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date: 08 February 2023

Depictions of the Moon in Western Visual Culturefree

Depictions of the Moon in Western Visual Culturefree

  • Jay M. PasachoffJay M. PasachoffWilliams College, Department of Astronomy
  •  and Roberta J.M. OlsonRoberta J.M. OlsonNew York Historical Society, Curator of Drawings


Since the landmark lunar landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (launched in 2009), and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Kaguya spacecraft (2007–2009), among other efforts, have now mapped the Moon’s surface. Before those technological advances and since the beginning of recorded time, people and civilizations have been entranced by Earth’s only natural satellite, which is the second-brightest celestial object visible in the sky from the surface of the planet. Selected examples, among thousands, show how the history of the Moon has been regarded, illustrated, and mapped in visual culture in the Western world. Early examples include representations of a formulaic crescent Moon in Babylonian times; later this dominant stylized depiction of the Moon gave way to more naturalistic images based on observation, culminating in Leonardo da Vinci’s manuscript drawings, which study the lunar structure and cratered surface, and Galileo Galilei’s first telescopic images of the Moon recorded in wash drawings and woodcuts for his book Sidereus Nuncius. Both the artistic and scientific visual acuity that made this evolution possible belonged to the burgeoning empiricism of the 14th through the 17th centuries, which eventually yielded modern observational astronomy and impacted lunar iconography. The subsequent dramatic mapping of the Moon’s surface and the naming of its features became a preoccupation of many astronomers and some artists, who assisted scientists in illustrating their work. With the seeming physical mapping of the Earth-facing side of the Moon well underway in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the function of Earth’s satellite as a Romantic symbol gained force in the all the arts but most dramatically in the works of landscape painters in Germany (e.g., Caspar David Friedrich and Carl Gustav Carus) and in England (e.g., Samuel Palmer). At the same time, William Blake, who was obsessed with astronomical imagery, used the Moon for expressive purposes, which reached a fever pitch later in the century in the work of Vincent Van Gogh. Along with the increasing accuracy of the Moon’s portrayal through both artists’ and scientists’ representations, the dramatic history of its mapping from Earth crescendoed with the development of photography and William Cranch Bond’s first successful daguerreotype of the Moon in 1851. Further exploration of the Moon, including its far side, has gravitated to aerospace engineers in cooperation with physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, and Apollo astronauts. Nevertheless, the Moon has remained an enduring object of fascination for artists—among the many, Surrealist Joan Miró, Veja Celmins, and Andy Warhol.


  • History of Ideas about Planets and Planetary Systems

The Power of the Moon for Ancient Civilizations

“One giant leap for mankind.” When astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin Jr. aboard Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, they fulfilled the dreams of human beings since time immemorial. Just as the Moon has exerted its power on the tides of Earth, so too it has mesmerized cultures—their religious leaders, artists, poets, philosophers, astronomers, and anyone enthralled with the beauty of the night sky, possibly because it is the only heavenly body that regularly shows its features to the unfiltered naked eye. This article examines the history of how the Moon has been regarded, illustrated, and mapped in Western visual culture by highlighting selected examples, a mere sampling from thousands of possible candidates (Olson and Pasachoff, 2019).

Already around 30,000 bc, during the Aurignacian Paleolithic period, certain hunter-gather societies engraved the cycles of the Moon and later lunisolar calendars on portable bone plates for timekeeping. Even more ancient is the Lebombo bone, a baboon fibula discovered between South Africa and Swaziland that may be 35,000 years old, whose 29 notches are believed to be a lunar counter (the Moon’s average cycle of phases takes 29.5 days).

The Moon is also one of the only objects in the sky not destroyed from view by the Sun’s rising (Venus also remains visible), and it can be seen in the daylight even when it is only a thin crescent. (Amateur astronomers contest how young a Moon can be seen, with the current record about 11 hours after “new Moon,” its alignment—that is, in syzygy—with the Sun and Earth.) For people in the Arctic regions, like the Inuits, the Moon is more dominant in some ways than the Sun, especially during the long winter months that have little or no daylight when it provides the strongest light. Understandably the Moon is prominent in their cosmologies. Earth’s giant natural satellite is the largest Moon in the solar system relative to the size of its parent planet (though Charon, the largest of the five satellites belonging to Pluto—promoted in 2006 to the category of “dwarf planet,” paralleling the usage of the “dwarf star” for the Sun, once it was realized that Pluto is hundreds of times too small to be considered a “planet”—is proportionately larger). Our Moon may have originally been part of Earth, formed from debris dislodged by an impact event. The monthly lunar cycle made the Moon a natural timekeeper on which early calendars were based. In fact, the word “month” itself is a cognate of “Moon.” A handful of Western artists prior to the scientific watershed of the 17th century actually studied the Moon and represented it in works of art. Their lunar studies arose from a curiosity about nature and the visible phenomena of the world. Certain artists expanded their fascination with the observation of the world to include the heavens and the Moon, which has been termed “the first other world.” No wonder that Earth’s satellite has always also cast a spell on the poetic imagination—beginning as early as the Pythagorean tradition of ancient Greece that viewed the Moon as a place of repose for restless souls.

In even earlier Western cultures where the heavens were linked to religion and astrology exerted its hold over the course of history—the Moon was represented but always in a formulaic manner and usually as a crescent. Examples include the cylinder-seal of Hash-hamer, governor of Iskun-Sin (in North Babylonia), c. 2100 bc (British Museum, London) and the Nebra Sky Disc from c. 1600 bc (Hally State Museum of Prehistory, Querfurt, Germany), the oldest celestial diagram or image of the cosmos known.

Depictions of the sky from the Greco-Roman period occasionally include a crescent Moon. These images tend to be symbolic and are rarely scientific, although exceptions occur in Hellenistic astronomical papyri. Usually ancient depictions of the Moon accompany the fertility goddess of the Moon and of the hunt, the Greek goddess Artemis (the Roman equivalent was Diana). Selene (the Roman equivalent was Luna) was the personification of the Moon itself, from which the study of the Moon, selenography, takes its name. In later medieval times Artemis-Diana merged with Luna. In the pre-Copernican Ptolemaic system, wherein Earth was positioned at the center of a universe of concentric circles or nested spheres and the lunar phases were recognized, the Moon continued to be represented in art in its most easily recognizable form, as a crescent. Like a profile portrait, a crescent is the easiest likeness to represent, necessitating neither foreshortening nor perspective.

Renaissance Empiricism and Observations of the Moon

At the beginning of the 14th century in the Italian university town of Padua—the center for nascent astronomical studies where Galileo Galilei would eventually hold a chair—Giotto di Bondone included the Moon in an unusual manner in the private oratory chapel of Enrico Scrovegni. In the Last Judgment he painted the firmament as an illusionistic scroll rolled back by an angel (Fig. 1). Nearby in the painting cycle is the Florentine artist’s Adoration of the Magi scene that includes the first naturalistic depiction in Western art of a comet—the stella cometa known as Halley’s Comet—testifying to his interest in celestial objects. Giotto’s portrayal of the Moon with a face derives from a type that arose in the 9th century, when the goddess Luna was eclipsed by the man-in-the-Moon, a type about which the Greco-Roman Platonist Plutarch first commented in his On the Face in the Moon. However, Giotto did not simply harness prevailing visual formulae. Rather, he painted his waning crescent Moon just past third quarter with an unusual frontal man-in-the-Moon face, whose features vaguely suggest the distribution of “spots” on the rugged lunar surface 300 years before Galileo questioned the perfect surface of the Moon (Ariew, 1984; Galles & Gallagher, 2011). Curiously, this craggy surface, characterized in Antiquity by Pliny as “spottedness,” was thought to be merely the result of dirt from the Earth taken up by moisture. In popular legend these spots were described as the features of Cain, imprisoned in the Moon, which posed a problem debated by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in several of his works and illustrated in a contemporary illuminated manuscript of his Commedia. Furthermore, the ashen, silvery color of Giotto’s Moon appears naturalistic in its tonality and chiaroscuro, unlike most other stylized representations.

Figure 1. Giotto di Bondone, Detail of the Last Judgment, c. 1301–1306, fresco. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. Web Gallery of Art.

