Looking at the Moon

Scott Montgomery, The Moon and the Western Imagination, University of Arizona Press, 1999.

While I had some awareness of parts of this story, Montgomery has pulled together a seemingly comprehensive history of thinking about the nature of the Moon from the Greeks up to the fixing of the names of features on the Moon. There’s not much here about thinking on the subject of life on the moon - no fault of the author - but there is rather more about whether the Moon is somehow a world like the Earth or not.

I’m not going to re-tell all the contents beyond saying the ideas were quite varied before the modern era. There is, however, one point about this history which I found quite astonishing. There were no attempts at photo-realistic depictions of the Moon until 1420-5. This is odd in several ways. First, the technology of painting goes back thousands of years and there was plenty of talent even in the days of cave-art. In ancient Greece, we have a bounty of detailed work particularly in the realistic depiction of the human body, a suitably complex subject. The Greeks knew the moon existed and we see it represented in illustration work as a round body. But there is no effort to make an accurate sketch of the face of the moon though they realised it was more than merely round but had some sort of spottiness to its appearance. There is no fundamental obstacle against some artist just sketching the moon as it appears. Why then didn’t someone?

Montgomery is surely right that Van Eyck was the first because there was a growing trend to detail-work about virtually everything in Nature in this period and Van Eyck was particularly adept and prolific in this sort of detailed photo-realistic art. Yet, there is a nagging question how it is nobody before him even attempted a casual sketch that historians can find. The moon after all was hardly unimportant. People tracked it and made it a basis of time keeping. The moon is helpful in hunting at night and allows one to forage, garden, and see friends and enemies. People had seen the spots and imagined faces, rabbits, and people in the shapes of the spots. Yet, nobody thought to draw it realistically. -- Martin Kottmeyer

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