Under the Moonlight: Depictions of the Moon in Art

The moon has encouraged humankind's curiosity and our need to understand the principles of nature since the dawn of time. But what is the role of the moon in art?

Jan 2, 2022By Michaela Simonova, MA Comparative Religions & Museum Guide
depictions of moon in art moon paintings

 

Since the dawn of civilization, humankind has looked up at the sky to observe a strange moving object that changes its shape every night. Almost every civilization and religion has incorporated the moon into their beliefs and worldview. The mysterious nature of this cosmic object has continually lit up humanity’s imagination. Depictions of the moon have been present in the background of our history, guiding civilizations through their first steps. Let’s have a closer look at some famous examples of the moon in art.

 

The Moon in Art: The Observer and the Observed 

bone tally moon in art
A Paleolithic wolf bone tally stick, similar to the Lebombo Bone, via kartsci.org

 

The moon may have been one of the first objects that was observed and documented in art — however, not in the forms you may imagine. One of the oldest examples of the moon in art was found in South Africa — the Lebombo bone, a small portable object with 29 notches that could be 35,000 years old.

 

Without additional information, it is difficult to conclude whether these cuts truly represent the days of the moon cycle. Can we really call it art or a depiction of the moon? I believe that to a certain extent, we can. After all, if we imagine ancient hunter-gatherers relying on their observational talent and understanding of nature’s cycles to adapt and survive, it is not difficult to imagine that the Moon played a vital role.

 

Disc and Crescent: Early Depictions of the Moon in Art

nebra sky disc moon in art
The Nebra Sky Disc, c. 1600 BCE,  via Wikimedia Commons

 

Speculations aside, the first “figural” depiction of the moon in art was found in Europe. This 3600-year-old bronze disc was excavated in Germany, and is known as the Nebra Sky Disc, a flat bronze circle decorated with circular and crescent-shaped gold inlays. It may once have been used for astronomical observations. The crescent is most likely the moon, while the circular shapes might be the Sun or the Moon, as well. Since they are all made from the same metal, it is impossible to tell for sure and we must use our imaginations.

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Two Goddesses, One Moon

luna statue selene museum moon in art
Selene, Roman copy of Greek Original, photo by Anthony Majanlahti, from the Capitoline Museum, via Flickr

 

In Europe, the first confirmed visual depictions of the moon in art emerged in ancient Greece. As was the case with other natural phenomena, the moon was personified as a divinity and at some point, there were simultaneously two prominent goddesses related to the moon. One was the moon’s personification named Selene. A small crescent moon or a lunar disc is shown in her hair and she wears a loose veil symbolizing the moon on its journey. This is the reason why Selene is usually depicted in motion — either driving a chariot or riding on horseback, similar to the sun god Helios. Both were depicted together on the east pediment of the Parthenon driving their chariots; Helios is rising and Selene is descending into the sea.

 

Interestingly, these personifications of the sun and moon have a parallel in another “couple” of gods — the siblings Apollo and Artemis. Their area of influence was much broader and their place in the pantheon was not so symbolic but was more “entwined” with the human world. What was the reason behind having a second goddess related to the moon when they already had Selene to represent the moon itself? Firstly, it was part of the Greek understanding of religion. Although important, Selene was seen as a symbolic figure rather than someone with real power over human life.

 

apollo statue moon in art
Statue of Apollo, C. 2nd Century CE, via the British Museum

 

In contrast, Artemis was an important goddess of hunting and, perhaps more importantly, of childbirth. A connection between the moon and the women’s menstrual cycle was most likely made and according to one myth, Artemis was able to assist her mother with the birth of her twin brother.

 

The crescent moon may also have been thought to resemble a bow, the characteristic hunting weapon of Artemis. So how can you tell Artemis and Selene apart? If you have ever visited (or plan to visit) the Vatican museum, you will find a full-figure statue of Artemis-Diana with her bow and a crescent moon set in her hair. Although a Roman copy, it is possible that the crescent was added much later during the Renaissance Era to strengthen the iconographic connection. However, when you look at ancient ceramics and statues, you will hardly find any moon-related iconography.

 

artemis louvre depictions of the moon
Artemis (Diana of Versailles), Roman copy of Greek original, 2nd century CE, via the Louvre

 

Artemis, as the goddess of the hunt, wears a typical short hunting tunic and usually carries a bow and arrow, and is accompanied by animals. There were exceptions with local variants, such as Artemis of Ephesus, who took on more of a mother goddess role. In contrast, Selene was usually seen “on the move”,  representing the moon’s cycle, and her clothes corresponded with the long and rich ones seen on other goddesses. While Artemis has sometimes worn a lunate crown (not exclusive to her), Selene is shown with her characteristic crescent headdress. In the ancient Roman Empire, Artemis and Selene were viewed similarly and named Diana and Luna respectively.

