I really tried, but my pictures of last night’s “supermoon” looming over Salem did not turn out very well; all you see is a bright orb, it could be a street light. Too bad, because it was really beautiful, especially over the harbor earlier in the evening peaking through dark clouds. This was more of a global event than a local one, however, and fortunately there are professional news service photographers out there whose more skillful photographs of the very large,very bright,very proximate perigee moon have been posted on the web. Here are my two favorites, of the moon over Washington and East London, both demonstrating a good frame of reference which is precisely what my pictures did not provide:
The moon has always been the most intimate of the “heavenly bodies” beyond the earth, never more so when it is full. In the medieval period, the moon was often perceived as heaven, as in the case of Dante’s Divine Comedy when Dante and Beatrice visit the “heaven of the moon” and the souls that reside there. For religious, medical, and alchemical reasons it was necessary to chart the moon’s movements and phases and because of its proximity it was possible to do so. The moon was never scary, and almost familiar, or as familiar as an entity that was not of this earth could be. Most importantly, knowing the Moon was a way to know God.
The big transformative moment in man’s perception of the moon came with the publication of Galileo’s Starry Messenger in 1610: through Galileo’s telescope it was revealed to be an orb with very “earthly” imperfections rather than the smooth, perfect “heavenly” body it was perceived to be before. Soon it seemed possible to map the moon, just as one might map earth, and perhaps even to go there.
In the modern era, the moon gets increasingly familiar and metaphorical, the stuff of political cartoons, nursery rhymes and advertising, as well as scientific endeavors. It was first photographed in the 1850s, and over the next century it appears in nearly every form of popular culture: painting, theater, music, literature, and above all advertising. Sometimes the moon is the focus, sometimes it is a metaphor, sometimes it’s just setting the scene. Below is a photograph taken by John Whipple in the collection of the Library of Congress, along with an 1890 illustration from London’s Punch Magazine, a 1909 play-bill and a song sheet from the same year, all from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery:
Collectible cigarette cards are among the most popular genres of advertising in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and hundreds of them have moon motifs, both emblematic and realistic. Many were clearly marketed to children (strange for cigarette advertisements, but true), while others are more topical, like the World War I-era card below where the “old” moon is shining on both the home and battle-fronts.
And finally, an illustration (from a 1918 article in Cosmopolitan Magazine entitled “The Future of the Earth” in the Library of Congress) of an extremely adjacent moon and earth by Polish-American artist W.T. Benda. I don’t think the moon was quite this close-at-hand yesterday.