Giotto di Bondone (b. 1266/7), a Florentine painter, died in 1337. 648 years later, he went to Heaven. During his career, Giotto painted a number of chapel frescos and religious paintings. His ascension, however, was only sort of related to his Christian art.
It all comes down to this painting.
It’s part of a large cycle of frescos in the Arena Chapel. Painted around 1305 the series is generally regarded as Giotto’s first mature masterpiece, making a break from the previously prevalent Byzantine style.
But ultimately, it was not so much the skill or artistic importance of the fresco, but the inclusion of the Star of Bethlehem that determined Giotto’s fate. Slicing its way across the top of the image, this star is based on a particular celestial body: a comet that Giotto would have seen cutting across the sky in the autumn of 1301.
It was not unheard of to portray the Star of Bethlehem as a comet, though it was slightly unusual. In the West, comets were typically regarded a harbingers of doom. Unlike the rest of the night sky, which moved in slow, predictable patterns, comets were an aberration, unpredictable and frightening.
But comets are not always completely unpredictable, and in fact, though Giotto did not know it at the time, his comet had been seen and recorded before.
During the 1070’s the Bayeux Tapestry recorded the comet’s appearance in 1066.
Stitched together and looking up, the subjects and servants of King Harold look up at the star with apprehension. The sighting of the unusual star was an historical event. Though when Harold’s subjects actually saw the comet they could have no idea what it might signify, after the fact it seemed reasonable to assume that the comet was the herald of defeat at the hands of William the Conqueror. The comet was accordingly embroidered into the Tapestry as a key episode in the Norman Conquest.
When the comet appeared again 75 years later, and interested observer drew it into the margins of a book.
The book’s owner notes briefly that the comet comes only irregularly, and when seen is regarded as a portent. And indeed it remained such far after Giotto’s star suggested the comet was a bringer of good news. In 1456, Diebold Schilling’s Lucerne Chronicles portrayed the comet as heralding earthquakes, red rains and unnatural births in his history of the Swiss town.
But as time passed, some people started to look at comets as neither good or bad, but rather as things that could be understood objectively. Johannes Kepler, for example, witnessed the passage of another famous comet in 1577.
When Giotto’s comet came around in 1607, he made a number of measurements and calculations that would help the study of the man most associated with the celestial body: Edmond Halley (1656-1742).
Yes, if you hadn’t guessed yet, it’s Halley’s comet (or officially 1P/Halley) that’s glided its way through art history for the past 900 or so years. Its frequent appearances in art are due in large part to its frequent appearance in the night sky. As Halley calculated, its “perihelion” occurs once every 75-6 years, passing near enough to Earth that it can be seen with the naked eye.
Creative interest did not die down after Halley identified the comet in 1705. In honour of the comet’s perihelion in 1835, a distinctive new style of jewellery was created.
Featuring a large stone at one end leading a tail of delicate metal work at the other, these pieces echo the shape of the comet, and are commonly known simply as ‘Halley’s comet jewellery.’
Yet for some, knowing the comet was coming didn’t necessarily make it any less terrifying. In 1910, the advent of Halley’s comet prompted international hysteria about the end of the world. So along with some celebratory commemorative items, there were a number of cartoons and satirical drawings devoted to the comet.
But it was also in 1910, a year when the comet was particularly visible, that the first photographs of the comet were taken.
In the photographs, the comet shines white against the dark sky. Though it was now better understood than it had been for most of human history, it still remained mysterious. Astronomers wanted to know more – what was made of? What was the surface like? What sort of body led that fiery tail?
It was Giotto that helped answer these questions. On 2 July 1985, the European Space Agency launched the Giotto space probe to examine Halley’s comet at closer quarters than ever before.
It survived the harsh conditions of space to assess the chemical makeup of the comet, measure it and to take close range photos of the nucleus.
The truth about Halley’s comet is in some ways close to its fiction. It’s billions of years old – far older than human life – a tiny fragment born from the formation of the solar system. While it has life-giving properties, with some of the molecules that could have provided the basis for life on Earth, it could, with just a slight change of course, be the bringer of total earthly destruction.
As with many cases where science and art history intersect, the truly remarkable thing is the wealth and variety of reactions Halley’s comet brought about. Beautiful and deadly, familiar and mysterious, something connected with Earth and the sky.
So even if the Giotto of the 14th century might not have expected such an otherworldly adventure, he surely could not be disappointed with it.