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Space Aliens and Renaissance Art

Beauty is, or so I'm told, more often than not in the eye of the beholder. That's usually a pretty good policy, in my opinion. When people try to claim, however, that they behold not beauty, but rather UFOs in art from the Renaissance and middle ages, I have to draw the line. Last week I spoke about how there is nothing in ancient art that depicts ancient aliens speaking to our ancestors; I'd like to make the same argument here despite the fact that 'aliens' in ancient art and those in art of the renaissance are wildly different.

In ancient art it's mostly reoccurring shapes, such as spirals, and strange looking people, such as the Aborigine 'Brothers of the Lightning' that UFO enthusiasts peg as representing alien influence over human affairs. In Renaissance art, there's a lot of crazy-ass things depicted in paintings. They're harder to explain and, at first glance, appear to show UFOs. I hate to make things simplistic, but my answer to those who have asked what I think about this weird art is that it's all in the eye of the beholder, and I sure as hell don't behold any spaceships.

I can recall the first time I heard the theory that space aliens appeared in renaissance art: someone showed me a picture of the Virgin Mary with a "UFO" in the background. I can distinctly recall looking at it and thinking that it was no UFO, but rather that the Virgin Mary was wearing a beret that looked like a slice of brown baloney. Proof that aliens were visiting Italy in the 1700s? I feel I can make a stronger argument that medieval Italians had some wierd headgear. Sadly, I've never been able to find that painting again.

Obviously, I'm not going to base my entire argument on the fact that these crazy things in artwork don't look like UFOs to me. One other painting I have been able to find is called the Glorification of the Eucharist, painted by Bonaventura Salimbeni in1600. At first glance it appears to be god and Jesus sitting on thrones, each with a hand on the 'antenna' of a device that looks a lot like Sputnik. It's round, black, and has two long poles sticking out of the top of it.

When I first saw this painting, I was stumped. I had no idea how such a perfect drawing of Sputnik existed in the 1600s. But something seemed a bit odd to me: the two figures have their hands positioned on the 'antenna' not as if they are grasping it, but as if they're holding a pencil. I looked up a clearer, better version of the painting, and was immediately relieved. They're not holding onto a satellite; they're holding onto giant pencils with which they're drawing on the world. On the internet the orb appears grainy and black, making it looks as though the pencils and the earth are connected into a huge satellite-like shape. In better images, it's clear that the orb is the earth and the 'antennae' are pencils or styluses. It's also helpful to recall that during the middle ages Jesus and god were sometimes considered the "divine engineers," the architects who created the universe. This was during the age of building the great cathedrals of Europe; any historian would easily be able to identify this painting as non-UFO related.

And that's the first argument that I have to bolster my contention that there is no proof of past UFO involvement in rennaisance culture: there's a lot of garbage and fraud out on the internet, and many people can get suckered in not necessarily by malicious fakes, but by crummy renditions of good pictures. Combine that with the common UFO enthusiast flair for exaggeration, and I'm sure that's where many of these claims come from.

One picture that has not been distorted by poor imaging is a 17th century fresco depicting the crucifixtion. It hangs above the altar in the Svetishoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, Georgia. On either side of the cross are these things that look like jellyfish, hovering in midair. On the underside of these 'jellyfish,' from where the 'tentacles' hang, are the faces of men. The UFOlogist would have you believe that these are clearly paintings showing spacecraft (the round 'bodies' of the 'jellyfish') with men in them (the faces) blasting off (the 'tentacles' are supposedly the flames of a rocket engine.) On the other hand, some historians and artists that it's the artists' way of showing that religious figures (my guess: god and Moses) were watching the crucifixion from on high, and those aren't the flames of booster rockets but rather the shining glow of their holiness. So once again, I ask of you the same question I ask every week when I write this article: which is more likely? That an artist decided to throw some UFOs he'd seen into a piece of holy artwork, or that the artist tried to represent the omnipotence of his god in a novel, though not really that bizarre when viewed through the lens of reason and sobriety, manner? You don't need Occam's personal approval to know it's the second one.

There's an ancient Chinese woodcut that shows two men standing in a chariot. You can find it everywhere UFOs are discussed. The reason for this is that the chariot has no wheels and is in the middle of the sky. Therefore, some say, UFOs clearly visited the Mandarin Chinese of ancient times. You know what? When I was ten, I drew a picture of a half-man, half-fire truck. It was the coolest thing ever: all the fire-fighting abilities of a fire engine, all the arms and legs of a person. Does this mean that I actually saw one of the things? Perhaps in my fevered nightmares, but certainly not in reality. So that brings me to point three: in matters of art it's rather naïve to take everything at literal face value. A flying chariot certainly doesn't say anything about UFOs, and it doesn't even require a whole lot of imagination. In the same manner 'The Crucifixion' above the altar at Visoki Decani Monestary in Kosovo, Yugoslavia, which shows two men riding in half egg, half arrow shaped things in the sky, is interesting. Interesting in that the artist seems to have taken a pretty good amount of artistic license. People claim it shows two men at the controls of spacecraft, flying heavenwards; to me it looks exactly like a man riding in a weird-shaped carriage, except without wheels or horses. The other guy looks like he's riding on the sun. I'd be much more inclined to believe that the artist saw a comet a few nights before and had decided, as medieval religious peasants usually did, that it had some sort of religious connection.

I have yet to see anything that convinces me UFOs or aliens were interacting with medieval painters. Keep these common-sense guidelines in mind and you'll have the same results.

First Published in The Triangle, 4 February 2005

Gabrial Miranda Says:

"I think that the artists back in the renaisance had to be very rebellious when it came to commissioned work, the fact that most of the paintings were depicting either general scenes from the era or some religeous tale, they needed to spruce up their very bland artwork with embellishment. Some of these artist must have had some distaste with the pieces they were commissioned to do, whether it had been the subject matter or the tone of the piece or maybe they didn't approve of the person they were painting it for? In any case, I think in actuality we were seeing the first attempts at putting in a hidden message in the painting that meant something to the artist - although not a very good way of doing it. I think over time artists became more creative in how they hid their secret "brand" or tag so that the painting could be authenticated as one of their own and not a copy. This approach to "marking" a painting works well when an artist is still alive and lends out a piece for show and knows that he is getting his original back. If the artist dies without passing on his secrets then we have to rely on historians and "experts" tell us what are originals in good faith."