A Sienese artist in Giotto’s wake, Pietro Lorenzetti, also observed the skies in his native Tuscany and represented a crescent Moon in two nocturnal scenes with meteor showers—the Last Supper and the Betrayal of Christ in his frescoes in the Lower Church of San Francesco, Assisi (1316–1320). In each scene, Lorenzetti rendered a crescent Moon (with horns too elongated in the Betrayal) as a full disk lit by Earthshine but, importantly, in two different positions that connote the passage of time (Olson, 1999).

Historians know that at this moment scholars were discussing the nature of the Moon because illustrations in illuminated manuscripts demonstrate that some Europeans had a clear understanding of lunar phases and the Moon’s orientation with that of the Sun (Fig. 2). Four terms are useful in describing lunar phases: “crescent,” referring to phases where the Moon is less than half illuminated; “gibbous” (from the Latin word for “hump-backed”), referencing phases where it is more than half illuminated; “waning,” with the illumination diminishing; and “waxing,” with illumination increasing. Didactic illustrations of lunar eclipses of the time also reveal a sophisticated observational knowledge of the Moon (Fig. 3).

Figure 2. Phases of Moon, MS Français 574, detail fol. 101v, in Gossuin de Metz, Image du Monde, 1320, watercolor on parchment, whole 380 × 255 mm (5 × 10 in.). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Paris. Public Domain: The use of these reproductions is covered by French Law n°78-753 of July 17, 1978.

Figure 3. Lunar eclipses, MS Français 574, detail fol. 99r, in Gossuin de Metz, Image du Monde, 1320, watercolor on parchment, whole 380 × 255 mm (15 × 10 in.). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Paris. Public Domain: The use of these reproductions is covered by French Law n°78-753 of July 17, 1978.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly behind Earth and in its shadow (umbra), which happens only when both bodies are aligned with the Sun, again, a “syzygy.” There are three types of lunar eclipses—total, partial, and penumbral—with the most dramatic being a total lunar eclipse, when Earth’s shadow completely covers the Moon. A total lunar eclipse happens with a perfectly aligned full Moon, and its duration depends on the Moon’s location relative to its orbital nodes. Since direct sunlight is then completely blocked by Earth’s shadow, the only light seen in a total lunar eclipse at totality has been refracted through Earth’s atmosphere and, like Sunset light, looks dimly reddish. As the white sunlit area of the Moon is eclipsed, the dark area appears tinted reddish, and during totality the whole of the lunar surface appears dimly red in the sky; it is sometimes inaccurately (and never by professional astronomers) called a “blood Moon.” Unlike a solar eclipse, for which totality can be viewed only from a relatively small area of the world, a lunar eclipse may be seen from anywhere on the night side of Earth, since it corresponds to an extremely full Moon that happens to be in Earth’s shadow. A total lunar eclipse lasts for five hours with over an hour of totality, whereas a total solar eclipse lasts only for a few minutes at a given place along its path, with the partial phases lasting perhaps three hours. Every year there are at least two lunar eclipses and as many as five, although total lunar eclipses are significantly less common. If one knows the date and time of an eclipse, it is possible to predict the occurrence of others (Espenak, 2014; Espenak & Meeus, 2009). Christopher Columbus notoriously used his mariner’s knowledge of eclipses by consulting a copy of Regiomontanus’s almanac when he was marooned during his final voyage to the New World. In March of 1504 he fooled the threatening native Arawaks on Jamaica by predicting a lunar eclipse. Just before the end of totality they gave the Europeans provisions and then treated them with respect until a relief vessel rescued them.

Over a century after Giotto, the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck painted in the Crucifixion scene of a devotional diptych the first realistic portrayal of the Moon (Fig. 4). During the Medieval and Renaissance periods many artists depicted the Moon in this context, usually on Christ’s left (sinister) side near the bad thief, balanced on the right by the Sun, to signal the cosmic chaos of this apocalyptic moment (Montgomery, 1994, 2001). Usually both celestial bodies, which sometimes have faces, are highly stylized and occasionally are shown eclipsed and/or red. It has been claimed, but far from proven, that partial lunar eclipses occurred at Jesus’s Crucifixion or on the Jewish Passover and Feast of the Tabernacle holidays in ad 32 and 33, the time assigned to the event, but since neither was total, there could not have been a reddish lunar eclipse. Except for its length, the darkness described in three of the biblical gospels at the Crucifixion accords better with a solar eclipse, although there was no total solar eclipse at that time. (We agree with those researchers who think that astronomical events are often invented to match historical ones rather than necessarily happening at the claimed times.) In contrast to earlier prototypes, Van Eyck depicted a waning gibbous Moon with spotted lunar maria (though they were not identified with this term until Galileo’s work) and an irregular terminator—the division between its illuminated and dark parts. He placed his chalk-colored Moon naturalistically low on the horizon, a place it would have occupied in the morning before setting at noon, not about 3:00 pm when, according to the Bible, the Crucifixion occurred and darkness descended. The naturalism of Van Eyck’s image resulted from the acuity of his observations. Nearly two centuries before Galileo, Van Eyck superseded the limits of his own time. His hand recorded the realities he observed to liberate the objects he studied from the stylizations imposed by religious demands and Scholastic principles. No doubt he first recorded his observations in a separate drawing that he consulted and slightly tilted when inserting the lunar study into his painting.

Figure 4. Jan van Eyck, Detail of the Crucifixion from a diptych, c. 1440–1441, oil on canvas, transferred from wood, 56.5 × 19.7 cm (22 1/4 × 7 2/3 in.). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1933. Public Domain: Metropolitan Creative Commons.

What is even more significant about Van Eyck’s accomplishment is that there are four other portrayals of the Moon in paintings attributed to him, his brother Hubert, and their workshop, all set during daylight hours. These efforts must have been preserved in sketches or in a copybook available for consultation in the workshop, and their execution suggests how important the coordination of the hand and eye would prove to be for pre-photographic astronomy (Olson & Pasachoff, 2001). Not until Leonardo da Vinci does an artist again study the Moon so intensely yet so dispassionately.

Several decades later, two unidentified artists frescoed a portion of the night sky as an accurate star map with the constellations on the dome over the altar in the Old Sacristy in San Lorenzo, Florence, on a commission from the wealthy banker and de facto ruler of Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici. The ambitious scheme includes not only the position of the Sun on the ecliptic, but also in the constellation Taurus a gilded lunar crescent with an irregular terminator and its occulted portion set off by Earthshine (Fig. 5). This 15th-century trompe l’oeil, globe-like vision of the heavens measures four meters in diameter, and its program required advanced perspectival calculations and foreshortenings combined with astrological/astronomical knowledge; the advisor of this fresco is thought to have been the astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli. Computer-based calculations pinpoint the date represented on the Old Sacristy dome to July 4 or 5, 1442. This date has been connected to the visit of René of Anjou—King of Naples, Sicily, and Jerusalem—to Florence and the growing fervor for the Crusades to supplement the Old Sacristy’s iconographic alliance with the Holy Sepulchre (Lapi Ballerini, 1988, 1989a, 1989b). It has also been connected to the consecration of the altar on July 9, 1442, although its duplication in the Pazzi Chapel’s dome seems to argue against that theory (Forti, 1993).

Figure 5. Unidentified artists with Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, Detail of the dome over the altar with the Moon in Taurus, after 1442, fresco. Old Sacristy, San Lorenzo, Florence.

Courtesy Opera Medicea Laurenziana.

