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Another day of sun? A history of the sun art and culture

by Maja Bayyoud on

Us humans have been fascinated with the Sun for thousands of years. We’ve lived by legends of its existence, painted it on cave walls, and tattooed it on ourselves on booze-infused holidays. In honour of The Sunny Collection, a Motley x Emily Robson collaboration inspired by ancient sun motifs, we’ve put together a history of sun in art and culture - from Ancient Egypt and medieval heraldry through to the sun emoji. 

7000 BC: Nabta Playa, Egypt 

Not the biggest name in stone circles, but the oldest. Ancient stone circles (like Stonehenge) were used to help early man plan his crop harvest, and mark the passage of time. Stone circles became a real fad in Europe about 5,000 years ago - but Nabta Playa, at 7,000 years old, beats them all. Trendsetter. 

1353 BC: Stela of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and family

Plandid or candid? This altar centrepiece is an Ancient Egyptian take on the staged-not-staged family snap. It’s rare to get a glimpse into domestic bliss with Ancient Egyptian royalty. Despite the casual scene, the sun symbolism is there to remind us just how close the royal family was to sun god Aten, who was central to Ancient Egyptian society. 

C1300s AD: Medieval Sun Heraldry 

Wearable sunshine was big in the Medieval period. The relationship between the sun as the ruler of the universe and royalty as rulers on earth was shamelessly flogged, most famously by Edward II who thought it lent him some celestial cachet. The medieval sun with a smiling face and wavy rays became a common feature of flags, insignias and crests. It’s had an internet-age renaissance, popping up on emoji keyboards and captioning millions of sun-dappled snaps on the gram. 

C1465 AD: The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini 

Countless artists have tried to capture the sun and lay it out on canvas. Bellini placed Christ in a distinctly Tuscan-looking town at sunrise, and it’s not a stretch to picture Bellini rising early on countless mornings just so he could do the light justice. We’d confidently attribute 50% of this magnificent painting to Bellini’s genius, and 50% to strong early morning espressos.  

1815: Dido building Carthage by J.M.W Turner 

A subtler version of sunlight than the medieval iteration. Turner’s take on the early days of the doomed city of Carthage, destined for destruction in wars with Rome, brings hope to an otherwise bleak future. Sunlight suffuses the entire scene, giving Carthage a moment of respite before it meets its not-so-sunny end. 

1962: US Military Intelligence

Why did Uncle Sam opt for an insignia from antiquity? Because there’s nothing like a bit of ancient symbolism when it comes to some serious 20th century clout. The symbol of Helios was reportedly chosen by US military intelligence because as the God of the Sun, He could hear and see everything. Have they got Helios trapped in a top-secret Area 51 cell? Impossible to say...

2003: The Weather Project, Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson’s weather project brought mankind’s favourite topic of conversation into the cavernous turbine hall at the Tate Modern, using light and strategically deployed mist. We all love a chat about the weather, and weather chat usually revolves around the absence or presence of sun. Eliasson brought sunshine inside and gave people a space and moment to reflect on it in a new context. We suspect friends who met up to enjoy the installation had a chat about the weather they experienced en route - or, if the sun happened to be out, didn’t bother going in to see it at all. 

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