Humans have long strived to describe the universe they find themselves in, whether they believed it was carried on the back of a giant turtle, shaped by an old bearded guy, or came into existence in a fiery explosion.
As part of this effort to make sense of the totality of reality, people have produced a stunning array of images representing the universe and celestial phenomena, using everything from paintbrushes to supercomputers. Filmmaker and author Michael Benson has collected 320 pages' worth of these artistic portraits of the universe, composed over a span of some 4,000 years, in his new book, Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time (Abrams).
Take a look at a selection of the artworks, below, which are truly out of this world.
1210–30: An illumination from Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works), by Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval visionary writer, composer, and proto-feminist, showing four seasons on a spherical Earth. Although produced after her death in 1179, the illustration is thought to follow her original design. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras (he of the famous triangle theorem) is thought to be one of the first people to describe a spherical Earth, and by the early medieval period the concept was well-established. | (State Library of Lucca/Abrams)
1410–1500: This 15th-century depiction of the Earth as a floating sphere bristling with spires is not too far off from the cover of a 1970s science fiction novel. From a French translation of the 13th-century encyclopedia De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things) by Bartholomeus Anglicus. | (National Library of France/Abrams)
1547–52: In July 2008, London Old Masters dealer James Faber bought a remarkable book at auction in Munich. The bound manuscript was packed with 167 watercolor and gouache paintings, each illustrating a miraculous event. Faber noted that the last miracle described was in 1552, and he commissioned a thorough analysis of its paper and materials. The results confirmed his hunch that what became known as the Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch (Augsburg Miracles Book) in fact dated to the mid-16th century, and was almost certainly made in Augsburg at the height of the Reformation. The text underneath the illustration reads: "In A.D. 1362, at the time of Otto, the emperor from Saxony, a stone — wondrous and big — fell from the sky in heavy wind and rain. And on many people, little blood-red crosses appeared and a great eclipse of the sun appeared." | (Day & Faber/Abrams)
1573: This illustration by Francisco de Holanda shows an omnipotent creator conjuring the firmament of reality. | (Biblioteca Nacional de España/Abrams)
1874: Before the Apollo program allowed scientists to get an up-close view of the moon, most people thought the lunar landscape was an especially rugged one, as shown in this illustration from James Nasmyth and James Carpenter's book The moon: Considered as a planet, a world, and a satellite. Peaks like this don't actually exist on the moon; we know now that the steady bombardment of micrometeorites on the atmosphere-less moon has softened and rounded all of the lunar mountains. | (Courtesy the Wolbach Library, Harvard/Abrams)
2009: Scientist Matthias Rempel and colleagues used a supercomputer capable of 76 trillion calculations per second to create this fiery simulation of a sunspot at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Sunspots are frequently at the locus of solar prominences, with solar flares and coronal mass ejections all associated with the highly magnetically active regions where they occur. This image, effectively a still culled from the first comprehensive 3-D model of a sunspot, was created after NCAR received an IBM supercomputer capable of performing 76 trillion calculations per second. | (NCAR-Wyoming supercomputing facility © UCAR, Matthias Rempel, NCAR/Abrams)
2013: Based on supercomputer simulations, the morphology and structure of the universe at exceedingly large scales can be seen in this still from the Hayden Planetarium show Dark Universe, directed by Carter Emmart. Galaxy clusters are strung in the web-like arrangements of dark matter that connect between nodes of more highly concentrated dark matter. The bright knots represent clusters of thousands of galaxies. Vast voids can also be seen between the denser areas. The light-year distance of the diameter represented here is about 400 megaparsecs. With a parsec constituting 3.26 million light-years, that's more than 1.3 billion light-years across — or one-tenth the age of the Milky Way. To put that into perspective, the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. | (AMNH-Hayden Planetarium, from Dark Universe, directed by Carter Emmart, produced by Vivian Trakinski/Abrams)
Cosmigraphics, by Michael Benson and published by Abrams, is available now.