The Art of Imagining UFOs: The Search for Images of Spaceships in European Paintings Provides an Important Lesson for All Paranormal Enthusiasts-Do Your Homework

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"Meanwhile the average man had become progressively less able to recognize the subjects or understand the meaning of the works of art of the past. Fewer people had read the classics of Greek and Roman literature, and relatively few people read the Bible with the same diligence that their parents had done. It comes as a shock to an elderly man to find how many biblical references have become completely incomprehensible to the present generation."

--Kenneth Clark, introduction to Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art by James Hall.

AROUND THE WORLD, MILLIONS OF PEOPLE believe that alien spacecraft routinely visit our planet. (1) This belief has been fueled by 60 years of reported UFO sightings and thousands of anecdotal claims. A growing number of print (2) and web (3) sources argue that there is solid documentary proof that UFOs have been visiting us for hundreds of years, painted into the skies of the European art of centuries past.

While it's true that some pretty strange filings appear in the backgrounds of old paintings, they only look odd to modern viewers. A working knowledge of the complex artistic and symbolic conventions used by Classical, Medieval, or Renaissance painters reveals that these strange details meant something quite different to the artists who painted them, and the audience they painted for. A painting's place in history influences how objects in it are depicted, and that contextual information is necessary to correctly identify those objects. Regrettably, the authors who have discovered alleged UFOs in old paintings have little knowledge of the meaning or context of the items which they have selected as candidates for alien spacecraft.

Strangely enough, one of the motives for seeking UFOs in old paintings was a particular observation about which skeptics and UFO enthusiasts partially agreed. Skeptics have long found it suspicious that thousands of UFOs apparently started arriving only after the advent of science fiction.

This is hardly the most devastating or scientific criticism of belief in UFOs, but it certainly makes a valid point: once people started to write about fictional alien spacecraft, people suddenly began to see them.

Some UFOlogists also felt uneasy about this coincidence. If the "alien spaceship" hypothesis is correct, surely there would have been UFOs in our skies before science fiction writers started imagining aliens; and, if they've been visiting us for centuries, historical records of extraterrestrial spacecraft should exist. After all, people have been watching the skies for a very long time.

So, where's the evidence of pre-Sci-Fi visitations? Where are the accounts of saucers .seen by medieval peasants, or of vast silvery disks hovering over Roman garrisons? The truth is, there are no historical records of anything matching the descriptions of modern UFOs. (4) This has prompted many UFOlogists to comb through ancient sources for obscure or hidden signs of premodern UFOs. Perhaps, they reason, ancient observers, lacking the conceptual framework provided by modern science (and science fiction) actually did record spacecraft sightings--but without understanding what they were seeing.

As Skeptic readers know, there is now a decades long tradition of pseudo-historical research devoted to uncovering cryptic signs of alien "ancient astronauts" in the records, monuments, and artwork of ancient cultures (Egyptian, Aztec, and so on). Since the 1970s, many have been convinced (by writers such as Andrew Tomas or Erich von Daniken) that ancient, last, or non-European cultures did record prehistoric contact with aliens. If, as these "paleo-astronautic" theorists imagine, "aliens have visited here for millennia, and if they were recorded by ancient non-European cultures, isn't it reasonable to hypothesize that similar evidence of their presence should also be contained in the art of European societies as well? …