UFOS IN MEDIEVAL PAINTINGS
Everyone who has even a slight interest in the UFO phenomenon (and a whole lot of other people who don’t) have watched the History Channel program, “Ancient Aliens.” We all know the talking heads – our favorite of which is the guy with the Star Trek Voyager, “Kazon” hair. And at one point or another, we’ve all watched while the narrator voices his two famous lines, “could it be? Is it possible?”
As an artist who graduated from art college, who studied art history and worked in a major Canadian museum, and who spent 40 years working as an artist, I feel I need to address an issue presented by the Ancient Aliens program. More than once the program has claimed that medieval and renaissance paintings appear to depict UFOs or flying saucers in the sky or background of many of these paintings. Paintings like the Madonna with Saint Giovannino (15th century, above), or The Baptism of Christ (1710), by Flemish artist Aert De Gelder. Or The Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486), painted by Italian artist Carlo Crivell. “See,” they declare with enthusiasm, “this is proof that extraterrestrials visited earth in the distant past!”
Not so fast. There are a number of factors to consider, all of which the Ancient Aliens program conveniently omits. So in order to present a more balanced view, I would like to you to consider these factors.
First of all, who painted the image? These paintings were rendered by medieval and renaissance artists. They were men living in an age when technology consisted mainly of mechanical clocks. They had no concept of extraterrestrials or flying saucers. “Oh, but they didn’t need to know what they were, they only painted what they saw,” the Ancient Alien supporters would say. There’s a huge flaw in this logic. These medieval and renaissance artists were painting subjects that had transpired 1500 years before they were born, namely subjects described in the Bible. They weren’t witnesses to these events, so how could they possibly paint what they saw? If their intent was to paint extraterrestrial craft, then they would have to know and understand them as such, in order to paint them that way.
Secondly, who were these artists painting for? They were painting religious subjects, for patrons who were religious leaders. These clergymen paid artists to paint Biblical depictions of the events in the New Testament, specifically of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. They weren’t concerned with having portrayals of extraterrestrial craft in their paintings – the focus was on a visual presentation of the events of Jesus’ life. It makes no sense whatsoever for them to order the artist to paint a UFO hovering over the main subject of the painting. For what purpose? And if the artists added images of UFOs in the paintings without their patron's permission, they would have ordered them removed.
Next, what Ancient Alien enthusiasts claim are UFOs are simply the artists attempt to paint the Holy Spirit in a tangible, i.e., visible form. Many medieval artists follow the scriptural metaphor of the Holy Spirit and paint Him as a dove. Others, however, attempt to paint Him in the form of a disc, consisting oftentimes, of pure light, with a beam extending down to the Virgin Mary or Jesus Himself. This beam is meant to show the Holy Spirit’s interaction with Mary and Jesus. All of this is nothing more than the artist’s attempt to paint a very difficult subject, namely, rendering a spiritual being and/or act on canvas. No alien spaceships were involved.
To support my position, consider the way medieval and renaissance artists attempted to depict halos over the heads of saints. Case in point – Saint George by Andrea Mantegna (1467).
Notice how the halo over the saint’s head is not simply a glowing sphere of the Shekinah glory of God, but what looks like a disc made of gold. One might think it was part of his panoply (armour). However, having spent 40 years studying and making armour, I can confirm that the disc above Saint George’s head is not some form of armour. It is Mantegna’s attempt to paint something he’d never seen, but had described to him by numerous clergymen, and probably ordered to include in the painting when it was commissioned by his patron.
Finally, the fundamental problem with the Ancient Alien argument about flying saucers in medieval paintings is, they are looking at these paintings through modern eyes, with a modern mentality. The paintings in question were never meant to be interpreted so. This is the same mistake as judging a previous culture as being evil because they didn’t adhere to a modern mindset. We don’t have the right to do that. To consider an older culture as being evil or backward because we don’t agree with their beliefs and practices is the sincerest form of arrogance and pride. If we look at the practices of our own modern culture, we will find that we’re not so squeaky clean.
UFOs in medieval and renaissance paintings? Nice try, but I don’t think so.