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

9 comments:

teegee said...

What a delightful posting! When I was little I had a big Mother Goose book, called "The Real Mother Goose", which did indeed include your rhyme, whence I found out what 'pease' is and that Norwich is a real place, before I even went to school. (Also, Dr. Foster went to Gloucester in a shower of rain, and others with names and places novel to me). I have seen "A Trip to the Moon", too, and it is delightful. And, before the moon landing, writers of sci-fi still would relegate an Eden of savage innocence to the moon, when the burgeoning population of our Third Rock left no place here for it. As for pareidolia, it is still interesting, and almost any year you will see in the News some relative of the Veil of Veronica, such as a piece of bread with the divine imprint of the face of Christ or the proverbial weeping icon. By e-mail I'll send you an image of a coin of Trajan (I also have one of Hadrian) showing Aeternitas holding the orbs with the faces of Luna and Sol (NOT Apollo) in either hand. The crucifixion often figures the Sun and the Moon similarly on either side of the Cross. Since the scripture seems to say that the Sun was occluded when Christ died, that came about quite naturally. I think that with a good library one could find perfect continuity.

-E- said...

"A Trip to the Moon" was not an animated film, just fyi.

Hydriotaphia said...

Hi E, it's been so long since I watched this film. I just picked that definition up from Wikipedia perhaps it should be amended there too. Depends on how animated is defined I suppose, better watch Melies film on Youtube to ascertain my own ideas better ! Haven't a clue what fyi means.

Nick said...

The Chinese say there's a rabbit on the moon, strangely enough that's what I've always seen.

Hydriotaphia said...

Nick, that's true. I am just being horribly euro-centric not mentioning what other continents see on the moon.

Maybe you have some Chinese blood, that or the moon is tilted at a different angle for the antipodes to highlight the shadows of mountains and seas

Osie said...

Its just unbelievable that a lot of George Méliès' films are available on you tube! I just watch A Trip to the Moon on there. Absolutely amazing how good movies were even as far back as 1902. Very interesting post.

Osie said...

Funny, for some reason I always think that that still from A Trip to the Moon was from Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon. It is so crazy that you can watch the full movie on you tube, all 13 min. of it lol. It looks like a lot of George Méliès' short films are on there as well. If it weren’t for this blog post I never would have known.

I’m also much much obliged that you mentioned the early “sci-fi” books. I’m going to have to track down copies for sure. Seems like these works go under the radar, most lists of early science fiction don’t go beyond the 19th century pieces.

Hydriotaphia said...

Osie! Your posted comments have arrived here!
Glad this post's mention of an early sci-film was of interest to you. Thanks.

Jenny Woolf said...

I am not sure that pareidolia is necessarily an aberration. Human beings need the ability to put two and two together, visually.

I'd like to know more about legends associated with the man in the moon. Interesting post.