 

Drama in the Moonlight

crucifixion medieval manuscript moon in art
Manuscript Leaf with the Crucifixion from a Missal, ca. 1270–80, via the MET Museum

 

With a change of religion and the fall of the Roman empire, depictions of the moon in art and the iconography associated with it shifted. The pre-Christian gods and goddesses were pushed into oblivion by Christianity. The Bible also doesn’t attribute significant value to the moon as a symbol, so we mostly find it in the background of specific events as a part of a complex iconography. Both the sun and the moon were symbolic and supplemented dramatic scenery, especially for the Crucifixion of Christ.

 

crucifixion raphael moon in art
The Mond Crucifixion, by Raphael, 1506, via the National Gallery, London

 

One of the most important events in Christianity, the crucifixion, is vividly described in the Bible and it was natural for artists and clerics to depict this event in as much detail as possible, due to high levels of illiteracy. There were several reasons why both the sun and the moon were included in this scene. The first is that a moment of unnatural darkness following the crucifixion is mentioned in the Bible, emphasizing the dramatic appeal of the scene.

 

The second is that the moon in the art may have represented God’s cosmic anger over the death of his only son, as both the moon and the sun were a manifestation of divine power. The third possible explanation is that they represented the Church (sun) and the Synagogue (moon). In some late Medieval depictions, they are both partially or fully personified and can be seen mourning Christ’s death. They often have facial features (in the moon’s case usually as a crescent with a human face), which may be related to the idea of the man on the moon. The idea of the moon with a human face also prevailed during the Renaissance Period.

 

In medieval alchemy books and manuscripts on the other hand, the moon was typically used as a symbol for hidden ingredients or the power of nature. However, this knowledge was limited only to a small group and was highly specialized. Little attention was paid to the artistry of these depictions. In a way, this was similar to the crucifixion scenes, in that the moon was meant to be a symbol, not a faithful representation of a natural phenomenon.

 

Scientific Observations

van eyke full painting
The Crucifixion, by Jan van Eyck,  c. 1440–41, via the MET Museum

 

In the Renaissance, Jan van Eyck observed the moon with the tools that were at his disposal. Although he was unable to use a telescope, he included spots on the moon in his religious painting. For example, in one of his most famous pieces, The Crucifixion and The Last Judgment diptych, he painted the Moon in a waning phase, hanging low in the early morning sky, based on the Biblical account, his observations of the “dark” moon, and last full moon mentioned in gospels. It was an interesting perspective from van Eyck that combined strong religious symbolism with natural observation.

 

crucifixion moon detail
The Crucifixion (detail), by Jan van Eyck,  ca. 1440–41, via the MET Museum

 

A more scientific approach to the moon in art began in the 17th century, and it went hand-in-hand with scientific development. Artists had better tools to observe the surface and phases of the Moon, and they slowly began translating this newly accumulated knowledge into art. Another group of “artists” were scientists trying to create accurate drawings. During the Renaissance Period, there were many examples of the merging of these two perspectives, for example in the works of Leonardo da Vinci.

 

A big breakthrough came with the invention of the telescope, which marked a great first step towards realistic depictions of the moon in art. Of course, people were interested in scientific observation during the Middle Ages and Antiquity as well, but they lacked the tools to observe the moon and they were strongly influenced by religion and folklore.

 

da vinci moon in art
Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, Arundel MS 263, f. 104r, c. 1506-08, via the British Library

 

The first detailed sketches of the moon’s surface during different phases were created by John Russell in the 18th century. He spent more than 20 years observing, documenting, and drawing the moon, resulting in a series of pastel drawings with an almost photographic look. Even today, they are some of the most faithful depictions of the moon, and they are often confused with high-resolution photographs.

 

russell moon paste
Moon Pastel, by John Russell, 1795, via the History of Science Museum, Oxford

 

Romantic Scenery: Depictions of the Moon

casper david moon in art
Two Men Contemplating the Moon, by Casper David Friedrich, ca. 1825–30, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

New ideas that focused on human beings changed the way artists depicted the moon in art. This wave of romantic ideas and melancholy art, present in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, meant that artists began to use the moon to create the right atmosphere in their artwork. A great representation of this approach can be seen in Two Men Contemplating the Moon by Caspar David Friedrich. You probably know the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by this great painter, in which the fog is used as a  “melancholic” natural phenomenon.

 

In Two Men Contemplating the Moon, the fog’s role is replaced by the moon. A dramatic scene is shown, with two men standing with their backs to the viewer, possibly engaged in a discussion while observing the dramatic landscape. The crescent moon above them creates the impression that there is something hidden that only the moon can see. Interestingly, Friedrich also painted another version of this scene, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, which is more colorful and less dramatic. The reason behind this mystical and melancholic scenery is a romantic view of experience that goes beyond the human mind and logic, and that is available only through our emotions and sentiment. Interestingly, this emotional depiction worked well. According to one critic’s story, one of these paintings inspired the famous playwright Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.

