Destination Moon

It has been fifty years since Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind and stepped onto the moon. In celebration of this anniversary, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London is currently staging the UK’s biggest exhibition dedicated to our celestial neighbour, The Moon. With over 180 objects, including artefacts from NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, the exhibition explores what the Moon has meant to us from the beginning of time to the original “Space Race” and the potential plans for the future.

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We have all seen the Moon: we have seen it when it is full and we have seen it when it is only partially visible. It is general knowledge that the Moon orbits the Earth but what is it? Why is it there? What is its purpose? What are its secrets? The exhibition opens with a look at the workings of the Moon and how we began to discover everything we know now.

The Moon is Earth’s natural satellite and formed roughly four and a half billion years ago. Throughout this time, it has been visible to the naked eye and observed by billions of people. Different cultures have related to the Moon in various ways, however, by the constant study of the Sun, Moon and Earth, philosophers, scientists, and astronomers have come to understand the Moon’s relationship to our planet.

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One of the earliest artefacts in the exhibition is a fragment of a Mesopotamian tablet dated 172 BCE. Inscribed in cuneiform, the tablet describes the rituals that took place during a lunar eclipse. Today, a lunar eclipse is an exciting phenomenon and is usually advertised and talked about long before the event. For the Ancient Mesopotamians, however, a lunar eclipse represented evil forces and bad omens. Astronomers relied on the Sun and Moon to regulate their calendars and interpret signs from their gods. Darkness caused by a lunar eclipse was something to be feared and the natives spent the day banging kettledrums and singing funeral songs to chase away any evil spirits.

Suffice it to say, the Mesopotamians did not understand the occurrence of a lunar eclipse, therefore, it was only natural that they were afraid. A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon, Earth, and Sun are exactly or very closely aligned; the Sun on one side of the Earth and the Moon on the other. The Earth completely blocks any direct sunlight from reaching the Moon; the only light it reflects comes from the Earth itself, giving the Moon a reddish glow.

A solar eclipse, on the other hand, must have been equally, if not more, scary for the ancient population. When the Moon perfectly aligns between the Sun and the Earth, a small portion of the Earth is engulfed in shadow. From Earth, the Moon can be seen to pass over the Sun, completely covering it for a couple of minutes. Unaware of the astronomical explanations, to the Ancient Mesopotamians, it would appear that the Sun had disappeared, which they attributed to supernatural causes.

By 1000 CE, astronomers were beginning to understand the movements of the Moon, however, they still used it to make predictions. In The Principles of Astrology by the Persian astronomer Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Al-Bīrūnī (973-1050), the different phases of the Moon are explained to be caused by reflected sunlight. Initially, people believed the Moon produced light, like stars, however, this was eventually found to be false.

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It takes the Moon 29.5 days to make a complete orbit of the Earth. During this time, the Moon appears to change shape each night, going from full to a tiny slither and back again. The shape we see is the shape of the directly sunlit portion of the Moon as viewed from Earth. The angle of the Sun, Moon and Earth’s position, dictates the amount of sunlit Moon we see, as shown in James Reynolds’ diagram.

There are eight key phases of the Moon that have been named. When we can see a full circle, the Moon is aptly called a Full Moon. A half-circle is either the First Quarter or Last Quarter of the cycle, and complete darkness is called a New Moon. Between the New Moon and the First Quarter, the shape is known as a Waxing Crescent, and between the Third Quarter and New Moon, a Waning Crescent. The phases between a Full Moon and the Quarter Moons are called Waxing Gibbous and Waning Gibbous respectively.

James Reynolds also published information about the Moon’s influence on the Earth’s tides. The Moon has a slight gravitational pull on the planet, causing the oceans to rise towards it, thus causing high tides. When the waters are not directly in line with the Moon, they remain low. The Sun also has a gravitational pull on the planet, so when the Moon and Sun align, which they do twice a month, the tides are at their highest. These are known as Spring Tides, deriving from the concept of the tide “springing forth,” and has nothing to do with the time of year. During the First and Third Quarter Moon, the tides are at their lowest. This is called a Neap Tide.

