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17 September 2017

Dr Great Art Episode 21: Giotto and Halley's Comet

Giotto, the painter who made the crucial change from the Medieval style thus beginning the Renaissance in art, painted a picture of the Star of Bethlehem which is an image of Halley's comet.


This is the script (not a transcript, as I change elements when recording).

Dr Great Art Podcast 21

Giotto and Halley's Comet

Hi this is Mark Staff Brandl, with the 21st "Dr Great Art" brief podcast. I hope you enjoy it and come back for each and every one.

After several more theoretical and/or polemical podcasts, today my Artecdote is a simple yet fun art history fact. Giotto's image of the Star of Bethlehem is an image of Halley's comet!

Giotto di Bondone[ (c. 1270 – January 8, 1337), known as Giotto was an Italian painter from Florence. He worked during the Late Gothic / Proto-Renaissance" period. In fact he WAS the main proto-Renaissance.

In his Le Vite, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the first art historian ever, Giorgio Vasari, declares that Giotto made the crucial change from the Medieval style, bringing naturalistic observation into art.

So in effect Giotto's work is THE trigger for the beginning of what we call the Renaissance.

The painting we are discussing here is actually not independent --- it is a portion of the cycle of frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy.

This painting segment is now called The Adoration of the Magi and was painted around 1305.

The scene depicts the typical group on the left of the Three Wise Men and their servant and horses at the manger, greeting and giving presents to the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, with an angel watching it all on the right. Giotto’s impressive new techniques are in evidence: wonderfully 3-dimensional draping of cloth, solid figures seeming to have weight, emotion on the faces of the figures, and an early, naturalistic but not yet mathematically correct perspective.

The most interesting component for us now is the image of the Star of Bethlehem above the manger in the night sky. It is not an image of a star at all. Not even a bright planet, both of which were typical in Adoration paintings. It is clearly in the form of a comet shooting through the sky. A comet with a ball-shaped head and a pointed, upward-slanting, fiery tail. It is thought that Giotto was inspired by a 1301 viewing of Halley’s Comet.

According to the Bible, the Wise Men followed a star which stopped above the place where Jesus was born.

Halley’s Comet appeared low in the northwestern sky over Italy in the autumn of 1301. With no light pollution, such as we now have, it would have been even clearer, brighter and more impressive than our recent sightings. You couldn’t even miss it at dusk, to say nothing of darker night.

The Comet was discussed widely at that time. Many thought it was inauspicious, meaning a herald of bad events, but many others saw it as sign of change for the good. Very appropriate for the Advent of Christ.

Of course, no one at the time knew they were seeing Halley’s Comet. They did not call it that. People had no idea comets orbited the sun and reappeared cyclically after years. They thought comets were unpredictable, one-off phenomena. In 1705, Edmund Halley, using Newton’s new laws of gravity, discovered that the comets of 1531, 1607 and 1682 were different appearances of the same comet. In his honor, it was named Halley’s Comet. Halley's Comet is visible from Earth every 74–79 years.

In March 1986, a European space probe flew near the nucleus of Halley’s Comet, photographing and examining its surface in detail. The probe was named Giotto in honor of this great artist who gave us what is likely the first realistic portrait of a comet in Western art as well as kick-starting the perhaps most important epoch of culture, the Renaissance.

As an aside, science and art can complement each other and work together, the key overlap lying in serious observation. In that light, I hope to discuss the art of such important Sci-Artists as Charles Lindsay in a future podcast.

Giotto and Halley's Comet!

Thanks for listening. Podcast number 21. If you wish to hear more cool, exciting and hopefully inspiring stuff about art history and art, come back for more. Also I, Dr Mark Staff Brandl, artist and art historian, am available for live custom Performance-Lectures. In English und auf Deutsch.

I take viewers inside visual art and art history. Entertainingly, yet educationally and aesthetically, I analyze, underline, and discuss the reasons why a work of art is remarkable, or I go through entire eras, or indeed through the entirety of art history, or look at your desired theme through the lens of art history. The lectures often take place with painted background screens and even in my painting-installations.

Some recent ones were on the entire history of Postmodernist Art from 1979 through today, on Metaphor(m) in Art History, on Mongrel Art, and on Self-Portraits in Art. Once again, I'd like to thank Chloe Orwell, Brad Elvis, and the rock band the Handcuffs for composing, performing and recording my theme song, "Shut Up and Paint," a tiny portion of which begins and ends every Dr Great Art Podcast.

You can find or contact me at

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or find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all as Dr Great Art.

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