Crash Course 2014 In Review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 25,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 9 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

I have sincerely enjoyed blogging here for the last several years and have thoroughly enjoyed the blog topics from those I follow.  I appreciate the many who follow me as well – blog or no blog.

Thanks for a great 2014!  More to come!


Saturday Reader: Crash’s 2015 Astro-Calendar

astro calendar

Mark your calendar, wake the kids, phone the neighbors!  From eclipses to meteor showers, from planets and stars to galaxies & full moons – it’s all here.

Bundle up and keep your eyes peeled on the evenings of January 3rd and 4th to catch the Quadrantids meteor shower. While the nearly Full Moon will unfortunately outshine many of the Quadrantids this year, there will still be opportunities to see brighter meteors streak across the night sky. Look for meteors appearing to radiate from the constellation Boötes.

On the night of January 23rd, train your telescope on Jupiter from 7pm PST to about half-past 11pm PST to witness a rare triple Galilean moon and shadow transit. The shadows of Galilean moons Callisto, Io and Europa will cross the face of Jupiter, followed by the moons themselves, all in one night!

Get ready for great views of giant Jupiter this month as the gas giant planet will be at opposition on the evening of February 6th – the point in its orbit when it appears opposite the Sun from Earth. The second month of 2015 continues to offer good views of the winter Milky Way, especially during the evening of February 18th, when the New Moon promises dark skies.

Catch an early evening conjunction of the planets Venus and Mars on February 22, when our closest neighboring planets will appear to be just a half-degree apart in the evening sky.

Some of the best galaxies to see are spread across the night skies of March from Ursa Major to Virgo. Take advantage of the New Moon on March 20th and set sail for these island universes with a big telescope! Grab a pair of 50mm or larger binoculars in March for great views of the Pleiades cluster (M45), the Beehive cluster (M44), and the must-see Double Cluster in Perseus. These sparkling sky gems are perfect fare for big astronomy binoculars and telescopes too.

Skygazers get a treat this month in the form of a Total Lunar Eclipse on the evening of April 4th. You won’t want to miss the show as the Full Moon gradually becomes darkened by the Earth’s shadow and turn a reddish orange color. This Total Lunar Eclipse will be visible throughout most of North and South America, eastern Asia and Australia.

Don’t miss the Lyrids meteor shower which peaks during April 22nd and 23rd. Scan the skies near the constellation Lyra after midnight on the 22nd for your best chance to see meteors.

Grab a comfortable blanket or lounge chair and catch the Eta Aquarids meteor shower which peaks on the evening of May 5th and the early morning of May 6th. Meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Aquarius.

May skies present great viewing opportunities for many globular star clusters, including M3 in the constellation Boötes, the Great Cluster M13 in the keystone asertism of Hercules, M5 in Serpens, M92 in the northern section of Hercules.

The best time of the year to observe Saturn and its spectacular rings is the night of May 22nd, when the gas giant planet reaches opposition. 2015 will be a great year to observe and photograph Saturn because its rings will be at nearly maximum tilt from our vantage point.

Summer stargazing season kicks off in June with great opportunities to see a host of globular and open star clusters, emission nebulas, and more. Grab a pair of big binoculars or a wide-field telescope and scan the summer Milky Way for great views.

Around 10pm in mid-June, two face-on spiral galaxies M51 and M101 will both be well-paced in the night sky for observation and astrophotography. While you can see these galaxies from a dark sky site with a humble 60mm refractor, bigger telescopes will reveal much more detail. Use a 10″ or larger reflector to see the spiral arms of M51.

With constellation Hercules almost directly overhead and Scorpius to the south, there’s plenty to explore in July skies as summer continues.

On the night of July 1st, get outside in the early evening to catch a close conjunction between bright planet Venus and giant Jupiter. The two planets will appear just 24 arcminutes away from one another in a very pretty pairing. July winds down with the Delta Aquarids meteor shower. For the best chance to see meteors, get outside the night of July 28th and look towards the constellation Aquarius.

Get outside during the evening of August 6th to see a close conjunction between the planets Mercury and Jupiter, which will appear just 35 arcminutes away from one another.

Use 50mm or larger binoculars and/or a telescope with a low-power eyepiece to explore the summer Milky Way in August for nice views of various star clusters, galaxies, and cloudy nebulas.

Check out the skies after dark on August 12th and in the early morning hours of August 13th to see meteors from the Perseids shower radiating from the constellation Perseus. This year, the thin crescent Moon during the Perseids will allow summer stargazers to see plenty of beautiful meteors streak across the night sky.

The fall stargazing season begins with wonderfully placed spiral galaxies M31 (Andromeda Galaxy), M33 (Triangulum Galaxy), and M74 in Pisces. Use a big telescope to see these glittering island universes.

Three popular globular star clusters line up almost directly north-south in September skies. From a dark sky site, check out views M15 in Pegasus, M2 in Aquarius, and M30 in Capricornus.

The end of September treats us to a Total Lunar Eclipse on the evening of the 28th. Get outside to see the Moon become a deep red color as it becomes darkened by Earth’s shadow. This Total Lunar Eclipse will be visible from most of North and South America, Europe, western Asia and Africa.

Sit back and relax in your favorite backyard chair to watch the Orionid meteor shower, which peaks on the night of October 21st into the morning of October 22nd. The Orionids shower is notoriously irregular, so keep an eye out for meteors on any night from October 20th through the 24th also.