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Orrery

Whilst studying the Moon and Sun, astronomers began to look further out into space, discovering other planets and stars. By watching these astronomical bodies, it has been possible to work out the relative motions of the planets in our solar system. An orrery, such as the one on display made by John Addison, represents these motions. When moving, the model planets revolve around the sun at the same ratio as the real planets. This model also contains the Moon, which rises and falls, mimicking the tilt of its orbit.

Before the world learnt about the Moon’s function, many theories and beliefs developed that usually tied in with various religions. When looking at the Moon, particularly when it is full, it is possible to see different shapes and shadows, which we know now to be craters and highlands. Before this was common knowledge, people made up stories about the shapes they could see, the most famous being the “man in the moon”. Others claimed to be able to see a woman in the moon and others a “banished man” carrying a bundle of sticks. The latter comes from a European story about a man who was banished to the Moon as punishment for collecting sticks on the Sabbath, the day of rest.

From the Pacific Northwest Coast of America, people believed they could see the shape of a toad on the Moon. A story claims that a wolf fell in love with a toad, however, the toad did not trust the wolf and in an attempt to escape, leapt onto the Moon. In China, on the other hand, the shapes take the form of a rabbit with a pestle and mortar. This rabbit, named Yutu, was the companion of the Moon Goddess Chang’e, who was banished to the Moon for stealing the elixir of life.

In Hinduism, the moon god is known as Chandra. One story claims he was cursed by twenty-six of his wives for spending too much time with his twenty-seventh wife. Plagued by illness, he waxed and waned in a cycle similar to the lunar phases.

In Greek Mythology, the Moon goddess Selene fell in love with a mortal, Endymion. To preserve their love forever, Selene put her lover into an eternal sleep so that she could visit him every night. A scene from this myth is shown in a painting by the French artist Victor-Florence Pollet (1811-83).

Pagan’s often celebrated the Full Moon, believing it was the perfect time to cast spells. Witches and wizards gathered on the night of the Full Moon to perform incantations around a cauldron of flickering flames. Other cultures also used the Moon as a cause for celebration. The Kwak’wala speaking tribes on the Northwest Coast of Canada hold potlach gatherings where high ranking members of the community wear carved Moon Masks and compete in ceremonial dances. The dancer who earns the audience’s approval is the “better” Moon. An example of a mask dating from 1983 is on display as part of the exhibition.

As well as worshipping the Moon in various ways, ancient civilisations used the Moon as a guide to the passing of time. Religious festivals were marked by the Moon’s phases and many of these traditions are still in use today. The majority of the world uses the solar (Gregorian) calendar to determine the date and time of year. Some cultures, such as Chinese and Islamic, continue to use the lunar calendar. Unlike the solar calendar that consists of 365 days, the lunar year lasts 354 days. Due to being shorter, each year begins eleven days later than the previous in relation to the solar calendar. This is why the dates of Muslim festivals, such as Ramadam, occur earlier each year. The first sighting of the Crescent Moon is a sign of a new Islamic month.

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In China, traditional events occur concerning the position of the Moon. For example, Chinese New Year happens on the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice (21st December). Events such as these were recorded in almanacs, such as the ancient manuscript on display at the museum. Customarily, old almanacs were burnt to release their powers back to the Moon, however, this manuscript (877 CE) was discovered in a hidden cave in China at the beginning of the 20th century, thus has been preserved for posterity.

Many cultures gave the Full Moons names in relation to the weather or festivities held during those seasons. Before calendars were invented, people could keep track of the time of year by counting the Full Moons. In some North American communities, the twelve Full Moons were known as Wolf Moon, Snow Moon, Sap Moon, Worm Moon, Planting Moon, Strawberry Moon, Thunder Moon, Grain Moon, Harvest Moon, Hunter’s Moon, Beaver Moon, and Cold Moon. The Planting Moon, which occurs in May, and the Harvest Moon (September) were guides and instructions for farmers. Snow Moon (February) and Thunder Moon (July) warned of extreme weather conditions.

The old names for the Full Moon have mostly been confined to the past, however, the Harvest Moon is occasionally still referenced. The Harvest Moon is traditionally the Full Moon that takes place closest to the autumn equinox (21st September). Unlike the other Full Moons of the year, the Harvest Moon rises closest to the sunset, allowing it to shine brightly all night. Before artificial lighting, farmers were able to use the moonlight to continue harvesting crops after sunset. John Linnell (1792-1882), an English landscape artist, painted families returning from the fields with the Harvest Moon lighting their way.

