Academic Nonfiction Visual Art

In Awe of the Universe by Robert Shearon


Large existential questions like, “Why are we here?”, “What is here?”, and “Where did we come from?” have plagued humanity since we first started looking to the skies and wondering. Since those first humans began looking out into the immensity of space, they have also sought to give an explanation to phenomena they witnessed that was, in many ways, beyond comprehension. As time progressed, these explanations became more rational, and led to their study in depth to such a point that much of what may have seemed mystical ended up with a detailed description, though no less awe inspiring.

Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594 CE) was a painter during the Renaissance in Italy and, like many of his contemporaries, painted religious scenery, one of the most fundamental attempts humans make at explaining the universe. Tintoretto did make his money by painting churches as was customary at the time but was also commissioned to create private works as well. It is one of these that is of interest here, a painting of a scene from the Roman tradition involving Juno, Jupiter, and Hercules and is about a fixture of the night sky, The Milky Way.

In 1990 the Voyager 1 space craft was performing what was called the grand tour of the solar system. It was during this mission of exploration that inspiration struck one of the scientists on the mission, Carl Sagan (1934-1996 CE), to convince the scientists to create and input the required commands to turn the probe back to earth and take a picture of its home planet (Sagan 28). Sagan was a scientist and science communicator that tried to convey the immensity and beauty of the universe through many different channels, including the use of photographs to show the true splendor of the earth and its home.

Visual Analysis

The Origin of the Milky Way Jacopo Tintoretto, 1575, Oil on canvas (149.4 cm×168 cm)

Born in Venice, Italy during the Renaissance to a dyer, Jacopo Tintoretto went on to become a painter succeeding the likes of Raphael and Michelangelo and was taught by Titan, at least for a short time before being kicked out of his school (Jameson 355). He was known for painting quickly and with brighter colors than his contemporaries and was usually commissioned to create religious pieces for churches as was normal for the time.

However, in 1575 he was tasked with painting “The Origin of the Milky Way” that depicts a scene from Roman mythology in which the god Jupiter attempts to give his newborn son immortality, he was only a half god, by having him drink the milk of the goddess Juno. The painting is of the moment Juno awakens and milk spurts up into the sky creating the Milky Way and to the ground creating the lily, though this lower portion was cut off some time before 1727 (The National Gallery).

Standing at 149.4 cm×168cm, the painting follows the classical style that was prevalent throughout the Renaissance with familiar forms and shading that create a sense of movement and volume on a large canvas. The drapery present on the bed Juno was sleeping in, as well as that wrapped around Jupiter, is given a three-dimensionality and softness by the artists careful line work and volumetric shading that offers a lighting effect that gives depth and true appearance of fabric lying about and flailing in the wind.

None of the seven figures look directly back at the viewer, offering what seems like a glimpse into a world that they are not normally allowed to see. This feeling of a secluded realm reserved for gods is reinforced by the background that shows them residing in the sky, far above the earthly realm of humans. The sky behind the scene uses atmospheric perspective to make it seem to fade off into the distance through a subtle blurriness applied to the soft white texture of the clouds the further away it is supposed to be from the viewer with the clouds at the feet of Juno, closest to the onlooker, very defined with dark outlines and defined shapes.

Each of the forms, the gods and other creatures surrounding them, are all idealized in keeping with the Classical tradition. The human forms all conform to what would be thought of as beautiful features according to that Classical art style and are presented as such, gods with perfected human characteristics. Their forms are well defined using outlines, both real and imaginary as created by changes in color value to give a sense of a boundary. This idealization is also applied to non-human forms such as the stars that comprise The Milky Way above the gods which are stylized to ensure the viewer does not mistake them for anything except the stars of the night sky.

These effects all come together to give a scene in which there is clear motion of the figures as if a moment in time caught and recorded for the viewer. It is made clear that what has transpired is not welcomed by Juno and presents the somewhat chaotic scene that makes it obvious that this was a time of surprise and shock for some, if not all, of the characters involved. The combination of these techniques is used masterfully to make this glimpse into the life of the gods pull the onlooker in and allow them to be a part of what is transpiring.

PIA00452: Solar System Portrait – Earth as ‘Pale Blue Dot’ NASA/JPL, 1990, Photograph (10800x7200 pixels)

In 1990 the Voyager 1 probe was completing its so-called grand tour of the solar system where it was studying the various planets it would fly by on its way into interstellar space, including taking photographs of each one. During this time, someone not usually associated with art, a scientist named Carl Sagan convinced NASA leaders of the mission to have it perform a maneuver that would allow it to have the earth in frame from four billion miles away, and take a picture. Not everyone agreed with the idea as it would take valuable resources to not only produce the coded instructions to be sent to Voyager, but also people resources to download the image and process it and they were in the process of being reassigned as the bulk of the mission had concluded (Sagan 28). Though not an artist, it was an artist’s inspiration that set him, and those on the team that thought it would be an important moment in time to capture, on course to ask this to be done, wanting to be able to show the fragility of the planet and just how close together we really are (Sagan 28).