Leonardo da Vinci, who was likewise immersed in perspective and naturalistic explorations, studied the Moon with a scientific attitude and left extensive notes about his observations. Scholars believe that he intended to write a treatise on astronomy, but, as with many of his good intentions, it never reached fruition. The foreword of this treatise would have addressed optics, then considered part of perspective. Leonardo’s largest lunar drawings extant are in the Codex Atlanticus and the Codex Leicester (Bambach, 2003, 2019; Leonardo da Vinci, 1987, 2000a, 2000b; Farago, 1996). Two feature pre-telescopic mappings of the Moon’s surface reveal that Leonardo viewed lunar markings with a scientific rather than an imaginative eye, referring to them in his notebooks merely as “spots” (macchie). In one passage of his copious notes Leonardo remarks that: “the details of the spots of the Moon . . . often show . . . great variations,” which he has “proved by drawing them.” In another he argues that, contrary to a prevailing opinion of the time, the Moon cannot be a convex mirror reflecting Earth’s continents and seas. At another point, he states that “the spots on the Moon, as they are seen at full-Moon, never vary in the course of its motion over our hemisphere,” explaining that it results from the Moon always showing the same side to Earth and thus rotating in the same period as its revolution around the planet. Significantly, Leonardo argues that the spots are, in fact, on the Moon itself:

Others say that the surface of the Moon is smooth and polished and that, like a mirror, it reflects in itself the image of our Earth. This view is also false. . . . A second reason is that an object reflected in a convex body takes up but a small portion of that body, as is proved in perspective.

(Leonardo da Vinci, 1939)

Leonardo drew two thumbnail lunar sketches whose maria suggest a man-in-the-Moon on one page (Fig. 6): a full Moon (with the Mare Crisium at the upper right) on the left and the eastern half of the waning Moon nearly third quarter on the right. It is interesting that while the dyslexic artist wrote backward, his lunar images do not appear reversed.

Figure 6. Leonardo da Vinci, Sketches of the Moon, detail Codex Atlanticus, fol. 310r, 1505–1508, brown ink on paper. Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan. Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Metis e Mida Informatica/Mondadori Portfolio/Bridgman Images.

Leonardo’s most ambitious lunar drawing is only one half of a complete image (Fig. 7), which if complete would have had a diameter of around 17.8 centimeters or 7 inches. From its position on the page, the eastern half was most likely drawn on another page to the left (thus it is either the right half of a full Moon or a first quarter Moon). Although this sheet is less accurate than Leonardo’s earlier, smaller studies, his mapping formations approximate several maria—such as the Mare Serenitatis adjacent to the Mare Tranquillitatis, the Mare Foecunditatis, and the Mare Nectaris—against the white highlands. To the right and slightly above the large Moon is a smaller faint sketch of the full Moon (Reaves & Pedretti, 1987).

Figure 7. Leonardo da Vinci, Sketches of the Moon, Codex Atlanticus, fol. 674v, 1513–1514. Charcoal, black chalk, and brown ink on paper, 500 × 350 mm (19 11/16 × 13 13/16 in.). Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan. Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Metis e Mida Informatica/Mondadori Portfolio/Bridgman Images.

While both sheets show lunar maria, it is not possible to determine an accurate libration—the slight wobble of the Moon as it rotates and orbits Earth that ultimately provides a view from Earth of five-eighths of the lunar surface—from any of them. The lack of references to lunar craters or rays in Leonardo’s drawings and writings is probably the result of the fact that he never saw the Moon through what is today considered a telescope, whose invention dates to 1608. Yet Leonardo may have at least used magnification for viewing the Moon, the first step toward a telescope. In his notebooks the artist instructs: “Construct glasses to see the Moon magnified” (Fa ochiali da vedere la luna grande). What he meant by “magnified” remains unknown. To date no one has satisfactorily explained this apparently significant comment (Olson & Pasachoff, 2001).

Leonardo’s third lunar study features a thin crescent Moon (Fig. 8). It shows the lumen cinereum or ash-gray light first identified by the artist as Earthshine or planetshine, which has been credited to Johannes Kepler and his teacher Michael Mästlin a century later. In this codex Leonardo writes:

Some have thought that the Moon has a light of its own, but this opinion is false, because they have founded it on that dim light seen between the horns of the new Moon, which looks dark where it is close to the bright part, while against the darkness of the background it looks so light that many have taken it to be a ring of new radiance completing the circle where the tips of the horns illuminated by the Sun cease to shine. . . . If you want to see how much brighter the shaded portion of the Moon is than the background on which it is seen, conceal the luminous portion of the Moon with your hand or with some other more distant object.

(Leonardo da Vinci, 1939)

Figure 8. Leonardo da Vinci, Waxing Crescent Moon with Earthshine, detail Codex Leicester (formerly Hammer), fol. 2r, brown ink on paper. Collection of William H. Gates III.

Image Courtesy © bgC3.

The artist also speculated wrongly that the Moon’s surface is covered by water that reflects Sunlight, although he anticipated Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity by pointing out the universality of gravitation—that it is a force not merely on Earth but also acting on the Moon to keep it in its orbit.

Apart from these few rough sketches, the other drawings of the Moon mentioned by Leonardo are lost or undiscovered. Nevertheless, they are the earliest to reveal the surface of the Moon and preserve, together with written evidence, a scientific study of its surface. They harmonize with the artist’s profound scientific interests as well as with his reputation as the universal man (il uomo universale). It is apparent from his notebooks that he carefully observed the Moon over a long period of time and in advance of the theoretical explanations for the visual phenomena he recorded. While Leonardo had the courage to criticize Aristotle on some of the ancient Greek’s views about the Moon, his own ideas were not without flaws. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that Leonardo’s lunar studies, as well as his spirit of inquiry, left its mark on art and science in Florence, where Galileo would eventually study perspective and chiaroscuro, demonstrating a clear connection between practice in Italian Renaissance art and the development of modern experimental science.

Leonardo’s astronomical pursuits date from later in his life, especially after 1513 when, on the invitation of the Medici Pope Leo X, he lived in Rome as a celebrity in the papal court. It may have been Leonardo’s presence, together with the humanist inclinations of his patron, which helped to accelerate his astronomical interests and precipitate significant representations of the Moon by artists active in the papal circle, including several by Raphael Sanzio. Yet Raphael’s interest in astronomical phenomena may have been sparked before Leonardo’s arrival, as suggested by other works, among them his Madonna of Foligno (1512; Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City) that contains a depiction of a bolide. In the stimulating intellectual environment of the papal court Raphael produced several images of the Moon, including one where the lunar body is a key player in a dramatic solar eclipse in Vatican’s Loggia of Leo X. He also frescoed a crescent Moon or a partial lunar eclipse in the nocturnal scene of St. Peter Liberated from Prison in the Stanza d’Eliodoro, a chamber in Leo X’s private suite of rooms that showcases the artist’s study of light effects. This fresco narrates Peter’s miraculous escape from prison aided by an angel who appears surrounded by shining light (Acts 12:1–11). Because the Moon dramatically distracts the soldiers while Peter makes his escape with the divine messenger, a lunar eclipse would fit the narrative and Raphael’s portrayal of it better. In addition, the metaphor of the eclipse brilliantly parallels Peter’s stealthy retreat from the prison directly past the guards (Olson & Pasachoff, 2001).

Leonardo’s and Raphael’s interest in the Moon was contagious and transferred to an artist in the latter’s Vatican entourage, Sebastiano del Piombo. His majestic Pieta (Fig. 9) features figures based on designs by Michelangelo Buonarotti dominated by the spectacular image of a full Moon replete with maria. Patristic literature viewed the Moon as a symbol of the Christian Church (Ecclesia) and a full Moon as emblematic of giving birth—herein not only the Virgin to her son but also by his death to the Church. The artist’s careful description of the lunar sphere parallels his precise anatomical study of a cadaver, as well as anatomical drawings by Michelangelo, in preparation for painting the corpse of Jesus. The haunting work has a desolate landscape that is as dark as the heart of Madonna. Sebastiano used other complementary, poetic visual metaphors in the painting, such as the sunset coloring the sky and signaling the death both of daylight and Jesus. The rising Moon, partially obscured by clouds, argues that the tragedy of Golgotha has an epilogue with the light of the Resurrection.

Figure 9. Sebastiano del Piombo, Pieta, 1514–1517, oil on panel, 2.70 × 2.25 m (106 5/16 × 88 5/8 in.). Museo Civico, Viterbo.

Courtesy Museo Civica Viterbo and Ministero dei beni culturali di Viterbo.

