Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Man in the Moon


The man in the moon came tumbling down
And asked his way to Norwich;
He went by the south and burnt his mouth
With supping cold pease porridge.

It's quite surprising these days just how many Norvicensians are unfamiliar with this medieval 'Mother Goose' nursery rhyme. But what's far more interesting is the fact that the 15th century 'Norwich School' stained glass at the Norfolk church of St Mary at Burnham Deep, (above) is one of the oldest representations of  'the man in the moon' extant in the world. The glass [1] was in all probability painted by a skilled member of the 'Norwich school' who may well have known of the nursery rhyme. In any event its quite an androgynous, heavy-lidded and sleepy-looking moon face. It's also believed that originally this quite unique depiction of 'the man in the moon' would have been accompanied by a crucifixion scene together with a sun representing a face. 

The man in the moon is puzzled over by the poet John Lyly (1553-1606) in the prologue to his Endymion (1591) who stated-  There liveth none under the sunne, that knows what to make of the man in the moone.

From the invention and use of the telescope by Galileo (1562 -1642) among others, speculation in the 17th century upon whether the moon was inhabited and the mapping of its surface, rocketed astronomically. Sometime in the 1620's Bishop Francis Godwin (1566-1633) wrote a book entitled The Man in the Moon which argued how a voyage to the moon is no more fantastic than a voyage to America was once earlier. Godwin proposed  that the earth is magnetic and that only an initial push would be necessary to escape its magnetic attraction. When on the moon Godwin discovers it to be inhabited by tall Christians living in a pastoral paradise. Godwin's book influenced John Wilkins (1614-72) to pen his A Discovery of a new world in the Moon (1638)But its to the credit of the Dutch astronomer Johannes Hevelius (1611-87) that the first scientific mapping of the moon's surface was made in his Selenographia (1647).  

Sir Thomas Browne in his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) queried -

The sun and moon are usually described with human faces: whether herein there be not a pagan imitation, and those visages at first implied Apollo and Diana, we may make some doubt. [2]

Browne's vivid imagination noted of an egg sent to him-

The egg you sent with this notable signature of the figure of a duck so fully detail'd as to the body, head, eye & bill somewhat open'd from the shell, all in a... colour, was a point greatly remarkable & one, not made out by phancy butt apprehended by every eye, is a present greatly remarkable. In stones we find trees & often in common flints: in agates sometimes arise figures beyond all help of imagination & in such pit stones we have found screws, snakes, darts, cockles &c.

The like I had not formerly seen though have very intentively looked upon the goose egg in Aldrvandus with man's head & hair sped fury-like & terminating in some shape of geese heads.Though not meeting with any discourse thereon, I suspected much made out by fancy in that description.[3]

Once defined by the psychologist C.G.Jung as the alchemist's 'active imagination', today all such seeing of faces in phenomena such as clouds, egg-shells, or the moon's surface are now defined as a product of pareidolia. According to Wikipedia, pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon which involves vague and random stimulus such as patterns and markings found in nature being perceived as significant to the viewer. What was until quite recently known simply as plain imagination is now defined as a psychological aberration !



Just as stained glass was a source of wonder to the medieval spectator, so too the viewing of motion pictures were an equal marvel for early 20th century spectators. In the pioneering cinematography of George Méliès' (1861-1938) the creator of  A trip to the Moon (1902), the man in the moon, far from being a remote or mysterious figure, is hit in the eye by a spaceship! Méliès' famous image is an innocent farewell to belief in 'the man in the moon'  and a handsome anticipation, not only of man's great achievement of 1969, but also of his cavalier exploitation of a new and pristine environment.


[1]  Saint Mary's south porch west window, Burnham Deepdale, Norfolk.
[2]  P.E. Book 5 chapter 22
[3] On Eggs in miscellaneous writings
Wikilink - Man in the Moon
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