UFOs in Art History: Is It a Spaceship or a Cloud?

Ufologists believe that there have been many images of UFOs in art. Art historians, on the other hand, disagree with this.

Apr 27, 2024By Hannah Lane, BA Painting, BA Art History

ufo art history


UFOs, now referred to as UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), are frequently associated with conspiracy theories. Enthusiastic ufologists have found imagery in art depicting UFOs. However, art historians typically propose different theories regarding this iconography. In the following article, we will explore various art pieces and examine the different perspectives of ufologists and art historians. Read on to learn more about UFO sightings in art history.


A Golden UFO?

ufo illumination fortuna bonnes meurs
Illumination of Fortuna in Le livre de bonnes meurs de Jacque Legrand by Jacque Legrand c. 1430. Source: Musée Condé, Chantilly.


In this illustration of Fortuna from Jacque Legrand, we can see a shiny golden orb in the sky. A group of men on the upper right look in awe at this golden spherical shape. Below in the foreground, there are five men. Two are walking toward the page’s right side, while three are seen approaching a woman. The woman is positioned right beneath this golden sphere in the sky with a wheel behind her. This golden sphere is part of the iconography contested between ufologists and art historians.


For ufologists, this golden sphere is an image of UFO. They believe that the rays that are all around the orb are either little UFOs or rays coming out of the orb itself. Some describe these rays as drones from the bigger UFO (the main golden orb). Ufologists also believe that the men on the upper right side are in awe of these objects. They seem surprised, watching something appear before them for the first time. Art historians, however, believe that the golden orb is not a representation of UFO.


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Detail image of rays, orb, and group of people in Illumination of Fortuna in Le livre de bonnes meurs de Jacque Legrand by Jacque Legrand c. 1430. Source: Musée Condé, Chantilly.


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Art historians look at the writing that’s inscribed below the portrayed woman. Written below her is the word Fortune. This describes the female figure as Lady Fortune, the personification of luck. The wheel behind her is the object most commonly associated with her, while the orb placed above her in the sky is the object most ancient civilizations would have recognized her by. The ancient Greeks, who called her Tyche, gave her this golden orb as a symbol of the world. For them, luck or fortune could change fate and destinies, meaning that it could potentially change the world. Art historians are unable to explain the astonishment of the men seen in the right-hand corner of the illustration as easily as ufologists do. The shock on their faces could be a sign of their astonishment at fortune’s impact on the world.


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T -O Map in Etymologiae by Isidore, Bishop of Seville, c.1472. Source: Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.


The orb is also cut into sections. This is similar to the mappe orbis terrae—a medieval map that illustrated the world as surrounded by a circle of water with the Mediterranean Sea sectioning out three pieces of land. This idea of how the world looked was very popular. It was put on many different coats of arms and is still used today by royalty. For example, it is used in British royalty’s coronation ceremony.


Who Is That In The Sky?

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Madonna Adoring the Christ Child by Giovanni Francesco da Rimini, c.1460. Source: High Museum of Art, Atlanta.


An Italian Renaissance tempera on the panel, Madonna Adoring the Christ Child, shows us some interesting iconography. What seems like a typical religious painting is changed into a surrealist piece because of the odd circular opening in the sky. Three people are portrayed looking out of this opening—one is reaching out towards the landscape below while the other two watch. The man that is seen reaching out releases golden striations down to the ground. One of these observers holds their hands in prayer. Ufologists see this circular opening as a UFO, while art historians disagree with this.


Ufologists explain that the striations around the circle look similar to objects with lights. They believe that most UFO sightings have lights like those seen in airplanes. Some ufologists believe that Christ is being beamed down in front of the Madonna as he also has striations indicating light surrounding his form. Ufologists also point to the kneeling monk on the right-hand side. He looks up at the object in the sky, confirming its existence while praying. If this is not an object and it does not exist or is just a sun, then why would a person be praying and looking up at it? This is the question ufologists ask.


Sun Saint Jean Baptiste Church
Detail of Sun on Fresque du plafond de l’église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Larbey, 13-15th Century. Source: Momumentum.fr


Art historians believe that the man looking up praying isn’t just a monk but a figure representing John the Baptist, as he is depicted with a cross. He is praying to the Lord, who he sees coming. While art historians do not explain the showering of light upon the Christ child, they do comment that the open circular window in the sky is not a UFO but the sun.


This is one of the first Renaissance pieces that takes the Madonna and Child out of the traditional flat gold backdrop of the Gothic and Byzantine periods. The striations around the circle gradually go from small to big and then back to small, creating a wavey effect. This wavy, almost hair-like effect, has been seen in depictions of the sun since the medieval period. Art historians also describe that depicting God as the sun was not uncommon.


During the Renaissance, artists were inspired by ancient civilizations and gods. Sol, or Helios, was the god known for wearing a crown that radiated. The sun with a face was the anthropomorphization of this god. In conclusion, it was not uncommon to place an image of a god in a location where the sun could be.


Is That A Flying Saucer?

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The Madonna with Saint Giovannino attributed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, c. 1400s. Source: Visit Florence


Attributed to two other artists before Ghirlandaio, the circular canvas The Madonna with Saint Giovannino has some interesting imagery. In the foreground, the viewer is greeted by Madonna praying over baby Jesus. Next to the young Christ is Saint Giovannino, who wears a more prominent halo and carries a cross with him. Two bulls are behind the Madonna, gazing in on the scene.


