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Comets, Meteors, and Other Space Phenomena Depicted Over 1,000 Years

From the Bayeux Tapestry to early American photography.

by Sarah Emerson
Jun 7 2016, 7:15pm

Halley's Comet seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, 1070. Image: Wikipedia

In 1705, the fiery return of a celestial body named Halley's Comet was foreseen by English astronomer Edmond Halley, based on a theorized orbit that would swing the comet past Earth every 76 years or so. Since his accurate prediction, the timely apparition of Halley's Comet has been observed like clockwork. But long before the birth of super powerful telescopes, humans all over the world were staring up at the sky in attempts to make sense of the vast, dark expanse beyond the horizon.

Centuries before Halley's calculations, a group of artisans in Canterbury, England would embroider the very first depiction of Halley's Comet known to humanity. Created around 1070, the Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most famous representations of the Norman conquest over England in 1066. Static vignettes that chronicle the great Battle of Hastings expand over 230 feet of fabric, and nestled behind the crowning of King Harold II beams the venerable Halley's Comet. At the time, the comet was perceived as an evil omen, and is shown in the tapestry as a harbinger of the battle to come. Halley's Comet would have last been seen on April 24, 1066, just four months after Harold's coronation.

Comets, meteors, and meteorites have been shooting across works of art for more than a millennium. Tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, woodblock prints, and early photographs provide us with 1,000 years of visual astronomy conducted by people who probably never thought of themselves as astronomers.

Some of them are rough approximations of space phenomena as seen by the naked eye, while others are stunningly precise. Regardless, today they live on as shining reminders of our legacy as wonderers and explorers.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing men staring at Halley's Comet. Image: Public Domain Review

From the Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493. Image: Public Domain Review

Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, Folio 28, c. 1552. Image: Public Domain Review

Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, Folio 52 (erschrocklicher Comet, 1300). Image: Public Domain Review

Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, Folio 52 (Comet mit einem grosen Schwantz, 1401). Image: Public Domain Review

Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, Folio ? (Comet, 1506). Image: Public Domain Review

The figure of a Fearful Comet, from Les oeuvres d'Ambroise Paré, 1579. Image: Public Domain Review

Astronomie & Komet by Erastus, Dudith, Squarcialupi and Grynaeus, 1580. Image: Public Domain Review

Comet of 1577, depicted by Georgium Jacobum von Datschitz, 1577. Image: Public Domain Review

Detail of a Comet, Frankfurt am Main, 1665. Image: Public Domain Review

Joseph Boll's depiction of the 1704 comet over Catalonia, 1704. Image: Public Domain Review

Astronomy: a meteor shower in the night sky. Mezzotint, after 1783. Image: Public Domain Review

The comet, by Thomas Cornell (floruit 1792), published 1789. Image: Public Domain Review

Image from J.J. Grandville's Un Autre Monde (1844). Image: Public Domain Review

Image from A Popular Treatise on Comets (1861) by James C. Watson. Image: Public Domain Review

Contemporary drawing of the meteorite fall at Knyahinya (Ukraine) on June 9, 1866, by Wilhelm Ritter von Haidinger. Image: Public Domain Review

Image from Astronomy (1875) by J. Rambosson. Image: Public Domain Review

The great comet of 1881 (Comet C/1881 K1). Observed on the night of June 25-26 at 1h. 30m. A.M. Plate XI from The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings (1881). Image: Public Domain Review

Leonid Meteor Storm, as seen over North America on the night of November 12-13, 1833, from E. Weiß's Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt (1888). Image: Public Domain Review

Morehouse's Comet, Photographed at Yerkes Observatory, 1908. Image: Public Domain Review