At the time, the mechanics of lunar, as well as solar, eclipses were well known by the intelligentsia of early Western Europe. Because of the new printing technology, they were circulated in illustrations, such as in Johannes Sacrobosco’s Sphericum opuluscum (Sphaera Mundi), and were enjoyed in paintings for humanistic and domestic settings, as well as being showcased in sumptuous volumes, including the extraordinary Astronomicum Caesareum of Peter Apian, cosmographer and court astronomer to Hapsburg Emperor Charles V, with its turning volvelles (Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Michael Ostendorfer, Lunar eclipse from Peter Apian, Astronomicum Caesareum (Ingosltadt, Germany: Petrus Appianus 1540), pl. J Hand-colored woodcut, 454 × 323 mm (17 7/8 × 12 11/16 in.). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Herbert N. Straus, 1925. Public Domain: Metropolitan Creative Commons.

Representations of the Moon after the Invention of the Telescope

It was in England where studies of the Moon—238,900 miles away from Earth on average, though the distance actually varies because of its elliptical orbit from 232,6000 to 252,000 miles—reached its modern phase. Around 1600, not long before the invention of the telescope, William Gilbert, physicist and physician to Queen Elizabeth I, drew the spotted face of the Moon and labeled what he observed. Unfortunately, Gilbert included his faint pen-and-ink study of the full Moon with grid lines that reflect the current longitudinal lines of the day in the manuscript of a book. He believed that the bright areas of its surface were water and the darker areas were land, the exact opposite of the prevailing views of the time. He represented what we call lunar “mare” as islands, but in reality we know that the Moon is mostly dry, devoid of accumulated water. Gilbert’s image is a flattened projection and less artistic than Leonardo’s drawings. Its importance, however, lies in the fact that it is a map, which relied on the system of terrestrial mapping established by Ptolemy, with Gilbert’s inscriptions of 13 names determined mostly by physical geographic descriptions. A nationalistic exception was his “Britannia,” our Mare Crisium at the upper right. Gilbert’s drawing is the oldest-known map of the Moon made from naked-eye observations and initiates the trend toward later lunar mapping, the wave of the future. Yet it had no impact because it was not published as an engraving until 1651 in Gilbert’s De mundo nostro sublunari philosophia nova (Whitaker, 1999). By that time three major nomenclature schemes had appeared on other maps prepared from telescopic observations. Nevertheless, Gilbert’s efforts at lunar mapmaking established him as the first selenographer and signaled that the Moon’s surface would soon enter the main current of astronomical illustration.

Another enterprising Englishman, Thomas Harriot, used a six-power telescope (then called a “perspective tube”) to make the first known telescopic sketch of Earth’s satellite on July 26, 1609 of the Gregorian calendar. Four months later, in November–December, Galileo employed a telescope with the same magnifying power to observe the Moon and was instantly credited as being the first person to examine it with magnification of that power. Unfortunately, Harriot, who had long been interested in optics, did not deem his observations important enough to complete them, and hence he did not draw any further images for months, nor did he feel the need to publish them as Galileo had. Instead, he resumed his observations simultaneously with Galileo’s second and third studies and produced the first map of the full Moon in 1611. While Harriot made an honest attempt at portraying the Moon’s main features, unlike Galileo with his artistic training, he had not been educated to portray what he saw, so he did not realize the three-dimensional structure of the lunar mountains (which Galileo noticed from the spreading of bright spots rather than from the three-dimensionality of any view). Nonetheless, his impetus to record what he saw through the telescope rather than write about it was a watershed moment: the instrument of increased sight, the telescope, revealed images that now superseded text. It is evident that Harriot’s interest in the Moon was rekindled by Galileo’s efforts, for he made at least 20 drawings of the Moon in the summer of 1610 that are more like mathematical diagrams. He and Francis Bacon may have seen Gilbert’s lunar map because Harriot names one feature that is also found on Gilbert’s map: “The Caspian” (Whitaker, 1999). An astute scientist and mathematician, Harriot is perhaps better known for his description of an expedition with his friend Sir Walter Raleigh to Virginia in 1585 and for the introduction of the “greater than” and “less than” signs in mathematics.

Galileo’s revolutionary set of 11 surviving brown ink wash drawings of the Moon (Fig. 11) from 1609 reveal that the artistic training of his eye enabled him—unlike Harriot—to understand and interpret the raw data of his telescopic observations correctly. (Gingerich & Van Helden, 2003). His accomplished sheets were eventually engraved and published in the Sidereus Nuncius (Sidereal Messenger) in 1610 (Fig. 12), whose text reads like a traveler’s account of exploration: “And first I looked at the Moon from so close that it was scarcely two diameters distant.” Galileo holds the distinction of being the first person to publish illustrations of the lunar surface drawn with a telescope. He had constructed it himself, eventually producing an instrument capable of 20-power magnification. For the rather dry woodcuts and descriptions he used no nomenclature, merely referring to the large dark areas as the “great or ancient spots.” However, his observations settled the ancient controversy over whether the Moon was a spherical, Earth-like body or something far more exotic, such as a crystalline sphere. They delivered the coup de grace to the Aristotlean ideas of perfection. It has been suggested that Galileo’s vivid brown wash studies, which may have been the basis for the woodcuts in his Sidereus Nuncius, may, in fact, be his neater copies of original sketches that he made at the telescope (Gingerich & van Helden, 2003). A careful review of them, together with the engravings, has led to the determination of the dates on which he made his observations—a matter of much speculation in the past. Galileo first observed the Moon on November 30, 1609, Gregorian calendar (Drake, 1970; Whitaker, 1978). Apart from a small, rough sketch obviously made from memory and partially written over with calculations, Galileo did not make a drawing of the full Moon, the probable reason being that he was interested in the body’s roughness, which is not apparent at its full phase. By using his telescope, Galileo discovered that the spots on the lunar surface change shape over time and realized that this phenomenon can be explained by the shadows cast onto mountains on the Moon, with the lighted areas spreading from the tops of mountains as the Sun rose. He also noted the irregular advance of night across the lunar surface caused by its uneven, complex surface. Johannes Kepler had made the same conclusion about the irregular edge of the terminator in his book on optics (Astronomiae pars optica, 1604). Galileo also created a new pictorial rhetoric for the Moon—his words resembling visual paintings—and married artistic naturalism to the formerly preferred astronomical text. With the charm of Galileo’s voice, his little book became a landmark in Western intellectual history, which has been reinforced by a recent forgery and the controversy surrounding it (Bredekamp, 2014). It should be noted that views of the Moon rendered with the aid of an astronomical telescope, with its inverted image, were usually reproduced upside-down until recently.

Figure 11. Galileo Galilei, Sketches of the Moon, Ms. Gal. 48, fol. 28r and v (with horoscope), 1609, brown ink and wash on paper, 208 × 142 mm (8 1/4 × 5 9/16 in.). Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence.

Courtesy Canadian Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vancouver.

Figure 12. Galileo Galilei, Sidereus Nuncius (Venice, Italy: Apud Thomam Baglionam, 1610), pp. 26–27, engraving, 265 × 135 mm (10 7/16 × 5 5/16 in.).

Collection of Jay M. and Naomi Pasachoff.

Several scholars have argued convincingly that it was Galileo’s artistic training in 16th-century Florence that enabled him to record accurately in his drawings, and thus preserve for posterity, his telescopic observations. Whereas works by Van Eyck and Leonardo suggest that art preceded science in the observation of the Moon, art was also needed to translate the early flat maps of the Moon’s surface. Galileo’s subtle chiaroscuro modeling—which, by the way, was part of the contemporary definition of perspective—in his wash sketches have a sophisticated aesthetic sensibility that captures the haunting quality of lunar light, including the light on its shadowy peaks and craters, which he called “cavities.” Galileo’s contemporaries certainly acknowledged his artistic skill for in 1613 he was admitted to the Florentine artistic academy, the prestigious Accademia del Disegno, which employed an outside visitatore to teach Euclidean geometry and perspective (Edgerton, 1984, 1991). On another folio in the same manuscript (fol. 16r), Galileo delineated a diagram for determining lunar heights, with the terminator clearly indicated. By applying a technique well-known to perspective students, Galileo revealed that the mountains on the Moon were even more spectacular than the Alps, although his drawings are not without exaggeration and it is unclear how detailed his instructions were to the engraver.