The Moon has been a regular feature in artworks throughout the centuries. As well as Linnell’s Harvest Moon, the exhibition features a handful of paintings by a variety of artists, including J. M. W. Turner’s (1775-1851) Moonlight on River. Landscape artist Henry Pether (d.1865) also produced a painting of the Moonlight reflecting on the river. The Thames and Greenwich Hospital by Moonlight highlights the blueish glow the Moon casts across the water. John Constable (1776-1837) used similar blue shades in his painting of Netley Abbey by Moonlight. The colours give Southampton’s medieval monastery a melancholy, mystical air.

Contemporary artists continue to feature the Moon in their artworks, such as Leonid Tishkov (b.1953), who created the giant mobile installation of a crescent moon that hangs in the centre of the gallery. The Russian artist takes his installation around the world, photographing it in a variety of landscapes and city spaces. When the photographs, such as one showing the Moon in bed, are placed together, they tell the story of a man who discovered the Moon in his attic and decided to spend his life with her despite being a rather unconventional couple.

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Of course, these artworks featuring the Moon are not scientifically accurate. The first drawing of the Moon from telescopic observations was produced by Thomas Harriot (1560-1621). The mathematician and astronomer who founded the English school of algebra noticed the various contours and shapes on the Moon and produced the first lunar map based on these. We now refer to the shaded lunar plains on the map as seas.

Whilst Harriot was celebrated for his achievement, it was the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) who received the most praise for his telescopic observations of the Moon. Galileo interpreted the shadows on the Moon as craters and mountains, claiming that the Moon had a similar landscape to Earth. This led Galileo to make the groundbreaking announcement that the universe was not Earth-centred. Through his observations of the Moon, planets, and stars, Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius containing his theory that the planets revolved around the Sun and not around the Earth as previously believed. Despite these findings, it took the population of the world a while to accept his ideas. The Catholic Church condemned Galileo for “vehement suspicion of heresy”.

The English artist John Russell (1745-1806) who produced portraits during the day, spent the night making detailed images of the Moon. Using a telescope, most likely an earlier version of James Nasmyth’s (1807-1890) on display in the exhibition, Russell spent twenty years making pencil sketches of the Moon. Later, using pastels, Russell produced a series of Moon portraits showing the various stages of the Moon, which included all the visible shapes and shadows. Russell preferred Gibbous Moons because they gave off the strongest contrast of shadows.

Russell’s detailed studies of the Moon allowed for the Moon’s libration – the slight wobble of the Moon on its axis – to be modelled on a globe known as a Selenographia. The brass globe also maps out the various shapes and shadows that Russell observed and painted.

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Images of the Moon became more accurate after the invention of photography in the early decades of the 19th century. The first lunar photographs are believed to have been taken in the 1840s, however, not many survive. On loan from the Science Museum Group are two daguerreotypes of the Moon taken in approximately 1850. Daguerreotypes were an early method of photography made on specially-treated silver surfaces. The examples on display were taken by John Whipple (1822-91) and George Bond (1825-65) and were seen by millions of people at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Through the aid of telescopes and photography, astronomers were able to produce fairly accurate maps of the Moon. Working from hundreds of drawings, the amateur astronomer Hugh Percy Wilkins (1896-1960) was able to produce the most detailed lunar map ever made. This map was used by the Soviet Union and NASA during their “Space Race”.

The Space Race began during the Cold War in 1957 and lasted until 1969. Whilst the Soviet Union and the USA could not attack each other violently, they competed to prove their superiority and technological power by racing to become the first nation to reach the Moon. In 1955, the USA announced their plans to launch an artificial satellite into space, however, once the Soviets learnt of the plan, they fought to beat them to it, launching Sputnik 1 in 1957. The satellite orbited the Earth for three weeks after which the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, with Laika the dog on board. Sadly, the dog died within a few hours of the launch, however, that did not deter the Soviets or the USA who began sending various animals into space.

