28 Mar A mystery in Grand Central Terminal NYC solved
In the Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal in NYC, there is a “great astronomical mural, from a design by the French painter Paul Helleu, painted in gold leaf on cerulean blue oil. Arching over the 80,000 square-foot Main Concourse, this extraordinary painting portrays the Mediterranean sky with the zodiac and 2,500 stars.”
But, if we look closer?there is an unsolved mystery surrounding this mural.
From an article in The New York Times, by Jesse Mckinley in 1995:
“The stars, which at the terminal’s opening were professed to be accurate enough to teach school children the firmament, are in fact reversed, north to south, with the exception of the Orion constellation. The way they got that way is the subject of considerable speculation, according to a 1994 report by Deborah Rau on the ceiling’s history.
First off, the very existence of the stars, writes Ms. Rau, was more a result of lack of cash than esthetic insight. Original plans for the terminal, which opened at midnight on Feb. 2, 1913, called for a skylight in the ceiling to provide natural light for commuters. When money and time began to run out, the suspended ceiling was completed sans skylight while designers scrambled for a plan to decorate it.
The architect Whitney Warren came upon the idea of stars and enlisted the help of a French artist, Paul Helleu, to design the constellations and accompanying lights to emulate a night sky, while the undercoat of paint was sky-blue to represent the daytime sky. The starscape was based on a sketch by a Columbia University astronomy professor, Harold Jacoby, and was supposed to be accurate right down to the gold-leaf equatorial line. Indeed, when the doors opened, visitors were amazed.
It was only after an anonymous commuter noticed a month later that the stars were twisted around that theories began to fly. An embarrassed Dr. Jacoby accused the artist who painted the stars, your fellow Australian Charles Basing, of placing the diagram at his feet while painting, rather than looking through the thin paper sketch.
Other rumors suggested that the reversed design was derived from a medieval design, in which the perspective was God’s, opposite to man’s. The clearest, if most flippant, response may have come from Charles Gulbrandsen, who worked as an assistant on the original job and was employed to repaint the stars, again incorrectly, in 1944.
“The ceiling is decoration, not a map,” said Mr. Gulbrandsen in 1944, “The constellations are north. They should be south. So what?” A Decaying Landmark.”
So far our suspects are:
1. The artist/designer Paul Helleu.
2. The Columbia University professor, Dr. Jacoby.
3. The painter Charles Basing.
There are two theories:
1. The painter drew them backward because he read the sketch wrong.
2. Paul Helleu, the artist took the design from a medieval manuscript.
Background on medieval manuscripts:
1. “In the Ptolemaic tradition the twelve signs of the Zodiac are displayed on the Northern
Hemisphere and are to be read counter-clockwise. That is, the map is shown in an
exterior view ? it is pictured as seen from space rather than from the earth. The
anthropomorphic star images are therefore shown from their back view. Rather
than showing the viewpoint typical of celestial maps, these representations are
more globe-like in style. Celestial globes were representations of the heavens, or
visible sky, on an artificial sphere that showed the star positions and constellation
forms. They differ from terrestrial spheres in that it would be impractical, if not
impossible, to create an orb depicting the heavens as they appear from the earth, so
celestial globes show space as it would be seen by looking inwards. Therefore, the
constellations are shown in reverse. The observer of a celestial globe looked from
a viewpoint beyond the universe.” Crane, N. (2003). Mercator: The Man who Mapped the Planet. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 79-80.
|“This sculpture of Atlas from the second century AD features a celestial globe engraved with the constellations known to the ancient Greeks. Unlike on later globes, no individual stars are shown, just the constellation pictures.”||Statue of Atlas in Rockefeller Center on 5th Avenue in New York City, opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral|
2. In Al-Sufi’s astronomical text, the Book of Fixed Stars, his constellation figures are shown both as they would appear from the earth and from outside of the celestial sphere. The Visualization of Perspective Systems and Iconology in D?rer’s Cartographic Works by Ad?le Lorraine W?rz, pages 156?178.
So, medieval celestial maps are read in reverse, as if viewed from space.
These are photos of the ceiling in Grand Central Terminal:
Johann Bayer’s Uranometria
These are the images from: “Johann Bayer’s landmark star atlas of 1603 called Uranometria devoted individual charts to each of the 48 Greek constellations. The beautiful plates were engraved by Alexander Mair.”
So it appears the medieval manuscript used for the design of Grand Central Terminal was Bayer’s Uranometria of 1603, or was it?
Note all the images are reversed except for Orion.
1. Bayer was the first medieval astronomer to draw the constellations as seen from Earth (geocentric), unlike the prior medieval astronomers who drew them “as seen from God” or space.
2. Bayer also did some bizarre things like reverse ONLY the anthropomorphic constellations:
“One of the odd features of the Uranometria is that Bayer chose, for some reason, to show many of the human constellations from the back, even though traditionally they all face us. This had the unfortunate result of rendering many of the traditional star descriptions obsolete, since the “star in the right shoulder” of a figure who faces towards us becomes a star in his left shoulder when he turns the other way.” Linda Hall Exhibits
Conclusion #1: Bayer’s atlas depicts the constellations as modern astronomers chart them now (from an Earth view) and not like the medievalists(from space) except for the anthropomorphic constellations.
