Imagining the Heavens: Adam Elsheimer’s Flight into Egypt and the Renaissance Night Sky
Keywords:Adam Elsheimer, Galileo Galilei, telescope, Milky Way, early modern astral science, Renaissance
Adam Elsheimer’s The Flight into Egypt (1609) has triggered a longstanding debate among art historians. For the last five decades, Elsheimer’s novel naturalistic representation of the night sky in his painting on copper has been linked to Galileo’s telescopic observations. To explain the astronomical details of this painting, scholars have contended that Elsheimer observed, before Galileo, the night sky with one of the first telescopes available in Rome. So far, the debate has lacked input from the history of astral science. This article presents a case study that examines the relationship between the visual arts and astronomical knowledge. It offers a contextualized analysis of the technical details of the artwork within the prevailing astronomical knowledge— before the appearance of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius—and frames it within the network of and debates among prominent figures of Galileo’s and Elsheimer’s time. It proposes a revisionist interpretation of Elsheimer’s most famous artwork based on an analysis of the technical and cultural practices of discerning and imagining the night sky around 1600.
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