Set your alarm to get up early on October 28th, to catch a glimpse of a rare triple-conjunction between the planets Venus, Mars and Jupiter before sunrise. These three planets will form a 1-degree triangle in the pre-dawn skies of the 28th.

Bundle up for bright winter skies! See our namesake constellation Orion arch its way across the sky in November along with lots of bright star clusters to explore with big astronomy binoculars and telescopes.

Get outside on the evenings of November 17th and 18th to see the Leonids meteor shower as meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Leo.

High in the northern skies of November, between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia, use a pair of big binoculars or a wide-field telescope to seek out the sparkling Double Cluster in Perseus – two open star clusters NGC 884 and NGC 889 side by side.

Don’t miss the Geminids meteor shower which peaks during December 13th and 14th. Even though the peak is on the 13th and 14th, this popular shower will likely produce worthwhile meteors from the 6th through the 19th. Look for meteors to emanate from the constellation Gemini and the surrounding area.

The New Moon of December 11th will improve your chances of seeing the Geminids shower, as well provide optimal conditions to go after deep space telescope fare including the open cluster Pleiades (M42), the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and the many gems within our namesake constellation Orion, including M42 the Orion Nebula and the elusive Horsehead Nebula located near Alnitak – the easternmost star of Orion’s easily recognizable belt.

A ghostly full moon rises over the Anasazi ruins known as Wukoki in Wupatki National Monument, Arizona. Photo appears courtesy of NatGeo and copyright 2008 David Edwards.

A ghostly full moon rises over the Anasazi ruins known as Wukoki in Wupatki National Monument, Arizona.
Photo appears courtesy of NatGeo and copyright 2008 David Edwards.

Full Moons:  Names & Meanings

Unlike hurricanes and winter storms, the names of each full moon are a constant – they never change.  Sure, we sometimes add names but for the most part their nameshave remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

One of the most dramatic sights in the night sky—and inspiration for poets, artists, and lovers for millennia—full moons captivate us like nothing else.

Every month Earth’s moon goes through its phases, waning and waxing in its constant transformation from new moon to full moon and back again. Full moons occur every 29.5 days or so as the moon moves to the side of Earth directly opposite the sun, reflecting the sun’s rays off its full face and appearing as a brilliant, perfectly circular disk.

For millennia, humans have used the movement of the moon to keep track of the passing year and set schedules for hunting, planting, and harvesting. Ancient cultures the world over have given these full moons names based on the behavior of the plants, animals, or weather during that month.

January: Wolf Moon
Native Americans and medieval Europeans named January’s full moon after the howling of hungry wolves lamenting the midwinter paucity of food. Other names for this month’s full moon include old moon and ice moon.

February: Snow Moon
The typically cold, snowy weather of February in North America earned its full moon the name snow moon. Other common names include storm moon and hunger moon.

March: Worm Moon
Native Americans called this last full moon of winter the worm moon after the worm trails that would appear in the newly thawed ground. Other names include chaste moon, death moon, crust moon (a reference to snow that would become crusty as it thawed during the day and froze at night), and sap moon, after the tapping of the maple trees.

April: Pink Moon
Northern Native Americans call April’s full moon the pink moon after a species of early blooming wildflower. In other cultures, this moon is called the sprouting grass moon, the egg moon, and the fish moon.

May: Flower Moon
May’s abundant blooms give its full moon the name flower moon in many cultures. Other names include the hare moon, the corn planting moon, and the milk moon.

June: Strawberry Moon
In North America, the harvesting of strawberries in June gives that month’s full moon its name. Europeans have dubbed it the rose moon, while other cultures named it the hot moon for the beginning of the summer heat.

July: Buck Moon
Male deer, which shed their antlers every year, begin to regrow them in July, hence the Native American name for July’s full moon. Other names include thunder moon, for the month’s many summer storms, and hay moon, after the July hay harvest.

August: Sturgeon Moon
North American fishing tribes called August’s full moon the sturgeon moon since the species was abundant during this month. It’s also been called the green corn moon, the grain moon, and the red moon for the reddish hue it often takes on in the summer haze.

September: Harvest Moon
The most familiar named moon, September’s harvest moon refers to the time of year after the autumn equinox when crops are gathered. It also refers to the moon’s particularly bright appearance and early rise, which lets farmers continue harvesting into the night. Other names include the corn moon and the barley moon.

October: Hunter’s Moon
The first moon after the harvest moon is the hunter’s moon, so named as the preferred month to hunt summer-fattened deer and fox unable to hide in now bare fields. Like the harvest moon, the hunter’s moon is also particularly bright and long in the sky, giving hunters the opportunity to stalk prey at night. Other names include the travel moon and the dying grass moon.

November: Beaver Moon
There is disagreement over the origin of November’s beaver moon name. Some say it comes from Native Americans setting beaver traps during this month, while others say the name comes from the heavy activity of beavers building their winter dams. Another name is the frost moon.

December: Cold Moon
The coming of winter earned December’s full moon the name cold moon. Other names include the long night moon and the oak moon.

The Blue Moon
Each year, the moon completes its final cycle about 11 days before the Earth finishes its orbit around the sun. These days add up, and every two and a half years or so, there is an extra full moon, called a blue moon. The origin of the term is uncertain, and its precise definition has changed over the years. The term is commonly used today to describe the second full moon of a calendar month, but it was originally the name given to the third full moon of a season containing four full moons.

