The artists have always been inspired by the stars. It is no exception in the world of painters. The astronomical secrets of famous paintings are part of the fascination they still hold.
A good example is “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh. A canvas on which a turbulence of stars appears in a spiral, a galaxy that really exists. In 1780, the French astronomer and geographer Pierre Méchaim discovered the so-called Fan Galaxy or Messier 74. It is a spiral galaxy in the constellation Pisces.
Charles Messier added the galaxy to his catalog shortly thereafter. It is entirely possible that Van Gogh, a great fan of astronomy, watched the drawing of the galaxy. He must have been inspired for his famous painting as their similarities are amazing.
There is another scene in the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, northern Italy. It represents the adoration of the kings. Giotto interpreted the representation of the star of Bethlehem very freely, unlike what was traditionally done. He chose to render it as if it were a glowing fireball.
Most likely, in the case of Van Gogh, there was inspiration in this picture as well. He was likely to witness the appearance of Halley’s comet in the sky in 1301. And that is what is actually shown.
Pedro Pablo Rubens painted “Saturn devours its children” in 1636. The canvas was made to decorate the Torre de la Parada, King Felipe IV’s hunting lodge. The scene is full of drama. The god takes a brutal bite on one of his offspring while holding him in his arms.
There are three stars aligned at the top of the canvas. The representation of the planet Saturn? A mistake by the Flemish painter? No, Rubens winked at the astronomer Galileo Galilei, who had been condemned by the Inquisition three years ago, in this representation.
It was because of something that happened on January 7th, 1610 (twenty-three years before Rubens painted his picture). The Italian had aimed a self-made telescope at the night sky and discovered celestial bodies around Saturn. At first I didn’t know how to interpret it. He thought that they were simply three stars near the planet and that they were drawing a line through it.
This was another astronomical secret of famous paintings. It wouldn’t be resolved until 1659. At that time, the Dutchman Christiann Huygens suggested, based on observations with a much more powerful telescope, that the planet was surrounded by a thin ring. In the meantime Rubens’ painting was already gathering dust with its astronomical secret.