Conclusion # 2: The artwork for the constellations is identical to Bayer’s plate engravings by Alexander Mair.
Conclusion# 3: If this was the map used in Grand Central Terminal then it is true; the images from Bayer’s map are reversed except for Orion.
Conclusion # 4: Whether this design was on the floor or held up and seen through the “thin paper sketch as the New York Times article mentions, this still doesn’t explain why they are backwards. Whether looking down on the sketch or holding it up to see through the thin paper, they still are in whatever direction they are drawn. Even if the sketch was reversed and the constellations were drawn in line on the equator, it would have put Cancer where Aquarius is on the East side and Aquarius on the West side. So, the paper sketch theory mentioned falters.
Bayer’s Uranometria did not chart the Triangulum minor or Musca above the Aries constellation.
This is a photo of the Grand Central Terminal’s Aries constellation:
Triangulum minor was charted later in 1690 by Hevelius:
“Triangulum Minor, the lesser triangle: An obsolete constellation that was created by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius. It was formed from three dim stars found immediately below the constellation of Triagulum, towards Aries, the ram. While Triangulum is an officially recognized constellation, Triangulum Minor is now disregarded by astronomers. Occasionally the pair of triangles can be found on star maps label as Triangula.” Michigan State University Dept. of Physics and Astronomy
“Triangulum Minus shown on the Firmamentum Sobiescianum star atlas of Johannes Hevelius, published posthumously in 1690. Hevelius showed the constellations as they would appear on a celestial globe rather than as seen in the sky; for a view of the two triangles the right way round on the star chart of John Flamsteed, see Triangulum. Next to Triangulum Minus is another doomed constellation, Musca Borealis, which was invented by Petrus Plancius. Startales
Here is the photo of Hevelius’ Aries and Triangulum as compared to Bayer’s Triangulum:
Now, if we compare Hevelius and Grand Central Station, we see that all the positions are the same as Hevelius’ Uranographia with his Triangulum Minor and Musca. Hevelius, even though he published after Bayer, reverted to the old medieval way of charting the constellations as they would appear on the globe.
“The star positions for the charts were derived from Hevelius’s own star catalog, based on his own observations, which was first published along with the atlas. It is unique among the Grand Atlases in choosing to depict the constellations as they would appear on a globe, that is, from the outside looking in, rather than from a geocentric point of view, as Bayer and most others adopted.” Linda Hall Exhibits
Here are photos of Hevelius’ Uranographia (compare positions to Grand Central terminal above):
So, is the mural on Grand Central Terminal’s ceiling from Hevellius’ Uranographia of 1690?
Yes and no.
Fact #1: Yes, the constellations on Grand Central Terminal’s ceiling are painted in “globe view” or “as seen from space” and all are in their correct positions including Orion according to Hevelius‘ Uranographia.
Fact #2: The artwork for the constellations was taken from Bayer’s Uranometria (Alexander Muir’s engravings)
Who mixed them up?
Let’s look at our suspects again:
1. The professor Dr. Jacoby: It is unlikely Dr. Jacoby would have mixed up the design. As a professor in 1913, he would have used the geocentric (Earth) view and not the medieval (globe-space) view. It is also unlikely he would have the artistic talent necessary to sketch the constellations from Bayer or Hevelius but would have sketched the star positions only on a star chart.
2. The painter Charles Basing: He just painted what Helleu gave him. Why would the painter be given the responsibility to pick and choose from two star atlases, Uranometria and Uranographia? The designer/artist would pick and choose the final images.
Theory #1: Paul Helleu the designer/artist was probably given the astronomical star chart sketch from the professor. From those star positions, he chose the artwork. He probably came across Hevelius’ Uranographia and liked the medieval designs. He probably noticed that the star chart given by the professor held from one side, would not fit with the Hevelius design (since it was geocentric), but if he turned the thin paper over it fit exactly onto Hevelius’ Uranographia. That is why there is the Triangulum Minor is in the design which was Hevelius’ discovery.
Theory #2: Helleu probably researched a bit more for artwork and came across Bayer’s Uranometria known for its exquisite artwork and since the Bayer’s Uranometria has page for page illustrations, he chose to replace Hevelius’ illustrations where he could with Bayer’s, reversing Bayer’s illustrations to fit into Hevelius’ star chart.
Final conclusion: Helleu reversed the professor’s star chart because he wanted to use the medieval artwork. He initially chose Hevelius’ Uranographia in order to include the Triangulum Minor and Musca and preferred to substitute Bayer’s more exquisite artwork.
Atlas Coelestis Fantastic resource for ancient Celestial maps
The New York Times article F.Y.I by Jesse McKinley
Startales by Ian Ridpath
Photo credits: Atlas Coelestis
Wikimedia Commons: Ceiling in Grand Central Terminal (Arnoldius March 2008)
Other interesting articles about NYC: