June 6, 2009
The Astronomer harmonizes space, color, and light to convey a single human activity, a unified moment in time. Perfectly staged, the scene is a subtle composite of interlocking diagonal, rectangular, or elliptical fields and has no empty or undefined surface. The composition is not narrative but rather forms the context of a sole figure, frozen in a pose of profound preoccupation.
Like many Vermeer characters, the astronomer is placed near a window on the onlooker’s left, which casts a glow on the man of science, revealing youthful freshness, sudden insight, and nervous anticipation. Expressive hands define the geometric space between the sympathetic figure and the celestial globe (drafted by Dutch cartographer Jodocus Hondius in 1600) and drive the forward movement of the body. The desk, framed by a thick tapestry, holds an astrolabe (precursor of the sextant) and a book. On the wall is a circular figure with radial lines.
The moment of discovery reflected on the astronomer’s face captures centuries of human fascination with the universe. The generic physiognomy, unremarkable features, untended hair, and drab attire draw the eyes to the illuminated face of the thinker, in a room where the only light is that of knowledge.
A model to all stargazers, old and new, Vermeer’s scientist reaches beyond the globe at hand into the mysterious continuum of time and space, charting, measuring, counting, categorizing, naming, recording. His contemporary counterpart, whether an astronomer exploring the cosmos or a biologist investigating the microcosm, is still guided by the light of discovery. Uncharted in Vermeer’s days, the spatial distribution of disease follows the evolution over time of agent, host, and environment and is the domain of those today who trace the time-space continuum of emerging pathogens, from Ebola to influenza and SARS.