Galileo’s drawings of the Moon must be considered in the context of the court of the Medici Grand Dukes, Galileo’s patrons, where he studied optics and perspective. His patrons created an environment conducive to scientific studies, where Duke Cosimo I and later his son Francesco I, obsessed with alchemy, the nascent science of chemistry, sponsored many scientific endeavors. In turn, Galileo was influential on artists, such as his life-long friend, the painter Lodovico Cardi, called Il Cigoli, whose abilities as an astronomical observer Galileo praised. Cigoli represented a crater-pocked crescent Moon with visible Earthshine in his Immaculate Conception (Fig. 13), whose subject traditionally featured the Virgin standing on a stylized crescent Moon. Moreover, Cigoli’s Moon has a telltale topographic appearance only visible through a telescope that stresses its rock-like nature. It has long been recognized that his cratered Moon, with some Earthshine apparent, is a slightly foreshortened version of the engraving in the Sidereus Nuncius depicting the Moon when it is about a week old at first quarter (Ostrow, 1996). It is no coincidence that the connection between sight/optics and astronomy is underlined in the life of Cigoli, who wrote a treatise on perspective titled Prospettiva Practica (published posthumously in 1628). In addition, other works by the artist reveal his keen interest in celestial events, both astronomical and meteorological, including waxing Moons with Earthshine and vapors surrounding the lunar disk as described by Galileo (Contini, 1991; Faranda, 1986; Matteoli, 1980). Cigoli was a friend of other artists as well and met Peter Paul Rubens—who observed the Moon and painted it (Braham & Bruce-Gardner, 1988; Mendillo, 2015)—in Mantua in 1604, when the Flemish master painted himself with Galileo and four other friends in a famous group portrait.

Figure 13. Ludovico Cardi, Il Cigoli, Detail of the Immaculate Conception, 1610–1612, fresco. Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Far more magical and less topographical is the brilliant full Moon, displaying lunar maria painted by Adam Elsheimer in his Flight into Egypt (1609–1610; Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Elsheimer executed the work while living in Rome, where he may have encountered a copy of the Sidereus Nuncius, or at least heard about Galileo’s telescopic discoveries. Curiously, he suggested the lunar maria by the painterly application of the pigment more carefully in the reflection in the water than in the actual Moon in the sky, where he concentrated on rendering the quality of the light reflecting off the lunar surface. (Perhaps the actual full Moon was so bright that the structure was really more obvious in the duller reflection.) While Elsheimer was interested in observational astronomy, he aimed for effect rather than accuracy because he rendered the Milky Way, the galaxy containing our solar system, as too narrow a band of stars and nebulosity of gas and dust and not in its proper position. Here the mystery of the Christ Child becomes believable because of the artist’s realistic setting, which gives credibility to the story, despite the fact that Elsheimer modified the reality for artistic and iconographic effects (Howard & Longair, 2011). Nevertheless, his depiction of the Milky Way as a band of stars, though with more nebulosity, seems to be direct evidence of his familiarity with Galileo’s book, in which there is no depiction of the entire galaxy but only an illustration of a small part of it resolved into individual stars. Elsheimer’s composition was very popular because it was copied in paint as well as disseminated in a print. Since other works by Elsheimer and his circle include a full Moon in nocturnal scenes, we can conclude that Elsheimer was Moon-struck (Olson & Pasachoff, 2001).

During the decades following Galileo’s marriage of Renaissance artistic techniques with scientific evidence, astronomers struggled to catch up. Lunar images for scientific illustration did not live up to those painted by Cigoli or Elsheimer, or Philippe de Champaigne in his canvas of Saint Juliana’s vision (Fig. 14). The 13th-century Norbertine canoness and mystic of Liège, Saint Juliana, venerated the Eucharist, and at the age of 16 he began having visions of the full Moon with a spot or dark line on it as a rebuke to the Church for not having a feast day to celebrate the miraculous transformation of the bread and wine during the Eucharist. Champaigne attempted to interpret Juliana’s vision in a more modern, realistic manner by portraying a slightly distorted waxing gibbous Moon with maria; his image suggests a compromise that reveals more than a smattering of knowledge about Galileo’s observations. That the artist had an interest in astronomy is also demonstrated in other paintings.

Figure 14. Philippe de Champaigne, The Vision of St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon, c. 1645–1650, oil on canvas, 47.5 × 38.7 cm (18 11/16 × 15 1/4 in.). Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

The systematic mapping of the Moon’s features occurred only later in the 17th century. These developments in lunar cartography would have repercussions, including a deluge of lunar portraiture. Generally they followed in the footsteps of Galileo’s treatise, which was widely but clumsily copied, although the Jesuits continued to hold onto a virginal, spotless lunar surface that finds reflection in numerous paintings of the Immaculate Conception. During the era, the Moon’s importance as a celestial compass became especially critical because of the need to determine longitude for colonial exploration. A literary fixation on its poetic possibilities, including lunar travel, a dream since Antiquity, also surfaced in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone: Or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger (1638) and Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’autre monde: Les états et empires de la lune; les états et empire du soleil (c. 1650). They reveal that, after Galileo’s publication, the Moon became a solid alter ego of Earth, waiting for its features to be named and its surface visited.

The earliest of several new attempts to map the lunar surface was undertaken by French astronomers Pierre Gassendi and Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, who harnessed their observations of lunar eclipses to detail the advance of the shadow over the Moon’s surface. For the project they selected the artist Claude Mellan, who knew Galileo and whose near-photographic precision delighted them (Fig. 15). Mellan produced three etchings in two states that were never published but depict the full Moon and its first and final quarters, thus changing the relationship between art and science with art becoming a domain of expertise within science (Whitaker, 1999). When Peiresc died the project lapsed, although Gassendi sent copies of Mellan’s etchings to Johannes Hevelius, who was involved with his own lunar mapping program. Mellan’s beautiful engravings, however, did not satisfy astronomers who needed a map that showed all the Moon’s features equally, a way they never appeared in reality.

Figure 15. Claude Mellan, Lunar surface first quarter, first state, 1736, etching, 238 × 181 mm (9 3/8 × 7 1/8 in.). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, 1960. Public Domain: Metropolitan Creative Commons).

Soon thereafter, in 1645, the Belgian astronomer Michael Florent van Langren produced the first true map of the full Moon with surface shadings and a large number of its topographical features identified (325 names that reflected his political realities and Catholic orientation, although he did name a crater Langrenus after himself, providing one of the names that stuck). Like Mellan, van Langren made preparatory studies for his engraved maps. His flat cartographic abstraction was the first extensive, Earth-type map of the lunar surface and was intended to solve the problem of determining longitude for marine navigation.

One of the men of science van Langren included in his lunar nomenclature was his most ardent selenographic rival, the wealthy Polish brewer and astronomer Hevelius, who in 1647 published the first treatise devoted entirely to the Moon: Selenographia: sive, Lunae Descriptio . . . (Selenography, or a Description of the Moon . . .). With this tome, named after Selene, goddess of the Moon, Hevelius became the father of the science of selenography. He also made his own lenses, constructed telescopes (a 6- and a 12-foot focal-length version with a magnification of over 40), observed the Moon on every clear night for several years, and drew his observations and engraved them himself. He also paid to publish his sumptuous book that is really an atlas with 40 illustrations and 500 pages of text naming 275 features of the lunar surface (Fig. 16). It includes plates illustrating phases of the Moon and three large plates of the full Moon (the way it appeared through a telescope and the way a maker of terrestrial maps might represent it, but an impossible composite map of all its features illuminated from the same side, which nonetheless astronomers used during lunar eclipses). Hevelius also employed a nomenclature based on Earthly features, which in Protestant countries was used until the 18th century. His convention of single illumination has been used ever since, although modern maps follow van Langren’s evening illumination rather than Hevelius’s morning lighting. Selenographia’s frontispiece paid homage not only to Galileo but also to the influential, 11th-century Muslim polymath who wrote a treatise on the marking of the Moon, Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, Latinized to Alhazen.

Figure 16. Johannes Hevelius, Topographical lunar map, from Selenographia . . ., pl. Q (Gedansk, country?: Typis Hünefeldianis, 1647), engraving, 312 × 212 mm (12 5/16 × 8 1/4 in.).

