Halley’s Comet Stands In For The Star Of Bethlehem

Merry Christmas and a happy holiday to everyone stopping by today! I’m grateful for your interest in the sky and happy to share the wonders of the natural world with like minds. Thank you also for your photos, observations and comments throughout the past year – the more we share, the more we learn together.

In this fresco by Giotto di Bondone, the Star of Bethlehem is shown as a comet - likely the most famous of all, Halley' Comet.

With Christmas being celebrated by so many today, I thought it would be appropriate to find a little astronomy in the season. This painting by Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone, who lived from 1267 to 1337, is titled Adoration of the Magi and was painted around 1305. It’s one of his many frescoes depicting the lives and Mary and Christ in the building today known as the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. What’s special about this particular one, is the “star” painted above the manger. According to the Bible, the Wise Men followed a star,  which stopped above the place where Jesus was born. But if you look closely, you’ll see Giotto painted a comet, not a traditional star. And it’s a good resemblance, too. A large, ball-like head or coma with a pointed, upward-slanting tail. Looking back through my own comet sketches, more than a few resemble Giotto’s, though mine lack his artistic sensibility and color.

I suppose you could argue that it also resembles a meteor, but it’s unlikely that’s what Giotto had in mind. A meteor, however bright, flashes by in a second or two and is gone. Assuming the artist wanted to hold true to the Biblical narrative, the “star” would need to hover and stay lit for some time. That’s just what comets do – they look meteoric but move slowly across the sky orbit like the planets do.

Halley's Comet photographed in 1910. The comet passes near the Earth every 76 years as it orbits the sun.

Scholars think it likely Giotto was inspired by none other than Halley’s Comet. It appeared low in the northwestern sky over Italy only a few years earlier in the fall of 1301. Compare Giotto’s painting with the photograph taken under similar circumstances during its swing by Earth in 1901. There are good similarities between the two appearances. Who wouldn’t have been inspired by the appearance of a comet in the evening sky? With light pollution far off in the future, Italian skies would have been as dark as the best rural skies are today. You couldn’t miss it at dusk. Halley’s Comet would have been the talk of the town that fall.

While our ancestors generally gave comets a bad rap, blaming them for every pestilence and ill fortune, they were also seen as signs of change, sometimes for the good as when a new king ascended the throne. It’s not far fetched that Giotto might choose a comet, especially one with which he was familiar,  as a symbol of change for the Star of Bethlehem in his painting. Interestingly, no one at the time knew they were seeing Halley’s Comet. People had no idea comets orbited the sun and reappeared after a span of years. They were unpredictable, fiery, one-off phenomena thought to be part of the atmosphere, not frozen dust balls obediently following the laws of celestial mechanics. It was Englishman Edmund Halley, using Newton’s newly-formulated laws of gravity, who found that the comets of 1531, 1607 and 1682 were different appearances of the same comet. In his honor, it was named Halley’s Comet.

Artist impression of the Giotto mission flyby of Halley's Comet during its last pass by Earth in 1986. Credit: Andrzej Mirecki

In March of 1986, a European space probe flew 400 miles from the nucleus of Halley’s Comet, taking pictures and examining its surface and dusty-gassy coma in detail. The probe was named Giotto in honor of the artist who gave us what is likely the first realistic portrait of a comet in Western art.

I leave you with two famous comet coincidences. When Giotto painted Halley’s Comet, he didn’t know that Halley had also appeared in the year 12 B.C., within a half dozen years of the best estimate of Jesus’ birth. The other comes to us from American writer and humorist Mark Twain, who was born when Halley passed by Earth in 1835 and died in 1910, the year of its next return. In his own words:

Mark Twain

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” Mark Twain

2 Responses

  1. Lovely account of the comet and the painting. Hope your Christmas was merry, Bob. It’s a lovely gift you’re giving year round. Thank you. I’m often swinging by in a hurry and mean to leave a comment and then . .. well, you know how it is. The phone, a distraction on TV, the timer on the oven . . .
    But it’s the fascinating timeless matters that you’re covering here and it’s just such a pleasure to be reminded of it all. Happy New Year!

  2. Robert H

    Nice article Astro Bob… We read your articles and enjoy them very much. Love the Mark Twain reference, I had forgotten it, however, it is true. He died the next day; April 21st, 1910, at 6:30 p.m, if my data is correct. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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