Image of the Week: The Flammarion Engraving

As a child I was always absorbed by horizons, and as the years went by these stayed true to their nature within my grasp of concepts and absorption of knowledge. Looking outside from my favorite overstuffed and slightly shabby sofa chair in our toasty warm and safe living room, I marveled at the orange and pinkish hues in the sky. I felt poetry humming within me, increased when I gazed upon the horizon across the water near my grandfather’s bungalow.

This leap from a small distance between myself and what I gazed upon to a larger one, whose distance remained enormous no matter how far out our boat went from the beach, perhaps imprinted upon my mind the vastness of all there was to know out there—and hungrily I sought it all out, two of my fascinations becoming the sea and the stars.

The engraving is given its name as its earliest appearance can be traced to its inclusion in Flammarion’s 1888 book L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology) by Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the process of stuffing myself with the world I came across The Discoverers, Daniel J. Boorstin’s history of man’s quest to do what I’d been doing: learning about the world and, therefore, himself. It was here I first recall seeing the Flammarion Engraving, a work that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology). It depicts a man in long, voluminous robes, the fullness and folds of which tend to draw in our modern eye with greater force.

(Click image for a review from the same year as The Discoverers‘ 1983 release)

At first I thought he was an astronomer, one while engaged in his work comes upon a different dimension he simply has to cross, and I wondered about the horizons he had hitherto observed and now seems to have reached. I supposed, as I examined the image more closely, it was now technically a border—I marveled at how the same thing often has a different name or title depending upon where it is in time.

Upon closer examination I began to develop ideas based on what the image depicted. Carrying a staff, the man seems to be on some sort of excursion, though of great length or small, I couldn’t say. However, he does appear to be some distance from his little town, set around a lake or other body of water. The area surrounding the settlement is hilly, though at some expanse the elevation rises, the shrubbery becomes thicker and we see what may be the start of a tree line. A forest? Foothills?

Is there some sort of magical element or aura in the more mountainous region? Did the man gaze upon it from a favorite spot, as I used to do when scanning the sky from the window as a child? Or did he detect some enchanting overlap he simply had to investigate? Could it have been a sheerly accidental discovery, and he is more curious than afraid when he crosses the border between realms? He seems only to have a casual hold on his stick: his hand hovers loosely above, not gripping it, ready for quick retrieval. Moreover, he leaves it behind, almost. His left hand remains close by, but his right hand—most probably his dominant, but now placed in a more vulnerable position—reaches out past the world he knows.

The picture’s caption doesn’t give away precise answers:

“A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch …[.]”

Whatever the case, I related to this man and can still recall staring at him on a plane at age 16. I was a bit of a captive audience, certainly, but was not unaware of the reality that while I had gained a greater upward physical distance from my settlement than he from his, I had nevertheless not yet managed to find the firmament he did.

The holistic universe ahead of me in time as well as space, I began to deliberate on it as connected in other ways not previously contemplated (at least not by me; you will recall I was a naïve 16): perhaps in layers, or through ley lines that transition via imperceptible gradations, or both, plus more of which connected to time and people’s travel through it, or to foreign eras.

It was around this time I began to further develop ideas that had been swirling through me, within my mind, unarticulated, throughout early childhood, about people belonging to what I called their “native” time, and that some were here with the rest of us, though not necessarily native.

Does the traveler pass through time when he reaches the border? Could he peer backward over his shoulders, past his torso, legs and feet still within his own realm, and see his village in the distance? A question repeated itself in my mind: Is he afraid? Excited? Had he suspected this existed and gazes upon it all, as if trying to memorize it, create an imprint in his mind? Does he feel as if he has closed a gap of distance, or that it remains as enormous in his world as ever?


Wikimedia Commons


Note: There are a great variety of colored images of the Flammarion Engraving; simply put its title into your favorite search engine for results. 


4 thoughts on “Image of the Week: The Flammarion Engraving

  1. Pingback: My Tottering TBA: The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin – Rediscovering Discoveries – before the second sleep

  2. Pingback: On My Retrieval of Apple Pie from Sweden (A Chat with Author Anna Belfrage) – before the second sleep

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