Many thanks to the Astronomy Departments of Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia and Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona. Additional thanks to the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland and Fernbank Museum of Natural History/Fernbank Science Center, Decatur, Georgia.

Happy viewing and have a great 2015!


Saturday Reader: NASA’s Kepler Spacecraft Finds “A Super Earth”

This artist's concept shows the first planet discovered by NASA's Kepler spacecraft during its K2 mission, a "super Earth" called HIP 116454b. The planet has a diameter of 20,000 miles, weighs 12 times as much as Earth and orbits its star once every 9.1 days. Credit: NASA and David A. Aguilar

This artist’s concept shows the first planet discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft during its K2 mission, a “super Earth” called HIP 116454b. The planet has a diameter of 20,000 miles, weighs 12 times as much as Earth and orbits its star once every 9.1 days.
Credit: NASA and David A. Aguilar

NASA’s prolific Kepler space telescope is discovering alien planets again since being hobbled by a malfunction in May 2013.

The newly discovered world announced by researchers on Thursday (December 18th), is called HIP 116454b – a “super Earth” about 2.5 times larger than our home planet. It lies 180 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Pisces — close enough to be studied by other instruments, scientists said.

“Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries,” study lead author Andrew Vanderburg, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), said in a statement. “Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies.”

An artist's illustration depcits NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft working in a new mission profile called K2. Astronomers have used publicly available data to confirm K2's first exoplanet discovery, proving Kepler can still locate planets. Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

An artist’s illustration depcits NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft working in a new mission profile called K2. Astronomers have used publicly available data to confirm K2’s first exoplanet discovery, proving Kepler can still locate planets.
Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

Kepler launched in March 2009, on a 3.5-year mission to determine how frequently Earth-like planets occur around the Milky Way galaxy. The spacecraft has been incredibly successful to date, finding nearly 1,000 confirmed planets — more than half of all known alien worlds — along with about 3,200 other “candidates,” the vast majority of which should turn out to be the real deal.

The spacecraft finds planets by the “transit method,” watching for the telltale dimming caused when a world cross the face of, or transits, its parent star from Kepler’s perspective. Such work requires incredibly precise pointing — an ability the spacecraft lost in May 2013, when the second of its four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed.

But the Kepler team didn’t give up on the spacecraft. They devised a way to increase Kepler’s stability by using the subtle pressure of sunlight, then proposed a new mission called K2, which would continue Kepler’s exoplanet hunt in a limited fashion and also study other cosmic objects and phenomena, such as active galaxies and supernova explosions.

HIP 116454b even earlier. Vanderburg and his colleagues — who developed special software to analyze data gathered by the spacecraft in its compromised state — noticed a single transit of the planet in Kepler observations from a nine-day test run in February.

The astronomers then confirmed the discovery using the HARPS-North spectrograph on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa.

HIP 116454b is about 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) wide and is 12 times more massive than Earth, scientists said. The planet’s density suggests that it is either a water world or a “mini Neptune” with a large, thick atmosphere.

HIP 116454b lies just 8.4 million miles (13.5 million km) from its host star, an “orange dwarf” slightly smaller and cooler than the sun, and completes one orbit every 9.1 days. The close-orbiting planet is too hot to host life as we know it, researchers said.

The planet’s relative proximity to Earth means it will likely attract further attention in the future.

“HIP 116454b will be a top target for telescopes on the ground and in space,” said study co-author John Johnson, of Harvard University and the CfA.

The new study has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

While HIP 116454b is the first planet spotted by Kepler in its current state, it isn’t the first world to be confirmed in the wake of the May 2013 glitch. Many other discoveries have rolled in since then, as researchers work to validate the trove of planet candidates Kepler detected during its prime mission.


Amazing details of Saturn & its moons captured by NASA

Dark Matter Space


Image of Saturn Taken by Cassini Space Probe(Click Image to Download)

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been studying Saturn and its moons for a decade now, routinely delivering stunning images of the second largest planet in our solar system. One of its noteworthy achievements is that it is now shedding a lot more light on six moons that were once shrouded in mystery.

When NASA’s Voyager spacecraft flew by moons like Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, and Iapetus back in the 1980s, it sent back landmark images that were nevertheless fuzzy, incomplete, and hard to make out. Now, Cassini has plugged the holes – with bursts of color, no less – and delivered stunning new images of these icy satellites.

Here is a before/after shot of Mimas showcasing the differences between Voyager’s image (left) and Cassini’s (right).


“The most obvious [discoveries] are differences in color and brightness between the two…

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On the Thirteenth Day of December . . .

Kindness Blog

Two Birds Sitting on a Wire Photo Credit: Pinterest

If you have been following this blog over the past six weeks or so, you have read several posts about my friend Dina’s twenty year old son, Tyler, who died on Halloween in a house fire.  Since that tragic day, I have been absolutely amazed by the graciousness, kindness, and compassion that have been displayed by my beautiful friend and her family and friends.  Today, my friend’s mother shared another touching story of kindness on Facebook, and with her permission, I am honored to share it here:

“Nicole had three of Tyler’s best friends at her Christmas concert Thursday night. Tyler would be so proud of his friends for being there for his little Coco, and so are we! You hear all about what’s wrong with the young people today, but you never hear about all the amazing ways they look out for their friends. There would have…

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SEE IT: House topples into Pacific Ocean along Washington coastline

WASHINGTON (WITI) — The Washington coastline has been dealing with rough seas, high winds and days of rain — which is creating a scary situation for some homeowners.

