5. Lieve Verschuier’s ‘Tail Star (Comet) over Rotterdam’

By Lavinia Gambini (https://cambridge.academia.edu/LaviniaGambini)

For early modern contemporaries, comets were not only associated with the birth of Christ. Comets possessed an eschatological dimension and had often been considered signs of imminent catastrophes, such as the Thirty Years’ War.[1] The celestial phenomenon also retained its apocalyptic dimension in the ‘Scientific Revolution’, when in Cambridge the Lucasian Professor for Mathematics, William Whiston, announced in A New Theory of the Earth (1696) that the Earth would soon collide with a comet, finally initiating the Millennium of Christ’s rule.[2]

However, the early modern period was also the age of wonder, an epistemic process of cognitive appropriation and response to marvellous natural phenomena.[3] In Lieve Verschuier’s painting of the Great Comet of 1680 over Rotterdam, we see a crowd marvelling at the magnificent sight. Many spectators hold a Jacob’s staff (a tool used in navigation), probably to measure the length of the comet’s tail, while, in the lower right corner, a woman and a child turn away crying from fear. I like to think that these opposite reactions represent the artist’s incorporation of a contemporary scientific discourse about the legitimacy of fear of comets taking place in the Netherlands. Following the sighting, natural philosophers such as the Voetian circle, Christiaan Huygens, and Balthasar Bekker battled over the possibility of interpreting comets according to scripture and comets’ incorporation into the ‘Book of Nature’ – that is to say, whether comets were natural or supernatural. Still, they all agreed that comets were not ominous signs but a glorious expression of God’s majesty, that should not be feared but marvelled at.[4] Verschuier’s painting thus does not only reflect this epistemic shift – with his figures bravely holding Jacob’s staffs towards the sky – but also proves that the early modern sciences cannot be thought about without religion.[5]


[1] BÄHR, Andreas, Der grausame Komet: Himmelszeichen und Weltgeschehen im Dreißigjährigen Krieg, Reinbeck: Rohwolt, 2017.
[2] WHISTON, William, A New Theory of the Earth, From its Original to the Consummation of all Things. Wherein The Creation of the World in Six Days, The Universal Deluge, And the General Conflagration, As laid down in the Holy Scriptures, Are shewn to be perfectly agreeable to Reason and Philosophy, 2nd ed., Cambridge and London: University Press; for Benj. Tooke, 1708, https://books.google.de/booksid=A6ZgAAAAcAAJ&hl=it&source=gbs_similarbooks.
[3] For example: DASTON, Lorrain and PARK, Katharine, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750, New York: Zone Books, 1998; GREENBLATT, Stephan, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991.
[4] JORINK, Eric, Reading the Book of Nature in the Dutch Golden Age, 1575–1715, transl. by MASON, Peter, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010, Chap. 3: Comets: The Debate on the ‘Wonders in the Heavens’, 109–180.
[5] HARRISON, Peter, “Laws of God or Laws of Nature? Natural Order in the Early Modern Period,” in: HARRISON, Peter and ROBERTS, John H. (eds.), Science Without God? Rethinking the History of Scientific Naturalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, 58–76; HENRY, John, “Religion and the Scientific Revolution,” in: HARRISON, Peter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 39–58.

Image: Verschuier, Lieve (1627–1686), Staartster (komeet) boven Rotterdam (Tail Star [Comet] over Rotterdam), 25.5×32.5 cm, oil paint on wood, 1680, Museum Rotterdam 11028-A-B, https://museumrotterdam.nl/collectie/item/11028-A-B

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