science, art, and technology > art & astonomy > PERCEPTIONS OF SPACE: OBJECTS FROM THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

Perceptions of Space: Objects from The Art Institute of Chicago

Classic Maya Stele, A.D. 702
Mexico; southern Campeche, possibly Calakmul
66 x 28 x 13 in.
Wirt T. Walker Endowment, 1990.22

Art & Astronomy

Perceptions of Space: Objects from The Art Institute of Chicago
View a video selection of this lecture.
See related books and media.
Public Sculpture at the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum
Look at the stars! Look, look at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
— Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)

Many of the objects in the collection of the Art Institute were inspired by a common quest, throughout the millennia, to understand one’s place in the universe and explore the unknown. This lecture was originally given as a tour through the museum. In her tour, the lecturer used a question-and-answer strategy to show teachers how they might use the inquiry-based method in their field trip to the Art Institute and also incorporate these objects into their pre-existing curricula. Students begin by looking closely at an object and naming the features they see. Then they use their observations to deduce larger meanings generated by the object. Below are a few examples of the many objects that illustrate a connection between art and astronomy, followed by some suggestions for classroom activities.

Early Astronomy
The Maya civilization was among the early cultures to erect monuments that investigated the human relationship to the cosmos and the cycles of life. In the large, freestanding stele (A.D. 702) above, made at the height of the Maya civilization, a regal male figure cradles a staff with cosmic symbols. The figure appears to be an older ruler, richly clothed in ceremonial garb, which carries symbolism of rebirth and transformation. His staff represents a two-headed serpent bar, which is now thought to symbolize the path of the sun and planets through the sky. Serpents, which shed and regrow their skin, are associated with the process of regeneration and the daily rising and setting of the sun. The position of the serpent bar, which points to the earth and sky, is linked to the cycle of renewal. Mayan rulers were responsible for religious rites to preserve the orderly cycle of seasons and fertility of the land.

This Maya stele is also a commemorative monument, similar to American monuments of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and other great leaders. Mayan stelae were often placed in public plazas and community centers to commemorate important seasonal or historical events. The well-preserved hieroglyphics on the right side of this monument record the date “” on the Mayan calendar. This corresponds to January 26, A.D.702, when the sculpture was commissioned to celebrate the completion of a 10-year period known to Mayans as a lahuntun. The inscription also records the rituals undertaken by the ruler to honor the event. The Maya used their calendar system not only to record important historical events but also to predict cosmic events, such as lunar eclipses.

Celestial Sphere 1929
Edvard Hald
Glass with wheel-engraved decoration, pewter, and brass
Orrefors Glasbruk A-B, Smaland
h. 15 1/2” x d. 12”
Given in memory of Alfred E. Hamill by his children, 1953.310

Astronomical Tools
Until recently in the history of civilization, people believed that Earth was a stationary body at the center of a great, rotating, domed heaven filled with stars and planets. From this concept developed one of the first astronomical devices, a celestial sphere—a globe with a map of the stars, as seen from outer space, fixed on its surface. The Greeks of ancient times used such a globe to locate and record the positions and motions of celestial bodies. In 1929 Swedish designer Edvard Hald created this Art Deco celestial sphere for the Swedish glass manufacturer Orrefors. In his version, Hald pictured the arrangement of stars, or constellations, on the surface of the glass. The 12-sided pewter base also displays the 12 signs of the zodiac, or the "circle of animals" that falls along an imaginary band encircling the heavens, through which the sun appears to travel during the course of a year. He cut into the surface of the glass using the copper-wheel engraving technique. The carving of microscopic details such as feathers and stars on the fragile glass surface required remarkable skill and dexterity and, above all, a fascination with the workings of the universe.

Protective Equipment
This three-quarter field armor (1570/80) was made toward the end of the 16th century in Milan, Italy, one of Europe's major centers of armor-making. The suit, which weighs nearly 43 pounds, is part of a garniture, a collection of matching pieces that make up a complete set of armor. Every piece is ornamented with silver- and gold-filled etched bands and patterns that resemble fashionable designs on men’s clothing of the time. Armor was often used as a decorative costume to display wealth and rank at court ceremonies, parades, or tournaments, but its original function was as a protective outer covering for a knight’s body during battle. Each piece was designed for maximum protection, mobility, and shock absorption. Even the head and face were entirely covered by an armored helmet—when the visor of the helmet was down, only a small slit and tiny holes allowed the wearer to see and breathe. The inside of this suit could get quite hot during long battles, so often a knight wore a cloth surcoat over the armor to help regulate body temperature.

Other protective uniforms are modeled after armor, such as those for baseball catchers and soccer, football, or hockey players. Space suits for astronauts are especially related to armored gear from the Renaissance. Weighing up to a whopping 148 pounds, a spacesuit is also specially designed to allow for flexibility and protection and to regulate an astronaut’s blood temperature. Headgear alone may weigh as much as eight pounds. While gold was used purely as a decorative element in knights’ armor, it is used in an astronaut’s helmet as a coating on the inside of the visor to protect against the blazing heat of the sun.

Project Ideas

1. Astronomy and Calendars
Students can compare the calendar(s) the Maya used and the calendar we use today. They can create a graph comparing the two systems: astronomical data they are based on (solar, lunar, etc.), the number of days in a month and a year, and the accuracy of the systems.

2. Observing Stars
Find one of the constellations in this celestial sphere. Find and record the same constellation in today's sky. How has it changed since 1929? Do constellations change over time?

3. Create a Protective Suit
Demonstrate the knowledge and variety of skill sets necessary to produce each suit by working as a class to design a suit of armor or a spacesuit. As a class, create a list of the required vocations and skills. Assign individual students or teams of students to each of the roles with a student or the teacher serving as a project leader.

Adapted from a lecture by Amy Babinec titled “Gallery Walk and Student Project Ideas” and a teacher packet entitled Exploration and the Cosmos, written by Sally Ruth May and produced by the Department of Museum Education at the Art Institute.