Art and Astronomy

I had an amazing time in China.

It was my first time in China, and I was going to three major cities with my CIPE Week 7 group — Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing. I did not know anything substantial about these cities, and I chose this Week 7 project because I thought it would be a good starting point in getting acquainted with China.

It was fascinating to see how ancient and modern China dealt with the innate human curiosity about the cosmos, and how advanced ancient tools such as the Chinese armillary sphere were. However, what struck me most was how astronomy influenced art and architecture. The Armillary Sphere, for example, wasn’t just an astronomical tool, as it was in the Western world. The English Copernican armillary sphere, for example, simply served as a model of the celestial sphere, used as a teaching tool to show the position of celestial bodies around the Sun.

Image from Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

The Chinese armillary sphere, on the other hand, was not just a tool, but a work of art. It did not just serve as a tool for locating different celestial objects and determining their relative coordinates, but also told a tale based on Chinese folklore.

at Purple Mountain Observatory, Nanjing

The ancient Chinese believed that the world can be likened to an egg, in which the Earth is the yolk, and the Heavens are contained in a shell around it. In the armillary sphere, we can see four dragons holding this egg up, with a mountain behind each dragon, marked with a symbol from the Book of Changes, each standing for a direction such as towards Heaven.

It’s impressive how intricate the design of the Chinese armillary sphere was, and how advanced their workmanship was. It is impressive, how the ancient Chinese merged science and art in their armillary sphere. I wonder what the relationship between religion and science was like in ancient China; the Chinese armillary sphere certainly suggests a kind of consonance between science and tradition, which is a refreshing implication, especially in comparison to the relationship between science and religion in the Western world, with the Church objecting to various scientific discoveries, such as the Copernican theory that the Sun is the centre of the universe.

Another significant example of the relationship between astronomy, mythology and the human world being manifested is evident in architecture. For instance, taking the two tallest towers in China, the Shanghai World Financial Centre and the Shanghai Tower, the former has been designed to evoke images of the moon, with a trapezoidal hole at the top. It was originally supposed to be a round hole, but it was later changed because it would have looked like the Japanese flag.

Shanghai World Financial Centre illuminated at night

The Shanghai Tower, on the other hand, was designed in the form of nine cylindrical buildings stacked on top of each other, as per the Chinese myth that the Dragon King had nine sons.

Shanghai Tower soaring above Lujiazui. Image from Gentler Design.

The mythological and historical influences on art and architecture never fail to amaze me, and seeing how intricately interwoven Chinese cosmology is in both ancient and modern China was immeasurably fascinating for me.

– Paul Maravillas Jerusalem