Halley’s Comet and Giotto

My family has always loved astronomy. On my father’s side, he was heavily into amateur radio. And so we would watch him as he figured out how the sunspots affected the radio propagation as he talked on HF. On my mom’s side, she had a deep love for mythology, so she showed us the stars and told us the myths that gave the constellations their names.

Comets were another exciting time. I wasn’t alive when Halley’s Comet last came around in 1986, but I remember very clearly the Hale-Bopp comet! And when the Hale-Bopp comet appeared in 1995, my parents made sure to take us to the woods, away from our highly population-dense neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, just so we could see it in its full glory without all the light pollution — along with my mom’s uncle, who just happened to be a physicist who worked for NASA.

So, when I saw this little video by the BBC, describing how medieval historians and astronomers were banding up together to learn more about the various astronomical phenomenon, especially of the appearance of comets, I was fascinated.

Take a look!

Isn’t it cool???

This, of course, reminded me of another medieval artwork by Giotto in which Halley’s Comet actually makes an appearance. Take a look!

Adoration of the Magi, by Giotto
Adoration of the Magi, by Giotto, c. 1304-06. Cappella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy.

It’s a picture of the Adoration of the Magi! So, the three wise men come and worship Christ and offer Him gifts. After all, He is the King!

Also, take a look at that camel. Giotto’s donkeys are always so comical and joyful (I might have ranted about this before) but that camel! That camel is soooooo unbelievably excited about everything! Just take a look at that face!

Now, look above the stable. No, that is not a meteor crashing into the scene! Instead, that is Giotto’s depiction of Halley’s Comet.

Photograph of Halley’s Comet, courtesy of NASA. Photograph is in the public domain.

You see, Giotto had seen Halley’s Comet as it passed by in 1301, and apparently was so struck with its appearance that he decided to paint it in this image. After all, as the story goes, the star that was above the Christ Child that the Magi followed was a brilliant star that seemed to move to rest right above the stable. And what could be more brilliant than Halley’s Comet?

And so, he depicted that as the Star of Bethlehem! Thus, that is the reason why the Star of Bethlehem has a little tail in this picture.

I suppose that could have been the end of the story of Giotto and Halley’s Comet — but it isn’t! You see, the European Space Agency sent out a space probe to analyze Haley’s Comet when it passed by in 1986. The name of the probe?

Giotto.

Yes, they named their probe after the religious artist who depicted the comet centuries ago! This probe was able to get very close up to Halley’s Comet — about 596 miles away — and take some pretty amazing pictures. Here is one of them!

“Comet Halley as seen by ESA’s Giotto spacecraft in 1986, the last time the comet visited the inner Solar System. Giotto was ESA’s first deep mission, and obtained the first close-up images of a comet. This image was taken from a distance of about 2000 km from Comet Halley. The Sun is located towards the left of the image, provoking outbursts of gas and dust from the comet’s nucleus.”

Image source from European Space Agency. [Link]

Giotto made his painting in the medieval period, which is commonly thought of as the Dark Ages, where science completely stalled until the Renaissance came about. But this sort of thinking is simply not true! People were fascinated with celestial phenomenon, just like we are today.

And it’s wonderful that medieval scholars and astronomers are finally working together to enlighten this period and bring about a better understanding of the truth about the people who lived during these times.

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of three, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer

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