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Thursday, July 22, 1999 Published at 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK


The earliest drawing of the Moon?

Van Eyck's 'The Crucifixion' with the Moon on the right

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The date of the first known drawing of the Moon has been pushed back by more than a century.

The earliest known drawing of the Moon is in a painting by Dutch master Jan van Eyck painted nearly 600 years ago, according to scientist Scott Montgomery of Seattle, USA.

Do you know of an older picture of the Moon? Email here.

[ image: The oldest known drawing of the Moon]
The oldest known drawing of the Moon
It is proving to be quite a year for rewriting the books about what we know of mankind's attempts to chart the Moon.

Earlier this year BBC News Online caused a sensation when we published details of what appears to be a 5,000 year-old map of the Moon, carved into rock inside a Neolithic passage tomb in Ireland.

Before the stone map was revealed it was generally thought that the oldest known drawing of the Moon was by Leonardo da Vinci in about 1504. That is what the history books say.

But they should be re-written according to Mr Montgomery. He is geologist by training and is writing a book called "The Moon and the Western Imagination," (University of Arizona Press).

[ image: Leonardo da Vinci's sketch was 100 years later]
Leonardo da Vinci's sketch was 100 years later
He says it was Jan van Eyck (1385? - 1441) who first accurately depicted the Moon, over a hundred years before Leonardo's notebook sketch.

In his revolutionary paintings van Eyck depicted the Moon four times and painted it the way it really appeared. Perhaps the best painting of the Moon he did was in his "Crucifixion".

"This painting of the crucifixion overturns a thousand years of traditionally painting this scene," says Mr Montgomery. Van Eyck was perfecting painting in oils and breaking free from centuries old painting conventions. He was among the first to allow his characters to cast shadows.

In the crucifixion scene a pale Moon is visible on the right-hand side of the canvas. It is small but it is painted naturalistically and some surface features can be recognised.

Leonardo's drawings are clearly an advance on van Eyck's. They have been called a lunar "field sketch" and clearly represent a new phase of mapping the Moon. Leonardo was interested in it as a place. He wanted to know what it was really like.

We will probably never know what Jan van Eyck thought of the Moon - none of his notebooks survive, only his paintings.

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