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Starry Messengers

Houghton Library’s current exhibition shows the history of astronomy in science, art and mysticism.


Drawing of sky with sunMarch 10, 2015—Space may be the final frontier, but its exploration has long been one of man’s pursuits, as shown in Houghton Library’s current exhibition Starry Messengers: Signs and Science from the Skies. Books and manuscripts display the scientific, artistic and mystical approaches to understanding the skies in the early modern world.

Items depict crucial moments in the science of comets, solar eclipses, and other phenomena, in which scientists often clashed with those who viewed celestial events as signs from God. Many of the items show the scientific overlaid with the ethereal, poignantly capturing humankind’s ever-shifting thought processes in the search for meaning in the universe.

The exhibition is on display in Houghton’s Edison and Newman Room through May 2.


Starry Messenger title page

"Sun dogs," an effect created by ice crystals in the atmosphere, are said to foretell the downfall of King Charles I in this 1645 text. (*EC65.L6288.B679a, Houghton Library)

This 1684 engraving of a comet over Augsburg, Germany marks the position of the comet within several constellations, including Cygnus, the swan. (*GC6.W1258.681c (B), Houghton Library)

1618 German text

This 1618 German text ties the comet to apocalyptic events from Biblical prophecy, divined through a complex series of mathematical calculations. (*GC6.F2735.618f, Houghton Library)

This 1681 illustration comes from a crucial period for the science of comets, during which forward-thinking scientists like Halley and Newton clashed with those who viewed the celestial events to be supernaturally malevolent forces or signs from God. (*EC65.A100.681a10, Houghton Library)

The Hebrew letters in the nucleus of the comet spell the Tetragrammaton, the name of God, while the tail translates as “I will bring to judgment.” (STC 1416, Houghton Library)