 

turner fishermen depictions of the moon
Fishermen at Sea, J.M.W.Turner, exhibited 1796, via the Tate London

 

This new approach to the moon in art that emphasized atmosphere and emotions was also present in English schools of art. J.M.W. Turner’s painting, The Fighting Temeraire, uses  soft moonlight to create an atmosphere of something hidden, preparing us for an upcoming catastrophe. The painting is strangely bright, with a soft color palette similar to Friedrich’s artwork.

 

This approach can be contrasted with an earlier work by Turner, the Fishermen At Sea. It was Turner’s first oil painting exhibited at the Royal Academy and it depicts a dramatic night scene with a small fishing boat struggling in the waves. The moon is very bright, and its cold, dominant light contrasts with the smaller, warm light coming out of fishermen’s lantern. Turner depicted the moon in several other paintings, but these two examples best represent the new meaning given to the moon in art, not as a symbol but as a means to create a dramatic atmosphere.

 

Window From the Asylum

van gogh starry night
The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, via the Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

Despite all the works mentioned above, there is one painting of the moon in art, whose fame trumps them all. Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night is undoubtedly one of the most beloved and recognizable paintings in modern Western art. Painted with the artist’s characteristic stylized brush strokes and vivid colors, this painting was, at least according to his letters, not the author’s favorite. It is no secret that Van Gogh suffered from mental illness and was treated in an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Starry Night was painted from the artist’s room window overlooking the village.

 

When we focus on the moon, we can see that it is highly stylized and according to astronomers, during the night this painting was supposed to have been created, the Moon was in a different phase. Van Gogh’s idea of the Moon was rather symbolic, especially when compared to an unusually bright star, most likely Venus (as confirmed by astronomers, the planet was very bright during that time). Numerous art historians have tried to interpret the painting by studying the artist’s letters and illness, but there is little doubt that the prominent moon in The Starry Night was stylized in a similar manner to in ancient or medieval times in that it is symbolic rather than atmospheric or realistic.

 

The Moon in Art: A Silent Force

joan miro moon in art
Dog Barking at the Moon, by Joan Miró, 1926, via the Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

In more modern times, it is worth mentioning a rather playful piece of art, the Dog Barking at the Moon, by Joan Miro. It is not an artwork that features his characteristic shapes and forms and we can easily identify a small dog and the Moon with a stylized profile. Together with them, there is also a ladder in front of a sparse landscape with a dark sky. Even if we cannot see it, there is a personal and amusing story behind this scene. Miro drew some sketches at his family farm in Spain and one of the preparatory sketches for this image also featured text. The dog is shown howling “bow wow”, while the unimpressed moon replies “You know, I don’t give a damn”.

 

Unfortunately, it was not included in the final painting, but a certain amusing and quirky style is still visible in the color palette and the distance is emphasized by the ladder. This painting was also shared by Elon Musk on Twitter when promoting a new cryptocurrency, the Dogecoin. The painting was jokingly renamed “Doge Barking at the Moon”.

 

poussin selene and endymion
Selene and Endymion, by Nicholas Poussin, ca. 1630, via the Detroit Institute of Arts

 

The 20th century was an era of many different styles and lots of experimentation, yet the moon was still just as much a part of art, used to emphasize artists’ intentions. We can observe it in Henri Rousseau’s paintings, which focus on the participants of the scene rather than the passive moon in the background. Paul Klee and Edward Munch treated the moon similarly.

 

Sometimes, the moon has appeared just as a stylized decoration, as in Alphonse Mucha’s painting Clair de Lune. This is not to say that these artists found the moon to be unimportant — on the contrary, the moon was present in their artworks for a reason. That reason could be as simple as telling the viewer that a scene is taking place at night, or it could be more symbolic representing something hidden, and possibly malicious, lurking in the darkness. Sometimes modern artists have simply created a new perspective on the moon from a technical point of view — as in cubism or neo-expressionism.

 

mucha clair de lune
Clair de Lune, by Alphonse Mucha, 1902, via Bonhams

 

We have only touched on some of the most famous depictions of the moon in art, predominantly in Europe. Of course, there were (and are) other cultures with their own unique artistic languages and mythological traditions that translated the meaning of this cosmic object. For the last four centuries in Europe, the moon was studied both as something abstract and mystical, and practical and scientific. Whether an artist sees the moon just as an object of observation or as a symbol he/she wants to incorporate into a larger scene, it is entirely up to them. The moon in art is a phenomenon with numerous faces.

 

Sources: 

 

Nickel, Helmut. “The Sun, the Moon, and an Eclipse: Observations on The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John, by Hendrick Ter Brugghen.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 42 (2007): 121–24.



Author Image

By Michaela SimonovaMA Comparative Religions & Museum GuideMichaela has strong interest in history of religions, history of art, symbolism and modern interpretations of myths. With Masters degree in Comparative religion studies, she focuses on ancient religions and concept of religious symbolism in modern culture. Michaela is also interested in the history of ancient art and artefacts, especially ritual objects. She worked as a cataloguer of ancient artefacts in London, and she is currently guiding visitors in Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum or recording new episodes for her podcast ArtStory.