Houses along the coastline are at risk of losing their homes — families are scrambling to save whatever they can before the Pacific Ocean completely swallows up their property.

Here is a video of one house crumbling into the sea. Unfortunately, more severe weather is on the way for the Washington coast.

[ooyala code=”1oYXI4cjqsQMuD-lxRbl1jfHJkkXoBCS” player_id=”c8cff4cec9d94ae0896f6443af7ee837″]

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Sacred Sunday: The Art of Christmas, Part 2 of 3

AOC header

Adoration of the Magi

Adoration of the Magi c. 1433 Tempera on panel, 39 x 56 cm Museo di San Marco, Florence

Adoration of the Magi
c. 1433
Tempera on panel, 39 x 56 cm
Museo di San Marco, Florence

This painting is the central part of the predella of the Linaioli Tabernacle. The main panel of the tabernacle shows the Madonna with the Child, while the three predella pictures the Predicament of St Peter, the Adoration of the Magi and the Martyrdom of St Mark, respectively.

The Adoration of the Magi 1385-88 Tempera on panel, 195 x 163 cm Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

The Adoration of the Magi
Tempera on panel, 195 x 163 cm
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

This altarpiece was commissioned for the cathedral of Siena.

Bartolo di Fredi was one of the most popular masters in Siena in the second half of the fourteenth century. He maintained a large workshop. He was influenced by both Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti, and following late Gothic inspirations he developed his style on this basis.

The Adoration of the Magi is characterized by a lively dynamism like in Lorenzetti’s paintings. The only tranquil detail is Mary sitting with the Child on the right side. The three kings arrive with a big accompaniment from the left. The big striped hats in the hands of the members of the accompaniment is well known from the St Martin fresco cycle of Simone Martini in Assisi. The background scene is a reference to the long journey of the kings between cities and mountains. The walled city is Siena with the black and white striped Cathedral and the bell-tower. No organic connection can be observed between the foreground and background.

Adoration of the Magi 1526-32 Polychrome wood National Museum of Religious Carvings, Valladolid

Adoration of the Magi
Polychrome wood
National Museum of Religious Carvings, Valladolid

The relief belongs to the San Benito altarpiece.

Alonso Berruguete, eldest son of the painter Pedro, created an important workshop in Valladolid with a number of assistants. The altar for San Benito in Valladolid was commissioned in 1526 and completed in 1532. It was later dismantled and has been partially reassembled in the Museum. The polychromed wood altarpiece was conceived as a drama, and Berruguete’s talent reveals itself as pictorial rather than sculptural.

Adoration of the Magi 1623-24 Oil on canvas, 420 x 290 cm Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble

Adoration of the Magi
Oil on canvas, 420 x 290 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble

The Catholic painter Abraham, resident in predominantly Catholic Utrecht, painted spectacular altarpieces in the style reminiscent of sixteenth-century Italian painting. He painted this altarpiece, one of his largest, for the church of the Catholic order of the Jesuits in Brussels, in the Southern Netherlands. Such commissions were extremely rare in the Dutch Republic. Bloemaert’s jubilant colour and festive pageantry befitted the theme and answered the Jesuit’s need for a lively backdrop to their main altar.

Adoration of the Magi (central panel) c. 1510 Oil on wood, 138 x 72 cm Museo del Prado, Madrid

Adoration of the Magi (central panel)
c. 1510
Oil on wood, 138 x 72 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The central panel of the Triptych represents the Adoration of the Magi. Several copies of the panel exist in various museums (Philadelphia, Amsterdam, Bonn, Avignon etc.).

The panel displays the adoration of the Christ Child by the three Kings or Magi. The Infant Christ sits solemnly enthroned on his mother’s lap. The Virgin and Child resemble a cult statue beneath its baldachin, and the Magi approach with all the gravity of priests in a religious ceremony. The splendid crimson mantle of the kneeling King echoes the monumental figure of the Virgin. That Bosch intended to show a parallel between the homage of the Magi and the celebration of the Mass is clearly indicated by the gift which the oldest King has placed at the feet of the Virgin: it is a small sculptured image of the Sacrifice of Isaac, a prefiguration of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Other Old Testament episodes appear on the elaborate collar of the second King, representing the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and on the Moorish King’s silver orb, depicting Abner offering homage to David.

A group of peasants have gathered around the stable at the right. They peer from behind the wall with lively curiosity and scramble up to the roof in order to get a better view of the exotic strangers. The Shepherds had seen Christ on Christmas Eve, but they frequently reappear as spectators in fifteenth-century Epiphany scenes. Generally, however, they display much more reverence than do Bosch’s peasants, whose boisterous behaviour contrasts strongly with the dignified bearing of the Magi.

The most curious detail of Bosch’s Epiphany is the man standing just inside the stable behind the Magi. Naked except for a thin shirt and a crimson robe gathered around his loins, he wears a bulbous crown; a gold bracelet encircles one arm, and a transparent cylinder covers a sore on his ankle. He regards the Christ Child with an ambiguous smile, but the faces of several of his companions appear distinctly hostile.

Because they stand within the dilapidated stable, time-honoured symbol of the Synagogue, these grotesque figures have been identified as Herod and his spies, or Antichrist and his counsellors. Although neither identification is quite convincing, the association of the chief figure with the powers of darkness is clearly suggested by the demons embroidered on the strip of cloth hanging between his legs. A row of similar forms can be seen on the large object which he holds in one hand; surprisingly, this can only be the helmet of the second King, and still other monsters decorate the robes of the Moorish King and his servant. These demonic elements undoubtedly refer to the pagan past of the Magi.

