The Genius Mural at St. John's


On Halloween back in 2001, somebody set fire to St. John's Anglican Church in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. This wouldn't be particularly noteworthy in itself, as people do set fire to churches from time to time, and especially on Halloween, a tradition that traces its roots back to our beloved Detroit. But this particular act of arson uncovered a mystery that was recounted on the CBC recently.

St. John's is among the oldest churches in Canada, built in 1754. In addition to this distinction, the church has since its original construction featured a remarkable chapel ceiling with gilded stars set against a night sky. When St. John's parishioners set about rebuilding their church they also wanted to accurately recreate the mural as well. They found, however, that the church lacked any original plans for its construction, and the photos taken over the years provided an incomplete picture of the chapel mural.

So the church turned to a local astronomer named David Turner for help. Turner picked out the constellation Perseus from old photos, which was helpful. It showed the original artist used real stars for the mural, and hence there should be a pattern. Turner was a bit baffled by the position of Perseus in the mural; it lay in the East, while the real constellation always appears in the northern sky. Still, he and the parishioner who approached him, a woman named Margaret Coolen, surmised that the artist probably wouldn't have gone to the trouble of creating gilded depictions of real constellations and laid them out willy-nilly in the mural.

With this assumption, and perhaps a bit of divine guidance, Turner and Coolen thought that perhaps the arrangement of the stars in the mural depicted their arrangement in the sky on the night of a certain event in history. As it was a church mural, they decided to try December 24, 1 CE, the night of Christ's birth in Christian tradition. As sure as Christmas, when they fed the date into Turner's software, it showed that on that night Perseus hung in the east in the night sky over Lunenberg, just as it was depicted in the chapel mural.

Just to be sure we're all on the same page: 250 years ago, before the advent of astronomy software or even artificial light, a person in Nova Scotia put quill to paper and accurately calculated the arrangement of the night sky in view over Lunenberg on a single evening nearly 2,000 years prior.

This is not a feat of magic; humans have tracked celestial bodies for millennia. There's Stonehenge, of course, and a supernova in 1054 that gave birth to the Crab Nebula was recorded by both the Anasazi in North America and the Chinese. The contributions by Egyptian and Greek scholars led to a thorough understanding of the movement of the heavens by the Renaissance, and so by the 1750s the knowledge needed for such calculations was available.

Still.

The mural reflects a mind on the level of genius, sure, but I'm most impressed with the devotion such an undertaking requires. The church maintained no record of the original artist. So an anonymous genius who lived on Nova Scotia 250 years ago traversed time and space with a skyscape in the chapel of a humble church in Canada. That the proof of his devotion and genius, but not his identity, would be uncovered nearly three centuries later is perfect.

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