Christmas is approaching, and with it the memory of its traditions. The Bible says that the Wise Men followed a star on their journey from the East. And it stopped just above the place where Jesus was born. But was the star of Bethlehem real?
A painter collaborated on the subject many centuries later. It is the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone. He painted around 1305 the Adoration of the Magi. It is one of his many frescoes depicting the Holy Family that the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. But above the nativity scene, Giotto painted a comet, not a traditional star. The painting features a tail characteristic of these space objects.
Many experts believe that Giotto was probably inspired by none other than Halley’s comet. It appeared low in the sky over what is now Italy only a few years earlier, in the autumn of 1301. Its intense brightness must have caught the attention of the inhabitants of the area.
They were generally seen as early signs of calamity. But comets were considered signs of change, such as the coming to the throne of a new king. It is not unreasonable that Giotto may have chosen a comet, especially one that was familiar to him. It may have been the symbol of change for the star of Bethlehem in his painting.
Interestingly, no one at the time knew they were looking at Halley’s comet. People had no idea that comets orbited the Sun and reappeared after a period of years. They were unpredictable, fiery, one-off phenomena. They were just considered part of the atmosphere.
The comet of Bethlehem
It was the Englishman Edmund Halley who discovered the phenomenon. He used a new formulation of Newton’s laws. And he found that the events of 1531, 1607 and 1682 were different appearances of the same comet. In his honor, it was named Halley’s comet.
Taking into account the 75-year period of this comet, it turns out that Halley appeared overhead in 12 BC. That is within six years of the actual date of Jesus’ birth. Was the star of Bethlehem real? Perhaps it was “the comet of Bethlehem”.
In March 1986, a European space probe flew within 600 kilometers of the nucleus of Halley’s comet. It took photographs and examined its surface and coma of dust and gas in detail. The Giotto probe was named after the artist who made the first realistic portrait of a comet in Western art.