Colorized flat-earth woodcut, main page logo

Cosmic Quest and Exploration


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Kerry Magruder


Woodcut theme

Another colorized version of the woodcut, courtesy of Science Graphics in Tucson, AZ, was included in a NASA publication called Exobiology in Earth Orbit.

NASA exobiology colorized version

It appears with the following interesting caption:

"A famous early 20th century engraving (1911) erroneously thought to be a 17th century woodcut of a Medieval astronomer passing through the sphere of the stars to see the mechanisms of the Ptolemaic universe beyond."

Now the theme of this image has been transformed; it is not so much a flat earth as a common quest of discovery and exploration: the challenge of boldly going where no one has gone before. This seems to be the rhetorically durable theme, the appeal of the woodcut which makes it so attractive to the myriad who have reprinted or adapted it in the late twentieth century (including us and NASA's APOD). Even Bernal's caption bears a resemblance to this quest theme of breaking through the cosmic spheres to view the unknown beyond, although Bernal's illustrator fell victim to the flat-earth myth, and did not grasp the thought experiment in medieval physics that the woodcut might represent. Yet as we have seen, the possibility of an extracosmic void, and what would happen if you could go there, was indeed a major topic of debate among medieval cosmologists.

The cosmic quest theme is anticipated in an early passage (circa fourth century AD), where the thrice-great Hermes (once believed by many early modern Europeans to be Moses), proclaimed:

"Learning well the essence [of the heavens] and sharing in their nature, the man wished to break through the circumference of the circles [heavenly spheres] to observe the rule of the one given power over the fire. Having all authority over the cosmos of mortals and unreasoning animals, the man broke through the vault and stooped to look through the cosmic framework, thus displaying to lower nature the fair form of god."

(Translated by Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica:
The Greek
Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), Hermetic treatise I, page 3.)

This passage from the Hermetic corpus might stand as the best earliest caption for the woodcut (in the same tradition as Adam McLean's colorization), although I know of no evidence that it had any direct influence on the origin of the illustration. (I have not (yet) found it in any of the 16th or 17th-century astrological/hermetic works held in the University of Oklahoma History of Science Collections even though the woodcut appears in occasional late 19th-century reprints of these works.)

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  • Kerry Magruder, page last revised: 7/28/2003
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