In the background, there is a beautiful Italian countryside. There is a bending river, a castle, and even a man on a hill. This man is shown looking up at the sky, covering his eyes with his hand in order to take a better look at it. Above him hovers a greyish blob with gold surrounding the outside of the shape. To the left of the object in the sky is the sun, with three smaller blobs just below it.


Ufologists believe that these objects are UFOs. They are focusing on the surprised faces of the man looking up at the object and the dog that’s portrayed next to him. Ufologists are also referring to the grey object’s circular appearance which looks like what most people would recognize as a UFO today. There is shading on the bottom of it, along with the top that has a lighter grey color, giving us the idea of a rounded top with a dark bottom. Ufologists also think that Madonna’s position, hovering over the baby, seems protective. Art historians, on the other side, have other explanations for the grey object in question.


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Adoration of the Child with St. Benedict and Angels by Vincenzo Foppa, ca.1478. Source: Detroit Institute of Arts Museum


Many paintings of the birth of Jesus or even the annunciations feature celestial events. Some art historians describe the grey object as a painter’s mistake. A blurry angel that was supposed to be scraped off became a blob of grey. It still has the gilding and rest of the cloud that was supposed to surround an angel.  Art historians also reference many other paintings with angels in them that have a halo of yellow or gold around their form to back this claim. A great example of an angel coming out of the clouds is the Adoration of the Child with St. Benedict and Angels by Vincenzo Foppa.


In the background of this piece, the viewer can see a shepherd looking up at an angel coming out of the clouds. Once again, this shepherd also shrouds his eyes from the light to get a better look. The angel is halfway out of the clouds, while the lower part of his body, from the knees downwards, is still in the clouds. There’s a beaming light around his knees, shown by gold gilding.


Some art historians believe this greyish blob could be Ghirlandaio’s interpretation of a brilliant star. The art historians who claim this point to the left-hand side of the paintings, which shows another celestial event—the Nativity star. There are also art historians who think this blob of grey could be a forgotten Christian symbol.


UFO or a Ray From God?

annunciation saint emidius
The Annunciation with Saint Emidius by Carlo Crivelli, c.1486. Source: National Gallery, London.


An Italian Renaissance painting made with egg and oil on canvas, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius is one of the most contested pieces by ufologists and art historians. Made by Carlo Crivelli in 1486, The Annunciation has very interesting imagery. Within this piece, Crivelli places Mary within the confines of an Italian Renaissance house. She is shown kneeling and praying while a glowing bird descends from a ray of light. Right outside the house, there are two men. One holds a miniature of a city, while the other wears wings. Overall, the scene is filled with details. Right above the two men in the foreground is a rippled cloud. This cloud houses the beginning of the ray of golden light that targets Mary.


Ufologists believe that this rippled cloud with a beam is a cloaked UFO. They think that its disk-like shape seems too strange for a normal cloud. However, this object has the texture of a cloud, but ufologists think this is due to a misunderstanding. They believe that Crivelli was confused by what he saw, so, instead of a flying metal disc, he painted a cloud with angels on it.


Ufologists also point to the beam that comes down from the cloud and penetrates through the wall to Mary’s head. Some believe that this looks like an alien abduction.


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Detail of vortex in The Annunciation with Saint Emidius by Carlo Crivelli, c.1486. Source: National Gallery, London.


Ufologists even explain their interpretation of the annunciation as evidence of this beam being a part of the abduction. In a very quick explanation of their version of the bible, Andrew Arnett explains: Their belief is that Jesus was not divine in the religious sense but that Jesus was in fact the result of genetic engineering. This gives us an entirely different understanding of the immaculate conception. According to alien enthusiasts, Mary was abducted by aliens and was artificially inseminated with this alien DNA into her womb. Ufologists also believe the little white blob seen above Mary’s head is also a UFO. Art historians, of course, disagree with most of this.


The vortex cloud seen in the sky with the beam coming out of it was common iconography at this time. This was an easy way to portray God and the heavens in general. When looking at the painting very closely, the viewer can notice images of little angels. These angels spin around in a circle, creating the vortex in the cloud.


detail dove annunciation carlo crivelli
Detail of dove and vegetables in The Annunciation with Saint Emidius by Carlo Crivelli, c.1486. Source: National Gallery, London.


Art historians also commented on the beam that touches Mary which has been seen in many other paintings. They explain the white blob seen above Mary’s head as the Holy Spirit. Here, Crivelli depicted the Holy Spirit as a white dove with a tiny halo around its head. Art historians also point out that ufologists tend to look at these pieces in a problematic way, forgetting that artists were interpreting written pieces of theological events. These artists did not witness the annunciation or celestial events themselves. Therefore, it remains uncertain whether any UFOs were present during these events.

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By Hannah LaneBA Painting, BA Art HistoryHannah has a BA in Painting and Art History from Kansas City Art Institute. She was a Durwood Provenance Intern for the East Asian section at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Hannah is currently a practicing studio artist and lends her love of art history to anyone willing to listen.