Behind the stable in the centre, the followers of two of the Magi rush towards each other like opposing armies; the host of the third King appears beyond the sand dunes. The gently rolling countryside contains, in addition, an abandoned tavern and a pagan idol. Even the distant grey-blue walls of Jerusalem, one of Bosch’s most evocative renderings of the Holy City, appear vaguely sinister.

Adoration of the Magi c. 1475 Tempera on panel, 111 x 134 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Adoration of the Magi
c. 1475
Tempera on panel, 111 x 134 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Somewhere around 1475, Botticelli painted the famous Adoration of the Magi for Guasparre di Zanobi del Lama, a work in which the artist also depicted himself. This painting established Botticelli’s fame in Florence, and may rightfully be considered the high point of his early artistic output.

Guasparre del Lama was a parvenu from the humblest background with a dubious past – he had been convicted of the embezzlement of public funds in 1447. He had been working since the 1450s as a broker and money-changer, something which brought him considerable wealth. In order that he might also obtain the high social standing which he lacked, he enrolled in the most prestigious brotherhoods and endowed a chapel in Santa Maria Novella, which he decorated with Botticelli’s altar-piece. Del Lama’s career did not last long, for he soon slipped back into his dishonest business practices.

Del Lama may be seen among the crowd of people on the right-hand side of the picture, an elderly man with white hair and a light blue robe looking at the observer and pointing in the latter’s direction with his right hand. The most famous members of the Medici family are portrayed together with del Lama; controversy rages as to their precise identification, although there is no doubt that the eldest king, kneeling before the Virgin and the Christ Child, is a representation of Cosimo the Elder, founder in the 1430s of what would be dynastic rule by the Medici family over Florence for many years to come. Other members: Cosimo’s son Piero, called the Gouty, as the kneeling king with red mantle in the centre, Lorenzo the Magnificent as the young man at his right, in profile, with a black and red mantle.

A comparison of Botticelli’s painting with his earlier representations of the Adoration (both in the National Gallery, London)) reveals the extent to which the artist had further developed and compensated for his earlier weaknesses. The ground rises gently, so that the faces of almost everyone present can be seen, as can the great variety of postures and gestures that these figures embody. However, Botticelli has combined those involved in an ever more compelling fashion to create a dramatic unity, one concentrated wholly upon the main event. Furthermore, he has moved the central king slightly away from the main axis, enabling the observer’s gaze to fall unimpeded upon the Virgin, who is now no longer in danger of becoming lost in the throng, as was still the case in the London portrayal.

Adoration of the Magi c. 1445 Oil on wood, 80 x 56 cm Museo del Prado, Madrid

Adoration of the Magi
c. 1445
Oil on wood, 80 x 56 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The right wing of the Triptych of the Virgin depicts the Adoration of the Magi.

Adoration of the Magi c. 1498 Oil on wood, 56,8 x 55 cm National Gallery, London

Adoration of the Magi
c. 1498
Oil on wood, 56,8 x 55 cm
National Gallery, London

The most individual characteristic of Bramantino’s style is the use of sombre classical architectural backgrounds, as in this Adoration of the Magi. He may have been influenced in spatial constructions by Mantegna and in colouring by Giovanni Bellini, but if so, these have been assimilated into Bramantino’s personal vision. The painting, whose small size and simple symmetrical composition suggest it was made for private devotion, offers the clarity and serenity typical of this artist.

Adoration of the Magi - Panel Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Adoration of the Magi

Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Adoration of the Magi 1504 Oil on wood, 100 x 114 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Adoration of the Magi
Oil on wood, 100 x 114 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony ordered this painting for the Schlosskirche (the church in the castle) in Wittenberg. It was once believed to be the central part of a polyptych, with, on the side wings, the story of Job, in Frankfurt and Cologne. However, this hypothesis has already been called into question. The elector of Saxony then donated the painting to Emperor Rudolph II in 1603. An exchange with the Presentation at the Temple by Fra Bartolomeo brought it in 1793 from the gallery in Vienna to the Uffizi.

This altarpiece was probably conceived without the lateral panels, in contrast with the actual practice in Nordic countries, and at variance with the situation of the Paumgartner altarpiece (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Dürer framed and delimited a large space by an architecture composed of arches of a very refined perspective. The three kings arrived at this slightly elevated space from the back and after having climbed two steps. A single figure, sharply foreshortened, followed in their footsteps from the distant background. Only the upper half of his body is shown where he now stands at the bottom of the two steps. He is Oriental and wearing a turban. The heavy traveling bag he holds probably contains precious gifts for the infant Jesus.

The Madonna is clad in azure clothes and cape, a white veil covering her head. She is holding out the infant, who is wrapped in her white veil, to the eldest king. He is offering the infant a gold casket with the image of Saint George, which the infant has already taken with his right hand. This is the only action that unfolds in the principal scene, except for the Oriental servant’s gesture of putting his hand in his bag. All the other characters are motionless; immersed in thought, they look straight ahead or sideways, creating the effect of a staged spectacle set with immobile characters.

The architecture of the fictive ruins behind the Madonna is beautiful and imaginative. Dürer had previously experimented with this design in drawings and engravings. The background is stupendous: the limpid sky, in which the cumulus clouds chase one another; the light Nordic city, climbing up the cone-like mountain; the road bending into the archway where people stop, following behind the three kings. These are represented with much imagination and variety, as far as the fashion and colour of their clothes and the differences in their expressions. In the far right are a lake and a boat.