Collection of Jay M. and Naomi Pasachoff.

Shortly thereafter, Father Jean-Baptiste Riccioli fashioned a new nomenclature, the one used today, at a time when the Jesuits were becoming involved with the Scientific Revolution. His ambitious Almagestum novum appeared in 1651 with images by his fellow Italian Jesuit, the physicist Francesco Maria Grimaldi; it sacrificed aesthetics for naming. The Riccioli/Grimaldi nomenclature shrewdly combined ideas from their predecessors but gave prominence in the naming of telescopic lunar craters to astronomers and philosophers, including 24 Muslim astronomers, thereby acknowledging the importance of Arabic astronomy and its influence on Western culture. Riccioli also incorporated current and recent figures in his scheme to suggest progress and dominance over ancient cultures, albeit christening naked-eye spots as seas with Latin names based on conditions associated with the Moon, such as the Mare Tranquillitatus.

Between 1671 and 1687 the Italian-born Gian Domenico Cassini, the first director of the Paris Observatory, worked with two artists, Jean Patigny and Sébastien Leclerc, on a lunar map that lacked names. They also selected Riccioli’s nomenclature for a smaller version. The map became the cartographic standard of selenography, because it most successfully commemorated individuals who were significant in the history of astronomy (Whitaker, 1999).

One of the most noteworthy early-18th-century artistic representations of astronomical imagery is Donato Creti’s series of astronomical observations, commissioned by Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsili—a soldier, passionate naturalist, and amateur astronomer—who hoped with them to convince Pope Clement XI to support the construction of an observatory in Bologna to house his instruments. Creti’s paintings (1711–1712) showcased Marsili’s astronomical instruments and helped him to obtain the observatory he hoped to construct; the miniaturist Raimondo Manzini painted their celestial bodies as seen through a telescope (Vatican, 1982). One scene features a huge full Moon with lunar craters and maria, as well as clearly visible rays (Fig. 17). To please his audience and show off his accuracy in lunar mapping, Manzini painted the Moon far larger than it ever appears from Earth and rotated its craters in a manner to suggest that he used a model from a printed book. In fact, his Moon is nearly identical to the full-Moon image that Cassini prepared for a total eclipse of the Moon predicted for July 28, 1692. In both, the Moon is oriented with the south up, as in a telescope when it is on the meridian (i.e., passing due south), but it is drawn near Moonrise, when south would be toward the lower right at the latitude of Italy.

Figure 17. Donato Creti and Raimondo Manzini, Astronomical Observations: Moon, 1711, oil on canvas, 51 × 35 cm (20 × 13 7/8 in.). Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

With his map of 1749 Tobias Mayer became the first person to assign the Moon proper longitude and latitude. He was also the first to take into account its libration, allowing us to see about five-eighths of the Moon’s surface over time from Earth, although the far side of the Moon was not known until the Soviets sent a satellite around it in the 1960s. Mayer also used his libration calculations to produce an accurate map of the Moon’s appearance during a lunar eclipse on August 8, 1748 (Pigatto & Zanini, 2001).

The Lunar Society of Birmingham, founded in 1765, was a cultural barometer of the importance of the Moon to all things Earthly. It was so called because members met regularly from 1765 to 1813 during the full Moon because it afforded extra light to make the journey home on horseback easier. Founded as a forum for intellectual exchange between people from all walks of life, it focused on science and technology, and its members shared an excitement about the exhilaration of scientific discovery. Among its founders were Erasmus Darwin, a doctor, inventor, and grandfather of Charles, Matthew Boulton, and William Small. Later, the founders, who sometimes termed themselves “Lunarticks” (a pun on “lunatics”), were joined by Charles Darwin’s other grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, and many others.

It was in England during the late 18th and early 19th centuries where another conjunction between the observational powers of artists and astronomers occurred. John Russell, a portraitist known for his work in oil and pastel and his likenesses of scientists, was also interested in astronomy. He was a friend of William Herschel, the king’s astronomer, who Russell portrayed holding a star chart illustrating the discovery of the planet Uranus. With the assistance of his daughter and a powerful telescope from Herschel, Russell drew a lunar map, which took him 20 years to complete. One of his pastel studies of a waxing gibbous Moon, made with a refracting telescope fitted with an eyepiece micrometer, ranks among the most faithful early representations of the lunar sphere, albeit with distortions in lighting (Fig. 18). The artist himself remarked that he wanted to create a work of art “corresponding to the Feelings I had upon the first sight of the gibbous Moon through a Telescope” (Ryan, 1966; Stone, 1896). For 40 years Russell continued his lunar studies, measuring 34 of its features. From his observations, he produced a planisphere of the near side of the Moon in a series of sectional gores, which he engraved and planned to paste on globes, each 12 inches in diameter. Of the few that were made, five or six were mounted on a complicated brass mechanism by which the lunar librations could be demonstrated. Russell called his apparatus Selenographia (Science Museum, London) and published a pamphlet about it on 1797. (In 1661 Sir Christopher Wren had been the first person to construct a globe of the Moon, which is now lost.) Of course, the advent of photography later in the century soon discouraged any further attempts at such an exacting and laborious task. Since Russell placed neither a coordinate grid of lunar latitudes and longitudes nor any form of nomenclature on his images, one can understand why his work never enjoyed the impact in selenographic circles that its artistic and scientific contributions merited.

Figure 18. John Russell, Surface of Gibbous Moon (The Face of the Moon), 1793–1797, pastel on paper over a wooden strainer, 60 × 45 cm (23 9/16 × 17 3/4 in.). Science Museum, London.

Courtesy of the Science Museum, London.

With the growth of Romanticism in the 1830s, the Moon became a fashionable and ubiquitous presence in poetry, music, and art, where painted nocturnes expressed not just picturesque landscapes but ideas about industrialization and modernity that involved time, nature, and change (Wells, 2012). The quintessential German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich created three iconic paintings of two people seen from the back, so that the viewer joins them in gazing at the Moon within a setting filled with sentiments of the sublime and the seductively mystical power of nature (Fig. 19). In this version Friedrich included a waxing crescent Moon lit by Earthshine positioned close to the very bright evening “star,” the planet Venus (Brosche, 1995). The mesmerizing lunar-lit landscape was a predominant theme for 19th-century landscape painting during a period when science was changing the view of nature, especially in Germany, as also in the works of Carl Gustav Carus, and in England with Samuel Palmer. Obsessed by the Moon, as well as other celestial phenomena, Palmer, like his friend William Blake, who distorted it for expressive reasons, positioned it in many nocturnal prints, watercolors, and paintings. The English landscapist John Constable saw his artistic goals in harmony with scientists, some of whose work he studied—such as Luke Howard’s cloud types. In 1836 Constable argued in his Discourses that painting is a science and that the act of painting of landscape should be considered a branch of natural philosophy and the physical work an experiment (Constable, 1970).

Figure 19. Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, c. 1825–1830, oil on canvas, 34.9 × 43.8 cm (13 3/4 × 17 1/4 in.). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Wrightsman Fund, 2000. Public Domain: Metropolitan Creative Commons

The Watershed of Lunar Photography

Although certain astronomers continued to record their observations in drawings, by the mid-19th century, photography came rapidly to the foreground and people aimed cameras at the Moon. Already as early as 1839 Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre had thought that lunar photography would soon be possible. John William Draper of New York probably made the earliest lunar images on March 23, 1840; his exposure time was 30 minutes. Unfortunately, these daguerreotypes were lost in a fire in the New York Lyceum in 1866, so that the earliest surviving lunar photograph dates from 1849 and was taken by Samuel Dwight Humphrey in upstate New York (it is owned by Harvard University). At the Harvard College Observatory in 1847, the daguerreotypist John Adams Whipple was unsuccessful at his first attempts to use the long-focal length, high focal ratio Great Refractor to make lunar daguerreotypes. Only in 1851—and in collaboration not only with William Cranch Bond, the director of the Observatory but also with his son George P. Bond and Whipple’s partner William B. Jones—did he successfully photograph the Moon (Fig. 20). In England, Warren De la Rue, inspired by the display of the Whipple/Bond Harvard daguerreotype at the Crystal Palace in 1851, began to use collodion plates and succeeded in obtaining lunar photographs in 1853. He was preeminent in the pioneering development and application of astrophotography and the application of art photography to astronomical research. Among his other achievements are an early stereoscopic view of Moon from 1858 and exquisitely defined lunar photographs, such as ones of eclipses and the series of 12 lunar phases taken in 1860 that he showed at the International Exhibition in 1862 (Le Conte, 2011).