The Soviet Union became the first nation to land a man-made object on the Moon. Their robotic probe Luna 1 travelled close to the Moon at the beginning of 1959, however, half a year later, Luna 2 (crash)landed onto the surface.

In 1958, the US government founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in order to compete with the Soviet Union. NASA’s first space program, Project Mercury, launched two chimpanzees into space to test the future of human space flight. Once again, the Soviet Union beat them to it and on 12th April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934-68) completed one orbit of the Earth. A mere few weeks later, Alan Shepard (1923-98) became the first American man in space.

Once they knew human beings could be successfully launched into space, NASA launched its Apollo Space Programme, the programme that would eventually see humans walk on the Moon. Before that, the Soviet Union launched the first woman into space. To date, Valentina Tereshkova (b.1937) has been the only woman to fly solo on a space mission. She spent three weeks in space during which time she orbited the earth 48 times.

The Soviet Union also became the first nation to launch the first multi-person crew. In 1964 Vaskhod 1, carrying three people, reached an altitude of 336 km (209 miles). Two years later, the Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (b.1934) completed the first space walk. To prove the Americans could do it too, Ed White (1930-67) achieved the same feat three months later.

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Earthrise

Although the Soviets were the first to launch a multi-person crew, on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 became the first crewed mission to orbit the Moon. They were the first humans to see the far side of the Moon and were witness to the Earth rising beyond the Moon, as photographed by Bill Anders (b.1933).

Finally, on 21st July 1969, the USA won the “race” when Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) stepped out onto the Moon. Watched by millions of people on television back home on Earth, Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon, shortly followed by Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (b.1930).

It took over 400,000 people to get Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon, as well as the ten men that followed. The photograph of the Cape Kennedy Space Launching Station taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) in 1967 shows only a small section of the Mission Control Center.

The hype surrounding the Apollo missions increased the closer it got to the reality of men walking on the Moon. Toys, magazines, books and films were produced and sold in honour of the momentous event. British textile designer Eddie Squire (1940-95) was inspired by the lunar landing and produced designs in commemoration. This includes a denim jacket (on show in the exhibition) and Lunar Rocket furnishing fabric.

Before the launch of Apollo 11, American artist Paul Calle (1928-2010) was granted privileged access to the astronauts. He watched them go about their preparations to enter the spacecraft, making on the spot sketches all the while. Apollo 11 was a mission full of danger and the astronauts were aware these could be their final moments on Earth.

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Thankfully, the astronauts returned to Earth as heroes. Armstrong and Aldrin explored a small portion of the Moon for 21 hours whilst Command Module Pilot Michael Collins (b.1930) orbited the Moon alone in the spacecraft Columbia. Whenever Collins flew behind the Moon, all communication signals were cut off with Earth; he was truly alone.

The crew kept in contact with NASA’s ground control via special headsets, such as the “Snoopy Cap” worn by Buzz Aldrin. Named because it resembled the head of the beagle Snoopy in Charles M. Schulz’s (1922-2000) Peanuts Cartoons, the dog also became a mascot for the mission.

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The astronauts left the US flag and a note saying, “We came in peace for all mankind,” and returned with a sample of moon rock. President Richard Nixon (1913-94) ordered that all nations on Earth be given a sample of moon rock as a diplomatic gift. Although 270 “goodwill” moon rocks were presented, 180 are now unaccounted for, either lost or stolen. Fortunately, the United Kingdom is still in possession of their particles of moon rock embedded in plastic, which is on display as part of the exhibition.

There have been a total of 17 Apollo missions and twelve men have walked on the Moon, however, no one has been there again since 1972. The first Apollo mission resulted in disaster when a launch test in 1967 went wrong, causing a fire and killing all three crew members. After this, Apollo missions 2 through to 6 were un-crewed and stayed relatively close to Earth. The first successful crewed Apollo mission took place on 11th October 1968. The crew stayed close to the Earth’s orbit and tested command and service modules for almost eleven days.

As mentioned earlier, Apollo 8 became the first mission to orbit the Moon. Setting off on 21st December 1968, the crew reached the Moon on Christmas Eve, returning to Earth six days after launch. Apollo 9 spent 10 days in low-Earth orbit so that the astronauts could test engines, life-support, and navigation systems. This was all in preparation for the eventual touchdown on the Moon. Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the Moon landing; the craft stopped 15.6 km (9.7 miles) from the surface of the Moon before returning home.

