In April 1665, six fishermen witnessed an unexplained celestial phenomenon – an aerial battle in the skies above the Baltic Sea near Stralsund. As evening broke, a dark-grey disk appeared high above the city centre. A UFO in 1665 is the first exhibition of its kind to focus on this historical UFO sighting. With reference to contemporaneous visual and textual sources, the exhibition reconstructs the way this event was portrayed in the media and exposes certain paradigms and communications strategies that are still used today to determine how we report on “unexplained aerial phenomena” (UAPs).
The exhibition takes visitors on an expedition into a strange and unfamiliar world of images that otherwise remains concealed from the museum’s general audience in archives or between the pages of old books. Those who are only familiar with 17th century art from the grand galleries of paintings may be somewhat taken aback: upon entering the exhibition space, visitors might feel they are entering a baroque parallel universe with strange symbols in the sky, airships, space rockets, and flying saucers.
Everything here is centred around one of the most spectacular celestial phenomena of the modern era: at 2 pm on 8 April 1665, six fishermen who are fishing for herring off the coast of Stralsund watch on as great flocks of birds in the sky morph into warships and engage in a thunderous air battle. The decks teem with ghostly figures. When, at dusk, “a flat, round shape like a plate” appears above the St. Nicholas Church, they flee. The following day, they find that they are trembling all over and complain of pain.
The media spread the news like wildfire, with the publishers of various leaflets and newspapers locked in fierce competition with each other to concoct the most colourful versions and interpretations of events. It was religious convictions in particular that were most responsible for determining how the event was transformed by the media. The general public could not have known that what had actually been witnessed was an atmospheric reflection of a sea battle that was raging just beyond the horizon. Instead, they were convinced that the universe was ruled by a god who had the power to project visions of impending disaster into the sky. The air battle was likewise perceived as a prodigium (Latin for “omen” or “portent”).
The visual themes of the 17th century were likely also decisive in terms of determining how the media shaped depictions of the air battle, with futuristic visions of airships – which the people of the 17th century were incredibly enthusiastic about – playing a special role. More than 100 years before the first manned hot air balloon flight was conducted, Francesco Lana Terzi (1631–1687) had published his design for a flying boat borne aloft by vacuum spheres, which caused a great sensation throughout Europe. The fact that the project could never actually be realised did little to detract from the general fervour. Humankind continued to dream of conquering the skies.
Another theme of the exhibition is the power of myths: when, on 19 June 1670, lightning struck – of all places – the St. Nicholas Church, the building above which the grey disc had loomed so ominously five years earlier, the celestial phenomenon was subsequently interpreted as a sign of God’s wrath. The descriptions and accounts of the day invoked a mystical link to the destruction of Babylon at the hands of a great millstone, as it is described in the Book of Revelation.
However, the popular perception of the air battle over Stralsund was not only shaped by the media, beliefs, designs, and myths of the baroque era; it also reveals the kinds of things that humans of the era were unable to envisage and comprehend. There are no seventeenth-century sources, for example, that mention extraterrestrials in connection with the unexplained aerial phenomena. Yet at the same time, the human imagination was already so far advanced that it could well conceive of expeditions to other inhabited planets and the kinds of propulsion systems that would be required to carry these out. Why nobody considered for a moment that extraterrestrials might appear in our skies with their own flying machines is one of the many mysteries this exhibition endeavours to solve.
This cultural and media-historical investigation culminates in an excursion into the present, which focusses on the videos and accounts of sightings of mysterious “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” (UAPs) made by the US military that went viral in 2019 and even made their way onto the front cover of an issue of Der Spiegel two years later. The sightings in question have given rise to a maddeningly broad spectrum of interpretations. Are they physically explicable natural phenomena, sophisticated, high-tech drones made in China or Russia, extraterrestrials, or even visitors from the future? Even NASA and the Pentagon seem completely baffled. We can, however, be sure of one thing: the factors that were so crucial to the media success of the UFO of 1665 lack none of their that same potency today.
The exhibition A UFO in 1665: The Air Battle of Stralsund is curated by Moritz Wullen, director of the Kunstbibliothek.
A publication accompanying the exhibition (ISBN 978-3-86832-750-2, hardcover, 112 pages, 70 reproductions in colour, German/English, €24) has been released by Wienand Verlag.
A special exhibition by the Kunstbibliothek – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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