This imagination and variety continue in the extraordinary depiction of the kings, in lavish clothing, with their precious jewels, and with the beautiful goblets and caskets that they bear as gifts. It is telling here that Dürer was also an expert goldsmith. According to the Nordic tradition, also adopted previously by Mantegna in Italy, one of the kings is a Moor. The physiognomy of the young king with long blond curly hair, standing in the middle of the painting, bears, according to recent interpretation, a resemblance to a self-portrait of Dürer.

Dürer was passionately devoted to the study of animals and plants, which he reproduced faithfully from life. He often distributed these images in his landscape passages, and particularly in his drawings and engravings of the Madonna. We find some here as well: in the foreground, to the right, a flying deer, already known from various watercolours, which here symbolizes Christ; the plantain (plantago major) seen directly behind, whose healing properties were once much appreciated, recalls the spilled blood of Christ; in the foreground, now to the left, on the millstone beside the carnation, a small coleopterum surrounded by a few butterflies, the ancient symbol of the soul, which here may be a symbol of the resurrection.

The panel of the Uffizi represents the richest and most mature actualisation of all Dürer’s altarpieces, before his second trip to Italy, and therefore before the Feast of the Rose Garlands, painted in Venice (Národní Galerie, Prague).

Adoration of the Magi 1480-85 Panel, 111 x 69 cm Národní Galerie, Prague

Adoration of the Magi
Panel, 111 x 69 cm
Národní Galerie, Prague

The left side of the painting was cut, originally Saint John was depicted behind Mary, and the motive of hand kissing was in the centre of the composition.

Adoration of the Magi 1423 Tempera on wood, 300 x 282 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Adoration of the Magi
Tempera on wood, 300 x 282 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Gentile da Fabriano’s painting is not a geometrically constructed composition. It should be read as if it were the text of a tale, beginning at the top left corner, where the three Magi, meeting at the seaside, notice the star they have to follow. If we follow their course among sloping hills and cultivated fields we can see how they march into Jerusalem under the frame of the central arch, while in the lunette on the right we can see them departing. In the middle distance the direction of their journey changes, proceeding towards us and suddenly the mass of people appears from a deep ravine flanked up by a precipitous rock and a fence. Now we can discern the faces too, and observe the smallest details of garments, arms and harness. Then the crowd, which can pride itself on hunters, noble chargers and exotic animals too, stops at the right-hand corner of the foreground, having reached its destination. Only here does the youngest King’s page remove his master’s spurs; having sunk to one knee the second King is on the point of handing over his gift, whereas the oldest, who has already presented his, is kneeling and kissing the Infant Jesus’ foot. The elegant handmaids of the Virgin are taking delight in the lovely sight.

In a masterly way Gentile da Fabriano launches, moves and stops this huge crowd of people. On the shores of the endless sea, underneath the left upper lunette, the figures of the three Magi on the summit of a mountain are surrounded by an atmosphere of cosmic stillness, while the march itself is exceedingly animated. Lively conversations are in progress, the horses are ambling and the limitless wonders of nature attract the travellers’ attention. The scene of the Magi paying homage (also in the left-hand side) is calm again, emanating profound devotion and meditation. The somewhat dilapidated gate and the cave separate the principal characters from the episodes narrating what had happened earlier and it gives them some quiet in the otherwise overcrowded composition.

The plentiful realism of details which Gentile da Fabriano produced achieved such convincing effects that it approached the Renaissance ideal of representing reality. He was not only able to depict objects accurately, but also every tiny change of facial expressions and the direction of glances establishing links between people. Nor did he forget the spectator, since the donor of the altarpiece, Palla Strozzi, standing behind the youngest King, is looking at us.

Adoration of the Magi 1488 Tempera on wood, 285 x 240 cm Spedale degli Innocenti, Florence

Adoration of the Magi
Tempera on wood, 285 x 240 cm
Spedale degli Innocenti, Florence

Vasari writes about the painting: “In the church of the Innocenti he painted in tempera a much-admired picture of the Magi, containing some fine heads and varied physiognomies of people both young and old, notably a head of the Virgin, displaying all the modesty, beauty and grace which art can impart to the Mother of God”.

There are so many saints in this Adoration that it is not easy to make out the three Magi. On the left, Saint John the Baptist is kneeling and pointing to the Madonna. The orphans of the Spedale are represented by two of the innocent boys who were killed during the Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem, kneeling in the foreground. There are gaping bloody wounds to their faces, arms and necks.

In this Adoration of the Magi, Ghirlandaio’s carefully thought out use of colour is particularly impressive: Ghirlandaio distributes the glowing colours evenly. Mary in the centre is wearing a blue cloak over a red dress. The oldest king kneeling in front of her is wearing a variation of these colours combined with yellow. To the left of Mary, the youngest king holding the valuable goblet in his hand – he almost looks like Saint John the Evangelist – is also dressed in blue, yellow and red. The figure standing on the right edge of the picture wearing an expensive hat repeats this combination of colours, though now the blue and yellow are reversed. In the second figure from the right, wearing the blue hat, the Madonna’s colours of red and blue are visible again, and they are repeated in clothes of the bearded man wearing a turban on the left edge of the picture. Between the Madonna and the man with the blue hat on the right, the artist creates a yellow highlight, though with a weaker blue accent, in the figure of Joseph. This row of figures alone produces a rhythm of colour from left to right: red and blue; yellow, blue and red; red and blue; yellow and blue; red and blue; yellow, blue and red.