The entire world celebrated the first Moon landing in 1969, however, the Apollo missions did not stop there. In November of the same year, two more men walked on the Moon. Apollo 12 focused on extracting rock from the Moon’s surface.

Apollo 13 was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded, leaving the crew with limited life-support. With help and advice from the ground crew, the astronauts put makeshift repairs in place and returned safely to Earth. In January 1971, Apollo 14 successfully reached the Moon where they stayed for two days. During this time, the astronauts conducted experiments and had a game of golf.

In July 1971, the Apollo 15 team were able to explore 17.5 miles of the Moon’s surface. Before returning, they left a memorial on the Moon to commemorate the fourteen astronauts and cosmonauts who died during the Space Race. Apollo 16 brought back more samples of moon rock, and one astronaut left a photo of his family on the Moon. Finally, Apollo 17 broke records with the longest stay on the Moon, the longest moonwalk and the largest collection of lunar samples. There were plans for Apollos 18, 19 and 20, however, significant budget cuts meant they had to be abandoned.

“The Moon is a mysterious world to us. We have a responsibility to explore and understand it.”
– Wu Weiran, Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, 2019

The exhibition ends with a look at the plans for a future visit to the Moon. It may take another 15 to 30 years to get humans back on the Moon, but a British team are building an experiment to fly on the Luna 27 in 2023.

The future for the Moon is uncertain. Will humans walk on it once more? Will we be able to live on the Moon? Many signs point to the answer “yes”, however, this leads to further questions, such as, “Who owns the Moon?” and “Would we end up causing damages?” Most importantly, the moral debate as to whether it is right to experiment with the Moon causes us to wonder if we should leave it alone.

The Moon exhibition takes visitors on a journey from the ancient past to the distant future. From myth and legend to scientifically proven fact, the National Maritime Museum has succeeded in delivering the biggest, most interesting exhibition about the Moon. With an in-depth look at the Apollo 11 mission, it is a perfect way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing.

With tickets priced at £9 per adult and £4.50 for students, The Moon can be visited up until 5th January 2020.

The Renaissance Nude

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Saint Sebastian – Agnolo Bronzino, 1533

Today, we live in a censored world where young minds are shielded from the harsh realities of life and people are quick to complain about things that never once crossed previous generation’s minds. The word “nudity” sets alarm bells ringing and is presumed by many to be synonymous with sexual content. Ironically, despite society trying to block nudity from the impressionable minds of under 18-year-olds, anyone can gaze upon the naked body in public in nearly all art galleries.

Once upon a time, nudity was culturally acceptable, as the Royal Academy of Arts showed in their recent exhibition The Renaissance Nude. The 15th and 16th century was a crucial moment in the history of western art with the birth of the Renaissance period and a renewed interest in the human body as represented in ancient Greek and Roman art. The exhibition explored the use of nudity in art from 1400 to the 1530s, exploring works in a variety of media and produced by some of the most famous names in the business: Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Michaelangelo and Leonardo.

Renaissance is a French word meaning “rebirth” and aptly describes the period when Europe was rediscovering the art and values of the classical world after a long, stagnant period of decline during the Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages”. Not only was the art world affected, the Renaissance saw a number of new discoveries including scientific laws, new religious and political ideas, and sightings of new lands, for instance, America. Therefore, the art shown at the Royal Academy’s exhibition was once a welcome change in a world where people’s minds were being opened to endless possibilities.

The nude flourished in Renaissance art, achieving an increasingly dominant role across Europe. Unlike today where nudity often goes hand in hand with pornography and offensive content, the study of the unclothed body was welcomed by sacred and secular communities alike and produced some of the most magnificent works in existence today. It is Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) who takes the blame for the world’s more prudish attitude to nudity after he ordered concealing draperies to be painted over some of the figures in Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) Last Judgement (1541) in the Sistine Chapel.

One of the first artworks in the exhibition was Jan Gossaert’s (1478-1532) Christ on the Cold Stone (1530). Christ is rarely depicted as fully naked in artwork, apart from as a young child, and in this case, a strip of cloth covers his nether regions. Looking anguished and weary, Gossaert imagines Christ’s demeanour as he awaits his physical ordeal and eventual death. His body is based on the Greek sculptures Gossaert would have seen when visiting Rome, hence the exaggerated musculature.

