takes the classic Greco-Roman stories literally, but the equally preposterous stories of the various holy books are considered literal by an astonishing number of us. Many people are willing to kill and maim to uphold the veracity of stories that have no more empirical basis than do flying sandals.

Meanwhile, a real Andromeda beckons, a fuzzy blur of light in a dark night sky, which optical aid reveals as a spiraling beauty of hundreds of billions of stars.