The photograph is striking in its colors, the blue of the earth stands in stark contrast with the darkness of outer space. The brilliant blue speck is suspended in a pale sunbeam with streaks of colored bands visible that lend a complementary effect as the color spectrum is traversed from side to side. The combination of color and position of the Earth also helps to give the viewer a sense of scale with which they are not familiar. This is a photograph showing a planet that to anyone is immense in size being reduced to a dot suspended in a beam of light and is the most jarring effect of this image.

The processing of the images, 60 in total viewed in different light spectrums, was done after each pixel traveled five and a half hours at the speed of light and was performed by a pair of scientists on the team. Though perhaps not considered art by many, it nevertheless invokes many of the same emotional and intellectual points that many works of art do. When Carl Sagan and the team of scientists decided to take that picture, they did do out of a sense of scientific curiosity but also out of the very same wonder that drives people to create works of art that bring out some of the same feelings and questions that shape who we are and what we want to know. The imagery presented invokes a sense of smallness, but also presents the vastness in a way that can be taken in by the person looking upon it giving it a scale that is both overwhelming and comforting.

Analysis of Purpose

The Origin of the Milky Way Jacopo Tintoretto, 1575, Oil on canvas (149.4 cm×168 cm)
PIA00452: Solar System Portrait – Earth as ‘Pale Blue Dot’ NASA/JPL, 1990, Photograph (10800 x7200 pixels)

The need to explain the seemingly unexplainable is a driving force that has led to the establishment of religion as well as some of the most groundbreaking scientific discoveries in history. When humans first looked up in the night sky, their imagination ran wild of what is up there and why we are down here and without a means to fully explain what they were seeing, their imaginations painted the picture for them. For many years, from pre-history to the middle ages, much of the iconography and religious thought concerned the stars and the sun even when the religious scene or figure was earthly in nature. In western cultures, this changed at the dawn of the middle ages where the focus became everything under the sky on earth and below as evidenced by the rise of illuminated manuscripts and icons as some of the main forms of art during the era (DeWitte, Larmann and Shields 396-398). This concentration led to punishment, more than reward, to be the way these experiences were conveyed.

The concentration on this realm began to wean as the European Renaissance started to take hold, and artists began looking to the skies and asking these questions of themselves and the universe again and more openly. This is evident in the piece by Jacopo Tintoretto in which he is painting in the Renaissance style and using a scene from Roman mythology about the creation of The Milky Way. The rebirth was not just in the arts, but also in the sciences and helped to usher in The Age of Enlightenment and a line of questioners that took things from the canvas and the imaginations of the people and attempted to study and learn it, a scientific revolution.

Returning to these ideas and questions allowed for the transition to The Age of Enlightenment and the freedom to study and examine things that were not allowed to be questioned in The Middle Ages, under threat of punishment. Because of this, humans were able to make astounding discoveries about the universe in which we occupy and eventually led to space travel. The drive to know the unknowable pushed us to go where we had only pointed to and wondered about, and in 1990 found ourselves looking back at this planet as it truly is, a small blue dot in an endless ocean of black as captured by the Voyager space probe which, as of 2012, has left our solar system and is out among the stars in interstellar space (NASA/JPL).

Art and religion led the way for early humanity in its quest to know what is out there and hindered it as it saw these answers beginning to form. However, it is this winding path that connects what we can imagine and what we can measure. Every big idea in science starts with the imagination and it is the evolution in art and religion that helped bring us to where we are now, able to travel among the stars and look back at ourselves and see those two worlds come together in an image that shows all of us together, in awe of the universe. This need to explain what we see, whether artistically or scientifically, is rooted in our humanity and is evident in what we create.


With the end of the Renaissance came the dawn of the scientific method and discoveries of the cause of many phenomena that had puzzled us for eons. The never-ending pursuit of this knowledge has produced some of the most amazing works of art, literature, and innovation the world has ever known. It has ushered in new eras of humanity, as well as some of its most depressing times of oppression, but this curiosity has never faltered, but manifest itself in diverse ways.

The progression from gazing in wonder at the stars to being out among them is a culmination of humanity’s undying fascination and love of our universe as expressed by artists and studied by scientists. Indeed, the two are intertwined and bear evidence of what drives us, at our most basic level, to explore, create, and express what this universe is and what it means to us. The questions we ask of the universe may never be able to be answered fully by art, religion, or science, but it is the pursuit of the answers that truly drives us and always will.

Works Cited

DeWitte, Debra J, Ralph M Larmann and M Kathryn Shields. Gateways to Art. 3rd. Thames & Hudson, 2018.

Jameson. “Lives of the Early Paintėrs: The Venetian Painters of the Sixteenth Century: Tintoretto—Paul Veronese—Jacopo Bassano.” The American Art Journal (1867): 355-357. Print. <>.

NASA/JPL. Interstellar Mission. n.d. <>.

Sagan, Carl. “The Earth from the frontiers of the Solar system – The Pale, Blue Dot.” The Prescott Courier 9 September 1990: 28-30. Newspaper. < id=_upSAAAAIBAJ&pg=4800,1930437&dq=pale-blue-dot+-book&hl=en>.

The National Gallery. The Origin of the Milky Way. n.d. <>.