CIRCLES, SQUARES, rectangles, triangles, crosses, stars.
At this time of year, during the holidays of Christmas, Hannukah and Kwanza, stars are the symbol of the season. But stars are everywhere, every day of the year.
Stargaze. How many stars do you see? On your pantry shelf, Starkist Tuna. In the driveway, the Mercedes-Benz star hood ornament. On the streets, stars on the manhole covers. On your bed, the star quilt. In the flag, 50 stars. In the kitchen, star cookie cutters, star cake pans. On the roadside, Texaco stat logos. Texas, the Lone Star State. In Tiffany's star diamonds, star sapphires. On television, "Star Trek," "Battlestar Galactica." In the movies, Star Wars."
The Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City and the Smithsonian Division of Performing Arts have done much research on stars as symbols. The Cooper-Hewitt had a star room in their show, Man TransFORMS. This year, a great number of star-centered events are planned from Christmas to New Year's at the Museum of History and Technology.
How many points to a star? Five, drawn with a single line, are a pentagram. Very magical. Six make a hexagram, two equilateral triangles with the same center, placed in opposite directions-the seal of Solomon, the shield of David (Magen David). Strong magic used in the Middle Ages to, among other things, put out fires. In the Federal period in the colonies, a metal star, emblazoned on a house, showed you had paid your fire insurance. A star with multipoints is a starburst.
The hexagram as a symbol for the Jewish people is not that old. In the early Middle Ages it was carved into the stone of Byzantine churches. It was the symbol of Prague in 1354. In 1665, the boundary between Jewish and Christian quarters was marked with a hexagram. The Encyclopaedia Judaica (by Cecil Roth and Geoffrey Wigoder) cites these examples and states that the oldest hexagram is on a seal from the 7th century B.C.E. (Before the Common Error) found in Sidon. Some theories linked the signed with Saturn and connected it with the preDavidic sanctuary in Jerusalem.
Some who believe in ancient astronauts think the star symbol was beamed down from the skies by space tourists. In widespread cultures-in the Orient and in Indian tribes of America-there is a belief that the brave dead become stars in the firmament.
Lucy Fellowes (when she researched stars for the Man TransFORMS show in 1976) found Babylonian and Assyrian seals that go back many years before Christ. The Egyptians used the star in their elaborate geometric ornaments. The sunburst, the star of day, was a symbol of Akhenation, who wanted the Egyptians to worship the sun.
In Byzantium the star symbolized the Virgin Mary. The Crusaders brought it to Europe. Perhaps that's how the star became the principal symbol on Uropean heraldry-always with six arms or rays. The five-pointed star was called a molet, a rowel from a knight's spur, and often used in devices.
Fellowes said the most frightening star she found is the morganstern , a 16th century ball and claw on a pole. "When you were flaied by that one you saw stars even before it hit you," she said. The weapon came from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The Dallas Cowboys team members have stars on their helmets; the Houston Astros on their jerseys. But Fellowes said ther most remarkable star she found was the star crab trap. It folds flat in a star shape and opens in the water to be a trap.
In her research, Fellowes wrote to 200 companies with star in their title. Her favorite return was a box of star gourmet delicacies form the Guirlan Brothers of San Francisco. She found others, of course-coins, stamps, a San Francisco police badge, military medals and insignia (in the show pinned on black cloth to glitter like the heavens).
One of the great star collections is in the permanent collections of the Cooper-Hewitt. Among their stars: a star cakepan, a shoeshine box with a star in the metal foot rest, a spittoon embossed with stars, a sequined fairy wand, a gold badge, a ceiling light fixture and a hooked rug with a compass star.
The star immigrated to the United States before the Revolution in the coat of arms of George Washington. (His device also had stripes.) Histroians today like to sneer at the Betsy Ross story, doubting she had much to do with the flag. ("The Stripes and Stars," by Boleslaw and Marie Louise d'Otrange, says it was all invented by her grandson 100 years later.) On the other hand, Ross had reproduced the Washington family arms in fabric, so she might well have put her hand to the flag. Washington's device used the five-pointed rowel instead of a six-pointed star.
Shirley Gherkasky, museum programs director of the Smithsonian's Performing Arts Division, and her staff (Lynn Ruhlman, Harold Closter, Constance Lee and Donna Campbell) spent most of this fall researching stars for the Museum of History and Technology's holiday programs.She turned up enough stars in the museum to make a number of galaxies. Their findings point out ow universal the symbol is. (See a list of the museum's star programs in the Etcetera column, Page C9.)
Wandering through the museum-go today, tomorrow is the only day of the year when the Smithsonian is closed-you can see stars everywhere. Take the children. Give a prize to the one who can find the most stars.
Here are some hints: a paperweight from the Texas Centennial, 1836-1936; Star Medallion sauce dish by the Boston & Sandwich Glass Co., 1830s; a banjo with a large star in marquetry, a pedestal guitar from France, c. 1800; a Roman denarius from the time of Hadrian, a six-pointed star on a tenth of a penny from British West Africa.
In the mid-19th century, stars were a common symbol in jewelry. The museum has stars in a tortoise-shell bracelet, on an onyx and pearl locket, set in a sort of firmament in a 19th-century brooch and ring.
The star studded with the points of the compass is the most important nautical symbol. You can see it as mirror frames, pitchers, and even as furniture intended for boats.
In American quits, the star is probably the most-used pattern, both with stripes and by itself. One particularly handsome quilt is by Mary Rockhold Teter. Funnier is the quilt from the White House collection made of banners from the 1848 presidential campaign in which James Polk and George M. Dallas were candidates. If Polk looked anything like the picture on the banner in the middle, it isn't surprising he lost. The finest quilt in the collection is the Bible Quilt made by Harriet Powers about 1886. The quilt is sparkled with stars but of an unusual form-round balls with multi-points. The 1846 quilt by Mary Nelson has a fierce Amerivan eagle surrounded with stars.
In the Hall of Photography, there is a marvelous picture of Miss Liberty and Fairy Queen, showing Miss Liberty draped with stars and with a star crown and the fairy queen, equally heavenly.
Medals, badges, buttons and all sorts of uniforms are always star-speckled. In military history cases, you can see the star worked in gold braid, often set with precious stones, and designed to outshine the real things. And of course, there's the great star at the museum as the background to the pendulum. For years people who accepted the King James version of the Bible speculated that the Christmas star was a nova or a comet. Astrologers today believe that it was neither nova nor comet but rather a strange conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn which formed a triangle in the Pisces region of the heavens in the year 6 B.C.
As you follow your star in the coming year, be careful not to be star-crossed, and keep your eyes on the stars, but your feet on the ground.