As a boy, I was fascinated with astronomy. I taught myself how to read the sky and greedily and obsessively devoured books on every aspect of the topic, eventually wanting to become an astronomer. That dream came to naught when I found out that I needed to be successful at physics, a subject that I found to be painful. One dream gave way to another and I replaced astronomical ambitions with metaphysical ones in a desire to become a priest. While these childhood hopes did not materialize, I have kept the breathless wonder of a clear night sky. When I was in Santa Fe in 2009, I rented a car in order to drive down to Roswell, about three hours south. It was essentially a wasted journey as there is nothing there other than a dubious reputation, but coming back on a deserted highway, I found myself having to stop the car on several occasions in order to drink in the outrageous prettiness of the pristine night sky, which seemed to taunt my mortality, as it has done to humans since time immemorial.
As the astronomy-bewitched boy that I was, I would often go out late at night with a friend from school, walking to some fields, then laying down to admire the stellar vault above our adolescent heads. We would quiz each other, enthuse each other, and occasionally annoy each other, but most of all we would lose ourselves in looking upwards. The clarity was absurdly pure, this being a rural spot in Cumbria, in the north of England, a locality where Roman soldiers would have paused to enjoy the same skyscape. Looking back on those nocturnal outings now, I realize that what we saw was, above all, reassuring, a desperately needed concept for a teenaged boy ravaged by the assault of hormones, self-doubt, and uncertainty.
For as long as humans have looked longingly at the astral sky, they have also tried to make some sense of the apparent randomness in front of their eyes. The system of attributing patterns to stellar groupings is as old as civilization, with a current total of 88 constellations being recognized by the International Astronomical Union, 48 of these hailing from the mythological forms set out by Ptolemy 19 centuries ago, most of which were themselves based on a Greek work written six centuries before him. Astronomical knowledge was vital to assist in navigating across seas and a rich folklore was built up around this and about sea journeys in particular; the story of Jonah in the Old Testament and Homer’s epic Odyssey spring to mind. Sea journeys were, and still can be, perilous, and sailors sought protection in material and supernatural sources.
The Virgin Mary has a particular role in watching over sailors and is invoked as Stella Maris, or Star of the Sea, with another of her titles being Morning Star, an association that seems to be linked to the interpretation of Mary as being the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” spoken of in the Book of Revelation (12:1; Douay Rheims translation). The hauntingly beautiful plainchant hymn Ave Maris Stella, sung here by the monks of Solesmes, invokes Mary under this cosmic guise and, like the centuries of seafarers who have begged her assistance, asks that she guide us to steer a safe course to the light. The early fifteenth-century painting, below, is by Filippo Lippi, and is known as the Madonna and Child. Lippi was a Carmelite friar, an order that has a special devotion to Our Lady. Crucially, the infant Christ is naked thus is totally exposed and vulnerable, turned towards us, for whom He has become so weak and also because of us. The nudity reminds us that it is our sins who will ultimately have this child stripped to be flagellated, tortured, and suffer for us on the Cross. Yet, the consolation that the child, and we, have is shown in the star on Mary’s cloak, which calms and guides Him -and us. The painting boldly depicts the readiness of these two figures to welcome and help the spectator.
Orion is perhaps the most recognizable constellation in the northern hemisphere. The Greeks and the Romans found that the formation of stars resembled the mythological hunter, carrying a club and with three stars forming the Belt of Orion. It is interesting that this cluster of stars is viewed as a human figure across different civilizations, though Spanish tradition sees the belt as the three Marys who are mentioned in the New Testament. The constellation is characteristic because of its relatively low placing in the sky and the fact that it features so many bright stars, not least of which is the reddish hued Betelgeuse. The constellation also benefits from being alongside Sirius, the brightest star in the firmament, which is in the diminutive constellation Canis Major, which depicts a hunting dog belonging to Orion by his feet. Sirius is also known as the Dog Star and has given rise to the very ancient expression dog days, referring to those sultry summer days during which the Dog Star is a constant nocturnal companion.
For such an imposing stellar symbol, the choice of Orion is one of the greatest disappointments of the whole chart of the heavens. Orion was a hugely built hunter who found himself temporarily blinded when he drunkenly attempted to assault the daughter of the king of Chios. In other words, he was a muscular, boorish, sexual predator, the embodiment of an Alpha male, Greek pun intended. The French poet René Char (1907-1988) was somewhat obsessed with the character of Orion and once explained that he depicted Orion as someone to be found or chanced upon, that the reader might observe him on his journey, a confusing synthesis of the mythological hunter, the star-joined symbol, and the fictional figure that Char had created.
Today’s cufflinks suggest Orion’s belt and sword to me (the sword in the constellation is not a star but rather the Orion Nebula). These are one of the most unusual pairs of cufflinks that I own, since there are so many quirky features. They are crafted out of sterling silver but the stars are made out of gold pins -it looks like solid 14ct gold), and all four of them have miniscule posts that penetrate the faces all the way through, as seen below in a shot taken by Samantha Howard, whose impeccable eye sourced these for me.
The faces are ridged, and one side has jagged edges. There is the maker’s name of McKenzie stamped on the pair, which seems to be Jeannine and Charles McKenzie, a couple of designers who operate out of Michigan and I think this pair cannot be more than 20 years old. Their work subtly defies what one might expect out of jewellery and in this they are reaching for the stars rather than being content to gape at them. A rather nice place to be at, all in all.