Religion and art had a tight relationship during the Renaissance and Biblical scenes, such as Christ’s death and resurrection, presented artists with plenty of opportunities to work with the naked figure. As a result, religious subjects became much more realistic than they had been during the Middle Ages as well as more accessible.

As well as Biblical narratives, saints and religious heroes or heroines, were also popular subjects for Renaissance artists. Saint Sebastian (d.288 AD) was one of the more prevalent being the saint of the plague-stricken at a time when outbreaks of contagious diseases were common. Saint Sebastian was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s (244-311) persecution of Christians, initially being tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows, although it was not this that eventually killed him.

Cima da Conegliano’s (1459-1517) version of Saint Sebastian (1502) referenced his martyrdom with a single arrow piercing the right thigh of a young man with glossy hair, who stands naked but for a white cloth concealing his genitals. The youth is composed and appears unaware that he had been shot; nor is there any blood spilling from the wound. Cima replicated the physical beauty of Greek gods in his composition, thus making him appear pure, fit and healthy. The artist has achieved what the German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) urged: to use “the most beautiful human shape” which the ancients had used for their “false gods” when drawing the body of Christ or the saints.

The idea of representing the saints or the holy in the beautiful manner of the ancient Greek artists can be explored further in Dirk Bouts’ (1415-75) The Way to Paradise (1469). This shows one of the possible outcomes of the last judgement in which those who are saved ascend to paradise or heaven. Whilst naked, the figures in the painting have their lower bodies wrapped in pure white cloth and their stature and pure facial features emphasise their godliness. On the other hand, the opposite scenario shown in Bouts’ The Fall of the Damned (1469) shows the victims entirely naked, tumbling down into the infernal landscape. In this instance, the nudity references the shame Adam and Eve felt when they realised they were naked after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

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Adam and Eve – Albrecht Dürer, 1504

Adam and Eve are undoubtedly the most famous characters of the Bible who allow artists to experiment with nudity. In an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Eve is about to succumb to temptation and eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in the Book of Genesis. At this moment, Adam and Eve are unashamed of their nudity, however, Dürer has prudently obscured their genitalia with leaves. Unlike his contemporaries, Dürer tried to avoid using live models, preferring to draw people using a compass and ruler, therefore, creating his nudes geometrically. Although the figures have similar bodies to those in classical art, Dürer was quoted warning his fellow artists, “Your ability is impotent compared with God’s creativity.”

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Bathsheba Bathing – Jean Bourdichon, 1499

Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504) proves that Renaissance art was not limited to the painted medium. As well as paintings, the Royal Academy displayed book illuminations, sculpture and drawings amongst other media. For instance, a French copy of Book of Hours contains an illustration of Bathsheba bathing naked in the open air. In the background, King David can be seen spying on her from the palace window. It is thought that this and similar images were intended to be erotic, wrongly depicting Bathsheba as a seductress rather than a passive victim.

As described earlier, the Renaissance was a time of discovery, and people were exposed to new and old thoughts and religions. Since artists were inspired by classical sculptures, it is no surprise that their subject matter turned to the mythologies of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In a similar fashion, these stories from classical literature allowed artists to continue exploring the nude.

Piero di Cosimo’s (1462-1522) A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (1500) is fairly typical of the way classical stories are depicted. Despite the sorrowful scene, the landscape, colours and figures have a beauty about them that make them appear otherworldly. The peacefulness of the painting also relates to the scene inspired by Ovid (43BC-18AD) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) in which a nymph has been killed by a wound to her throat. The wound is not gruesome and the nymph appears to have swooned rather than crashed to the ground, almost a graceful death. Yet, nymphs were known for their singing and this nymph will sing no more, hence the peaceful quietude the painting evokes.