The work represents one of Ghirlandaio’s most important “easel” works. Here too the assistants were at work. Indeed, in the scene of the Slaughter of the Innocents in the background, Berenson recognized the hand of Bartolomeo di Giovanni, the author of the stories from the predella.

Adoration of the Magi 1526-28 Oil on oak panel, 251 x 185 cm Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Adoration of the Magi
Oil on oak panel, 251 x 185 cm
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Toward the end of his career, Joos van Cleve changed his painting style. For example, this later version of the Adoration of the Magi is far less exuberantly ornate and theatrically active than the version of 1517-18 (also in Dresden). The work is tranquil and subdued.

The painting, coming probably from a church in Genoa, was attributed to Dürer in the 16th century.

Adoration of the Magi 1481-82 Oil on panel, 246 x 243 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Adoration of the Magi
Oil on panel, 246 x 243 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Since the Early Christian era, the 6 January has been celebrated as the feast of Epiphany, the appearance of God amongst men in the form of Jesus Christ. Mankind is represented by the Three Kings, who are paying homage to the Messiah. The fall of the pagan world began at the same time as his appearance. Leonardo appears to have depicted this moment, so dramatic in human history, in his panel. It remained unfinished because Leonardo left Florence and moved to Milan, though we do not know why he did so. Chemical reactions and soiling mean it is now difficult to read this fascinating panel in detail.

With this painting Leonardo declares his independence from Verrocchio, emerging with a fresh, personal style. Although unfinished, this painting is far more innovative than his previous works. The composition is constructed around a central, pyramidal grouping of figures, and, most significantly, Leonardo here incorporates lights and darks in the underdrawing of this painting.

Even though the panel remained unfinished, the Adoration of the Magi, with its symmetrically composed main group which differs from the traditional linear composition, is now considered one of the most progressive works in Florentine painting. It puts into practice the demands Alberti made of history paintings in a way no other work in its era does. All the figures are involved in the events in the picture. The distinguished kings display their emotions in a more dignified manner than the accompanying figures around them, and the overall number of participants is kept within moderation. The figures are grouped in a circle around Mary and are expressing, with more or less vigorous gestures, their emotion at the first demonstration of divinity of the Christ Child.

The painting also differs from the traditional way of depicting the Adoration in Florence by means of the puzzling scenes in the background, the equestrian battles and an unfinished staircase. This led to the assumption that the Augustinian convent of San Donato in Scopeto, which had commissioned the picture, wanted to use this picture composition in order to convey its own theological interpretation of the Adoration theme.

Adoration of the Magi 1655-60 Oil on canvas Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio

Adoration of the Magi
Oil on canvas
Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio

The Adoration of the Magi 1620 Oil on canvas, 232 x 115 cm Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest

The Adoration of the Magi
Oil on canvas, 232 x 115 cm
Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest

Around 1600 the dominant influence in Toledo was that of El Greco. The link with the master was strongest in the distinguished painter Luis Tristán, who stressed the Tenebrist aspects of some of El Greco’s work. Tristán’s development was interrupted by his premature death, but not before he had completed work of such merit as the altarpiece in Yepes (1616) and that of Santa Clara de Toledo which was finished in 1623.

The Adoration of the Magi probably formed part of an altarpiece in the Jeronymite Convent of the Queen in Toledo, together with an Adoration of the Shepherds (now in Cambridge), Pentecost (now in Bucharest) and Resurrection (lost). It has the same composition as the Yepes altarpiece, however, the faces of the figures are different.

St Columba Altarpiece (central panel) c. 1455 Oil on oak panel, 138 x 153 cm Alte Pinakothek, Munich

St Columba Altarpiece (central panel)
c. 1455
Oil on oak panel, 138 x 153 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The picture shows the Adoration of the Magi, the central panel of the altarpiece executed for the St Columba church in Cologne.

The composition of the central panel demonstrates a masterly balance between freedom and discipline. The Virgin and Child are shifted slightly to the left of the middle axis, which appears to run through the central pillar and down into the hat of the kneeling king. In fact, however, even these two details lie slightly left of centre. This left-hand bias is compensated by the figures of the second kneeling king and the third, youngest king, visually strongly accented by his expansively angled pose. The asymmetrical ruins of the stable correspond precisely to the composition of the main group. Insofar as Rogier arranges his figures from left to right in the style of a relief and orients his architecture parallel to the pictorial plane, he remains true to the principles underlying his Descent from the Cross. Here, however, he displays a more sovereign mastery of the organic structuring of the human figure and the partial creation of spatial depth.

The anachronistic little crucifix at the center of the picture anticipates the purpose of Christ’s life on earth, His act of redemption. The donor, with a rosary, kneels on the extreme left, divided from the rest of the scene by a small wall.

Next week, the third and final part with Adoration of the Shepherds

On the Web: Sacred Sunday: The Art of Christmas, Part 1 of 3

Merry Christmas!


Saturday Reader: The Geminid Meteor Shower Weekend


Get your cameras ready: the Geminid meteor shower of 2014 will peak overnight on Dec. 13 and 14, but the shower as a whole is active between Dec. 4 and Dec. 17.