Figure 20. John Adams Whipple (with the collaboration of William Cranch Bond et al.), Daguerreotype of the Moon on August 6, 1851. Middlebury College Collection, Middlebury, VT, Christian A. Johnson Memorial Fund and the Overbrook Foundation.

Photo: Courtesy Middlebury College Museum of Art.

The future was clear, and just as the telescope caused a shift in the conduct of astronomy, so too did photography represent a new triumph in the struggle to capture images of the Moon. Nevertheless, astronomer-artists worked well into the photographic era producing images that were far superior to the mechanical ones produced by the camera (Wells, 2011). The painter John Brett had links to art and astronomy and a strong commitment to both. First a precocious astronomer, he is best known as a painter attached to the later English Pre-Raphaelites, as well as a protégé of the critic and artist John Ruskin. Prior to the age of 14 when he bought his first telescope, Brett made his own observing tubes from pieces he collected in second-hand shops. In June 1871 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and maintained an observatory at his house, “Daisyfield,” in Keswick Road, Putney. In his lunar observations, Brett followed in the footsteps of his artist predecessor John Russell and responded to Ruskin’s encouragement of exacting Pre-Raphaelite ideals of truth to nature, meaning in this case geological accuracy. His drawing of Gassendi’s crater on the Moon (private collection) surpasses in its subtlety Robert Hooke’s engraving of the crater Hipparchus (1664) and any photograph of the same date. Similarly, Étienne Léopold Trouvelot captured the Moon’s Mare Humorum first in pastels and then in chromolithographs (Fig. 21). Nevertheless, despite the manipulative ability of hand-drawn images, photographs had the advantage of being permanent and stable records. By the end of century, photographic emulsions had improved to the degree that the position measurements of lunar features made on them superseded both in number and accuracy the old eye-at-the-telescope measurements.

Figure 21. Étienne Léopold, Mare Humorum, from The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings Manual, 1881–1882, chromolithograph, 832 × 641 mm (32 3/4 × 25 1/4 in.). Museum of Jurassic Technology, Culver City, CA.

Image courtesy of the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Even after the advent of advanced astronomical photography, the Moon remained in the imaginations and scientific dreams of artists, scientists, and mappers of its surface. Take the case of retired engineer James Nasmyth and his plaster, three-dimensional models of the surface of the Moon, some still preserved in the Science Museum, London, that meticulously record the lunar surface. Nasmyth made the uncanny models to photograph for plates in his classic book The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite (1874), which he wrote with James Carpenter. Many artists continued to represent the Moon for its symbolism and expressiveness and to conjure up eerie visions of a more cosmic, metaphysical nature, such as Vincent Van Gogh’s pulsating crescent in Starry Night (1889; Museum of Modern Art, New York). In the French silent film by Georges Méliès Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) of 1902, inspired by Jules Verne’s novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and its sequel Around the Moon (1870), a group of astronomers travel to the Moon on a cannon-propelled capsule to explore the Moon’s surface. The moment when the capsule lands in the disgruntled man-on-the-Moon’s eye remains one of the iconic and most frequently referenced images in the history of cinema (Fig. 22). This internationally successful satire is regarded as the earliest example of the science fiction film genre and one of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century, but its significance also resides in its expression of the desire to explore space and other worlds. Moreover, the film helped fix the image of the Moon in the popular view as craggy, when in actuality, as discovered with Apollo 11 in 1969, its surface has smooth, rolling hills. Seventeen years later, in 1919, the International Astronomical Union was founded, leading to the eventual publication of the Named Lunar Formations in 1935. In his film, A Trip to the Moon, Méliès was not that much ahead of his time; in 1925, Howard Russell Butler—who became interested in astronomy by being invited by the U.S. Naval Observatory to the 1918 total solar eclipse—also envisioned the long-held dream of lunar voyages in a prophetic painting of the Earth as seen from the Moon, with some craggy putative lunar features in the foreground (Fig. 23). A year later, Spanish Surrealist Joan Miró painted Dog Barking at the Moon (1926; Philadelphia Museum of Art, A. E. Gallatin Collection), which depends on a Catalan folk tale that the artist had drawn in a sketch complete with cartoon word-balloons. The sketch shows a dog “bow wowing” at the Moon, while the Moon looks down without pity saying, “You know, I don’t give a damn.” Miró’s painting is more abstract and enigmatic than his sketch, leaving one wondering what is transpiring in what kind of a world.

Figure 22. Georges Méliès, Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), 1902, cinematic still photograph. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Figure 23. Howard Russell Butler, Earth Seen from the Moon, 1925, oil on canvas, 141 × 121 cm (55 1/2 × 47 1/2 in.). American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library.

In spite of the numerous landings and satellites since the first Apollo touchdown in 1969, the Moon continues to fascinate contemporary scientists and mappers, as well as artists who gaze at the night sky and continue to represent the Moon, one of the most evocative symbols and enduring images in the history of the visual arts. Artist Veja Celmins, always attuned to the exquisite on Earth and in the heavens, paid homage to the Apollo landing in her provocative graphite drawing of the surface of the Moon (1969; Museum of Modern Art, New York). Buzz Aldrin Jr.’s Moonwalk, preserved by Neil Armstrong in a photograph, was also commemorated by Andy Warhol in his series “Moonwalk Portfolio.” In the 1960s and 1970s Gerard Kuiper and his colleagues completed the era of telescopic lunar mapping by publishing four comprehensive photographic atlases; his work is commemorated by a namesake crater on the Moon. Recently, NASA and the Japanese Space Exploration Agency’s Kaguya spacecraft mapped the Moon in 3D. This ever more accurate 3D cartography has led to improved predictions of Baily’s beads—the last bits of everyday Sunlight shining through the deepest valleys on the lunar limb during annular or total eclipses of the Sun. In addition, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter discovered water on the Moon in the form of ice hidden in the craters at the southern pole. Other scientific missions to the Moon, including the 2019 landing by China of its Change’e 4 on the lunar far side, will no doubt continue the exploration of Earth’s satellite, while SpaceX, among other companies, plans lunar tourism missions. Aerospace companies believe that there still much to be gained from focusing on the Moon—from colonization to mining, lunar exploration could yield large dividends. One hopes that soon several nations will send people to the Moon, resuming the human exploration that so far ended in 1972, no doubt inspiring a different kind of lunar mapping and art.

Further Reading

  • Barbieri, C., & Rampazzi, F. (Eds.). (2001). Earth-Moon relationships: Proceedings of the conference held in Padova, Italy at the Accademia Galileiana di Scienze Lettere ed Arti. Dordrecht, The Netherlands; Boston, MA; London, U.K.: Kluwer Academic.
  • Bussey, B., & Spudis, P. (2004). The Clementine atlas of the Moon. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Chaikin, A. (2007). A man on the Moon: The voyages of the Apollo astronauts. London, U.K.: Penguin.
  • Cocks, E. E., & Cocks, J. C. (1995). Who’s who on the Moon: A biographical dictionary of lunar nomenclature. New York, NY: Tudor.
  • Crotts, A. (2014). The new Moon: Water, exploration, and future habitation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dupont-Bloch, N. (2016). Shoot the Moon: A complete guide to lunar imaging. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Evans, J. (1998). The history and practice of ancient astronomy. New York, NY; Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  • Heiken, G. H., Vaniman, D. T., & French, B. M. (Eds.). (1991). Lunar sourcebook: A user’s guide to the Moon. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nicolson, M. H. (1935). A world in the Moon: A study of the changing attitude toward the Moon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Smith College Studies in Modern Languages, 17, 1–71.
  • Nicolson, M. H. (1948). Voyages to the Moon. New York, NY: MacMillan.
  • Price, F. W. (2009). The Moon observer’s handbook. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rükl, A. (1990). Atlas of the Moon. Waukesha, WI: Kalmbach Books.
  • Scott, E. (2016). Our Moon: New discoveries about Earth’s closest companion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Spudis, P. D. (1996). The once and future Moon. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Wilhelms, D. E. (1993). To a rocky Moon: A geologist’s history of lunar exploration. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Wlasuk, P. T. (2000). Observing the Moon. Berlin, Germany: Springer.