The nymph’s nudity links this painting to Bouts’ The Way to Paradise, in which the semi-naked people are portrayed as beautiful and pure. Despite the painful wound to her neck, the nymph’s suffering is nothing like the deaths of those in The Fall of the Damned. The other characters in the painting – a satyr and a dog – are quietly mourning her death, a stark contrast to the hideous characters in Bouts’ painting. A similar, peaceful figure can be seen in Dosso Dossi’s (1486-1542) A Myth of Pan (1524). Unfortunately, the precise meaning remains a mystery and it is not clear whether the naked lady is slumbering or condemned to eternal rest.

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Venus Anadyomene – Titian, 1520

Typically, male nudes were based upon one of the most important Olympian deity, Apollo. The Renaissance artists had more choice for the female nude since all goddesses were beautiful, however, Venus, the Roman goddess of Love, was usually the most represented. The myth surrounding Venus’ birth is a popular subject for artists. In Pliny the Elder’s (AD 23-79) Natural History, written around AD 77, he describes a long lost painting by the Greek artist Apelles (BC 370-06), which depicts the birth of Venus. Born fully formed from the sea, the most famous version of this story can be seen in Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) painting from the 1480s. The painting displayed in the Royal Academy’s exhibition, however, was the less elaborate Venus Anadyomene or Venus Rising from the Sea (1520) by the renowned Titian (1488-1576). In an attempt to rival Botticelli, Titian focuses on the nude Venus standing in the water in a natural, human-like pose. The youthful goddess is wringing her long golden hair and glancing over her shoulder rather than at the audience. Whilst Venus’ isolation makes her seem vulnerable and innocent, Titian wanted her nudity to add to the erotic allure of the painting.

Despite their unearthly beauty, the adventures of the Greek and Roman gods often resulted in adultery, lust, drunkenness, debauchery and deception, which encouraged Renaissance artists to explore impulsive behaviours that had been condemned by the Christian Church. Once, this would have had disastrous effects for the artist’s reputation, however, humanist ideas were beginning to infiltrate society with themes of seduction, powerful women and same-sex relationships.

The woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513) by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) explored the growing interest in powerful women. Medieval texts claim the Greek philosopher Aristotle (BC 384-22) punished his pupil, Alexander the Great (BC 356-23) for spending too much time with his lover Phyllis. The philosopher blamed Phyllis’ presence for arousing unwanted sexual feelings. Rather than taking the blame for sexually tempting Aristotle, Phyllis sought revenge on the behalf of her lover and demanded to be walked around the garden upon Artistotle’s naked back, while Alexander stood witness to the humiliating scene.

Other artists dealt with themes of temptation, especially the erotic dreams of some men, which due to their religious upbringing, were considered to be impure thoughts. The Flemish artist Hans Memling (1440-94) took these vices and vanities further in his book panels for the Loiani family from Bologna. Memling depicted beauty as vanity and vices as something to be punished for after death, hence the illustration of the devil. The final panel, Memento Mori, reminds us that regardless of our pure or irreligious behaviour, death comes to us all.

As the Royal Academy proved midway through the exhibition, nudity in art was not necessarily either religious, mythological or erotic; there were many more purposes for the naked body. Previous to the Renaissance, paintings of the human body (usually clothed) were unrealistic, often with awry proportions or strangely shaped faces. The introduction of nudity to art allowed artists to start studying the human figure with live models in their studio. It was standard for artists to produce preparatory drawings before starting a painting, therefore, there are a large number of anatomical sketches by famous artists in the possession of art galleries today.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1483-1520) are life studies of the same model in different positions captured in red chalk. By studying the way the body moves in each position, Raphael was confident enough to paint the Three Graces in The Feast of the Roman Gods at the Farnesina in Rome. Likewise, Michelangelo (1475-1564) also produced sketches before putting brush to canvas, wall, etc. The Italian artist concentrated on the musculature of the human body and surrounding his sketches are annotations that may have had instructive purposes.