NASA is predicting between 100 and 120 meteors per hour for observer’s with optimum observing conditions (dark, clear skies away from city lights). Several webcasts by NASA, Slooh and others are available to watch the meteors. The best time to begin looking for Geminid meteors will be about 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. your local time, since the last quarter moon will rise around midnight.

The Geminids are a meteor shower that happens every December. NASA says astronomers consider it one of the “best and most reliable” showers of the year, but the shower actually did not start occurring until very recently (in astronomical and human terms).

First reports of the shower emerged in the mid-1800s, but at the time there were only 10-20 meteors per hour. These days, it’s more like 120 meteors at the peak.

Astronomers are puzzled about the number of meteors observed. While scientists have known for a generation about the source of the shower – an asteroid named 3200 Phaethon – the volume of the shower’s meteors is strange given the observed amount of debris.

Clouded origins

The Geminids appear to come from the constellation Gemini, but in reality it is fragments of 3200 Phaethon that cause the sky fireworks. The asteroid has a debris trail in orbit around the sun. Once a year, Earth runs into this dusty path, which intersects our planet’s path through space.

The Infrared Astronomical Satellite first spotted the asteroid in 1983. Phaethon was named after the driver and sun-god of Helios’ chariot because it gets so close to the sun — within about 13 million miles (21 million kilometers), or only 14 percent of the distance between Earth and the sun. Harvard College Observatory’s Fred Whipple was the first to observe that Phaethon produces the Geminids.

Some astronomers think a chunk of dust was carved off of the asteroid a few centuries ago, NASA’s Bill Cooke, from the agency’s Meteoroid Environment Office, said in a 2012 interview. It’s probable that a crash with another space rock produced the dust, which stayed in space for several human lifetimes without going near Earth.

However, Jupiter’s gravity slowly perturbed the path of dust until Earth began to run into it. Further influences from the gas giant have pushed the debris closer to our planet, producing a better “peak” of meteors than a century ago.

There are a couple of competing theories. One hypothesizes that Phaethon broke away from the asteroid Pallas, which produced the Geminids, but Cooke noted the dust particles don’t cleanly match the hypothesis.

Another idea supposes that as Phaethon gets close to the sun, the heat blasts particles off the asteroid. NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft looked at the asteroid between 2009 and 2012, and results published in 2013 indicated that they saw a tail emerging from the comet. Researchers believe that when Phaethon approaches within 0.14 astronomical units, its temperature gets above 1,300 degrees F (700 C), hot enough to cause the dust stream.


Sister meteor shower?

When the Geminids are active, their peak can stretch for almost as long as Earth’s 24-hour day. Also, they are visible earlier in the evening than other meteor showers, generally around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. local time, NASA said. This makes the shower more accessible to children.

As the meteor shower goes on until dawn, the agency urges patience for those watching. The best chances of success is to get away from streetlights, to spend at least 30 minutes outside before seeking meteors, and to face south (the approximate direction of the radiant, or point of origin) while looking at as much of the sky as possible. Sleeping bags or blankets may be of help in colder climates.

Cooke added that the bright meteors make some people think a rock will land nearby, but the shower won’t produce meteorites (meteors that make it all the way to the ground.)

“That’s an illusion. It’s very rare, exceedingly rare, for a meteorite to land near an individual, and the Geminids won’t produce meteorites. They will not make it to the ground. People don’t have to worry about getting hit by falling Geminids.”

The amount of dust is good enough to sustain the shower for quite some time, Cooke said, with the biggest threat being the orbit of the dust. If Jupiter’s gravity pushes the dust path too far out of Earth’s way, the meteors will disappear. That said, this isn’t expected to happen for quite some time.

Coincidentally, in 2012 NASA noted that there could be another meteor shower around the same time in December from Comet Wirtanen, which was first spotted in 1948 and comes by the sun about every 5.4 years. This means it has zoomed relatively nearby Earth over and over again for a long time, but it wasn’t until that year that the path of the debris was expected to reach Earth.

At its peak, the Piscids — as this shower may be called if it happens every year — was expected to send as many as 30 meteors an hour skimming through Earth’s atmosphere. The particles were expected to be slower-moving than the Geminids, and also to have a very narrow peak — making them easy to distinguish from the more famous annual shower.

Even if you can’t see the meteor display from your part of the world, you can watch them online. The online Slooh Community Observatory will host a live webcast of the Geminid meteor display on Saturday night beginning at 8 p.m. EST (0100 Dec. 14 GMT).You can also watch the Slooh webcast directly: NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke will also host a live Geminids webchat on Saturday night from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. EST (0400 to 0800 GMT), as well as a live webcast. (

Happy viewing!


The Fastest Stars in the Universe May Approach Light Speed

Dark Matter Space


Our sun orbits the Milky Way’s center at an impressive 450,000 mph. Recently, scientists have discovered stars hurtling out of our galaxy at a couple million miles per hour. Could there be stars moving even faster somewhere out there?

After doing some calculations, Harvard University astrophysicists Avi Loeb and James Guillochon realized that yes, stars could go faster. Much faster. According to their analysis, which they describe in two papers recently posted online, stars can approach light speed. The results are theoretical, so no one will know definitively if this happens until astronomers detect such stellar speedsters—which, Loeb says, will be possible using next-generation telescopes.

But it’s not just speed these astronomers are after. If these superfast stars are found, they could help astronomers understand the evolution of the universe. In particular, they give scientists another tool to measure how fast the cosmos is expanding. Moreover, Loeb says, if the conditions are right…

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