A hand-painted map of the constellations of the Northern hemisphere
Heavens Above! is a painting of the constellations inspired by beautiful antique sky charts - but with a few modern twists!
I painted it like the early cartographers, sticking to a view as seen from the North Pole. So Polaris, the Pole Star in the tail of Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) is the central rotation point, exactly like on antique charts.
For millennia, people have been staring up at the stars trying to make sense of what’s going on. Back in the second century AD, Ptolemy published his scientific treatise Almagest, listing 48 constellations. Charting the heavens was a vital science because the stars, along with the position of the sun, were essential for navigation.
Early research for the painting became a journey into Greek mythology – for many of the constellations are named after classical gods and heroes.
Cassiopeia, a vain and beautiful queen who boasted that her daughter Andromeda was lovelier even than the Nereids, the female sea spirits. To punish Cassiopeia for this heresy, Poseidon, the god of the sea, sends a sea monster to wreak his revenge – perhaps a little harsh! Andromeda is chained to a rock as a sacrifice to the monster, but Perseus, a major hero and slayer of monsters comes to the rescue.
Every society has stories to help explain nature and history. Inevitably, the people who first described the constellations named them after characters from their myths. Perhaps if we were describing them today, we’d call them after our cultural heroes: David Attenborough, Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana, David Beckham…
But this is not just a painting about Greek mythology. As I continued to think about it, I realised it was actually about exploration and discovery, understanding the universe and our place within it; in other words, science. I love science!
Stars and science, pioneers and heroes
- Five of the brightest stars are shown: Arcturus in Boötes, Vega in Lyra, Capella in Auriga, Altair in Aquila and Aldebaran in Taurus.
- Each of the 12 zodiac signs is shown in its 30° position along the edge of celestial sphere. The word ‘zodiac’ itself is fascinating – it comes from the Greek zōdiakos kyklos, which means circle of animals. It’s where we get the word ‘zoo’ from: ζῷον = animal.
- East and West seem the ‘wrong’ way round because a sky chart shows the heavens as you look away from Earth as opposed to geographical maps which look down on the Earth. Clear? (Me neither!)
But there’s much more. As this is a painting about heroes, exploration, discovery and science, I've included some unexpected things not found on those early star charts because they hadn’t happened yet.
I grew up in the 1960s, the Space Age, a time of great scientific discovery – and it was all on the telly. That’s why I've included the brave pioneers of the space programme; Apollo 11 took the first humans to land on the moon in July 1969, and later the super-thrilling Space Shuttle.
Space Shuttle Endeavour was named after Captain Cook’s ship the HMS Endeavour which is also shown in the painting. HMS Endeavour sailed to Tahiti in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus, and later reached the east coast of Australia for the first time. Captain Cook was certainly as brave and pioneering back then as any 20th century space traveller.
The excitement of the Space Age spilled over into popular culture and David Bowie was a cultural pioneer of the time. He died in 2016 and I wanted to commemorate this. Bowie’s early works all seemed to rotate around space; Life on Mars, Space Oddity, Starman, Ziggy Stardust…
And now Bowie is dead, he has returned to stardust.