Cigoli's Immacolata and Galileo's Moon: Astronomy and the Virgin in Early Seicento Rome

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A fresco painted by Lodovico Cigoli in a papal chapel in Rome at the beginning of the second decade of the seventeenth century represents the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception "clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet,"just as Saint John the Evangelist describes the celestial woman in Apocalypse 12:1. What is noteworthy about this painting is the appearance of the moon itself: pitted and irregular, rather than pristine and perfectly smooth, reflecting what Galileo Galilei had observed through his telescope about a year before the fresco was begun. In its novel depiction of the moon, which followed, and ostensibly embodied, Galileo's controversial discoveries, this image raises crucial questions about the relationship between science and the visual arts, on the one hand, and between science and Christianity, on the other.1

Scholars have studied the historical relationship between science and Christianity for more than a century, "some maintaining that the two have been mortal enemies, others that they have been allies, and still others that neither conflict nor harmony adequately describes their relationship."2 The view of their incompatibility prevailed throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, and echoes of it were heard well into the twentieth. John William Draper, for example, in his influential History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, published in 1874, maintained that the Catholic Church-his prime target-had displayed "a bitter, a mortal animosity" toward science ever since the fourth century. Similarly, Andrew Dickson White, in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom of 1896, condemned Catholic theology as an obstacle to scientific truth.3 Such views were occasionally voiced in this century.

Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, however, and especially since the history of science matured as an academic discip line in the 1950s, scholars have reexamined the historical relationship between science and Christianity, concluding that it cannot be generalized as principally one of conflict; that, in fact, scientific discoveries have met with varied reactions from the Church; and that, therefore, the response to each discovery merits careful, nonpolemical examination.

The study of the historical relationship between science and the visual arts-at least in the pre-nineteenth-century European tradition-has been somewhat more limited in scope;4 but important contributions have been made in the last few decades. James Ackerman's essay "Science and the Visual Arts" of 1961,5 Creighton Gilbert's "Florentine Painters and the Origins of Modern Science" of 1966,6 the collected essays in Science and the Arts in the Renaissance, published in 1985,7 and Samuel Edgerton's The Heritage of Giotto's Geometry: Art and Science on the Eve of the Scientific Revolution, of 1991, all exemplify the more general studies of this subject. Among the specialized studies that have emerged are Martin Kemp's 1990 book The Science of Art, focusing on optics and perspective, the numerous essays on Leonardo da Vinci and his various scientific trattati, and Charles Parkhurst's and Michael Jaffe's work on Rubens and optics.8 Mention should also be made of Roberta Olsen's essays on the comet in Giotto's Arena Chapel fresco of the Adoration of the Magi and Laurinda Dixon's work on Giovanni di Paolo and Sacrobosco's "Sphera Mundi," which have addressed astronomical and cosmological phenomena in relation to art.9 What has not been considered in any of these studies, however (with the exception of Dixon's, which does so to a very limited extent), is the three-way interrelationship of religion, science, and art. It is precisely this triadic relationship with which I am concerned here.

The Early Christian basilica of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome was first built, according to legend, in the fourth century by Pope Liberius, while history informs us that it was constructed in the fourth decade of the fifth century by Pope Sixtus III. …