Since the beginning of recorded history, the moon has been a source of creative inspiration. Our interpretations of the moon have developed over time across different cultures, some of those representations include a divine being, a resting place for the gods or a heavenly body. One constant feature has been the moon’s unattainability, marked by its sheer distance from us. Now, the ‘moon’ is closer than ever, and we are able to see its infamous ‘dark side’ illuminated inside Durham Cathedral.
Spanning seven meters in diameter, the ‘Museum of the Moon’ is a touring exhibition, currently residing in Durham Cathedral. The sculpture’s creator, Luke Jerram, has used NASA lunar imagery at an approximate scale of 1:500,000. This means that each centimetre of the sculpture represents 5km of the moon’s surface. A musical soundtrack, composed by BAFTA, Ivor Novello and Dan Jones, accompanies the exhibition, and further transports the exhibition viewer.
I visited the Moon exhibition at the end of September, on one of the evening viewings, and it was a wholly enjoyable experience. Upon seeing the sculpture, I was shocked at the sheer size of it. I found walking around and underneath the moon a mesmerising experience, and it allowed me to appreciate the high level of detail. The exhibition helped me to reflect on our current relationship with the moon, a connection that was so important to past generations, but often brushed away in modern metropolitan society.
Looking back on its representations in the history of art, the moon has been ever-present as a source of artistic inspiration. On the limestone interiors of the Lascaux caves in France (c. 15,000 BCE), there are several drawings with constellations of dots, which scientists have identified as representing the moon’s comings and goings. This highlights the significance of the Moon at the beginning of image-making. It is significant to note that in ancient mythology and religious belief systems, the moon was perceived as an untouchable divine being and represented as such. For example, in Ancient Egyptian iconography, the Moon is often found balanced on the head of the god ‘Khonsu’, one of the most important figures of Egyptian mythology.
Within the Roman belief system, Diana, the virginal goddess of the hunt, was the goddess of the moon, and during the transition to Christianity, the moon kept its association with the ‘immaculate’. In Western European art, in particular, in Christian art of the 16th-17th century, the moon became a prominent icon. Raphael’s ‘Mond Crucifixion’ (1502-3) shows the sun and moon as divine witnesses to Christ’s painful suffering. Furthermore, there was a renewed interest in nature and the sublime during the Romantic period, which abounded in a plethora of literature, poetry and music which depicted the moon. This period marks a shift in the Western European art canon, from moon iconography being used largely in Christian pieces to more secular pieces. Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Two Men Contemplating the Moon’ (1825-30) encapsulates the increasingly secular fascination in the cosmos.
Finally, an overview of the representations of the moon in art could not be complete without mentioning one of Van Gogh’s most famous works, ‘Starry Night’ (1889). Many critics have argued that the spiral-like night sky reflects the emotional intensity and troubled consciousness of its artist. This painting was created at a time of public fascination with astronomy and astrology, whilst contemporaries such as Jules Verne wrote about travelling to the moon.
Over its voyage through the ages, from ancient history to the present, the moon has changed and developed in our imaginations and art forms- and I haven’t even had time to touch upon representations of the moon in science fictional artworks in the early 20th century and the space age! One constant between the ages, connecting us to our earliest predecessors, is a sense of wonder and contemplation when viewing the moon, and its representations, which I hope that you can experience when visiting the exhibition. *
*= The Moon exhibition at Durham Cathedral is open to all during normal Cathedral opening hours, and is available until Thursday 11th November 2021.