  • Ariew, R. (1984). Galileo’s lunar observations in the context of medieval lunar theory. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 15, 213–227.
  • Bambach, C. (Ed.). (2003). Leonardo da Vinci: Master draftsman [Exhibition catalogue]. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Bambach, C. (2019). Leonardo Rediscovered 4 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Braham, H., & Bruce-Gardner, R. (1988). Rubens’s Landscape by Moonlight. The Burlington Magazine, 130, 579–596.
  • Bredekamp, H. (Ed.). (2014). A Galileo forgery: Unmasking the New York Sidereus Nuncias. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Brosche, P. (1995). Sie betrachten auch die Venus: Astronomisches zu Caspar David Friedrichs berühmten Gemälde. Sterne und Weltraum, 34, 194–196.
  • Contini, R. (1991). Il Cigoli. Soncino, Italy: Edizioni dei Soncino.
  • Constable, J. (1970). John Constable’s discourses (Ed. R. B. Beckett). Ipswich, U.K.: Suffolk Records Society.
  • Drake, S. (1970). Galileo’s first telescopic observations. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 7, 153–168.
  • Espenak, F. (2014) Six Millennium Catalogue of Lunar Eclipses. Portal, AZ: Astropixels.
  • Edgerton, S. Y. (1984). Galileo, Florentine “Disegno,” and the “strange spottednesse” of the Moon. The Art Journal, 44, 225–232.
  • Edgerton, S. Y. (1991). The heritage of Giotto’s geometry: Art and science on the eve of the Scientific Revolution. Ithaca, NY; London, U.K.: Cornell University Press.
  • Espenak, F. (2014). Thousand Year Canon of Lunar Eclipses 1501 to 2500. Portal, AZ: Astropixels Publishing.
  • Espenak, F., & Meeus, J. (2009). Five millennium canon of lunar eclipses: –1999 to +3000. NASA Technical Publication TP-2009-214172.
  • Farago, C. J. et al. (1996). Codex Leicester: A masterpiece of science. New York, NY: American Museum of Natural History.
  • Faranda, F. (1986). Ludovico Cardi, detto il Cigoli. Rome, Italy: De Luca.
  • Forti, G. (1993). The XV century skies painted in Florence. Memorie della Società Astronomica Italiana, 64, 651–654.
  • Galilei, G. (1610). Sidereus Nuncius magna, longeque admirabilia spectacula pandens, suspiciendaque propenens unicuique, praesertim vero. Venice, Italy: Apud Thoman Baglionum.
  • Galles, C. D., & Gallagher, C. J. (2011). The enigmatic face of the Moon. In E. Corsini (Ed.), The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena VI: Proceedings of a conference celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope (pp. 31–35). San Francisco, CA: Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
  • Gingerich, O., & Helden, A. van (2003). From Occhiale to printed page: The making of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 34, 251–267.
  • Howard, D. & Longair, M. S. (2011). Elsheimer, Galileo, and The Flight into Egypt. In E. Corsini (Ed.), The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena VI: Proceedings of a conference celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope (pp. 23–29). San Francisco, CA: Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
  • Le Conte, D. (2011). Warren De La Rue—pioneer astronomical photographer. Antiquarian Astronomer, 5, 514–535.
  • Lapi Ballerini, I. (1988). Gli emisfero celesti della Sagrestia Vecchia e della Cappella Pazzi. Rinascimento, 28, 321–355.
  • Lapi Ballerini, I. (1989a). Considerazioni a margine del restauro della “cupolina” dipinta nella Sagrestia Vecchia. In M. Cämmerer (Ed.), Donatello-Studien (pp. 102–112). Munich, Germany: Bruckmann.
  • Lapi Ballerini, I. (1989b). Il planetario della Sagrestia Vecchia. In U. Baldini, et al. (Eds.), Brunelleschi e Donatello nella Sagrestia di S. Lorenzo (pp. 113–121). Florence, Italy: Florini-Alinari.
  • Leonardo da Vinci (1939). The literary works of Leonardo da Vinci. 2 vols. (Ed. J. P. Richter). London, U.K.; New York, NY; Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.
  • Leonardo da Vinci (1987). The Codex Hammer of Leonardo da Vinci (Ed. C. Pedretti). Florence, Italy: Giunti Barbèra.
  • Leonardo da Vinci (2000a). Il Codice Atlantico della Biblioteca Ambrosiana di Milano. 3 vols. (Ed. A. Marinoni & C. Pedretti). Florence, Italy: Giunti.
  • Leonardo da Vinci (2000b). Leonardo da Vinci: The Codex Leicester—notebook of a genius (Ed. M. Desmond & C. Pedretti). Sydney, Australia: Powerhouse.
  • Matteoli, A. (1980). Lodovico Cardi-Cigoli, pittore e architetto . . . Pisa, Italy: Giardini.
  • Mendillo, M. (2015). Landscape by Moonlight: Peter Paul Rubens and astronomy. In B. P. Abbott (Ed.), The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena VIII: City of stars (pp. 21–30). San Francisco, CA: Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
  • Montgomery, S. L. (1994). The first naturalistic drawing of the Moon: Jan Van Eyck and the art of observation. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 25, 317–332.
  • Montgomery, S. L. (2001). The Moon and the Western imagination. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Olson, R. J. M. (1999). Pietro Lorenzetti’s dazzling meteor showers. Apollo, 149, 3–10.
  • Olson, R. J. M., & Pasachoff, J. M. (2001). Moon-struck: Artists rediscover nature and observe. In C. Barbieri & F. Rampazzi (Eds.), Earth-Moon relationships: Proceedings of the conference held in Padova, Italy at the Accademia Galileiana di Scienze Lettere ed Arti (pp. 303–341). Dordrecht, The Netherlands; Boston, MA; London, U.K.: Kluwer Academic.
  • Olson, R. J. M., & Pasachoff, J. M. (2019). Cosmos: The art and science of the universe. London, U.K.: Reaktion Books.
  • Ostrow, S. F. (1996). Cigoli’s Immacolata and Galileo’s Moon: Astronomy and the virgin in early Seicento Rome. The Art Bulletin, 72, 218–235.
  • Pigatto, L., & Zanini, V. (2001). Lunar maps of the 17th and 18th centuries, Tobias Mayer’s map and its 19th-century edition. In C. Barbieri & F. Rampazzi (Eds.), Earth-Moon relationships: Proceedings of the conference held in Padova, Italy at the Accademia Galileiana di Scienze Lettere ed Arti (pp. 365–377). Dordrecht, The Netherlands; Boston, MA; London, U.K.: Kluwer Academic.
  • Reeves, G., & Pedretti, C. (1987). Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of the surface features of the Moon. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 18, 55–58.
  • Ryan, W. F. (1966). John Russell, R.A. and early lunar mapping. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.
  • Stone, E. J. (1896). Note on a crayon drawing of the Moon by John Russell, R.A., at the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 56, 88–95.
  • Vatican, Museo Vaticano (1982). The Vatican collections: The papacy and art [Exhibition catalogue]. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Wells, G. N. (2011). The long view: Light, vision, and visual culture after Galileo. In E. Corsini (Ed.), The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena VI: Proceedings of a conference celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope (pp. 89–97). San Francisco, CA: Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
  • Wells, G. N. (2012). The Moon in the landscape: Interpreting a theme of nineteenth century art. In E. Campion & R. Sinclair (Eds.), The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena VII: Culture and cosmos 16 (pp. 373–384). Lampeter, Wales: Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture.
  • Whitaker, E. A. (1978). Galileo’s lunar observations and the dating of the composition of Sidereus Nuncius. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 11, 155–169.
  • Whitaker, E. (1999). Mapping and naming the Moon: A history of lunar cartography and nomenclature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.