Cesare Cesariano (1475-1543) was one of a few artists who produced a detailed drawing of The Vitruvian Man. Based on the treatise of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (BC 80-15), which demonstrates the three central themes of architecture and engineering: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty); The Vitruvian Man is an anatomically correct drawing of the proportions of the human body. The most famous of these drawings, of course, was by the famous polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

Of course, the Royal Academy could not display sketches by Raphael and Michelangelo without showing the detailed drawings of the anatomy fanatic himself, Leonardo. During his busy career as an artist, sculptor, architect, inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, astronomist, geologist, botanist, writer, historian and cartographer, Leonardo somehow managed to find the time to dissect numerous bodies and make detailed drawings of human anatomy. The sketches displayed at the Royal Academy were those of the shoulder and neck. Unlike Raphael and Michelangelo, who were preparing for larger paintings, Leonardo was making preparations for his treatise about the human anatomy. Surrounding the illustrations of several views of the shoulders and neck are Leonardo’s tiny annotations. Known as mirror script, this can only be read when held up to a mirror and was probably an attempt by Leonardo to prevent others from stealing his ideas.

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Saint Jerome – Donatello, 1460s

Taking the naked body into consideration allowed artists to considered the vulnerabilities of the human condition. Prior to the Renaissance, artworks of the human figure were based on ideals rather than reality. Even in death, paintings of Christ looked pure and holy, if not regal. After being able to study human anatomy, however, artists learnt to portray suffering in a more realistic manner.

Donatello’s (1386-1466) polychromed wooden sculpture of the naked Saint Jerome (1460s) is a vivid example of the vulnerable human body. Scourging himself with a rock to quell carnal desire, Saint Jerome’s body is gaunt and aged, reflecting his long-term exposure to the elements in the desert. Unlike the paintings of Saint Sebastian seen at the beginning of the exhibition, in which his body remains unaffected by the torture imposed upon him, Saint Jerome is a stark visual reminder of the hardships of religious commitment and the evidence that the body can benefit from material needs.

The final section of the Royal Academy’s exhibition about The Renaissance Nude reveals that paintings involving nudes were readily accepted by society and even commissioned by notable patrons, for instance, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), Marchioness of Mantua. The Marchioness commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her distinguished studiolo, which she had designated for studying and contemplation. The themes of these paintings prove that secular subjects were welcome in a once predominantly strict religious country.

Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune depicts a semi-naked young man clasping a bunch of lottery tickets – apparently, Isabella d’Este’s personal emblem – which in this instance represent Chance. The nude woman opposite with her arms supporting a cornucopia represents Fortune. The latter is seated upon a bubble that could burst at any time, symbolising that fortune or luck can easily disappear. Why, however, did Isabelle D’Este request such a painting? Allegory of Fortune and similar paintings would have been a stark reminder to wealthy ruling families that they may not always be able to rely upon their good fortune.

Other paintings commissioned by Isabella d’Este had mythological connotations. Combat between Love and Chastity painted by Pietro Perugino (1445-1523) was produced from the instructions to paint an allegory representing the duelling forces of libido and restraint. The central female figures represent the Roman goddesses Venus (libido) and Diana (restraint). Diana, or Artemis as she was known in the Greek, was the goddess of chastity amongst other things. The clothed people in the painting represent her followers, whereas, those belonging to Venus are entirely naked. This suggests that nudity was associated with sexual impulses, much like it is today.

Telling people you are going to see an exhibition called The Renaissance Nude is met by mixed reactions: those who concentrate on the word “Renaissance” and those who focus in on “Nude”. The former are unfazed by the nudity aspect, believing that the Renaissance painters could not have painted anything sordid, whilst the latter question your morals and interests. Both, however, are wrong in their presumptions. Whilst Renaissance artwork cannot be considered pornography, they did tackle themes of debauchery, lust and eroticism.

If their aim was to explain how the nude became a common occurrence in Renaissance art, then the Royal Academy can congratulate themselves. Initially, nudes in the 15th and 16th centuries were produced for churches and private collections and it was only the erotic woodcut prints that circulated more widely. Ironically, the latter no longer exude sensuality and desire as they originally intended due to the changing of the times, morals and behaviours of recent generations.

Despite only focusing on artworks featuring nude figures, the exhibition taught visitors a lot about the Renaissance era. By combining artists from both north and south of the Alps, the differing attitudes towards the new ideas can clearly be seen. Whilst the Italians embraced the human body, its beauty and the opportunity for anatomical study, the northern European artists were more severe in their approach. The exhibition The Renaissance Nude included some of the most famous names from the Renaissance era as well as some of the greatest work from this period of momentous change. Most importantly, however, it shows the Renaissance nude to be far more diverse than previously imagined.